The law enforcement community is simply a microcosm of our greater society. The problems and issues we see in our communities will most likely be present in police departments, sheriff’s offices and federal agencies. Issues include, alcoholism, drug use, abuse, theft, suicide and yes, even murder. But among the things that should never be present at any level, much less at a larger degree, is gang membership and activity.  

It is that very alleged activity that has led the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to launch a probe into multiple gangs hidden within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

The Banditos, Spartans, Regulators, and Reapers are literal gangs that are claimed to exist within the Los Angeles law enforcement agency. The investigation started after allegations of abuse by the Banditos in March.

All members of the Banditos have tattoos of a skeleton wearing a sombrero, bandolier, and pistol. Allegations against these deputies include using gang tactics to recruit young Latino deputies, and punishing those who reject their advances with physical attacks.

An unidentified source told the Los Angeles Times that FBI agents “are trying to determine whether leaders of the Banditos require or encourage aspiring members to commit criminal acts, such as planting evidence or writing false incident reports, to secure membership in the group.”

Four deputies were put on paid leave following the aforementioned allegations. Sheriff Alex Villanueva minimized the danger, calling the gangs a “cultural norm,” and believes that any problems with these types of activities were eliminated as a result of previous investigations.

Cultural norm? Gang activity is being explained away as a cultural norm? I grew up in west Texas. Our cultural norms were things like listening to country music, going to church on Sundays and high school football on Friday nights. Never was violence inside of law enforcement simply explained away as a cultural norm. Law enforcement officials are held to a higher standard, and cannot simply sweep things under the rug. 

In the last decade, there have been accusations against ‘gang member’ deputies of police brutality, even breaking the bones of suspects in their custody as an initiation ritual, allowing the deputies to be deemed worthy of their inclusion.” Sheriff Villanueva has chalked that fault up to previous leadership, saying the gangs “ran roughshod” over past sheriffs.

The latest allegations stemmed from a party last September. New deputies working in East L.A. were celebrating the completion of their probationary period with the department.

It was at the end of this party when several veteran deputies showed up that things went south.

According to legal documents filed against the county by seven deputies, the men belonged to the Banditos.

The claims are a precursor to a civil suit, which will seek tens of millions of dollars from the county for failing to address the hostile work environment the Banditos are alleged to have created.

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The evening in question ended in violence when the Banditos are accused of attacking several of the new deputies. One rookie said he was thrown to the ground and punched in the face before being knocked unconscious. Another recalled being choked to the point of passing out.

“This is not just a case about beating up a handful of cops, it’s about fear through intimidation to maintain the corrupt status quo and make certain the new idealistic cops don’t talk,” said Vincent Miller, an attorney representing the seven deputies who filed the claims. “This has been going on for years, and the county needs to fix it.”

The Sheriff’s Department issued a statement this past Thursday that said it would not tolerate any form of hazing or harassment within the organization.

“The allegations outlined in this recent claim arose prior to Sheriff [Alex] Villanueva assuming office. The allegations are being fully investigated and appropriate actions were properly commenced by the prior administration,” the statement said. “Sheriff Villanueva had the Unit Commander replaced, in addition to key supervisory personnel. The new Unit Commander has met with staff members and has made it abundantly clear that activities which violate workplace policy or the law will be immediately addressed with swift and appropriate action.”

Ron Hernandez is the president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents rank-and-file deputies. He said the group would withhold specific comment out of respect for the ongoing investigation.

“ALADS fully supports a detailed, fair, timely investigation, with an interest in due process for all parties said to be involved,” Hernandez said.

The allegations are the latest for a department that has struggled for years to address numerous examples of secretive, gang-like deputy societies accused of committing abuses against inmates, fellow deputies and while on patrol.

According to the L.A. Times, in July last year, then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell launched what he said would be a comprehensive study of deputy cliques after The Times revealed that a Compton station deputy involved in the fatal shooting of a black man had testified that he and as many as 20 of his colleagues had matching skull tattoos.

That inquiry went unfinished when Villanueva, a former lieutenant in the department, unseated McDonnell and took office in early December. Villanueva, who has drawn fire from critics who worry he is rolling back reforms meant to curb abuse by deputies, has at times defended deputies with station tattoos, saying they’re honorable people. But he has criticized previous administrations for allowing a broader culture of hazing to fester in the department.

In comments shortly after taking office, he blamed station captains and other top officials for failing to stop a work culture of “unchecked hazing” that allowed cliques to form and grow.

Some deputies have defended the tattoos they share with others in their stationas a source of benign camaraderie and a way to boost morale. Some have also said they have a free-speech right to wear them.

The recent allegations are not the first against the Banditos. In 2014, the county paid a female deputy assigned to the East L.A. station $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit, in which she claimed she had been physically and mentally harassed by some of the clique’s 80 members after refusing to go along with its “traditions and initiation rituals.”

In a statement Thursday, Hilda Solis, a member of the Board of Supervisors, said she was “disappointed and dismayed” at the latest allegations.

“I have spoken repeatedly with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, the Civilian Oversight Commission, the Office of Inspector General, and county counsel about my deep concern about the potential existence of secret cliques or gangs of sheriff deputies. The Sheriff’s Department must hold itself out to the highest levels of professionalism and respect for others. The role of sheriff’s deputies is to protect and serve the public, and secret cliques and violent gangs of law enforcement personnel must be eliminated. East L.A. and the greater L.A. County community deserve nothing less.”

What are your thoughts? Is this simple hazing? Is it acceptable because it is a social norm?

Let us know in the form below.