In November 2019, community members grieving the loved ones killed during encounters with members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department gathered at the monthly Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) meeting to report incidents of harassment and intimidation from deputies.
Now, informed by a report from the Office of Inspector General, the department’s civilian overseers have called on the sheriff to implement a new policy regarding the treatment of families of individuals killed by the LASD, among other actions.
Those who addressed the commission last November spoke of heavy sheriff’s department presence at funerals and memorial sites. Deputies, the speakers 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 together.
Many of the families had publicly protested and filed lawsuits against the department over the fatal shootings.
In response to this testimony from the families of Paul Rea, Ryan Twyman, Anthony Vargas, and others who shared similar stories of troubling behavior from members of the East LA and Century Stations, the COC voted unanimously to direct Inspector General Max Huntsman to look into the issue.
During his report back to the COC this Thursday, 13 months after the first motion, Huntsman called for a written LASD policy regarding conduct at memorial sites, as well as more “active supervision,” thorough investigation of public complaints, body-worn cameras, and for the sheriff’s department to stop fighting oversight.
In his report, Huntsman suggests that LASD officials create and adopt a policy “to ensure sensitivity toward those grieving at a memorial site and to build community trust following a fatal use of force.”
The department does not have a policy that addresses how LASD members should behave with regard to memorials and vigils honoring individuals whom officers have killed. But the department’s Code of Ethics does say that a deputy will “enforce the law courteously and appropriately, without fear or favor, malice or ill will.”
East LA and Century deputies have not been abiding by this code, according to the loved ones of Paul Rea, Ryan Twyman, and other dead young men, who addressed the COC last November and again on Thursday.
Jaylene Rea’s brother, 18-year-old Paul Rea, was fatally shot by East LA deputies during a June 2019 traffic stop.
Four months after the shooting, on the evening of Oct. 30, deputies from the East LA Station arrested Jaylene where she and other family members were gathered at the site where her brother died.
Earlier in the day, Jaylene and her family spoke about Paul’s death at a rally outside LA’s Hall of Justice, where they attempted to present the department with a lawsuit regarding public access to law enforcement records.
At around 10:45 p.m., according to 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 weed themselves, or give any commands, Jaylene said she accepted the blunt.
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 they drove past the East LA Station. She 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.”
Two hours later, at around 1:00 a.m., according to Jaylene and her family, the car pulled in to the ELA Station.
Jaylene’s family did not know where she was and feared for her safety during that time, Andrés Dae Keun Kwon, Policy Counsel and Senior Organizer at the ACLU of Southern California, told the COC. Jaylene and Paul’s grandmother “had to call every hospital nearby to finally know where she was,” he said. “She’d been driven around” for two hours.
Despite the fact that Jaylene was to be cited for “obstruction” and released, she was forced to remain at the station overnight.
“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 last year. Jaylene was forced to remain at the station “filled with deputies” overnight to wait for a deputy qualified enough to take Live Scan fingerprints, she said.
“They did not have anyone on staff who could take her fingerprints, mind you, in the largest sheriff’s department in the nation,” Dae Keun Kwon 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.
“What happened that day” — the same day of a rally and the filing of a lawsuit challenging the department’s failure to release public records — “came from the top,” Dae Keun Kwon said.
“Smoking marijuana in a public place is enforced in this manner much less often than it once was, and no case was filed against either of these individuals,” the OIG’s report said. “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.’ No mention is made of any complaint about marijuana being smoked in public.”
“This arrest, transport, and lengthy detention regarding a marijuana cigarette at a memorial cite could not help but be perceived as harassment,” Huntsman wrote, “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 rude acts. 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 21-year-old son, Anthony Vargas, who had allegedly pulled a gun from his waistband, on Aug. 12, 2018. In June 2019, an autopsy report revealed that deputies shot 11 bullets into Vargas’s body from behind.
Vargas’ uncle, his family said, was pulled over on his way to work and forced to sit in handcuffs on the sidewalk for two hours while deputies sat and ate in their patrol car.
Yet, a new policy alone will not ensure change or improve public relations with the sheriff’s department, Inspector General Huntsman said.
Members of the public expressed doubt that the sheriff would draft and uphold such a policy. We are not “holding our breath for the cooperation of the sheriff to develop this policy,” one speaker said.
Underlying problems, including failures of supervision and oversight, must be addressed, said Huntsman.
The county has a sheriff who, Huntsman and the members of the COC have noted, often refuses to comply with oversight, and whose department — like most law enforcement agencies — rarely upholds public complaints. Several members of the public who signed up to address the COC on Thursday pointed out that the sheriff also recently gave deputies explicit permission to conceal their name tags when policing protests.
When families feel that they have been mistreated by members of the LASD, their first recourse is to file a complaint with the department.
In the course of his investigation, Huntsman looked at 690 complaints against the LASD involving 16 stations and two special units that had at least one fatal shooting between February 1, 2018, and November 30, 2019.
“The purpose of this review was to assess whether there were any complaints to LASD involving the allegation of harassment of families whose relatives have been killed in a deputy involved shooting and to ascertain if this practice was systemic throughout the Department or at any particular station,” according to the report.
A total of 112 of the cases (16 percent) involved an allegation of some form of harassment from department members.
Of the 690 complaints, nine cases were referred for an administrative investigation, and one case was referred for an internal criminal investigation. That means that just one percent of complaints had the potential for an outcome involving discipline.
“The very low possibility that public complaints will lead to any discipline for misconduct,” said the report, “contributed to a lack of public trust when it comes to LASD investigating its own personnel.”
Huntsman said that complaint investigations must be more thorough. Many complaints were misclassified, a problem that “can lead to masking systemic issues.”
“The adoption of policies and training to ensure that all complaints are classified properly should be undertaken.”
Additionally, Huntsman called for the department to seek out “any available video evidence of the conduct described in the complaint.” In the course of investigating two alleged harassment incidents, LASD investigators failed to obtain surveillance footage that might have offered more concrete evidence in the cases.
(The department has been extremely slow, years behind other large departments, in getting body-worn cameras on its deputies.)
“The similarity in complaints involving inappropriate facial expressions by deputies when dealing with family members of the deceased, the perception of an increased LASD presence in the areas of the shooting and where family members live, and complaints about LASD stopping or investigating family members,” wrote Huntsman, “support the need for policy reform and body-worn cameras.”
Public speakers called for an independent complaint system.
According to the ACLU, “due to great mistrust of the LASD those who are complaining of harassment do not wish to go directly to the Department.” Many involved would rather Huntsman’s office conduct an independent investigation.
In his report, Huntsman said that he “does not believe an effective independent investigation can be conducted under the current approach to oversight taken by the LASD,” which generally works to block the oversight efforts of the OIG and COC.
“We hope that LASD will in the future make greater use of community advocates and the Office of Inspector General in establishing a better relationship with complainants in order to obtain more evidence upon which to base its decisions,” the report said.
“Our communities continue to demand an independent system in which we can submit our grievances” regarding “the continued harassment, violence, and criminalization being endured by our families at the hands of sheriff’s deputies,” a member of the public told the COC on Thursday. “We continue to ask for an independent public platform in which we may submit our grievances and similarly impacted families would also be able to search and learn from shared experiences of others. We need to bring these cases to light, and it is not being accomplished by the insular procedures of the OIG and LASD.”
“Our system,” the inspector general said, “is set up in a way that causes racism.”
“Our system is set up to trust the police wholeheartedly,” said Huntsman. Because the sheriff’s department bucks oversight, members of the public “are left [to seek out] their own personal remedies.”
So, they “can go to court and seek an injunction, but they have to prove a very high burden because the police are trusted in our society, by law.”
“In any other context, intimidation and harassment of family members and witnesses would be a crime” for which “individuals would be able to go to court and get a restraining order,” said Commissioner Priscilla Ocen.
There have been many lawsuits against the department, and in some cases, people can get redress after fighting for a number of years, Ocen said, “but it doesn’t fix the overall problem.”
Within the sheriff’s department, the inspector general said, “there is a failure to comply with a bunch of rules about oversight and control of police.”
“I was just asked by the county to look at a bill that’s been introduced by the legislature that would tighten up some of the penalties” when law enforcement officers engage in serious misconduct,” said Huntsman. “And as I read it, my first reaction was this bill is, is not going to be effective because it does nothing to improve the system of finding whether or not the conduct occurred.”
“And that’s the fundamental problem with police policing themselves,” he said.
“I think we, as a group, need to fully support and advocate for … the county taking a legal approach to forcing the sheriff to actually comply with the oversight rules.”
Huntsman said that he had sent a report of “unlawful conduct by the sheriff’s department,” to the commissioners, to the District Attorney’s Office, to the CA Attorney General’s Office, and to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“I hope that they will look at it closely and we’ll be partners in trying to come up with a solution to compel the sheriff to comply with these laws,” said Huntsman. “If the sheriffs starts to actually comply completely with these laws, then I think we’ll be in a position to actually investigate allegations.”
“We will not have the authority to impose discipline or to force discipline,” he said. “But I think at the systemic level, we would have the ability to force the sheriff’s department to reform some of these things.”