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Criminal Justice

New Candidate For LA Sheriff Says He Was Once Asked To Join A Deputy Subgroup, Or ‘Gang’

A close-up image of Retired L.A. Sheriff’s Captain Matt Rodriguez. He is wearing an open-collared blue shirt and he has salt-and-pepper hair.
Matt Rodriguez
(Courtesy of Rodriguez for Sheriff)
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Retired L.A. Sheriff’s Capt. Matt Rodriguez on Thursday announced he will challenge Sheriff Alex Villanueva in next year’s election, and in doing so said he once came face-to-face with one of the department’s subgroups, or “gangs,” as critics call them.

Rodriguez is the fifth candidate to launch a campaign to unseat the sheriff.

Deputy subgroups have become a major issue at the troubled department, with several lawsuits accusing members of using excessive force against civilians and harassing fellow deputies who don’t support them.

The cliques are expected to be among the top issues in the 2022 campaign. Rodriguez said he’d be tougher on subgroups than Villanueva, accusing the sheriff of “looking the other way.”

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Rodriguez, 56, said he was a young deputy working at the Carson Station in the early 1990s when older colleagues from the early morning shift invited him to join their “clique” and get a matching tattoo that they all wore on their calf.

He said the tattoo was designed by one of the deputies and resembled a tombstone in the shape of a cross — because they worked the graveyard shift — with “edges that were similar to a swastika.”

'It Was Not A White Supremacist Thing'

Rodriguez said the group, which had no name, was comprised of about 15 people of all races. “It was not a white supremacist thing,” he said. “They were friends of mine. They were good guys.”

He said the group was not “a violent gang … It was a group of friends that socialized and were tight at work. They were not criminal.”

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Rodriguez told LAist that he declined to join the group because he had problems with the tattoo. “I said I am not going to put something like this on my leg that ultimately may be controversial, or something I would someday have to explain to children.” He also said he is not a follower.

He did not ask members of the group about the tattoo’s resemblance to a swastika. “I did not want to insult anyone who had it,” Rodriguez said, “so I just said thanks but no thanks.”

A report from Loyola Law School, “50 Years of Deputy Gangs,” says there have been 18 such subgroups at the department since the early 1970s and that seven remain active. It does not list one as having been based at the Carson Station.

A recent RAND survey of deputies 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.”

'Emulating Gang Mentality, That's A Problem'

Rodriguez said deputy subgroups morphed over the years into larger, more problematic organizations of 100 or more people. He pointed to the lawsuit by eight deputies who claim members of the Banditos subgroup at the East L.A. station assaulted colleagues who did not support them.

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“When you have deputies beating up other deputies at Christmas parties and emulating gang mentality, that’s a problem,” he said.

Rodriguez said Villanueva has “emboldened the Banditos” and chastised the sheriff for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to talk about deputy subgroups. “It’s cowardice.”

“I am going to discourage and attempt to ban subgroups,” Rodriguez said.

In 2019, Villanueva issued a new policy that, while not banning cliques outright, prohibits deputies from joining "any group which promotes behavior that violates the rights of employees or members of the public or otherwise encourages conduct that is contrary to department policy."

But the sheriff has also dismissed any misbehavior of subgroups as “hazing run amok.”

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Rodriguez said he envisions a “new model” of law enforcement at the Sheriff’s Department, “one which takes us from ‘Gladiators to Guardians’ in the community,” and he wants to ensure “all residents in Los Angeles County are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Asked if he thinks there's a problem with excessive use of force at the department, he said he doesn't have enough data to know.

Rodriguez also promised better relationships with the Board of Supervisors, the oversight commission, and the County Inspector General than what exists under Villanueva, whom he says is responsible for the loss of funding to the department.

He And Villanueva Were Drill Instructors Together

Rodriguez and Villanueva worked together as drill instructors at the sheriff’s deputy academy from 1998 until 2002 and called each other friends at the time, he said. But he parted ways with Villanueva in 2005.

Villanueva had written an email to the brass “calling them morally bankrupt and corrupt,” Rodriguez said. “I thought it was career suicide and it was a bad idea for me to be involved in that. So I went my own way.”

Rodriguez was promoted to captain and became head of the Sheriff’s Transit Bureau, overseeing the policing of MTA rail and routes under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Department. He retired in 2013.

After retiring, Rodriguez worked as Interim Chief of Police in the City of Santa Paula, Deputy Director of Transit Security for the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, and Security Manager of the Metrolink Commuter Rail system.

He holds a Master's Degree in Executive Leadership from USC and a Master's Degree in Public Administration from Cal State Long Beach.

Seven people have declared their intention to challenge Villanueva. Besides Rodriguez, former assistant sheriff and current LAX Police Chief Cecil Rhambo, Sheriff’s Chief Eli Vera, Britta Steinbrenner and Sheriff's Lt. Eric Strong have publicly started their campaigns. Enrique Del Real and April Saucedo Hood also have filed candidate paperwork with the Registrar of Voters, but have not formally launched their campaigns.

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