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Criminal Justice

Sheriff Villanueva To Testify Under Oath About Deputy Subgroups, Or ‘Gangs’

The sheriff, in his khaki uniform, stands at a lectern with a mic.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva
(Kyle Grillot for LAist)
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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is scheduled to testify under oath Friday about secretive deputy subgroups or gangs operating inside his department. The testimony will be part of an investigation into the groups by the county’s inspector general.

The testimony is significant because it's the first time the sheriff, who has resisted civilian oversight of his department, will be forced to talk under oath about what some see as one of the agency's biggest problems, one that’s emblematic of a culture of impunity.

Inspector General Max Huntsman issued a subpoena for Villanueva to testify last year. The sheriff initially fought the subpoena in court, then agreed to a deposition last September. But when Villanueva showed up for the deposition, he refused to testify under oath. Huntsman declined to go forward with the deposition.

The county won a court order earlier this month forcing the sheriff to testify under oath.

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90 Minutes Of Questions

Chief Deputy Inspector General Dara William, a former gang prosecutor, will question the sheriff during the session, which is scheduled for 90 minutes, according to Huntsman. Because it is part of an investigation, the testimony will not be made public, Huntsman said, at least in the “short term.”

Several reports have pointed to deputy subgroups or gangs as being a significant problem in the department. A Loyola Law School report said 18 such groups had existed dating back to the 1970’s and that at least seven operate today – including the Banditos at the East L.A. Station and a group known as the Executioners at the Compton Station.

In a highly unusual lawsuit filed in 2019, eight East L.A. Station deputies said the Banditos essentially controlled the station, engaging in harassment and violence against both residents and colleagues who challenged them.

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Last year, a RAND survey of deputies concluded 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.”

RAND recommended strengthening current policy to “formally prohibit” subgroups. Villanueva issued a policy prohibiting them but refuses to investigate deputies unless they engage in some other misconduct – a move his critics said was essentially toothless.

Villanueva's Policy

In 2019, Villanueva issued a new policy that, while not banning subgroups 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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The sheriff repeatedly has challenged the inspector general’s authority to issue subpoenas, saying they’re nothing more than political attacks. A state law that took effect last year largely in response to Villanueva specifically gave oversight bodies — including the inspector general and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission — the right to issue subpoenas.

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