Saying he has zero tolerance toward alleged deputy cliques, most notably in the East Los Angeles station, Sheriff Alex Villanueva Thursday announced a crackdown potentially involving the suspension or firing of more than two dozen deputies.
"I'm adopting a zero-tolerance policy," Villanueva said, noting that a comprehensive investigation of the groups' existence and an aggressive stance is being taken against deputy subgroups and cliques accused of glorifying an aggressive style of policing. "If you form a group and you mistreat people, yes, we will seek to make sure you are no longer a member of the department."
Alleged deputy subgroups or cliques -- including the so-called "Banditos" group in the East L.A. station -- have long plagued the sheriff's department. The Los Angeles Times reported this month that the county has paid out roughly $55 million in settlements in cases dating back to 1990 in which sheriff's deputies were alleged to belong to violent secret societies.
The subgroups continued to operate through a succession of elected sheriffs despite multiple internal investigations and, more recently, a probe by the FBI. Many civil liberties advocates and county watchdogs have accused the sheriff's department of turning a blind eye.
The issue came to a head in 2018 when a melee erupted among East Los Angeles deputies during a party at Kennedy Hall. Villanueva stressed that the fight occurred 10 weeks before he took office, but he said he made sure the department acted: removing that station's leadership team and transferring 36 sworn personnel to other stations.
"I will not tolerate any group of employees who mistreats any member of the community or any member of the department, period," he said.
Villanueva said following a full investigation into the Kennedy Hall fight, 26 deputies were being sent letters of intent notifying them of possible suspension or termination.
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Villanueva said there's little evidence to support claims that groups of deputies are behaving as gangs or hurting the public. He emphasized that the alleged groups are more often victimizing their fellow deputies. Either way, he said such misconduct will no longer be tolerated.
Matthew Burson, chief of the department's professional standard division, is leading the charge against alleged deputy subgroups that he said are commonly referred to as "deputy gangs," with names such as Vikings, Reapers, Regulators, Little Devils, Cowboys, 2,000 and 3,000 Boys, Jump Out Boys, and most recently Banditos and Executioners.
"I take the utmost pride in this profession. I am absolutely sickened by the mere allegation of any deputy hiding behind a badge to hurt anyone," Burson said. "As you have heard for decades, LASD has been under intense scrutiny as a result of these groups surfacing in various sheriff's stations around the county. (The groups') have not only caused great embarrassment and concern to the department but to the community as well."
He said he has reached out to the FBI to help with the investigation.
The department has also adopted a new policy prohibiting deputies from participating in any subversive group.
"Our mission under Sheriff Villanueva's administration is to eradicate this malicious ideology and restore the department to prominence using the first pillar of the 21st Century policing strategy where we build public trust and legitimacy," Burson said.