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Criminal Justice

Why LA’s Sheriff Won’t Help His Watchdog Investigate Possible Deputy Gangs

Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
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Los Angeles County Inspector General Max Huntsman says he has leads on 41 deputies who may belong to “gangs,” and has asked Sheriff Alex Villanueva to provide any and all relevant documentation as Huntsman continues his investigation.

But the Sheriff’s Department says Huntsman has no “actual evidence,” and it has already provided “all legally obtainable information.” It characterizes his request as an “attack” on it.

In a letter he sent Monday to Villanueva, Huntsman said he’s identified the deputies as alleged members of two groups that may satisfy the legal definition of “law enforcement gangs” under a new state law. Huntsman, who did not name the deputies, said 11 allegedly belong to the East L.A. station’s Banditos group, and 30 allegedly belong to the Executioners at the Compton station.

The law requires departments to formally prohibit gangs, and to fire any officer who participates in one.

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Huntsman said he learned about the deputies from internal investigations carried out by the Sheriff’s Department.

In response to the inspector general’s letter, the department posted a statement on Facebook calling it “another irresponsible attempt from Mr. Huntsman to discredit the organization, through omission and misrepresentation.” It said the inspector general “has failed to provide any actual evidence or new information,” claiming the letter “is consistent with his unhealthy obsession to attack the department.”

In his letter, Huntsman said he was repeating a request he first made on Jan. 19. He said the department failed to meet his 30-day deadline to provide the items he requested.

The inspector general said he was also responding to a Feb. 10 letter from Undersheriff Tim Murakami, which “objects to the use of the term ‘deputy gangs’ and contends that the term ‘stems from.... false allegations made by a now discredited deputy sheriff.’” Huntsman said that and similar claims Villanueva made to the Board of Supervisors in a Feb. 16 letter “ignore the plain language of [the new state law] and … misapprehend the legislative history” of the law.

The inspector general said he’s required by law to investigate any group that may fall under the new state law’s definition of a gang, and said that law “requires the Sheriff's Department to cooperate in the investigation.”

The Sheriff’s Department “may not refuse to produce the records requested below by unilaterally declaring that no deputy sheriff is a member of a ‘law enforcement gang,’” Huntsman wrote.

In an interview, the inspector general said the state law defines a gang as “a group that violates policies [and] encourages the violation of policies,” as well as groups “that discriminate in the workplace. So indeed if you get together a bunch of your friends and you put Nazi helmets on your calves, and for some reason that doesn’t include African Americans or women, that’s a law enforcement gang.”

By defining gangs “in a real practical way,” the law “will allow us to figure out which of these groups are ‘harmless fun,’ as the sheriff likes to say, and which are not at all,” Huntsman said.

Huntsman — as well as the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and the County Board of Supervisors — has clashed repeatedly with Villanueva over issues of transparency and accountability. In 2020 the county gave the oversight panel subpoena power, an authority that was enshrined in state law later that year. Villanueva subsequently defied Oversight Commision subpoenas, and the panel went to court seeking to force him to comply.

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A Sharply Divisive Issue Internally

At least 18 gang-like groups have operated within the Sheriff’s Department over the past half century, according to a 2021 report by Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law & Policy.

A 2021 RAND Corporation report did not attempt to quantify how many deputies belong to these groups, but it said the issue is sharply divisive within the department, with responses to a survey ranging 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.”

Nearly one in six deputies who responded to the RAND survey said they had been invited to join a subgroup at some point in their career, and more than one out of every three deputies and mid-level managers supported banning them.

During his time in office, Villanueva has largely dismissed any problem with deputy subgroups, saying they’re merely “people who go to the river and party on the weekend.” He has also said any improper behavior amounts to “hazing run amok.”

The sheriff even sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Board of Supervisors last month demanding it stop using the term “deputy gangs” when discussing the subgroups.

Villanueva notes that he has instituted a policy he says prohibits deputy gangs across the department. Critics say the policy is weak and that the sheriff has done nothing to eradicate at least seven active gangs or subgroups inside the department.

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