Originally published March 22, 2021
Forty-seven Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials were added Monday as named defendants in a lawsuit alleging the existence of a “criminal gang” of deputies called the Banditos at the department’s East L.A. Station.
The new defendants represent a significant expansion of the civil rights and workplace harassment lawsuit that was first filed two years ago, and previously named only four former deputies and Los Angeles County. It was filed on behalf of eight deputies who accused a group of colleagues of being members of a “gang” that violated the civil rights of deputies who did not support them with a campaign of harassment and physical attacks.
The new defendants include two commanders, three captains, two lieutenants and 41 deputies, according to plaintiff’s attorney Vincent Miller. Thirty-one of these allegedly are themselves Banditos, associates, or prospects for the gang, he said. Twenty-four are currently stationed in East L.A. The FBI opened an investigation into that and other alleged cliques within the department.
The new court filing does not attach specific allegations to each new defendant. Instead, the defendants face the allegations previously laid out in the lawsuit. Those allegations accused the Banditos and their associates of harassing fellow deputies who don’t support them, creating a hostile workplace. and planting evidence.
The lawsuit claims the department is “permeated by criminal gang culture” beyond the Banditos. Those who are not Banditos allegedly fail to stop them, according to Miller, or engage in covering up their wrongdoing.
“You’ve got people who rigged internal affairs bureau investigations,” Miller told LAist. “You’ve got people who were put in leadership positions who were basically there to hide and minimize and cover up the extent of the deputy gang problem.”
One of the new named defendants is Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s chief of security, and another is his driver, according to Miller.
The sheriff’s department declined to comment on the allegations.
Instead, it issued this statement: “Sheriff Alex Villanueva was the first sheriff in the history of LASD to implement a strict policy prohibiting cliques and sub-cultures, and he has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to transparency and accountability.”
In August, Villanueva announced a “zero tolerance policy on deputy cliques/subgroups engaging in misconduct,” according to the statement.
A spokesperson for the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which represents some of defendants, declined to comment until he saw the new court documents.
L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents East L.A., said in an emailed statement: “It is shameful to learn that the number of deputy gang members, specifically from the Banditos, have increased and now include those who have enabled and hid their misconduct. This should be emblematic that policies that allegedly ban deputies from joining gangs will not fix this problem.”
Solis added, “These are deputies who cause havoc and harm and only traumatizes our residents instead of helping and serving them,” saying it time the department “take the elimination of deputy gang membership seriously.”
The expanded lawsuit comes amid increasing scrutiny of how Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who began his career at the East L.A. Station, has addressed the longstanding problem of deputy subgroups. Some of these goups have been accused of violence and harassment of both residents and colleagues. They’ve been called “gangs” because they wear matching tattoos, operate in secrecy, and have initiation rituals.
The Bandito tattoo is a skeleton with a giant mustache wearing a sombrero with a bandolier and pistol.
A report by Loyola Law School found 18 deputy gangs that have operated within the department. Its author Professor Sean Kennedy said at least seven remain active.
— FRANK STOLTZE
This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2021 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.