A new lawsuit describes a violent gang in LA County. Its members are deputy sheriffs.

As concerns over police misconduct and use of force have drawn increased national attention in recent years, activists have argued that a key part of the problem is the ability for officers to shield one another from accountability.

But in California, critics of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have been faced with a unique version of the issue: the existence of what have been called “deputy gangs” — cliques of officers who allegedly engage in violent and potentially criminal behavior while protecting their members and clashing with other law enforcement officers.

These groups, which have reportedly been around in some form or another in Los Angeles County since the 1970s, have been a frequent topic of local media reporting. Outlets like the Los Angeles Times have highlighted how other officers have filed formal complaints about the “secretive groups,” describing them as powerful forces within the sheriff’s department who beat and harass local residents and, at times, actively work to intimidate other nonaffiliated officers.

Many of the deputy cliques share common features: hierarchical structures, intensive recruitment, hazing of younger officers, and a resistance to outsiders. But one of the features that has been most commonly cited is tattoos. Members of a specific group often have a shared “ink” that symbolizes their membership. In some instances, according to reports, this ink is only granted after a deputy commits an illegal act or violates department protocol to show their loyalty to the group. In other cases, deputies allegedly received additional markings after fulfilling certain conditions, like committing police brutality or being involved in a shooting.

Such groups are not exclusive to Los Angeles County, but the area has reportedly had a particularly difficult time dealing with the groups. “Defenders say the cliques are harmless fraternities, likening them to close-knit groups in the military,” the LA Times noted in a July article. “But time and again, the deputy clubs have come under fire for promoting aggressive tactics and an us-versus-everyone mentality.”

According to the Times, there have been several clubs that have existed in the various stations under the sheriff’s department, with some groups becoming defunct, leaving new cliques to take their place. In late September, eight LASD deputies filed a lawsuit against one such group, called the “Banditos,” a deputy clique of several dozen members who operate out of the department’s East Los Angeles station.

Criminal justice news outlet the Appeal reports that according to the lawsuit, the group uses violence and intimidation to maintain a “stranglehold on the unincorporated communities east of downtown,” with members sporting “tattoos featuring a pistol-wielding, sombrero- and bandolier-wearing skeleton with a thick mustache and a unique number for each member.” In 2018, the outlet noted that the existence of nearly three dozen federal civil rights lawsuits against the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department pointed to a deputy “gang culture that encourages excessive force, particularly against minorities.”

The September lawsuit also argues that the existence of the Banditos — and of other similar groups in the county — have negatively impacted deputies, even as Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva argues that the groups are little more than “intergenerational hazing.”

“The sheriff is trying to wrongfully minimize the impact of these gangs,” Vincent Miller, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told the Appeal this week. The result, the lawsuit argues, is that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has a culture that “is warped and off track.”

The lawsuit alleges a pattern of officer harassment, intimidation, and retaliation

The 63-page lawsuit accuses the Banditos — a male-only, predominantly Latino clique, who the FBI is also watching — of targeting, harassing, and intimidating other Latino officers not in the group, as well as civilians. The plaintiffs in the suit say they have been met with retaliation for filing complaints against members of the Banditos and their associates, saying that criticism of the Banditos resulted in nonaffiliated officers being left without backup in dangerous situations, subjected to harassment, forced into unpaid shifts and last-minute dispatches, and in at least one instance from 2018, assaulted by other deputies during an off-duty party.

“Due to the illegal policing practices by the Banditos gang, and its culture which dominates the station, the numbers of stops and arrests of community members in East Los Angeles are excessive,” the lawsuit says. “The East Los Angeles station also generates an inordinate number of lawsuits, harassment claims, and acts of violence, including violence against fellow deputies.”

The lawsuit also highlights behavior from Banditos members and their “associates,” arguing that there is a clear pattern of misconduct from those tied to the group. Furthermore, the suit, which also names Villanueva as a defendant (but notes that he is not actually a Banditos member), claims that department leadership has failed to take action against the deputy clique and has instead rehired several members after they were fired for misconduct.

In other incidents, the plaintiffs claim that those connected to the gangs are given special protection from lawsuits and criminal prosecution in the first place. Here’s how the Appeal describes an incident involving a female officer allegedly associated with the group:

In 2017, according to the lawsuit, Deputy Carrie Robles-Plascencia ran a red light in a patrol vehicle, which left two children dead and their mother seriously injured. The lawsuit alleges that Sheriff Villanueva “buried” an Internal Affairs investigation into the incident because he has a personal relationship with Robles-Plascencia, and she calls Villanueva “dad” and his wife “mom.”

Other harassment lawsuits have also focused on the Banditos. In 2014, for example, a female deputy was given $1.5 million in a settlement after filing a lawsuit claiming that she was harassed by members of the Banditos. The deputy said she was specifically singled out after refusing to go along with their “traditions and initiation rituals” and that she faced retaliation for refusing to give sexual favors to Banditos-affiliated deputies.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department says these groups are fraternal clubs of officers. Their critics disagree.

Critics of officer groups like the Banditos argue that the group builds off a decades-long phenomenon of bad behavior within officer cliques in Los Angeles County.

“The problem is more unique to LASD than their management would like to admit,” Sean Kennedy, a Loyola Law School professor and member of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, told Witness LA, a local news outlet, in September. “The failure of elected L.A. Sheriffs to do anything affirmative to investigate the internal gangs is likely one of the major reasons that they have persisted for so long.”

There have been other groups before the Banditos, several of them involved in controversial police violence incidents.

In the 1990s, for example, a deputy group called the Lynwood Vikings, described by a California judge as a “neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang,” was responsible for incidents that led to millions being handed out in lawsuit settlements, and was also the subject of a 1991 lawsuit from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The case later led to the 1992 Kolts report, which called for station commanders to “root out and punish severely any lingering gang-like behavior by its deputies.”

More than two decades later, one of the Vikings members, a former LASD assistant sheriff named Paul Tanaka, was convicted and sentenced to serve five years in prison in 2016 for conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges following a federal probe into reports of civil rights violations and abuse in the Los Angeles County Jail system.

Other deputy groups, with names like the “Jump Out Boys,” “Regulators,” and “Grim Reapers” have also been involved in controversial incidents with civilians and other officers. And some cliques, like groups called the “2000 Boys” and “3000 Boys,” have been known to operate out of the county jail. According to a September 2012 report from LA County’s Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, the 2000 Boys made assaulting incarcerated men part of recruitment, with the report noting that “a deputy reportedly fractured the orbital bone of a non-combative inmate to ‘earn his ink.’”

And in 2018, the sheriff’s department faced a lawsuit from the family of Donta Taylor, a 31-year-old black man killed by deputies in a 2016 Compton shooting. Taylor’s family argued that the deputies involved in the shooting were part of a violent clique. During a 2018 deposition, one of the deputies, Samuel Aldama, admitted that he shared a tattoo with other officers in the department; the same deputy also said that he had “ill feelings” toward African Americans. The lawsuit was settled in June of this year, with Taylor’s family receiving $7 million.

The actions of the different groups have led critics to argue that the LASD is not doing enough to stop the activity of deputy cliques. But Villanueva, the current sheriff who campaigned in 2018 on a promise to reform the department, says the groups are not actually the problem, instead arguing that the issue is the behavior of individual officers. He’s also said the department can’t do anything about the officer’s shared tattoos, saying that they are protected by the First Amendment.

But some experts, like Kennedy, the Loyola professor, say this is a weak argument. Meanwhile, the eight deputies serving as plaintiffs in the current lawsuit argue that Villanueva is actually enabling the activity that he promised to reform. In recent months, the sheriff has announced a new policy that prohibits LASD deputies from participating in groups that violate the rights of civilians or other deputies. He has also pointed to the fact that several officers have been transferred from the East LA station.

Critics counter that many of these changes were simply the result of organic officer transfers and did not actually aim to dismantle the Banditos.

The new lawsuit seeks to have the department take additional actions to address the deputy cliques in the hope that it will prompt an overhaul of the entire system. But given how these groups have allegedly thrived in LA County for decades, it may take much more than one lawsuit for things to change.