LA Freelancer Honored for ‘Dedication Under Extreme Threat’

By Carmela Caruso | Originally published: Voice of America

Los Angeles freelance journalist and Courage awardee Cerise Castle. (Photo courtesy of Robin Roemer)
Los Angeles freelance journalist and Courage awardee Cerise Castle. (Photo courtesy of Robin Roemer)

Then days into her recovery, she heard that an officer in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) had shot and killed Andrés Guardado, an 18-year-old Salvadoran American. The event compelled Castle to research an issue that had been on her mind since childhood: gangs within LASD.

Growing up in southern California, Castle says officers would come into her school and “demonize kids in my neighborhood,” describing the children as “dangerous gang members.” Meanwhile, trusted adults in her life warned that it was gangs of deputies she needed to watch out for.

Castle wanted to dig into their history, which dates back to the 1950s, to see if these so-called deputy gangs still operated.

The potential existence of such gangs and the issue of police accountability seemed particularly relevant to Castle in the wake of Guardado’s death and as people across the country protested the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd — a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer.

FILE - A protester carries a U.S. flag with added artwork during a march in honor of Andres Guardado in Compton, Calif., June 21, 2020.
FILE – A protester carries a U.S. flag with added artwork during a march in honor of Andres Guardado in Compton, Calif., June 21, 2020.

“I wanted to get to the bottom of something that intrigued me since I was a child and is also speaking to this moment that we are in in the country, really interrogating our relationship with police, what we think of police, and what the role of police should be,” Castle told VOA.

The result of her investigation was a 15-part series published in 2021 by Knock LA, a nonprofit community newsroom, and was cited by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission when it launched an investigation into the force. The series earned Castle a Courage in Journalism Award issued by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). Her reporting was recently adapted into a podcast.

The freelancer is one of five women honored for their journalism this week by IWMF.

Also recognized by IWMF is Xueqin “Sophia” Huang, a Chinese freelancer who reported on the #MeToo movement in China and is now detained on charges of subversion; and Victoria Roshchyna, a Ukrainian freelance journalist reporting from the front lines of the war in Ukraine, who was briefly captured by Russian security forces.

IWMF Executive Director Elisa Lees Munoz says traditionally, the awards had an international focus, honoring journalists like Huang and Roshchyna who face persecution outside of the United States. But that has changed in recent years, she says.

“We’ve seen violations of press freedom really evolve past laws and government retribution and persecution into a much more complex web of interests that try to keep journalists quiet and threaten journalism, and threaten press freedom,” Munoz told VOA.

Munoz says it was important for her organization, which is based in Washington, D.C., “to show our country that these aren’t just problems that happen somewhere else.”

This year, three of the awardees, including Castle, are based in the U.S.

Lynsey Addario, an American photojournalist, is recognized for what Munoz describes as her “extraordinary bravery” covering armed conflict around the world during the past two decades.

Mc Nelly Torres, an investigative journalist who spent more than a decade covering stories across the U.S., received the 2022 Gwen Ifill Award. She is now an editor at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom that covers issues of inequality.

IWMF recognized Castle’s work that led to “harassment and retaliation.”

“She reported on an issue that has been going on since the late 1950s and really dug in in a way that nobody has done, uncovering numerous gangs and murders of individuals,” Munoz told VOA. “Her dedication under such extreme threat really exemplifies what this Courage Award is meant to recognize.”

LA investigation

Castle’s investigation found 18 deputy gangs in operation that are alleged to be responsible for the killing of 19 people. All of those killed were men of color.

She also reported on how lawsuits related to the department had cost Los Angeles County more than $100 million over a 30-year period.

Last week, the county reached an $8 million settlement with Guardado’s family. An investigation into the fatal shooting is ongoing.

In March, a year after Castle’s articles were published, the oversight commission announced a “full-scale investigation into the deputy gangs that have plagued” the department, citing Castle’s reporting in their press release. No charges have been made, and the investigation and the commission’s hearings continue.

Despite the success of the series, Castle says she faced pushback, including death threats received via social media, text and phone calls. And in April 2021, she says, L.A. County officers blocked her from entering a press conference at L.A.’s Hall of Justice, which she believes is because of her reporting.

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has publicly criticized Castle’s coverage, saying on social media that alleged gangs in his department are a “fishing incident.”

During a debate for the L.A. County Sheriff seat this year, he compared LASD deputy gangs to unicorns, suggesting they don’t exist. According to the latest voting results from Tuesday’s race, with 44% of the votes reported, Villanueva trails his opponent at 43.2%.

Discrimination within industry

Raising issues around race and equality can be tough inside and outside the newsroom. Castle told VOA she faced discrimination from colleagues within the industry.

“It’s not easy being a woman of color in the newsroom. It’s not easy being a woman of color out in the world. Those problems don’t disappear at work,” she said.

Castle says when she first tried to publish the LASD series, media outlets across Los Angeles turned her down.

When the series was picked up by Knock LA, other media outlets republished her work “without crediting” [her] “or acknowledging where they got the information,” something Castle says is “harmful,” particularly as a freelance journalist for whom “reputation is everything.”

Still, her efforts have not gone unappreciated.

“These stories really need to be told,” Munoz said of Castle and all of the 2022 IWMF award winners. “The work that these individuals are doing and risking their lives for is so valuable and needs to be supported.”