A coalition of civil rights organizations released a report Tuesday alleging that sheriff’s deputies target and harass families mourning the loss of loved ones killed by deputies, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordered an in-depth investigation.
Los Angeles 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.”
The report focuses 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.”
Villanueva 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’s 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.”
Titled “No Justice, No Peace: The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Targeted Harassment of Grieving Families,” the report was jointly released by 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. 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 LASD 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 on Tuesday 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 fingerpointing, 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 LASD.
The board also directed county attorneys to pursue legal options if the department fails to cooperate with the investigation.