WEST HILLS — An LAPD officer in the west San Fernando Valley, working with a staffer in Councilmember John Lee’s council office, advocated for removing tree-shade as part of an ongoing effort to displace unhoused people at the behest of neighboring homeowners.

In a June 14 email, obtained by LA Public Press, sent just before last month’s heat wave to LA Councilmember John Lee’s office, LAPD Senior Lead Officer Cory Garza of the Topanga Division suggested that a “large tree” at the encampment that is located Shadow Ranch Park, be trimmed or removed “all together,” writing that this “would actually cause the people at the encampment to leave the area.”

Councilmember Lee’s staff was prompt with their response, replying to Garza the following day to begin coordinating a tree-trimming request. “Thank you for your email,” their response reads. “I can submit the request for tree-trimming, and I am available to chat anytime today (except 12-1) or tomorrow.”

The sweep to displace unhoused people from Shadow Ranch Park did not occur and LAPD has condemned the planned sweep in a statement released at the end of June

Debra McNelley, a resident of the encampment referenced in Officer Garza’s email, said the suggestion that the shade be removed is “really unacceptable,” especially as the weather was getting hotter.

“It’s another message sent to the community that it is okay that we are treated like nothing more than an eyesore, [like] ‘We are the problem, we should be removed from sight, we have become a problem for them,’” she said in an interview on Monday.

Los Angeles Public Press is seeking comment from the LAPD and Lee’s office.

A “hush hush task force”

The encampment at Shadow Ranch Park, which McNelley lives in, is also the focus of another email leaked several weeks ago on Twitter by @FilmThePoliceLA, in which LAPD Senior Lead Officer Brittney Gutierrez said “everyone will be arrested and all their belongings will be taken away by sanitation” as a part of efforts made by a “hush hush task force.”  

Gutierrez, who is the new senior lead officer for the area, is described as Garza’s partner in other documents released in response to a records act request. Other records from 2022 show email signatures in which Gutierrez has the title of a “volunteer, reserve, CPAB & clergy coordinator.” CPAB stands for community police advisory board, which is made up of members of the public who are supposed to relay information between the police and community.

Gutierrez’s email was spread widely across social media on Tuesday, June 27, and the LAPD’s responded the same day, releasing a statement saying that the planned “CARE+” sweep had been postponed. The statement added that the plan as stated in the email “…was highly inappropriate and does not in any way represent the Department’s values, policies, and practices.”

While the encampment targeted by Garza and Gutierrez is in District 12, in the northwest San Fernando Valley, and within Lee’s district, they are part of a police department division that crosses into Council District 3 district, which Councilmember Bob Blumenfield represents.

While Blumenfield released a statement on Twitter calling Gutierrez’s comments “extremely disturbing,” communications between his staffer and Gutierrez paint a different picture.

Records obtained by LA Public Press show one of Blumenfield’s staff supporting Gutierrez’s efforts to have Shadow Ranch Park swept and people’s belongings removed.

Seth Samuels, an acting field deputy for Blumenfield, texted with Gutierrez several hours after her email referencing the “hush hush taskforce,” was first widely shared on social media, and the LAPD put out a statement saying the planned June 29 sweep would be postponed. 

In the texts, Samuels tells Gutierrez, “I am in your corner. For what it’s worth,” to which Gutierrez responded, saying “Thank you so much. I appreciate you.” Samuels responded in kind, writing back, “I appreciate you too.”

Los Angeles Public Press also requested comment from Blumenfield’s office about his staffer’s response. A spokesperson for the office responded that “it is being handled internally.” 

More details

Public records also reveal other written communications Officer Gutierrez made about the encampment near Shadow Ranch Park. A June 11 email, from Gutierrez to a Lee staffer, says that she submitted two 311 requests and was planning to go to the encampment that week “to arrest several transients.”

A request to the 311 system is made for a variety of services, including bulky item pick-up and graffiti removal. Among the service options is “homeless encampment,” but while it is likely implied, it is not necessarily clear in the records if those service tickets were submitted under that category.

In an earlier email, on June 9, Gutierrez said she had gone to the encampment earlier that week, and that her partner, Garza, had submitted a few 311 requests. She described the encampment, including noting that there were “new individuals” there, and added that she had received an email from a “resident” who was “begging me to do something.” She asked Lee’s staffer for “guidance” and said she had attached photographs.

A community meeting is scheduled for Tuesday night, at 6 p.m., at de Toledo School, 22622 Vanowen, in West Hills. It is being led by Topanga Division’s commanding officer, Captain Francis Boateng. 

The LAPD statement said the purpose of the meeting was to “reiterate the department stance of outreach, collaboration, Community Safety and assistance when dealing with PEH.” PEH stands for “people experiencing homelessness.”

Elizabeth has been on the local government beat since 2006, and likes making her friends take public transportation for her birthday.