The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to study cliques of tattooed sheriff's deputies implicated in problems ranging from violence against jail inmates to harassing fellow members of the department.
Supervisor Hilda Solis recommended the study, citing legal claims filed last week by a group of young Latino deputies from the sheriff's East Los Angeles Station who say they were terrorized by members of the "Banditos."
"The public deserves to be served by law enforcement that they trust. However, unprofessional, threatening and dangerous behavior by a small minority of sheriff's deputies violates that trust," Solis said.
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"We must move quickly and expeditiously to change a culture that allows secret cliques of sheriff's deputies to flourish -- so that these cliques can be eliminated once and for all."
The claims allege that the Banditos target young Latino patrol deputies, overloading them with calls and not providing needed backup. On Sept. 28, following a department party, the Banditos allegedly surrounded and attacked young deputies in a parking lot as other members of the department stood by, according to the claims.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva told the board the incident is under investigation, but the case will ultimately be presented to the District Attorney's Office for review.
Villanueva did not mention that the lawsuit alleged he attended the Sept. 28 department party. The claim says Villanueva left the party before the attack in which one new recruit was allegedly punched in the face, "choked out" and nearly strangled by his colleagues, while another was "sucker punched" and knocked unconscious.
There have been complaints for years about cliques or gangs within the Sheriff's Department -- one called the "Little Devils" was active as far back as 1971 -- and a watchdog panel called for their elimination in 1992.
The Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence reported on cliques that ran the sheriff's Century Station as a fiefdom and whose members refused to talk to internal affairs investigators and were accused of extorting other deputies.
The commission said clique members at Men's Central Jail were "highly resistant to supervision, committed acts of open insubordination, and sought to intimidate, bully and undermine supervisors whose policies they did not like."
The commission concluded that cliques likely contributed to a significant increase in the use of force against jail inmates.
A Lynwood Station clique called the "Vikings" was the subject of an excessive force lawsuit in the 1990s that cost the county $9 million to settle.
Members of the deputy gangs are identified by tattoos. The Banditos have tattoos of a skeleton with a sombrero, bandoleer and pistol.
Villanueva said tattoos are very common within the culture of law enforcement and the military and told the board that he cannot legally restrict deputies from getting tattoos.
"Every single station has a tattoo, a station logo and some type of tattoo. And so (do) most military units, fire departments, individual city police -- it's very common within the culture. The problem is not the tattoo or even the name," but the behavior, Villanueva said.
Solis cut him off, saying that members earn their tattoos through induction rites that include force and hazing.
Solis pointed to a $1.5 million settlement paid to a female deputy who was sexually harassed and threatened by fellow deputies.
"She also said that after calling out the Banditos for their behavior, she was run off the road by another deputy and was slammed into a wall while holding a loaded shotgun and had a dead rat placed under her car," Solis said.
Villanueva said when he was coming up in the department, cliques were benign.
"I never had a tattoo. I was never treated any differently," Villanueva said. "This is something that's more of a newer phenomenon ...What happened today is an absolute failure of leadership."
Asked what he'd done to change the current culture, Villanueva said he made the East Los Angeles Station a priority.
"The day I was sworn in, Dec. 3 ... that was the very first act we did ... was to change the leadership of East L.A. Station ... because I no longer had faith in their leadership," Villanueva said. "And it didn't stop there."
The new East Los Angeles unit commander has changed station management and is holding people accountable, according to Villanueva.
Villanueva said policies on hazing and treatment of subordinates are also being reviewed.
"We've taken every single affirmative step we can take at this time," Villanueva said, including relieving deputies of duty pending potential criminal charges.
Villanueva said he was happy to cooperate with any study.
The board directed the Office of Inspector General, Civilian Oversight Commission and county counsel to conduct the study with input from deputy unions and community members.
A report back is expected in 90 days.