Special counsel urges sheriff to ban the ‘cancer’ of deputy gangs
After dozens of interviews and seven public hearings, the Civilian Oversight Commission’s special counsel has released a 70-page report condemning the “cancer” of violent deputy gangs and urging Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna to create a policy officially banning the secretive groups.
“They create rituals that valorize violence, such as recording all deputy-involved shootings in an official book, celebrating with ‘shooting parties,’ and authorizing deputies who have shot a community member to add embellishments to their common gang tattoos,” the special counsel team wrote this week.
The Sheriff’s Department has long faced allegations about violent groups of inked deputies who run roughshod over certain stations, and the new report not only bolsters some of the most troubling claims about them but calls out those who could have done more to solve the problem — including the deputies’ union, county counsel and the district attorney’s office.
While the union — formally known as the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs — has “created obstacles” to the special counsel’s investigation, the report alleges that county counsel “has not provided meaningful assistance” in eliminating the problematic groups, and the district attorney’s office has failed to require the department to disclose the names of known “gang” members who testify as witnesses in criminal trials.
The county counsel, district attorney‘s office and deputy’s union all disputed the report’s findings.
Dawyn R. Harrison is county counsel and, in that capacity, advises the Board of Supervisors and other Los Angeles County entities. She said her office supports “the Special Counsel’s general conclusions that LASD deputy gangs have been responsible for undermining the discipline, morale and safety of the Department and the public.”
But she said the “accusation that the County Counsel’s Office somehow provided ‘cover’ for LASD deputy gangs is not accurate.”
Specifically, Harrison said county counsel helped enforce oversight commission subpoenas, asking a court to make the former sheriff allow the Inspector General access to department databases and creating a new division “devoted entirely to law enforcement transparency,” among other things.
Tiffiny Blacknell, spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office, said in an emailed statement that her office “takes seriously” allegations about the groups.
“We appreciate the report as it is well taken,” Blacknell said. “We concur with the recommendation that LASD implement a procedure for notifying the D.A. if they have information that a deputy testifying as a witness participates [as] a member of a deputy gang.”
Richard Pippin, the union’s vice president, said in a statement that “we do not agree with the commission’s mischaracterization of ALADS’ position on these issues,” adding that the organization “does not condone behavior that is unlawful or intentionally violates the standards of modern professional policing.”
He also said that the union has a legal obligation to defend and represent its members, but that the organization still believes there is a way to work together “to achieve common objectives without infringing on anyone’s rights.”
In addition to urging a new anti-gang policy and the creation of an improved reporting process to notify prosecutors, the report outlines more than two dozen other recommendations to tackle the long-standing problem, including firing captains who won’t support anti-gang policies and requiring deputies to hide any gang-related tattoos at work.
Luna did not immediately commit to following any of the recommendations, but in a statement Thursday he highlighted the changes he’s already made, such as creating a new office to “eradicate deputy gangs.”
“I was elected to bring new leadership and accountability to this department,” he wrote. “We look forward to working with the Civilian Oversight Commission and Inspector General on this in the future.”
Many of the findings outlined in the report are not new, but the detailed account adds to the growing understanding of how deputy subgroups operate and how they affect the department.
The report found that at least half a dozen “gangs” or “cliques” are still active, including the Executioners, the Banditos, the Regulators, the Spartans, the Gladiators, the Cowboys and the Reapers — and new groups may be forming as some members retire. And, the report noted, “there is some evidence indicating that deputy cliques are re-emerging in the Los Angeles County jails as the 4000 Boys.”
The report comes almost a year after the Civilian Oversight Commission officially launched the independent investigation into deputy “gangs.” The aims were to figure out which groups still existed within the department, assess whether existing department policies had been effective in combating them and make recommendations on how to root them out.
“The sheriff has repeatedly challenged anyone to come up with the evidence of deputy gangs, and our intention is to conduct a completely independent investigation,” Sean Kennedy, the commission’s chair, told
The Times last year, referencing then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva. “This issue has been languishing for over 50 years.”
The former sheriff repeatedly downplayed or denied the existence of gangs within the department, and when the independent investigation was announced — in the lead-up to the 2022 primary election — he called it a “fishing expedition” and “political theater.”
“The whole investigation, just like the fake courtroom, was a sham from the start,” Villanueva told the Times in an email. He dismissed the dozens of witnesses, saying many were either anonymous or people who are suing the department.
“Now Sheriff Luna has to pretend to eradicate phantom deputy gang members who don’t exist,” he added.
The deputy groups have been the subject of repeated inquiries, reports and lawsuits. More than a decade ago, the Board of Supervisors created the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence to investigate long-standing allegations of deputies abusing and beating inmates inside the county’s jails.
After the panel identified deputy groups as one of the contributors to the persistent abuse behind bars, the county created the current oversight commission in 2016 — on the heels of multiple federal indictments of deputies and the former sheriff, Lee Baca.
In 2021, the county commissioned an independent study by Rand Corp., which found that more than 15% of deputies and supervisors who responded to an anonymous survey had been invited to join a gang in the last five years.
And last year — the same week the oversight commission announced the special counsel’s inquiry — Inspector General Max Huntsman penned a letter telling the former sheriff that his investigators had identified more than 40 suspected gang members in the Sheriff’s Department, including 30 alleged Executioners and 11 alleged Banditos.
Given the long history of troubling allegations, attorney Vincent Miller — who represents several current and former deputies suing the department — said the new report is long overdue.
“My clients were pleased to see that the COC has confirmed what they and other whistleblowers told the county almost five years ago,” he said.
“The county has spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money to pay outside lawyers to defend the very conduct the COC report highlights,” Miller added. “My clients should have been treated as heroes, as they risked their careers and their safety as they sought to bring the Banditos issue to light.“
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