OPINION: Sheriff’s Department spied on Compton residents

The same Sheriff’s Department that is upset over federal secret surveillance in jail probe had no problem spying on Compton residents.

Editor’s Note: The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deployed a small Cessna to circle the sky above Compton for nine days in 2012. It aimed to film the city like a video version of Google Earth, capturing crime scenes that could help deputies identify and catch suspects. Ultimately, the images weren’t detailed enough to be useful, and the department axed the program. The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed the project earlier this month, and the Los Angeles Times caught on this week. Now that the news is out, locals are asking: Why didn’t we know? 

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A neon sign for the LA County Sheriff's Department |  Michael Dorausch

A neon sign for the LA County Sheriff’s Department |
Michael Dorausch

I am not oblivious to the fact that I can be watched and tracked by the powers that be.

I realize that when I check in on Facebook, drive my car or use my cellphone, I am practically inviting those “powers” to do so.  I resigned myself a long time ago to the idea that even in my bed in the dead of night, somebody could be watching.

So for me, the problems with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s secret mass surveillance experiment conducted on the residents of Compton in 2012 have less to do with the actual experiment than with the cloud of secrecy around it – especially the decision not to inform the public in order to avoid complaints or public outrage.  [Read more…]

Nonprofit Spotlight: Dignity and Power Now/Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence in L.A. Jails

Dignity and Power Now

Photo Courtesy of The Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence’s Facebook Page

Intersection’s Nonprofit Spotlight series profiles South L.A. organizations that are propelling positive change in South L.A.


Dignity and Power Now/The Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence in L.A Jails grew out of a performance art project created by the organization’s founder, Patrisse Marie Cullors. She drew inspiration from the 2012 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that accused the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department of using excessive force in its jails. For the performance, titled “Stained: An Intimate Portrayal of State Violence,” Cullors enlarged sheets of the nearly 85 page civil rights complaint, and pasted them in a gallery along with bright yellow caution tape. Cullors talked with Intersections about her budding organization, its triumphs and struggles, and its promising next steps. [Read more…]

South LA town hall focuses on excessive force in Sheriff’s Department

Audience listens to ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg, who detailed accounts of use of excessive force in L.A. county jails.

About 40 people showed up at a South LA town hall meeting on Thursday night to discuss the use of excessive force within Los Angeles Sheriff Department. The purpose of the event, held at the Imperial Church of Christ and organized by the Citizen Advisory Board (CAB), was also to introduce the community to a new task force made up of the department’s top brass currently dedicated to addressing the issue.

The first speaker of the evening, civil rights attorney Bradley C. Gaged, who described several cases of excessive force and abuse by law enforcement, questioned the efficacy of the unit.

“I don’t see how a task force can be of any use, because top management already knows about it,” said Gaged, referring to complaints against officers for excessive force. “The code of silence among officers is still strong…. There needs to be a strengthening of whistleblower laws.”

He also pointed out that among his biggest concerns was the fact that the majority of the cases of excessive force by law enforcement have involved African Americans victims.

Assistant Sheriff Cecil W. Rhambo, Jr. addresses the crowd as CAB chair, Dr. Sandra Moore, listens.

Attorney Michael Gennaco, from the Office of Independent Review, was quick to acknowledge that there have been many problems in the handling of inmates by Sheriff’s deputies and that conditions in the jails have been deplorable. But he said that thanks to external advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), many needed reforms have been implemented, such as reducing the number of inmates per cell from six to four and seeking to improve access to medical care within a facility.

Gennaco also said that every year, the Sheriff’s department fires half a dozen deputies for use of excessive force in jails.

That may not be enough, if you listen to the account of ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg, who worked on a 2011 report detailing abuses in L.A. County jails. “Civilian eyewitnesses told us they weren’t afraid of the inmates, but of the deputies.”

Assistant Sheriff Cecil W. Rhambo, Jr. defended his department saying: “We don’t supervise perfect people. We’re aware there are problems out there, but we’ve implemented a lot of measures to improve [our department], including town halls like this one.

Nine people from the Sheriff’s department were in attendance, including a cameraman, who recorded the meeting.

Cynthia Salomon wants to know how long it takes for an independent review process to be completed.

The audience was given the opportunity to ask questions after the speakers finished their presentations. Among the concerns: race as a factor in the use of excessive force by law enforcement.

“If I ever had a problem, I’d be scared to call for help,” says Cynthia Salomon, an African American special education teacher’s assistant. Salomon went to the town hall to get some answers about the process of independent review of cases in which excessive force was used. She says both her children were arrested in March of 2011 during a street altercation, after which two LAPD detectives fired 17 shots, injuring her 21 year-old daughter in the leg. Both are currently in jail. “I’m worried for her. She has a lump on her breast and needs medical attention, but she still hasn’t been seen by a doctor.”

Salomon’s concern over access to medical care in jails was just one of many from the crowd – and an issue which the CAB is monitoring. Dr. Sandra Moore, Chair of CAB, a faith-based community advocate group, will soon be releasing its report of the Women’s Facility in Lynwood and make recommendations on how to effectively change the current prison culture that contributes to deputy misconduct, abuses and negligence.

Crimes against Miramonte students may lead to immigration benefit

imageParents gathered last week to protest the school’s reopening with an entirely new staff.

With tears in his eyes Edgar, the father of a student at Miramonte Elementary says he wants to make sure his daughter is safe in the school. But he’s also afraid of speaking out. “I’m undocumented,” he whispers in Spanish. “I want to protect my daughter, but I have a lot to lose if they find out.”

The student body of Miramonte Elementary School is 98 percent Latino. How many students have undocumented parents is unclear. However, according to the school website, 56 percent of the students are English-language learners, and about one percent are considered “migrant” students.

As an undocumented immigrant, Edgar was hesitant about coming forward when he learned about the arrest of teachers Mark Berndt and Martin Springer, who have been charged with multiple counts of committing lewd acts against children at the school. But he attended a meeting at Miramonte last Thursday, where, in light of the sex abuse scandal involving the two teachers, parents were given the option of transferring their children to other LAUSD schools.

“I told them I didn’t trust them and that I would pull my daughter out of this school. Now a sheriff [deputy] is asking me for my name and information,” he says with fear.

imageMark Berndt, 61, was arrested in January on suspicion of committing lewd acts upon a child.

Another parent, Edward Ozuna, tries to calm Edgar down. “Brother, you have rights. You have to speak up. Just because you don’t have papers doesn’t mean you can’t report a crime. You have to, so it never happens again.”

Ozuna, a legal resident, has become a spokesman for many of the Miramonte parents who don’t have legal status in the country. “They’re afraid that if they speak or protest, they could get reported to immigration. And now, with the investigation, it’s worse, because the Sheriff department is doing it and they work with immigration,” he says.

Ozuna is referring to the Secure Communities program. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program is designed to identify immigrants in U.S. jails who are deportable under immigration law. Agencies that participate in the program send fingerprints to criminal databases and give Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) access to information on the people they’re holding in jail.

The school is located in Florence-Firestone, an unincorporated area of South Los Angeles, under the jurisdiction of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department – and it participates in the Secure Communities program.

imageMartin Springer, another teacher at Miramonte, was arrested four days after Mark Berndt.

“We are not asking parents anything about their legal status,” affirms Lt. Carlos Marquez of the Sheriff’s Special Victims Bureau. “I met with all the parents that attended the parent town hall meetings and I told them in Spanish that they have nothing to fear, no matter what their immigration status. We are only seeking information that could help us in the investigation of this case.”

Marquez says they’ve received a “consistent stream of emails and phone calls from the beginning” from parents and former students and they’re following all leads.

“Parents should never be afraid to report a crime, whether they’re undocumented or documented,” says immigration attorney Nelson A. Castillo.

That may be easier said than done for some fearful parents. But cooperating with law enforcement could end up giving them an unexpected immigration benefit.

“The children were allegedly victims of sexual abuse, so that may make them eligible for a U Visa, which could grant them lawful status in the United States, if they are undocumented,” states Castillo. “If the children are U.S. citizens, their undocumented parents and unmarried siblings under the age of 18 may qualify for a U visa as indirect victims.”

That means that the whole family could be protected under the law.

What is a U Visa?

It’s a special visa granted to victims of a qualifying crime, who have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse. The crime must have occurred in the United States, in a U.S. territory, or violated U.S. law.

Among the types of crimes that qualify for a U visa: rape, torture, trafficking, incest, domestic violence, sexual assault, abusive sexual contact, prostitution, sexual exploitation, hostage situations, false imprisonment, involuntary servitude, slave trade, kidnapping, abduction, blackmail, extortion, manslaughter and murder.

The victim must cooperate with the law enforcement agencies in the investigation and/or prosecution of the perpetrators of the crime.

The prospect of gaining legal status could sound so appealing, it could prompt some parents to attempt to file claims that their children were victimized, even if they weren’t. But attorney Castillo strongly advises against it, saying the consequences could be dire.

“Filing any fraudulent immigration application may subject the parent to fines and jail if found guilty.” Even worse, he explains, it could pave the way for a case to be reviewed by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to eventual deportation.

“Generally, all U visa applications are confidential. But, if USCIS determines that there has been fraud, they may refer the applicant or individual parent for investigation by immigration authorities.”

Lt. Marquez says they have no idea how many children have been victimized, but he recognizes that given the amount of years Berndt taught at the school, it’s highly likely there are many more than have currently been identified.

“We have received a lot of allegations where parents say we don’t have a picture, but it happened to my child. We’ve been interviewing those kids. Then we have to schedule interviews with that child and D.A.’s office. From there we have to determine whether we can add that child to the case. Depending on what the child tells us, we’ll know if we’re able to prove it in court,” states Marquez.

Last week, another 200 photos were discovered at the same photo lab where the first set was found in 2011. As of Monday morning, Marquez says they have determined 175 of photos of the second set contain children already identified.

“We just have 25 pictures we haven’t yet identified, but I’m not saying that we have 25 more victims,” explains Marquez.

Anyone with information on the Miramonte Elementary School’s sex-abuse allegations are urged to call the sheriff’s Special Victims Bureau at (877) 710-LASD; or Crime Stoppers, (800) 222-TIPS.