By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
So far, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna has been as good as his word when it comes to getting rid of gang cliques within the department. That was the cancer in the department that Luna’s predecessors paid lip service to, but did nothing about.
Luna has established an Office of Constitutional Policing, which he said is tasked with not only ridding the department of gangs but also ridding the department of its other long-standing, hideous plague: misconduct and abuse.
Luna ran strong and won on the promise to rein in the abuse and misconduct.
Out-and-out warfare had been the trademark of his predecessor, Alex Villanueva, and the county Board of Supervisors. The supervisors sought to get a handle on a department that for decades served totally at the dictatorial whims of often stubborn, tin-ear sheriffs.
But the issue that tormented the department most was the racist gang cliques within it. That was always the true litmus test of reform.
The facts are beyond dispute about the existence of the gang cliques. A parade of former sheriff’s deputies and officials publicly said under sworn testimony that the gang cliques existed within the department. A RAND study in September 2021 re-confirmed their existence.
It credited sheriff’s officials with at least addressing the problem and taking some steps to eliminate it. But it also blasted the department for not being clear, firm and not initiating a strong policy.
Villanueva scorched the RAND study as inaccurate. He claimed that the gang clique members are long gone from the department. The testimony from ex-officials belies that claim.
Gang cliques within the department have been around a long time. Successive sheriff’s officials have not only known about their existence and tacitly condoned them, but some have also been members of gang cliques.
They have sported gang tattoos, flashed signs and displayed other gang trappings. The names they dubbed themselves — the Banditos, the Grim Reapers, the Spartans, the Cavemen, the Jumpout Boys, and the Regulators — are hardly harmless choir-member, fraternal stuff. The names sound like a cross between the Mafia, an armed frontier posse and street thug gang monikers.
Villanueva was hardly the first county sheriff to grapple with the gang clique problem. Former Sheriffs Lee Baca and Jim McDonnell were repeatedly hit with the charge that their department was rife with incendiary and quasi-vigilante-type gangs. They were repeatedly blasted for not cracking down on them and eliminating them.
The gang clique plague is especially galling, given that some deputies already sport tattoos that look suspiciously like, take your pick: gang, white supremacist or violence promos. That was dramatically confirmed in testimony from a top sheriff’s official who admitted that he and another top-ranking sheriff’s official sported their gang clique tattoo.
It’s only a short step from deputies affiliating with gang cliques to engaging in racial profiling, harassment and using excessive force against citizens. The victims almost always are young African American and Hispanic males.
It’s also a short step from gang clique deputies to lying and shading testimony in criminal cases. There has been a lot of that.
There is a database of deputies who have testified in criminal cases and their testimony is suspect, to say the least. Former Sheriff McDonnell tried to turn over the names of the officers who gave tainted testimony, but he was blocked.
He also promised to rein in the high number of excessive force actions by sheriff’s deputies, almost all of which were unpunished. He didn’t get the chance.
Now the ball is in Luna’s court. Tackling this problem means more than just implementing new training and conduct standards. It means immediate and vigorous implementation of reform recommendations, such as a fully empowered, independent civilian oversight commission.
It also means getting rid of deputies who brutalize prisoners in the jails and administrators who look the other way, total transparency and accountability in the reform process. And most importantly, it means firing and, where warranted, recommending prosecution of deputies that overuse deadly force.
Luna said all the right things in his campaign to oust Villanueva. And judging from the overwhelmingly crushing voter support he got in his big win, the public enthusiastically bought his reform pitch.
That translates into a firm mandate to make good, and make good quickly, on his reform pledge. The crackdown on deputy use of excessive force, along with the elimination of the gang cliques, must remain his priority. Anything less poses a grave danger to departmental credibility, public safety and balanced, fair constitutional policing.
Any deputy in a gang betrays his or her sworn oath to be fair and impartial in the enforcement of the law. One can hardly expect that from a gang member, particularly one with a badge and a gun. Luna professes to understand that. Now that he has acted, the dangling question still remains: How vigorously will he continue?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.