The last week wasn’t an easy period for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and some of the community members they were policing.
Over the weekend, an Instagram video went viral of an incident in the Santa Clarita Valley, which took place after three skateboarding kids, two of whom happened to be Black, were being physically harassed by a homeless guy brandishing a knife, causing onlookers, including the manager of the nearby Buffalo Wild Wings, to call the cops to help the kids. But when LA County Sheriff’s deputies arrived on scene, they held the two Black teenagers at gunpoint, with frightening intensity, and reportedly didn’t bother with the knife-wielding homeless man.
“This is something my son and his friends will never forget,” wrote Tammi Collins, the mother of one of the skaters held at gunpoint by the LASD deputies, who posted one of the Instagram videos of the incident. “I still wonder how will I ever help my son recover from this traumatic experience. Please pray for my family.”
On Monday afternoon, Sheriff Alex Villanueva made an announcement about the incident, also on Instagram, in which he said he had “concerns regarding the tactics employed” and that the “matter is being investigated.”
On Friday, an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, written by León Krauze, the lead anchor at KMEX, Univision’s station in Los Angeles, suggested that, the LA Sheriff’s department “should stop its posturing and answer for the killing of Andrés Guardado.”
And there is the ongoing issue of the Executioners, the most recent deputy gang that has come to the public’s attention, courtesy of the story WitnessLA broke late last month.
In the past few days, another deputy has prepared to file a civil rights lawsuit against the department due to his experiences with this tattooed deputy clique that operates out of the LASD’s Compton station.
(More on that later.)
And on Sunday, Compton’s mayor, Aja Brown, along with other community members, told ABC7’s Carlos Granda and Lisa Bartley a string of painful stories of mistreatment by Compton sheriff’s deputies, some of it quite recent, as they called for an investigation into the station’s “rogue deputy gang.” In addition, according to Sunday’s ABC7 story, Compton officials are continuing to question their contract with the LASD for policing.
About those deputy gangs
Now, a new rigorously researched report takes an in-depth look at the corrosive effects that deputy gangs inside the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have had — and are still having — on constitutional policing across LA County.
The report is scheduled to come out in September. However, WitnessLA has obtained a draft copy of the 28-page report, titled Fifty Years of “Deputy Gangs” in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department: Identifying Root Causes and Effects to Advocate for Meaningful Reforms, which allows us to give you a preview of the conclusions the researchers have drawn.
The report is authored by the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy (CJLP), a well-respected legal clinic at Loyola Law School (founded in 2004 by public defender Cyn Yamashiro), which trains law students to “holistically represent at-risk youth in delinquency proceedings,” and to do so pro bono.
The clinic is overseen by Loyola Law Professor Sean Kennedy, who was formerly the Federal Public Defender for California’s Central District.
For the past few years — in addition to his teaching and mentoring at Loyola — Kennedy is a member of the LA County Sheriff’s Department’s Civilian Oversight Commission (COC). He has become the COC’s resident expert on the deputy clique issue.
Yet, according to Kennedy, altogether apart from his oversight duties, an entirely different set of circumstances put the matter of LASD’s deputy cliques on his radar.
He explained how the members of his clinic represent clients in East LA, South LA, and other Los Angeles neighborhoods in juvenile court, pro bono. Not surprisingly, many of the clinic’s young clients are gang-involved — or accused of it, sometimes when they’re not — thus have been charged with gang enhancements, Kennedy said.
But, when his young attorneys met with the kids, their clients repeatedly described disturbing behavior on the part of local deputies. “Look the sheriff who arrested me and is acting as a gang expert,” they said, or words to that effect, “he’s in a gang himself.”
At first this seemed to be an extraordinary claim, Kennedy said. But after he and his clinic members, kept hearing that same message, they began to perform a new kind of due diligence.
“And when we started to look into it, we began to find serious evidence that the kids may be right.”
That pattern drew him and his law students to become interested in looking into the history of deputy gangs or cliques, in general, as well as into the cliques that appeared to be the most active, which in turn produced a series of papers for the COC, that WLA has cited previously.
Along with giving an overview of the department’s deputy cliques and gangs, the new report then analyzes the larger picture of how LASD “deputy gangs” have negatively impacted policing in Los Angeles, at the same time they have grievously “infected the fairness of legal proceedings” in the Los Angeles Superior Court.
“We have at least a 50-year history of unchecked deputy gangs in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department,” Kennedy told WitnessLA. “The East LA Station is something of an incubator of deputy gangs,” he said, referring to the historic deputy clique known as the “Little Devils” or “Red Devils,” which was based in the East Los Angeles Station as far back as 1970, according to the report, “making it one of the earliest known deputy gangs.”
Now, of course, the Little Devils are long gone. Instead, the station is home to the Banditos, and to a station motto that characterizes the station as Fort Apache, a reference, that the report points out, “harkens back to the 1948 John Ford western of the same name, in which a remote U.S. cavalry outpost is surrounded by enemies whom the white officers regard as dangerous ‘savages.'”
A deputy gang, as the report defines it, is a subculture within the station “that has decided to meet together secretly, get a numbered tattoos, usually on the ankle or calf (but sometimes in other locations).
The tattoo, the CJLP authors write, “is usually a menacing figure,” such as a skeleton with a gun. The tattooed images “celebrate violence” and are sometimes numbered, so you know who was admitted when in the gang.
In the cases of certain gangs, “when you commit a police shooting or an act of violence, you may have your tattoo enhanced or embellished,” write the report’s authors. And the embellishments are a sign of status.
“The gangs have an us-against-them culture in the station, in which the deputy gang members view themselves as the best, most aggressive, gung-ho law enforcement officers. And they advance a heavy-handed, violent approach to policing.”
In general, the deputy gangs thrive in struggling communities, like East LA, South LA, and Compton, and also in the Antelope Valley stations where the Rattlesnakes are a deputy clique.
(Regarding the Rattlesnakes, the report notes that, the existence of that particular clique is corroborated by a 2013 U.S. Department of Justice report, which found “some Antelope Valley deputies wear tattoos or share paraphernalia with an intimidating skull and snake symbol as a mark of their affiliation with the Antelope Valley stations,” according to the DOJ writings. “Though there are varying interpretations of what these tattoos symbolize, they provide an undeniable visual representation of a gulf between deputies and the community and are an unfortunate reminder of LASD’s history of symbols associated with problematic deputy behavior.”
A blueprint for change
When asked what he and his team hope to accomplish with the CJLP report, Kennedy told WitnessLA that he and his student researchers mean the report to be “objective and fair-minded,” with a blueprint for change.
The problem of deputy gangs has “been going on for 50 years, with all the county institutions looking the other way,” he said. “And I think most everyone understands that ignoring the problem has allowed deputy gangs to proliferate, and has made everything associated with them….worse.”
So the goal, according to Kennedy, “is to prompt real conversation” about what to do.
“There’s no doubt that we have a problem with deputy gangs. The jury is not out,” he said. “The idea that this is an open question for the Rand Corporation to answer, misses the point. I think the real question is: Now that we admit we’ve allowed this monster to grow, how do we fix it?”
It is that last question, having to do with solutions, that Kennedy says he and his volunteer law students have been working on for two years.
One critical first step, according to Kennedy, is to “demand that the sheriff release everything that is known about about all the different gangs and cliques. And then we have to ask why are all these young deputies want to join? Why is this an attractive option?”
The other critical question, according to Kennedy, is “why, year after year, do we see these militaristic clique gangs with names and symbols that vilify the people they are supposed to be assisting?”
Kennedy mentions former President Barack Obama’s 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing, “which repeatedly talks about policing through the lens of one basic question: “Do you have a warrior police culture, or a guardian police culture.”
The intention of the report is not to be critical of the department members, according to Kennedy. Having been on the COC for a few years now, said Kennedy, he’s come to understand the challenges police face daily.
“And I’ve met so many people in the department that I respect and like.”
But, “overall,” he said, for all those good people, “there is a dangerous culture of us-against-them, a culture of the warrior and the occupying army, that pervades the institution.”
Whereas, he said, the “guardian police culture cares what the members of the community being policed think.”
Yet, the warrior culture sees command and control as the highest value.
Exceptionalism, but not in a good way
LASD management has often stated that law enforcement gangs exist in many other departments, according to the Kennedy/Loyola reports, past and present.
“But my students and I have canvassed national newspapers and have not found reporting about law enforcement gangs in other jurisdictions, except for shorter periods of time in New Orleans and Oakland,” Kennedy said.
This suggests, he said, “that the problem is more unique to LASD than their management would like to admit.”
Furthermore, he said, “the failure of elected LA Sheriffs to do anything affirmative to investigate the internal gangs is likely one of the major reasons that they have persisted for so long.”
Yes, the LAPD had its notorious Rampart division in the early 1990s, a massive scandal that produced a sharp-toothed federal consent decree. But, while the LAPD still has some considerable challenges, worrying about gangster cops on the street has rarely been one of them. After the Rampart debacle, certain department leaders, including in 2002, the then head of the LAPD’s Training Division, George Gasćon, (who is now running for LA District Attorney against incumbent, Jackie Lacey) and a year later, LAPD Chief Bill Bratton, both used the consent decree as a tool to push through much needed reforms aimed at shoving the department culture toward constitutional policing.
Yet, decade after decade, write the Loyola researchers, under administration after administration, the LASD has declined to face its own urgent need for such reform when it comes to deputy cliques.
Clinging to deputy cliques has been costly, according to the report, which points to the estimate by the Office of Inspector General that, since 1990, LA County has spent at least $50 million on settlements and judgments related to use-of-force and misconduct by deputies known to have a clique tattoo.
But, write the authors, the actual settlement total is likely far higher, because, unless civil rights attorneys manage to turn up evidence of gangsters with badges who were prominently involved with their client’s case, “LASD management has refused to investigate whether any deputy involved in a shooting is affiliated with a deputy gang.”
(One of the most prominent cases in which a victim did know a deputy gangster was involved was in the case of the wrongful conviction of Franky Carrillo, which was followed by 20 years in prison for the kid who had no criminal record. Carrillo always knew that his conviction was materially helped along by at least one admitted member of the Lynwood Vikings, who turned out to have manipulated evidence. In Carrillo’s case, his attorney, Ron Kaye, who made sure the deputy gang issue was included, got a settlement of $10.1 million for his client.)
The “to do” list
In its final section that is dedicated to solutions, the CJLP report points to the Twenty-First Century Policing model, which “emphasizes public transparency, meaningful engagement with oversight bodies, collaboration with community- based organizations, and true accountability for deputy misconduct.”
Implementing this kind of model “of constitutional and community policing,” would be the best path forward for culture change “and the eradication of deputy gangs and cliques within the LASD,” according to the report’s authors.
But that prescriptive is also pretty general. With this in mind, the report offers nine specific recommendations, which are as follows:
- The LASD should enforce its new policy (3-01/050.83) prohibiting deputies from participating in subgroups that violate the rights of others;
- The LASD should acknowledge the existence of all known deputy gangs and cliques and disclose all internal documents about the gangs and cliques pursuant to the Public Records Act.
- Los Angeles deputy district attorneys should affirmatively ask sheriff’s deputies expected to testify as prosecution witnesses whether they belong to a deputy gang or clique and, if they do, disclose this affiliation to the defense prior to trial pursuant to Brady v. Maryland;
- Defense counsel should move pursuant to Pitchess v. Superior Court to discover if any sheriff’s deputies involved in the investigation of the charged offenses is affiliated with a deputy gang or clique;
- The Los Angeles Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) should host town halls in East Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, Compton, and the Antelope Valley to solicit community input about deputy gangs or cliques operating in these areas;
- The COC should direct the Office of Inspector General to investigate all current deputy gangs and, if necessary, use its subpoena power to obtain testimony and documents regarding the deputy gangs;
- The Sheriff should regularly attend COC public hearings in order to engage with the commission and community members about how to address the longstanding problem of deputy gangs and cliques within the department;
- An institutional defender or non-profit organization should create and maintain a database of all deputies known to be affiliated with a deputy gang or clique and catalogue specific acts of misconduct associated with the gang or clique;
- ‘The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors should direct its counsel to stop seeking non-disclosure agreements as a condition of settlement in civil suits where the NDA facilitates hiding deputy gang misconduct from the public.
When the final CJLP report comes out next month, we look forward to learning how it is received.
More as we know it.
Photo at top of East LA community members speaking out about deputy gangs at Thursday, July 11, 2019 COC forum, via WitnessLA