Above: Valerie Vargas sits with family and community members at the North Long Beach Methodist Church on August 28, 2019 brainstorming ways to reform the Sheriff’s Department. Her relative, Anthony Vargas, was killed by deputies in August 2018. Photo by Michael Lozano.
About 60 Long Beach residents and activists from across the county packed the North Long Beach Methodist Church one late August evening and decided on one thing: The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department needs a major makeover.
They offered different tactics on how to reform a department that has been plagued by scandal within the past 10 years: an FBI investigation into inmate abuse led to dozens of convicted deputies, its former top brass are now in prison, and strip searches were found to be invasive and unconstitutional. As of today, another reported FBI investigation ensues, this time, looking into the department’s ‘ganglike,’ matching-tattooed cliques.
But there is another scandal brewing, according to community members gathered at the event: The current sheriff in charge, Alex Villanueva, continues to allow immigrant inmates to be transferred to Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) custody – where they might face deportation proceedings – despite his prior campaign pledge to “not allow our jails to be a pipeline to deportation.”
“He did the bait-and-switch on us,” said attendee Jacob Brevard, who had hopes for Villanueva — a Spanish-speaking democrat who had posited himself on the campaign trail as the “progressive choice.”
“That didn’t happen,” said Brevard. “…I don’t think he’s good for the city.”
Immigration transfers and deputy-involved shootings were the focus of the community conversation, which was put together by LA Voice, Greater Long Beach Interfaith Coalition (ICO), the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition and a coalition of countywide organizations, likely evoking more dialogues across the region.
While Long Beach also votes on who gets to be the head sheriff and contributes taxes to the department’s money pot, local conversation and media coverage has yet to hone in on the problem-plagued department.
“Today’s to start the conversation,” said Norberto Lopez, a community organizer with ICO who hosted most of the event.
His friend’s brother was transferred to a private immigrant detention center after finishing his time behind bars. “That’s why I’m engaged,” said Lopez. “Because I know someone who was personally impacted by transfers.”
Above: Long Beach resident Martha Cota speaks at a community meeting on August 28, 2019 at the North Long Beach Methodist Church on why she believes Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva needs to be replaced. Photo by Michael Lozano.
Though ICE transfers have decreased in county jails, they continue in some form. Between February and June of this year, there were 241 such transfers, down from 491 during the same time last year, 2018 and 2019 department data show.
The sheriff’s department did not respond to requests for comment.
While transfers are down, community members worry over the conditions in ICE jails.
“I seen it be mismanaged. Their people are not properly trained,” said one event speaker, who did not want to be named due to his immigration status.
The middle-aged man, a Long Beach resident and immigrant from Southeast Asia, spent about a year in ICE’s now closed San Pedro detention center, the same facility, he said, his relative had hung himself in just before he was sent there to join him. “He was so afraid of being deported, he hung himself,” the man recounted.
“If he knew I was going to be in ICE custody (too), he’d be alive” because he’d have family support, he said. “I wouldn’t wish it upon my own worst enemy.”
The Long Beach man said he was 16 when he started his eight-year stint in a Youth Authority prison before being transferred to ICE custody.
“To know if you’re never going to be reunited with your family again is a huge burden,” the man said to the crowd, choking on his voice and emotion.
Families of those killed by sheriff’s deputies also spoke at the event. Lisa Vargas discussed how the release of her son’s autopsy raised questions, suggesting, she said, that 21-year-old Anthony Vargas had been shot 13 times from the back. The department’s account claimed that Vargas was armed and had been shot at by a deputy in front of him and by another from behind.
Above: Lisa Vargas wraps up a personal talk at the North Long Beach Methodist Church on August 28, 2019 regarding the deputy-involved shooting of her late son, Anthony Vargas. He, 21, was killed in August 2018. Photo by Michael Lozano.
Attendee Nathan Carbajal, 21 and a CSULB student, hoped that the event testimonies remind people about the pace of police shootings on black and brown people.
“It happens so often it’s normalized…forgotten,” said Carbajal.
Organizers are pushing the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to more thoroughly oversee the department and reign in on any indirect funding of ICE transfers. The county pays about $1.5 million to hire 14 custody assistants that help process ICE transfers, according to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.
The community forum, the second one to take place across the county, gathered more ideas from residents to be reviewed by the countywide activist coalition. Some proposals by residents included:
- ending all ICE transfers
- having the Board of Supervisors provide more accountability and training for deputies
- immediate release/termination
- community impeachment power
- de-escalation and trauma-informed trainings
- ousting Villanueva
- preventing hire of deputies with negative pasts
- abolishing ICE and prisons
Members of the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Lives Matter – Long Beach, and the National Immigration Law Center assisted with the event. Attendees, diverse in age, said they felt inspired by speakers’ personal testimonies. Some of the speakers had joined community organizations following their time being incarcerated to make a difference.
“Some people recognize they made mistakes and utilize their second chance to do something better,” said attendee Elisa Mosqueda, a North Long Beach resident and member of ICO, in Spanish after listening to the testimonies. “The caídas (failures) are good to help one echarle ganas (try harder).”
Above: Community organizer Andrea Donado for Interfaith Community Organization (ICO) listens to community members suggest ways the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department should be reformed on August 28, 2019 . Photo by Michael Lozano.