The gang scandal within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has flared up again, with the county’s top watchdog accusing LASD brass of stonewalling its investigation into tattooed gang members within the department, and the department accusing the inspector general of an “unhealthy obsession to attack” the LASD.
The controversy has already sparked a deeper probe of the gang culture within one of the nation’s largest law enforcement bodies. The Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission announced Thursday the launch of a “full-scale investigation into deputy gangs.“
On March 21, Los Angeles County Inspector General Max Huntsman sent a letter to Sheriff Alex Villanueva revealing that Huntsman’s office is investigating at least 41 deputies for their alleged membership in “law enforcement gangs.” The letter cites a “partial list of deputies whom the Sheriffs Department itself has identified as allegedly being tattooed members,” a list that includes “eleven alleged Banditos and thirty alleged Executioners.”
The alleged deputy gangs within the LASD operate out of the department’s precincts, called “stations” in LASD lingo. The Banditos are linked to the East Los Angeles station, while the Executioners, according to Huntsman’s letter, are “a deputy gang based out of the Sheriff’s Department’s Compton Station.”
Deputy gangs have plagued the LASD for decades — as detailed by a county-commissioned 2021 report by the RAND corporation — and members have been accused of violence, discrimination, harassment, and intimidation, not only against members of the public but fellow members of the department. The county has paid out at least $55 million in settlements to resolve claims linked to alleged deputy gangs.
Not unlike in street gangs, sheriff-deputy gang members receive matching tattoos. The Bandidos emblem is a skeleton with a sombrero and a handlebar mustache holding a smoking revolver. As described by Huntsman, the Executioners’ tattoo features “a skeleton with a Nazi-style military helmet.”
The terminology used to describe these deputy gangs has been controversial. They have also variously been described as “subgroups” and “cliques.” In February, Sheriff Villanueva sent a letter to the county board of supervisors demanding that they “cease and desist from using the derogatory term ‘deputy gangs,'” arguing that the term “serves no purpose other than to fuel hatred … against our people.”
But Huntsman makes clear his office is investigating the deputies under a specific section of the California penal code that prohibits “law enforcement gangs.” And Huntsman is far from alone in denouncing LASD gang activity. Last year, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) called for a federal investigation of the Executioners, whom she described as “a rogue, violent gang of law enforcement officials.” This February, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, similarly called for the Justice Department to launch “a full investigation” into “violent contingents of deputies” who belong to “unauthorized, exclusive, and secretive gangs.”
In his letter, Huntsman blasts Villanueva’s top deputy, undersheriff Timothy Murakami, for failing to turn over documents related to the gang investigation requested in January. “The Sheriffs Department may not refuse to produce the records requested,” Huntsman writes, “by unilaterally declaring that no deputy sheriff is a member of a ‘law enforcement gang.'” The inspector general writes that he’s “required by law to investigate” potential gang activity, and that the law also requires the LASD to cooperate.
Huntsman’s letter also makes clear that the investigation is not limited to the Banditos and the Executioners, but and also seeks documentation of deputies linked to “potential law enforcement gangs” known as the “Gladiators,” “Jump Out Boys,” “The Grim Reapers,” and “The Vikings.”
The Sheriff’s Department reacted to Huntsman in a Facebook post decrying the watchdog’s “unhealthy obsession to attack the department” and a campaign to “undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the Sheriff’s Department.”
The post touts Villanueva’s commitment to “transparency and accountability” and claims that “all legally obtainable information requested by the Office of the Inspector General has been provided.”
Finally, it accuses the Inspector General of playing politics — seeking to tarnish Villanueva in an election year. “The timing of this letter suggests Mr. Huntsman is using his public office and resources,” the post contends, “to campaign against the sheriff leading up to the June primaries.”
Huntsman is not the only watchdog on this beat. The LASD is directly overseen by a Civilian Oversight Commission, armed with subpoena power. On March 24, the commission announced it was launching a “a full-scale investigation into the deputy gangs that have plagued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for decades.”
Commission chair Sean Kennedy said the time for denial and delay have passed. “Despite years of documented history of this issue, the Department has failed to eliminate the gangs,” Kennedy said, decrying the deputy gangs for having “promoted excessive force against citizens, discriminated against other deputies based on race and gender, and undermined the chain of command and discipline.”
The investigation committee will be staffed by prominent local attorneys. Its work will be modeled after a similar committee that helped expose a plague of violence by sheriff deputies against inmates in LA County jails. According to the COC, the mandate of the investigation will be to “determine which stations deputy gangs currently operate out of, as well as the gangs’ adverse effect on the community and the Department itself.”