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Sheriff's combative response to shocking deputy attack sparks new alarms, criticism

By Alene Tchekmedyian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES - The attack was every police officer's worst nightmare: A gunman walks up to a marked patrol car, shooting the two people inside at close range because of the uniforms on their backs.

Surveillance video of the brazen deed near a Compton Metro station provoked wide outrage from presidential candidates to ordinary citizens.

But the agency's response to the attack has raised alarms from some activists, lawmakers and sheriff's watchdogs, who question whether the aggressive rhetoric is inflaming rather than easing tensions at a moment when community groups are protesting several controversial shootings by deputies amid a national discussion over policing and race.

Within 24 hours, a longtime Sheriff's Department spokeswoman posted tweets about the attack that employed racist stereotypes in reference to a reward for information leading to the arrest of the shooter. In one post accompanied by a GIF of a Black man shuffling bills, she wrote: "And here's the neighborhood homies and enemies 'bout to come up' on that $100,000 #REWARD because $100,000 dollas is $100,000 dollas."

The spokeswoman, Deputy Juanita Navarro-Suarez, later deleted the posts. When asked to respond, she said: "Everyone has an opinion, and that's it."

Deputies also arrested a public radio reporter covering the aftermath of the shooting, offering a narrative of the incident that was refuted by videos the reporter had recorded on her phone.

 

Sheriff Alex Villanueva then doubled down, defending the arrest while accusing politicians and athletes of "fanning the flames of hatred" during this time of unrest over police brutality.

The sheriff also singled out Lakers star LeBron James - who has been vocal about systemic racism in America - and challenged him to match what was a $175,000 reward offered to help find the gunman who shot the deputies.

James hasn't responded to Villanueva's request. But Vanessa Bryant - who has filed a claim against the agency over deputies sharing photos from the site of the helicopter crash in January that killed her husband, Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, their daughter Gianna and seven others - quickly fired back.

She reposted another social media user's remarks about Villanueva: "How can he talk about trusting the system?"

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