LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Los Angeles County has paid out roughly $55 million in settlements in cases in which sheriff's deputies were alleged to belong to a secret society, records obtained by the Los Angeles Times show, illuminating the entrenched nature of a subculture that has plagued the Sheriff's Department for years.
The figure comes from a list that includes payouts in dozens of lawsuits and claims involving deputies associated with tattooed groups accused of glorifying an aggressive style of policing. The report, prepared by L.A. County attorneys, lists nearly 60 cases, some of them still pending, and names eight specific cliques.
The county has paid out nearly $21 million in cases that began in the last 10 years alone, according to the document cited by The Times.
The high cost underscores how these deputy groups -- with monikers such as the Vikings, Regulators, 3000 Boys and the Banditos -- have operated out of several Sheriff's Department stations and jails for decades, exhibiting what critics have long alleged are the violent, intimidating tactics similar in some ways to criminal street gangs, The Times reported. The cases involve incidents that date to 1990.
Over the years, a succession of elected sheriffs has failed to bring the subgroups under control despite multiple internal investigations and, more recently, a probe by the FBI. Many civil liberties advocates and county watchdogs have accused the Sheriff's Department of turning a blind eye.
"I think it's a willful failure," said John Sweeney, an attorney who has represented families of people killed by deputies. "For some reason, they pride themselves, the Sheriff's Department, on having these violent cliques I guess to show the public who's the boss. But, you know, what it does is just fosters a horrible relationship between the community that these sheriffs serve."
The Board of Supervisors requested the list of payouts last year after The Times reported that members of the Banditos, which operate out of the East L.A. station, were accused of assaulting other deputies during an off-duty party in 2018. One deputy was knocked unconscious.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said that he put measures in place in February that prohibit deputies from participating in cliques.
"The fact that I've had to address these issues which have been festering since 1990 is an illustration of the failure of past sheriffs from addressing the issue head on," he said in a statement, adding that he transferred leadership personnel from at least one station to combat the clique problem and is holding employees accountable if they fail to uphold the new policy.
Inspector General Max Huntsman said last week that he is "aware of no implementation whatsoever" of Villanueva's new measures and that his office can't effectively investigate the secret societies "because of the obstruction of the Sheriff"s Department," The Times reported. Huntsman said the criminal investigation in the off-duty Banditos beating amounted to a "cover-up," noting that more than 20 deputies present during the incident were not required to give statements.
Lt. John Satterfield said investigators conducted more than 70 interviews as part of an administrative investigation of the Banditos claims and are sharing information from reviews under the new clique policy with the FBI, The Times reported.
"The IG continues to further this distorted narrative that his office is not provided documents or information in order to 'investigate' or provide oversight," he said, adding that in the last 13 months the oversight office has had access to more than 500 documents. "Despite his misleading statements, the sheriff continues to provide him with access and continues to welcome oversight."
Defenders of the deputy cliques say they represent hard work and boost morale by fostering camaraderie.