Los Angeles County’s top watchdog said Monday that substantial evidence exists that a secretive group of tattooed deputies at the East L.A. sheriff’s station are “gang-like and their influence has resulted in favoritism, sexism, racism and violence.”
In a 32-page report probing activities of the Banditos clique, Inspector General Max Huntsman alleged that Sheriff Alex Villanueva “continues to promote a code of silence regarding these sub-groups” which have plagued the agency for decades.
The inspector general’s report was largely centered around the Sheriff’s Department’s criminal investigation of a fight in 2018 at an off-duty party at Kennedy Hall, an event space near the station, where several deputies said they were attacked by members of the clique. The Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau interviewed dozens of deputies, but according to the report “almost completely ignored” evidence of the Banditos’ role in the events.
“Minimal questions were asked about the Banditos and in the interviews during which the witnesses brought up the Banditos by name, very few follow-up questions were asked,” the report said, adding that 23 witnesses declined to give interviews. The report also criticized the failure of prosecutors to scrutinize the Banditos in their review of the case.
The L.A. County district attorney’s office in February declined to file charges against a sergeant and three deputies involved in the off-duty brawl, saying there was “insufficient evidence” that they committed battery or any other crimes.
Villanueva has fired back against criticism of his handling of deputy cliques, saying he shook up the leadership at the East L.A. station early in his tenure and, more recently, moved to discipline 26 employees for misconduct related to the Kennedy Hall incident. (Some of those employees were the alleged victims, their attorney said.)
The administrative investigation conducted by the Sheriff’s Department found that some employees at the station were acting as so-called shot callers, controlling scheduling and events at the station, Cmdr. April Tardy has said, using a term often used to describe top leaders in prisons and gangs.
Villanueva also has said he has implemented — and is vigorously enforcing — a new policy that prohibits membership in illicit groups. Investigators will ask deputies accused of misconduct about their membership in deputy cliques such as the Banditos, he said.
The inspector general’s report echoed some of the department’s findings, pointing to evidence that a group of veteran deputies with ties to the clique have “undue influence over the daily activities and assignments” at the station. Some younger deputies allege that the group used their influence, and sometimes force and violence, to push deputies out of the station for “failing to live up to the Banditos’ work ethic,” the report said.
In a lawsuit filed against the county last year, eight deputies alleged that they were routinely harassed by the clique, denied backup on dangerous calls, pressured to quit or leave the station and overloaded with calls at the end of their shifts, among other complaints.
The IG’s report recommended that the Sheriff’s Department thoroughly investigate internal criminal allegations and compel statements from all witness deputies who do not invoke their right against self-incrimination.