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L.A. Is Investigating 50-Year-Old Police Gangs, Finally

by Jo Ellen Nott

On March 24, 2022, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission made public its plan to conduct a “full-scale” investigation into the gangs of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (“LASD”). Nine volunteer members form the Commission that was created in January of 2016 to oversee, improve public transparency, and accountability regarding the LASD. The investigation into the existence and impact of gangs within the LASD and what it will take to root them out will be aided by a large team of pro bono lawyers. The Commission plans to use its full subpoena power to bring witnesses to testify at regular monthly meetings and scheduled public hearings.

Violent, racist gangs have operated within the LASD for more than 30 years according to a host of reliable sources: federal court decisions, government analyses, independent investigations, and news reports. With names that underscore their intentions such as Executioners, Grim Reapers, Jump Out Boys, and Banditos, at least 18 of these deputy gangs have been identified over the years. The secretive groups of deputies form mainly in “ghetto stations,” police stations located in poor communities of color in Los Angeles but manned by mostly white staff.

A report by the Loyola Law School Center for Juvenile Law & Policy found that six LASD stations account for well over half of the 133 deputy shootings in the last six years, and of those shootings, 80% involved Black or Latino victims. The report indicates that each station has an active deputy gang with a history of complaints and lawsuits alleging misconduct. Allowing these secretive gangs to exist has cost Los Angeles about $21 million in legal claims since 2010.

“Deputy gang members have tattoos with symbols of violence and death, use hand signals and prison slang, and sometimes ‘tax’ trainee deputies for money or sex – just like many criminal gangs,” according to a Reuters piece by Hassan Kanu. He goes on to report that a federal judge in 1990 found that policy makers in the Lynwood Sheriff’s Department knew of the Vikings, a neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang in their station, but did nothing to curb its corrupt behavior. The Vikings still exist, of course, evidenced by the last LASD undersheriff, a tattooed Vikings member who executed a man and who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 for obstruction of justice.

Sean Kennedy, commission chair and executive director of the Loyola Center, explained to Reuters why the current investigation is different from past government-led efforts. He pointed to the LEWIS registry launched in May of 2021. The registry amends California’s public record act to make many incidents of police violence and false reporting non-confidential. The LEWIS registry is the first crowd-sourced public database for police resignations or terminations due to misconduct and will likely give the Commission more access to personnel files than past commissions.

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