As Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s reelection campaign heats up, critics have accused his agency of harboring what they call “deputy gangs.” At the same time, I read a disturbing article about a deputy who shot off another deputy’s tattoo. The author alleged that the tattoo was shot off because changes to the design were not “cleared with deputy gang leadership.” This seemed so disconnected from my personal experience in the system that I had to look into it.
So are there gangs of LASD deputies, just like there are gangs of criminals in Los Angeles? Is this true, or is it a smear?
The Case That There Are Deputy Gangs
In 2019, the FBI investigated LASD deputies for allegedly using excessive force. The LA Times summarized the investigation. Deputies were accused of belonging to a secret society at the East Los Angeles Station called the Banditos. This group had matching tattoos. They were accused of recruiting Latino deputies into the group and retaliating against those who rebuff them. The investigation was spurred by a group of deputies who sued over a hostile work environment. Specifically, the suing deputies complained about a fight involving members of the Banditos at an off-duty party. Four deputies allegedly attacked a rookie. The four men were investigated by LASD and a criminal referral was made to the District Attorney’s Office.
The LA Times and the Los Angeles Daily News both use the word “gang” to describe this issue. This editorial decision is hopefully made by responsible professionals based on the totality of circumstances. LASD deputies at all levels have themselves referred to the subgroups as gangs. This is particularly common when former LASD deputies are running for Sheriff.
The allegation that there are deputy gangs has become so common that there is even a Wikipedia article on the subject. The article uses the term gangs. It claims that the LASD “acknowledged” a gang called the “Little Devils” in an internal memo in 1973. There is no citation for this assertion, but I found the memo, which you can see here. It does not acknowledge a gang. Indeed, the word “gang” does not appear in the memo. The Wikipedia article also claims that some people “believe” that deputy gangs were involved in the death of a reporter during a protest. This assertion is linked to another website which explains that journalist was accidentally hit with a tear gas cannister after ignoring an order to disperse.
The Case That These Groups Are Not Deputy Gangs
Gang members and sheriff’s deputies are not equivalent. LASD deputies are extensively background-checked. They do not have criminal records. There are educational requirements for deputies, who must also pass a rigorous training process. They are supervised in an organized hierarchy that mimics a military command structure. This supervision is controlled by elected officials. There are independent watchdogs that also review deputies’ conduct. The deputies wear cameras that document their every interaction with the public. Street gangs are not run this way.
The LASD has policies that specifically bar department members from participating in any groups that violate anyone rights. LASD has warned its deputies that organizing into a group with a tattoo will cause the department to get sued. But the 1st Amendment prevents LASD from banning the tattoos altogether. Villanueva has asked that deputies with matching tattoos have them removed.
Deputies themselves do not consider the groups to be gangs. They refer to the them as “drinking groups,” “intramural sports teams,” or “social clubs.” LASD correctly notes that the law has a definition for “criminal street gang” that these groups do not meet. (See Pen. Code section 186.22.) LASD points out that the primary purpose of a gang is to commit crimes, but the primary purpose of the LASD groups is to promote comradery. Others have argue
In this article, Vox describes “cliques of officers who allegedly engage in violent and potentially criminal behavior.” The “most commonly cited feature” is tattoos. Vox appears to be one of the few media outlets who has decided against using gang language.
Although the LA Times, Daily News, and other media use the word “gangs” to describe these groups, this incendiary language may be designed to attract readers and sell advertising, rather than accurately reflect reality.
The LA Times gave some space to dissenting opinions. “Defenders say the cliques are harmless fraternities, likening them to close-knit groups in the military.” Sheriff Alex Villanueva says there are no gangs in LASD. He described groups of friends with matching tattoos as a “cultural norm” and a source of intergenerational hazing. He said there is nothing wrong with the clubs as long as they don’t promote misconduct.
The heart of the issue seems to be how to describe groups of deputies who work and socialize together, and who have matching tattoos. This is common in the military, going all the way back to ancient Rome. It’s also common for college students in fraternities or sororities. The cast members of the Lord of the Rings trilogy famously worked together, socialized together, and got matching tattoos. So did the cast of the Avengers and Suicide Squad. The practice is common among bands.
People like this, with matching tattoos, commit crimes and misconduct. Returning to the Lord of the Rings example, actor Viggo Mortensen was arrested at Dulles Airport. Sean Bean, another Lord of the Rings actor with a matching tattoo, was arrested for spousal assault. Still, we obviously don’t consider these actors to be gang members.
The fact that gang members have matching tattoos does not make the practice gang-related. The fact that gang members have matching tattoos does not transform everyone with matching tattoos into gang members as well. Journalists are loosely using the word “gang” to describe a practice that is common in many areas of law-abiding society. They may be doing it out of bias against police, or to generate clicks, or for some other reason. Whatever the reasons, this practice should stop, until and unless new evidence comes to light.
50 Years of Deputy Gangs: Identifying Root Causes and Effects to Advocate for Meaningful Reform. A report prepared by a professor at Loyola Law School.
A Tradition of Violence: The History of Deputy Gangs in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. A 15-part “investigative series” on Knock-LA. I didn’t read the whole thing.