LA Sheriff Villanueva Toughens His Policy On Deputy Cliques. Will It Solve The Problem?

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at the graduation ceremony for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy class in January. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)

Updated June 28

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva unveiled an updated draft of a policy on deputy cliques Friday that forbids department personnel from joining "any group which promotes conduct that violates the rights of employees or members of the public or otherwise encourages conduct that is contrary to department policy."

Villanueva has been trying to come up with a policy to address the cliques, some of which have been accused of misconduct such as planting evidence and harassing and attacking colleagues who don't support them.

As a department official read the new draft of Villanueva's policy to reporters Friday, an eighth deputy posted to the department's East L.A. station filed a legal claim seeking damages from the county for harassment allegedly suffered at the hands of the station's "Banditos" clique.

Villanueva said in late May there was no longer a hostile work environment at the station, noting that the station's captain, along with some lieutenants and sergeants, were transferred following an attack by Banditos against deputies at a September 2018 party.

But those moves have not ended the Banditos' control of the East L.A. station, the eighth deputy's lawyer, Vincent Miller, alleged in a statement accompanying her claim. He said the harassment continues unabated and is aided by the station's new captain.

Miller, who also represents the seven other deputies who filed claims in March, said all seven of them have recently transferred to other stations "as the only means to escape the hostile work environment."

The sheriff's department has transferred a total of 36 people from the East L.A. station since last fall, department spokesman Hamilton Underwood told LAist Friday. Underwood declined to specify who was transferred or the reasons why.

Miller disputes Underwood's number, saying aside from his seven clients, only five others have been transferred.

A THREAT TO DISCIPLINE ENTIRE GROUPS

The ban on joining cliques was not in a draft policy that was provided in March to members of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission's ad hoc committee on secret subgroups. That version just said membership in a clique "will create a Liability to the group, the employee and/or the department."

The previous draft largely restated existing department policy, noting that if a member of a clique violated department policies on such as things as harassment and discrimination, the individual might face discipline.

The new version warns that "any employee group" that engages in any type of misconduct "will be subject to discipline."

Lael Rubin, an Oversight Commission member who sits on the ad hoc committee, expressed frustration that the department never provided the Oversight Commission with the latest draft.

"If one is serious about tackling this issue and about rolling out a serious policy to deal with it, this isn't the way to do it," she said. "We do have an oversight role, and this doesn't acknowledge that."

Rubin said she had previously sent the earlier draft back to Villanueva because it was "pretty thin," but never heard back from him.

County counsel was consulted on the revised draft policy, and is working with the sheriff's department on it, according to county spokeswoman Nicole Nishida.

The union representing rank-and-file deputies, the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The new policy "could be a positive step" if it's "implemented and enforced," said Miller.

"But we're skeptical that it would be enforced," he said, "because the sheriff keeps saying that he's not going to look at the membership of any individual officer engaging in wrongdoing, that their membership in any group has nothing to do with their wrongdoing."

Based on that approach, Miller said, "you would think he's not going to find any groups to be encouraging anybody to do wrongful conduct."

A CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION...AND A RAND STUDY

Any final policy would need to do two things, argues Oversight Commission Chair Patti Giggans: ban deputy cliques that are secret and exclusive, and make sure any deputies who get together as a group do so for innocuous reasons.

"If there are groups who for some reason all like to go bowling together," the department needs to ensure "that's all they're doing," Giggans said.

ALADS Executive Director Derek Hsieh had problems with the earlier draft because he felt it sought to restrict what deputies do and who they associate when they are off-duty.

"That's a violation of the Constitution's protection of free speech and free association," Hsieh said.

The free speech argument has been a key impediment to department action against cliques. The county's lawyers have long maintained that cliques — and the tattoos that many members wear — are protected by the First Amendment.

Oversight Commission member Sean Kennedy challenged that analysis this spring, pointing to U.S. Supreme Court cases that he says allow government entities to restrict employees' speech in certain circumstances.

As Villanueva works to finalize his policy on cliques, the county has hired the RAND Corporation to study them.

The one-year project will "examine the purpose and function of the social groups" and will "make suggestions for departmental approaches to understand and manage deputy groups," the nonprofit think tank said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Researchers will conduct confidential interviews with senior sheriff's department officials, deputies and certain community leaders, as well as "an anonymous survey of all 10,000 sworn officers in the Sheriff's Department."

The department is encouraging all its employees to participate in RAND's survey, said department spokesman Hamilton Underwood.

"The better we understand why these groups may exist at some stations will ultimtely allow us to better serve the public," he told LAist in an email.

RAND said it expects to release its findings to the public in the summer of 2020.

HARMLESS HAZING?

Sheriff Villanueva has said secret cliques engage in mostly harmless hazing among deputies.

"It's an intergenerational rivalry and it's all centered on hazing that has gone unchecked for a long time," the sheriff told the Oversight Commission in April.

Villanueva said any bad behavior — including violence committed by clique members — is about the misconduct of individuals, not the cliques.

ALADS President Ron Hernandez agrees, arguing cliques are positive for the department.

"It's just a camaraderie thing," Hernandez said.

The union's executive director Hsieh said ALADS supports the RAND study to find out if there are any problems with the cliques.

Watchdogs and some deputies say the behavior of some clique members has at times gone far beyond innocent fraternization.

The five deputies and two training officers based at the sheriff's East L.A. station who filed legal claims on March 7 charged that members of the Banditos clique control the station and mete out violent punishment to deputies who don't support them.

The seven alleged that Banditos members 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.

The eighth claim filed Friday alleges the Banditos refused to provide the deputy with backup "on dangerous calls," and that she is harassed "continuously." It also asserts that the station's new Captain, Ernie Sanchez, "retaliated" against the deputy for bringing her concerns about the Banditos to him by opening "a fraudulent [internal affairs] investigation against her."

The sheriff's department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations in the eighth claim.

Earlier this month, the department completed its criminal investigation into last September's incident, and forwarded it to the L.A. District Attorney Justice System and Integrity Division.

In April, the Civilian Oversight Commission asked the county's inspector general to investigate cliques. The panel said it was unwilling to wait for a yearlong the completion of a yearlong study and asked for a report within 90 days on how and why deputies join cliques, and on whether they're violating the law or department policy.

Also in April, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors 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 sheriff's department says it started drafting a policy on cliques in response to a case that led to a $7 million payout earlier this month to the father and three children of Donta Taylor, an unarmed man who was shot in Compton in 2016.

Samuel Aldama, one of the deputies who shot at Taylor, admitted in a deposition last year to having a tattoo of a skeleton holding an automatic weapon and wearing a military-style helmet standing in front of flames, according to the Los Angeles Times. The letters "CPT" are on the helmet, representing the Compton sheriff's station. Aldama told the paper as many as 20 other Compton deputies were selected to get the tattoo as a reward for "working hard," but he denied that they constituted a clique.

"Concerns were expressed that one of the deputies involved in the shooting was a member of a Department subgroup," the department said in its June 20 statement. "Multiple investigations determined that this had no bearing on the incident. However, to address these concerns, the Department has drafted a policy, currently under review."

A SOURCE OF CONTROVERSY FOR DECADES

Deputy cliques have been addressed in various reports over the years. The seminal 1992 Kolts Commission Report was the first official confirmation of the existence of violent cliques.

In 2005, then-Sheriff Leroy Baca ordered deputies to cover any tattoos they had, according to a knowledgeable source who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal from the department over this controversial issue.

The order is enshrined in the department's Manual of Policy and Procedures. It says on-duty employees must cover tattoos "with a skin-toned patch, long-sleeved uniform shirt, or other material which may be formally approved by the Department."

The manual provides an exception for personnel working investigations "in which visible tattoos may assist in developing investigative credibility."

In 2012, the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence issued a series of recommendations that were largely ignored.

That same year, Baca decided to ban all "unprofessional" tattoos, but he didn't define "unprofessional."

The union challenged his move, and by the time an Employee Relations Commission hearing was scheduled, Jim McDonnell had been elected sheriff. The department dropped the policy and explored various strategies during McDonnell's tenure, but it never settled on anything, at least in part because of the county counsel's caution that any policy could run into First Amendment problems.

The county was about to set up a working group to study the issue when Sheriff Alex Villanueva upset McDonnell in last November's election.

UPDATES:

June 27, 7:15 a.m.: This article was updated with the information about Sheriff Villanueva making a statement on Friday, and with the sheriff department's spokesman urging all employees to participate in the RAND survey.

June 28, 5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the latest draft of the clique policy, as well as information about the eighth legal claim filed against the county.

This article was originally published on June 26.