On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission responsible for overseeing the LA County Sheriff’s Department unanimously voted to launch an inquiry into reports of harassment targeting families whose loved ones have been killed by sheriff’s deputies.
Those who spoke before the commission on the topic told stories of heavy LASD presence at their family members’ funerals and memorial sites. Deputies, they said, taunted those in attendance, made rude hand gestures, laughed and, in at least one instance, made arrests, as family and friends gathered to grieve their lost loved ones. Many of these families who told of being targeted have protested the way their loved ones died, and filed lawsuits against the department.
The arrest of a grieving sister
Tuesday’s motion arrived in response to a joint letter from Black Lives Matter-LA, the ACLU of Southern California, and Centro Community Service Organization, which detailed one particular case as “part of a larger problem.”
The case the letter described pertained to Jaylene Rea whose brother, 18-year-old Paul Rea, was fatally shot by East LA deputies during a June traffic stop that turned into a physical altercation.
Four months after the shooting, on Oct. 30 of this year, Rea’s sister, Jaylene, was arrested by deputies from the East LA Sheriff’s station when she and other family members were gathered at her brother’s memorial site.
The day began when Jaylene and her family participated in a rally at LA’s Hall of Justice, where they attempted to present the department with a lawsuit regarding public access to law enforcement records.
That evening, the family members went on to the memorial site in order to create an ofrenda — an offering — for Paul, in preparation for Dia de los Muertos.
At around 10:45 p.m., according to the letter, and also Jaylene’s testimony to the COC, a patrol car bearing a deputy “making a rude hand gesture” rolled slowly past the memorial site. Half an hour later still, “several patrol cars” reportedly rolled up and proceeded to arrest two of Paul’s friends. Jaylene pulled out her cell phone and recorded the arrests.
A deputy reportedly told one of young men to put out the marijuana cigar he had been smoking. He extinguished the blunt, and then reached out to hand it to Jaylene so that officers could handcuff him. Because the officers did not try to take the blunt themselves, or give any commands, Jaylene said she accepted the blunt.
It was then that the deputies also arrested Jaylene.
According to the letter, a deputy who was reportedly “approximately 6 feet tall and weighed approximately 200 pounds, walked up behind Jaylene, who is just under 5 feet tall, grabbed her wrists and bent her arms upward behind her back, causing her to yell in pain and bend over to alleviate the tension on her arms.” This deputy then walked her over to a patrol car to search her. Yet, no officer ever asked Jaylene for the blunt that supposedly triggered the deputies’ actions.
Once in the patrol car, Jaylene said she kept asking the deputies where they were taking her, but they reportedly responded with answers to the effect of, “You’ll see when we get there.” At first, according to Jaylene, the deputy driver passed the East LA Sheriff’s Station, and took Rea briefly to a local hospital, before driving her to the station at around 1 a.m., where her family and ACLU lawyers had been waiting and worrying about her.
Despite the fact that Jaylene was to be cited for “obstruction” and released, deputies in the station said that she would have to wait overnight for an officer trained to take fingerprints during booking to arrive.
“My granddaughter was arrested at the exact same site [at which Paul was killed] for a petty misdemeanor,” Paul Rea’s grandmother, Irene Garcia, told the commission. She was forced to remain at the station “filled with deputies” overnight to wait for a deputy qualified enough to take fingerprints, she said.
When Jaylene was finally released at 7:00 a.m., she says she found the department had accessed her cell phone without permission and deleted the arrest recordings. (She was able to retrieve the recordings from the cloud.
It was not the first time officers had shown up to a memorial gathering in honor of her grandson, Irene Garcia said. She described a “slow-moving caravan” of six or seven law enforcement vehicles that drove past a gathering of family, friends, community leaders, and local clergy held “within 24 hours” of her grandson’s death. One deputy stuck her face out of the first car’s window and “waved with a grin,” she said.
“The grin was from ear-to-ear,” Garcia added.
“Pastors [in identifiable clothing] were clearly present there,” according to the grandmother. “The community was holding hands and praying … it was very clear why people were there,” she said, dismissing the idea that officers might have been concerned about the nature of the gathering.
If they had been concerned, she said, they would have exited their vehicles to ask questions.
“This caravan [of deputies] wasted county dollars … with immature and extremely unprofessional behavior,” Garcia said. “Their message was clear.”
“I’m scared for my other kids,” Leah Garcia, Paul’s mother, told the commission.
“The intimidation and harassment is real.”
In addition to members of Paul Rea’s family, others who spoke before the commission reported similar treatment from deputies, treatment they said compounded their trauma.
Members of the LASD killed Lisa Vargas’s 21-year-old son, Anthony Vargas, who had allegedly pulled a gun from his waistband, on Aug. 12, 2018. This past June, an autopsy report revealed that deputies shot 11 bullets into Vargas’s body from behind.
“The intimidation and harassment is real,” said Anthony’s aunt, Stephanie Luna. “My family has been harassed, my sisters have been pulled over.” Her brother, Luna said, was pulled over on the way to work, and reportedly had to sit on the sidewalk for two hours in handcuffs while the deputies who pulled him over ate in their car.
The department, she said, requires hard evidence to substantiate complaints, but her family members felt they could not pull out their phones to record being followed while driving or being harassed after being pulled over. They were worried, she said, that deputies would “assume a phone in a pocket is a weapon.”
Luna’s sister, Valerie Vargas, shared a story of being followed by an unmarked police car from her mother’s house in East LA, onto the freeway, and into East Compton. She was so scared, she said, that she traveled two miles past her destination and pulled into a Walmart parking lot that she knew would be “full of cameras.”
“The whole time, I wanted to record,” she said. But she feared that taking out her cell phone in the car would give the officers reason to pull her over. Once in the Walmart parking lot, “I got out of my car and had my phone out, but the car sped away,” Vargas said. She didn’t catch a license plate, and “there was no unit number on the side” of the car. Vargas said she didn’t feel she could report the harassment to law enforcement at the East LA sheriff’s station, because, as was the case with Jaylene Rea, she believed that members of the station were the ones intimidating her family.
“Indeed, family members have feared that deputy sheriffs will taunt them, arrest them, or even physically hurt them,” stated Tuesday’s letter to the commission, “not because they have done something wrong, but simply because they have spoken publicly about their loved ones’ deaths and have sought transparency and accountability.”
The family members of 24-year-old Ryan Twyman reported similar treatment.
Twyman was killed on June 6, 2019, when deputies fired nearly three dozen rounds at two people in a reversing vehicle. At his funeral, according to his family, a slowly moving line of patrol cars passed Twyman’s service taunting the family and flipping them off. One deputy reportedly asked the family if he could take one of the memorial buttons bearing Ryan’s face that were worn by mourners.
“It’s torture for you to keep driving by us and laughing or smirking and flicking us off … every single chance y’all get,” Twyman’s girlfriend Davielle Johnson told the department members at the meeting.
“The thing that bothers me is that these are subtle actions,” — things like “making eyes, driving by, laughing at people,” said Paula Minor of Black Lives Matter.
These actions are “often not things that are generally considered crimes,” Minor said. Yet they are clearly meant as “harassment.”
OIG, LASD to investigate
Tuesday’s COC motion calls on Inspector General Max Huntsman, who was also present, to launch a formal inquiry into the reports of harassment occurring in the wake of deputies’ fatal uses of force. Huntsman is to report back to the commissioners in 60 days with his findings.
The motion also asks the LA County Sheriff’s Department to conduct its own formal investigation into the alleged harassment occurring specifically at the East Los Angeles and Century sheriff stations.
“The Commission recognizes that the LASD has been involved in numerous fatal uses of force in recent years,” the motion states. “Furthermore, the Commission also recognizes the concerns of various families who have reported post fatal use of force incidents of harassment from LASD patrol operations staff. This is a significant issue which requires a proactive and multifaceted response from both the OIG and the LASD.”
Some in the audience weren’t so sure the COC and the OIG could have any measurable effect.
The sheriff’s department “is running amok,” said Dignity and Power Now’s Reggie Bunch.
“And the Civilian Oversight Commission doesn’t have the disciplinary power to hold badly behaving department members accountable in the way that the Los Angeles Police Commission does.” Nor does the Office of the Inspector General, Bunch said, noting Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s recent move to criminally investigate IG Max Huntsman, after Huntsman ignored the sheriff’s threat that there would be consequences if he released a report about the rehiring of former deputy Carl Mandoyan that the sheriff didn’t want to get out. “We need to move swiftly to hold these sheriffs to account.”
The LASD was represented at the meeting by Assistant Sheriff Steven Gross, head of the department’s patrol operations, who said that the department takes all complaints against officers very seriously, and urged families bring their complaints forward.
But those at the meeting expressed fear of retribution and further traumatization by the sheriff’s department. In the case of the Rea family, the sheriff’s department found their official complaint about their treatment to be “unsubstantiated,” Jaylene said.
Gross, however, said he was concerned about the various accounts, and said the department would investigate the reports of deputies harassing families.
“It is not acceptable for any of our personnel to harass anybody. Period,” the assistant sheriff said. “If anyone was engaged in misconduct we would want to know about it, and we would want to hold them accountable.”
Program to help families after LASD shootings in the works
Interestingly, the call for this investigation comes as LA County works to roll out its new Family Assistance Program to improve the communication and trauma-informed support to families left behind after someone dies in custody or after officers use fatal force.
Earlier in the meeting, the sheriff’s department and the Department of Mental Health gave the COC a progress report on the program, which is offering services while the system is still in development. So far, however, all but one family has declined financial assistance from the county.
Weirdly, this is not surprising, said Dr. Miriam Brown, DMH’s Deputy Director of the Emergency Outreach Bureau. For one thing, in the immediate aftermath of such a crisis, families can find it hard to take in all the information they receive from county departments and services. In addition, some families preparing to sue the county have been advised by their lawyers not to accept help from the county, said Brown.
“I think once it’s understood — and the community trusts — that these services should not impact any kind of legal actions that they may take,” COC Chairperson Patty Giggans said, “I envision that there will be more families that will want to participate” in the Family Assistance Program, “as it evolves.”
Finally, near the meetings close, members of the oversight commission thanked the families for speaking up about their experiences.
“It does take courage,” Giggans said, “to speak truth to power.”
Image: Jaylene Rea, sister of Paul Rea, gives testimony before the Civilian Oversight Commission.