He is still proud of his tattoo.
The somber image of Death’s hooded skull and scythe tattooed onto the inside of the deputy’s left ankle in 1989 initiated him into a select fraternity called the Grim Reapers. Then a street cop at the Lennox station, this deputy has risen to a key position in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department--along with other members of his “club.”
The groups--with macho monikers like the Pirates, Vikings, Rattlesnakes and Cavemen--have long been a subculture in the country’s largest Sheriff’s Department and, in some cases, an inside track to acceptance in the ranks. Senior officers say they began with the creation of the Little Devils at the East Los Angeles station in 1971. Membership swelled in the 1980s at overwhelmingly white sheriff’s stations that were islands in black and Latino immigrant communities.
A federal judge hearing class-action litigation against the department described the most well-known of the groups, the Lynwood Vikings, as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” and found that deputies had engaged in racially motivated hostility. The county paid $9 million in fines and training costs to settle the lawsuits in 1996.
But today, groups like the Grim Reapers are enjoying renewed popularity among young deputies, who say the groups are fraternities that bond on morale-building values, not race. A new group--the Regulators--has formed at Century station, and even suburban deputies are thinking about getting tattoos. Some senior officers say the groups provide emotional support for deputies who contend with a grueling regimen of violent crime and an 11-to-7 overnight schedule that strains family life.
The groups have their detractors. One deputy characterized the Lennox Reapers as “cowboys,” and another complained that the Regulators were “acting just like Vikings.”
Sheriff Lee Baca has long been a critic of the groups, though he believes an outright ban would be unconstitutional. He urges deputies to stay away from the organizations, saying they encourage unprofessional behavior.
Critics of the department go even further. They charge that the stations with the department’s most troubled records--meaning the most frequent excessive-force lawsuits and discrimination complaints--are home to the most active deputy groups.
And the groups are viewed with mistrust by many in the inner-city communities.
“They are generally perceived as rogue cops who have often been accused of acting in very inappropriate ways in the street,” said Joe Hicks, executive director of the city’s human relations commission. “It doesn’t seem to be good for morale or community relations.”
Some of the lawyers now suing the Sheriff’s Department on behalf of clients who say they were beaten, shot or harassed have demanded that deputies accused of misconduct roll down their socks and reveal if they have one of the distinguishing tattoos. In one case pending in federal court, attorneys want two deputies who allegedly shot a man to death to show whether their ankles bear the Vikings insignia.
Kevin Reed, an attorney with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund, who worked on the class-action suit involving the Vikings, thinks the deputy groups encourage a pattern of excessive force.
“There is a bond, not just of being a fellow deputy, but being a Viking, that gives you the comfort that no one is going to write the report that will hang you out to dry,” Reed said.
One Viking tattoo displayed in court bore the number “998"--the code for “officer-involved shooting"--Reed said, giving the impression that such shootings were celebrated as a rite of passage.
Former Undersheriff Jerry Harper, who was Baca’s boss until he retired after the November sheriff’s race, said the 998 tattoos reflect a camaraderie not unlike that of soldiers who have experienced combat for the first time.
“It’s a mark of pride. They’ve been in a deputy-involved shooting and they’ve survived it,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a lot more serious than getting a Boy Scout patch.”
But David Lynn, a private investigator who testified on the deputy groups to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission--which is to address the issue in a report due in April--has called for the names of tattooed deputies to be cross-referenced with excessive force allegations.
For all his objections, Baca believes such a registry might actually absolve the groups of the most serious suspicions. He thinks many deputies acquired the tattoos for reasons no deeper than peer pressure and heavy drinking.
“Many of them regretted it the day after, when they got a little sober,” said Baca, “especially when their wife saw the thing and was very upset.” He said the deputies were “caring, hard-working, not prejudiced. And they literally destroyed their lives, many of them, with this nonsense of the drinking and the tattoos. . . .
“I cannot dismiss it as a little club or as a social group,” Baca said. “I see it as the wrong message to a public that desperately wants to be close to us, desperately wants to trust us. Having a Grim Reaper tattoo does not bring confidence in you as a deputy.”
By Invitation Only
Although their total numbers are not known, the tattooed officers are found throughout department ranks. Many have risen to positions of leadership. Group members are said to be predominantly white and male, though Latino members are reportedly common. There are few black or female initiates, group members say.
“It’s no more than some of the fraternities at different schools,” said the deputy who became a Grim Reaper at Lennox.
The deputy, who is white, was honored the day he was asked to become a Reaper. His buddies drove him to a tattoo parlor and gave the artist the secret stencil with the Reaper icon. The tattoo was numbered and his name entered into a ledger kept by a veteran officer.
To him, the tattoo “showed that you were respected by your peers.” The symbols are not meant to be sinister, but the more forceful logos--like a bolt of lightning--have higher status, he said.
“What am I going to get--a tattoo of Winnie the Pooh?” the deputy asked.
Even Baca acknowledges the appeal of the groups.
He recalls confronting the issue of Viking membership two years ago when he was a regional department chief. He was meeting with deputies at the new Century station, which replaced Lynwood. His superiors warned him to be cautious, Baca said.
“I think there was more of an interest of protecting me from what they perceived to be a backlash,” Baca said. “Since I was the only one out there voicing an objection to it, they didn’t want me so far out on a limb that my overall effectiveness as a chief might be mitigated.
“Well, now I’m the sheriff, so I’m not worried about mitigation,” Baca said. “Don’t like it. Never have. Never will.”
Today, some officers have told Baca they’re thinking about getting their tattoos removed.
One of them, Lt. Paul Tanaka, was made a top aide to the sheriff just after the election in August. Tanaka was tattooed as a member of the Vikings while a young deputy in 1987--a year before he was named in a wrongful-death suit stemming from the shooting of a young Korean man. The department eventually settled for close to $1 million.
Now Tanaka, a recently elected Gardena city councilman with aspirations to rise in the department and local politics, would like to disassociate himself from the group.
“Paul doesn’t have anything to say about [the tattoo],” said Sheriff’s Department spokesman Capt. Doyle Campbell. “It is perceived by some in a way that was never intended. He’s having it removed. He wants it behind him.”
It was 1990 police misconduct litigation that first hurled the deputy clubs--and the Vikings--into the public eye.
The lawsuit, which asked the federal court to take over the Lynwood station, produced numerous accounts of “Animal House"-style thuggery. There were the deputies who shot a dog and tied it under their commanders’ car; the deputies who smeared feces on a supervisor’s engine. There was the map of Lynwood in the shape of Africa, the racist cartoons of black men, the mock “ticket to Africa” on the wall.
U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter concluded that many deputies engaged in racially motivated hostility against blacks and Latinos. In 1996, the department was ordered to pay $7.5 million to 80 alleged victims of excessive force in the area policed by the Lynwood station, and spend $1.5 million for mandatory training.
Then-Sheriff Sherman Block said Hatter’s characterization of the Vikings as a “neo-Nazi” group was “irrational and wrong.” He said the Vikings were primarily a social organization, and he found no proof they ever acted against minorities. Block said then he believed the group no longer existed.
The 1992 Kolts Commission report on police brutality in Los Angeles said deputy “cliques” like the Vikings were found “particularly at stations in areas heavily populated by minorities--the so-called ‘ghetto stations'--and deputies at those stations recruit persons similar in attitude to themselves.”
The report said evidence “does not conclusively demonstrate the existence of racist deputy gangs.” Nevertheless, it went on to say, “it appears that some deputies at the department’s Lynwood station associate with the ‘Viking’ symbol, and appear at least in times past to have engaged in behavior that is brutal and intolerable and is typically associated with street gangs.”
There never has been a follow-up report or investigation by an independent entity since.
Within the department, Baca said, he was sufficiently concerned about the Vikings to send in a no-nonsense Latino commander to run the Lynwood station in 1989.
He said he sent in Capt. Bert Cueva “to specifically stamp out this Viking phenomenon.”
Cueva “looked like Clint Eastwood, and you didn’t mess with him,” Baca said. “He was the right guy to go in and say, ‘OK, folks, all this Viking crap is over with.’ ”
A Viking Funeral
But when Cueva ordered the transfer of reputed Vikings out of the station, four sued him for discrimination. The suit was eventually dismissed, and in 1992, Cueva retired from the force.
The Vikings continued to operate. In May 1995, Deputy Stephen Blair was shot and killed in the line of duty. His buddies passed out lapel pins bearing the Viking symbol so deputies could wear them at his funeral, said Deputy Mike Osborne, who became a trainee at the Lynwood station in 1994.
To Osborne, the Vikings mirrored the race and gender caste system at a station where deputies had to win acceptance from white male veterans, many of whom routinely used racist and sexist slurs.
Being invited to become a Viking was considered a tremendous compliment, Osborne said. “If you’re hard-charging, one of the boys, you’ll be asked. If you’ve paid your dues and you’re not an idiot.”
Becoming “one of the boys” implied more than simple fellowship, Osborne said.
“You keep your mouth shut and obey the code of silence. Any illegal acts you witness by other deputies, you don’t say anything. If you’re asked, you say, ‘I didn’t see nothing,’ ” said Osborne.
Osborne and his wife, fellow Deputy Aurora Mellado, retired in 1996 after Mellado broke that code by accusing her training officer of fabricating or destroying evidence to harass blacks and Latinos. The officer, Jeffrey Jones, pleaded no contest to felony charges of falsifying police reports that August.
The month Jones was arraigned--March 1996--someone shot at the Osbornes’ home just before midnight, as their children slept in the rear bedrooms, he said. Osborne said he suspects renegade sheriff’s deputies were involved.
John Hillen, a retired Army captain at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the intensity of military life, which parallels the law enforcement experience, fosters subcultures of unit identity.
“A lot of these subgroups can be as harmful as helpful,” he said. For example, Ret. Col. Dan Smith, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, said “underground groups” that arise within military ranks often have white supremacist leanings.
Reports of such a culture in the Sheriff’s Department have led attorneys pursuing misconduct complaints to try, with little success, to make membership in deputy groups admissible in court.
“It goes to motive, it goes to credibility, it implies a treatment of people of color,” said civil rights attorney Hugh Manes. “Gang membership has long been accepted in courts in the context of criminal law. If it has relevance for the criminal courts, it certainly has relevance for the Sheriff’s Department.”
That kind of talk outrages tattooed deputies, who say the misdeeds associated with the Vikings gave everyone else a bad name.
One such deputy called the tattoos a “harmless expression of camaraderie. It’s like a Marine Corps tattoo.” The day he got tattooed, three of his buddies picked him up and took him to a tattoo parlor, he thinks in East L.A. The artist already knew the tattoo by heart.
Would he get one again? “No. Just because of the negative connotations,” said the deputy, who is white. “I want to move forward in this career.”
And while he knows “many people” in the higher ranks of the department who have tattoos, he doesn’t know anyone who did not think it would hurt them in court.
“If we had a tattoo with a doughnut dipped into a cup of coffee, they’d criticize us for that,” he said. “If they want to see my leg, they’re going to have to get a warrant.”
A white department veteran in a position of authority claims he got the first Viking tattoo back in 1980, when there were very few women or blacks in the department. He and a buddy were talking one day and decided they wanted a tattoo for their station. One day, he was at a tattoo parlor in Long Beach when he spotted the helmeted Nordic marauder on the wall. He got one, and when he showed his buddies, they got them too. He said it wasn’t racially motivated--he recalls a black man and some Latinos being tattooed--but looking back, he thinks “maybe Vikings weren’t a good choice.”
Baca wishes deputies would just stop joining the tattoo subculture. California Highway Patrolmen get killed in the line of duty more often than sheriff’s deputies, he says, and they don’t get tattoos. When Marines get tattoos, they use official emblems, he said.
“You ought to be proud to be a member of the Sheriff’s Department,” Baca said. “Tattoo your badge on your ankle, if that’s what you want to do.”
Times researcher William Holmes contributed to this story.