Report details LA Sheriff’s deputy gangs and violence toward communities of color
For the past several years, Sean Kennedy, a Loyola law professor and his students noticed a troubling pattern forming within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and its well-documented deputy gang problem.
A sheriff downplays or denies the problem of the deputy cliques.
A scandal erupts, usually from a lawsuit or reporting by the Los Angeles Times, exposing one of the deputy gangs and alleged misconduct like lying in court or during investigations.
The sheriff pledges to investigate the issue.
The findings of those investigations — such as those promised by former sheriffs like John Scott and Jim McDonnell — are never released to the public.
And the gangs, some of whom have a history of violence and harassment toward fellow department employees and members of the public, live on in relative secrecy.
Despite a growing list of allegations of misconduct by deputy gangs revealed in various commission reports and external investigations, Kennedy, who is also a member of the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission, said the Sheriff’s Department has struggled to address the issue within its ranks.
To move the needle toward more answers, Kennedy and his students wanted to create a single document that lays out all that is known — including from findings from federal commissions, county inspector general reports, civilian commission hearings, court documents, news articles, interviews with former deputies — about the department’s deputy gangs.
After 24 months, the report was published Wednesday, and documents at least 18 deputy gangs or cliques that are suspected to have been operating within the Sheriff’s Department for the past 50 years.
“There have been so many pledges to get to the bottom of this issue that go nowhere,” Kennedy said. “They’ve been actively hidden too long.”
Sheriff Alex Villanueva introduced a new policy in August, banning deputies from forming and participating in cliques and sub-groups. He also committed to investigating allegations of a deputy gang controlling the Sheriff’s Compton Station. The department said Wednesday a study looking at deputy gangs, conducted by the Rand Corporation, is set to wrap up in the next few months. The FBI also has ongoing probes into the department’s gangs.
The Sheriff’s Department called the Loyola Law School report “non-peer-reviewed,” leaning on “non-academically acceptable citations and unproven allegations as a primary basis for content.
“The Department will examine the report and extrapolate everything which may be helpful towards positive organizational change,” the Sheriff’s Department said Wednesday through a spokesman.
“The totality of the evidence, when viewed as a whole is very strong, that there is a longstanding, internal gang problem that goes unaddressed in the department,” Kennedy said, responding to the department’s comments. For accuracy, Kennedy said he ran the finalized report by five former high-ranking Sheriff’s Department officials who recently retired.
Some of the gangs profiled in the report have been inactive for decades. Others are characterized more as subgroups with no evidence of gang-like activity.
However, several other deputy gangs, such as the Banditos, Vikings and Executioners, are suspected to be active and carry with them a slew of allegations of violence, harassment, and intimidation toward other department employees and members of the public, the report said.
Kennedy said he worries most about how these deputy gangs harm the communities they police. Most of the known deputy gangs operate within Sheriff stations located in communities that are inhabited predominantly by people of color, the report said.
Operating out of the Sheriff’s Compton Station, the Executioners are alleged to have hosted celebrations after a deputy shot someone, later inking the deputy involved in the shooting with the gang’s symbol, a skull wearing a Nazi helmet with “CPT” on front and a rifle encircled by flames, the report said, referencing Austreberto Gonzalez, a deputy at the station who shared the account during a 2020 deposition. Black and female deputies are reportedly barred from joining the gang.
Gonzalez also testified that the two Compton Station deputies involved in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Andres Guardado in June — Miguel Vega and Christian Hernandez — were prospects looking to join the Executioners at the time of the shooting, the report said. Vega, who fired the shots that killed Guardado in Gardena, has remained silent, repeatedly invoking the Fifth Amendment throughout the Sheriff’s investigation and during a November coroner’s inquest.
The Vikings gang, previously operating out of the now-defunct Lynwood Station, has been accused by Black and Latino residents of taking part in shootings, killings, beatings, racial-profiling incidents and illegal searches in an effort to terrorize their community. One federal judge called the gang “a neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang.”
The Century Station in Lynwood, the report said, is occupied by two other gangs, the Regulators and Spartans.
Some deputy gangs found themselves at the center of wide-ranging investigations into deputy misconduct, including the county’s jail abuse scandals that stained the department’s legacy from the late 1990s and well into the 2010s, leading to the convictions of more than a dozen Sheriff’s officials, including former Sheriff Lee Baca and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, a recorded member of the Vikings, according to the report.
In the Antelope Valley communities of Palmdale and Lancaster, deputies with Rattlesnakes symbols and skulls tattooed on them have become synonymous with discriminatory policing against Black residents, particularly among those living in public housing, the report said. Quoting a U.S. Department of Justice report from 2013, the report said deputies associated with the Rattlesnakes gang took part in unlawful searches and seizures and unreasonable use of force.
Gangs that operated in county jails included the 3000 Boys, 2000 Boys and the Posse.
In 1998, a Black man with a mental illness died after deputies in the Twin Towers jail beat him, the report said.
Days later, eight members of the Posse beat another mentally ill man, leaving flashlight marks on his back and boot prints on his side, the report said. A 1999 federal commission report highlighted the gang and its practice of violently targeting inmates with mental illness.
The 3000 boys were also known to take part in excessive force against inmates, according to the 2012 report by the Los Angeles County Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence.
The Loyola report also found that among all 133 deputy shootings in the past five years, from November 2015 to November 2020, the stations that led the list in the most shootings, each “has an active deputy gang, as well as a history of complaints, reporting, and lawsuits alleging deputy-gang misconduct.” The East Los Angeles Station where the Banditos are said to be operating, topped the report’s list with 20 shootings. About 80% of those shot by deputies were Black or Latino, the report said.
The report calls on the Sheriff’s Department to address the gang issue by enforcing its new policy, prohibiting subgroups. Also, it asks the department to require existing employees to fill out a “tattoo image form,” something Villanueva and McDonnell have previously refused to subject their deputies to. Any findings the department has on its cliques or gangs should also be made public through the public records act, the report said.
Other suggested solutions include having prosecutors ask deputies who take part as witnesses in criminal cases to state whether or not they are affiliated in a deputy gang. The report also called on judges to allow defense attorneys to cross-examine deputies about their gang-affiliated tattoos.
“Really they need to just release the info and let various people and groups investigate,” Kennedy said of the Sheriff’s Department. “If it’s just as some say, a harmless social group, then nothing will come of it. But the more startling allegations … that should concern us all.”