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‘Worse Than Guantánamo’

Dozens of former detainees at the Gwinnett County jail in Georgia claim they were subjected to brutality at the hands of its Rapid Response Team.

Outside the Georgia Diagnostic Prison in March 12, 2002, in Jackson, Georgia. British national Tracy Housel was executed by lethal injection that day at the prison. Housel was given the death penalty for a 1985 murder in Gwinnett County.
Photo illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

‘Worse Than Guantánamo’

Dozens of former detainees at the Gwinnett County jail in Georgia claim they were subjected to brutality at the hands of its Rapid Response Team.

During a night out in northern Georgia, Keven Goodwin didn’t expect to be subjected to trauma that would rival his experiences serving four years on active duty in the army.

When he was arrested in 2012 for a traffic violation and found to have a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, officers took Goodwin to the Gwinnett County jail where he was placed in a cold, empty holding cell. He remembers tapping on the glass, trying to get a deputy’s attention. His shoes were outside the door, and his feet were becoming filthy.

But help never arrived for Goodwin. Instead, a team of officers wearing helmets, masks, and full riot gear entered his cell, shot him with a pepper ball gun, jumped on Goodwin and pinned him to the ground, and then put him in a restraint chair where they left him shackled for four hours.

“This is worse than a third-world country,” the 45-year-old remembers thinking. “This is worse than Guantánamo.”

He pleaded with the officers to stop assaulting him. He said he had muscle issues because of his military service, and the restraints were causing serious pain.

“I was trying to tell them, ‘Hey, I’m a disabled vet,’” he said. “‘I have injuries to my legs and I need to move around.’ But that didn’t work.”

(In court filings, attorneys for the Gwinnett County Sheriff admitted that Goodwin was placed in a restraint chair, but denied that he was shot with a pepper ball gun).

Goodwin is just one of dozens of pretrial detainees who claim they have been subjected to excessive force by Gwinnett County Sheriff R.L. “Butch” Conway’s Rapid Response Team (RRT). Located about 30 miles from Atlanta, Gwinnett is home to nearly one million residents and is Georgia’s second most populous county; its jail houses nearly 3,000 people. The RRT was created around 2001 to provide a tactical response in the event of a riot or other emergency within the jail; it has since come to be used to exert control over incarcerated people deemed to be disruptive.

According to a lawsuit originally filed in a federal court in 2013 which has 12 plaintiffs and names Sheriff Conway and Lt. Col. Carl Sims as defendants, the RRT’s use of excessive force is “frequent, pervasive, and well documented.” The detainees claim they knocked on the glass, yelled for help, or created some other minor disturbance when the RRT deployed excessive force against them, including applying pressure points on their bodies “for the purpose of inflicting pain” and placing them in a restraint chair for hours. They say that they were not acting violently or posing a threat to officers, other inmates, or the jail property.  “It’s disgusting, disturbing, and an abuse of power,” Goodwin said.

Though a federal judge in Georgia denied the plaintiffs’ request for class action status in May, the court reopened the case in late August after an amended complaint was filed. The case will most likely go to trial in the coming months. Craig Jones, a Washington, Georgia, attorney who represents the detainees, says the sheriff instructs the RRT to violate both the department’s policy against excessive force as well as the civil rights of people incarcerated at his jail. When the RRT is called to respond to an inmate, Jones says, they subject detainees to gratuitous, punitive, and sadistic pain in retaliation for alleged noncompliant behavior.

“A lot of it is just a matter of de-escalating the situation,” he said, “but once they call the Rapid Response Team, they’ve basically pulled a switch and there’s no going back. They’re not trained in de-escalation techniques. They’re trained in making a tactical entry and then a takedown. A dynamic entry and then scaring the shit out of people. And occasionally they hurt them—hurt them badly. They always inflict some kind of pain.”

Deputy Shannon Volkodav, public information officer for the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, declined to comment on pending litigation. But in February, the office did respond to a specific complaint from a detainee who said she didn’t receive adequate medical treatment in the jail. “If you don’t like the way we run the Gwinnett County Jail,” Volkodav wrote in a Facebook post, “stay out of it.”

Many of the plaintiffs, however, including detainees with disabilities and medical conditions, say officers ignored their pleas for medical help. Most of them claim to have lasting physical, mental, and emotional trauma because of their encounters with their RRT. Goodwin said the incident elevated the severity of the muscle issues he experiences in his legs and that he continues to be in physical pain. Similarly, another plaintiff, Coleman Martinelli, alleges that when he was booked in a 2013 DUI, the RRT violently dragged from a patrol car to a holding cell where they strapped him to a restraint bed for several hours and placed a biohazard mask on his face even after he told officers that he had PTSD from his military service.

After his arrest, Goodwin thought that his experience was an anomaly. But then one night, he turned on the news and saw video showing the RRT tackling and restraining other detainees. He called the attorney he saw on in the news segment and said he wanted to join the lawsuit.

“It brought tears to my eyes, watching video of what actually happened,” he said. “They showed me, ‘It isn’t just you.’”

Grzegorz Kozlowski said he escaped the communist Polish People’s Republic, but experienced the worst abuses of his life while detained for the night in at the Gwinnett County jail in 2013. “I had a very hard life. I was beaten and I run away,” the 60-year-old said. “What happened in the Gwinnett County jail, I never, never believe it would happen in America.”

Kozlowski says that he ended up in the jail because of a misunderstanding. A non-native English speaker, he became frustrated and angry when employees at a Sears store could not understand him as he tried to buy a pair of shoes. Store security called the police who then arrested him for disorderly conduct.

“I am right now 33 years in America,” he said. “I am not troublemaker. I grow up a good citizen. I was never criminal in Poland. I was never criminal in America.”

At the jail, Kozlowski was brought into a holding cell, where he began screaming for help. He suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, and was barely conscious when the RRT entered his cell, pulled him to the floor, jumped on him, and threw him in a restraint chair.

“They treat me worse than I treat my dogs,” he said angrily.

Years later, he “would awaken in the middle of the night several times per night, several times per week,” according to the complaint. He also continued to have problems with the parts of his wrists and ankles where he had been shackled.

“I am not criminal but doesn’t matter,” he said. “Criminal, not criminal. You’re not supposed to be treated like that. No way. That’s not normal.”

The number of such claims against the RRT are growing. After a judge rejected a motion to bring the lawsuit as a class action in late May, Jones said he sent a mailer to all 1,300 people who have been the subject of a use of force report by the RRT since 2011. 

Like Goodwin and Kozlowski, most of the detainees who have come forward to recount experiencing excessive force by the RRT have only been to the jail once, Jones said.

“The vast majority of the people who get subjected to this are not criminals,” he said. “They’re not people who have been in the jail before who know the deal. Most of them are like, drunk kids or loudmouths or people who are mentally ill.”

As the litigation proceeds in federal court, the family of Chris Howard, a 23-year-old who died in 2017 as a result of being in the Rapid Response Team’s custody has filed a lawsuit, demanding $10 million for the “negligent, reckless” actions of the officers. On Feb. 15, 2017, Howard, who was on probation because of a drunk driving accident, was booked into the Gwinnett County jail after he failed a drug test. He had a pre-existing genetic disorder that can lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels; when he fell to the ground because of an apparent seizure, officers refused to get him medical attention.  After officers finally agreed to take him to the infirmary, Howard went into cardiac arrest. He died two days later.

A federal grand jury has also opened a criminal investigation into the sheriff’s office. Because the investigation is not public, Jones said it’s not clear if it is focused exclusively on Howard’s death or the RRT’s use of force in general. In August, a week before the grand jury investigation was revealed in court filings, an RRT deputy was arrested and charged with battery for allegedly punching a female inmate in the head. Last week, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported that in 2015, Gwinnett County Sheriff’s deputy Robert Todd Garmon was arrested and charged with child cruelty after shaking his infant son with such intensity that his skull was fractured. Garmon returned to work as a jailer within two weeks of his arrest; he resigned from the department this summer after he entered a plea deal in the case.

Though it appears that only one detainee has died at the hands of the RRT, Goodwin says he wouldn’t be surprised if stories about other fatalities emerge.

“Anything could have happened to me in there,” Goodwin said. “I could have not come home at all.”

He said he hopes the lawsuit can put an end to the RRT before others are emotionally and physically harmed.

“I hope they’re held accountable,” he said. “I feel like my civil liberties were violated, and I know from watching the tape that they’ve done this time and time again to other people. … I don’t want this to happen to anybody else.”

When Handing Out Candy To Trick-or-Treaters Means Risking Arrest

Lawyer seeks end to Halloween restrictions that target people convicted of sex offenses.

Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

When Handing Out Candy To Trick-or-Treaters Means Risking Arrest

Lawyer seeks end to Halloween restrictions that target people convicted of sex offenses.

Before the police apprehended Steve, he tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists, he told The Appeal. Then 20 years old, he had attempted to sexually assault a 12-year-old girl in California.

“I couldn’t believe I had done that,” said Steve, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “I felt I couldn’t live with myself.”

He spent three years in prison, and after he was released, stayed in California. He married, had two children, and found a career. “I made a decision that I’m going to try to be the best person I can be the rest of my life,” said Steve, who is now in his 50s.

But as a sex offender registrant, his past was never far behind him. In July 2012, Steve’s wife was reading the local paper and saw that people on the sex offender registry in Simi Valley, California, where they lived, would have to post “No Candy” signs on their homes on Halloween to, theoretically, limit their contact with children.

Registrants can be subjected to a range of restrictions, depending on the state, county, or city. They can, among other things, be banned from entering parks or their child’s school, or from living within a certain distance of a school or daycare center; registrants are often required to have their photos and addresses available in online databases.  

If this protected children, I would be the first one to say yes and to think they were a positive asset to our society, but they're not.Janice M. Bellucci, Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws

Steve spoke out against the Halloween requirement at a City Council meeting where he met attorney Janice M. Bellucci, executive director of the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws. She was drawn to this work after learning that someone she had known for years was on the registry. In Oct. 2012, she successfully challenged the sign requirement on behalf of Steve and several other people.

“The work she did wasn’t really for me. It was for my family,” said Steve, who likened the “No Candy” sign to putting a bullseye on his door. “It affects people who have done nothing.”

Bellucci is now hoping for a similar victory. Today, she plans to file suit against Calimesa, California, challenging its Halloween ordinance as well.

“The [Halloween ordinances] punish people on the registry and they do not increase public safety,” Bellucci told The Appeal. “If this protected children, I would be the first one to say yes and to think they were a positive asset to our society, but they’re not.”

Calimesa, a small city in Riverside County, forbids registrants, between the hours of 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 31, from decorating their home with Halloween decorations; mandates they leave all exterior or decorative lighting off from 4 to 11:59 p.m.; and forbids them from answering the door to trick-or-treaters.

In August, Bellucci sent letters to five California cities, including Calimesa, urging them to repeal their Halloween restrictions by Sept. 28 or face litigation. So far, Temecula has repealed its ordinance, and Lancaster is taking steps to do the same.

Halloween regulations typically come in two forms: They apply to people on parole or probation for sex offenses, or they apply to people on the registry, like Steve, who are no longer serving a sentence of parole or probation.

The state of Missouri has a rule similar to the one that Bellucci fought in Simi Valley, requiring registrants on Halloween to post a sign at their home stating, “No candy or treats at this residence.”

“We have a responsibility to children,” Deputy Raashid Brown, public information officer with the Jackson County, Missouri, sheriff’s office told The Appeal. “We are preventing individuals from being victimized.”

However, Brown noted, “People do make mistakes and people do change.”

“It is possible and plausible that some of these individuals may have gotten in a bad situation, but our job is to ensure that people aren’t victimized again,” Brown said.

California and New York limit the activities of people on Halloween who are serving parole for sex offenses.

The California-based Operation Boo, which marks its 25th anniversary this year and is run by the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, mandates that registrants who are on parole must remain indoors from 5 to 10 p.m. during which time they can open the door only to respond to law enforcement. They must turn off all exterior lights, and “no offering of Halloween candy and no Halloween decorations are allowed.” Homeless parolees are required to spend the curfew hours in transient sex-offender curfew centers.

In New York, under a similar program called Operation Halloween, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) requires that the roughly 3,000 parolees convicted of sex crimes remain indoors at home on Halloween, starting in the early afternoon or at the end of their work day until 6 the next morning, according to a DOCCS spokesperson. The DOCCS website states parolees are not allowed to have Halloween candy in their possession, but the spokesperson told The Appeal in an email, “Possessing candy is not a violation of parole.”

“Parents should feel comfortable allowing their children to participate in Halloween festivities without worrying about their safety, and that is why the Department continues its commitment to this special operation year after year,” the spokesperson wrote.

But many experts see the programs as misguided. Operation Halloween perpetrates a “false narrative around sex offenders,” said Christina Swarns, attorney-in-charge at New York’s Office of the Appellate Defender. “People think most people who are sexually abused are abused by strangers, but that’s not the case.” More than 90 percent of juvenile victims of sex crimes know the person who caused harm.

All of these restrictions when viewed in isolation may not seem that bad. When viewed in conjunction with all the other laws that are out there, it's death by a thousand legislative cuts.Guy Hamilton-Smith, Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center, Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Another myth that underpins these requirements, advocates say, is that people who commit sex crimes are likely to reoffend. Just over 5 percent of people convicted of sex crimes are arrested for another sex crime within three years of their release from prison, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The only offense with a lower recidivism rate is murder.

“People believe that people [on the registry] all share a common, unchangeable psychological failing that causes them to commit offense after offense after offense,” said Guy Hamilton-Smith, a legal fellow with the Sex Offense Litigation and Policy Resource Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “What numerous studies show is that’s just not the case.”

Research also indicates there is no increased danger of child sexual abuse on Halloween. In a study that examined more than 65,000 non-familial sex crimes against children from 1997 through 2005, the report’s authors found there was “no significant increase in risk for non-familial child sexual abuse on or just prior to Halloween.” Sex crimes against children by non-family members accounted for two out of every 1,000 Halloween crimes. However, the authors noted, children were at greater risk on Halloween of being hit by a car.

The Halloween restrictions are emblematic of the myriad ways that registrants are banished from participating in everyday life, said Hamilton-Smith.

“All of these restrictions when viewed in isolation may not seem that bad,” he explained. “When viewed in conjunction with all the other laws that are out there, it’s death by a thousand legislative cuts. It’s not the Halloween law that kills you.”

The maze of requirements imposed on registrants’ lives—from where they can live to what decorations they can put on their homes—prevent them from forming the very community connections that are essential for rehabilitation and reintegration, advocates say.

And this, according to Steve, is the real motivation behind the Halloween ordinances and the registry as a whole: to tell registrants “they are not welcome in their community because of what they did, not because of who they are.”

“It’s not that you were an offender or did something,” Steve told The Appeal. “It’s that you are an offender and you’re an active threat.”

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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

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.

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.

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