‘We’re terrorized’: LA sheriffs frequently harass families of people they kill, says report

Sam Levin in Los Angeles
·5 min read

Los Angeles sheriff deputies frequently harass the families of people they have killed, including taunting them at vigils, parking outside their homes and following them and pulling them over for no reason, according to a new report from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

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The LA sheriff’s department (LASD), which has faced national scrutiny for its corruption scandals and killings of young Black and Latino men, has routinely retaliated against victims’ relatives who speak out, the groups said in the report released on Tuesday.

The authors collected detailed accounts of alleged harassment from the families of Paul Rea, an 18-year-old killed during a traffic stop in 2019, and Anthony Vargas, a 21-year-old shot 13 times in 2018. The report, also produced by Black Lives Matter LA and Centro Community Service Organization, alleges:

  • LASD deputies regularly drive by or park in front of the Rea and Vargas families’ homes and workplaces and at times have taken photos or recorded them for no reason.

  • Deputies have repeatedly pulled over relatives, searched their cars and detained and arrested them without probable cause, allegedly in retaliation for their protests.

  • Officers have shown up to vigils and family gatherings, at times mocking and laughing at them or threatening to arrest them, and have also damaged items at memorial sites.

“Since my son’s death, we have been terrorized. Every day, we’re watching our backs,” said Leah Garcia, Rea’s mother. “We are scared because we know what their capabilities are.”

An LASD spokesperson declined to comment, saying the department was not familiar with the report. In response to family members’ formal complaints of harassment, LASD has frequently concluded that “employee conduct appears reasonable”, records show.

LASD, the largest county police agency in the US, has faced increasing backlash in recent years for alleged misconduct and abuse by organized gangs of deputies engaged in violence and civil rights violations. The NLG report alleges that stations with officer gangs have been responsible for some of the harassment.

Hilda Solis, an LA county supervisor, also introduced a motion on Tuesday, which unanimously passed, calling for an investigation into incidents of harassment and for written policies to bar this behavior.

In August 2019, deputies drove by a memorial site for Rea and filmed his 14-year-old sister who was visiting, prompting the family to file a complaint, the report says.

In another incident that year, seven of Rea’s family members, including his grandmother, brought a cross to the memorial site. LASD allegedly showed up with a helicopter above them and numerous patrol cars. A deputy told the family that they were responding to calls that 60 people were gathered, but when Rea’s mother went to an East LA station to inquire about the alleged calls, the station told her that no calls or complaints had been made, the report says.

At a memorial gathering on 30 October 2019, deputies showed up and moved to arrest two of Rea’s friends, directing one of them to put out a blunt he had been smoking, the report recounts. The friend handed the blunt to Jaylene Rea, Paul’s older sister, so he could be handcuffed, and deputies then detained Jaylene Rea, put her in their patrol car and later took her to jail, where she spent the night, later citing her for “obstruction of justice”. She had given a speech that day at a rally, and the family said the arrest was retaliatory.

The sheriff declined to comment on the arrest when the Guardian reported on it last year. Rea’s family also filed a complaint, and an inspector general report later said it was reasonable to conclude that the “lengthy detention regarding a marijuana cigarette at a memorial” was unjustified and a form of harassment. The Guardian also witnessed deputies slowly drive by and briefly stop at a small Rea family vigil over the summer.

In August 2020, deputies also allegedly followed Garcia and her daughter Janae as they pulled out of their driveway and later stopped them for an alleged seatbelt violation, making both sit in the back of the deputies’ car for 45 minutes. They ultimately gave the mother an expired registration ticket. The next month, Jaylene Rea was pulled over and forced to sit in the back of the police car, and officers allegedly questioned her about the possession of marijuana she had legally purchased. She was released without a ticket.

On 12 August 2019, the anniversary of Vargas’s death, the family held a tree dedication near the site where he was killed. A deputy allegedly showed up and blocked the street by the tree and threatened to issue parking tickets even though the cars were properly parked. The same deputy showed up again on the anniversary the following year, making similar threats, the report said. Vargas’s mother alleged that LASD later followed her home after she left the memorial.

The LASD did not respond to inquiries about the specific claims of the Vargas and Rea families on Tuesday.

The family members have reported suffering panic and anxiety attacks as a result of these encounters.

The parents of Ryan Twyman, who was shot 34 times in 2019, have also alleged that deputies have shown up to their home and family events for no reason.

“It’s like they have nothing to do but harass families,” Charles Twyman, Ryan’s father, said on Tuesday. “You never know when they are going to act out. Every day in the news we see somebody is getting pulled over and harassed and shot, and we never know when that is going to be us.”

“They are just purposefully making people angry,” added Tommy Twyman, Ryan’s mother.

The report, which calls for an independent office to investigate misconduct claims, also said some families are too afraid to speak out given these reports of harassment. But Stephanie Luna, Vargas’s aunt, said she would continue protesting: “We’re not going away. We’re not going to be intimidated. We’re not going to be silent.”