UPDATE: SEPTEMBER 17 – In a meeting with the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission on Thursday, L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman reported that Alex Villanueva’s department has failed to cooperate with his office’s investigation into LASD deputies’ arrest of LAist reporter Josie Huang. Huntsman also says evidence suggests the department has been making false claims about the incident.
“My office is investigating recent Sheriff’s Department actions which may violate the United States constitution’s guarantee of freedom of the press,” Huntsman told the oversight body. “In these investigations we have requested the cooperation of the sheriff’s department, and not received it.”
The Inspector General’s office has run up against resistance from the LASD before. Huntsman pointed to another recent investigation, stemming from an incident at a press conference about Dijon Kizzee’s killing by deputies, with which the department has also been unwilling to participate.
In both matters, Hunstman reports that the LASD is using social media, PR staff, and even Villanueva personally, to provide inaccurate and misleading information regarding pertinent details of the incidents.
“All evidence we have currently gathered suggests that significant parts of the claims made by the department may have been false,” Huntsman said.
Those details include claims that Huang failed to identify herself as a reporter, which is directly refuted by video, and that she lacked “proper” press credentials.
Further, the Inspector General says, booking Huang for obstruction of a police officer as she was on the night in question, would appear to be at odds with Penal Code Section 148 which states explicitly that making a video recording of an officer is not considered obstruction.
“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,” oversight commission member Priscilla Ocen told KTLA. Ocen added that she believes the department frequently applies strong-arm tactics, and Huang’s status as a reporter has simply shined a light on a widespread problem.
SEPTEMBER 14 – Josie Huang, a reporter for public radio station KPCC and its website LAist, was arrested by L.A. County Sheriff’s Department deputies on Saturday night while covering a small protest outside the Lynwood hospital where two deputies were being treated for gunshot wounds. The arrest has raised outcry from First Amendment advocates, but Sheriff Alex Villanueva says he stands by his officers’ actions.
In the course of what KTLA describes as a “violent arrest,” the deputies tackled, injured, and restrained Huang–ultimately detaining her for five hours and charging her with obstructing a peace officer.
A tense situation developing in Lynwood as a handful of protesters on sidewalk shout at deputies outside St. Francis medical center where 2 deputies are recovering from surgery after being shot tonight in Compton pic.twitter.com/wwpcnVFvOI
— Josie Huang (@josie_huang) September 13, 2020
An initial LASD tweet about the situation claimed she did not identify herself as a reporter, but multiple videos of the incident, captured both by Huang and other journalists and observers at the scene all appear to directly contradict that assertion. Huang reports wearing a media identification around her neck, and on the videos she can repeatedly be heard yelling “I’m a reporter” and “I’m with KPCC.”
In an interview with KTLA today, Villanueva stated “We could’ve probably done things differently,” but ultimately appeared to blame Huang for her own treatment, saying “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 that his staff were justified in their behavior because, he claimed, they have observed people who “try to pass themselves off as journalists” at protests.
– He says deputies "were not aware she was a working reporter." Josie yelled "I'm a reporter" & wore her KPCC station ID
(Sheriff's Dept. cannot require their specific credentials to report in public places. Police don't bestow the right to journalism, the 1st Amendment does)
— Libby Denkmann (@libdenk) September 14, 2020
Further, he claimed that Huang could not reasonably expect deputies to be familiar with her employer, a leading public radio station in Los Angeles.
“She’s yelling ‘KPCC, KPCC,’ but unfortunately, that’s not a household name,” he said. According to audience metrics listed on KPCC’s website, the outlet has an estimated monthly audience of nearly 4 million individuals.
The incident with Huang came only a day after LASD deputies, dressed in riot gear, appeared at a press conference at which activists were criticizing the department’s handling of the killing of Dijon Kizzee. At that event, a deputy grabbed a legal observer, and others ordered reporters to leave the area where the press conference was taking place.
“Those two incidents are of concern to us because First Amendment rights are absolutely critical to the public’s respect of law enforcement,” L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman told the Los Angeles Times. “And so we feel that requires immediate investigation.”
Hunstman says he has begun the process of a probe, though he expects to run up against challenges from Villanueva’s office.
“We have requested information from the Sheriff’s Department. They have of late not cooperated in investigations of themselves so we do not anticipate their cooperation, and that makes things more difficult,” he told the Times.