Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell has launched a comprehensive inquiry into secret deputy cliques and is looking into whether gangs that condone illicit behavior are operating within his ranks, he said Thursday.
McDonnell’s announcement at a meeting of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission comes two weeks after allegations surfaced that as many as 20 deputies at the Compton Station have matching tattoos featuring a skeleton holding a rifle.
A Compton deputy recently admitted under oath that he was inked with the skull logo in June 2016, about two months before he was involved in a fatal shooting, The Times reported.
Watchdogs said the revelations were alarming given the department’s long history of secret societies that promoted excessive force and enforced a code of silence.
McDonnell, who was elected in 2014 on a promise to reform a corrupt agency, said he is partnering with the Sheriff’s Inspector General and county counsel to study why the groups form, whether they are exclusive, if members are required to act a certain way and if they endorse bad behavior.
“Renegade cliques erode public confidence as well as internal morale, and they will not be tolerated within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” McDonnell said.
He said he wanted the deputy unions to join in the examination. He stopped short of calling his effort an investigation, but he added that a separate administrative probe into the 2016 shooting is still underway.
In August 2016, Compton Station Deputy Samuel Aldama and another deputy shot at a man they said was holding a gun. An autopsy showed the man, Donta Taylor, was shot six times.
Investigators didn’t find a weapon on or near Taylor’s body, but said gunshot residue on his shorts suggested he’d had a gun there at some point. The district attorney’s office said the deputies acted lawfully.
As part of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Taylor’s family, Aldama admitted in a deposition in May that he is one of 10 to 20 of his colleagues who have the tattoo featuring the skeleton with the letters “C P T” for Compton.
Aldama said the ink represented “working hard” and was not associated with an exclusive club or with using force.
Priscilla Ocen, a Loyola Law School professor and member of the oversight commission, said McDonnell’s effort was “a good first step.”
“But the question is, if we investigate and find that there is a rampant culture of cliques or gangs in the Sheriff’s Department, then what will be done about it?” she asked.
At the meeting, Ocen asked McDonnell if his inquiry would extend to his top-level executives and whether they have clique tattoos. McDonnell replied that it would, but he said he’s confident that members of his command staff are people of integrity.
Sean Kennedy, who also serves on the commission and is the executive director of Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, said it would be statistically likely that some Sheriff’s Department executives have the tattoos.
“I think the public has a right to know if high-level police managers are members of a gang,” Kennedy said.
Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida declined to say whether any Sheriff’s executives have clique tattoos, saying the question “makes assumptions that are unwarranted.” She said while all deputies have the right to free speech, the department will not tolerate offensive behavior.
Secret societies in the department date at least as far back as the 1970s and have had names like the Regulators, Grim Reapers and Jump Out Boys. Some of the cliques have been accused of endorsing highly aggressive policing. Nearly 30 years ago, a federal judge said the Vikings club was a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang.”
The topic is divisive, with some deputies defending the groups as a way to honor hardworking, law-abiding officers.
The discussion of deputy tattoos made for an especially contentious meeting. At one point, Robert Bonner, a commissioner and former federal judge, got up from his post and walked out of the room after sparring with a member of the public who made disparaging comments toward him and McDonnell.
Kim McGill, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition, also spoke, saying the deputy cliques should be called “gangs” if they fit the statutory definition of a gang as a group of three or more people who commit crimes and adopt a common symbol or name.
Nishida said the tattoo study’s findings will be issued in a public report.
McDonnell said he expects to be able to give a report on the review in about three months.
“At the end of the day, everyone, most importantly our public, should be confident that there are no ‘gangs’ of deputies operating subversively anywhere within the department,” McDonnell said.