THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: New sheriff faces true litmus test

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By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

“I want to make it clear, if I’m elected sheriff there will be absolutely no tolerance for deputy gangs.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff-Elect Robert Luna could not have been more emphatic in his public pledge to do the one thing that his predecessor Alex Villanueva flatly refused to do. That is finally get rid of the gang cliques that have been a virtual set-in-stone ugly trademark of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department since time immemorial.

Luna ran hard on the promise to rein in the abuse, misconduct, refusal to bow to oversight and out-and-out warfare between Villanueva and the county Board of Supervisors. The supervisors sought to get a handle on a department that has for decades served totally at the dictatorial whims of often stubborn, tin ear sheriffs.

The jury will remain way out for a while on just how sincere Luna is on being the dedicated reformer he claims to be. But it’s the issue of the racist gang cliques within the department that will be the true litmus test of his sincerity on reform.

The facts are beyond dispute about the existence of the gang cliques. A parade of former sheriff’s deputies and officials have publicly said under sworn testimony that the gang cliques within the department do exist. 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 them. But it also blasted the department for not being clear, firm and initiating a strong policy to eliminate them.

The testimony in 2021 of former sheriff’s officials backed up this contention, even naming one of the gang cliques. 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 this claim.

Another undeniable fact is 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 other gang clique trappings. The names they dubbed themselves hardly are harmless choir member fraternal stuff — the Banditos, the Grim Reapers, the Spartans, the Cavemen, the Jumpout Boys and the Regulators. The names sound like a cross between the Mafia, a frontier armed 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 at some stations sport tattoos that look suspiciously like, take your pick: gang, white supremacist or violence promos. This 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 in gang cliques to engage 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 give tainted testimony but was blocked.

He also promised to rein in the high number of excessive force actions by sheriff’s deputies, almost all unpunished. He didn’t get the chance.

Now the ball is in Luna’s court. Tackling this problem means immediate and vigorous implementation of reform recommendations such as a fully empowered independent civilian oversight commission, getting rid of deputies who brutalize prisoners at the jails and administrators who look the other way, total transparency and accountability on the reform process. And most importantly, eliminating gang cliques within the department.

Luna said all the right things in his campaign to oust Villanueva. And judging from the overwhelming 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 fast — on his reform pledge. The elimination of the gang cliques must be at the absolute top of his list on reform.

Their continued existence poses a grave danger to department 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 get that. Now the question is when will he act? That’s the supreme litmus test for him on his reform pitch.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show at 9 a.m. Saturday on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.

 

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