LOS ANGELES – Expressing doubt over the sheriff’s version of events leading to the arrest of a KPCC reporter, a civilian commission that oversees the agency asked county attorneys Thursday to prepare a report on legal responsibilities involved in law enforcement activities at protests — and some members called on the sheriff to resign.
“It’s with great reluctance that I’m calling for Sheriff (Alex) Villanueva to resign,” said Civilian Oversight Commission member Robert Bonner, a former federal prosecutor and head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department itself deserves better. The men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deserve better.”
Bonner criticized Villanueva for failing to build a working relationship with the county Board of Supervisors, saying he has “gone out of his way to alienate and insult supervisors.”
Patti Giggans, chair of the commission, echoed Bonner’s sentiment, saying, “The sheriff’s department does not have the leader it deserves.”
The commission could take an official “no-confidence” vote on the sheriff at its next meeting.
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. And that’s pretty much the line they’ve crossed, along with (Inspector General) Max Huntsman. In fact, they crossed that line a long time ago, this is just the latest example of that.
“… I’m just going to ignore it and move on,” Villanueva 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 Saturday night shooting of two deputies. Her arrest has been met with outrage from media organizations.
On Wednesday, 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 Thursday’s 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.
An LASD representative told City News Service on Wednesday 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.
County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl told City News Service Thursday that she has little faith in Villanueva to denounce the actions that were taken against Huang.
“I think it’s now incontrovertible that the sheriff has essentially been lying about so many of these things and has (been) shown to be lying by video recording,” Kuehl said.
“I understand deputies need to make quick decisions, minute by minute, but that’s where accountability and training come in and that’s where leadership comes in,” she said. “The sheriff should be telling his deputies that these actions are not acceptable, that the press has the right to cover these stories.”
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 contends 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 on Wednesday 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 Wednesday 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 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.