Watch­dog says group of deputies linked by skull logo may sig­nal prob­lems for the L.A. Sher­iff ’s De­part­ment.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Maya Lau

Some mem­bers of a Los An­ge­les County watch­dog panel are calling on Sher­iff Jim McDonnell to launch a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions of a se­cret so­ci­ety of deputies that brands its mem­bers with match­ing skull tat­toos.

The rev­e­la­tion this week that a deputy ad­mit­ted to get­ting inked two years ago as part of a rit­ual within the Comp­ton sta­tion has raised con­cerns that deputy cliques, long part of a con­tro­ver­sial agency sub­cul­ture, have per­sisted de­spite the de­part­ment’s re­form ef­forts.

Hernán Vera, who serves on the Sher­iff Civil­ian Over­sight Com­mis­sion, said the deputy’s ad­mis­sion in a law­suit over a fa­tal shoot­ing that he and as many as 20 oth­ers have the sig­na­ture tat­toos was “thor­oughly dis­turb­ing.”

“It’s not the kind of cul­ture that you want to fos­ter in the 21st cen­tury Sher­iff ’s De­part­ment,” said Vera, a prin­ci­pal in the law firm Bird Marella.

McDonnell said that for the last year, the de­part­ment has been ex­am­in­ing

deputy tat­toos, lo­gos and sym­bol­ism within the or­ga­ni­za­tion, but he hasn’t launched a new in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Comp­ton sta­tion deputies.

He said there is also a sep­a­rate ad­min­is­tra­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the shoot­ing, which may ad­dress the deputy’s ad­mis­sions.

“I’m not some­body from a gen­er­a­tion where tat­toos are ac­cepted the way they are to­day,” said McDonnell, who said he was un­happy when he found out a cou­ple of weeks ago about the deputy’s ad­mis­sions un­der oath. “I’m look­ing at what’s be­hind it. Is it just body art? … Is it some­thing that re­flects well on our core val­ues?”

The de­part­ment has a long history of clan­des­tine groups — with names like the Reg­u­la­tors, Grim Reapers and Jump Out Boys — that have been ac­cused of pro­mot­ing highly ag­gres­sive tac­tics and per­pet­u­at­ing a code of si­lence among mem­bers. Nearly 30 years ago, a fed­eral judge said the Vikings club was a “neo-Nazi, white su­prem­a­cist gang.”

Some deputies see the groups as more be­nign and be­lieve the no­to­ri­ously vi­o­lent cliques are out­liers. To these deputies, get­ting a match­ing tat­too is more a sign of ca­ma­raderie in a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous pro­fes­sion — a sym­bol of pride in be­ing a fear­less, proac­tive of­fi­cer or sur­viv­ing a neardeath ex­pe­ri­ence on the job.

The lat­est rev­e­la­tions, de­tailed this week by The Times, cen­ter on a de­po­si­tion given in May by Deputy Sa­muel Al­dama, who de­scribed un­der oath a tat­too on his calf fea­tur­ing a skull in a mil­i­tary-style hel­met bear­ing the let­ters “CPT” for Comp­ton, along with a ri­fle, en­cir­cled by flames.

He said he got the tat­too in June 2016, about two months be­fore he was in­volved in the fa­tal shoot­ing of Donta Tay­lor.

Al­dama, who was tes­ti­fy­ing in a law­suit brought by Tay­lor’s fam­ily, said 10 to 20 other deputies had the tat­toos, but he de­nied they were part of a clique, ac­cord­ing to ex­cerpts of the de­po­si­tion re­viewed by The Times. He said “work­ing hard” on the job — mak­ing ar­rests, re­spond­ing to calls — was the only re­quire­ment for get­ting the tat­too.

An at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing the fam­ily has said the shoot­ing of Tay­lor, who was black, was racially mo­ti­vated. The lawyer, John Sweeney, asked Al­dama in the de­po­si­tion whether he har­bored any “ill feel­ings” to­ward blacks in gen­eral. Af­ter a long pause, Al­dama replied, “I do, sir.” The deputy later said he didn’t have any ill feel­ings and that he had mis­un­der­stood the ques­tion.

At a news con­fer­ence Fri­day, Sweeney noted that he is rep­re­sent­ing an­other black client who al­leges in a law­suit that he was se­ri­ously beaten by Al­dama and his part­ner in a racially mo­ti­vated at­tack in Jan­uary 2016. “We know that this is a vi­o­lent clique,” Sweeney said.

In Au­gust 2016, Al­dama was with his part­ner, Deputy Mizrain Or­rego, when the pair opened fire on Tay­lor af­ter a night foot pur­suit. An au­topsy showed Tay­lor was shot six times.

Deputies al­leged Tay­lor was wear­ing gang attire and pointed a gun at one of them im­me­di­ately be­fore they opened fire, ac­cord­ing to a district at­tor­ney’s report sum­ma­riz­ing what hap­pened. De­spite an ex­ten­sive search, no weapon was found. Sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials said tests on Tay­lor’s pock­ets and waist­band turned up gun­shot residue that was con­sis­tent with a hand­gun.

Af­ter re­view­ing the shoot­ing, the district at­tor­ney’s of­fice con­cluded the deputies acted rea­son­ably.

Priscilla Ocen, a Loyola Law School pro­fes­sor who also sits on the Civil­ian Over­sight Com­mis­sion, said the use of a skull tat­too cel­e­brates vi­o­lence, rais­ing con­cerns that deputies might be more will­ing to en­gage in bru­tal­ity on the streets.

“You have law en­force­ment, which rou­tinely uses la­bels like ‘gang mem­ber’ to jus­tify cer­tain kinds of polic­ing and to ex­cuse deadly force. Mean­while you have al­le­ga­tions of a gang op­er­at­ing out of the Sher­iff’s De­part­ment. I think that’s deeply trou­bling,” Ocen said.

Comp­ton sta­tion Capt. Michael Thatcher said Al­dama has been re­moved from pa­trol but re­mains at the sta­tion. Or­rego, he said, was fired in an un­re­lated case. Thatcher de­clined to say why.

Ef­forts to reach the deputies were un­suc­cess­ful. Harold Becks, a lawyer rep­re­sent­ing the Sher­iff ’s De­part­ment in the Tay­lor law­suit, did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Thatcher said he learned of the ex­is­tence of the tat­too a few weeks ago. After­ward, he sent an email to his staff alert­ing them that while he doesn’t have any tat­toos, those who do should be able to ex­plain why they got one and to un­der­stand the tat­too’s history.

“This might also be nec­es­sary if you wish to some­day work an as­sign­ment where the ori­gin and mean­ing of tat­toos might be scru­ti­nized,” Thatcher wrote, ac­cord­ing to a copy of his June 8 email re­viewed by The Times.

Thatcher said he was con­cerned and cu­ri­ous about Al­dama’s state­ments and that he doesn’t know whether the deputies with the tat­too are part of a group that has a name.

“I don’t be­lieve that the ex­is­tence of this tat­too has con­trib­uted to any­thing that would cause me con­cern,” Thatcher told The Times.

McDonnell said in a state­ment that the re­cent rev­e­la­tion about the Comp­ton tat­too “does not in any way re­flect the LASD of to­day.”

“Comp­ton sta­tion ex­hibits all of the key in­di­ca­tors we look for in suc­cess­ful com­mu­nity polic­ing,” he said, not­ing that ar­rests from the sta­tion are up 41% over the last two years while shootings by deputies have dropped 33% over the same pe­riod.

He added that deputies act as men­tors and tu­tors for chil­dren in the Comp­ton Youth Ac­tiv­ity League.

Robert Bon­ner, a for­mer fed­eral judge who is chair­man of the Sher­iff Civil­ian Over­sight Com­mis­sion, said pre­vi­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tions have shown some deputy groups can be harm­ful.

Bon­ner was a mem­ber of the Cit­i­zens’ Com­mis­sion on Jail Vi­o­lence, which in 2012 con­demned the cliques and match­ing tat­toos, say­ing they un­der­mined ca­ma­raderie among deputies as a whole and that the de­part­ment’s tol­er­ance of the groups con­trib­uted to abuse of in­mates in the jails. McDonnell was also part of that com­mis­sion.

Bon­ner said he ex­pects the over­sight group will look into the tat­too con­tro­versy.

“These cliques, which have of­ten in­volved iden­ti­fy­ing tat­toos, should not be tol­er­ated,” Bon­ner said. “They un­der­mine su­per­vi­sion and in the past led to use of ex­ces­sive force.”

Pho­to­graphs by Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times

L.A. SHER­IFF’S Deputy Sa­muel Al­dama, shown on a poster, ac­knowl­edged that he and up to 20 oth­ers at the Comp­ton sta­tion have got­ten a skull tat­too, rais­ing con­cerns that cliques have per­sisted de­spite re­form ef­forts.

CRIT­ICS worry the skull tat­too is more than body art, that it could sig­nal a prob­lem­atic sub­cul­ture.

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