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Judge says L.A. County sheriff's officials must reveal if they know which deputies have skull tattoos

Judge says L.A. County sheriff's officials must reveal if they know which deputies have skull tattoos
L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy Samuel Aldama admitted as part of a lawsuit that he has a skull tattoo on his calf and that as many as 20 other deputies at the Compton station have the same tattoo. (Sweeney Firm / Glickman & Glickman)

A judge said Thursday that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials must reveal whether they know the names of deputies who have matching skull tattoos at the Compton station.

Allegations about a secret society of inked deputies at the station have been at the center of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Donta Taylor, who was shot and killed by deputies in 2016.

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Superior Court Judge Michael P. Vicencia stopped short of ordering the department to force deputies to bare their skin to show whether they have tattoos, but he left open the possibility that officers could be compelled to answer questions about their ink if they’re given the chance to object first.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t get the information,” Vicencia said to the family’s attorney at the hearing in Long Beach. “But this is unusual. I don’t know I’ve ever seen this before.”

John Sweeney, who represents the family of Taylor, who was black, has argued the shooting was carried out by members of a racist deputy clique that targets black residents. He said the identities of the group’s members among the 163 deputies at the Compton station should be known.

One of the deputies involved in the shooting, Samuel Aldama, admitted in a deposition in May to having a tattoo on his calf of a skull with a rifle and a military-style helmet with flames surrounding it. He said as many as 20 other deputies at the Compton station have the same tattoo.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced in July that he was launching a “comprehensive study” in conjunction with the county and the office of the inspector general into whether gang-like groups of inked deputies were operating in his ranks.

But Chandler Parker, an attorney for the county, told the judge Thursday that the county has not conducted any surveys about which deputies have matching ink.

“We don’t know the names. We never sent an email asking for that. There was never a broad inquiry by [Compton station] Capt. [Michael] Thatcher or anyone for deputies to reveal themselves,” he said.

Parker and Millicent L. Rolon, another county attorney, declined to answer questions about whether McDonnell’s inquiry would have turned up names of tattooed deputies.

Even if the department had a list of the inked deputies, Parker said, the officers would still have a right to privacy in keeping that information under wraps. He said asking numerous deputies about their tattoos would be inappropriate.

Vicencia’s directive means the county, on behalf of the Sheriff’s Department, must answer whether department officials know the names of, or have a list of, deputies with the matching tattoo.

Vicencia said Sweeney can file a Pitchess motion, which is a request to access a law enforcement officer’s confidential personnel records. That discovery process would allow Compton station deputies to object before any information about tattoos is revealed.

Sweeney said the process could compel the department to find out whether deputies have tattoos, if that information is not already known.

“I don’t believe for one second that they don’t know who has these tattoos,” he said.

Also Thursday, members of the department’s civilian oversight commission agreed to form an ad hoc committee to look at the issue of secret societies.

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Some commissioners expressed frustration that the department hasn’t updated the commission on the status of the inquiry McDonnell announced in July.

“There has been no information coming to us,” said commission chairwoman Patti Giggans, who is also the executive director of Peace Over Violence, a social service nonprofit. “We keep saying everybody is taking this seriously, but there have been no updates.”

Commissioner Robert Bonner said he’s “in the dark as to the basic questions” the inquiry was supposed to address, which “bothers me.” Commissioner Lael Rubin said McDonnell’s study is “too important of an issue for us to sit idly while we wait for people to come back with information.”

The problem of cliques is long-standing in the department, said Max Huntsman, the county’s inspector general.

“The county is a slow beast and we’re doing everything we can to move it faster,” he said. “There does seem to be a sea change with how they’re addressing this.”

A statement sent by department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said an administrative investigation into the shooting is still underway, but that the agency can’t otherwise comment on the Taylor case.

Nishida referred questions about the wider tattoo inquiry to Brian Williams, executive director of the oversight commission. Williams said Thursday that the department appears to be looking into the issue and that county counsel is trying to hire a consultant to perform the study.

Williams said he would ask that the sheriff provide an update at the commission’s meeting next month.

Matching tattoos have long been part of a fraternity subculture in the Sheriff’s Department. Three decades ago, a federal judge said a deputy group known as the Vikings was a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang.”

Department watchdogs have raised concerns over the last few decades that cliques promote excessive force and have called on the department to break up any groups exhibiting gang-like behavior.

In the incident that led to the lawsuit, Aldama and another deputy, Mizrain Orrego, approached Taylor on Aug. 25, 2016, and asked him if he was on parole or probation. The deputies alleged that Taylor, 31, pulled out a handgun and ran away from them, according to a memo prepared by the L.A. County district attorney’s office about the incident.

The deputies chased Taylor and fatally shot him. One of the deputies claimed he saw Taylor moving toward him with a weapon, the memo says. No weapon was recovered.

6:10 p.m.: This article was updates with comments from a department spokeswoman.

3:40 p.m.: This article was updated with information from the sheriff’s civilian oversight commission.

This article was originally published at 2:05 p.m.

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