Alleged Rogue Deputy Bands Spark Furor : Law enforcement: Groups are merely social and sports clubs, department officials insist. But critics have filed lawsuits and say they are gathering evidence of racism.
Taking the witness stand during a criminal court hearing, Sheriff’s Deputy Brian David Steinwand was instructed to pull down his sock and bare his ankle.
“It’s the head of a Viking, bearded heavily,” intoned defense attorney Richard Eiden describing for the record the tattoo on Steinwand’s ankle. “Helmet and horns . . . ‘Steiny’ on the top . . . at the very bottom ‘LVS.’ ”
“Left outer ankle,” added Superior Court Judge Robert L. LaFont.
As Steinwand explained it, there was nothing at all sinister about his two-by-four-inch tattoo. He had played a handful of softball games some years ago for the Lynwood station team, known as the Vikings, had always wanted a tattoo and wound up getting the team mascot and the LVS logo. Steinwand said LVS stands for Lynwood Vikings Softball. The tattoo was put on his ankle, he testified, because his wife would not let him put it anywhere else.
Steinwand, an eight-year veteran of the department, and his Viking tattoo came under scrutiny in Compton Superior Court in May because for more than a year, civil rights attorneys have been trying to collect evidence that so-called social and sporting clubs within the Sheriff’s Department harbor secret bands of racist or rogue deputies who prey on the poor and minorities.
A member of the Lynwood station’s anti-gang detail, Steinwand, 29, denied under oath that he belonged to any such “inner group.” He could not be reached for comment.
The issue of rogue cliques has been raised in news stories, lawsuits and news conferences during the past year as the Sheriff’s Department has come under fire for shootings and other instances of alleged excessive force.
Department critics contend that some deputies have developed hand signals in a parody of street gang signs while others have adopted tattoo insignias with white supremacist--or other offensive--overtones.
Members of these so-called law enforcement gangs have harassed, beaten and even killed members of the communities they have been hired to protect, lawsuits and law enforcement critics have alleged. At Lynwood, members of the Vikings allegedly drove a sergeant out of the station, according to a local newspaper, by harassing him with, among other things, dead animals attached to his car.
Such allegations resurface when there is a high-profile incident involving a deputy assigned to a station where the secretive groups reportedly are established. Most recently, the shooting of a housing project resident at Ramona Gardens caused some department critics to allege that a group of deputies called the Cavemen were attacking minorities around the East Los Angeles sheriff’s station.
Sheriff’s Department officials repeatedly have denied the existence of unlawful groups among its deputies, blaming criminals, particularly street gang members, for fabricating tales of brutality in an effort to discredit officers.
Officials contend that harmless station mascots and other symbols no different that those of ordinary colleges or professional sports teams have been distorted by department critics to give them a sinister interpretation.
“Having an identity or a social club is, in and of itself, not a bad thing,” Sheriff Sherman Block told reporters last week. But, he said, organizations with nicknames such as Vikings, which “to many people signifies Aryan purity--the Anglo, blond, blue-eyed thing. It’s an offensive symbol and for that reason it’s inappropriate.”
Use of gang symbols or gang slang by deputies also is “inappropriate,” “unprofessional” and “really demeaning,” said Block, without acknowledging that such conduct has occurred.
A check by The Times of about four randomly selected hours of computer messages among Sheriff’s Department patrol cars in March, April and July included apparent gang slang such as “Affirm homeboy,” “What it is homey?” and “I’m calling the shots tonite . . . don’t dis (disrespect) me.” It was unclear which stations the officers were assigned to.
The Christopher Commission, which investigated the Los Angeles Police Department in the wake of the March 3 beating of Altadena motorist Rodney G. King, determined that more than 1,400 computer messages sent between patrol cars during a four-month period had racist, sexist or other offensive meanings.
At the East Los Angeles station, the nickname for deputies is the Cavemen. The moniker does not signify a stone-age attitude toward law enforcement, said station Capt. Ramon Sanchez.
Sanchez said the name was derived from the station’s “cave,” a Spartan bunk room in the men’s locker area used by male deputies at the end of night shifts when they must wait around to testify in court later in the day.
The Cavemen nickname is “nothing subversive,” said Sanchez. “It’s nothing racial. It’s a mixture of whites and Hispanics and blacks” who see each other socially after work or participate in flag football and other departmental sports competition.
“You can liken it to the USC Trojans or the UCLA Bruins,” he said.
Sanchez said he inquired about the group about two years ago when he heard rumors that some Cavemen sported tattoos of a Neanderthal character on their legs--with flies buzzing around the head to mark each act of violence against a civilian. He said he determined that some officers had Cavemen tattoos, but no flies.
“Barring any formal complaint, I am not going to go to 230 people and ask them to show me a tattoo,” he said.
Sheriff’s officials said they did “look into” allegations of wrongdoing at the Lynwood station after the Long Beach Press Telegram reported in December about alleged Viking activities. But department spokesman Lt. Jeff Springs said no full-fledged investigation was conducted to determine whether the Vikings or any other reported social group engaged in rogue activities under color of their authority.
“They (Vikings) haven’t been shown to have done anything wrong as a group,” said Springs. “We’ve had some very broad, spectacular allegations, but nothing specific that we can deal with.”
More than 20 civil rights attorneys have filed a class-action suit asking the federal courts to put restrictions on the station to halt “a pattern of violence, terrorism and destruction of property.” As part of the suit, attorneys have been gathering information about the Vikings and other department social and sporting groups. A hearing is scheduled later this month.
The suit was filed last year on behalf of more than 100 individuals allegedly victimized by Lynwood deputies. Steinwand is not named in the suit.
Deputy Jason Mann, who shot and killed Arturo Jimenez at Ramona Gardens last month, was stationed at Lynwood before being transferred this year to East Los Angeles. Mann, a representative for the Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, had unsuccessfully fought his transfer, saying he was being tarred with the Viking stigma when superiors really were upset with him for his union activities. He denied being engaged in any improper activities.
In a court declaration, Mann quoted Lynwood Capt. Bert Cueva as telling a group of deputies in November that “an ‘element’ of deputy sheriff personnel . . . was responsible for alleged criminal activity, inspiring insubordination of other deputy sheriff personnel . . . and was in general an unhealthy and malignant influence . . . at the station.”
Cueva has declined to comment on the Viking issue because of all the pending lawsuits, a station spokesman said.
But Cueva testified at another court hearing in May that he disagreed with any characterization of the Vikings as “an evil subgroup of the Lynwood sheriff’s station.”
Times staff writer Jesse Katz contributed to this story.