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Column: Banning violent deputy gangs in the L.A. Sheriff’s Department is essential. But is it constitutional?


For at least 50 years, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has been plagued by secret “deputy gangs,” organized subgroups of deputies allegedly engaged in violence, corruption, and illegal activities. And for nearly as many years, reformers have hoped to root out those gangs, ever since the Kolts Commission 30 years ago called for them to be “rooted out.”

But they are still with us, according to the report of special counsel Bert Deixler, which was released by the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission earlier this month. Deixler and his team, after hearing from approximately 80 witnesses, concluded that at least half a dozen gangs or cabals operate in the department. They have names like the Executioners, the Bandits, the Reapers and the Rattles; its members bear tattoos of skeletons, rifles, skulls and snakes.

opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served as editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion.

Members of these groups, the report says, have falsified reports, harassed colleagues, undermined department morale and violated citizens’ rights. They have seized control of many patrol stations through a “shadow” chain of command, and those who dare defy them have been known to find rats at their doors or loosen the lug nuts on their wheels.

Worst of all, they “value violence” and “exalt the excessive use of force.”

Every rational world wants to eliminate these groups of bullies. But there’s a big question left: Can it be done legally?

Deixler has proposed that Sheriff Robert Luna do what he says no sheriff has done before: establish an explicit policy prohibiting officers from joining or belonging to gangs and prohibiting tattoos depicting violence or other offensive iconography (or, for those who they already have them, make it a rule that they should keep them covered).

But would those policies be allowed under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects free speech and freedom of assembly and association?

Some people are pretty sure they won’t.

“Good luck trying to impose something that will violate employees’ First Amendment rights.” says former Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanuevawho called Deixler’s report “a joke.”

Tattoos, he says, are a form of protected speech, and also have no correlation with misbehavior. As for the attached subgroups, he seems to think they are merely social groups, and that if you ban the Banditos, you might as well ban the women’s softball team. There is no “compelling interest” in annulling the constitutional rights of the deputies, says Villanueva, to prohibit the so-called gangs.

TO opinion 2021 by Southwestern Law School constitutional law professor John Tehranian, a commissioner for the deputies union, agreed. He said the ban on department employees participating in subgroups “affects the ability of deputies to engage in expressive and associative activities” outside of their jobs. Due to its “overwhelming scope and the risks it poses to freedom of expression (and) deputies’ rights of association,” a ban is unlikely to withstand constitutional review, Tehranian wrote.

That’s a worrying argument to be sure. It is part of what has hampered the fight against gangs of deputies in the past.

But First Amendment rights are not unlimited, nor should they be.

I called Deixler to ask him if he thought the Constitution would pose a problem in rooting out gangs.

“No, it won’t,” he said. He presented a case that I found compelling, and one that I hope will sway the courts in the event of a legal challenge.

Deixler argues that if the behavior in question (joining gangs of deputies and wearing threatening tattoos as a sign of membership) is done in connection with the deputies’ government jobs, then the First Amendment is not an issue. Restrictions on work-related speech are allowed.

And even if a court decides that gang agents are acting and speaking in their personal capacities as private citizens, then, according to the 1968 Supreme Court decision in Pickering v. Board of Education, the court would conduct a “balancing test” to determine whether the government’s legitimate interests in restricting such speech and behavior outweigh the First Amendment rights of its employees.

To win that argument, the Sheriff’s Department would have to show that the gangs are “disruptive to the internal operations” of the department and that the disruption is significant enough to “impair discipline … or harmony among co-workers.” or “impedes the performance of the speaker’s duty,” Deixler’s report says.

Given what we know about these bands, I don’t think it’s terribly difficult to prove.

The courts have consistently found that law enforcement agencies have a “greater need for order, loyalty, morality, and harmony”, which allows them more freedom to restrict the speech of their officers. For example, being a member of the Ku Klux Klan has been found to be a legitimate reason to fire a deputy sheriff.

If the Sheriff’s Department decides to implement Deixler’s proposals, it seems likely that there will be a legal challenge. Overcoming it would not be a sure thing. But credible reports of decades of egregious misconduct by gangs of deputies make a very powerful case.

It’s been 50 years since gangs of officers were first identified in the department; 30 since the Kolts Commission called for its eradication; 24 since the US Commission on Civil Rights noted its effect on communities of color; 11 since the Citizens Commission on Prison Violence described its presence in county jails; and two since the Rand Corp. and Loyola Law School documented its continued existence.

Other law enforcement agencies have had to deal with gangs in their ranks, but no other large law enforcement agency has allowed them to exist and thrive like they have in Los Angeles, according to Deixler. Because there has been no sustained effort to eradicate them, they remain embedded in the culture.

But this is a promising time. Deixler’s recommendations, there are 27 in total, have the support of the county Board of Supervisors, which has urged Luna to implement them. Luna, after all, ran for office last year on a promise to crack down on deputy gangs, and he has created a new Office of Constitutional Oversight within the department to help him do it.

It will be a great battle. But it’s time.


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