LA Sheriff Says He Won't Tolerate 'Renegade Cliques.' Here's The Backstory On Secret Societies

A Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy sits in a patrol car in a file photo from 2016. (Photo by Maya Sugarman/KPCC)

A secret society of racist lawmen? A band of gangbusting deputies who operate like a gang themselves?

Sounds like a bad pulp novel, but these are some of the allegations that have been leveled against deputies within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for years. Reports of sheriff gangs accused of violent, racist behavior date back to at least the 1970s, and they're back in the news again.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced a new comprehensive study of secret deputy societies within his department just last week.

Despite the long history of accusations, "no one has undertaken a serious, comprehensive study of the issue. And I intend, on my watch, to get to the bottom of this," McDonnell said during a meeting of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.

The civilian group is a watchdog for the Sheriff's Department; it's examining recent allegations that the Compton Station harbors a new clique of tattooed deputies.

"I am not going to pre-judge the outcome of our comprehensive study. But I will say this: renegade cliques erode public confidence as well as internal morale, and they will not be tolerated within the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department," the sheriff said.

So what's the deal with these secret societies? What's really going on?

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

The story appears to have started with the Little Devils, a group formed within the East Los Angeles sheriff's station in 1971, according to the Los Angeles Times. Then came groups like the Pirates, Rattlesnakes, Cavemen, and Vikings. These groups flourished in overwhelmingly white sheriff's stations that operated in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods.

In a class-action lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department, a federal judge called the Lynwood Vikings a "neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang." The county paid $9 million in fines and training costs to settle the suit.

Among its members was former, and now imprisoned, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. He's serving five years in federal prison for conspiracy and obstruction of justice after he tried to derail an FBI investigation into police misconduct within county jails.

As recently as 2013, seven members of the Sheriff's Department were fired when another group, the Jump Out Boys, was exposed by the LA Times.

A pamphlet with the group's creed read, "We are not afraid to get our hands dirty without any disgrace, dishonor or hesitation... sometimes [members] need to do the things they don't want to in order to get where they want to be," according to the Huffington Post.

The Jump Out Boys' tattoo was a skull holding a revolver. Every time a deputy in the group was involved in a shooting, he would earn an extra line of inked smoke coming out of the gun, the Times reported.

Critics allege that the group glorified officer-involved shootings and encouraged overly aggressive policing. That's why some officials and members of the public are concerned about the possible resurgence of these groups.

The issue sparked anger at the oversight commission's meeting last Thursday when a public comment segment devolved into a feud between a speaker and the commission's chairman, who walked out in disgust.

Chair Robert Bonner's seat sits empty at a recent meeting of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission. Bonner, not pictured, stormed out after a discussion about deputy cliques devolved into shouting. (Photo by Bradley Bermont/LAist/KPCC)

SO WHY ARE THESE GROUPS BACK IN THE HEADLINES AGAIN?

Earlier this year, Sheriff's Deputy Samuel Aldama revealed that he received a skull tattoo as part of an initiation into a group of officers at Compton Station.

While denying that the tattoo represented a formal clique, the deputy acknowledged that 10 to 20 of his colleagues had the same tattoos. He said that the tattoo was awarded to officers who did their jobs well.

All of this was revealed in May when Aldama gave a deposition during a lawsuit stemming from the officer-involved shooting that killed Donta Taylor, a black man, in 2016.

Taylor family attorneys have used the tattoos to argue that a clique is tied to the killing, which they allege was racially motivated.

The district attorney's office had ruled that the shooting was justified.

WHAT'S THE SHERIFF PLANNING TO DO?

In his address to the Civilian Oversight Commission, McDonnell said he was opening a comprehensive study of tattoos and secret societies in light of the new allegations. This is in addition to an ongoing examination of deputy tattoos, logos and symbolism within the organization, as reported by the Times.

Despite the inquiries, McDonnell defended Compton Station.

"We looked into the circumstances at Compton Station: All the indicators of a well-run station are in place," he said, noting that arrests were up and crime was down. He added that the Compton tattoo "does not in any way reflect the LASD of today."

There are a lot of unknowns here, recognized by both the commission and the sheriff. Questions remain as to the nature of the tattoos: Aare they a sign of camaraderie and self-expression, or are they indicative of a sinister organization within the department? Are the groups exclusive or inclusive? How does one become a member? What sort of behavior do they encourage?

When asked if his study would extend to the highest echelons of the department, McDonnell said he would look into it but felt the people in his command staff had integrity.

McDonnell refused to put a specific timeline on the study but told the commission that he hoped to have answers in about three months.


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