In the early hours of Jan. 2, Shervin Lalezary was on only his fourth solo patrol as a Los Angeles reserve sheriff’s deputy. Driving on Sunset Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood, he spotted a minivan that fit the description of one believed to be used by an arsonist who had been on a nightly rampage for days, terrorizing huge swaths of Los Angeles. Lalezary shined a light into the vehicle and saw a man with a short ponytail who fit the description of the suspect. “That was a big key,” Lalezary told a crowded pressroom a day after he cinched the arrest.
At that moment, Harry Burkhart, the 24-year-old accused of the rash of car and building fires, was in the limelight. But very quickly, attention turned to Lalezary, a 30-year-old Iranian-Jewish real estate attorney and Beverly Hills resident, a volunteer sheriff’s deputy who modestly refused to be courted by the press but nevertheless has become a source of tremendous pride for his community.
Aside from a brief January appearance on “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” Lalezary has maintained his privacy. Then, on May 17, Lalezary stepped up at a ceremony at a Brentwood home to accept an honor for his heroism from 30 Years After (30YA), the Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish community nonprofit that promotes civic activism.
“When I got into this, I knew I would learn a lot about laws and officer safety skills,” said Lalezary of his work for the sheriff’s department, for which he receives only $1 annually as salary.
“Little did I know that I would learn even more about friendship, loyalty and trust.”
Lalezary said he was accepting the honor from 30YA in order to encourage more young Iranian-Jewish professionals to join the sheriff’s program and to share his excitement about giving back to the greater community.
“This is a job I love deeply, and one about which I am very passionate,” he said. “I have had the opportunity to meet some incredible people who have taken me under their wings and given me the tools I need to find my way around.”
During his television appearance, Lalezary told talk-show host Ellen Degeneres that on the night of the arrest he had extended his shift to 3 a.m., because all local law enforcement officers were on high alert as a result of the ongoing arsons. He said he had backup from a nearby Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) patrol, which came to his aid when he pulled over Burkhart’s van.
Lalezary’s heroism has been widely welcomed by local Iranian Jews, shining a positive light on an immigrant community that has felt somewhat beleaguered by negative depictions on the reality show “Shahs of Sunset” as well as by press portraits of several prominent L.A.-area Iranian-Jewish businessmen in recent years for involvement in financial fraud against their own community.
“Contrary to what may be shown on reality television about Iranian Jews or what we have heard in the news about schemes run by certain businessmen in the community, Deputy Lalezary’s heroism and commitment to civic life exemplifies our parents’ and grandparents’ true values,” Sam Yebri, president of 30YA, said.
The praise has come from Iranians outside the Jewish community, as well. “We are beyond proud that a deputy of Iranian heritage was so significant in bringing this series of arsons to an end,” said Alex Helmi, the Iranian Muslim owner of the Damoka rug store in Westwood. “Deputy Lalezary symbolizes the local Iranian community’s dedication to the betterment of the city and the fact that this city is also our home, which we care about immensely.”
Former Beverly Hills mayor and current city goodwill ambassador Jimmy Delshad praised Lalezary and suggested that more Southern California Iranian-Americans should take a greater role in helping law enforcement support groups.
“I would like to see more Persians come out more often and support fundraisers that help our police and fire departments,” Delshad said.
Historically, Jews in Iran were often barred from working in law enforcement, and police were sometimes hostile to the Jewish community prior to the Pahlavi dynasty. Today in Southern California, fewer than a dozen Iranian Jews currently work as full-time or part-time officers in either the LAPD or for the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department. Iranian-Americans of other faiths also work for the police agency here, as well as in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Iranian-American activists credit local law enforcement leaders for forging a strong relationship with the community over the years.
“Iranian-Americans have built a strong connection with law enforcement by serving as reserve officers and deputies, serving as surrogates in the community and by raising funds to help the families of police that have suffered injuries in the line of duty,” said David Rahimian, an Iranian-Jewish former special assistant to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “Much credit also needs to be given to L.A. County Sheriff [Lee] Baca and LAPD Chief [Charlie] Beck for the outreach they have done in our community.”
At the event, Lalezary’s family members said that, while they had always been concerned about his safety while he worked as a reserve sheriff’s deputy, they were moved by his low-key demeanor following Burkhart’s arrest.
“More than anything, it was Shervin’s humility about it all that really impressed us and moved us immensely,” Lalezary’s sister-in-law, Rona Lalezary, said. “We knew his dedication was genuine, and his passion to serve the community was greater than our concerns.”
Amid the praise he has received from his community, Lalezary has continued to deflect attention from himself, instead praising the full-time sheriffs who risk their lives to protect Angelenos, as well as his younger brother Shawn, who also serves as a reserve sheriff’s deputy.
“This experience, for me, has been a joy and a dream come true. To have the opportunity to do this makes me feel blessed and fortunate,” Lalezary said. “Perhaps best of all is that I have been able to explore all of this with my younger brother and fellow deputy right by my side.”
For photos from the 30 Years After event honoring Lalezary, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog.