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Criminal Justice

Oversight Panel Launches ‘Full Scale’ Investigation of LA Sheriff Deputy Gangs

A close up of a  L.A. County Sheriff patch on the left sleeve of a uniformed officer. A badge can also be seen pinned above the officer's left pocket.
The L.A. County Sheriff's Department has been in a dispute with the Civilian Oversight Commission over whether "gangs" exist among the ranks.
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The Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission is launching a “full-scale” investigation into allegations that the Sheriff’s Department has a number of secret and sometimes violent deputy gangs. The investigation is expected to be the most in-depth examination to date of a problem that many say has existed for more than half a century.

“Deputy gangs have fostered and promoted excessive force against citizens, discriminated against other deputies based on race and gender, and undermined the chain of command and discipline,” Commission Chair Sean Kennedy said in a statement. Despite years of documented history of this issue, the Department has failed to eliminate the gangs.”

Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said deputy gangs do not exist, while instituting a policy barring employees from joining groups that violate others' rights. He's described any questionable behavior by deputies as “hazing run amok.”

The sheriff has resisted efforts by Inspector General Max Huntsman to investigate the issue, with their most recent clash coming just this week.

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A 'Fishing Expedition'

Villanueva slammed the new investigation, calling it “a ‘fishing expedition’ and political theater.” He said in a statement that no one has ever given him the names of deputies who are “gang members” as defined by a new state law.

“I can see this for what it is, the weaponization of government in order to influence the outcome of an election, nothing more,” said the sheriff, who’s facing reelection this year.

The oversight panel has assembled a team of attorneys from some of L.A.’s top law firms to carry out the investigation. It plans to use its subpoena power to compel people to testify and obtain documents, if necessary.

Huntsman will assist in the investigation, which is expected to last five to six months, the statement said, adding that interviews already have begun with deputies.

Deputies 'Are Open About The Power Of The Gangs'

Deputies who have been interviewed "are open about the power of the gangs and the notion that there is kind of a secret government that is operating,” said Bert Deixler, an attorney who will lead the investigation. A decade ago, Deixler helped lead the blue-ribbon Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence that examined violence by deputies and deputy gangs against inmates inside the jails.

The new panel is modeled after the jail violence commission, which helped uncover efforts by former Sheriff Lee Baca to cover up the abuses. Baca and his former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka were eventually indicted and sentenced to federal prison after an FBI investigation.

In its statement, the commission said “numerous reports demonstrate that deputy gangs still exist, but their scope and impact is unknown.”

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A Loyola Law School report found at least 18 gangs or subgroups have existed inside the department for nearly a half century. At least seven are believed to be still active, including the Banditos, which operate out of the East L.A. Station, and a group known as the Executioners at the Compton Station.

Another report came from the RAND Corporation, which conducted an anonymous survey of deputies.

The survey found the topic of subgroups or gangs 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.

In an unprecedented lawsuit filed in 2019, eight Sheriff's deputies accused a group of their colleagues at the department's East L.A. station of being members of a secret "criminal gang" that violates their civil rights with a campaign of harassment and physical attacks.

The lawsuit describes in detail how members of the "Banditos" allegedly control station operations.

One of the lawsuit's more explosive allegations is that Banditos declined to provide backup to deputies they don't like, endangering them and the public.

The suit also claims Banditos encourage deputies to increase their arrest numbers by planting evidence on suspects.

Vincent Miller, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, sent us a text in response to the new investigation calling on Villanueva "to stop playing politics over this issue, embrace transparency, and start cooperating with rooting out corruption in his department rather than covering it up and perpetuating it."

This story was updated at 5:48 p.m. on March 24, 2022 to include Sheriff Villanueva's response.
This story was updated at 10 a.m. on March 25, 2022 to include Vincent Miller's comment.

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