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Criminal Justice

Sheriff Villanueva Dismisses Report On Deputy 'Gangs,' Calls Them ‘People Who Go To The River And Party’

A close-up of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in his department uniform, including a black tie and gold stars on his lapels
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
(PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
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L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva on Wednesday largely dismissed a RAND Corporation report on deputy subgroups or “gangs” within his department, saying the survey of more than 1,600 of his deputies overstated any problem.

“It is a problem of perception, but not reality,” Villanueva said at a news conference at the Hall of Justice. “That’s the hard cold fact about this issue.”

While noting that deputies are sharply divided over the topic of subgroups, the RAND survey concluded that “[a]t their worst, subgroups encourage violence, undermine the chain of command, and gravely harm relationships” with the community.

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.

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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.

In the sheriff’s eyes, the survey found that only a tiny fraction of deputies are members of subgroups, and that the cliques are benign.

They ‘Party On The Weekend And That’s About It’

Subgroups operate in every paramilitary organization, Villanueva said. “The question is if that subgroup deviates into some type of misconduct that harms.” The groups of deputies within the Sheriff’s Department do not, he said Wednesday.

“They are a glorified bunch of people who go to the river and party on the weekend and that’s about it,” he said. “That’s all they are.”

The RAND report recommends strengthening current policy to “formally prohibit” subgroups. The sheriff rejected that idea, saying it would be unconstitutional based on a 2014 opinion from the Office of County Counsel that raised concerns a ban would violate First Amendment protections against freedom of speech and association.

But county lawyers issued a new opinion last month, saying the sheriff could prohibit deputy subgroups.

“The County’s compelling interest in restoring or increasing public trust in the LASD and preventing the harm subgroups cause to the County, LASD, and community members justifies a policy that bans participation in subgroups,” according to a memo obtained by the L.A. Times.

Villanueva called the opinion “laughable” and said it was “dictated by the Board of Supervisors.”

The sheriff touted the policy he instituted last year that bars deputies from joining groups that violate the rights of others.

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‘A Kangaroo Court’

He noted that he had terminated a group of deputies who allegedly attacked a group of colleagues from the East L.A. Station. A civil lawsuit by the deputies who were attacked claims they were targeted because they did not support a clique known as the Banditos.

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.

On another topic, Villanueva was asked why he is defying a subpoena to appear this week before the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to talk about his alleged harassment of department critics. The sheriff called the panel “a Kangaroo Court. Their entire role is to discredit the sheriff’s department in every single thing they do.”

Villanueva said he should have the power to appoint four of the commission’s nine members. Currently, the Board of Supervisors appoints all the panel’s members.

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