Cecil Rhambo, Who Failed to Discipline LASD Gangs When It Was His Job, Claims He’ll Do So as Sheriff
In an exclusive interview with Knock LA, Rhambo claimed he would reform the Sheriff’s Department. His record suggests otherwise.
On June 12, a slickly edited video splashed across the homepages of almost every local outlet in the LA area. An audio collage of newscasters denounces deputy gangs, crime, and current Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva while images from headlines are superimposed across the city. A lone policeman driving on an empty road begins to speak, first in a voiceover, about his own time with the department before getting out of his vehicle and speaking directly to the viewer: “I’m Cecil Rhambo, and I’m running to clean up the Sheriff’s Department… for good.”
Rhambo neglects to mention that he himself was a subject of lawsuits alleging human rights abuses in LA County jails. He was also the subject of federal investigations into misconduct. His video appears to have impressed the Los Angeles County Democratic Party’s Screening, Early Endorsements, and Recommendations Committee, having earned a reported 68% of its vote for recommendation to endorse. Early this year, the County Democrats passed a motion formally calling on current Sheriff Alex Villanueva to resign, citing deputy gangs. But Rhambo’s announcement skips over the fact that while employed as the assistant sheriff, he never disciplined a single deputy gang member — and has even been accused of being one himself.
Rhambo joined the department in 1981 and was soon partnered up with then-Deputy Paul Tanaka, a tattooed member of the Lynwood Vikings. In 1988, Tanaka shot and killed Hong Pyo Lee, allegedly earning him his full membership into the gang. Like nearly every other candidate running for sheriff, Rhambo tells Knock LA in an exclusive interview that he was involved in at least one shooting of his own during his 33-year career in LASD.
[The following interview segments have been edited for clarity and brevity]
Cecil Rhambo: I’ve been involved in shootings — the person just didn’t die. I got robbed in early 1990, ’91. It was an attempted robbery at a Bank of America teller at night, and the suspect drew his gun and I saw him drawing his gun. And so we kind of drew down on each other at the same time, and I was fortunate enough to get my shots off first. Fortunately for him, he ran five blocks and collapsed and said he was a victim of a drive-by and they left his gun there.
Cerise Castle: What do you think should happen with deputies who are involved in fatal shootings?
Cecil Rhambo: There’s a process for that. What should happen is the process should take its course.
Law enforcement officers are rarely charged in shootings. Deputy Luke Liu, the first LA County law enforcement officer to be prosecuted for an on-duty shooting in 20 years, was acquitted in November 2021.
Rhambo and Tanaka remained friends for at least the next 30 years, only officially ceasing contact when Tanaka was federally indicted for obstruction of justice and Rhambo was forced to comply with a federal subpoena. Rhambo says he discussed the Vikings with Tanaka and knew members of other gangs, but did not report the activity.
“My understanding of the Vikings gang [is] it started in Lynwood where Paul [Tanaka] was a sergeant,” Rhambo says. “The higher you go in the organization, the more you realize, ‘Oh, East LA has a group called the Little Devils, or Firestone had the Pirates or Lynwood had the Vikings.’” When asked if he was an associate of the gang, Rhambo said: “I’m a member of the sheriff’s department, or I was. If that implies that I’m an associate, then maybe.”
Rhambo donated to Tanaka’s various political campaigns from 1998 onwards, despite knowing that he was involved in a deputy gang.
Cerise Castle: You were a big supporter of Tanaka’s when he was running for various positions in local government. What was the reason that you chose to donate to his campaigns dating back to 1998?
Cecil Rhambo: I knew him, right? I mean, it would be the same thing with you and people that are, you know, you came into your organization with. I had no reason not to support him.
Cerise Castle: But I mean, you knew at this point he’s a Viking. You’re hearing these things in the press about the Vikings. You have Judge Terry Hatter’s ruling. You have allegations of other deputy gangs that are happening all under [Tanaka’s] direction. Why did you choose to donate at that point?
Cecil Rhambo: I think it flies in the face of the fact that these things have been around since [Sheriff] Pitchess. I don’t see the correlation. It wasn’t like there was some sinister thing going on.
Cerise Castle: What would you do with employees that are affiliated with these gangs, either by association or full-on tattooed members?
Cecil Rhambo: If I know Cerise that you’re a, let’s say, you’re a Viking and you happen to be a sergeant and you’re working at wherever, there’s not much I can do to you unless you violate policy or the law.
Several people both formerly and currently inside the department have alleged that Rhambo’s close friendship with Tanaka afforded him multiple promotions. LASD has been sued multiple times by deputies, including current Sheriff Alex Villanueva, alleging the promotion process favors those with personal relationships with higher-ups. Rhambo told Knock LA that he did not think there was a correlation between his donations to Tanaka’s campaigns and his promotions, and denied ever receiving a challenge coin, small medallions often exchanged by law enforcement members. “I think that was [Sheriff Lee Baca] personally. We had a similar philosophy on community engagement, and I think he appreciated that… people that don’t get promoted will always say that there was a pay to play or whatever the issue. If you’re not successful, you’re going to grab for whatever you think is the reason.”
Rhambo was promoted to sergeant in 1989 and worked at the West Hollywood Station, the Internal Affairs Bureau, and the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau. At the time, the latter bureaus were responsible for overseeing complaints and investigations into the Vikings. It’s unclear if any deputy was ever disciplined for participating in the gang. At some point during this period, Rhambo and Tanaka were photographed throwing what appear to be gang signs with a group of LASD employees.
When asked what was happening in the photo, Rhambo said that he had been sent by a lieutenant to where the others had gathered to “make sure those guys weren’t doing anything silly… I mean, there’s been books written about the choir boys, choir practice and all that.” Rhambo appears to be referring to the 1975 Joseph Wambaugh novel The Choirboys, which centers around a group of Los Angeles Police Department officers who get together for what they call “choir practices.”
The “choir practices” generally involved heavy drinking, disparaging their superiors, and having group sex in MacArthur Park, a location chosen as it was in another department division — and “one does not shit in one’s own nest.” Rhambo says that the group was doing the sign for Carson Station. When asked if it was normal to use signs like that, Rhambo told reporter Cerise Castle “it would be like you throwing up the V sign for Vice,” a company where she was previously employed:
Cerise Castle: I’ve never had a gang sign like anywhere I’ve worked, though. That’s a little unusual.
Cecil Rhambo: You know, we at that time as 20-something-year-old kids, we had no idea anything like that would evolve into what’s going on today.
Rhambo was promoted again in 1996 to lieutenant, and assigned to the Pitchess Detention Center, South Facility, Carson Station, Internal Affairs Bureau, and Asian Crime Task Force. Rhambo was born in South Korea to a Black American serviceman and a Korean mother, and adopted by a family in Compton after one year in a Korean orphanage. He told the Korea Herald that he has a limited knowledge of Korean culture and that “I believe being a Korean, my body genetics has things to do with my success.” He described his time with the Asian Crime Task Force as “a whole awakening experience toward Korean culture.”
In February of 2001 Rhambo was promoted to captain, and again to commander just four years later, where he oversaw the Budget and Personnel departments, as well as stations in the Antelope Valley and Santa Clarita. During his tenure, an independent probe found that investigations into citizen complaints at the stations were biased in deputies’ favor. In several instances, deputies threatened Santa Clarita residents and dissuaded them from filing complaints, despite the incidents being recorded on audio. In reports, investigators attacked complainants’ judgements and driving skills, and found the deputies acted in a “reasonable” manner. The report concluded that citizen complaints in Santa Clarita were consistently ruled “in favor of the officer” and that it was the “station now in need of the most improvement.”
Rhambo told the Los Angeles Daily News in 2007 that “we’re visiting each complaint just to see if there’s something we may have missed… We don’t view [the] report as something we should be overly upset about but if there’s room for changes, we’ll make them.” He said the report neglected to include any action taken by commanders outside of the formal process. It’s unclear what actions he is referring to, nor could Knock LA find evidence that such actions ever occurred.
One year later, in 2008, Rhambo was promoted again to chief and took over command of Field Operations Region II, where he oversaw the operations of the Century, Carson, Compton, Lomita, Marina Del Rey, South Los Angeles, and West Hollywood stations. He was also responsible for the Community College Bureau, the Parks Bureau, the Community/Law Enforcement Partnership Program, the Community Oriented Policing Services Bureau, and the Operation Safe Streets Bureau. Rhambo would later decline to cooperate with an LASD investigation into an employee of the Community/Law Enforcement Partnership Program for alleged charity fraud and theft.
In 2009, a sergeant at the Century Station began to be harassed by a colleague he believed had ties to the neo-Nazi deputy gang the Vikings. The man had even pointed a gun at him while a person threatened, “I’m going to kill you.” The matter was taken to a now-disbanded disciplinary committee that Cecil Rhambo and Paul Tanaka sat on, with the recommendation that the harasser be demoted. However, the group of executives recommended a 15-day suspension for the alleged Viking associate instead. It’s unclear if the suspension occurred.
In June 2011, Rhambo was promoted again to fill the position of one of just two assistant sheriffs, ranking only below Sheriff Lee Baca and his old friend, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. He was placed in charge of the County Jail and Court Services systems. During this time, Rhambo was named as a defendant in a class action suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging abuse perpetrated by deputy gang members. People incarcerated in Men’s Central Jail reported that the 2000 and 3000 Boys were operating in the jail with the knowledge of Sheriff Baca, Undersheriff Tanaka, Rhambo, and Dennis Burns, the chief of the Custody Operations Division. The lawsuit alleged that inmates were routinely beaten by deputy gang members, who also used racial slurs to address incarcerated people of color.
Deputy Michael Rathbun, a member of the Operation Safe Jails, a gang intelligence unit within the county jails, reported that in July 2011 he was ordered to hide an FBI informant in the jails in order to prevent his handlers from locating him. Those orders came from Sheriff Baca, and resulted in Baca, Tanaka, and several others facing conviction for obstructing an FBI investigation into the jails. Rathbun also became aware that jail personnel were working for white supremacist street gangs inside the jail. Deputy Ronald Brock, who is Black, sued the department in 2015 alleging that his superiors harassed, threatened, then fired him for protesting inmate abuse in the county jails.
Rhambo falsely stated to Knock LA that these events “predated” him. He also confirmed that he had knowledge of deputy gangs inside the jail at the time, but was not looking into them.
Cecil Rhambo: That was something that was ongoing. There were a number of people working on those entities, not me specifically, but people underneath me. I can’t recall or remember exactly what their allegations were other than the fact that they existed.
Cerise Castle: You never disciplined any deputies for engaging with those gangs?
Cecil Rhambo: I did not.
Rhambo’s campaign website states he supports “re-imagining” Men’s Central Jail, but that “dangerous, violent inmates need to be separated from the public.” Knock LA asked if he supported releasing the approximately 45% of the jail population that is nonviolent:
Cecil Rhambo: It depends, as you have to take it case by case. To blatantly say, ‘I’m going to let out 45% of the non-serious offenders that are in Central Jail,’ I’d have to look at why they’re even in Central Jail. Whether you’re an informant or a witness in a co-defendant case, there’s a number of reasons people are there, and that is one of our highest-security, highest-level facilities.
Cerise Castle: So some people that are, let’s say, like a green light or an informant. Does that mean that by your understanding and your take, it’s safer for them to be inside a facility like Men’s Central rather than on the street?
Cecil Rhambo: Yeah. Often you are safer inside the jail.
In 2012, Bernice Abram, a longtime friend of Rhambo’s and captain of the Carson Sheriff’s Station, was alleged to have given privileged information to a known local drug dealer and even brought him to department functions. Rhambo told the Los Angeles Times in 2012 that he “had no reason to suspect that anything was other than on the up and up… She’s in law enforcement. She’s a friend. I still don’t even know what’s going on with this; of course I’m shocked.” When asked about their relationship by Knock LA, Rhambo said that he had “known [Abram] for 30 years or 25 years at the time. So it’s not a matter of friendships. It’s a matter of knowing, you know, knowing folks that you grew up with.” He told Knock LA she would not be part of his team should he be elected.
Rhambo retired from the LASD in June 2014. Shortly afterwards, his friend Tanaka and Sheriff Baca were federally indicted for obstructing a federal investigation into abuse inside the jails. Rhambo testified for the government and was appointed city manager of Carson — despite the fact he lacked a background in city government. He remained in the position through 2017; at the same time, he was compelled to testify against Baca and Tanaka. Rhambo was not accused of a crime, which is standard procedure for cooperating witnesses. Both were eventually sentenced to multiyear sentences in federal prison. Rhambo says that he has not spoken to Paul Tanaka since 2012. However, Tanaka was temporarily released in 2015 to attend Rhambo’s mother’s funeral.
Rhambo went on to serve as the city manager of the City of Compton from 2017 to 2019 before moving on to serve as chief for the Los Angeles Airport Police. However, it appears that he has not been able to curry much favor with his employee base. In recent days the Los Angeles Airport Police Officers Association (LAAPOA), the union for LA Airport Police employees, has used its Twitter account to go after Rhambo’s alignment with the Democratic party, stating that he voted for Trump and cautioned via GIF he was “living in a glass house” and to “put the stone down.” The account further charged that Rhambo’s “continued virtue signaling & pandering is disgusting & inexcusable” and not helpful to LAAP employees. “Either you were disingenuous with your opinions before or you are lying now to get the progressive votes #FactsMatter.” LAAPOA declined to comment further for this article.
Despite Rhambo’s record of intersection with and overseeing of misconduct, he has remained a strong contender in the 2022 sheriff campaign. Whether a department veteran with ties to deputy gangs will be sworn in remains to be seen.