In a Civilian Oversight Commission meeting Thursday that saw members call for Sheriff Alex Villanueva to resign, Los Angeles County’s inspector general said that the Sheriff’s Department appears to have made false claims about the arrest of a journalist and has not cooperated in the resulting investigation.
“My office is investigating recent Sheriff’s Department actions which may violate the United States constitution’s guarantee of freedom of the press. In these investigations we have requested the cooperation of the Sheriff’s Department, and not received it,” county Inspector General Max Huntsman told the commissioners.
The meeting was the commission’s first since two deputies were shot by a gunman who approached their patrol car in Compton, and then hours later a public radio reporter was arrested by deputies while covering a small protest outside a Lynwood hospital where the deputies were being treated.
KPCC reporter Josie Huang was recording deputies take a man into custody when she was told to “back up” and pushed away. Deputies then pinned her to the ground as she is heard repeatedly yelling, “I’m a reporter” and “I’m with KPCC,” according to multiple videos of the incident, including from Huang’s own phone, which kept recording the interaction while she was handcuffed.
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department claimed Huang “did not identify herself as press and later admitted she did not have proper press credentials on her person.” But she said she was wearing a lanyard around her neck with a press ID — visible in videos — while she was being taken into custody.
Huntsman said the Sheriff’s Department’s narrative in that case and another appeared false based on the videos taken by Huang and others at the scene.
“The Sheriff’s Department has provided information to the public through its PR arm, and during personal appearances by the sheriffs,” Huntsman said. “Unfortunately, all evidence we have currently gathered suggests that significant parts of the claims made by the department may have been false.”
He added: “Ms. Huang appears to have been wearing press identification, to have clearly identified herself as a reporter and been understood by the deputies, and most importantly, committed no crime.”
Huang was held for several hours before being cited for obstruction of justice and released that same day.
“Penal Code Section 148, obstructing a police officer, specifically provides the recording video of a peace officer is not obstruction,” Huntsman said.
The local reporter’s arrest set off a firestorm, with elected officials and media organizations condemning the department and calling for an investigation.
“It’s funny that Ms. Huang was arrested for obstruction of justice, or obstruction of arrest. Meanwhile, it seems that the Sheriff’s Department is the one that’s engaging in the obstruction,” Commissioner Priscilla Ocen said.
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has defended the arrest, saying deputies may not have been familiar with KPCC and that Huang was wearing a work ID, not “a press pass.”
“If you’re right up in the business of the deputies and they can touch you, that means you’re way too close,” Villanueva said.
Ocen said Huang’s arrest is just one of several instances in which the Sheriff’s Department used “heavy-handed tactics,” pointing to videos of protesters’ arrests seen since May.
“What happened to Miss Huang is not exceptional. … The difference is that she has a bigger platform and she actually had the presence of mind to record her arrest,” she said.
The inspector general also discussed another instance in which he said the Sheriff’s Department appears to have made false claims. He referred to deputies’ actions at a South L.A. news conference on the killing of Dijon Kizzee in Westmont.
“A member of the National Lawyers Guild was shoved while filming. The Sheriff’s Department defended the action by stating that they were removing the public from the parking lot of a local business at the request of the manager,” Huntsman said. “Based upon our initial review this claim appears likely to be false — video evidence and witness accounts indicate that the event took place in a parking lot, which belongs to the Department of Probation and just open to the public.”
There have been multiple demonstrations to decry Kizzee’s shooting in South L.A., and deputies have responded to the protests in riot gear, raising concerns among activists.
Kizzee was stopped by deputies on Aug. 31 for an alleged vehicle violation while he was riding his bicycle. He ran from two L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies and they chased him on foot before they shot and killed him. The Sheriff’s Department said he had punched a deputy and then dropped a jacket, when a gun fell out and he “made a motion” for the weapon. Family members say he was running away from deputies when he was shot.
In the string of demonstrations that erupted after the Black man’s shooting, protesters were met with deputies in riot gear. Several people were arrested, prompting activists to speak out against the deputies’ treatment.
Ocen said the “frivolous” arrests by the deputies are “essentially to intimidate people from protesting or calling attention to the Sheriff’s Department’s abuses.”