Gang Members Hold Positions at ‘Highest Levels’ of LA Sheriff’s Department, Investigation Reveals
A blistering new official investigation decries violent, lawless “deputy gangs” that continue to wield extraordinary power within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. The report delivers a call to action for new Sheriff Robert Luna: “It is time to eradicate this 50-year plague upon the County of Los Angeles.”
The report identifies at “least a half dozen” active gangs and cliques — and names them: the Executioners, the Banditos, the Regulators, the Spartans, the Gladiators, the Cowboys, and the Reapers.
These groups pose a threat to the general public — deputies hoping to prove themselves worthy of gang membership routinely seek out violent encounters with the public, the investigation reports — as well as to the internal command-and-control structure of LASD. The gangs “undermine supervision, destroy public trust, are discriminatory, disruptive, and act contrary to … professional policing,” the report concludes.
Perhaps most alarming, the investigation reveals that in recent years “tattooed deputy gang members” have risen to “the highest levels” of department leadership. It calls out recent former Sheriff Alex Villanueva (who lost his 2022 reelection bid) for betraying promises of reform by installing gang members as his right-hand men. Villanueva, the report says, “at minimum tolerated, if not rewarded deputy gangs.”
The new investigation describes a deputy-gang culture that is “deeply embedded” within LASD, calling it a “cancer” that “must be excised.” Conducted by the special counsel to the Civilian Oversight Commission — the county body that watchdogs LASD — the 70-page investigation relied on interviews with nearly 80 witnesses as well as dozens of depositions, court exhibits, and civil lawsuits.
LASD is the nation’s second-largest municipal law enforcement agency. Its deputies are sworn to “serve and protect” more than four million residents — as well as to operate America’s largest county jail system. Yet LASD has long been riven by lawlessness. Gangs and cliques were first decried in LASD in 1973, with the identification of a group called the Little Devils. A landmark report by the Kolts Commission, issued in the wake of the Rodney King beating, denounced the problem of deputy cliques publically in 1992. A 2021 report commissioned by L.A. County underscored that deputy-gangs had cost taxpayers at least $55 million in court judgments and settlements, and it excoriated leadership that “can’t or won’t” implement gang reforms.
In the past, official reports have minced words around the “gang” terminology; this new report insists that common behaviors by deputy cliques meet the definition of “law enforcement gangs” under the state’s penal code, and that both cliques and gangs “must be eradicated” in the name of public safety.
LASD gangs are based out the department’s geographic precincts, which the report calls out for operating as quasi-independent “fiefdoms.” For example, the Executioners run out of Compton Station, while East L.A. Station is notorious as the home of the Banditos. Much like street gangs, the various LASD gangs mark themselves with tattoos; the Executioner ink is described as “a skeleton holding an automatic rifle.”
The report insists that the gangs operate “much like the Mafia” and that only “made” members are entitled to the tattoo. Deputies eager to join a gang are notorious for “chasing ink” — or engaging in violence toward county residents, as a means of proving their moxie “in the hope of becoming members.” This has led to a rash of “excessive force or other forms of unconstitutional policing,” the report says.
It describes one “chasing ink” episode in which deputies transporting a shooting victim to the hospital allegedly took an “off-route” detour and instead “assaulted the victim.” Other deputies “chasing ink,” the investigation states, have actively tried to “get into shootings.” It elaborates: “These deputies would follow a suspect believed to have a gun so that a shooting would be justified.”
The gangs pose a double threat, the report states. Internally, they exercise unwarranted power, with clique-member “shot callers” exercising authority that should be reserved for department brass. “Deputy cliques run the stations or units where they exist,” the investigation states, “as opposed to the sergeants, lieutenants and the captain who are charged with the duty.”
The gangs themselves are openly discriminatory — creating precinct in-groups defined by race, ethnicity, and gender — with non-gang members often subject to scorn and abuse. These range from a failure to send back-up to violent crime scenes (leaving unaffiliated deputies dangerously exposed) up to “assaultive behavior against fellow deputies.” The presence of gangs and cliques is also anathema to transparency and trust: The investigation underscores that members not only “operate in secrecy” they will even “lie in reports to protect each other.”
The gangs also pose a clear-and-present danger to the public. “Most troubling,” the investigation reports, “they create rituals that valorize violence.” This includes holding “shooting parties” to celebrate member-deputies who open fire on suspects, as well as “authorizing deputies who have shot a community member to add embellishments to their common gang tattoos” — think: adding plumes of “smoke” to the muzzle of a tattooed gun. The report describes myriad other “harmful acts” by deputy gang members, including “falsified police reports, unlawful searches and seizures, [and] discriminatory enforcement of law.”
The recent-former Sheriff Alex Villanueva won office in 2018 after campaigning as a reformer. But if Villanueva paid lip service to ending LASD’s gang culture, his hiring practices told a much different story. “Sheriff Villanueva promoted Timothy Murakami, a tattooed Caveman, to Undersheriff and Lawrence Del Mese, a tattooed Grim Reaper, to Chief of Staff,” the investigation reports. (The report states that both Villanueva and Murakami refused to participate in the investigation, while Del Mese testified he’d had his tattoos removed when joining the Villanueva regime, because they were a “liability” and “a bad look.”)
LASD’s struggle with deputy gangs has been an open secret within law enforcement. And the report upbraids the county DA’s office for recklessness in not disclosing the gang affiliations of deputies who also serve as prosecution witnesses. “The failure to obtain and to disclose potentially exonerating or impeaching testimony favorable to the defense,” it argues, “raises significant constitutional issues.”
The report concludes with a detailed set of policy recommendations for uprooting the department’s gangs. The moves range from prohibiting new tattoos, to breaking up precinct cliques, to reforming command structures to limit precinct autonomy. It insists that the elimination of deputy cliques and gangs is not only “constitutionally permissible” but a “constitutional imperative.”
New sheriff Robert Luna also campaigned as a reformer. But unlike the Trumpy Villanueva, Luna’s actions are, so far, matching his rhetoric. In mid-February, Luna announced the creation of a new Office of Constitutional Policing he insisted would be tasked to “eradicate all deputy gangs from this department.”
Luna, an LASD outsider who last served as police chief of Long Beach, insisted: “I will have an absolute zero tolerance for this type of conduct.”
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