The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved payouts to settle seven separate claims or lawsuits against the county, including $7 million to be paid to the family of a 31-year-old man who was fatally shot by sheriff's deputies in 2016.
One of those two deputies, identified as Samuel Aldama, was at the center of complaints about renegade cliques of tattooed deputies that has led to ongoing investigations and reviews by the Sheriff's Department, Office of Inspector General and the Board of Supervisors.
During a deposition under oath, Aldama described a tattoo on his calf featuring a skull in a military-style helmet bearing the letters CPT for Compton, along with a rifle, encircled by flames. Aldama said he got the tattoo in June 2016, about two months before he was involved in Donta Taylor's fatal shooting.
In 2018, attorney John Sweeney, representing Taylor's family, played for reporters a portion of Aldama's videotaped deposition. At one point, Aldama is asked if he has any "ill feelings toward African Americans in general."
After a long pause, Aldama responds, "I do, sir," explaining, "I grew up in the city of Compton, sir."
"I've never heard testimony like that before in my life, and it was bone-chilling that I was sitting across the table from a person who has a badge and a gun," Sweeney said at the time.
Aldama and Deputy Mizrain Orrego, both assigned to a gang suppression detail in Compton, encountered Taylor shortly before 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 25, 2016, standing on the west sidewalk in the 400 block of Wilmington Avenue. Taylor was wearing a red hat with the letter C on the front that they believed identified him as part of a gang that controlled the area, according to a corrective action plan provided to the board.
When the deputies drove up and asked Taylor if he was on probation or parole, he said no and then reached down and "removed a semiautomatic stainless steel handgun from his waistband and ran from the deputy sheriffs," triggering a roundabout three-minute chase through residential streets, according to summaries prepared by the department and the District Attorney's Office.
On Arbutus Street, which ends in a storm flow wash, the deputies split up to try and block an escape route through a fence. They stated that once Taylor's escape was blocked on both sides, he pointed a gun at Orrego, who fired three shots that may or may not have struck their target.
Then Taylor ran through the fence toward Aldama, who was positioned at a blind corner and could not see Orrego.
"Fearing the decedent had just shot the second deputy sheriff," Aldama fired about 10 to 12 rounds at Taylor. Orrego then raced over and fired two or three more rounds at Taylor, who fell to the ground. Taylor, who was struck by six bullets, died at the scene.
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A weapon was never recovered, despite a search of the wash by deputies with at least one canine unit.
"They said he pointed ... a gun, (and) they tried to retrieve it, but they don't know where the gun (is) at," Taylor's cousin, Monique Desrosiers, said at the time. "If you shot somebody down, shouldn't the gun be lying somewhere?"
Gunshot residue testing from Taylor's hands was inconclusive, however, gunshot residue was detected in his pockets and waistband, according to the District Attorney's Office report. Lawyers for the county recommended the $7 million settlement, citing the risks and uncertainties of litigation, and the board approved the matter without comment. A summary prepared for the board stated that "the deputies deny the allegations (of excessive force) and contend their actions were reasonable."
In August 2017, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office concluded there was "insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Deputies Orrego and Aldama did not act in self-defense and in defense of others."
That language is weaker than typically used by the D.A.'s office in clearing deputies, but the report also stated that Taylor was on parole for being a felon in possession of a firearm and had THC and methamphetamines in his bloodstream at the time of the shooting.
During the chase, "the risk of the officers being led into an ambush or increasingly dangerous situation, and being isolated from the immediate assistance of other deputies, was palpable," according to that report.
This March, the Executive Force Review Committee determined the use of deadly force was within department policy, but the tactics were in violation of policy.
"Appropriate administrative action has been taken," according to the corrective action plan, which provided no further details.
Aldama and Orrego are also named in a pending federal lawsuit filed by Sheldon Lockett, a Compton man who alleges that they severely beat him without cause in January 2016, while repeatedly using racial slurs, which the deputies deny.
No mention was made in county documents about deputy cliques, but Taylor's family had sought to force the department to reveal whether they know the names of deputies who have matching skull tattoos at the Compton station, according to the Los Angeles Times.
A judge ruled in favor of the family, but the case was settled before any information was released, the newspaper reported.
"The county was wise to have settled this case because full exposure of this clique or gang may have resulted in a floodgate of litigation against the county of Los Angeles," Sweeney told The Times.
In April, the Board of Supervisors directed staffers to calculate the total cost of all legal claims and settlements dating back to 1990 related to secret societies of deputies accused of violence against jail inmates and harassing fellow deputies.
The board also called for an evaluation of "corrective action plans" put in place to try and fix root causes.
"Deputy gangs have cost the county many millions of dollars in claims and settlements, and have fostered a climate of inhumane treatment of inmates and civilians," Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said at the time.
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 in 2011 that cliques at the 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."
Members of the secret groups are often identified by tattoos, but Supervisor Kathryn Barger has said some deputies get a tattoo as a badge of pride in the station they represent, comparing it to a Marine Corps enblem.
The Office of Inspector General and the Civilian Oversight Commission are also studying the cliques, prompted by legal claims filed by a group of young Latino deputies from the sheriff's East L.A. Station who say they were terrorized and assaulted by members of the "Banditos."
Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said the results of the investigation into the East L.A. Station would ultimately be presented to the District Attorney's Office for review, even as some of his critics accused him of taking the issue of tattoos too lightly.