Last year, then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department got a response to his claims minimizing or denying the existence of gangs inside the nation's largest sheriff's department: the Civilian Oversight Commission launched a special counsel's investigation. “The sheriff has repeatedly challenged anyone to come up with the evidence of deputy gangs, and our intention is to conduct a completely independent investigation,” Sean Kennedy, the commission’s chair, said at the time. “This issue has been languishing for over 50 years.” After dozens of interviews and seven public hearings, the result is a 70-page report condemning the "cancer" of violent deputy gangs that remain active, the Los Angeles Times reports. The report also calls out those who could have done more to solve the problem, including the deputies’ union, county counsel and the district attorney’s office. “They create rituals that valorize violence, such as recording all deputy-involved shootings in an official book, celebrating with ‘shooting parties,’ and authorizing deputies who have shot a community member to add embellishments to their common gang tattoos,” the special counsel team wrote this week of allegations that have long plagued the department and are now documented more fully.
In addition to urging a new anti-gang policy and the creation of an improved reporting process to notify prosecutors, the report outlines more than two dozen other recommendations to tackle the long-standing problem, including firing captains who won’t support anti-gang policies and requiring deputies to hide any gang-related tattoos at work. Villanueva's successor, Sheriff Robert Luna, did not immediately commit to following any of the recommendations, but in a statement Thursday he highlighted the changes he’s already made, such as creating a new office to “eradicate deputy gangs.” “I was elected to bring new leadership and accountability to this department,” he wrote. “We look forward to working with the Civilian Oversight Commission and Inspector General on this in the future.” The deputy groups have been the subject of repeated inquiries, reports and lawsuits. More than a decade ago, the Board of Supervisors created the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence to investigate long-standing allegations of deputies abusing and beating inmates inside the county’s jails. After the panel identified deputy groups as one of the contributors to the persistent abuse behind bars, the county created the current oversight commission in 2016 — on the heels of multiple federal indictments of deputies and the former sheriff, Lee Baca. In 2021, the county commissioned an independent study by Rand Corp., which found that more than 15% of deputies and supervisors who responded to an anonymous survey had been invited to join a gang in the last five years.