“If someone can find a gang member who wears tan and green, please let me know.”
Each Wednesday Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva hosts an Instagram and Facebook live to discuss what he says are “topics relevant to the day.” This week he chose to focus on deputy “cliques,” a term that the department and offices of the LA County government have used to refer to deputy gangs. Villanueva reiterated that while he believes there are no deputy gangs within the department, he is the first Sheriff to have done anything about them. Neither of those things are true.
At the podium, Villanueva was joined by a select group of upper management within the department. Several were noticeably absent, however, and had not been invited, according to sources familiar with the event. The Sheriff began the press conference by stating that the media, the Board of Supervisors, the Civilian Oversight Commission, and the Inspector General “are not entitled to their own facts” about deputy cliques, and that there was a “dearth of activity prior to December 2018.” Knock LA has previously chronicled 50 years of deputy gang activity. Villanueva also falsely stated that he was the first Sheriff to ever adopt a policy addressing deputy cliques – former Sheriff Jim McDonnell banned a logo favored by the Banditos gang in 2016.
Villanueva stated that before he was sworn in as Sheriff in 2018, he visited the East LA Station, home to the infamous Banditos gang and several others. Villanueva also falsely stated that he was responsible for the transfer of 36 people out of the station, and later in the same conference conceded that many of the 36 voluntarily left their assignment at East LA.
LA County counsel has previously said that the department cannot ban tattoos or “cliques.” Deputy County Counsel Elizabeth Miller reiterated this position at the March 26, 2019 Civilian Oversight Commission meeting. Sheriff Villanueva offered this up as an explanation as to why more hadn’t been done to address the gangs within the department. Crimes and criminal enterprises, however, are expected to be addressed by a law enforcement agency.
Instead of criminally charging deputies who participate in the gangs, Villanueva says he formed a “working group” to craft a policy that “covers misconduct committed by these groups.” The policy, introduced in February 2020, forbids department personnel from joining “any group of Department employees which promotes conduct that violates the rights of other employees or members of the public.” Any employees that participate will be subject to unspecified “discipline.” Criminal allegations could be referred to the District Attorney.
In his press conference, Villanueva said that each employee of the department had to watch a video about the policy and sign a form acknowledging the video and policy. Villanueva said that the lack of acknowledgement from the Civilian Oversight Commission and Inspector General about the policy was the subject of “political agendas not based on fact” and “a proxy war the Board of Supervisors wants to wage against the [Sheriff’s] Department.”
Although Villanueva has repeatedly stated that he is the first Sheriff to address the issue, he also stated that the groups “do not exist,” and that he has “yet to find one.” He stated that the idea of deputy gangs is a “straw man” created by “people with their own agenda.” He immediately contradicted that notion again in his next statement saying, “There’s cliques everywhere. Every single police station, I guarantee you… there’s nothing deviant or dark or scary about it.” Shortly afterwards, he showed a brief video about nurses in Orange County getting matching tattoos to commemorate the fight against COVID-19. Villanueva falsely stated that under the civilian Oversight Commission’s standard, the nurses would be in a gang.
Villanueva said that approximately 717 department employees have been disciplined via 30 day suspension or reduction in rank, and 95 have been discharged. He says that each of the cases were signed off by him personally. Several of them were the result of an investigation into an attack on deputies by members of the Banditos gang.
Villanueva also said that he is developing a whistleblowing policy. However, he stated that there is no behavior within the department to report saying, “since those operations don’t exist it’s very hard to find somebody who is a whistleblower.” Knock LA requested copies of the policy from the Sheriff’s Department and did not receive a response prior to publishing. The Sheriff also touted a “duty to intervene” policy he says he created. Villanueva suggested that Deputy Austeberto “Art” Gonzalez may have violated that policy and been “part of a conspiracy” when he blew the whistle on the Executioners gang at the Compton Station.
The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that the city of Compton accused the Sheriff’s Department of charging the city for non-existent patrol work. The allegations were uncovered in a legal claim filed with the County, which is a precursor to a lawsuit, by a deputy. Alan Romero, the attorney representing the whistleblower, said in letters to the city of Compton that three deputies assigned to desk jobs at the Compton station likely logged patrol minutes while performing their office duties. Detectives also utilized the so-called “ghost car” program. The deputy also claims dispatchers are aware of the fraud and purposefully don’t send these detectives out on service calls. Villanueva said at the press conference that, “I don’t think it’s going to be the grand conspiracy that the outgoing mayor of Compton wants it to be.”
Villanueva claimed that the department is investigating the claims into a gang within its ranks in Compton which could result in transfers. He attempted to credit the quality of the department’s investigations by addressing harassment claims by family members of people killed by deputies. Villanueva said that the claims were a “three ring circus,” and that the department “could not find a single instance to verify any of it.” Several family members of residents killed have compiled a report detailing harassment they have experienced.
Villanueva closed out the press conference by confirming that the department would be operating outside of its jurisdiction to “address homelessness.” He said that the agency was working along the 101 Freeway, Olvera Street, and Venice Beach in an effort to “regulate public space,” which he called the “number one” function of government. He described the presence of the unhoused population across the County as “frightening,” “anarchy,” and“abandoned public space.” Villanueva stated that his department has crafted a plan that would “restore the rule of law” and “get tourism back.”
It remains to be seen what steps local agencies such as the County Board of Supervisors, Civilian Oversight Commission, and other law enforcement agencies will take to address the pervasive deputy gangs inside the department.