LA Sheriff's Deputies Say Violence, Harassment And Bullying Ongoing At East LA Station

Some L.A. County sheriff's deputies say bullying and harassment at the East L.A. Station has given them high blood pressure, nightmares and other health issues. (Frank Stoltze/LAist)

Seven L.A. County Sheriff's deputies say the department has failed to address the violence, harassment and bullying they formally alleged nearly three months ago by a gang-like clique of their colleagues at the East L.A. Station.

The five deputies and two training officers filed legal claims on March 7 claiming that members of the "Banditos" clique attacked several of them at a September 2018 party, knocking one of them out and sending two of them to the hospital. The claims said the attacks followed months of harassment and bullying of young deputies that included pressure to carry out questionable arrests and work overtime without pay.

In a supplement to their claims filed Wednesday, the seven deputies said despite the transfer of some personnel, the department has allowed a number of Banditos to remain at the East L.A. station, and the group's bullying and harassment have "continued uninterrupted." The filing cites an additional incident of alleged violence since March 7.

"It is not normal to file supplements" to a legal claim, said the deputies' attorney, Vincent Miller. "But this is not a normal situation ... They have an emergency on their hands and they have not fixed it."

A legal claim is a precursor to a lawsuit. The original claims sought tens of millions of dollars from the county.

In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said there is no longer a hostile work environment at the East L.A. station.

"WE HAVE RESOLVED THAT"

"I am satisfied today we have resolved that," the sheriff said, noting that the station's captain, along with some lieutenants and sergeants, have been transferred. "We have good leadership there."

Villanueva claimed the department is "taking a very aggressive role in tamping this down." Investigators have interviewed "Banditos and non-Banditos," he said, "and we asked everyone, 'Are you ok? Are you being treated well?' Everything we needed to do as an employer we have done."

The sheriff said he expects the results of a criminal investigation into the September incident by the end of June.

The supplemental filing says in addition to the seven who filed the initial claims, "there are several other young Latino officers" at the East L.A. station "who have been targeted, bullied, and harassed by the Banditos and their 'prospects' (officers earning their stripes to be Banditos through wrongful conduct)."

Those deputies are too afraid to step forward "because of the County's refusal to protect them," according to the supplement.

A "SHOULDER-CHECK" INSIDE THE STATION

In addition, it says sometime after the March 7 legal filing, a Banditos "prospect" gave one of the bullied deputies a "shoulder-check" inside the station. "Management did nothing" after the deputy told his supervisor about the incident, the supplement alleges.

The ongoing "hostile work environment" has caused the original claimants "a myriad of health problems, including severe loss of sleep, high blood pressure," nightmares and a "panic attack" that sent one claimant to the hospital with symptoms "mimicking that of a heart attack," according to the supplement.

The claimants "cannot handle the stress of the hostile environment" and have sought transfers out of the East L.A. station, it says.

Four of the seven have been transferred, and the other three's requests for immediate transfers are pending, said Miller.

The supplement includes an anonymous letter it says was written to department administrators in the summer of 2018 warning of the Banditos' activities.

Miller told LAist he was also aware of four separate instances from 2016-2018 in which a Banditos member punched and knocked out a deputy. He said in a fifth punching incident, a Bandito knocked out another Bandito. Miller declined to provide the names of the deputies involved.

Villanueva said Wednesday he's unaware of these other alleged incidents.

Miller said he has identified 30 Banditos and prospects still at the East L.A. station.

"You can't just transfer out a couple shot callers when you got 30 Banditos and associates and prospects still running the station like prisoners running a prison yard," he said. "They should have cleared out the whole station and started over."

"A LACK OF SUPERVISION, A LACK OF LEADERSHIP"

The March 7 claims said the two training officers, Benjamin Zaredini and Louis Granados, told a superior last year about the alleged harassment and bullying of the young deputies. The claims accused management of carrying out a "cover up" and retaliating against the training officers, denying Granados a deserved promotion and demoting Zaredini.

The claims said deputies who fell out of favor with the Banditos would get overloaded with calls and not be provided backup on dangerous calls.

In response to the filing of the original claims, the sheriff's department said in a March 7 statement that it had replaced the station's captain and "key supervisory personnel."

The new captain "has made it abundantly clear that activities which violate workplace policies or the law will be immediately addressed with swift and appropriate action," the department added.

Villanueva said Wednesday that the department had determined there had been "a lack of supervision, a lack of leadership" at the East L.A. station.

When that happens, deputies, "who are all alpha type individuals, they are going to fill the void themselves, and they'll insert their own set of values," he said. "And that's the problem we had at Kennedy Hall [the location of the September 2018 attacks]."

In testimony to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission on March 26, Villanueva reiterated his position that most deputy cliques are harmless, saying any tension results from "hazing that went unchecked for a very, very long period of time."

A LONG HISTORY OF CLIQUES

There have been more than a dozen deputy cliques in the sheriff's department since the early 1970s, according to Sean Kennedy, a Loyola Law School professor who studies deputy cliques and is a member of the Civilian Oversight Commission.

Members are typically marked by having a similar tattoo, and some cliques have been implicated in violence against members of the public and jail inmates.

A 1992 special counsel's report called on the department to "aggressively break up deputy groups which manifest any of the conduct which signifies gang-related activity." Twenty years later, the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence criticized the department for not acting against cliques.

On April 30, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors called for an exhaustive accounting of liability tied to behavior by known clique members.

The board directed staff to compile a "chronological list of all claims, lawsuits, and other settlement agreements" brought against deputies who are alleged to be members of a clique or secret society, dating back to 1990.

The information will help the board determine its next steps in the effort to deal with cliques, said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

The Banditos have existed for at least a decade at the East L.A. station, according to Kennedy.

In 2014, the county paid a female deputy $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit in which she alleged she had been assaulted and harassed by the Banditos.

Sheriffs have avoided taking on the gangs over the years out of fear that they have members in high-ranking positions, said Kennedy.

In fact, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who was convicted of covering up jailhouse beatings by deputies and sentenced to six years in prison, had a tattoo marking him as a member of the Vikings clique, a group of deputies at the Century station accused of engaging in unjustified violence and gang-like behavior.

Last year, former Sheriff Jim McDonnell said he would launch a comprehensive inquiry into cliques, but it apparently did not progress very far before Villanueva ousted McDonnell in the November election.

Frank Stoltze contributed to this story.