A civilian oversight committee has called on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to ban deputy gangs and the tattoos that mark deputy sheriff membership.
On Friday, after a Special Counsel report shed light on its continued existence of deputy gangs with names like Banditos and Executioners, the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission voted to recommend the comprehensive reforms detailed in the report to Sheriff Robert Luna and the county Board of Supervisors.
Commissioner Robert Bonner said the special counsel’s 70-page report was historic and needed to lead to change. He noted the report’s finding that deputy gangs have been a problem for at least 50 years, despite other landmark investigations such as the 2002 Kolts report and the 2012 Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence report.
“Change needs to start now,” said Bonner, a former federal judge and head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration under President George HW Bush. “I want to applaud and congratulate our special counsel, Mr. (Bert) Deixler, and his team for producing a no-punch report…that clearly highlights the horrific impact of vicarious culture, vicarious gang culture within the department and on the own staff.”
The special prosecutor’s report found that at least half a dozen “gangs” or “cliques” of tattooed deputies are still active in the Sheriff’s Department, including the Regulators, Spartans, Gladiators, Cowboys and Reapers.
New groups may form as members retire, and “there is some evidence that sub-cliques are springing up again in Los Angeles County jails,” the report said.
The gangs have created rituals that valued violence, celebrating vicarious shootings of civilians with “shootings” and recording the shootings in an official book, the report said. Deputies who shot a civilian could add an embellishment to their base gang tattoo.
Members had to make payments to deputy “shot callers”, who sometimes required them to use force. The shot callers ran a shadow structure, checked work orders, rewarded their members and punished those who spoke out against them, the report said.
Challenging the shot callers can sometimes result in a rat at your door or loose lug nuts on your car, the special counsel told the committee on Friday.
The vast majority of the sheriff’s department’s nearly 10,000 deputies are not involved with the gangs and are at risk of being victimized by them.
“They are a cancer. They harm the department in general, they harm the people who work for the department and they harm the public,” said Deixler, a former federal prosecutor who has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In addition to pushing for a new policy against gangs and creating an improved reporting process to notify prosecutors of a deputy sheriff’s gang membership, the report’s recommendations include firing captains who will not support the changes and requiring deputies to hide their gang tattoos at work. .
“We are calling on the sheriff to prohibit tattoos, unprofessional logos or any sign depicting violence — no new tattoos, no smoking gun tattoos, no Fort Apache logos, no ghetto birds, logos,” Deixler told the commission.
The Special Prosecutor’s report comes nearly a year after the commission officially launched an independent investigation into vicarious gangs. The goal was to find out what groups still existed within the department, assess whether the department’s existing policies had been effective in combating them, and make recommendations to eradicate them.
The report also calls on those who could have done more to solve the problem, including the deputy union, the district attorney and the district attorney’s office.
Luna, who took office in December, said he looks forward to working with the committee on the matter, noting that he has already created a new office to “wipe out vicarious gangs.”
Lael Rubin, one of two commissioners who voted against forwarding the recommendations, said she supported the report but wanted more time for two commissioners absent Friday to give their input.
“This has been coming for a long time,” said Rubin, a former senior LA County prosecutor. Former sheriff Alex Villanueva “has maintained from the beginning that there was no problem with gangs in the sheriff’s department,” she noted.
In an email to The Times, Villanueva called the special counsel’s investigation “a sham from the start”.
“Now Sheriff Luna has to pretend to wipe out nonexistent phantom helper gang members,” he said.
Sean Kennedy, chair of the committee and former chief of the Los Angeles federal public defender’s office, said that while deputies feared the gangs, in the end it was the public that suffered.
“We’ve seen a lot of them using repetitive force or shooting repeatedly, and it’s all hidden from us,” Kennedy said. “It’s terrible… about the deputies who suffered, but I think the community suffered much more. They have lost their relatives and have not received a real explanation.”
At the committee meeting, residents expressed outrage that the deputy gangs were still active decades later.
Franky Carrillo said 30 years ago gang deputies framed him for a murder he didn’t commit. He was acquitted after two decades in prison.
Still, Carrillo said he’s thankful that “the wheels of justice are finally turning in the right direction.”
“For good or bad, any move in the right direction is welcome, and I’m very excited about it,” he added. “Justice must prevail.”
Times staff writer Keri Blakinger contributed to this report.