By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
When repeatedly asked about the existence of gangs in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Alex Villanueva has been vague, non-committal, insulting, in denial, or claimed that deputy gang members have all quit, retired or been purged.
Two facts are beyond dispute. The first is that deputy gangs did — and still do — exist. The second is that they have been around for a long time.
First their existence. 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 recent testimony 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.
The second 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, some have 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 is 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.
But Villanueva is a special case. He was elected with the overwhelming support of the sheriff’s deputies’ union. It backs him with gusto for a good reason. He promised to be a tough cop’s cop and go to bat whenever and wherever there is any inference of wrongdoing by deputies.
He has repeatedly been under fire from civil rights activists and county supervisors for a lack of transparency and accountability with deputy-involved shootings.
Villanueva is just the latest, though by far the worst, sheriff to slap a cloak of invisibility and invincibility over the actions of the sheriff’s department when it comes to transparency and accountability.
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.
We got Villanueva instead who, after taking over, strongly hinted that cracking down on officers who overuse deadly force would not be the priority on his watch.
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.
Judging from Villanueva’s dig-his-heels-in-the-sand attitude toward sheriff’s gang cliques, there is no hope that he will take firm action to get rid of them and the hazard they pose. Action on this must be taken out of his hands. I and other civil rights leaders have called for a full sale investigation and action by the U.S. Justice Department on the department’s gang problem.
A full-scale federal probe will send the strong message that when law enforcement officers sink to the despicable level of gang thuggery they present a clear and present danger to public safety. They present one more hazard.
They betray their 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.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is “The Midterms: Why They Are So Important and So Ignored” (Middle Passage Press). 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.