Last Thursday evening, September 3, 2020, a vocal and angry web-based crowd showed up for a virtual town hall meeting organized by the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission (COC).
Most of those who signed up to speak during the two-hour event talked with grief and fury about the fatal shooting of 29-year-old Dijon Kizzee by LA County Sheriff’s deputies on Monday, August 31.
Some of those at the town hall meeting also talked about the problem of deputy gangs, specifically the Banditos out of the sheriff’s East LA station, and the Executioners, the LASD deputy clique out of Compton. Many mentioned the June 18 shooting of 18-year-old Andres Guardado, whose family has recently filed a civil rights lawsuit against the LASD and the County of Los Angeles.
Members of the Commission took turns expressing their own distress about the Kizzee and Guardado shootings.
“But what are you going to do about it?” several community speakers asked the COC.
— Ben Crump (@AttorneyCrump) September 2, 2020
It was left up to Inspector General Max Huntsman to explain why the answer to that particular question is complicated by the fact that LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva seems to be at war with the COC, its members, and particularly with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the IG himself — although Huntsman didn’t use those words.
He instead described how, on the day of Kizzee’s death, a member of his staff drove immediately to the site where the 29-year-old had been shot, arriving a little over an hour after Kizzee had been shot multiple times, and was still lying on the ground. He said the representative from his office was given a walk though at the scene and was told a bit “about what the investigators had learned at that time.”
That single walkabout was as far as the cooperation went.
With past sheriffs, Huntsman explained, the walk though would have been the beginning of the IG’s ability to monitor the investigation of a fatal shooting, particularly in the case of a shooting that was of such high concern to community members, as is the death of Dijon Kizzee.
“We used to be given documentation so that we could monitor the investigation as it goes along,” said Huntsman.
But not anymore.
Evidence and autopsies
Huntsman pointed to the fatal shooting of Andres Guardado by Compton-based sheriff’s deputy Miguel Vega. (Vega’s partner, deputy Christopher Hernandez, reportedly neither fired nor had a clear view of Guardado when the teenager was shot five times in the back, although some department sources have speculated to WitnessLA that Hernandez saw the shooting, but would prefer not to say what he saw.)
In the instance of the Guardado shooting, Huntsman said, any video evidence of the shooting was going to be particularly critical.
“We asked to receive copies of the video evidence when they got it,” he told WitnessLA, “so we would be able to tell community members when they asked, that nothing was tampered with and the process was open and transparent.”
But, according to Huntsman, as has reportedly become the new rule for the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, that the LASD will not turn over anything at all to the IG.
(Note: Controversy over possible videos arose after local people reported seeing department investigators seizing mounted security cameras near to the Guardado shooting location on June 18. The cameras were attached to a nearby DVR, which was reportedly not recording the night of the shooting. Yet there was some question about whether the cameras themselves still might possess some kind of memory cards or the like. At a subsequent press conference, an LASD spokesperson said that the cameras seized had no such independent memory items. But, due to the controversial nature of the shooting, the secrecy surrounding the investigation, and the reports by department whistle blowers that Deputy Vega was trained by one of the main “enforcers” of the Compton’s station’s deputy gang, the Executioners, and may have had an interest in joining the clique, all helped contribute to a great many rumors, which a neutral observer such as the IG could arguably help to dispel.)
When it came to the killing of Dijon Kizzee, Huntsman showed WLA a list of eight requests he sent to the captain of the LASD’s Homicide division. Among the requests, the IG asked the captain to make sure that his office was notified about the day and time of Kizzee’s autopsy, once the department scheduled it with the coroner.
Those eight requests were met by dead silence, according to Huntsman, who finally emailed the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner directly. By that time, however, it was too late. The autopsy was already in process and would be over in the next hour.
“The sheriff’s department scheduled it without us,” Huntsman said.
Previous administrations, for the most part, welcomed this verification process, according to Huntsman.
“However, the LASD no longer complies with California state law and LA County ordinance,” he told us. “Our efforts to investigate the helicopter crash cover up allegations in the death of Kobe Bryant, to investigate allegations of deputy gangs, and to monitor the Guardado shooting investigation, have been denied or ignored by the LASD.”
One of the statutes the sheriff is reportedly ignoring is Senate Bill 1421, the Right to Know Act, which caused California Penal Code section 832.7 to be amended to require transparency in police shootings. Under the new law, reports must be made public unless a public agency can justify that an interest in secrecy is stronger than the public’s right to know.
Even apart from SB 1421, the demand for law enforcement accountability to an outside entity other than its own internal investigators does not appear to be going away, either in LA County or across the nation.
To the contrary, the demand is clearly growing more insistent.
LA County Supervisors say “enough”
The demand was evidenced locally last Tuesday, September 1, when the LA County Board of Supervisors passed a motion, authored by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, which seeks to make sure that the county’s Medical Examiner-Coroner and the Office of Inspector General “have the tools necessary to bring about greater accountability” to the sheriff’s department, particularly when it comes to handling of investigations into deputy-involved shootings.
“The disturbing trend within law enforcement to thwart oversight and transparency of internal investigations threatens to further erode the public’s trust that justice will be served,” states the motion.
“This circumstance must not be tolerated.”
Ridley-Thomas went farther when he spoke shortly before the vote on his motion at last Tuesday’s board meeting.
“For far too long we have accepted the status quo,” he said. “We haven’t sufficiently challenged law enforcement’s incessant demands that investigations remain shrouded in secrecy. This board must not sit by and allow the county’s law enforcement department to entrench itself in traditional patterns of behavior that profoundly harm, not only vulnerable communities, but the entire justice system.”
Among other things, the new motion directs the county’s Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner, “pursuant to Government Code section 27491, to conduct an inquest into the circumstance, manner, and cause of the death of Mr. Andres Guardado,” or provide an explanation to the board why such an action is not warranted.
In addition, this inquest should “employ the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner’s subpoena power to preserve a reliable record of the investigative steps taken by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) as to the circumstance, manner, and cause of the death, even if LASD requires those documents to be kept secret…”
In other words, since the sheriff has repeatedly declined to give the IG the proper information, it can hand it over to the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner, and the coroner and the OIG can report back to the board on all of the above, still preserving whatever secrecy that genuinely, and legally, needs to be preserved.
If that fails to happen, according to the motion, the board will direct the IG and County Counsel to sue the Los Angeles County Sheriff for “violation of the law.”
“As you know,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, about the issue, “we created the Civilian Oversight Commission, and vested that body with subpoena power, a move that was overwhelmingly approved by 72 percent of the voters of the county.” It was done, she said, because”voluntary information sharing,” by the sheriff had come “to a screeching halt,” making it impossible for the COC to conduct its oversight.
But with this new motion, Kuehl said, “the board intends to ensure that accountability and transparency prevail over secrecy.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who is married to a retired sheriff’s deputy and is consistently supportive of law enforcement, was the last of the board members to speak.
“It’s an odd position,” Barger said, “to have to remind this sheriff he is not above the law.”
She described the situation as a “disservice to the men and women of the sheriff’s department” because, the sheriff is, by his actions, “undermining the good work that many of them are doing.”
But, “there is no gray area,” Barger said, referring to the county code that requires the sheriff to share information with the inspector general.
“This charade has gone on long enough. It is very unfortunate that we find ourselves, yet again, having to engage the courts” in order to have the sheriff comply with the law.
“This is something I have not seen in my 30 years with the county,” Barger said, “and certainly not a precedent I want to set.
“Frankly, it’s embarrassing!”
And with that Supervisor Barger, who is the board chair, called for the vote, which was unanimous.
Families and lawsuits
As mentioned earlier, Andres Guardado’s family has announced that they are suing the county regarding Andres’ death.
On Wednesday afternoon, September 9, a week and a day after the supervisors passed the Ridley-Thomas motion, the family of Dijon Kizzee held a press conference via community activist, Najee Ali, who is the representative for Benjamin Crump, the Kizzee family’s well-known attorney.
At the press event, which was broadcast on social media, Ali said the family called for the coroner to override the “security hold” that has reportedly been placed on Kizzee’s autopsy by Sheriff Villanueva.
(As most people know, Villanueva put a hold on Andres Guardado’s autopsy, but Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas, decided to release the autopsy, as he believed to do so would be in the public interest, as the LA Times reported here. Sheriff Villanueva subsequently publicly criticized Dr. Lucas’ move.)
The family also called for the names of the deputies who shot Dijon Kizzee to be released.
Although the Kizzee family has not filed a wrongful death lawsuit , the fact that they are being represented by Benjamin Crump means that one is likely coming eventually.
The fact of no real oversight also doesn’t help things when it comes to the civil suits that often follow these kinds of ” troubling cases, where the public is very upset,” Huntsman said when we talked about the issue.
Nor does it help an ongoing investigation, he said.
In the case of Andres Guardado, he said, due to concern about community fury, weeks passed after the deadly shooting without the deputies giving statements to investigators.
After three plus weeks, the attorney for Vega, the deputy who was the shooter, “gave a statement to the press,” said Huntsman. It was only after the attorney gave his client’s version to reporters that he also gave it to the LASD.
“I’m hearing the same thing may be happening with the Guardado shooting,” Huntsman said.
“This is why monitoring is important.” To not take a statement, he said, “until three weeks have gone by, and then to act as if it has the same evidentiary value as one given that night.” It doesn’t. “It’s a very different thing to wait three weeks” for questioning, “until the deputy’s lawyer is able to learn whether or not there was video” of the deputy’s actions.
Without oversight, “in situations like these,” in the public’s eyes, “it makes the entire investigation and evidence collected far more suspect.”
And when and if there’s a civil court proceeding down the road, said Huntsman, “the jury, the judge, and the public in the process need to be convinced that the enforcement agency that did the investigating followed all the rules and that the fix wasn’t in.”
Right now, however, it appears evident that neither the public, nor the members of the board of supervisors, nor the families of the shooting victims, feel that assurance.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, along with Chief Carl Povilaitis of the Glendale PD, and Mayor Vrej Agajanian will have a a virtual town hall meeting on Wed, Sept 16, 2020 from 2-4 p.m. to talk about “your community concerns.”
Top photo via Instagram, BLMLosAngeles, protest for Dijon Kizzee, Saturday, 9-5-2020