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Criminal Justice

1 in 6 LA Sheriff's Deputies Answering Survey Have Been Invited To Deputy Subgroups, Or 'Gangs'

A close-up shot of a sheriff's deputy holding his baton with both hands. His left forearm, partially visible under his rolled-up sleeve, is covered with a tattoo.
An L.A. County Sheriff's deputy holds a baton during a protest.
(Brian Feinzimer For LAist)
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Amid growing concern about the role of allegedly violent deputy subgroups or “gangs” inside the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, more than one out of three deputies and mid-level managers responding to a survey support banning the groups altogether.

At the same time, many hold positive views of the cliques, saying they “provide a sense of camaraderie and fraternity” and encourage a strong work ethic, according to a 230-page report by the RAND Corporation.

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.

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1 in 6 LA Sheriff's Deputies Answering Survey Have Been Invited To Deputy Subgroups, Or 'Gangs'

At the same time, the report notes that cliques’ “secret or semi-secret status makes eliminating subgroups and their pathologies extremely difficult … Any strategy that does not recognize the significance of subgroups to a significant proportion of LASD is likely to fail.”

Banning cliques “has the potential to increase alienation and stigma of group members, which could drive existing subgroups into further secrecy, increasing the potential allure of exclusivity,” it says.

Nearly One In Six Invited To Join A Subgroup

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, although it notes that new deputies are less likely to be invited.

RAND — which kept responses anonymous — did not ask deputies if they are members of subgroups, so it was unable to estimate the extent of membership.

A report by Loyola Law School issued earlier this year said 18 “deputy gangs” have existed at the department since the early 1970s — and that at least seven remain active.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors, which commissioned the report, is scheduled to hear a formal presentation of the report — and a response from Sheriff Alex Villanueva — on Tuesday. The sheriff issued a statement saying he received the report on Friday, and looks forward to reading it.

Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • 55% of respondents somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that subgroups “provide a sense of camaraderie or fraternity,” including 91% of those who were invited to join a clique.
  • 42% of respondents said deputies join subgroups to “fit in” at their work assignment.
  • Nearly one-third agreed that subgroup members “get special privileges at work (e.g., choice of assignments, choice of shifts, time off).”
  • 21-25% of respondents said not belonging to a subgroup “could negatively affect a deputy’s work assignment or could limit a deputy’s opportunities for career advancement or promotion.” About one-third of the respondents somewhat or strongly disagreed with that proposition.
  • About 40% of respondents cited the following criteria for being selected to join a subgroup: “being known as a hard worker,” “willingness to work in challenging environments,” “willingness to engage in social activities with other subgroup members.”
  • 35% of respondents cited another criterion for being asked to join: “a willingness to engage in certain behaviors at work, such as being aggressive about making arrests.” Some respondents criticized those who were seen as “trying too hard” to get invited into a subgroup. “For example, deputies might use unnecessary force to show how aggressive they are … [t]hus, how a subgroup defines competence (italics in original) has implications for what behavior is valued by the group.”
  • Respondents noted that committing a shooting “would likely lead to being invited to join a subgroup but disagreed that being invited to join a subgroup could be a motivating factor to commit a shooting.”
  • “Subgroups have few women members and few members of color.” Only 10% of respondents agreed that subgroups restrict membership based on race/ethnicity, but one-quarter of Black respondents agreed.

A 17% Response Rate

RAND said about 17% of the department’s 9,608 sworn personnel responded to the survey — 70% were deputies and 25% were mid-level managers.

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The report's authors did not ask any of the department's 9,000 civilian support personnel nor any of the hundreds of custody assistants who work alongside deputies in the jails to take the survey.

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.” He has echoed what some deputies said in the RAND survey, saying subgroups are meant to build camaraderie among groups of deputies at far-flung stations in a sprawling department that can seem alienating.

Villanueva faces reelection next year, and deputy cliques are expected to be an issue in the campaign.

The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission repeatedly has expressed concerns about subgroups in the department. calling it a "significant problem."

The issue of deputy subgroups is the subject of state legislation now on Gov. Newsom's desk. The bill by Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Carson) "would require law enforcement agencies to have a policy prohibiting law enforcement gangs and making participation, as specified, in a law enforcement gang grounds for termination."

The ‘Banditos’ Lawsuit

The supervisors commissioned the RAND report in 2019 in the wake of the filing of an extraordinary lawsuit by eight East L.A. Station deputies that alleges dozens of their colleagues are members of a “criminal gang” that calls itself the “Banditos.”

An apparently pen-and-ink drawing shows a skeleton wearing a large sombrero with the Roman numeral 2 on the front brim, with its right arm bent at the elbow holding a smoking pistol. The skeleton has a bandeloro slung over its right shoulder, and a star similar to a sheriff's department star on its left chest. The skeleton has a large, downward-turned handlebar mustache. The skeleton is visible to its waist. Below it is a banner with the capital letters ELA on it in a fancy font.
The Banditos logo.
(Courtesy Vincent Miller)

The suit accuses the Banditos of harassing and beating deputies who do not support the group and of using excessive force against members of the community. It says members wear matching tattoos of a skeleton with a giant mustache wearing a sombrero with a bandolier and pistol.

Another deputy alleges a gang calling itself the “Executioners” controls the Compton Station and celebrates shootings. They also allegedly beat colleagues and wear matching tattoos of a skull with a Nazi style helmet and an AK-47.

The RAND report notes the county has paid out $55 million in subgroup-related legal settlements since 1990.

RAND Also Got Community Input

As part of its survey, RAND also spoke with 141 community leaders and members across the county in focus groups and interviewed 57 individuals.

Some people had never heard of subgroups, while others were intimately familiar with their names and activities. Some people in focus groups or who were interviewed individually took aim at the sheriff and his commanders, according to the report.

“Community leaders and members … were most critical of current department leadership, expressing concerns about a lack of transparency, a lack of trust, and a culture of aggressive policing,” the report states. Others expressed specific concerns about retaliation by deputies, excessive force, and a code of silence.

Discussions of aggressive behavior that community stakeholders associated with deputy subgroups “was common throughout our conversations,” the report says.

At the same time, one person was quoted as supporting subgroups. “I have seen those cliques make the community safer because they don’t tolerate the things that are going on,” the person said. “These cliques are not out to hurt people.”

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