A civilian watchdog group is launching a "full-scale" investigation into allegations of a subculture of deputy gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department that critics contend abuse their authority and have wielded an enormous amount of influence for decades. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who faces re-election this year, says the probe is nothing more than a political maneuver.
A team of lawyers will be working pro bono to analyze the impact and scope of such gangs and evaluate what is needed to eradicate them, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission said Thursday.
"Deputy gangs have fostered and promoted excessive force against citizens, discriminated against other deputies based on race and gender, and undermined the chain of command and discipline," said Sean Kennedy, Commission Chair and Loyola Law School Center for Juvenile Law & Policy executive director. "Despite years of documented history of this issue, the Department has failed to eliminate the gangs."
The commission will use its subpoena power to compel witnesses to cooperate and provide evidence, it said. The investigation is expected to last five to six months.
Assisting will be Los Angeles County Inspector General Max Huntsman, who, in a letter dated Monday to Sheriff Alex Villanueva, wrote that his office has identified 11 alleged members of the Banditos, an alleged deputy gang that operates out of the department's East Los Angeles patrol station, and the 30 members of the Executioners, who allegedly work in the Compton station.
He said he was investigating whether the deputies "engage in a pattern of on-duty behavior that intentionally violates the law or fundamental principles of professional policing."
He asked for more documentation and evidence in the investigation, which he said has not been provided despite repeated requests.
In a statement to Fox News, Huntsman said his office was created to "eliminate corruption after a sheriff and his undersheriff went to federal prison for obstructing a lawful investigation in much the same way the current sheriff is obstructing my investigation now."
"As my staff have documented on our website, LASD actively protects these groups and suppresses their investigation thus creating a shadow government that cannot be ignored again," he added. "We welcome the support of the Civilian Oversight Commission and the volunteer service of the highly experienced attorneys they have gathered."
Villanueva, who is facing re-election this year, slammed the probe, calling it a politically-motivated move while citing his acrimonious relationship with the county Board of Supervisors.
"The concept of deputy gangs has just been nothing but a political campaign waged by the board against a sheriff they want to get rid of," he told Fox News on Thursday. "It's (the investigation) designed for political motives only. It's not designed to get any information because everything that we've had, we've already given to the inspector general."
Reports and lawsuits against the sheriff's department have alleged that a number of "cliques" and gangs have formed in various patrol stations and flourished in minority communities going back decades. Members are known to ink themselves with tattoos with various imagery.
In its statement, the commission said numerous reports demonstrate the gangs still exist, "but their scope and impact is unknown." Critics argue the gangs foster a culture of resistance to police reform and celebrate aggressive police tactics and violence.
A January 2021 report by Loyola Marymount University's law school identified at least 18 alleged deputy gangs over several decades, with several believed to still be in existence.
Another report by the Rand Corporation released in September 2021 conducted an anonymous survey of deputies. The survey concluded that at their worst, the subgroups "encourage violence, undermine the chain of command and gravely harm relationships with the communities LASD is dedicated to serve."
Alan Romero, an attorney who represents clients filing lawsuits related to the alleged gangs, said In one case, a judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Romero's clients, deputy Austreberto Gonzalez, a Marine veteran who alleged discrimination and retaliation for deputies who refused to join the Executioners or resisted their influence.
"I'd say the multiple gangs in the department are the single most powerful political entity in the department," Romero told Fox News Thursday. "They're running it like a mafia."