At least four “secret cliques or gangs” of sheriff’s deputies — with names like the Banditos and the Executioners — continue to operate and recruit within the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, despite recent reforms intended to ban them. The persistence of illicit factions is described in a new report commissioned by L.A. County that rebukes a department that “either can’t or won’t” manage a problem that is undermining the legitimacy of the law enforcement agency, and has cost local taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to settle claims of recklessness, violence, and harassment.
Conducted by the RAND Corporation on behalf of the county government, the report draws on an unprecedented survey of the department’s roughly 10,000 sworn personnel, and reveals that nearly one-in-six deputies have been invited to join a “subgroup” — a quarter of those within the past five years. (The report opts for the neutral language of “subgroups” and “cliques,” but recognizes that critics have long decried these factions as “gangs,” pointing to pervasive initiation rituals, tattoos, hand signs, and the groups’ often-violent behavior.)
Since 1990, the county has paid out nearly $55 million in “subgroup related judgments,” including $21 million in the past decade alone. In 2019, for example, the county paid out $7 million to settle a wrongful death claim filed by the family of a man shot and killed by a deputy with an Executioners tattoo.
The report identifies four subgroups by name as “currently active,” each operating within a different geographic station within LASD: the Banditos of East Los Angeles station, the Reapers of South Los Angeles station, the Spartans of Century station, and the Executioners of Compton station.
Underscoring how ingrained such cliques are within the culture of the department, the report also names eight other subgroups (including the Cavemen, the Jumpout Boys, and the Regulators) that no longer actively recruit new deputies, but whose aging members remain on LASD payroll. “I can’t say whether the Regulators or Vikings or Banditos are a criminal street gang, but they’re close to it,” said one survey respondent who identified obliquely as a “county stakeholder representative.” This person continued: “The reason you can’t answer that is that it’s never been investigated…. The culture is so pervasive within the department. There are many people who are in places of management that may have been part of the same cliques, or precursors of them.”
The RAND report emphasizes that not all subgroups are created equal, and that the more benign ones may operate more like “drinking groups.” But it calls out one in particular as a paragon of bad behavior: The Banditos.
The Banditos are a menace to their non-clique colleagues — the report describes “alleged workplace harassment, incivility, intimidation, and retaliation, leading to ‘brawls in the parking lot.’” These claims echo findings of a 2020 county inspector general report that called out the group, writing: “Substantial evidence exists to support the conclusion that the Banditos are gang-like and their influence has resulted in favoritism, sexism, racism, and violence.” An ongoing lawsuit, originally filed in 2019, by LASD deputies describes the Banditos as “an illegal racist and sexist criminal organization” and alleges the group has violated its colleagues civil rights by “assaulting and attacking them directly at several locations” and put their “life and limb at risk by withholding backup on dangerous calls.” The FBI has also reportedly opened a federal probe into the Banditos and LASD’s other gang-like groups.
Most troubling, the RAND report surfaces allegations that Banditos have used violence against inmates in LASD custody as an initiation rite, requiring young deputies to use unnecessary force before receiving the clique’s tattoo — a skeleton in a Sombrero holding a revolver. The report relays the allegations in a quote from “a mid-level staff member” in the Sheriff’s department: “So you have a kid who wants to be accepted, they would ask are you ready to get your ink? And that meant you had to get into a use-of-force and send an inmate to the hospital, sometimes by breaking the orbital bone.”
The staffer claimed department superiors often looked the other way, or even covered for such abuse. “Some supervisors didn’t even write the use of force, or some of the uses of force ‘disappeared,’” the staffer said. “Time goes on, and they’re used to this madness in custody.”
Outrage over deputy gangs is not new in Los Angeles, but has recently gained congressional attention. In July, Rep, Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) wrote a letter demanding Attorney General Merrick Garland “take action to address the reported existence of a rogue, violent gang of law enforcement officials who call themselves the ‘Executioners’ operating within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.” Waters asked the Justice Department to pursue “potential civil rights and constitutional violations” against the group. According to the RAND report, the Executioners face allegations of having “encouraged shootings of civilians” and having assaulted “at least one other deputy at the station.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has promised change. In February 2020, LASD implemented a new policy, mandating that “department personnel shall not participate or join in any group…which promotes conduct that violates the rights of other employees or members of the public.” The policy recognizes that “participation in these illicit groups… which often include an associated symbol and/or tattoo, harms morale and erodes public trust.”
But the RAND report characterizes the reform effort to date as vague and confusing. “Sheriff Villanueva has seemingly clarified that this policy is intended to prohibit subgroups completely,” it reads, “although statements made to the Civilian Oversight Commission have appeared to contradict a firm message of prohibition.”
Reporting by the LA Times has also highlighted the emptiness of Villanueva’s reforms, including the Sheriff’s misleading claims that he’d cleaned house at the East L.A. station and had successfully “broken up” the Bandidos.
In a statement released Friday, Villanueva acknowledged the release of the RAND report but emphasized he’d not yet read it. “I look forward to learning about their study, methodologies used, limitations,” the Sheriff said, “and seeing how their recommendations can inform the massive reform efforts already underway.”
Vincent Miller is an attorney who represents the deputies suing the county, claiming harassment and retaliation by the Banditos. He says that Villanueva’s false promises of reform have only “exacerbated” a bad situation. The RAND study, says Miller, “demonstrates the problem isn’t just one gang, the Banditos, run amok in east Los Angeles, terrorizing one community and one station. The biggest take away,” he adds, “is just how much deputy gang culture dominates LASD. The corrupt gang culture is the status quo. The whole system needs to be revamped.”
Hilda Solis, the former Labor Secretary under President Obama, is now chair of the LA County Board of Supervisors, where she represents East Los Angeles. “I am neither surprised nor shocked by the study’s findings,” she said. Solis underscored her commitment to ending the “stronghold the Banditos have of the East LA Sheriff’s station,” and vowed that the board had a duty “to transform the LA Sheriff’s Department into one that, as the Department’s motto states, will ‘earn the public’s trust every day.’”