Independent investigation of sheriff ‘deputy gangs’ launched

The civilian commission that oversees the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is launching an independent investigation into “deputy gangs” that have operated for decades.

The move represents a major step in efforts to scrutinize deputy cliques that have existed inside the department for decades and been linked to allegations of violence and corruption.

The investigation will be conducted by a team of heavyweight attorneys working pro bono, including at least six former federal prosecutors and two former federal public defenders, Sean Kennedy, chair of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, told The Times.

The team will be led by Bert Deixler, a former federal prosecutor who has testified in front of California lawmakers on the constitutionality of racial segregation in prisons.

“The sheriff has repeatedly challenged anyone to come up with the evidence of deputy gangs, and our intention is to conduct a completely independent investigation,” said Kennedy, a Loyola Law School professor and former head of the Central District federal public defender’s office.

Kennedy said the lawyers plan to hold public hearings and subpoena witnesses to testify under oath. The goal is to find out in the next six months where the groups operate in the Sheriff’s Department and what impact they have on policing.

The investigation will assess whether internal policies have been effective in combating the groups and make recommendations on how to root them out of the roughly 18,000-member department, which runs the county jails and patrols streets in unincorporated areas and contract cities.

“This issue has been languishing for over 50 years,” said Kennedy, who authored a 2021 report that found that since the 1970s there have been 18 deputy cliques within the Sheriff’s Department, some of which remain active. “Our intention is to move forward immediately.”

The investigation will be similar to that of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, which was appointed by the Board of Supervisors about a decade ago to examine allegations of abuse and beatings of inmates by deputies in L.A. County jails. Deixler was also a lead attorney in the jail commission investigation and has served on other police reform panels.

The oversight commission was formed in 2016 after the corruption and brutality in the jails led to multiple indictments of sheriff’s deputies. Its members are appointed by supervisors, with five nominated by the supervisors and the other four recommended by community groups.

Much of what has previously been known about the deputy groups, whose members often get matching tattoos, comes from allegations and testimony in lawsuits.

A study commissioned by L.A. County found last year that 16% of the 1,608 deputies and supervisors who anonymously answered survey questions had been invited to join a clique, with some invitations having come in the last five years. More than a third of respondents said the groups should be prohibited.

But some criticized the report for offering an incomplete portrayal of the problem because deputies were not compelled to participate in the survey and only about 1 out of every 6 deputies responded. Those who did participate were not asked if they ever belonged to a group.

Earlier this week, the top watchdog for the Sheriff’s Department said he had identified more than 40 alleged members of the gang-like groups.

In a letter dated Monday, Inspector General Max Huntsman said his office has compiled a partial list that includes 11 deputies who allegedly belong to the Banditos, which operate out of the East L.A. sheriff’s station, and 30 alleged Executioners from the Compton sheriff’s station.

The Sheriff’s Department called the letter politically motivated and part of Huntsman’s “unhealthy obsession to attack” the agency.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva has downplayed the problems with the groups but has also taken credit for addressing them by instituting a policy that prohibits deputies from joining groups that promote behavior violating the rights of others.

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