LOS ANGELES (CN) — Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Thursday that 26 officers may face discipline for their role in a 2018 brawl linked to the deputy gang Los Banditos, one of many Villanueva has downplayed as a normal element of society but says he’ll shut down only if gangs mistreat or kill members of the public or the department.
Deputy gangs or cliques have been a clandestine element within the ranks of the LA County Sheriff’s Department for decades, with suspected members performing policing duties while glorifying violence and subscribing to a culture resembling that of the street gangs officers contend with in the county.
The Banditos, the 3000 Boys, the Regulators and the Lynwood Vikings are only a few of the estimated 17 gangs that operate in jails and sheriff’s stations across the county. Members often have matching tattoos connecting them to the secret groups entrenched at all levels of the department.
Villanueva’s predecessors have failed for decades to stamp out the problem of deputy gangs, which is now the subject of a federal probe by the FBI.
The Banditos are officers who largely control the department’s East Los Angeles station and have for years driven officers not affiliated with them out of the station, according to claims filed with the county in 2019 by Latino officers who said they were assaulted by the Banditos.
The officers claim Banditos members beat them after an off-duty department party in September 2018 in LA, months after they lodged complaints with their superiors about intimidation and harassment by the gang.
The beaten officers said at least 100 witnesses saw the attack but didn’t intervene and that superior officers covered up for the attackers.
This past February, the LA County District Attorney’s Office declined to criminally charge four suspected members of the Banditos involved in the brawl but noted that 21 suspected witnesses at the party declined to be interviewed by investigators.
Villanueva worked out of the East LA station and knew of the gang culture, according to the claim.
At the time, Villanueva said the department wouldn’t tolerate any form of hazing or harassment and added the allegations made in the claim happened before he took office.
After a two-year investigation of the incident, the department is now initiating disciplinary procedures for 26 officers involved in the brawl — a process that could lead to suspension or termination from the force, Villanueva said in a press conference Thursday at the Hall of Justice in downtown LA.
Sheriff’s officials told reporters the administrative probe included more than 70 interviews with officers — some of whom will face discipline for failing to report the brawl to superiors — but would not say how many officers they’re seeking to fire.
Villanueva said he won’t condemn any officer’s decision to form or join a clique or gang because it alleviates the mental toll from police work. But he said he also won’t tolerate when those groups are linked to misconduct against the public or other officers.
“I’m adopting a zero-tolerance policy,” Villanueva said. “If you form a group and mistreat people then yes, we will make sure you’re not part of the department.”
When asked by a reporter if he would share details of the disciplinary process with the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) or sheriff’s department Inspector General Max Huntsman, Villanueva said he’s restricted from sharing such information due to labor contract rules.
“The inspector general has improperly been asking and the COC has been asking for things they know I legally cannot provide,” Villanueva said. “I know Max Huntsman will be jumping up and down asking for things he knows he can’t receive.”
Lael Rubin, member of the LA County Civilian Oversight Commission said in an interview the new policy is only as strong as the enforcement behind it.
Rubin told Courthouse News the commission, which has subpoena power in its duty to oversee the sheriff’s department, will hold Villanueva to account on the promise to clamp down on secret deputy gangs.
“What I’m hoping for, finally, is a policy that is going to move forward and rid the department of what has been going on for years and years,” said Rubin, a former LA County deputy district attorney. “We’re going to ensure that they produce what they say they’ll produce.”
Rubin said the commission expects the department to fully brief them on the new policy at its upcoming meeting Thursday.
Villanueva has repeatedly clashed with the oversight group, Huntsman and county leaders over budgetary issues and over the sheriff’s decision to rehire officers who were previously fired for misconduct.
The COC voted in May to sue Villanueva after he defied a subpoena to testify on measures to protect incarcerated people against Covid-19 infection in county jails. The case is pending in LA County Superior Court.
The issue of deputy gangs was raised in a recent whistleblower complaint by a deputy who said a group of officers called the Executioners control the Compton sheriff’s station, which is facing intense scrutiny after an officer there shot 18-year-old Andres Guardado five times in the back in June.
Activists with Black Lives Matter LA and other police accountability advocates have called on Villanueva to investigate how widespread deputy gangs are in the department.
Villanueva said Thursday that while he’s probing the Compton sheriff’s station claims, he won’t conduct a comprehensive sweep of the department to determine how many officers are members of department gangs.
“We can’t prohibit people from joining a group or putting ink on their bodies,” Villanueva said. “We’re not going to ask every one of our 18,000 members ‘Are you in a gang?’ That would be inappropriate and would also be wildly speculative. We’re trying to run an organization, not a witch hunt.”
Misconduct by suspected members of the deputy gangs has resulted in roughly $55 million in settlement payments in dozens of cases against the department, according to an LA Times report.