Los Angeles, Calif.—Standing near a memorial for her son, at the site where he was killed in 2019, Leah Rea is still distraught.
“She acts like she’s better than us when she drives by.”
Leah is telling me about LA County Sheriff’s Deputy Jessica Santos, who was present on the night that Paul Rea was killed here by police. Years after Paul’s death, Leah and her family say that Santos continues to mock the family when she drives by their home.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department patrols more than 42 cities, with stations scattered across them. As Cerise Castle has reported for Knock LA, each station has a legacy of officers haunting their communities to earn badges in the deputy gang ranks.
Both of Leah’s two daughters have had direct experiences with sheriff’s deputies since their brother was killed. The oldest, Jaylene Rea, was arrested then later picked up by ACLU attorney Andres Kwon back in 2019, just months after the shooting. Paul’s sister was held overnight without any charges, and without being given a reason for her detainment. She alleges that officers deleted videos and photos she had taken of the deputies on her phone. The Rea family is the only family with a case against the sheriff’s department. They are alleging harassment from the department as retaliation for speaking up about Paul Rea’s murder. The DA at the time has not reached a settlement with the family. The Rea family was one of the consistent punching bags of former sheriff Alex Villanueva, who in his weekly Instagram Live broadcasts routinely used the way the family protested and expressed their rage as a bad example of how to address the issue of police violence.
In 2016, finally acting on an idea that arose nearly a decade before, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to establish a body that would oversee the sheriff’s department. Several families have spoken on the record during the Los Angeles County Civil Oversight Commission about the disrespectful ways deputies comport themselves when, whether unprovoked or through request, they show up at homes and gatherings. Reports of harassment by deputies date back generations. The mere presence of county vehicles, symbols, and helicopters is a constant trigger of paranoia for some families.
Last year, The Marshall Project found that most sheriffs across the country are more conservative than the average American. Sheriff’s departments differ in size in counties worldwide and have long been elected offices. Most sheriffs are influenced by elections and how an electorate responds to issues of crime and safety. During the 2020 protests for George Floyd, sheriffs across the country shifted to harder-on-crime approaches and blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for inspiring social unrest.
There have already been 10 fatal police-involved shootings in LA County as of March of this year. Seven of those have been by police officers of color. While police-involved shootings disproportionately victimize people of color and are largely perpetrated by white police officers, it is important to highlight how police officers of color also play a role in police violence.
After talking to several families in the eastern region of the county and analyzing decades of reporting on the impact of the East LA sheriff’s station, we can infer that this station, led by mostly Latino deputies, continues a culture of violence and retaliation toward Latinos in its jurisdiction.
Alex Villanueva, who was elected during the 2018 primary, quickly made any critic a public enemy, with families who spoke out against him being a primary target. The first time in more than a century that LA residents voted out an incumbent sheriff, Villanueva’s election was touted as a victory for Latino representation and progressive movements. In just weeks after his election, he quickly made choices that left his supporters wondering if he had done a bait-and-switch. Despite campaigning as a reformer, for example, Villanueva reinstated the use of metal flashlights, which advocates for the incarcerated had argued were abused by deputies in the jails.
In 2019, Marco Vazquez Jr. was killed by a Latino LA County sheriff’s deputy after his family made several calls requesting support during a mental health episode. The Vasquez family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that the LA County Sheriff’s Department killed Marco Vazquez in 2019, and that law enforcement should have put him on psychiatric hold instead of shooting him 10 times.
Marco had recurring schizophrenia that had developed after he was incarcerated. His wife and their daughters had developed ways to support and care for him through his healing process. Just days before his death, Marco was experiencing waves of paranoia, and the Vazquez family had already been in talks with the county to secure him some more help. On the night that deputies shot Marco during his episode, the Vazquez family had called for a county health specialist.
They’re now waiting to hear back about whether the DA will hold those sheriff’s deputies accountable.
In the meantime, though, members of the Vazquez family say they’re still being tortured by the department that took their loved one from them.
Over the last year, I’ve taken several walks with Leticia Vazquez in her Whittier neighborhood. Every time a helicopter flies over us, she points up and tries to see if it is a county helicopter. In a joking manner, she’ll flip it off. She says that since the shooting of her son, she’s noticed them flying over her house more than they used to.
Yet another display, she says, of the sheriff’s department harassing her family.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has not responded to The Nation’s questions about deputies’ harassment of families who have been impacted by police violence.
In an interview for the investigative podcast, Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff, Villanueva claimed that the Vazquez and Rea families were paid by political groups and that the Soros foundation was funding it. I asked Leticia about this allegation and she broke down in anger.
“How dare he,” she said over the phone. “I’d do anything—I’d give my life to have Marco with me and not have to do things like this.”