Sheriff May Change Policy That Led to Threatened Arrest of Reporter

Supervisors' Chairwoman Michelle Steel (left) speaks with a sheriff's special officer just before issuing her order to clear the board room. (Photo by Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

This article has been updated to include a video of the encounter.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department may change a policy that resulted in a deputy threatening to arrest a Voice of OC reporter for trying to watch officers remove a homeless activist from the Board of Supervisors public meeting room.

“We will take a look at this and potentially allow members of the media to stay” if the supervisors’ meeting room needs to be cleared out in the future, said Sheriff’s Department spokesman Lt. Lane Lagaret.

The issue never should have come up in the first place, said Terry Francke, general counsel to the open government nonprofit Californians Aware and Voice of OC consultant.

“The reporter wasn’t just there warming his seat,” said Francke.

The encounter happened at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting when activist Mohammed Aly refused to leave the public speaker’s podium when his three-minute time limit ended.

Board Chairwoman Michelle Steel declared a 10-minute recess and then ordered the room cleared. Aly stayed at the speaker’s microphone as sheriff’s officers approached him.

Voice of OC reporter Nick Gerda tried to stay in the room to film how the officers dealt with Aly and what was said. With the rest of the public out of the room, Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Taylor, who is in charge of security at the board meetings, threatened to arrest the reporter if he didn’t leave too.

Gerda identified himself as a reporter trying to document a possible arrest.

“You could be part of the arrest also,” Taylor replied. Gerda ultimately left before the confrontation with Aly was resolved.

Francke said Gerda had a legal right to stay in the meeting room and report and film what was happening. Gerda said he was trying to report how officers would get Aly to leave the microphone, including any potential use of force.

“Recess is different from adjournment,” Francke said. A recess “doesn’t make the board room private property” and if reporters continue working while the room is being cleared it “doesn’t make them trespassers.”

“The public has a right to know” what happens during a recess, he added, “because they (supervisors) could be violating the Brown Act” by meeting secretly in violation of California’s 64-year-old open meeting law.

A majority of the board talked amongst themselves after Aly wouldn’t leave the podium and before the room was cleared. From left: Todd Spitzer, Andrew Do, and Shawn Nelson. (Photos by Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

“That (board) room is specifically designated as a meeting room,” Francke said. “It’s designed for the public to witness things.”

County Counsel Leon Page strongly disagreed. He said the reporter was properly ordered to leave “because the board was not in session and the meeting was not being conducted.

“There was nothing to report on,” he said. “The board meeting room is not a public forum where members of the public have a right to be when the board is not in session.”

Page said the goal in clearing the room was to keep everyone safe and get Aly to leave the microphone without officers having to physically remove him. Aly said afterwards he left because officers threatened to shock him with a Taser and told him it would be “painful.”

Homeless activist Mohammed Aly is surrounded by a sheriff’s deputy and security officers after the room was cleared. (Photo by Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

Page said there was a “very successful resolution” of the encounter because there was “no arrest, no one got hurt, no one’s rights were violated.”

“It was textbook from my perspective,” he said, with officers “dealing with a very difficult situation.”

Clearing everyone from a Board of Supervisors meeting happens so rarely that Carrie Braun, the county spokeswoman, said it likely has been more than a decade since the last time it happened based on the memories of well-informed staff.

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, in October, 2014, cleared the council  room before the meeting even started and subsequently cancelled it when a man would not abide by his order to remove a hat with an obscene statement directed at police.

But in that case reporters were allowed to stay throughout the entire clearing out process and a reporter who was outside when it started was allowed to come in and watch.

Lagaret said Taylor and other Sheriff’s personnel receive no training in open meeting laws before being assigned to provide security at Board of Supervisors meetings.

Lagaret said officers rely on the law enforcement training they receive throughout their careers with the department.

He said Taylor made the decision to require everyone, including Gerda, to leave as a “safety decision.”

“That’s why they told him (Gerda) to leave,” said Lagaret. “It was a deputy’s decision to do it just for public safety.”

Asked how the public could learn what happened if reporters are barred from the scene, Page said they could talk to him and to Aly. The board also has cameras inside the meeting room but the county has a policy banning release of the footage. Page rejected a Voice of OC request to view video of officers dealing with Aly.

Kari Schumaker, the county’s custodian of records, wrote in an email the film was exempt from disclosure “because the security videos depict law enforcement security procedures and are records of intelligence information and the public interest in nondisclosure of the security video substantially outweighs the public interest in disclosure. The decision not to release this material was made by Leon Page, County Counsel.”

Gerda captured part of the officers encounter with Aly by filming through a window but an officer moved in front of the window at one point, obscuring what was going on and there was no way to hear what was being said.

Before ordering the room cleared, Steel could be seen conferring with Paul Walters, a former Santa Ana police chief and city manager who now is chief of staff to Supervisor Lisa Bartlett.

Steel speaks with Walters just before issuing her order to clear the room. (Photo by Nick Gerda/Voice of OC)

Steel did not return phone calls about how and why she made her decision to clear the room. Walters said he relayed information to Steel from the deputies about how they planned to proceed.

You can contact Tracy Wood at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.

  • John Claxton

    Thanks for posting the video. It appears that the chairwoman cut Aly off right after the three minute mark and immediately stated they were going to take a ten minute break. Then you see one of the deputies approach the Diaz and instruct the chairwoman to order him to clear the room. This board no longer works for the people. They are tyrants! It’s shameful. If they cannot take criticism from their employers – we the people, they should not be in the business of governing.

  • David Zenger

    And another thing: the Sheriff is not responsible for the rules and processes inside Building 10. The deputies are there as hired security by the BoS and the Sheriff’s budget doesn’t even pay for their services.

    • LFOldTimer

      Thank you for the clarification.

      What did I say earlier about passing off blame?

      Gee, what a shocker!!!! 😉

  • LFOldTimer

    Why isn’t the VOC’s new effusive & opinionated poster Gregory Diamond offering his discounted $0.02 take on this matter?

    I thought he was a big county advocate for all things good and just to protect apple pie (w/a generous helping of ice cream on top) and the girl next door.

    I know he’s lurking somewhere in the background because he responded to a comment under a different thread.

    Alle alle auch sind frei, Greg!!!

    Be our protector!!! lol.

  • LFOldTimer

    What is this about a “policy change” that would now allow reporters to remain in the board meeting room during recess (when the room is cleared)? lol. Any fool understands that the media has certain access rights which supersede the rights of ordinary citizens. So does such a “policy change” indicate that the county had an illegal policy on their books prior to this incident??? ha. If so, this is just more evidence of what a clown circus we have for county government. These people can’t win for losing. One huge scr*w-up after another. The slobbering insane inmates are in charge of the asylum.

    What do they teach these cops who are compensated over $200,000 in the academy? Certainly they must know that the media has special rights to access. But I guess if some buf*oon with a law degree who is the top attorney for the county thinks it’s perfectly fine to threaten a reporter with arrest and throw him in jail for merely covering a police action during a called recess – what would you expect of some overpaid fat gr*nt cop who has gravy duty working as room monitor at a supe’s meeting which is a much safer place (all are screened prior to entry) than it is for an audience member to walk down the Santa Ana streets during daylight hours for lunch at the county courthouse! lol.

    I must say that I’m disappointed with Gerda for not standing his ground. He should know perfectly well that as a reporter he had every legal right to remain in that room and observe/film the police action. It shouldn’t be an option, rather his obligation to the general public in furtherance of ensuring an open and transparent government. Come on, Nick. Reporters should not be intimidated. Don’t let them push you around. Be strong and relentless. We depend on you for our freedoms.

    Heads should roll over this. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! We’ve had ENOUGH. This is not Na*i Germany for Christ’s sake!!! If this latest episode of civil abuse goes without punishment we no longer have liberty, nor do we live in a free society!!!

    They won’t even return phone calls after violating laws that a first year law student at a one-star law school knows are an egregious civil abuse of a system that many men shed their blood and gave their lives on the battlefield to defend!!!

    Nobody has any right to criticize Russia or North Korea when those in our country turn a blind eye to these despicable acts perpetrated by our own authorities.

    If you cherish your freedoms do not dismiss this latest county aggression with a shrug of your shoulders. If you do so, you’re complicit in defying the liberties bestowed upon us by our Founding Fathers. You are spitting in each of their faces and stomping on their sacred documents.

  • David Zenger

    What’s sort of sad is that it took 4 deputies who look like they weigh about 1000 between them to deal with Aly who appears to weigh about 120 pounds. And even then they had to threaten him with a little sadistic Taser application.

    Leon Page calls the whole embarrassment “textbook.”

    Now where have I head that term before? Or right, when Todd hooked up poor Bible Boy at the Wahoo’s Fish Restaurant:

    “Honestly, I’m incredibly proud at how I handled the situation,” Spitzer told CBS, describing it as “textbook.”

    Good thing for Aly wasn’t looking at anybody’s table knife.

    • LFOldTimer

      Spitzer had to say that.

      He’s running for DA in 2018 and needs the AOCDS endorsement (and financial support). Without it he would be in a world of hurt.

      Had OCSD knocked Mohammed to the ground, tased him and beat him into submission – you would’ve likely seen the same quote.

      Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    • John Claxton

      “Asked how the public could learn what happened if reporters are barred from the scene, Page said they could talk to him and to Aly.”

      Mr. Page is one heck of a liar – I know this to be true from personal experience. He also has the same errogance as someone else in the room which you pointed out!

  • The ones who need training (or at least a lesson) are the Gang of Five running this circus. They’ve forgotten who they serve and, as I’ve mentioned before, at least two of them aren’t aware of the substance and impact of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. When I hear them whine about their idea of “limits” on free speech and the press, I cringe. To think these idiots were actually elected by the citizens of this county. It just shows how apathetic and ignorant voters are.

  • Paul Lucas

    Shady at the least

  • B Dalton

    It’s apparent now that the “so-called” adults don’t know how to hold a public meeting under common practices i.e the Sheriff failed to have trained Deputies in the MEETING ROOM and the President of Board of Supervisor doesn’t know/realize the difference between “Recess” and “Adjournment” and basically she lost her cool or maybe doesn’t she doesn’t know how to hold a public and ask the Deputies to do something that was totally wrong. But the Deputies did not know, because they were not TRAINED, that they being ask do something that was illegal i. e. arresting a journalist who has the right under the US Constitution to report while in “recess”
    We the Citizens of Orange County need to ask ourselves who we’ve got running our county. This is another strike against the Sheriff, who has fielded Deputies that aren’t trained, and the mess in the jail system where she has illegal use of informants for collection of protected information. And then the Sheriff has slow rolled a court ordered release of jail documents/records. And basically thumbed her nose to the judge about the court order. But I ask myself this question, Is it because they lack the knowledge or basically they feel they can violate anything since they’re in “charge” and there isn’t any accountability. And the answer for this attitude is get out and find good candidates for office and vote these people off the “Board” and the Sheriff needs to resign because the longer she’s in office the more apparent she can’t run/manage a department like her’s. And if she fails to resign, FIRE her, period. This county appears to some of us and many outside the county nothing but a high paid circus/clown act.

    • LFOldTimer

      .”Is it because they lack the knowledge or basically they feel they can violate anything since they’re in “charge” and there isn’t any accountability.”

      That doesn’t even necessitate a response.

      We’re all civically minded adults here. That’s why we come to this site. Because we’re concerned.

      Anyone who understands the history of OCSD and can’t connect the dots needs a workup.

  • OCservant_Leader

    Wrong! The BOS, Sheriff, CoCo and County Record’s spoke-hole are FLAT OUT WRONG!

    Everything they said and did and based their reactions on is WRONG. They know it. I know it. We all all know it. They are illegally using their power to shut out the public and this has to stop.

    Vof OC, ACLU, And all lovers of our constitution and open government — please for the love of god- SUE these bastards!

  • kburgoyne

    First, good job trying to stay and do “your duty”, Nick.

    Second, other issues aside, and not considering whether potentially using a Taser was or was not appropriate, I commend the deputies for warning Mr. Aly they would use it and that it would be “painful”. Again, people can agree or disagree with whether a Taser was appropriate, but the warning and advice was a VERY LONG WAY from the emotionally uncontrolled actions we’ve seen happen in other law enforcement situations. It demonstrated a professionalism toward accomplishing a task they were assigned by the supervisors while employing the least physicality.

    • OCservant_Leader

      BS! This ain’t North Korea!

      There will be NO tasering of the public who want to speak to their elected officials about THIER corruption and abrogation of public duty.

      • verifiedsane

        The BoS working with the Sheriff’s Department are just implementing United Airlines over booking procedures as their new public policy….:)

    • LFOldTimer

      If one of those fat cops would have fallen on Mohammad the poor guy would resemble a pancake. Are you trying to say those 4 green meanies couldn’t handle a little fella half the size of one of them without resorting to a taser? lol.

      Cops back in the day would laugh at these pansies. Trust me. That’s when cops were real cops. Not tough guys who pull out their hogs when some guy looks cross eyed at them. These pansies escalate and any minor provocation – even knowing that Mohammad was not armed because he entered the room through a magnetometer. lol.

      This was an incredibly easy police action to undertake. Instead we have Keystone cops who make a farce of routine police work. Then they can’t understand why polls show people have lost respect for law enforcement and questions the fat salaries and Cadillac pensions the quid-pro-quo force the taxpayers to fork over to the “best and the brighest”. lol. What a joke.

      Enabling their behavior with your supportive banter only promotes more unwarranted police shootings that gives the coroner more business.

      Do you want to live in a fascist state? Keep it up.