Los Angeles Sheriff Gangs: Alex Villanueva Finally Testifies

Alex Villanueva testifies gangs

After years of flouting subpoenas and decrying calls for his testimony as a “political circus designed for political damage,” former Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva finally testified to the county’s Civilian Oversight Committee about the problem of deputy gangs in the force on Friday.

As Rolling Stone has reported, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is riven with violent deputy gangs who menace the public and threaten the cohesion of the nation’s third largest policing force. Despite scandals involving deputy gangs repeatedly marring his tenure, Villanueva testified that he never launched a systemic investigation of the issue, insisting his focus was on punishing individual “misconduct.”

The former sheriff even justified having elevated known members of deputy gangs to leadership posts in his administration. Villanueva declared he had no interest in “a witch hunt” about “what kind of ink they have on their bodies.” And he insisted: “I never examined anyone’s tattoo.”

Villanueva, now a candidate for an LA County Supervisor seat, was characteristically bombastic throughout his testimony — frequently seeking to turn the tables on the committee. He called one question about his handling of gangs “about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” He minimized the threat of deputy gangs, comparing them to other benign deputy “subgroups,” including “softball teams.” In a revealing exchange, Villanueva declared that if LASD rooted out all deputies based on their deputy gang tattoo affiliations, it would spark a “gargantuan public safety crisis.”

The LASD is a massive force — it has nearly 10,000 sworn deputies — and also operates the largest jail system in the United States. In early 2023, a scathing COC report demanded that LASD brass take decisive action against deputy gangs: “It is time to eradicate this 50-year plague upon the county of Los Angeles.” 

That report identified at least “a half dozen” deputy gangs run out of the department’s precinct stations, with names like the Banditos (based at East L.A. station) and the Executioners (Compton). LASD gangs, the report described, operate “much like the Mafia,” with “made” members receiving a gang tattoo. The Executioners’ mark, it detailed, is “a skeleton holding an automatic rifle.” The Banditos’ tattoo is a skeleton in a sombrero with a thick mustache and a smoking revolver. The deputies are usually inked on their lower legs or ankles.

These deputy gangs are dangerous to county residents, to fellow deputies, and to the functioning of LASD. In the stations where they’re active, the report detailed, the gangs have “shot callers” who make law enforcement decisions outside the official chain of command, instead of “the sergeants, lieutenants and the captain who are charged with the duty.”

Far from being cabined off in the lower ranks, the report revealed that “tattooed deputy gang members” had reached “the highest levels” inside LASD’s command structure. It called out Villanueva for having “at minimum tolerated, if not rewarded deputy gangs.” To wit, Villanueva’s chief of staff testified under oath in 2022 to the COC that he’d formerly been a tattooed member of a deputy group called the Grim Reapers. The COC also heard testimony that now-retired Undersheriff Tim Murakami had a tattoo for a “clique” called the Cavemen. 

Murakami has steadfastly refused to appear before the COC to answer questions about deputy gangs. Under questioning Friday, Villanueva denied that he was, himself, a member of the Cavemen. Asked when he knew that Murakami was a member of a gang, Villanueva dodged, insisting the query was loaded, “like the question of, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’” 

The former sheriff was asked whether it furthers “good community relations” to have the public interacting with deputies bearing gang tattoos — for example the Executioners’ tattoo of a “skeleton with a helmet holding a rifle.” Villanueva responded: “Well, if they’re out there running around in shorts, with all these tattoos, maybe. But if they’re wearing pants — ehhh?”

Parts of Villanueva’s testimony called for suspension of disbelief. He claimed he did not know if deputy gangs were exclusionary or discriminatory in how they offer membership. And despite being confronted with a current Los Angeles Times story exposing the existence of a new deputy gang, Villanueva argued that “the problem is actually disappearing.” 

On the other hand, Villanueva also seemed to argue that the problem of deputy gang membership is so pervasive that it can’t be tackled directly. “What exactly are you gonna do when you determine that, maybe, 20 percent of your workforce has tattoos?” he asked during one exchange with the COC counsel. “Are you going to somehow set them on a shelf? Or fire all 20 percent of the department because they have a tattoo?”

Adding to a circus-like atmosphere, Villanueva also rebuked COC insinuations that he’d obstructed an investigation into gang violence as “disgusting” and “appalling.” Villanueva even alleged, during a break, that some members of the audience at the proceedings were flipping off his wife.

The activity of LASD’s deputy gangs has routinely led to abuses. Deputies who desire to earn a place in a gang are described in the 2023 COC report as “chasing ink” — or seeking to prove their mettle by abusing members of the public. This has led to “unconstitutional” acts of “excessive force,” the report revealed, including deputies who have sought to “get into shootings” with suspects believed to be armed.

Additionally, the report describes how some deputy gangs have held “shooting parties” to fete members who fire their weapons at suspects. Such deputies are then allowed to “add embellishments” to their gang tattoos — for example, a puff of “smoke” to a barrel of a gun. 

Inside LASD, the gangs are a menace to non-member deputies. The report describes gangs as discriminating by race and gender in selecting members. And non-members have allegedly been subject to a wide range of abuses — ranging from assault by gang members to being denied backup at dangerous crime scenes. The report also detailed how the gangs “operate in secrecy,” with members allegedly willing to “lie in reports to protect each other.” 

A separate 2021 report, commissioned by the county, revealed that judgments stemming from the malfeasance of deputy gangs had forced county taxpayers to shell out more than $50 million in settlements and judgments. 

Villanueva, perhaps the Trumpiest politician in California, lost his re-election bid in late 2022. New sheriff Robert Luna ran as a reformer and has been on the job now for a year. He quickly instituted a new Office of Constitutional Policing, vowing it would help “eradicate” deputy gangs. 

While the soft-spoken Luna has been the stylistic antithesis of Villanueva, he has accomplished little of substance on the gang front — including not implementing a ban on deputy gang tattoos. This week, the existence of a new alleged deputy gang — the “Indians,” based out of the City of Industry station — became public, as part of a report about four LASD deputies who were fired from the force following a drunken 2022 brawl with teenagers outside a bowling alley.


In a year-end interview with the Los Angeles Times, Luna blamed red tape for his lack of action. “I’m admitting there’s an issue,” he told the paper, adding that “any time we’re dealing with employees’ hours, working conditions or things that impact people’s daily lives, we have to go through a meet-and-confer process.” 

Asked whether LASD would unveil a new anti-gang policy in 2024, Luna replied: “That is my absolute expectation.”

Source link: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/alex-villanueva-sheriff-testimony-deputy-gang-members-1234946346/

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