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Claims of Racism and Brutality Dog Los Angeles County Sheriff ‘Deputy Gangs’

A lawsuit brought by a Compton resident detailing an alleged beating by deputies is just one of nearly three dozen federal civil rights lawsuits alleging brutality and racial bias at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in riot gear stand guard in front of an apartment complex as police force protesters down a street near a Trump campaign rally in May 2016 in Anaheim, California.Photo illustration by Anagraph / Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

On Jan. 15, 2016, Sheldon Lockett was standing outside his godmother’s house in Compton, California, when he said Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Samuel Aldama and his partner Mizrain Orrego jumped out of their squad car, guns drawn. Lockett became frightened and ran. Aldama and Orrego announced on the radio that Lockett was armed, then they chased and cornered him in a nearby backyard. When he attempted to surrender, the two deputies savagely beat him while yelling the N-word, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in July against the County of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), Aldama, and Orrego.

Even though they found no weapon and Lockett hadn’t committed any crime, Aldama and Orrego arrested him and charged him with attempted murder. Because he couldn’t afford bail, Lockett was locked up in the county jail for eight months before the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office finally dropped all charges against him. Lockett’s mother filed a complaint against Aldama and Orrego with the LASD, but the department declined to investigate and took no disciplinary action against the officers, according to the lawsuit. Instead, one month later, deputies broke down Lockett’s mother’s door and ransacked her home, searching for the non-existent gun they claimed Lockett had pointed at the officers.

A review by The Appeal of nearly three dozen federal civil rights lawsuits involving deputies who have been previously named in brutality lawsuits with Aldama suggest that these alleged incidents of violence are not isolated. Plaintiffs in these lawsuits claim that LASD deputies regularly target people with mental illnesses and disabilities for violence, beat Los Angeles residents and prisoners alike, and punish those who file abuse complaints. Critics of the department say such violence is being driven, in part, by the department’s white supremacist gang culture that encourages excessive force, particularly against minorities.

It is a law enforcement culture that, ironically, apparently mirrors the very people they target for arrest in anti-gang operations: Deputies in these gangs sport tattoos signifying the number of people they have killed, flash gang signs, and tag buildings with graffiti to mark their territory. In June 2016, a tattoo artist secretly traveled to Aldama’s home to give him a tattoo with a skull, rifle, flames, and military-style helmet emblazoned with the letters “C P T” for Compton, his department’s station house, Aldama later admitted under oath. He said 10 to 20 of his colleagues had the same tattoo. Critics cited the tattoo as proof that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has not escaped its long-standing history of white supremacist gang culture.

In a deposition in May, Lockett’s attorney, John Sweeney, asked Aldama, “Do you have any ill feelings towards African Americans in general?” Aldama asked Sweeney to repeat the question several times, before answering, “I do, sir.” He later claimed have misunderstood the question and denied having ill feelings toward Black people.

Before joining the Compton station, Aldama worked as a guard in the 3000 module of the county’s Men’s Central Jail, which was home to a notoriously violent deputy gang known as the 3000 Boys. According to a 2012 federal lawsuit, Aldama was allegedly part of an assault on a prisoner and the subsequent coverup. The lawsuit said Aldama pinned the man to the ground while other deputies beat, tased, and pepper-sprayed him, leaving him with chemical burns and abrasions on his back.

Two months after Aldama got the tattoo, he and Orrego were on patrol, half a mile west of Lockett’s home, when they encountered Donta Taylor, a 31-year-old Black man, walking along the street. It’s unclear exactly what happened next. The deputies later claimed that Taylor drew a pistol and ran after they asked him if he was on probation or parole, but no gun was ever found and no witnesses corroborated the deputies’ claims. What is undisputed is that minutes later, Aldama and Orrego killed Taylor, shooting him six times after a brief foot chase. A review of the fatal shooting by Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey in 2017 concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Aldama and Orrego did not act in self-defense and the defense of others when they fired their service weapons at others.”

(On Sept. 20, Aldama filed a response to the complaint in which he denied its allegations. Aldama’s attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Appeal. A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office referred The Appeal to a July 26 statement on “alleged subgroup cultures” in the department stating in part that “At the end of the day, everyone, most importantly our public, should be confident that there are no ‘gangs’ of deputies operating subversively anywhere within the Department.”)

Abusing prisoners with disabilities or mental illnesses

The LASD patrols nearly 4,000 square miles and maintains a jail system that houses approximately 17,000 inmates making it the largest jail system in the world. But for decades, the department has been accused by advocates and public officials of routinely failing to meet the needs of and mistreating prisoners with disabilities and mental illnesses. In 2008, civil rights attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against the department, based on interviews with 70 prisoners. The lawsuit included stories of guards taking away disabled prisoners’ catheter bags as well as prisoners who were forced drag themselves on filthy restroom floors because there was no accessible entrance for their wheelchairs. In 2011, Joshua Sather, a rookie deputy, claimed that a supervisor ordered him to beat up a mentally ill prisoner. Sheriff’s officials investigated the incident, determining that that no misconduct took place. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported on how mentally ill prisoners, who then accounted for 15 percent of the jail’s population, bore the brunt of roughly a third of deputies’ use of force incidents.

The Appeal has identified numerous lawsuits since then with similar allegations regarding abuse of prisoners with mental illness or physical disability by LASD deputies. The allegations include officers denying prisoners medicine and allowing them to be beaten by other prisoners.

In 2013, Daniel Cohen was arrested by LASD deputies and denied access to his glasses and contacts without which he was legally blind, according to his suit. At his jail facility, he alleged, guards soon became hostile toward Cohen for his what they perceived to be his noncompliance with their visual cues. In his cell, Cohen alleges, another prisoner attacked him. But when he called for help, he said, two guards laughed as he was being struck in the face and eyes repeatedly. “Ouch, that’s gotta hurt,” one allegedly said while watching. After the beating, Cohen was taken to medical staff and later returned to the jail’s disciplinary unit, where guards placed him in solitary confinement.

In 2014, S.A. Thomas, a mentally ill man, was arrested and taken to LA County Jail. During his month-long stint there, according to his lawsuit, Thomas requested psychotropic drugs each day, and informed jail staff that he was mentally ill. He alleged that he was denied medication daily, causing him to suffer hallucinations and live in a state of fear. Even on a day that he was scheduled to be in court, he claimed, he was not given medication, rendering him less able to competently testify in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the department.

Now, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors is leading a coalition to pass the “Reform L.A. Jails” ballot initiative, which would give the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission subpoena power to investigate allegations of law enforcement misconduct and redirect resources toward increasing alternatives to incarceration, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

Abuse caused permanent injury and came with racial slurs

Since the early 1990s, there have been numerous oversight reports from independent monitors and advocacy groups on prisoner abuse and deputy-on-prisoner violence in LA County jails. In 2012, ACLU of Southern California filed a lawsuit in federal court against then-LA County Sheriff Lee Baca alleging that deputies in his jails regularly used excessive force against prisoners who were not resisting, and sometimes already unconscious, and it was facilitated by a violent, racist deputy gang culture that included the 3000 Boys and the 2000 Boys in the Men’s Central Jail. The lawsuit, Rosas v. Baca, details several accounts of deputy-on-prisoner violence during which deputies shouted racial slurs against Black people, including the N-word and “monkey.” Plaintiffs alleged that guards used force such as “slamming the inmates’ heads into walls, punching them in the face with their fists, kicking them with their boots, and shooting them multiple times with their tasers.” Injuries from beatings included fractured eye sockets and blindness, broken legs, shattered jaws, collapsed lungs, and nerve damage.

In July 2009, more than six LASD officers, three of whom were members of the 3000 Boys, shouted racial slurs while beating Evans Tutt in Men’s Central Jail. Tutt sustained multiple injuries from the beating including a broken nose, a chipped tooth, and injuries to his ribs, head, face, knee, and leg.  

In 2014, the department reached a settlement with the ACLU, agreeing to create an independent panel to monitor the department’s compliance with an “action plan” to reduce violence in LA County jails. The plan required the department to implement a new use of force policy that prohibited corporal punishment and required that deputies use “the minimal amount of force that is necessary and objectively reasonable to overcome the resistance.”

History of deputy gangs in the department

The history of violent LASD deputy gangs extends stretches back nearly five decades. According to a 1999 article in the Los Angeles Times, the first gang, the “Little Devils,” was founded in 1971 in the East Los Angeles deputy station. Over the next two decades, the popularity of the gangs surged, especially among white deputies working in predominantly Black or Latinx neighborhoods.

Reports of systematic violence by these groups first came to light in 1990, when federal lawsuits alleged that two gangs with the LASD—the Wayside Whites and the Lynwood Vikings—were carrying out racist attacks on people in department custody. The Wayside Whites, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed by a former inmate at a jail called Wayside Honor Rancho (now the Pitchess Detention Center), formed a “Ku Klux Klan-type organization” that carried out attacks on Black prisoners. After a six-month investigation, the department declared the allegations “unfounded” but agreed to pay a $40,000 settlement to the prisoners.

The same year, a class-action lawsuit by more than 100 residents of Lynwood, a predominantly Black and Latinx city south of Los Angeles, alleged that the Lynwood Vikings used excessive force, including “interrogation with stun guns, beating victims into unconsciousness, holding a gun in a victim’s mouth and pulling the trigger on an empty chamber, pushing a victim’s head through a squad car window,” conducted illegal searches and seizures, and racially discriminated against residents.

In 1991, a federal judge ruled in the residents’ favor, describing the Lynwood Vikings as “a neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang” that engaged in “terrorist-type tactics” with the knowledge and tacit support of departmental leadership. After appealing the judge’s ruling, the department ultimately settled the case in 1996 for $7.5 million and agreed to establish a database to hold deputies accountable. The settlement also required the department to spend $1.5 million to improve use of force trainings for deputies.

While the suit wound its way through the courts, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors hired a former federal judge to carry out an independent investigation of reports of violence and racial discrimination by LASD deputies. The judge’s report, released in 1992, corroborated many of the claims against them, finding that a group of deputies in the Lynwood station repeatedly engaged in “gang-like” behavior, including tagging buildings with graffiti, abusing people in police custody and intimidating supervisors who attempted to rein in their behavior.

According to the report, deputies associated with the gang “challenged all authority, and harassed and intimidated any sergeants or lieutenants who stood in their way; going so far, we have been told, as to command field sergeants to leave the scene of arrests, to slash the tires of supervisors they did not like, to disregard orders not to roam freely outside their patrol areas into the city of Los Angeles and to smear excrement and other noxious substances over the engines of supervisors’ cars.”

In response to these allegations, the LASD reorganized the Lynwood station and 16 deputies were transferred. But no one was fired and reports of violence by deputy gangs continued. In fact, some former Vikings quickly rose up the departmental ranks. Most notably, Paul Tanaka, who joined the Vikings in 1987, was promoted to lieutenant in 1991 and in 2011 became the second-in-command of the LA County Sheriff’s Department. In 1988, Tanaka was one of four deputies who shot and killed an unarmed man in Long Beach.

Deputy gangs entered the spotlight again in late 2010, after the 3000 Boys started a brawl with other deputies at a Christmas party for LA County jail employees. Six deputies were fired for their roles in the brawl, but then-Sheriff Baca blamed the incident on “the drunkenness of a few bad apples” and declined to investigate further. Separate investigations by the ACLU, the FBI, and an independent commission appointed by the county Board of Supervisors all found that the 3000 Boys and other deputy gangs operating in the county jails were responsible for dozens of incidents of violence against prisoners.

Instead of disciplining those involved in these incidents, departmental leadership participated in covering up the violence, according to FBI investigators. Victims were regularly charged with assault to neutralize any civil lawsuits they might later file against their attackers, and supervisors undermined investigations by allowing the deputies accused of violence to be in the room while investigators interviewed their accusers.

Thomas Parker, a retired FBI agent who investigated jail violence in 2011 on behalf of the ACLU concluded that there were “systematic institutional actions to cover up” deputy-on-prisoner violence in the jails, resulting in “severe injuries, maiming, and death, some caused by fellow inmates, but most often at the hands of, or with the acquiescence or assistance of, the deputy sheriffs who are their keepers.”

“I have never experienced any facility exhibiting the volume and repetitive patterns of  violence, misfeasance, and malfeasance impacting the Los Angeles County Jail system,” Parker said.

In 2013, the LASD terminated seven members of the Jump Out Boys, a deputy gang that allegedly celebrated aggressive policing and even shootings. Indeed, one of the gang’s codes was that members were to gain respect after being involved in a shooting. One member of the group complained, anonymously, to a Los Angeles Times reporter that he was unfairly targeted by the department. “Boy Scouts have patches and they have mission statements, and so do we,” he said, while admitting “what we do is commend and honor the shootings.”

Accountability finally came to the LASD in 2015, when former Sheriff Baca, his second-in-command (and former Vikings member) Tanaka and more than a dozen other employees in the department were indicted on federal charges for their roles in covering up violence against inmates in LA County jails. Baca and Tanaka were both convicted in United States District Court on conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges and received three-year and five-year prison sentences, respectively. Baca is appealing his conviction; in November, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear his case.

The current sheriff, Jim McDonnell, vowed to implement reforms, but reports of use of force incidents in the LA County jails have nearly tripled since he took office. After news of Aldama’s deposition became public in July, McDonnell announced that the department had begun an internal investigation into the possible existence of new deputy gangs in 2017, but he declined to make the results public.

Sheldon Lockett’s lawsuit against McDonnell, the LASD, and Aldama over his 2016 arrest, meanwhile, is proceeding in federal court. The case was assigned to a new judge in mid-September; in October, a hearing will determine whether the LASD has to disclose the identities of the other deputies in the Compton station who share Aldama’s tattoo.