‘An abuse of power:’ Report accuses sheriff’s deputies of harassing grieving families

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Family and friends of Isaias Cervantes of Cudahy, a mentally challenged man shot by sheriff’s deputies March 31, staged a protest April 24 over the shooting which has left Cervantes paralyzed. A new report accuses sheriff’s deputies of harassing families of people killed or injured in deputy-involved shootings. (Photo by Lorenzo Gomez)

Wave Staff and Wire Reports

LOS ANGELES — A report alleging that sheriff’s deputies target and harass families mourning the loss of loved ones killed by deputies was released by a coalition of civil rights organizations May 4 and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered an in-depth investigation into the allegations.

County Supervisor Holly Mitchell said the report underscored the need for action.

“No family should be mistreated or harassed for simply wanting answers for the loved ones they lost at the hands of sheriff deputies,” Mitchell said. “This report captures real life experiences of the breakdown of community trust, and it should not be taken lightly.

“The abuse of power documented in this report highlights the urgent need for transparency and accountability and must be met with corrective action,” Mitchell added.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a community activist who is president of the Los Angeles Urban Roundtable and a frequent critic of law enforcement agencies, said the new report highlights problems within the Sheriff’s Department.

“The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department operates like an out-of-control Murder Incorporated,” Hutchinson said. “It has a shameful and disgraceful record of brutality, violence and misconduct with absolutely zero accountability.

“The harassment of families that protest its abuse is no surprise from this gangster outfit,” he added. The department must be put under tight federal control through a consent decree that mandates a total overhaul of … its practices and operations. Anything short of that guarantees its continuous lawless practices.”

The report focused on the specific experiences of two families in demanding an end to the alleged behavior, but Sheriff Alex Villanueva joined a virtual meeting of the Board of Supervisors to say he had seen no evidence of such harassment.

Villanueva accused the board — as it prepared to vote on a motion calling for further investigation — of escalating tensions between his department and residents. He objected to language in the motion saying that deputies harass families on an almost daily basis.

“That language is reprehensible, it’s irresponsible,” Villanueva said. “This is a false narrative that you’re trying to advance at the expense of the men and women …. of the sheriff’s department.”

He said that Supervisor Hilda Solis’ office had called his department asking for help in responding to residents’ complaints about a memorial site for the victim of a deputy shooting. Some neighbors reported being harassed by gang members visiting a memorial, according to the sheriff.

Solis’ office did not immediately respond to a request to confirm the sheriff’s comments, but Villanueva made the same claim in his original response to a 2020 investigation of harassment by the county’s inspector general.

Solis and Mitchell co-authored a motion asking the county’s inspector general to update a 2020 investigation of the issue and report back in 60 days with alternative ways to handle complaints of harassment, intimidation and other alleged misconduct.

The motion calls out deputies for parking in front of families’ homes, making unwarranted stops and searches, damaging items left at memorial sites, taunting family members with rude remarks and gestures and recording their movements.

“They are physically, mentally and spiritually exhausted,” Solis said of the families. “Families deserve the right to grieve and mourn without fear.”

Valerie Vargas, whose nephew Anthony Vargas was shot and killed by deputies in 2018, also addressed the board.

“This isn’t an attempt to discredit the Sheriff’s Department. This is a direct attempt to let the community know the danger that the Sheriff’s Department poses,” Vargas said. “We’ve been followed by multiple deputies in patrol vehicles from our home to another family member’s home that is cities away. We’ve been harassed on a daily basis.”

Vargas said her family has documented the incidents in photos and videos.

“The problem is that … we’re turning in these officers to be investigated by more officers,” she said.

Andres Kwon, an attorney and organizer with the ACLU of Southern California, called the alleged harassment “relentless.”

He pointed to the arrest of Paul Rea’s sister on “pretextual reasons” on Oct. 30, 2019. The same day that Jaylene Rea spoke out at an ACLU rally and town hall demanding that the Sheriff’s Department release documentation regarding her brother’s shooting during a 2019 traffic stop, “about 20 deputies rolled up to Paul’s memorial site, manhandled and arrested (her),” Kwon said.

The deputies drove her around and allegedly refused to say where they were taking her, finally stopping at the East L.A. {Sheriff’s] station, which is only five minutes away from the memorial, according to Kwon. They held her in jail overnight, saying they didn’t have anyone available to take her fingerprints, even as family members waited at the station to take her home, he said.

Jaylene Rea told the Los Angeles Times that her friend had handed her a cannabis cigar or “blunt” when deputies told him to put it out and she pocketed it to video the friend’s arrest.

Though deputies pointed to the drug as a trigger for her arrest, she was ultimately booked on suspicion of concealing evidence, according to The Times.

In addition to jointly releasing the report, the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, the Centro Community Service Organization and the Check the Sheriff Coalition rallied outside the downtown Hall of Justice May 4 to draw attention to the report.

Titled “No Justice, No Peace: The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Targeted Harassment of Grieving Families,” the report asks the county to create an independent office of law enforcement standards to investigate allegations of misconduct and to also create a mechanism outside of the Sheriff’s Department to file complaints about family harassment.

The group also wants the department to adopt a policy of transferring deputies involved in incidents of deadly force to different stations to help preempt harassment.

In a letter to Inspector General Max Huntsman in response to his office’s November 2020 report, Villanueva said his department takes the allegations very seriously and promised that any violations would result in “swift and certain” discipline.

But Villanueva said that investigation failed to produce any actual evidence of such misconduct. The Sheriff’s Department itself produced 400 pages of investigative material in response to an earlier request by the Civilian Oversight Commission and the inspector general added nothing new to that analysis, according to Villanueva.

Nonetheless, Villanueva said then that he would consider the recommendations, which included adopting a policy governing memorial sites, thoroughly investigating complaints and making certain they are classified appropriately.

Mitchell said the sheriff’s remarks only reinforced the family members’ concern that they are not being heard or believed.

“There are far too many of them that we’ve heard from to justify believing that it’s not true … with some members of the Sheriff’s Department,” Mitchell said. “No one is above the law.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she found the deputies’ behavior disgusting.

“In the midst of this finger pointing, I would beg our sheriff to look at his own department, to be critical of the harm and damage his own deputies are causing in our communities,” Kuehl said. “For the department to conclude that a deputy’s conduct ‘appears reasonable’ in the overwhelming majority of these cases shows a complete unwillingness to police his own department.”

Because many families are believed to be too fearful of retaliation to report harassment, the board motion proposes that the inspector general expand the range of its last investigation, which focused only on complaints filed with the Sheriff’s Department.

The board motion passed unanimously, with the board also directing county attorneys to pursue legal options if the department fails to cooperate with the investigation.