LOS ANGELES — Suggesting a continuing problem with gang-like cliques within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, 16% of deputies questioned in a recent survey said they’ve been asked to join such groups, according to the survey results released Friday.
The study by Santa Monica-based think-tank RAND — titled “Understanding Subgroups Within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department” — questioned 1,608 deputies and supervisors, who anonymously answered the survey’s questions. Of the 16% who said they had been asked to join such a “secretive subgroup,” one-fourth of them said they had been asked within the past five years.
RAND researchers concluded that department leadership can best discourage involvement in deputy subgroups by clarifying policy language to prohibit such groups, and by delivering strong and consistent messages to its staff opposing membership in the groups and related banned conduct.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva has denied that such gangs exist within the department, insisting he took decisive action when he took office — including firings and reassignments of personnel — most notably at the East Los Angeles Station, where a group known as the Banditos is alleged to have wielded significant sway among deputies.
In a statement Friday, Villanueva said he has not yet had a chance to review the 230-page RAND report.
“I look forward to learning about their study, methodologies used, limitations and seeing how their recommendations can inform the massive reform efforts already underway,” Villanueva said. “This is part of leading a learning organization devoted to serving the public safety needs of our community.”
According to the RAND study, while department leaders have taken initial steps to address problematic subgroups, there needs to be clear guidance for command staff — particularly captains — about expectations and appropriate responses for dealing with the secretive subgroups.
Previously, captains have developed their own approaches to addressing issues with groups, creating a lack of consistency and differing expectations across the department, the report says.
While the consensus among department staff who were interviewed for the report is that the subgroups exist, the extent of their membership remains unknown.
Many community leaders and public members who participated in the RAND project had negative views about department subgroups, saying they were the source of behavior such as hazing, covering up for fellow deputies, harassing residents and ex-offenders, and using excessive force.
The RAND report provides a unique look at the subgroups from within the department based on a survey of sworn personnel and interviews with several dozen department members of all ranks.
“The exclusivity and secrecy of subgroups among some deputies in the LA Sheriff’s Department poses several risks and challenges to the organization and the communities it serves,” said Samuel Peterson, the study’s lead author and a policy researcher at RAND.
“While the department’s leadership has taken initial steps to address the influence of the groups, there needs to be greater consistency among command staff in setting expectations and enforcing policies that discourage the influence of these groups,” Peterson said. “It’s important to respond at the first sign of potential problems. When problems are identified, a thorough investigation is critical.”
For some community members, the subgroups are a stark representation of an us-versus-them mentality that is generalized to the entire LASD, Peterson said. Their existence signals that the department either can’t or won’t manage these groups, which affects legitimacy and public trust in the department, particularly in parts of the county where relationships are historically tense, he said.
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda L. Solis said she is neither surprised nor shocked by the study.
“It is unfortunate that due to LASD leadership’s inability and frankly, unwillingness to consistently hold deputies and their respective supervisors accountable, there exists a diminishing relationship between the Department and residents,” she said. “It is also disturbing the sheer amount of money that has come out of hardworking taxpayers’ wallets to pay large settlements — almost $55 million dollars since 1990 (related to claims involving deputy gangs and its members). These precious dollars should have instead been used to serve our communities.”