Column: We don’t know much about the ambush of 2 L.A. County deputies. But we have scapegoats

Sheriff Alex Villanueva outside St. Francis Medical Center, where two deputies were being treated.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Let’s go over what we don’t know.

We don’t know who walked up to two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies sitting in their patrol vehicle in Compton on Saturday night, pulled out a gun, and shot them in the head at close range.

We don’t know why he — we do know the suspect is male — shot them. We don’t know if he worked alone to pull off what was an unquestionably despicable act.

We don’t know if he’s from Compton or from somewhere else. And we certainly don’t know if he is affiliated with any of the activists who, for several weeks, have been protesting a string of controversial shootings by law enforcement.


Despite all of this, some elected officials seem to have decided that they know enough to start casting blame. The Sheriff’s Department and its allies haven’t explicitly linked the ambush to activists, but there’s plenty of insinuation going around.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, for example, said the “toxic environment” created by the “constant” criticism of law enforcement led to the ambush.

“I support peaceful protests,” she said at a news conference on Monday. “But what I don’t support are the type of comments, especially the ones made outside a hospital, blocking an emergency room, where two deputies were fighting for their lives, and you had individuals chanting what they were chanting,” she said, referring to protesters who showed up at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood to wish death upon the deputies.

“So I believe that we have slowly crossed that line,” added Barger, whose husband is a retired sheriff’s deputy. “And what you’ve seen is what has manifested in the shooting of those two deputies. I do believe that.”

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, meanwhile, went on the radio Monday to randomly call out LeBron James, the Lakers star who has been an outspoken activist for Black lives and against police brutality. He challenged him to “step up to the plate and double” the $175,000 reward for information in the case.

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I’ll be very curious to see what his response is, if any, and we just, we’ve got to get people to start thinking big picture,” he said on KABC. “Words have consequences. We need to tone down the rhetoric.”

Unsurprisingly, James hasn’t responded. Vanessa Bryant — who is suing the Sheriff’s Department over its insensitive handling of the helicopter crash site that killed her husband, Kobe, their daughter, Gianna and seven others in January — has, however.

Mercifully, President Trump refrained from speculating about the case during a stop near Sacramento on Monday to discuss the many wildfires scorching the state. But over the weekend, he leaned into his campaign tactic of attacking activists and trumpeting “law and order” by sharing a video of the ambush on Twitter.

“Animals that must be hit hard,” Trump tweeted, adding that if the deputies die, there should be a “fast trial death penalty for the killer. Only way to stop this!”

None of this is helpful, including the rhetoric coming from the small group of people who thought it was a good idea to protest outside the hospital, one of whom was caught on video saying, “I hope they … die.”

Without a doubt, what happened to the deputies — one of whom is the mother of a 6-year-old boy — was a cruel and callous crime for which the perpetrator should be punished. In a security video obtained by The Times, a man in dark clothing calmly walks up to their patrol vehicle, which was parked near the Compton Blue Line station. Then, inches from the window, he lifts the gun, shoots and hurriedly walks away.


The 24-year-old male deputy was hit in the head, arm and shoulder. The female deputy, 31, was shot through the mouth. Somehow, she was able to open the door and get out, then help her partner hide behind a pillar and tie a tourniquet around his bleeding arm.

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“Compton Pax, deputies down,” she says over the radio to the dispatcher. “Compton Pax 998.”

Thankfully, both are expected to survive.

Given what we know, it’s absolutely reasonable to assume that the shooter has major problems with law enforcement. But it’s unreasonable to use the specter of his grievances to somehow dismiss the broader movement for racial justice and police reform. Doing so is disingenuous at best and dangerous at worst.

Perhaps even more troubling, it glosses over the many, very real problems at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Problems that disproportionately affect the lives of Black and Latino residents and, therefore, continue to bring protesters into the streets night after night.

For example, there have been reports about a gang of deputies known as the Executioners who sport matching tattoos of Nazi imagery and dominate the Compton station.

Then there are the many questionable shootings with no answers. Among them is that of Dijon Kizzee, a Black man who was killed last month after deputies tried to stop him for riding a bicycle in South L.A. in violation of some still unknown vehicle code. A foot chase ensued and deputies said Kizzee dropped a handgun he had been carrying, prompting them to open fire.

His death has prompted several protests, including a few that have turned contentious, such as over Labor Day weekend when deputies arrested 35 people and fired tear gas into the crowd.


Before that, it was all about Andres Guardado, who was shot five times in the back by deputies in June in Gardena — information that only became known because the family commissioned an independent autopsy and because Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas confirmed the findings. The Sheriff’s Department has refused to release almost any information about the case.

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Over the weekend, deputies in riot gear surrounded activists who were holding a news conference to criticize the department’s tactics.

A day later, deputies arrested KPCC reporter Josie Huang, violently throwing her to the ground and attempting to smash her cellphone, while she was covering protests outside the hospital where the deputies were being treated.

And hours after that, deputies cleared a months-old encampment of activists in downtown L.A. The Sheriff’s Department claimed in a statement that “illegal narcotic activity, vandalism and graffiti” had become an issue near the encampment. Still unclear is why they decided to clear it at 3 a.m., giving the three dozen inhabitants only 15 minutes to leave.

Through all of this, Villanueva has been stonewalling investigations by L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman, cutting off one of the only avenues the public has for accountability and oversight.

In other words, there are legitimate reasons for ordinary people and firebrand activists alike to constantly criticize the Sheriff’s Department. Those ordinary people and firebrand activists also can believe — and most do believe — it’s reprehensible to ambush two deputies.

Both of these things can be true at the same time. Even in these polarized times between law enforcement and the public, I have to believe there is an achievable middle ground, one in which accountability and transparency become the norm, rather than assumptions and rhetoric.


As long-time activist Najee Ali told my colleague Leila Miller on Monday, “We don’t support shooting. We don’t support the murder of anybody. At the end of the day, we’re not against the Sheriff’s Department. We’re not against law enforcement. We are simply against police abuse, police racial profiling, police mistreatment of Black and brown residents within the city.”

The sheriff is right that words do have consequences.