Deputy cliques in L.A. County Sheriff’s Department likely growing, study finds

Hundreds of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies said they have been recruited to join secretive, sometimes gang-like cliques that operate within department stations, according to the findings of a survey by independent researchers.

The anticipated study into the problematic fraternities — which L.A. County officials commissioned the Rand Corp. to conduct in 2019 — found 16% of the 1,608 deputies and supervisors who anonymously answered survey questions had been invited to join a clique, with some invitations having come in the past five years.

All of the roughly 10,000 sworn personnel in the department received a survey, and participation was voluntary. The report also includes interviews with a few dozen sheriff’s and county officials, and 140 community leaders and members of the public were also interviewed.

The study concluded that the groups, which have existed for decades in the Sheriff’s Department and have been criticized for glorifying an aggressive style of policing, are more likely to form at “fast” stations — ones that patrol areas with higher levels of violent crime — and are divisive within the Sheriff’s Department. The researchers did not ask deputies whether they’d ever belonged to a clique.

“Our research suggests that several of these groups were still actively adding members at the time of our interviews,” the report said.

More than a third of the deputies surveyed — 37% — said the cliques should be prohibited, including nearly a quarter of those who had been invited to join one.

The Sheriff’s Department has long struggled to clamp down on the groups of tattooed deputies that exhibit what critics have long alleged are the violent, intimidating tactics similar in some ways to those used by criminal street gangs.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva has denied that “gangs” exist within the department but has also taken credit for addressing the problem with a policy that prohibits deputies from joining any group that commits misconduct. Observers have criticized the policy, saying it lacks teeth and is not enforced.

The Rand study recommended bolstering the sheriff’s policy by defining more specifically what is prohibited and requiring deputies to disclose their membership in organizations.

It also recommended that the Sheriff’s Department establish a peer training program to help deputies intervene when they witness misconduct by other deputies.

Inspector General Max Huntsman said Friday that Villanueva appeared this week for an interview after initially resisting a subpoena to answer questions about deputy cliques. The sheriff, however, refused to testify under oath, so Huntsman said he declined to question him and plans now to ask a judge to order Villanueva to give sworn testimony.

The study found that there was no coordinated effort among supervisors in the sprawling department to discourage deputies from joining this type of organization, with 28% of those surveyed saying that supervisors do not consider groups to be problematic.

It also found that the purposes of the groups vary. “Some are drinking groups. Others are closer to cliques or, as one respondent called them, ‘popular kids.’ And some encourage a culture of aggressive policing,” the study said.

In interviews, some in the department were critical of deputies “trying too hard” to secure an invitation to join a clique, which the study said could lead to misconduct. For example, deputies might use unnecessary force to show how aggressive they are in the hopes of receiving an invitation, the study found. Almost a third of those surveyed said deputies in cliques get special privileges at work.

About a quarter of those surveyed said they believe deputy cliques can be a positive influence by motivating a station’s staff or members of a particular unit, while a similar number felt they can hurt morale and alienate other deputies, the study said. Nearly half of deputies surveyed said the tattooed groups have no impact on a Sheriff’s Department station or a unit’s daily operations.

Many people in the community who were interviewed voiced concerns that deputies in subgroups engage in hazing, cover up for fellow deputies, harass community residents and use excessive force.

Los Angeles County has paid out at least $55 million in settlements in cases in which sheriff’s deputies have been alleged to belong to a secret society, records show. The figure comes from a list of cases compiled by county attorneys.

Several cases involving deputies associated with tattooed groups accused of glorifying an aggressive style of policing remain pending. They include one brought by eight deputies who allege they were routinely harassed by the Banditos, a gang of predominantly Latino deputies at East L.A. station who have matching tattoos of a skeleton outfitted with a sombrero, bandolier and pistol.

Going back to 2016, the lawsuit alleges, the Banditos repeatedly refused to send backup on dangerous calls to the deputies who brought the lawsuit, pressured them to quit or leave the station, and sent hostile messages on work computers. It also alleges that the Banditos once secretly removed ammunition from another deputy’s shotgun.

They recently filed court papers with new allegations that the Banditos recently had an inking party where 10 deputies were tattooed, raising the total number of members to 100.

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