From City News Service
LOS ANGELES — Members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and of a civilian commission that oversees the sheriff’s department have called on Sheriff Alex Villanueva to resign.
Civilian Oversight Commission member Robert Bonner, a former federal prosecutor and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, was the first to call on Villanueva to step down during a commission meeting Sept. 17.
“It’s with great reluctance that I’m calling for Sheriff Villanueva to resign,” Bonner said. “The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department itself deserves better. The men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deserve better.”
The commission expressed doubt over the sheriff’s version of events leading to the arrest of a local reporter and asked county attorneys to prepare a report on legal responsibilities involved in law enforcement activities at protests.
The commission could take an official “no-confidence” vote on the sheriff at its next meeting.
Later in the day, county Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas said they, too, support calls for Villanueva to resign.
“Like the members of the Civilian Oversight Commission, I remain troubled by the sheriff’s conduct and the way he has interfered with advancing reform and enhancing accountability,” Ridley-Thomas said in a statement.
Kuehl told the Los Angeles Times Villanueva costs the county millions of dollars in claims of excessive force by members of the department.
“He is really a rogue sheriff,” Kuehl said. “It is really important for this sheriff to understand that his behavior, his violation of any of the common rules that govern a law enforcement agency, is the greatest threat to public safety.”
Both supervisors have been critical of Villanueva in the past.
Villanueva brushed aside the comments, calling the commission a “political body appointed by the Board of Supervisors,” with whom the sheriff has repeatedly clashed on budget and other issues.
“They’re just part of the echo chamber of the board,” the sheriff said. “And unfortunately, the route they take is not one that’s going to engender goodwill … between myself or the organization, because there’s a fine line being a watchdog and an attack dog, a political attack dog.”
“I’m just going to ignore it and move on,” he said. “I’m going to continue serving the community, and I just have to set that aside.”
The comments by Oversight Commission members came at the end of a.meeting highlighted by concerns over the weekend arrest of a reporter covering protests outside a Lynwood hospital following the shooting of two sheriff’s deputies in Compton.
Huntsman, who is investigating the arrest of Josie Huang, a reporter with KPCC and LAist, said he is still waiting to receive materials from the sheriff’s department to conduct a more thorough probe. But he questioned the veracity of earlier statements by Villanueva and the department about the arrest.
“Unfortunately, all evidence we have currently gathered suggests that significant parts of the claims made by the [sheriff’s] department may have been false,” Huntsman told the commission. “The information we have gathered is preliminary and not intended to substitute for a complete investigation.”
Huang was pinned to the ground and handcuffed while covering the arrest of a demonstrator outside a Lynwood hospital following the Sept. 12 shooting of two deputies. Her arrest has been met with outrage from media organizations.
On Sept. 16, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — a coalition of 64 media organizations — called on the sheriff’s department to drop the citation it issued to Huang, who spent about five hours in custody.
The group echoed concerns expressed by other media groups that have disputed the sheriff’s version of the arrest, and called on the department “to take immediate steps to prevent another incident like the arrest of [Huang].”
During the Sept. 17 meeting, Oversight Commission member Lael Rubin said she’s concerned that under the leadership of Villanueva, deputies may have violated people’s right to protest and journalists’ right to report a story.
“It seems to me that the sheriff has dug in his heels on this issue, and I don’t want us to get into a situation where the sheriff is asking us to defend what he has done here,” Rubin said.
The commission asked county attorneys a report on the legal responsibilities of law enforcement operations at protests and have it ready for the panel’s next meeting in October.
A department representative told City News Service Sept. 16 the arrest of Huang was still under investigation and the department had no further comment.
Huang was arrested as she was covering a confrontation involving a handful of protesters at the emergency room entrance of St. Francis Medical Center, where the deputies injured in the Compton shooting were being treated.
Video from the scene showed deputies pinning Huang to the ground and arresting her.
The sheriff’s department claimed she didn’t have proper media credentials, failed to properly identify herself as a reporter and was “interfering with a lawful arrest” of one of the protesters.
Villanueva later doubled down on that contention, saying Huang got “right up on the shoulder” of a deputy trying to make an arrest, and saying her actions were more “activism” than journalism.
But video from Huang’s cell phone subsequently surfaced, showing her repeatedly identifying herself as a reporter, shouting “KPCC,” and saying, “You’re hurting me” and crying out in apparent pain.
Huang was cited and could face charges under California Penal Code Section 148 for obstructing a law enforcement officer from performing his or her lawful duties.
The letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press accuses deputies of violating Huang’s constitutional rights.
“The right to record police activity in public is clearly established, and an officer who violates that First Amendment freedom — especially through the use of force — enjoys no legal immunity,” the group contended in the letter. “Based on multiple recordings of the incident, it appears that the department’s arrest of Ms. Huang violated these clearly established First Amendment rights.”
The Los Angeles Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists wrote a letter to Huntsman Sept. 16, asking that his office make public all information it gathers in the investigation.
“The department’s treatment of Huang threatens to have a chilling effect on journalists across the county. We cannot overstate the importance of a thorough investigation by your office,” chapter President David Zahniser wrote.
Villanueva apologized Sept. 16 for a separate incident involving one of his deputies, who shined his flashlight at a television camera operated by a Fox11 crew that was documenting the arrest of a suspect at a fire.
“Unbelievable. Look at this LA County Sheriff’s Deputy shining his flashlight directly into our @foxla camera, trying to prevent us from recording an arrest made at a fire,” reporter Gigi Graciette tweeted. “Said we weren’t allowed to videotape. What? We are standing on sidewalk where law clearly allows us to be.”
Villanueva responded soon after with his own tweet.
“I have personally spoken to @GigiGraciette and apologized on behalf of @LASDHQ for the wrongful actions of one of our personnel while she and @FoxLA were reporting on an arrest,” the sheriff said.