Thursday, April 21, 2022

Sheriff Alex Villanueva is Obstructing Attempts to Eradicate Deputy Gangs from the LASD

By Sean Kennedy, Kaplan & Feldman Executive Director, Center for Juvenile Law & Policy

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has tolerated deputy gangs within its ranks for at least 50 years.

Our Legislature recently enacted Penal Code Section 13670 - effective Jan. 1, 2022. The new law requires law enforcement agencies to adopt a written policy prohibiting members from participating in a "law enforcement gang" and authorizes agencies to terminate members who violate that policy. Section 13670 also requires any agency that terminated a member for participating in a law enforcement gang to disclose the reason for the termination to other agencies that are considering hiring the former member. The legislative history reveals that the longstanding problem of "deputy gangs" in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was the impetus for enacting Section 13670.

The first known deputy gang, the Little Red Devils, started at East Los Angeles station - where Sheriff Alex Villanueva started his career. Records from Sheriff Peter Pitchess's administration reflect that investigators compiled a list of dozens of' deputies with sequentially numbered devil tattoos to ascertain whether they were engaged in misconduct. After this 1973 investigation, LASD leadership stopped compiling lists of internal tattooed groups based on the questionable assertion that such investigations would violate deputies' right to freedom of association under the First Amendment. To this day, the LASD uses this rationale as an excuse for not investigating deputy gangs, even after receiving County Counsel's 2021 memorandum advising that there is no First Amendment bar to banning deputy gangs.

In 1990, the NAACP filed a civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of scores of Lynwood residents alleging that the LASD tolerated racially motivated violence committed by a tattooed group of deputies known as the Vikings. After U.S. District .Judge Terry Hatter characterized the Vikings as "a neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang" that operated under leaders who "tacitly authorized deputies' unconstitutional behavior, the County settled the suit for $9 million. A 1992 commission headed by Judge James Kolts concluded that the Vikings "appeared at least in times past to have engaged in behavior that is brutal and intolerable and is typically associated with a street gang."

In 2012, a sergeant discovered a written creed of a tattooed group of deputies known as the Jump out Boys inside a LASD patrol car used by the Gang Enforcement Team. The creed boasted that the Jump out Boys "understand when the line needs to be crossed and crossed back; and directed members to memorialize deputy-involved shootings in a secret black book, While some members of the .Jump out Boys were terminated, most or all were reinstated by the Civil Service Protection process.

In 2018, several deputies celebrating the end of training were severely beaten by a tattooed group of deputies from the East Los Angeles station known as the Banditos. After investigating the incident, the Inspect General reported, "Substantial evidence exists to support the conclusion that the Banditos are gang-like and their influence has resulted in favoritism, sexism, racism, and violence:” Most recently, deputies from the Compton station have alleged that a tattooed group of deputies called "the Executioners" discriminated against female and African American deputies, engaged in racial profiling, and hosted shooting parties to celebrate deputy-involved shootings. Photos of demonic tattoos worn by the Grim Reapers, the Banditos, and the Executioners are all over social media.

Deputy gangs are in the jails as well as at patrol stations. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published a 1999 report on policing in Los Angeles that identified an "organized vigilante group" of deputies known as the Posse. According to the Commission, Posse members assaulted mentally ill inmates in Twin Towers because they opposed reforms to treat mentally ill inmates like patients, rather than prisoners. Then-sheriff Sherman Block lamented, "There are some people in the system who think we are coddling, and by God, they're going to set up their own brand of punishment."

Thirteen years later, in 2012, the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence concluded that tattooed ''deputy cliques" inside Men's Central Jail, such as the 2000 Boys and the 3000 Thousand Boys, "contributed to acts of insubordination, aggressive behavior, and excessive force in the jail for many years."

Citing a lack of evidence that is belied by the historical record, Sheriff Villanueva denies there are any deputy gangs within the department. At the same time, he has refused to investigate alleged deputy gang members - characterizing calls for an investigation as a witch-hunt" motivated by racism against Latinos. It goes without saying that if the Sheriff won't investigate alleged deputy gangs, he will never find any evidence one way or another.

The residents of Los Angeles County have paid a high price for the LASD leadership's failure to address gang culture within the ranks. Deputy gangs undermine constitutional policing, escalate uses of force, and sow distrust between the LASD and the communities they are supposed to serve. By valorizing aggressive policing and deputy shootings, deputy gangs foster an "us-against-them" culture that socializes deputies to view themselves as at war with the communities they are supposed to serve. A compilation of all deputy-involved shootings in Los Angeles County during the last five years reveals that LASD stations with active deputy gangs had significantly more deputy-involved shootings than other stations. The County Counsel estimates that the taxpayers have spent at least $55 million for settlements and judgments related to alleged deputy gang misconduct. Because LASD leadership refuses to investigate deputy gangs, prosecutors do not know and therefore do not comply with their constitutional duty to disclose to the defense that a particular sheriff witness belongs to a deputy gang - a fact that impeaches their credulity and reveals their bias on the stand.

Section 13670 creates an opportunity for the LASD to reverse course and eradicate deputy gangs once and for all. LASD leadership for years has claimed they cannot investigate tattooed groups absent proof that deputies committed specific felonies constituting a "pattern of criminal activity" that support a conviction for a criminal gang enhancement under the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act). Not anymore, Section 13670 defines a "law enforcement gang" as "a group of peace officers...who may identify themselves by a name and may be associated with an identifying symbol, including, but not limited to matching tattoos, and who engage in a pattern of on-duty behavior that intentionally violates the law or principles of professional policing." The definition of a law enforcement gang under Section 13670 is much broader than the traditional definition of a "criminal street gang" under the STEP Act. The new law prohibits a wide variety of gang-related misconduct and unconstitutional policing, rather than just the felonies listed in the STEP Act. These differences between Section 13670 and the STEP Act obviate LASD leadership's past justifications for refusing to investigate and terminate deputies actively participating in a law enforcement gang.

Section 13670 also directs, "A law enforcement agency shall cooperate in any investigation into these gangs by an inspector general, the Attorney General, or any other authorized authority." This provision will require Sheriff Villanueva to change his ways. He has refused to comply with subpoenas to testify and produce records regarding deputy gangs - even after courts have held that he is obligated to do so - and resisted oversight focused on reining in the gang. Sheriff Villanueva must abandon these obstructionist tactics and collaborate with oversight authorities to eradicate deputy gangs from the LASD.

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