In the same week Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials said they’ll be expanding the limitations on deputies drawing their AR-15’s in the field, some Santa Clarita Valley activists said they still want to see more changes to law enforcement policy.
The statements from LASD and local activists stem from a report released by the L.A. County Office of Inspector General last week titled “Review of August 7, 2020, Santa Clarita Incident.” The document summarizes the Inspector General’s year-long investigation into two deputies drawing their handguns, and a third drawing his AR-15 rifle, on three unarmed teenage boys near Whites Canyon Road and Soledad Canyon Road last year.
At the time of the incident, two separate callers — a man and a woman — had reported a fight between two Black skateboarders and a Hispanic man, in which the kids were hitting the man with a skateboard.
While the male caller, who was the first to report the incident, told deputies that the two skateboarders left the scene in an attempt to “avoid deputies,” the woman said the Hispanic man had taken “his shirt off, he was chasing them, he was trying to hit them.”
“Dispatch did not update the call to reflect the female caller’s observations,” the OIG report read. “A review of the mobile digital computer (MDT) records shows the call went out to deputies as two male Black adults, who were approximately 21 years old, hit a male Hispanic with a skateboard. No other weapon was mentioned.”
The third skateboarder, a white 18-year-old, was also not mentioned by either caller.
The OIG report stated the incident and subsequent investigation by the SCV Sheriff’s Station revealed a number of issues with department policy, from the rules governing the deputies’ use of firearms to the SCV Station’s response in the ensuing aftermath.
The investigative report also expresses the Inspector General’s concern that race and other possible biases were not investigated as possible factors in the deputies’ actions. On Aug. 10, 2020, three days after the incident, the watch commander report for the incident said Sheriff’s Department COBRA Task Force detectives identified the teenagers as having “run-ins with law enforcement” in the past, and that the “three had formed a gang or clique who ‘had beef’ with a Mexican gang.”
The report also states there would be “no reason to detail a subject’s past contacts with law enforcement, except to muddy the subject’s character and/or to garner sympathy for the deputies’ actions.” None of the deputies on the scene would have had any prior knowledge of the kids’ gang affiliations when responding to the initial call, the report states, and the allegation of gang involvement was unsubstantiated.
“No documentation was provided as to why members of the task force believed these teenagers were part of a gang,” the report read. “One of the teenagers had no criminal contacts at all. The other two had law enforcement contacts but had no convictions.”
The report reads that the 18-year-old skateboarder, while detained, confirmed the woman caller’s account of events and said the Hispanic man had attacked them. One of the two 16-year-old skateboarders informed deputies, while sitting in the back of the patrol car, that deputies had “detained the wrong individuals,” the report said.
A video of the incident taken by a witness was posted to social media and — given the preceding months filled with demonstrations and conversations about policing and race in America following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers — the video went viral within hours.
The report highlighted that the supervising sergeants failed to write reports or speak to witnesses at the time of the incident, and that the evidence of possible biases by the deputies was omitted from the follow-up investigation, which “may have resulted in portraying the deputies’ actions in a more favorable light.”
The OIG report states that the Sheriff’s Department seemed “reluctant to receive public comments,” despite the national media attention, witnesses at the scene crying foul and multiple public officials expressing their concerns.
The first civilian complaint taken about the incident, according to the report, was filed by an out-of-state caller on Aug. 10, 2020. It was documented only after the caller said the words, “Am I able to make a complaint to you?” which was then followed by a back-and-forth conversation between the SCV Sheriff’s Station watch commander and the complainant.
“Even when the complainant stated those magic words, ‘I want to make a complaint,’ the Sheriff’s Department representative’s response is troubling,” reads the report. “In this incident, a lieutenant, a person in a management role, challenged the complainant’s knowledge of the incident; questioned the complainant as to whether he had law enforcement training, and disagreed with well-established data that minorities are disproportionately ‘pressed on in situations like this.’”
In a statement sent to The Signal earlier this week, LASD officials said they’re already pursuing one recommendation given in the report and would be taking into consideration the eight others listed by the Inspector General’s staff.
“The strategy and tactics were reviewed and the policy on AR-15 deployment is being modified to offer better guidance as to the proper and improper deployment in the field,” said Deputy Trina Schrader of the Sheriff’s Information Bureau. “Once the draft version has been finalized, it will be forwarded to the employee unions as part of the meet-and-confer process, and then to the Office of Inspector General.”
According to current LASD policy, pointing your firearm at a subject — but not physically injuring anyone with it — does not constitute a reportable event. While deputies are supposed to record the use in a log entry in their squad car’s computer, OIG staff found it “concerning that such behavior would never come to the attention of a supervisor without the public witnessing it, given the lack of reporting requirements means that there is no supervisorial or command staff assessment of the deputies’ conduct.”
In response to follow-up questions from The Signal asking for timelines regarding the review and possible adoption of the other policy changes suggested in the report, Capt. John Satterfield, also of the Sheriff’s Information Bureau, reaffirmed that the other recommendations were being considered, but that the AR-15 deployment recommendation was the only one being actively pursued as of now.
Within days of the original incident last year, downtown LASD officials said they would be looking at the department’s policy toward drawing a semiautomatic rifle during an incident. As it stands, the Sheriff’s Department “Manual of Policy and Procedures” does not mention what constitutes warranted usage of a patrol rifle, the OIG report read, and the report recommends the Sheriff’s Department revise its patrol rifle policy to include “clear guidance to the proper and improper deployment of a rifle.”
The new policy for the department is expected to be announced during a press conference on Sept. 22, Satterfield said. As of the publication of this article, Satterfield reported the department did not have a system that tracked the instances or number of times LASD deputies drew their firearms in the field but do not fire. Department policy, according to the OIG report, requires deputies make a “mobile data entry” log entry each time they point their weapon at someone, but added that the incident “would likely not have come to (Sheriff Alex Villaneuva’s) attention” had there not been video evidence recorded by a nearby citizen.
Officials from the SCV Sheriff’s Station, the city of Santa Clarita and Mayor Bill Miranda declined to comment on the findings of the OIG report. The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff’s, the labor union that represents sworn deputies throughout L.A. County, did not respond to requests for comment.
While acknowledging they were encouraged to hear of the pending change to deputy field rifle use, SCV activists said they would still like to see additional policy alterations and/or conversations.
“We’re very glad to see that Inspector General (Max) Huntsman was able to conduct a thorough and objective investigation of the incident,” said Jess Conrad from SCV for Change, which participated in organizing many of the local Black Lives Matter protests and conversations of 2020. “Unfortunately, the contents of the investigation report will likely make little difference to the Sheriff’s Department and will not be able to erase the trauma those young boys experienced that day.”
Valerie Bradford, president of the Santa Clarita chapter of the NAACP, said she believed it to be “extremely aggressive” for the deputies, within seconds of arriving, to pull their firearms on teenagers with skateboards.
“Unfortunately, this is the norm for Black people,” Bradford said. “When we call the police or when someone else calls the police, we are not going to be treated equally.”
Bradford asked local law enforcement to invite the community organizations concerned with policing to a sit-down to go through the changes LASD is making.
“I would definitely like to see us be able to sit down with the Sheriff’s Department and have a conversation to see if there’s anything we can do or if we can have any input,” said Bradford. “A lot of white residents here say racism doesn’t exist because they don’t experience it. But we know racism exists because as soon as our branch was established, we started getting reports of people experiencing it.”