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Criminal Justice

Families Of People Shot By Deputies Say They're Being Harassed — 6 More Takeaways From Our Podcast About Sheriff Villanueva

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(Miranda Villanueva for LAist)
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One of the more disturbing things we report on in our podcast, Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff, is the allegation that some Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies are harassing the families of people killed by deputies.

Listen to Episode 4: Families of people killed by deputies say they were followed and harassed.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva vigorously denies the claims, going so far as to accuse the families making the accusations of being paid by activist groups.

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Here are six things we learned while making this episode:

1. The families say the harassment takes various forms.

We spoke with the family of Marco Vazquez, who was shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in October 2019 while having a mental health crisis. After his death, his relatives began seeing patrol cars and helicopters more frequently in their neighborhood. Christina Vazquez, Marco’s widow, told us deputies appeared on their doorstep a few nights before they were planning a march for Marco, which she interpreted as a reminder that “we’re always watching and we know what you’re up to.”

Family members of other shooting victims told the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission that they were followed by unmarked cars and witnessed deputies mocking them while they attended memorial services. One relative spoke of being arrested.

2. The inspector general investigated and found some cases of possible harassment.

A report by Inspector General Max Huntsman documented eight cases of possible harassment between February 2018 and November 2019, including:

  • An “excessive” number of deputies showing up to calls for service at memorials for people killed by the LASD
  • Deputies arresting family members of shooting victims for “insignificant reasons” like smoking marijuana in public or violating gang ordinances
  • Deputies “smiling, smirking or looking mean” at families of shooting victims
  • Increased presence of deputies near the homes of family members or near the area of the shooting

The sheriff’s department concluded that, in four of the cases, the deputies' actions were reasonable. In three, it said it could not determine what happened. Another case is still being reviewed by the district attorney.

A report by the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles and other groups argued the number of cases explored in Huntsman’s report — eight — is an undercount, since he only looked at complaints filed with the Sheriff’s Department – a step the report said many families in this situation are reluctant to take.

3. Harassment can be difficult to document.

The inspector general told us he was unable to find evidence of the harassment, in part because deputies did not have body-worn cameras during the time period he was investigating, and because the Sheriff’s Department impeded further investigation.

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“You need evidence, you need proof,” Stephanie Luna, whose nephew Anthony Vargas was killed by deputies, told the Civilian Oversight Commission. “The problem is when we're followed in our vehicles we can't get our phone and push record because that's reason for [deputies] to pull us over. Why? Because [deputies] assume it's a weapon.”

The National Lawyers Guild report claims the subtlety of the alleged harassment is by design.

“Deputies intentionally engage in behavior that walks the line between insensitive and illegal,” it said, “knowing that a witness’s complaint would not be taken seriously when it can only be memorialized in words insufficient to capture the cruelty inherent in a deputy smiling or waving sarcastically at memorials for the young men their coworkers shot and killed.”

4. Sheriff Alex Villanueva points to the lack of physical evidence as proof that there is no harassment.

In a February 2022 press conference, Villanueva said he hadn’t seen “a shred of evidence” of deputy harassment.

“Not one single cell phone, not one photograph, not one recording, nothing," he said. "Why? Because none of it ever happened. That's the whole point. But it's good to sustain this false narrative.”

He said he believes the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is using the harassment charges to conduct a smear campaign against him.

“It is part of a branding campaign that the Board of Supervisors engaged in with all their political appointees,” he said.

5. Villanueva accuses families who say they are being harassed of being “paid” by activist groups.

“We keep hearing these reports, but they're coming from a very tiny group of people that are activists that have an agenda. Some of them are paid,” Villanueva said in an interview for the podcast. He said groups like the ACLU were receiving “dark money” from “bored billionaires,” money that gets distributed to families who “get paid 100 bucks to go scream at the local police.”

When we shared Villanueva’s remarks with Marco Vazquez’ mother Leticia, she said, “How dare he accuse us of that? … You think we’re gonna sell ourselves cheap? For 100 bucks? … You can take those 100 bucks and put ‘em where the sun don’t shine, honey.”

6. The inspector general and a former top sheriff’s official say Villanueva failed to take steps to ensure harassment doesn’t occur.

Huntsman told us he encouraged Villanueva to take the harassment claims seriously and to put in place policies to prevent harassment from happening, “to make sure that they can say ‘No, no, we know that's not happening.’” Instead, the inspector general said the department “aggressively fought back” against his suggestion.

A former assistant sheriff we interviewed, Bob Olmsted, also criticized Villanueva for not taking steps. “If I was sheriff, and I had this allegation coming from the families that these deputies who are involved in the shooting are now harassing them or doing something, well, then we need to figure out another way to get this resolved,” he said.

What questions do you have about Southern California?