If you have info on LA Sheriff’s deputy ‘gangs,’ watchdog wants to hear from you

A watchdog agency is urging LA County residents to share tips and information on secret cliques among deputies at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Photo by Shutterstock.

After failing to force Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to testify about the alleged existence of gang-like groups among deputies, the Civilian Oversight Commission is taking a different approach. The watchdog agency is now actively gathering public input for a study to investigate deputy gangs. 

The commission, which aims to hold the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department accountable for its actions and policies, is asking Angelenos to share their own experiences with deputy cliques and what they think needs to be done to address the issue by filling out the public input form or participating in a virtual town hall on Thursday, December 9 at 6 p.m. 

Pricilla Ocen, Oversight Commission chair and Loyola Law School professor, says because the initial knowledge about cliques came from the public, it makes sense to go back to the original source.

“This has been a problem that the county has known about for at least 50 years, and communities have continued to complain about excessive use of force, disrespect, racial profiling, and in general sort of lawlessness among members of these deputy games.”

Ocen says these alleged violent groups are particularly dangerous and threatening to at-risk neighborhoods, heavily populated by minorities.

“We have not heard any allegations of deputy gangs in places like Malibu, West Hollywood, or any of the other more affluent areas where the Sheriff's Department operates. It's only in those places where we have higher concentrations of low-income communities and bigger populations of people of color.”

The Oversight Commission chairwoman also says hearing directly from residents about their experiences will provide a better context for how deputy groups are impacting communities.

“There are families that have been impacted and fervently believe deputy gangs are related to the harm that came to their loved ones.”

Despites Sheriff Villanueva’s repeated insistence that deputy gangs no longer exist, nearly 16% of the deputies who participated in a voluntary survey said they had been asked to join one of the several cliques within the last five years, according to the RAND Corporation.  

To independently verify the report, the Commission will eventually have to speak with the sheriff and other ranking members. But with Villavuenva and his officials defying subpoenas to testify before the oversight commission, Ocen says she hopes a judge would intervene.

“We have asked county counsel to go to court to enforce our subpoena. And if the judge rules in our favor, and the sheriff continues to defy the subpoenas that we have lawfully issued to him, a judge can hold him in contempt. That may even result in him being placed in custody.”

Ocen says Villanueva’s “inaction” toward deputy gangs is part of the problem.

“I hope that we get some leadership that takes this seriously.”