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L.A. County sheriff candidates discuss 'cliques,' other issues

Law EnforcementCrime, Law and JusticeGroundhog DayLee BacaNAACPAmerican Civil Liberties Union

Seeking to distance himself from the problems that led his former boss to resign, a candidate for Los Angeles County sheriff offered to roll up his pants and prove he does not have a tattoo.

Patrick Gomez' offer at a debate in Pasadena on Sunday was followed by a challenge from the moderator to the other candidates -- not necessarily to show skin but to say whether they had ever been members of a Sheriff's Department clique.

Under former Sheriff Lee Baca, deputies allegedly formed cliques with names like "Grim Reaper" and "Regulators," using tattoos to cement membership bonds. One clique, the "Jump Out Boys," allegedly modified its tattoos to celebrate the shootings of suspects.

At Sunday's debate, retired undersheriff Paul Tanaka admitted to having a tattoo from the Lynwood Vikings clique. When deputies first started acquiring ink in the 1980s, the tattoos were just that -- tattoos, he said.

"Yes, I do have a tattoo. No, I never was part of a gang," Tanaka said. "It did not become sinister until years later. If I knew then what I know now, I would have gotten a different tattoo."

Todd Rogers, an assistant sheriff, said he was invited to join a clique and refused.

Deputies who were not members were "treated like second-class citizens," said Rogers, who joined the department 29 years ago. "Anybody who denies it is living in fantasyland, and I don't mean the one at Disneyland."

Jim Hellmold, an assistant sheriff and 25-year veteran of the department, said he does not have a tattoo, either.

"I never took a coin, smoked a cigar or did any of that BS stuff," he said earlier in the debate.

Six of the seven candidates for sheriff participated in the debate, whose sponsors included the ACLU's Pasadena chapter and the NAACP Pasadena. Retired commander Bob Olmsted did not attend.

Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, an LAPD veteran who has never worked in the Sheriff's Department, was among the candidates who said that working at the jails should be a voluntary assignment, not a tour of duty for new deputies. Twenty-one sheriff's officials were indicted last year, mostly for alleged abuses at the jails.

"They're crossing off the days on the calendar as if they're an inmate," McDonnell said of deputies who would rather be in a patrol car.

LAPD Detective Supervisor Lou Vince, another candidate from outside the department, said a sheriff should not tolerate "bad behavior," such as the deputy cliques.

"It was Groundhog Day every day at the Sheriff's Department," he said.

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Twitter: @cindychangLA

cindy.chang@latimes.com

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