State Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer on the shooting of LA sheriff’s deputies in Compton

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A large plaque hangs on the wall of LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s office in downtown LA. On September 12 in Compton, two sheriff’s deputies were shot at point-blank range while sitting in their car. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

On Saturday night, two LA County sheriff’s deputies were shot at point-blank range while sitting in their car outside a Compton Metro station. It’s not clear why the deputies were targeted, but there’s been tension between the Sheriff’s Department and communities of color. Last month’s killing of Dijon Kizzee sparked a wave of protests. And there are concerns of gang activity within the sheriff’s office.

KCRW talks about all this with Democratic State Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer. 

KCRW: You represent South LA and are the chair of the California State Assembly’s Public Safety Committee. Sheriff Alex Villaneuva quoted you when he described the shooting as a cowardly act. What’s your response to the shooting?

Reggie Jones-Sawyer: “I do believe that was a cowardly act. I'm against police violence. And that's not only police violence when it occurs upon African Americans, Latinos, but also when violence goes against law enforcement officers. That act was a cowardly act. 

We want to find out more why that individual believed they needed to do that. And hopefully we can get some answers. Because ultimately, we need to fix this. 

An individual that is brazen enough to walk up to an armed law enforcement officer and ambush them probably should not be in society walking among regular citizens. And so that's why we need to apprehend this individual as soon as possible. So that we can get to what provoked this, because it may not have anything to do with what some of the preconceived notions are or what's going on.”

The sheriff appears to make a connection but notes a suspect has not been arrested yet: “It’s a dangerous job. Actions, words have consequences. And our jobs do not get any easier because people don’t like law enforcement.” He is perhaps saying, ‘With that evidence, I don’t know that this could have been a motive for the shooting.’

“I was with the sheriff just right after what happened. He was visibly upset. And again, if you were to ask him now if he believed that this was based on what the Black Lives Matter individuals are working on, what ACLU is working on … I think he would say that once we find out what really happened, then we get to the meat of what we need to move on with. 

But he also needs to know that he needs to move forward with some progressive ideas, so that we can move forward with his department that has had several allegations that you've mentioned about gangs within the department [that] should not be there. And he said that, and we need to move him toward that in a peaceful way.”

According to several whistleblower complaints, there is a gang of sheriff’s deputies within the Compton station called the Executioners. The allegation is that they run the Compton station. The sheriff has denied that the gang runs the station. Do you think there should be a federal investigation into gang activity within the LA County Sheriff’s Department? 

“Let me just start with the young Latino deputy that stepped out and made this report. It is not easy to be a whistleblower. … The fact that the Board of Supervisors wants a full investigation, they are kind of the umbrella organization over the sheriff department, I have confidence that they, hopefully working with the sheriff, will get to the bottom of this, and that we actually know what is actually going on in the Compton sheriff's station. That is the most Important thing.”

The relationship between the Board of Supervisors and this particular sheriff is not good. The sheriff has ignored some of the things that the supervisors want him to do. Is it possible for them to mount a credible investigation that can actually get things changed when it comes to this? Or does it need to be handled by the feds?

“I would leave that up to the Board of Supervisors to make that determination on whether or not they need to go ahead and seek federal intervention. We have a different administration right now. And maybe [it] might make more sense if that administration changes in November to have that type of investigation, as opposed to now. 

It is real important that the federal government when they're called … do a thorough investigation. But they will need the cooperation of the local elected officials and others to ensure that everyone's treated fairly, and that the investigation is done not only thoroughly, but it's done correctly.”

Do you trust the Sheriff's Department to undertake a thorough and credible investigation into the killing of Dijon Kizzee?

“A lot of that depends on resources. And again, it goes back to the Board of Supervisors and making sure that if whoever, if they're going to do it internally, whoever is in charge of it, that they are fully funded, and that they have the best people involved, nonpartisan, who can go in and do a thorough examination of what's going on in there. We're in a budget recession now, and it may get really worse in the coming years.”

KPCC reporter Josie Huang was violently shoved by the sheriff's deputy. She was wounded and then arrested. A lot of videos are confirming her version of events, as opposed to the sheriff's version, which said she was obstructing their work. What do you think about the incident?

“In the old days, back then when it was only three channels, that's where you got your news. And all of law enforcement knew one another and the press. Well, that's not the case now. And we also have a lot of bloggers, internet folk who are kind of the press. And so that number has expanded, and we have not updated law enforcement policies and procedures on how to handle the press. And so this is a perfect example. Look, I have my phone in my hand, I could be a journalist tomorrow. And so do I know all the rules and regulations when you come to a crime scene? Absolutely not.”

Josie Huang was wearing a press pass and did move away from them when they asked her to move away. She did identify herself as a reporter. Is there any reason to shove someone to the ground in that forceful way? She was not posing a threat.

“I don't know where that provocation would come from, and that is over excessiveness. And so that's what I'm saying. Where are we training our officers to be able to talk through those incidences instead of going to that level? But we have to make some significant changes on how we interact with one another, so these incidents don't happen again.”

— Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski