Columnist says he was threatened over article about police, but DA says no crime

Long Beach police investigated last year after a local columnist said he was threatened on Facebook because of an article he wrote, but prosecutors eventually decided not to file any charges.

Stephen Downing, who writes in the Beachcomber biweekly newspaper, has irked officials at the Long Beach Police Department by frequently criticizing its policies and individual officers.

Members of the department have disputed Downing’s accuracy, but last year, he and Al Jazeera wrote about the LBPD using a communications app called Tiger Text that automatically deleted messages after a set period of time. The revelation drew cries of protest from defense attorneys and civil rights activists despite the city’s ultimate conclusion that Tiger Text didn’t run afoul of any laws or local policies.

But Downing alleges his article drew a threatening response on Facebook from a 64-year-old man who was fired from the LBPD decades ago. According to Downing, who is a retired LAPD deputy chief, the man named Sam Zavala wrote on a friend’s Facebook page:

“John, here’s the prissy little bitch I was talking about. Yet another LAPD command staff office pogue who lives in the LBC and thinks he’s gonna change the LBPD. He’s wrong. That boy might end up in the Los Angeles River floating out to the Port of Long Beach with all the garbage, feces, and aborted fetuses…”

“He’s about to get an LBC education. The fool won’t ever see it comin’.”

Police started investigating in September by interviewing Zavala and Downing, according the the LBPD. By November, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office had reviewed the case and decided there wasn’t enough evidence to press charges.

It doesn’t appear Zavala ever intended his post to be taken as a threat, Deputy District Attorney Simone Shay wrote in a memo explaining her decision.

“Additionally, the entirety of the circumstances under which the statements were made do not convey a sufficiently clear, immediate and specific threat to unlawfully kill or cause great bodily injury to the victim,” the memo says.

Downing takes issue with that decision.

Long Beach police have arrested people for social media threats in the past including a local rapper who said in a tweet that he was going to “murk” (beat to death) the mayor. In that case, the rapper tagged the Twitter handle for the Long Beach mayor’s office, which may be a key distinction from Downing’s case, according to legal experts.

“I think I basically agree with the police, and I don’t frequently agree with the police,” said David Greene, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital privacy and free speech.

Downing said a family member happened across the post on Facebook and alerted Downing to it. That matters, because convicting someone of making criminal threats in California requires that the speaker intended his target to perceive what was said as a threat.

It’s difficult to prove something was intended as a threat if it’s just posted somewhere publicly instead of sent directly to the intended target, experts said.

Downing may be right to be fearful, but it would be hard to convince a jury to convict Zavala, according to Chapman University law professor Lawrence Rosenthal.

“It looks like intemperate, inappropriate conduct—borderline offensive—but we don’t tend to throw people in cages for that kind of stuff,” he said.

Whether Long Beach police and local prosecutors are holding every case, not just Downing’s, to that standard is a different questions, one Greene said he can’t answer.

For instance, the department routinely serves search warrants on suspects when there are threats of violence at local schools, even vague ones made online.

Each instance must be evaluated in its own context to determine whether something could reasonably be seen as a threat, Greene said.

In his article about the situation, Downing says he at least wants to be able to defend himself even if there’s not a criminal penalty for the situation.

“I would really just like to know what this guy looks like,” said Downing, who noted an officer named Sam Zavala was fired from the LBPD in 1983 for sexually harassing women and inciting a fight between an inmate and jail guards.

Phone numbers listed for Zavala were disconnected, and he did not return an email Friday afternoon.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is the breaking news editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram. He lives in Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and their two young children.
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