Part of A Tradition of Violence, an extensive investigation into more than five decades of abuse, terror, and murder carried out by gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Content Warning: This series explicitly details acts of violence (including murder) carried out by law enforcement officials. Please exercise self-care and check in with yourself before choosing to read.
There are at least 18 gangs within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Officials at various government agencies, including the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles County District Attorney, the California Senate Senate Subcommittee on Police Officer Conduct, and the United States Commission on Civil Rights have heard testimony on the violence inflicted on communities at the hands of deputy gangs for decades. And yet, there have not been any internal investigations or significant policy changes to address the issue. Deputy gangs have killed at least 19 people, all of whom were men of color. At least four of them had a mental illness. Los Angeles County keeps a list of lawsuits related to the deputy gangs. Litigation related to these cases has cost the County just over $100 million over the past 30 years. Under section 186.22 of the California Penal Code a criminal gang is described as any organization or group of three (3) or more people that 1. has a common name or identifying sign or symbol, 2. has, as one of its primary activities, the commission of one of a long list of California criminal offenses, and 3. whose members have engaged in a "pattern of criminal gang activity" ... either alone or together. Sheriff's gangs fit the description. Despite requests, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department did not provide comment to Knock LA for the series.
Deputy gangs in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department frequently beat, and sometimes kill, residents of the County. Because the District Attorney’s office regularly declines to criminally prosecute LASD employees, the families of victims will pursue civil lawsuits. But oftentimes the evidence produced documenting gangs’ members, identifying tattoos, and crimes are subject to protective orders keeping them from the public record. Information about these gangs is difficult to find, but several have made appearances in the public sphere over the years.
Pirates, Tasmanian Devils, Buffalo Soldiers, and Choir Boys
The Firestone Station was reportedly home to a deputy gang called the Pirates. The station first opened in 1955, and closed in 1993. The members of the Pirates gang shared a common tattoo on their leg of a skull and crossbones, according to a report from the Loyola Marymount University Center for Juvenile Law & Policy. Ron Hernandez, who served as President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff’s (ALADS), the union which covers deputies, has a Pirates tattoo near his ankle. Hernandez admitted that he had the design to the Los Angeles Times in 2018, saying it was, “associated with the now shuttered Firestone station.” Hernandez went on to claim that “it signified a fellowship of hard workers, not a rogue clique.” Other deputies from the Firestone Station have suggested that the Pirates were an “intramural sports team.” When the station closed in the early 1990s, members were likely transferred out to other department locations, bringing the culture of the gang with them. It’s unclear if membership is still actively recruiting new members.
Other modern gangs are more elusive. One such group is the Tasmanian Devils, said to be based at the Temple City Station. The Buffalo Soldiers, named for the units of segregated officers that served in the US military, is a gang that allegedly only admits Black deputies. Black LASD personnel are banned from membership in several other deputy gangs. Some deputies participate in local chapters of the Choir Boys, a nationwide motorcycle club made up of law enforcement personnel. These groups have been mentioned anecdotally in communications between LASD personnel, but have not appeared on the County’s list of litigation related to deputy gangs.
The Antelope Valley: A new frontier
As historically Black and Latinx communities are gentrified and re-developed in the Eastern and Southern parts of Los Angeles County, the families that once called them home are increasingly moving to the Antelope Valley. Data from the Census Bureau states that between 1990 and 2010, the proportion of whites in the total population of Lancaster decreased from 79% of the population to 49.6%. During that time, the proportion of Black people almost tripled, increasing from 7.4% of the population to 20.5%. The Latinx/Hispanic population more than doubled from 15% to 38% of the population. Deputy gangs have also cropped up in the region as the population diversifies. “The cancer has metastasized out to Palmdale and Lancaster,” says John Sweeney, a civil rights attorney who uncovered the Executioners deputy gang. “Wherever you are gonna find [Black people], you’re going to find Sheriff Deputies who are heavy handed and who violate the civil rights of citizens.”
The Cowboys deputy gang appears to operate out of several locations, including the Century Station in South Los Angeles and the Palmdale Station in the Antelope Valley. Cowboys members have a common tattoo on the leg depicting a sequentially numbered skull in a cowboy hat.
Deputy Jason Zabala admitted to getting a Regulators gang tattoo at a Sunset Beach shop. The design is of a skeleton wearing a star-shaped badge and cowboy hat and holding a pistol next to a tombstone displaying the Century Station logo – a diamond shaped crest with Nordic-appearing letters spell out CEN on top and the Roman numeral for 21 below. Zabala says he was the 140th person to receive the design. Zabala has been involved in several incidents of excessive force resulting in at least two deaths that have cost County taxpayers $4 million in settlement awards. Deputy Oleg Polissky, who worked at the Palmdale Station, testified that he received a Cowboys tattoo, accompanied by several other LASD members. Afterwards, the group went out to celebrate with 20 more deputies, some of whom had the same tattoo. Polissky claimed the Cowboys tattoo signified, “that no person has less rights than any other person” and that, “you treat the public equally and without bias.” He did not state how either of these sentiments related to a skull, cowboy, or tombstone. Former deputies in the LASD disagreed with that sentiment, telling Knock LA that they observed other department personnel racially profiling people of color for detainment and arresting them without cause.
The Palmdale and Lancaster Stations both allegedly employ different members of the Rattlesnakes deputy gang. The group’s existence was acknowledged in a 2013 report from the US Department of Justice examining racial discrimination in the Housing Choice Voucher Program, commonly referred to as Section 8.
Members of the Sheriff’s department appear to hold racist beliefs about people of color in the Antelope Valley. According to the DOJ report, the Sheriff’s Department dedicated extensive resources to policing participants in the voucher program between 2004 and 2011. In 2004, a Lancaster Sheriff Station Captain said to members of the press, “A lot of the time [voucher holders] are trying to do a good thing: their nephew from South Central is getting in trouble so they send him up here. He rewards them by continuing his gang activity.”
In 2010, an LASD deputy took photographs of luxury vehicles parked in a home’s garage and sent them to the administrator of a group called “I Hate Section 8” on Facebook. The family’s home was latter vandalized with the words, “I hate Section 8 you fucking n******” scrawled on their garage door. The family’s son had urine thrown on him while his attacker yelled, “Dirty Section 8 n*****.” The family relocated back to the city of Los Angeles out of fear. Investigators noted in their report that during a tour, a sworn LASD supervisor told them that all newly arrived African-American residents of the Antelope Valley are gang members.
Federal reports state some Antelope Valley deputies wear Rattlesnake gang tattoos or other skull designs as a mark of their affiliation with the Antelope Valley stations. Like deputies in gangs at other stations, they engage in brute force against the communities they are sworn to serve and protect. Between 2010 and 2011, at least 25 civilian complaints were filed about discriminatory conduct deputies used against members of the public. Two of them stated that deputies used racist language against civilians, one of which was captured on video. The DOJ found that the LASD even took criminal enforcement action against voucher holders on the basis of violations of program rules, despite the fact that the Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles had terminated the holder from the program.
However, those severe tactics appear to be embraced by the department – one policy for guidance on using force states, “Remember that the word ‘force’ is part of the very title of our profession: Law Enforcement.” The Department of Justice found that the LASD’s early warning system, an internal method meant to flag “problem” employees early in their career, does not adequately identify or effectively respond to deputies within the Antelope Valley with repeated complaints. It’s unclear if this resulted in any change in policy.
As with most information related to gangs in the LASD, it’s difficult to know with certainty if this is the entire story. However, given County officials tendency to settle deputy gang cases for millions of dollars before they go to trial, it would be surprising if more evidence did not exist.
Knock LA will continue to report on new facts that arise in relation to gangs in the LASD as they become available.