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Criminal Justice

LA Sheriff’s Sergeant Claims Retaliation For Testimony In Banditos ‘Deputy Gang’ Lawsuit

The entrance to the East LA Sheriff's Station. To the right is a sign that says East Los Angeles Station at the top, has a large sheriff's badge in the middle, with gold on the edges, a blue circle, with orange inside the circle and a bear on the orange background. Underneath the badge, it says "Sheriff." To the left of the sign are glass windows and double glass doors.
The East L.A. Sheriff's station, where Sgt. Rosa Gonzalez said she was subjected to sexual harassment by members of the Banditos deputy subgroup.
(Frank Stoltze
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A Sheriff’s sergeant Wednesday filed a whistleblower lawsuit against L.A. County, claiming top Sheriff’s officials retaliated against her in part for testifying in a deposition about the “illegal[,] racist and discriminatory acts” of the Banditos deputy subgroup, or gang.

The accusation is notable because it comes in a lawsuit by Sgt. Rosa Gonzalez, who won a $1 million settlement from the county in 2019 after claiming she was sexually harrassed by members of the Banditos when she was a deputy at the East L.A. Station.

In her new lawsuit, Gonzalez alleges Sheriff’s officials also retaliated against her for reporting age, gender and disability discrimination inside the department’s Personnel Administration Bureau, where she started working last summer.

The lawsuit further asserts Gonzalez suffered retaliation for reporting that a fellow sergeant told her a captain had given the sergeant the answers to the lieutenant test.

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Gonzalez, a 12-year department veteran, says the retaliation took the form of her being moved into a less prominent job with fewer career opportunities after she filed a grievance “to report the discrimination, corruption, nepotism, favoritism, bullying and incompetency” she witnessed, according to a copy of the grievance obtained by LAist.

Gonzalez claims in the suit that Sheriff Alex Villanueva is behind the retaliation against her, although she does not name him as a defendant.

The Sheriff’s Department said in a statement it has not yet been served the with the lawsuit and is unaware of the specific allegations in it. It added that Villanueva "takes allegations of misconduct very seriously and fervently believes in transparency and accountability."

‘Discrimination, Corruption, Nepotism…’

Gonzalez claims she endured a hostile workplace over the past year because she was reporting wrongdoing and that it has caused “severe distress,” including chest pains, anxiety and insomnia. She is currently out on medical leave.

In her grievance, Gonzalez said her “experience reveals the culture within the organization and highlights a systematic problem of corruption in the transfer, testing and selection process of both sworn and civilian personnel at [the personnel department]. It also brings to light the consequences one faces when one refuses to be complicit in the corruption.”

Gonzalez claims that shortly after she filed the grievance in October, an investigator told her she had become a subject of the investigation into her claims, which Gonzalez considers part of the retaliation against her.

Gonzalez was deposed in January 2021 for a lawsuit filed by eight deputies who once worked at the East L.A. Station.

Like Gonzalez in her first suit, the deputies in that lawsuit claim the Banditos created a hostile work environment for those who did not support them, in part by refusing to provide backup on dangerous calls. Gonzalez also claimed in her first lawsuit that she suffered gender discrimination at the East L.A. Station because of a misogynistic culture perpetuated by the Banditos.

Questions Raised About A Banditos Inquiry

The eight deputies’ suit is extraordinary because it’s almost unheard of for so many deputies to file a lawsuit against their colleagues. It also details an attack by four alleged Banditos on two of the plaintiffs during an after hours party, sending both to the hospital.

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The county’s Office of Inspector General issued a report on how the department’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau handled its investigation into that attack. “Substantial evidence exists to support the conclusion that the Banditos are gang-like and their influence has resulted in favoritism, sexism, racism, and violence. Despite all this, the majority of the witnesses interviewed in the ICIB investigation were not asked any questions about the Banditos.”

The DA declined to file charges in the case. The department fired three of the four deputies involved, all of whom have appealed their terminations to the Civil Service Commission.

Villanueva has largely dismissed any problem with deputy subgroups or gangs, saying they are merely “people who go to the river and party.” He also said any improper behavior amounts to “hazing run amok.”

The sheriff has claimed he ridded the East L.A. Station of troublemakers and he has instituted a new policy he says prohibits deputy gangs across the department. Critics say the policy is weak and that the sheriff has done nothing to eradicate at least seven active gangs or subgroups of deputies inside the department.

Subgroups Are Still Active, And Divisive

A survey by the RAND Corporation found more than one out of three deputies and mid-level managers responding to a survey support banning the groups altogether. Nearly one in six deputies who responded to the survey said they have been invited to join a subgroup at some point in their career.

The RAND survey found the topic of subgroups is sharply divisive within the department. The report says deputies' responses ranged from “those who belong to a subgroup hold themselves and each other to a higher standard and are the best the LASD has” to “they [subgroups] have destroyed many honest, hard-working deputies’ lives and careers.”

In their conclusion, the report’s authors state that, “[a]t their worst, subgroups encourage violence, undermine the chain of command, and gravely harm relationships with the communities that LASD is dedicated to serve.” They recommend strengthening current policy to “formally prohibit” subgroups.

What questions or concerns do you have about civics and democracy in Southern California?
Frank Stoltze explores who has power and how they use it at a time when our democratic systems have been under threat.