By Leila Katibah
LOS ANGELES, CA – Following decades of organizing by civil rights groups and families of victims of sheriffs’ deputy violence, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last week voted 4-1 to put a measure on the November ballot that, if approved, would amend the county charter and grant the board the power to remove a sheriff for serious violations of public trust and safety.
Corruption and violence have tainted the legacy of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, with multiple news reports and studies confirming the existence of “deputy gangs” encouraging brutality and harassment in the department, jails, and patrolled neighborhoods.
Whistleblowers have identified one deputy gang as “the Banditos,” who function as a shadow government within local law enforcement, particularly in East Los Angeles. Other deputy gangs such as the Grim Reapers, the Regulators, and the Vikings have plagued the sheriff’s department for 50 years.
According to a lawsuit filed by eight East LA deputies and the ACLU, the Banditos gang “controls the East Los Angeles station like inmates running a prison yard.” Leaders are named “shot-callers” who determine deputies’ hours, promotions, and days off, according to the suit.
The mark of a Bandito is a secret numbered tattoo on the leg or ankle, of a skeleton with a thick mustache, a bandolier, a sombrero, while brandishing a smoking gun, said the ACLU, noting victims’ families allege deputies killed their family members in hopes of earning a tattoo. A whistleblower revealed in a CBS exposé that getting in a shooting allows deputy gang members to earn “brownie points.”
Female deputies training under Banditos have alleged several reports of sexual harassment, threats, and verbal abuse in a lawsuit. Refusal to submit to gang culture is met with staunch retaliation and harassment by deputy gang members.
Although the county eventually settled the lawsuit for $1 million, the Banditos remain, according to news reports.
When Alex Villanueva was elected, whistleblowers and reformists were hopeful, as he came up in the East L.A. station outside of the deputy gang culture.
During his campaign, Villanueva championed a message of reform, telling deputies “help is on the way.” He portrayed himself as a whistleblower who wanted to hold deputies accountable. However, his victory turned out to be disappointing to many of his supporters.
Villanueva was the first member of the Democratic party in over a century to be elected. His victory also unseated an incumbent for the first time in a century.
The deputy gang culture is perhaps too deeply entrenched in the LASD for one sheriff to fix, according to a study by law professor and chair of Civilian Oversight Commission, Sean Kennedy, showing that one in six deputies are in a gang.
Although Villanueva supported some reformist legislation and announced a zero tolerance policy for “deputy cliques,” critics note there has been no systematic attempts made to identify deputy gang members. Instead, the Banditos are thriving under his leadership.
Villanueva placed an alleged Bandito member, Mark Navarro, as head of the Department’s communications’ office, promoted him as head of the Homicide Bureau, then commander of the Detective Division.
The sheriff’s time in office is tainted by multiple scandals and lawsuits implicating his wife Vivian (a retired deputy) and himself in abuses of power. He responded by attacking whistleblowers and refusing to accept oversight.
The state attorney general opened a review of Villanueva’s patterns of investigating critics, and both the Los Angeles Democratic Party and the ACLU have called on him to resign.
County oversight authorities issued lawful subpoenas to investigate the department’s deputy violence.
Director of police practices at the ACLU of Southern California, Melanie Ochoa, describes Los Angeles as having experienced “multiple sheriff’s administrations that have flouted the law at the detriment of the public,” by failing to comply with court orders and disrupting civilian oversight and criminal investigations to conceal deputy violence.
Civil rights groups and families impacted by police violence formed the Check the Sheriff Coalition, which published a list of demands for sheriff accountability, including the charter amendment.
Although current legislation allows the board to supervise the sheriff, it has limited power to ensure the sheriff performs his duties properly, because he was elected.
The approved measure, if passed in the November election, would grant the board the authority to remove the sheriff for cause by a four-fifths vote, after allowing the sheriff the opportunity to be heard.
The ballot language defines cause as including violations of law related to sheriff’s duties, blatant or repeated neglect of duties, misappropriation of funds, obstructing an investigation, or willful falsification of documents.
“No sheriff should be above the law. But in L.A. County there is a vacuum of accountability,” says Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, executive director of Dignity and Power Now, who calls this measure a “common sense” measure to restrain the unrestricted authority of the sheriff, the head of one of the largest paramilitary forces of the country.