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Sheriff's combative response to shocking deputy attack sparks new alarms, criticism

The LA Times logo The LA Times 5 days ago Alene Tchekmedyian
a car parked in front of a building: Sheriff's block off streets surrounding the Metro station where two L.A. County sheriff's deputies were shot Saturday night in Compton. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times) © Provided by The LA Times Sheriff's block off streets surrounding the Metro station where two L.A. County sheriff's deputies were shot Saturday night in Compton. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The attack was every police officer’s worst nightmare: A gunman walks up to a marked patrol car, shooting the two people inside at close range because of the uniforms on their backs.

Surveillance video of the brazen deed near a Compton Metro station provoked wide outrage from presidential candidates to ordinary citizens.

But the agency's response to the attack has raised alarms from some activists, lawmakers and sheriff's watchdogs, who question whether the aggressive rhetoric is inflaming rather than easing tensions at a moment when community groups are protesting several controversial shootings by deputies amid a national discussion over policing and race.

Within 24 hours, a longtime Sheriff's Department spokeswoman posted tweets about the attack that employed racist stereotypes in reference to a reward for information leading to the arrest of the shooter. In one post accompanied by a GIF of a Black man shuffling bills, she wrote: “And here’s the neighborhood homies and enemies ‘bout to come up’ on that $100,000 #REWARD because $100,000 dollas is $100,000 dollas.”

The spokeswoman, Deputy Juanita Navarro-Suarez, later deleted the posts. When asked to respond, she said: "Everyone has an opinion, and that's it."

Deputies also arrested a public radio reporter covering the aftermath of the shooting, offering a narrative of the incident that was refuted by videos the reporter had recorded on her phone.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva then doubled down, defending the arrest while accusing politicians and athletes of “fanning the flames of hatred” during this time of unrest over police brutality.

The sheriff also singled out Lakers star LeBron James — who has been vocal about systemic racism in America — and challenged him to match what was a $175,000 reward offered to help find the gunman who shot the deputies.

James hasn't responded to Villanueva’s request. But Vanessa Bryant — who has filed a claim against the agency over deputies sharing photos from the site of the helicopter crash in January that killed her husband, Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, their daughter Gianna and seven others — quickly fired back.

She reposted another social media user's remarks about Villanueva: “How can he talk about trusting the system?"

L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman is now investigating the reporter's arrest. A spokesman for the department said the offensive tweets are being reviewed internally as well.

"We are aware of the posts in question and have concerns. A full supervisory inquiry is being conducted, and depending on the findings, this may lead to an internal affairs investigation. We are unable to comment further at this stage of the inquiry,” Lt. John Satterfield said.

Villanueva did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.

Policing experts said the emotional reaction to officers shot in the line of duty might be expected, but that cooler heads should prevail.

"Certainly the Sheriff's Department being aggressive and indignant doesn't help the larger issue, because there's a conflict, and being antagonistic doesn't help in a conflict," said Jack Glaser, professor at Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. "On the other hand it's really understandable that the Sheriff's Department is upset — they've had their own people attacked in cold blood."

"In a way," he added, "reacting so strongly and with such sort of emphasis on retribution just highlights the Black lives, blue lives matter breach."

But others see something larger at play. Since taking office in 2018, Villanueva has clashed repeatedly with civilian overseers and the Board of Supervisors, who have accused him of rehiring officials with tainted backgrounds and unraveling policing reforms instituted after a massive corruption scandal that brought criminal convictions against former Sheriff Lee Baca and other commanders.

Priscilla Ocen, a member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, said she was particularly alarmed by the racist tweets, which she described as “insulting to the residents of Compton and the surrounding areas" at a time when the department needs to build trust and relationships in those communities.

“Although the statements are racist and reprehensible, they are not surprising,” she added, saying Villanueva "set the example for this kind of rhetoric" when he recently used a derogatory term in reference to County Supervisor Hilda Solis.

“What else would we expect from his staff?” she said.

Now, as the two deputies are recovering from gunshot wounds to their head and face, the Sheriff’s Department once again finds itself under investigation by the Office of Inspector General, which is reviewing its handling of KPCC and LAist reporter Josie Huang’s arrest as well as deputies’ actions during a news conference held Friday by activists in South L.A.

The Sheriff's Department said that Huang did not identify herself as a member of the media and lacked “proper” press credentials during a confrontation in which a protester was arrested outside St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, where the two ambushed deputies were being treated.

That account was directly contradicted by videos Huang shared on Twitter, which showed that she did not intervene in the man’s arrest but instead was filming from a distance. As deputies take her to the ground, she can clearly be heard identifying herself as a reporter with KPCC and screaming for help.

Despite that, Villanueva told the Associated Press that Huang "crossed the line from journalism to activism" in getting too close to the deputies during the episode.

“All I can say is, in the heat of the moment when these protesters are calling or chanting for the death of the deputies in the emergency room, she picked the worst time possible to try to get an up-close of the deputies making an arrest," Villanueva said. "That’s on her."

https://twitter.com/HildaSolis/status/1305689158925475840?s=20

Solis called the footage of Huang’s arrest “extremely disturbing” and requested an outside investigation by Huntsman.

Huang “was simply doing her job and clearly identified herself,” Solis said in a statement. “Journalists are critical in safeguarding our democracy and they should not be treated this way.”

The reporter's arrest came a day after sheriff’s deputies in riot gear surrounded a news conference hosted by activists near the South L.A. sheriff's station. Speakers condemned the department’s use of pepper balls and rubber bullets against demonstrators who have been gathering regularly to protest the Aug. 31 killing of bicyclist Dijon Kizzee by deputies in Westmont. In interviews, protesters have challenged the Sheriff's Department's narrative that they instigated the confrontations by throwing bottles and rocks at deputies.

At Friday’s event, a deputy grabbed a legal observer who had been filming him. When the news conference ended, the deputies ordered those attending, including reporters, to leave the area.

“Those two incidents are of concern to us because 1st Amendment rights are absolutely critical to the public’s respect of law enforcement,” Huntsman said. “And so we feel that requires immediate investigation.”

Huntsman and other public officials have long criticized the department for resisting oversight and accountability. And a string of controversial police shootings and beatings caught on camera in Compton and South L.A., along with allegations of misconduct, have intensified mistrust among residents in the community.

After the killing of Andres Guardado, who was shot five times in the back by a deputy in June, Villanueva’s chief of staff posted on social media that the 18-year-old “chose his fate.”

“At the end of the day, we’re not against the Sheriff’s Department. We’re not against law enforcement," Najee Ali, a longtime activist who has been protesting Kizzee's fatal shooting, said Monday outside St. Francis Medical Center. "We are simply against police abuse, police racial profiling, police mistreatment of Black and brown residents within the city.”

He showed up to deliver a reconciliatory message and denounce the violence.

David Anderson Hooker, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who is an expert in social justice and community building after conflict, said if an agency's primary way of engaging is through force, the threat of force or attempts to silence, "all of those efforts at force create a hardened, rigid understanding of who law enforcement is."

Then there was a series of bizarre tweets by Navarro-Suarez, after officials announced a $100,000 reward for information to help find the attacker.

“My advice to all the ex-girlfriends, side pieces, friends, wifey, ol’ lady, dime, queen, baby momma who know the #ComptonAmbush shooter of 2 LA Sheriff’s about getting that $100,000 #REWARD...,” Navarro-Suarez wrote next to an image of a Black woman saying, “Make that money girl.”

The tweets were quickly condemned as unprofessional, perpetuating offensive stereotypes of Black communities and exacerbating already deep tensions with law enforcement.

Within about two hours, they were deleted.

She would not say why she deleted the tweets, referring a reporter to others in the Sheriff's Information Bureau.

Rod Brunson, a professor at Northeastern University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said the tweets reflected a “missed opportunity to demonstrate to the community the interest in repairing the relationship.”

Times staff writers Leila Miller and Alex Wiggelsworth contributed to this report.

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