LA County Supes pass aggressive new motion to protect grieving survivor families from law enforcement harassment & retaliation.

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On Tuesday, July 27, 2021, the LA County Board of Supervisors passed a motion to offer aid and protection for families who’ve lost a loved one to a fatal shooting by law enforcement, and say they continue to be harassed and retaliated against by members of that same law enforcement agency — namely the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

The motion, co-authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Holly Mitchell, directs County Counsel, in collaboration with LA County’s Inspector General, Max Huntsman, to “pursue all legal remedies,” in accordance with State and County laws and codes, to require the Sheriff to comply with said laws and codes, and stop withholding material and information that the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has requested in order to investigate the allegations made by these survivor families.

Such requests would include things like direct access to relevant videos from body-worn cameras,” and similar investigative material that IG Huntsman and his office need in order to provide effective oversight of the sheriff’s department — specifically, in this case, when it comes to the issue of reported harassment by deputies of grieving families, especially those families who have been vocal about the deaths of their loved ones.

Tuesday’s motion is not the board’s first that has tried to push the sheriff into cooperating with the inspector general’s informational requests.

On May 4, 2021, the board passed a related motion that  directed  Huntsman and the OIG to update its 2020 report back to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) regarding this same pattern of “incidents of harassment and intimidation experienced by surviving families” and conduct a thorough investigation with recommendations, working with County Counsel to “pursue legal options if there are barriers” to the OIG’s ability to “fulfill its directive to report.”

And how well did that May motion work out?

Not well.

The sheriff, and many of those in his department, had already notoriously declined to give the IG  the material to which he is legally entitled to engage in oversight of the LASD.

After the May 4 motion, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva continued to figuratively thumb his nose at any additional requests for information that would allow for oversight of the issues regarding the survivor families — blithely disregarding the laws and codes that supported those requests.

The sheriff speaks

So will the sheriff continue his stonewalling with the new motion?

If Villanueva’s remarks on the topic at the beginning of Tuesday’s virtual board meeting are any guide, the answer an unequivocal yes.

“The Board of Supervisors is a quasi-legislative body and cannot pass the motion to bypass well established laws,” said the sheriff when called on to give three-minutes worth of comment.  “It looks like some kind of legislative extortion.”

As for the allegations of harassment by the survivor families?

“The genesis of this entire thing,” he said of the topic, “was done by a corrupt inspector general using information that has been thoroughly disproven…”

Villanueva also scolded the board for referring to those killed in deputy involved shootings as victims.

“The people involved,” he said,  were not victims.  “They are suspects.  That’s how they’re referred to legally.”

And finally… “I don’t think you understand the law.”

Fortunately, most of the other elements of Tuesday’s motion do not require Sheriff Villanueva’s cooperation. In fact Solis and Mitchell have designed it to go neatly around the sheriff and his questionably legal obstructionism.

For instance, the motion also asks LA County District Attorney George Gascón, to “investigate the allegations of criminal conduct by the LA County Sheriff’s Department,” rather than leave it to the LASD to investigate the LASD.  Furthermore, if the DA’s office doesn’t have enough staff to easily take on the task of prosecuting “criminal conduct by deputies or when LASD’s investigations are deficient,”  he should just let the board know what funding his office needs.

And, since, as mentioned above,  the sheriff’s department has repeatedly declined to provide needed information for the OIG to do its job, the motion intends to trigger a workaround by asking its own Information Technology (IT) Division, plus its Internal Services Department (ISD) — in consultation with County Counsel and the Chief Executive Office — to seek to secure access to Los Angeles County records maintained by the LASD “in electronic databases and cloud storage systems,” and then make it possible for the OIG to have access to the information it needs from those various caches, databases, and clouds.

In addition, the supervisors direct the Inspector General, in collaboration with the county’s CEO, County Counsel, the DA, the LASD (should they wish to participate), and others, to report back in 60 days on the “feasibility, cost, operations, and other relevant information on the creation of an independent Office of Law Enforcement Standards as detailed in the OIG’s February 2021 report.”

Finally, at the motion’s end,  the motion addresses the issue of victim support for the survivor families by asking the CEO’s office, in collaboration with the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission (COC), and a few other relevant county and community stakeholders, to identify funding  to continue the county’s already established Family Assistance Program to support families following an in-custody death or fatal use of force by law enforcement.

Allegations by the families

To better understand the sense of urgency that underlies Tuesday’s Solis/Mitchell motion, it helps to know in more depth how,  in the past few years,  a growing number of LA County residents who have had a family member or loved one shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies have reported being harassed in the months following their loved one’s death by members of the LASD, with most of of the allegations of harassment pertaining to deputies from the East LA and Century stations, and in some cases, the Compton station.

Families — and community members who know the families — have described interactions in painful and emotional detail, first at various town halls and other local gatherings. Then, more recently, families began telling their stories at the monthly meetings for the Sheriffs Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) where, more recently, the COC has set aside dedicated time at every meeting for the survivor families to tell of their still-searing grief, their fears, and their fury.

On November 19, 2019, for example, several speakers 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 one distressing 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.

In response to what they heard in that and subsequent meetings, the COC voted to launch an inquiry via the OIG into these reports of harassment targeting these survivor families.

Jaylene Rae’s two-hour drive

Jaylene Rea (pictured at top) is one of a vocal cluster of family member/survivors who have become the face of  those who have lost family to sheriff’s shootings, and say they have been harassed and made to feel threatened.

She is the sister of 18-year-old Paul Rea, who was fatally shot by East LA deputies during a June 2019 traffic stop.

Four months after the shooting, on the evening of Oct. 30, 2019, deputies from the East LA Station arrested Jaylene where she and other family members were gathered at the site where her brother died.

Earlier that same day, Jaylene and her family had spoken about Paul’s death at a rally outside LA’s Hall of Justice, where family and friends attempted to present the department with a lawsuit regarding public access to law enforcement records, including those pertaining to Jaylene’s brother’s fatal encounter with LASD deputies.

Back at the memorial site, at around 10:45 p.m., according to Jaylene’s testimony (and also according to a letter about the problem sent to the COC, the DA’s office, and the board of supervisors from the ACLU of Southern California, Centro Community Service Organization, and Black Lives Matter, Los Angeles), a patrol car containing 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 then reportedly told one of young men to put out the marijuana blunt he had been smoking. The young man extinguished the thing, and then reached out to hand it to Jaylene, so that officers could handcuff him. Because the officers did not try to take the weed away from her, or give any commands, Jaylene said that, without thinking,  she just accepted the blunt that she was handed.

It was then that the deputies also arrested Jaylene, reportedly grabbing her wrists and bending her arms upward behind her back, causing her to yell out in pain.

Once in the patrol car, Jaylene said the deputies drove past the East LA Station without stopping. She described asking the deputies where they were taking her,  and said they responded with answers to the effect of, “You’ll see when we get there.”

The deputies also reportedly declined to tell family members where Jaylene was being taken.

Two hours later, at around 1:00 a.m., according to Jaylene and her family, the car finally pulled in to the ELA Station.

Jaylene’s family did not know where she was and were pretty freaked about her safety, Andrés Dae Keun Kwon, Policy Counsel and Senior Organizer at the ACLU of Southern California, told the COC.

According to the ACLU attorney, Jaylene and Paul’s grandmother had fearfully called nearby hospitals, thinking they might finder her there.  Yet, it turned out, Dae Keun Kwon said, the young woman had just been “driven around” for two hours.

Despite the fact that Jaylene would eventually be cited for misdemeanor “obstruction” and released, she was forced to remain at the station overnight, reportedly to wait for a deputy who was qualified to take Live Scan fingerprints.

“They did not have anyone on staff who could take her fingerprints, mind you, in the largest sheriff’s department in the nation,” said Dae Keun Kwon.

When Jaylene was finally released at 7:00 a.m., she told the COC she found the department had accessed her cell phone without permission and deleted the recordings she had made before and during arrest her arrest.

“The [incident] report states that the deputies were responding to a disturbance call at a memorial site regarding ‘children running around causing a traffic hazard,'” according to the OIG’s report.  “No mention is made of any complaint about marijuana being smoked in public.”

(For the record, personal use of marijuana by adults became legal in the state of California on January 1, 2018, after the the passage of a ballot measure in November 2016. But, as with alcohol, there are resections.)

“Can’t report harassment to the harassers”

“This arrest, transport, and lengthy detention regarding a marijuana cigarette at a memorial cite could not help but be perceived as harassment,” Huntsman wrote in his  November 21, report back, “and further supports the need for a written LASD policy and active supervision to avoid similar outcomes.”

Other families reported officers attending or driving slowly by memorials and vigils, smiling, waving, making inappropriate hand gestures, and engaging in other acts the families perceived as hostile or threatening. Families reported that officers had followed them in marked and unmarked cars, pulled them over, and otherwise treated them with malice.

Members of the LASD killed Lisa Vargas’s

“The intimidation and harassment is real,” said Stephanie Luna, the aunt of Anthony Vargas, at a COC meeting.   (Anthony Vargas was a 21-year-old who was fatally shot after he allegedly pulled a gun from his waistband when pursued by deputies on Aug. 12, 2018. In June 2019, a leaked autopsy report showed that that, contrary to initial LASD descriptions, the deputies shot 11 bullets into Vargas’s body from behind.)

“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 her own 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.

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.

Fast forward to Tuesday’s board meeting where Vargas’s sister, Stephanie Luna was one of those who provided public comment on the new motion.

“The fact that the motion has to exist in the first place shows there is a systemic problem with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department,”  Luna said, after thanking the motion’s authors.  “And we know,” she said, “that following this phone comment we will face the deputy harassment we are here to speak about.”

Photo at top of Jaylene Rea via WLA