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Criminal Justice

Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Panel Wants Outright Ban On Deputy Cliques

Activists packed a sheriff's town hall Wednesday at Garfield High School in East L.A. Lisa Vargas (c) is the mother of Anthony Vargas, who was killed by sheriff's deputies on August 12, 2018.
Activists packed a sheriff's town hall Wednesday at Garfield High School in East L.A. Lisa Vargas (c) is the mother of Anthony Vargas, who was killed by sheriff's deputies on August 12, 2018.
(Frank Stoltze/LAist)
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The Civilian Oversight Commission Thursday called on L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva to impose an outright ban on deputy cliques inside his department. The unanimous vote came amid increasing concerns that cliques - some call them gangs - are violating the civil rights of people inside and outside the department. Some have been accused of engaging in violence.

Under pressure to act on the issue of cliques, Villanueva last summer issued a policy that forbade deputies from joining any group that violates department policy or the law. Members of the commission said the sheriff didn’t go far enough. “It hasn’t worked,” Commissioner Rob Bonner said. “They still exist.”

The panel proposed a much more specific and clear ban.

“Department personnel shall not participate in, join or solicit other Department personnel to join a deputy clique,” the proposed policy states. It includes the names of six cliques: the Banditos, the Executioners, the Rattlesnakes, the Cowboys, the Regulators and the Grim Reapers.

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“Often their members have common or matching tattoos or use hand signals, and/or engage in other rituals and behaviors similar to street gangs,” the proposal says. “Any Department employee who participates in or joins a deputy clique, or solicits another employee to join a deputy clique, will be subject to discipline.”

The sheriff is free to ignore the nine-member panel’s proposal, since the commission is advisory only.

In the past, Villanueva has said county counsel has advised him that a more specific ban could violate the constitutional rights of deputies to associate with each other. He was invited to provide input on the policy but told one panel member he was too busy to attend Thursday’s meeting.

“Department personnel shall not participate in, join or solicit other Department personnel to join a deputy clique,” the proposed policy states.

In a twist, Commissioner Chair Lael Rubin threatened to issue a subpoena to compel the sheriff to appear at its next meeting, in May. Later, she said she had received a call from someone at the department saying there would be no need - Villanueva would be there.

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The vote came as Villanueva is fighting another subpoena that would require him to talk to the county’s inspector general about deputy cliques. He’s called the subpoena “too broad and harassing.”

A Loyola Law School report issued earlier this year said there have been at least 18 cliques in the department over the years, and at least six are currently active.