Supervisor Hilda Solis has decided it is way past time for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to deal with its deputy gang problem.
“The belief that secret subgroups exist has plagued the Sheriff’s Department for decades,” and now the problem must be “conclusively addressed for the sake of public trust and safety, deputy safety, and sheriff’s department morale,” Solis wrote in a new motion that will be up for a vote at Tuesday’s board meeting.
With this goal in mind, her motion asks for the Office of the Inspector General to start showing some progress with a previously ordered “comprehensive study” of said deputy cliques.
The motion also instructs Sheriff Alex Villanueva to direct LASD personnel to cooperate in this comprehensive study of deputy secret subgroups, “in accordance with his duty to the public and the deputies sworn to protect County residents.”
Furthermore, to make sure that all of the above is actually getting accomplished, the motion directs the OIG, County Counsel, and the Civilian Oversight Commission to report back to the Board within 90 days on the status of the study, “including the cooperation of the Sheriff.”
Solis’ motion was triggered by a new set of claims for damages that were filed against the county last Thursday, March 7.
The claims have been filed on behalf of seven department members, several of whom were reportedly beaten—two of them severely—on September 28, 2018, by members of the “Banditos,” the increasingly notorious deputy clique that appears to operate with impunity out of the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station.
As WitnessLA reported when we first broke the story of the Banditos brawl last year, the alleged assaults and beatings took place at an after-hours party that was held at Kennedy Hall, a rentable performance and event venue on South Atlantic Blvd in East LA. The party was organized by the station’s newest deputies to celebrate the end of their training period.
Even Alex Villanueva, who was at the time running for sheriff, reportedly attended the end-of-training party, which is a time-honored sheriff’s department tradition.
Witnesses say Villanueva left before the series of assaults occurred.
According to the new claims, just as the offsite party was beginning to wind down, the so-called Banditos members began verbally attacking a young deputy they’d previously been harassing at the station for months. When other deputies attempted to come to the young deputy’s rescue by calming the situation, they too were reportedly attacked, and things went downhill from there.
Before the melee had ended, among those injured, was one young deputy who was reportedly choked to the point of unconsciousness then “punched in the face.” Another young deputy was “sucker punched” then “jumped on while he was unconscious on the ground.” Some of the other claimants were also injured, but these two seemed to get the worst of it.
In the days afterward, one of the injured deputies reportedly said that, he’d wanted to be a cop all his life, and the hardest part of the painful beating was trying to explain to his family “that he was attacked by people he worked with,” armed cops trained to kill, “who are supposed to be upholding the law.”
The new claims are the first step toward eventually filing a federal civil lawsuit against LA County, in which the seven claimants will ask for tens of millions of dollars in damages, according to attorney Vince Miller, who is representing the seven.
Pressure and retaliation
As Miller explains it, last September’s brawl was a culmination of what he described as a long period of harassment of a group of young deputies, particularly Latino deputies, who didn’t go along with the Banditos way of doing things, which allegedly included enforcing “arrest quotas,” which are illegal in California, pushing deputies to stay on duty until they got the requisite number of arrests, righteous or not.
Finally in April and May of 2018, a training officer named Benjamin Zaredini, and a veteran deputy named Louis Granados, took their concerns about the pressure and intimidation the young deputies were enduring at the hands of the clique, to a lieutenant.
But, reportedly, the whistleblowing did no good.
According to Miller (plus additional sources familiar with the situation at the East LA station), part of the problem was that one of the Banditos shot callers was a female sergeant at the station named Patty Estrada, who goes by the nickname “Pink Hand,” a play on the infamous Black Hand that is a symbol adopted by La Eme, the Mexican Mafia prison gang.
Estrada is reportedly skilled at wielding influence, and went over the lieutenant’s head to the station’s captain persuading him to ignore the complaints.
As the same time, Estrada allegedly told her fellow Banditos about how Granados and Zaredini had gone to the lieutenant.
As a consequence, the harassment allegedly escalated and now the targets also included the two whistleblowers.
Now the coercion and intimidations consisted of the Banditos failing to provide back up “on dangerous calls in the field when back up is required,” according to the complaints.
The clique members also reportedly went so far as to empty the bullets out of the gun of one of their targets.
“There were two witnesses who saw that the bullets were there during the day,” but then “gone at the end of the day,” when the gun’s owner was going on patrol, Miller said.
The deputy with the magically disappearing bullets was one of the whistleblowers.
“At first, they’d key his car, erase his name from the board, and other petty stuff,” said Miller.
“But then they began endangering him—and by extension the community.”
The result, according to Miller is “a hostile environment at the station that has led to the deputies fearing their fellow officers more than the criminals in the street.”
Not a new problem
The Banditos problem is not a new one.
At least as far back as 1971, a secret subgroup called the “Little Devils” existed at the East Los Angeles station, according to Solis’ motion.
“In 1992, a watchdog panel pressed the Sheriff’s Department to root out these secret subgroups,” Solis wrote.
(This was after the Thomas class action lawsuit laid out the brutal and unconstitutional actions of the Lynwood Vikings in 52 harrowing pages.)
Twenty years later, in September 2012, the Citizen’s Commission for Jail violence wrote in their lengthy and scathing report that “for years management has known about and condoned deputy cliques and their destructive subcultures that have undermined the Core Values articulate by the Sheriff. These factors have contributed to force problems in the jails as well as numerous off-duty force incidents involving deputies.”
The CCJV’s point was further demonstrated in 2014, when Guadalupe Lopez, then a ten year veteran of the department, described in a civil lawsuit filed by attorney Greg Smith, how members of the Banditos, “sexually harassed, threatened and demanded sex from her” as part of “training” when she was transferred to the department’s East LA station in 2011. According to the lawsuit, when Lopez declined the personal advances, harassment, hazing and other forms of retaliation resulted. This allegedly included being run off the road by another deputy, being slammed hard into a wall while she held a loaded shotgun, and having dead rat placed under her car after she reported objectionable behavior by the group.
Lopez’ lawsuit was ultimately settled with LA County for $1,500,000.
But despite the high ticket settlement, with its alarming allegations, “nothing changed,” said Miller.
According to the seven claimants, since the time Sheriff Villanueva has taken office, nothing has improved either—even though Villanueva moved the previous captain out of the station, and installed a new captain in his place. A few other transfers have also taken place, but the Banditos, reportedly, remain untouched and intact.
Everybody relies on law enforcement, said Miller. “So if your law enforcement officers are getting attacked by other law enforcement, what does that say to the community?”
Now, Miller says he is hoping the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office will investigate the Banditos matter.
In the meantime, there’s Tuesday’s motion.
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