Los Angeles Times

What to do with sheriff gangs?


Anyone expecting the Rand Corp.’s report on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to provide a last-word, full accounting of deputy “subgroups” (or gangs, cliques, frats, etc.), including membership rosters and complete catalogues of improper conduct, was in for a disappoint­ment.

The report, released Friday after a multiyear study, has no such details but confirmed something that anyone familiar with the issue already knows: Secret deputy groups do exist, and they have their own rules and rosters, independen­t of department command. And the report said such cliques are probably growing, despite Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s varying assertions that there are no such groups, and if there are, they are just “social groups.” And if they were more than that, he has stamped them out, and if he hasn’t, then he has made it clear that he has zero tolerance for deputies joining.

Besides, Villanueva has said, any misconduct is a result of intergener­ational rivalry between training officers and trainees, and any harm it has caused has been internal, among the ranks, and not perpetrate­d against members of the public.

“You can save yourself a lot of money on your studies,” Villanueva told the sheriff Citizens Oversight Commission in 2019, “because that is going to be the conclusion of the whole thing. This is hazing run amok.”

Let’s just suppose for a moment that deputy subgroups are merely a bunch of fraterniti­es that engage in hazing run amok and not, as has been repeatedly alleged in lawsuits, gangs that encourage and reward excessive force, including fatal shootings, as initiation rites. Let’s suppose that secret but known organizati­ons within the department, like the Banditos and the Executione­rs, really are just social groups that reward designated insiders with the best assignment­s and opportunit­ies for advancemen­t.

That leaves us, even in that best-possible-case scenario, with a parallel, secret and unofficial but armed and publicly paid law enforcemen­t organizati­on asserting its own sort of supervisio­n, assignment and promotion, unaccounta­ble to the official chain of command and, therefore, unaccounta­ble to the people it serves.

The existence of such an alternativ­e structure is simply intolerabl­e.

The Rand study focuses on organizati­onal behavior and culture, and it recommends adjustment­s like improving communicat­ion. But with all due respect to Rand’s management expertise, Los Angeles County has been down incrementa­l roads for at least three decades, amid repeated warnings from commission­s and investigat­ors but with precious little corrective action.

The kind of change needed in the Los

Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will not come without significan­t outside pressure.

How much pressure? Censure from the Board of Supervisor­s and a litany of reports won’t do it. Neither will all those lawsuits and all those millions paid to people who said they were victimized by deputy gangs. Neither, apparently, will criminal prosecutio­ns, given that putting Sheriff Lee Baca, Undersheri­ff Paul Tanaka and numerous other sheriff ’s personnel in federal prison has not meaningful­ly changed department culture.

More radical overhauls are needed. Let’s call one option “reverse-Camden” — meaning Camden, N.J., where deep institutio­nal problems with the police department led to abolishing the agency, scrapping union contracts and, in 2013, creating a new county-wide law enforcemen­t department unburdened by the same legacy of failure and corrupt culture.

L.A. County should look at going the other way, eliminatin­g the Sheriff ’s Department from its patrol function and creating one or more new county police department­s. The sheriff would continue to supervise the jails, as required under current state law. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl has broached a similar idea.

Another is the Rampart option — following in the footsteps of the federal consent decree that helped break the culture of the Los Angeles Police Department and put it back together again in the early part of this century.

The U.S. Department of Justice lamentably backed off its interventi­on in local police department­s during the Trump presidency, but it is back in business and ought to consider the Sheriff ’s Department, given its long history of civil rights violations and failed reform attempts.

And there is the sheriff ’s election, with the primary just nine months away. Voters ought to demand that candidates set forth clearly their positions on the reverse-Camden and Rampart options and spell out their own — and explain why they should expect any patience from an electorate that continues to pay so much of its money ($55 million since 1990, and counting) for the improper and outrageous actions of its deputy sheriffs.

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