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Debunking Sheriff Villanueva's False Or Misleading Claims About The Arrest Of KPCC/LAist's Josie Huang

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at the graduation ceremony for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy class 433 at East Los Angeles College, Friday, January 4, 2019. (Kyle Grillot / LAist)
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On Saturday, after covering a press conference about the condition of two Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies who'd been ambushed by a gunman and were recovering from surgery, KPCC/LAist correspondent Josie Huang was thrown to the ground, pinned, handcuffed and arrested by deputies while she was documenting an arrest.

Hours later, while Huang was still in custody, the department issued a statement on Twitter that Huang "did not identify herself as press," a statement contradicted by video from the scene.

The news of Huang's arrest and the LASD's statements sparked widespread condemnation, including from elected officials. L.A. County Supervisor Mark-Ridley Thomas called for an Inspector General investigation and added that "the Citizens Oversight Commission must convene a special meeting on this matter." (The county Inspector General, Max Huntsman, says his office will investigate the incident.) State Senator Holly J. Mitchell called the arrest "deeply upsetting."

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Several media organizations and advocacy groups, including NPR, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Los Angeles Times Guild, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press condemned the arrest as an attack on press freedoms and the First Amendment. A letter from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press condemning the arrest and calling for charges against Huang to be dropped was signed by 64 media organizations.

The Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists said in a statement it was "deeply troubled by news reports and on-the-scene video that details what clearly seems to be inappropriate use of force" against Huang.

KPCC/LAist correspondent Josie Huang being detained while reporting by L.A. County Sheriff's Department personnel on Sept. 12. (Courtesy of ABC 7 Los Angeles)

False claims on social media began swirling that Huang was participating with protesters attempting to block an ambulance carrying the wounded deputies. Other false accounts said the group or Huang tried to "storm" the hospital to interfere with the deputies' medical care. In fact, the deputies had been brought to the hospital hours before the news conference. At the news conference, Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced the deputies were out of surgery and recovering. Protesters did verbally confront deputies at the ER driveway, and Huang documented the taunting by a handful of men at the scene.

Many of the inaccurate statements about Huang's arrest have come from an elected official: Sheriff Villanueva. The sheriff won more than 1.3 million votes in a stunning upset over incumbent Jim McDonnell in 2018. Villanueva now leads America's largest sheriff's department, which has been accused in the past decade of biased policing and harboring violent deputy cliques; hundreds of the agency's sworn employees have histories of dishonesty and other misconduct.

On Monday morning, Sheriff Villanueva appeared on KTLA's Morning News. He first answered questions about the wounded deputies. News anchors Frank Buckley and Jessica Holmes then pressed Villanueva on the details of Huang's arrest. In response, Villanueva made numerous false or misleading statements, several of which he reiterated in an afternoon press conference.

The sheriff's comments come at a time when law enforcement agencies are under scrutiny, not just for the behavior of their personnel, but for the way they shape narratives, and in turn sway public opinion.

On Thursday, The L.A. Times ran a scathing critique of the way LASD handled the situation, and called out Villanueva's counternarrative.

Relying on video footage from the scene, witness accounts, and Huang's account of the arrest (including her own video footage), we're correcting and clarifying five incorrect or misleading statements Villanueva made about the arrest.

Villanueva has not responded to four KPCC/LAist interview requests.

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VILLANUEVA (on KTLA): Well, the problem is [deputies] were not aware that [Huang] was a working reporter, and she's yelling 'KPCC, KPCC', but unfortunately, it's not a household name.

Sheriff Villanueva's assertion that deputies weren't aware Huang was a reporter is wrong.

Shortly before her arrest, Josie Huang had been covering a Saturday evening press conference at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, about the shooting of two deputies. Afterward, as she was preparing to leave, she heard noise near an entrance to the hospital and encountered a small group of protesters chanting and taunting deputies.

Video from the scene shows Huang reporting prior to her arrest, walking up to protesters and telling them "I'm with KPCC."

Several minutes later, while documenting the arrest of a protester, Huang herself was arrested. Multiple videos show that she clearly identified herself as a reporter. She did so even as deputies tossed her against a car, and then to the ground -- shouting "I'm a reporter!"

While on the ground, Huang then yelled out her affiliation with KPCC at least seven times, according to video from the scene.

At least one deputy clearly heard Huang's statement, responding in the video: "Do what you're told if you're a reporter."

Villanueva's assertion that Huang didn't identify herself as a reporter echoed the false statement by the Sheriff's Department, issued on Twitter while Huang was still in jail. On Sunday, The New York Times published an article saying the department continued to refer media to the tweet. The Times noted the Sheriff's Department statement was inaccurate.

Though Villanueva claims KPCC is not a household name, the station has hundreds of thousands of listeners and a large digital audience; it is one of the most listened-to public radio stations in the U.S. Villanueva himself has appeared on KPCC's airwaves several times, before and after his election and as recently as late spring; he has even spontaneously called into our newsroom's public affairs show, AirTalk, to speak with host Larry Mantle. Villanueva also took a question from Huang at the news conference just before her arrest.


VILLANUEVA (on KTLA): The point is, she was told to keep a safe distance and she refused the deputies' instructions. So she ends up getting arrested for [Penal Code] 148 [obstructing justice].

Huang was never "told to keep a safe distance" and she attempted to comply with instructions to step back.

At the :27 mark in Huang's video from the scene, deputies told Huang to back up. She appears to be repositioning herself in compliance with the officers; moments later she shouts out in pain.

"Within seconds, I was getting shoved around. There was nowhere to back up," Huang writes in her account.

The video does not show that Huang was encroaching in deputies' space, as Sheriff Villanueva claimed. (Her video was zoomed in, so does not give an accurate sense of her distance from the arrest.) The arrest took place on a city street, and Huang did not have to cross a police line. KTLA's Buckley noted that in his interview with Villanueva, saying: "With all due respect, Sheriff, she did seem to comply with the orders to back off."

Video from the scene shows Huang had been walking backwards from deputies, as deputies appear to push her, for roughly ten seconds. As she stepped backward off the curb and onto the street, a deputy came from across the street and shoved her into a parked car.

Huang's phone fell to the street as she was pinned to the ground and handcuffed. It was still recording; the video appears to show deputies stepping on the phone.

A Washington Post story about Huang's arrest notes that the Sheriff's Department's claims "are contradicted by video Huang shared on Sunday showing her quickly backing away from police when ordered to do so and repeatedly identifying herself as a journalist."

The allegation of interference confused ABC7 reporter Leanne Suter, who attended the same press conference and witnessed the last stages of Huang's arrest. To Suter, interfering with an arrest would be out of character for Huang, who she's known for several years. "I have never seen Josie act aggressively," Suter told LAist." She's tenacious, which is what makes her a good journalist, but I've never seen her act aggressively toward anyone."

In a Monday press conference, Villanueva reiterated his belief that Huang's video shows her "way too close." He also said his agency has video that has not been publicly shared, showing Huang "rushed right up" to the deputies.

Jim Ewert, General Counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, viewed Villanueva's assertions skeptically: "His previous statements were proven to be untrue. And now he's asking the community to trust him, when he tells them there's a video. Yet he's shown that he's untrustworthy, so he needs to come up with the video."


VILLANUEVA (on KTLA): The ID she had on her neck was not a press pass, it was a work ID, it did not help the situation ... If she doesn't have a credential, she runs up to the deputies while they're trying to make an arrest, she's actually creating a hazard for the deputies because they are, now they have, they're distracted.

Huang did not need a press pass, and video evidence shows Huang did not run up to the deputies during the arrest, which was already near completion.

Huang was documenting an arrest taking place on a public street, in full public view, on a Saturday night. Her video makes clear that she was not attempting to intervene or get between deputies and the man they were arresting.

Huang was wearing a lanyard with her KPCC ID hanging from her neck at the scene. The credential is not a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department pass, but attorneys said that is not relevant to the criminal charge of PC 148, or obstructing justice, that she faces.

"Not having a press pass? That's not a crime," said Harlan Braun, an attorney retained by LAist's parent company to represent Huang.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, agreed. "A person doesn't need a specific press pass... in order to cover a public event," he said. "Freedom of the press requires protection of gathering the news. And a reporter who's on a public sidewalk observing what's going on is constitutionally protected."

Many journalists, including freelancers and reporters from small outlets, do not have press credentials. And the credentials were not a guarantee of safety for many journalists injured at protests this spring and summer. KPCC/LAist correspondent Adolfo Guzman-Lopez was shot in the neck with a 40mm foam round by Long Beach police in May -- while he was wearing his sheriff's press pass.

"This is at least the second time that a journalist of color from this news organization was mistreated and injured while reporting on civil protests,"The L.A. chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists said in its statement.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented hundreds of "press freedom incidents", including arrests, physical attacks, injuries from rubber bullets and tear gassings of journalists this year.


KTLA's FRANK BUCKLEY: On this particular issue, is there a way to resolve this in a way that doesn't result in a reporter who is doing her job being cited for a crime?

VILLANUEVA: Well, reporters are not immune from committing crime or being investigated or prosecuted for committing a crime. There's a reason why these laws are on the books.

Huang was charged with obstructing justice. The Sheriff's Department will need to present its case to the L.A. County District Attorney. If the D.A. decides to prosecute Huang, the question of whether she broke the law will ultimately be up to a jury.

Berkeley Law dean Chemerinsky said prosecutors should reject the case. "I don't see a basis for criminal charges against her. And I'm hoping the Los Angeles County District Attorney will agree," he said.

Several other groups expressed concern over the charge, Huang's injuries, and her five-hour detention. "NPR is appalled by the arrest of Josie Huang, a KPCC public radio reporter, who was performing her job last night -- gathering facts to inform the American public," the organization said in a tweet. LAist and KPCC executives have called for the charges to be dropped.

Huang was detained as new legislation, SB 629, sits on the desk of Governor Gavin Newsom. The proposed law would protect journalists' right to access areas closed by law enforcement during protests, and prevent citations of reporters for failing to disperse or violating curfew. In most circumstances, it would authorize reporters who have been detained to immediately contact a supervising officer to challenge their detention.

Jim Ewert, attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said the bill is designed to prevent arrests of journalists like Huang. "It would specifically prohibit the sheriff from engaging in this kind of conduct and behavior," Ewert said.

Newsom has until the end of the month to sign the bill into law. SB 629 was formally opposed by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, along with several other law enforcement associations.


VILLANUEVA (at a Monday press conference): KPCC was the same organization that did the fake Sassafras Saloon story ... It's the same organization that tried to sell that again and again ... This is where we're crossing the line between journalism and activism."

The story Villanueva mentioned was not the work of KPCC.

At the Monday afternoon press conference, Villanueva incorrectly attributed a story about law enforcement personnel partying in Hollywood's Sassafras Saloon in August. He appeared to be confusing KPCC with Santa Monica-based NPR affiliate KCRW, which published original reporting on the incident, as did online outlet Knock.LA. and CNN.

While images of the event showed people partying without masks during a pandemic, the Sheriff's Department has said the people captured on video are not LASD personnel. The Los Angeles Police Department said it is investigating whether its employees were at the bar that night.

An LAiststory about the incident aggregates other news sources, including KCRW, CNN and Knock.LA, and quotes the Sheriff's Department statement that "the persons identified in the video are not employees of the Sheriff's Department and this event was not hosted by the LASD."

KPCC did not publish a "fake" allegation, much less do so "again and again," as Villanueva charged.


9:55 a.m.: This article was updated to reference an editorial by the L.A. Times about Sheriff Villanueva's response to Huang's arrest.

This article was originally published on September 16 at 1:13 p.m.