TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN
Street gangs and officer cliques have a lot in common
For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. How and why street gangs form has long been a fertile stomping ground for social theorists. Over the years they have proposed a range of causes, from individual temperament to the hogging of resources by a selfish elite. Your blogger’s past observations as a law enforcement officer make him particularly fond of the work of Dr. Elijah Anderson, Sterling Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University. According to Dr. Anderson, gang violence is a cultural adaptation to declining circumstances. Poverty and a lack of legitimate opportunities help generate a “code of the streets,” promoting toxic concepts such as “manhood” and “respect” and legitimizing violence as an appropriate response to perceived slights.
That gang violence is, first and foremost, about settling scores comes as no surprise to readers of the L.A. Times. For a noteworthy example there’s the March 31st. murder of celebrated L.A. gangster-cum-rapper Nipsey Hussle, shot “at least 10 times” by a gang member with whom he supposedly argued about “snitching” (just who “snitched” isn’t clear.) As we write the Times’ website features a brand-new story about the Federal indictment of twenty-two Los Angeles gang members who “hacked to death seven people in the last two years, including a rival gang member who was dismembered and had his heart cut out by six MS-13 soldiers in the Angeles National Forest for defacing the gang’s graffiti.”
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Not all gang violence is expressive. Some has a decidedly utilitarian bent. Consider, for example, the March 10 slaying of University of Southern California student Victor McElhaney, a perfectly innocent youth whom gang members gunned down during a robbery. His mother is active in gun violence prevention efforts in Oakland, where she serves on the city council. Here is her statement:
My husband and I want to express our gratitude to the public for their cooperation and to the LAPD for their diligent work to bring those responsible for Victor’s death to justice. But this gratitude brings little comfort. The young man arrested also represents a loss of life and human potential.
According to the Los Angeles Times, which tracks neighborhood crime, “University Park” (pop. 25,181), the disadvantaged area where the USC student was murdered, had 79 violent crimes (including one murder) during the past six months. Its violent crime rate of 313.7 per 100,000 pop. was thirty-fifth highest of L.A.’s approx. 209 communities. Two years ago in “Location, Location, Location” we settled on L.A.’s affluent burg of Westwood (pop. 52,041) as our model of an acceptably safe place. According to the Times, Westwood suffered twenty-nine violent crimes (including one murder) during the past six months, yielding a violent crime rate of 55.7 per 100,000 pop., 133rd. in the sweepstakes. Bottom line: violence in University Park was nearly six times worse.
“Location” found that citizens living in L.A.’s economically better-off districts were, as one might expect, also far better-off, crime-wise. Last year “Be Careful What You Brag About (Part II)” reached the same conclusion about the relationship between crime and wealth in New York City. Indeed, as the current surge of gang shootings in Northern Brooklyn suggests, the Big Apple’s disparity seems to be worsening. That would of course be no news to Chicagoans, where an astounding sixty-six persons were shot, at least five fatally during the recent July 4th. weekend. Poor, violence-ridden neighborhoods including Englewood, where thirteen fell to bullets, and historically gang infested Austin (meaning Austin, Chicago) took the brunt of it. Here’s Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reaction:
Austin…it’s got high unemployment rates, it’s got high poverty rates, it’s got high concentration of people that are on public assistance, and…there’s not a lot of economic activity that’s going on. That is something that as a city we have to take on…Because I can send 10,000 officers to the West Side, if we don’t address those underlying challenges, which we must, we’re not going to solve the problem.
As obvious as the roots of the scourge may be, some city leaders remain surprisingly tone deaf. Consider L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s January comments about L.A.’s supposedly successful fight against crime. His boasts neglected to mention that violence in poor areas continues to be unacceptably high, and that the benefits of the much-ballyhooed “great crime drop” following the crack-addled nineties haven’t been equally shared by rich and poor. It’s not even close.
Those who live in downtrodden areas aren’t the only who suffer. Policing economically deprived neighborhoods is no picnic. Thanks to the relentless, profit-driven churning out of ever-more-lethal hardware, criminals have ready access to guns every bit the equal – if not superior – to what cops lug on patrol. That’s had an unquestionable effect on officer tactics, propelling an unending stream of split-second decisions (click here and here) whose consequences seem all too predictable.
Of course, all cops aren’t alike. One of our very first posts, “When Cops Kill,” emphasized that personality traits were key to understanding why some act impulsively or use excessive force. That concept was elaborated in “Working Scared,” which emphasized the centrality of risk tolerance to police work. Among other things it cautioned that initial training can instill excessive apprehension about the uncertain environment that officers face:
What experienced cops well know, but for reasons of decorum rarely articulate, is that the real world isn’t the academy: on the mean streets officers must accept risks that instructors warn against, and doing so occasionally gets cops hurt or killed. Your blogger is unaware of any tolerable approach to policing a democratic society that resolves this dilemma, but if he learns of such a thing he will certainly pass it on.
Well, we’re still looking. One obstacle is that violent street gangs continue to exert an insidious effect on policing. Under relentless pressure to tamp down crime in the inexorably hostile environment of the inner city, some officers have formed their own version of that “code of the streets,” (and here we self-plagiarize) “promoting toxic concepts such as “manhood” and “respect” and legitimizing violence as an appropriate response to perceived slights.” For an excellent historical example of a lawless police clique we need to turn no farther than LAPD Rampart Division’s scandal of the nineties, when members of its elite CRASH (“community resources against street hoodlums”) gang unit engaged in every form of misconduct imaginable, from excessive force to out-and-out corruption. And while CRASH and the Federal oversight it brought on are long-gone, the toxic social conditions that helped spawn the crisis remain. During the past six months, Rampart’s ground zero, the economically-deprived Pico-Union district (pop. 44,664) of central Los Angeles, suffered 176 violent crimes, including three murders. Its violent crime rate of 394.1, twenty-five percent higher than University Park and about seven times that of Westwood, earned Pico-Union 30th. place in the violence sweepstakes.
But things were even worse in L.A.’s chronically poverty-stricken South side. For example, the congenially-named “Green Meadows” area (pop. 30,558) suffered a staggering 344 violent crimes, including four murders. That sorry performance translates into a violent crime rate of 1,126, nearly three times Pico-Union’s and more than twenty times Westwood’s. (Green Meadows placed third in the violence sweepstakes. That’s third worst, mind you. First went to “Chesterfield Square,” pop. 6382, 109 violent crimes, rate 1,708.)
South L.A.’s crime problems are not new. As we discussed in “Driven To Fail,” about a decade ago they led LAPD to devise data-driven programs (LASER and Predpol) to identify chronic offenders and select areas most impacted by violence for special attention. Resources, including specialized anti-crime teams, were allocated accordingly (as one might expect, the Southside got much of the attention.) While LAPD touted the supposed benefits of this approach, a recent review was decidedly skeptical. Targeting strategies had proven grossly inexact. Like what happened in New York City, aggressive policing produced lots of “false positives” and ultimately caused a public revolt. So things have supposedly been substantially toned down. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
LAPD isn’t the only police agency in the mix. For example, in South Los Angeles several unincorporated communities that adjoin LAPD areas are patrolled by Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies. These include Athens (violent crime rank 24 highest of 209), Florence-Firestone (65/209), Willowbrook (75/209) and Westmont (32/209). While LASD hasn’t suffered an exact duplicate of Rampart, abusive deputy cliques in the jails and on the streets have plagued it as far back as 1971, when East L.A. station deputies formed the “Little Devils.” Over the next decades more such “secret societies” popped up in black and Hispanic areas. In 1996 the unholy tendency for cops to mimic street gangsters came to a head when L.A. County paid $9 million to settle a Federal lawsuit that accused deputies who belonged to the Lynwood station’s “Vikings” clique of “racially motivated hostility.”
Still, the urge to form cliques persisted. In 2013 the LASD fired seven members of an elite anti-gang unit that branded itself “The Jump Out Boys,” wore matching tattoos, and rewarded its members for shootings. An in-house pamphlet succinctly conveyed their credo: “We are alpha dogs who think and act like the wolf, but never become the wolf.”
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That problem has apparently persisted. In 2018 the Los Angeles Times wrote about “secretive cliques of deputies who bonded over aggressive, often violent police work and branded themselves with matching tattoos.” And only days ago the Times revealed that the FBI is presently investigating tattooed, “gang-like groups” of L.A. Sheriff’s deputies who violate citizen rights and harass colleagues who don’t go along. These badge-wearers include the East L.A. station’s “Banditoes,” the Century station’s “Spartans” and “Regulators” and the South L.A. station's “Reapers.”
In “Mission Impossible” we cited examples in Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles to conclude that police are not the ultimate solution to the problems that beset America’s inner cities. Still, the urge to deploy cops to that end runs deep. As a current NIJ effort demonstrates, the urge to use increasingly sophisticated, data-driven techniques to redirect and fine-tune the police response will not be denied. Alas, as appealing as applying a “scientific” approach might seem, saddling officers with what are essentially “mission impossibles” will inevitably continue stirring up the same aspects of that old “human nature” that produce street gangs.
That, too, seems inevitable.
7/3/22 L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Undersheriff Tim Murakami were subpoenaed to testify before the Civilian Oversight Commission about so-called deputy “gangs”. But neither appeared: Villanueva feared physical threats; Murakami claimed it would be too stressful. Matthew Burson, a retired Sheriff’s captain who had investigated alleged mistreatment of colleagues by deputy members of the “Banditos,” testified that he was ordered on Villaneuva’s behalf to ignore the gang (see 6/22 update).
6/22/22 A deposition by a former L.A. County Sheriff’s official states that in 2018, when present Sheriff Alex Villanueva took office, he was ordered to ignore a deputy clique known as the “Banditos” as he investigated an assault among deputies at the East L.A. station, where the clique is based. His deposition was filed in a lawsuit by deputies who claim that the Department was unresponsive to repeated complaints that members of the clique were physically and mentally harassing their colleagues.
5/26/22 L.A. County’s Civilian Oversight Commission began a major investigation into the deputy cliques that beset the Sheriff’s Department. It’s being led by Bert Deixler, a former Federal prosecutor. In the first day of hearings, evidence was introduced about the East L.A. Sheriff’s station “Banditos” and Compton station’s “Executioners.” An anonymous deputy testified that Banditos staged a work slowdown last year to protest their treatment. Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who opposes the inquiry, claims that “this scripted and well-rehearsed political stunt was designed to influence the outcome of the election.”
3/23/22 L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman has sent a letter to Sheriff Alex Villanueva that chides him for denying that deputy gangs exist and criticizes his failure to provide information. Setting a March 31 deadline, he demands all available information about the Executioners, Gladiators, Banditos, Regulators, Jump Out Boys, The Grim Reapers, The Vikings, and “any other group alleged by anyone to be a Potential Law Enforcement Gang.” Huntsman states that he has identified eleven deputy members of the “Banditos” and thirty of the “Executioners” and can provide their names if the sheriff wishes.
2/21/22 Testifying in a lawsuit filed by a supervisor who claims he was “targeted” by the “Executioners,” a deputy gang at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Compton station, its reputed leader, Deputy Jaime Juarez, conceded that he has observed eleven deputies with the clique’s unique tattoo. Its image depicts a skull, a rifle, a military helmet and flames. But Juarez insists that “Executioners” are committed to professionalism and serve the public “with honor and respect.” Deposition video
2/18/22 L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors demanding that they and literally everyone else in the County “cease and desist” referring to “deputy gangs.” His letter cited the dismissal of a lawsuit by an ex-deputy (he claimed that the Compton station’s “Executioners” drove him out of the agency) as proof that deputy gangs are a figment of hostile imaginations. Among the many evildoers mentioned by Villanueva are the respected RAND research group and the Los Angeles Times, whose reporting helps keep the pressing (and very real) issue of deputy gangs alive.
10/2/21 Just signed into law, California Assembli Bill 958 defines a law enforcement “gang” as a group of officers who engage “in a pattern of specified unlawful or unethical on-duty behavior.” It requires that agencies have policies that forbid such groups, and that members be subject to firing.
9/18/21 Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva refuses to ban deputy cliques (“subgroups”) because it abridges the constitutional right to associate. But the County Counsel disagrees. In a new opinion it concluded that subgroups “are defined based on LASD stations, bureaus, or units, and their activities are intertwined with law enforcement functions.” Banning them would address deputies “as LASD personnel, not as private citizens” so “it likely does not implicate the First Amendment.”
9/11/21 A RAND questionnaire about officer “subgroups” (i.e., cliques) was distributed to the L.A. Sheriff Dept.’s 10,000 sworn deputies. It was completed and returned by 1,608, including 16.5% (529) of its 3,202 member patrol force. Substantial proportions of respondents agreed that the groups were more common in high-crime areas and expected members to be hard workers, aggressive, and make many arrests. Only sixteen percent of respondents said they had been invited to join a subgroup. Of these, only 15 percent agreed that joining would have necessarily involved them in violating policy, and 22 percent said that they would have been expected to ignore such behavior by their colleagues.
7/22/21 Concerned that the “Executioners” deputy gang is running things, Calif. Rep. Maxine Waters has asked the Feds to conduct a “pattern or practice” investigation at the Los Angeles Sheriff Dept’s violence-ridden Compton station. That’s where two reported “prospects” for the Executioners fatally shot Andres Guardado in June 2020. Deputies have long complained of tattooed station-house cliques that encourage misbehavior, set arrest quotas and, as a deputy recently testified, celebrate shootings.
6/29/21 L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva said that he took care of the East L.A. station’s “Banditos” deputy clique in 2018 by transferring out 36 deputies and bringing in a new captain, Cpt. Ernie Chavez, to clean house. But in an ongoing lawsuit by eight deputies who claim they were harassed by the Banditos, Chavez testified Villanueva told him nothing about the Banditos and said the transfers were routine.
3/24/21 L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has gone to court to challenge a subpoena by the County’s Civilian Oversight Commission, whose leader wants the Sheriff to “clarify” what he intends to do about deputy cliques. After unsuccessfully resisting an earlier subpoena Villanueva appeared voluntarily in December. He then said he had not disciplined any deputy for joining a clique since his earlier ban on “abusive groups,” and didn’t think that cliques not “tied” to misconduct could be barred.
1/22/21 An L.A. Coroner’s report indicates that all five rounds that killed Andres Guardado (see 1/17 entry) entered through his back. They were fired by L.A. Sheriff’s deputy Miguel Vega, who was hired in 2009. He is the subject of recent complaints for excessive force and discourtesy. A licensed security guard has also accused him of loading the gun he lawfully possessed to justify charges. Deputy Vega’s only known disciplinary action is a four-day suspension in 2017 for making false statements or failing to properly screen an inmate. An informer has also accused both deputies of being prospective members of the “Executioners” clique, which their lawyer denies.
1/17/21 L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputies Miguel Vega and Chris Hernandez have been relieved of duty and are being criminally investigated for “kidnapping” allegedly unruly skateboarder Jesus Alegria, 24, then taking him on a “wild ride” that ended in a car crash and left Alegria bleeding from the head. In June Vega and Hernandez shot and killed Andres Guardado, a death still under investigation (see 11/13/20.)
1/1/21 Four of the seven LASD deputies fired in 2013 for belonging to the “Jump Out Boys” clique were reinstated after successfully arguing to the Civil Service Commission that while they wore the clique’s tattoos they did not partake of its creed or mission. Their terminations were reduced to suspensions, but those, too, were later set aside by a judge. One subsequently left the agency; three remain on duty. A year-old Sheriff’s policy now forbids such cliques altogether.
11/13/20 The Los Angeles County Coroner will conduct a rare, full inquest into the shooting death of Andres Guardado on June 18 by deputies who were allegedly “prospective members” of the “Executioners” deputy clique (see 7/8/20 and 7/10/20 updates). Deputies claim that they ran after Guardado after observing that he was armed and that he reached for the gun when he came to a stop.
Lawsuits alleging deputy misconduct have led L.A. County to pay out over $149 million in damages during the last five years. With two years left in his term, Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s alleged refusal to implement correctives and bring his deputies under control has led County Supervisors to explore his removal, either by impeachment or through changes in State law. But the Democratic Party, which endorsed Villanueva’s election, recently failed to pass a resolution endorsing his ouster.
10/21/20 Aja Brown, Mayor of Compton, an incorporated community in South Los Angeles, points to her own mistreatment by deputies as she calls for reforms in how they patrol the poor, violence-stricken area. While some long-time residents praise the Sheriff’s Department for improving safety, a spate of shootings by deputies and the presence of lawless deputy cliques has marred the agcncy’s reputation.
8/21/20 In a deposition being used in a citizen’s excessive force lawsuit against the LASD, a deputy who had worked at the Compton station states that members of the “Executioners” deputy clique would falsely report observing armed suspects so as to provoke a response that might turn up a weapon.
8/14/20 L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced that twenty-six deputies will be disciplined for engaging in an off-duty brawl that supposedly pitched members of the “Banditos” deputy clique against non-member colleagues. Complaints about prison-like deputy gangs whose leaders rule the roost, act as “shot callers” and dominate their stations have beset the agency.
8/8/20 An LAPD SWAT Sergeant is suing the city alleging that he was transferred to a less desirable post because he had filed internal complaints alleging that excessive force was being used and that it was encouraged by a “SWAT Mafia” that belittled deescalation and expected officers to ignore regulations.
8/4/20 Three decades of lawsuits alleging various forms of misconduct by members of L.A. Sheriff’s deputy cliques have cost the county $55 million. An overturned murder conviction of a man who spent 20 years in prison reportedly because of pressures placed on witnesses by the “Vikings” was, at $10.1 million, the largest payout. In 2018 the county paid $1.5 million to the family of a man shot and killed by a deputy who allegedly falsely denied being a member of the “Regulators.”
7/31/20 Only days after he “anonymously” reported one colleague for assaulting another, an L.A. Sheriff’s deputy says he received a text message labeling him a “rat.” That’s how the “Executioners,” a Compton station deputy clique that sports Nazi imagery, allegedly began their harassment campaign. They’re also accused of setting arrest quotas and using “slowdowns” to enforce their will with superiors.
4/21/20 LAPD Chief Michel Moore said that due to budgetary constraints brought on by the pandemic, the agency’s crime analysts were discontinuing use of PredPol software. Instead, their work will now be driven by the community-oriented SARA approach. But agency critics championed the move as a victory in their battle against the unfair targeting of minority communities.
12/22/19 Thirteen were shot, two critically, at a party in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. The event was being held to honor a man fatally shot during a carjacking (police claim he was the perpetrator.) Still, police data indicates that citywide shootings and murders continue to fall.
10/3/19 Los Angeles’ View Park charter high school is across the street from the store where Nipsey Hussle was gunned down. Many of its students were fans of the rapper. In the chronically poor, violence-ridden area, young people face severe challenges. Although the school’s graduation rate seems high - it was 87% last year - “only 1 in 17 juniors can do math at grade level.”
7/24/19 Worried that a “bunker mentality” threatens to bring back the long-troubled agency’s bad old days, L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman bemoaned Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s orders to deny him access to internal documents. With support from some members Huntsman has petitioned the Board of Supervisors to grant him subpoena power. A 2020 ballot measure also proposes to give that right to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.
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