Deputy cliques continue to fester at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, witnesses told an oversight commission Tuesday -- describing how members of the internal gangs initiate "work slowdowns" to assert their power and shun or even deny backup to deputies who fail to fall in line.
The testimony, which included a current East Los Angeles station employee who spoke anonymously by telephone with a disguised voice, came in the first of what is expected to be a series of hearings by the Civilian Oversight Commission, which announced earlier this year a "full-scale investigation" into allegations of deputy gangs.
The anonymous employee told the panel a gang known as the "Banditos" still essentially runs the East Los Angeles station, despite Sheriff Alex Villanueva's previous insistence that he cleaned house at the station. The witness said members of the group initiated a work slowdown as recently as last summer -- essentially slowing response times to calls.
The witness also described actions members of the Banditos took against outsider deputies, saying they would be shunned publicly, with members and their supporters turning their backs to those who defied the organization. In some cases, member deputies would refuse to provide backup to outsider deputies in the field.
According to witnesses, roughly 12-15 deputies are tattooed members of the Banditos at the East L.A. Station, with another 10-15 considered associates.
Sheriff's Lt. Larry Waldie, who conceded being a member of a group of deputies known as the Gladiators when he was a deputy at the Compton station, told the panel he had run-ins with a tattooed gang known as the Executioners when he became the station captain.
Waldie described how the Executioners launched a work slowdown in 2019 because he wouldn't assign a member of the gang or one of its supporters to the powerful position of scheduling deputy -- a post that controlled where station deputies were assigned and to which shifts. Waldie confirmed statistics that showed an uptick in criminal activity in the station's coverage area during the shutdown.
Waldie also said members of the Executioners would hold celebrations in response to deputy shootings.
Villanueva was invited to attend the commission's meeting, but did not appear at the meeting. He has repeatedly downplayed the influence of so- called deputy cliques, saying discipline cannot be meted out solely because deputies have a particular tattoo -- only if it leads to some type of criminal behavior.
He has also blasted the work of the Civilian Oversight Commission and Inspector General Max Huntsman, saying they are political pawns of the county Board of Supervisors, with which the sheriff has repeatedly clashed over budget and policy matters.
When the commission announced plans for an investigation of deputy gangs, Villanueva called it a political move aimed at harming his re-election bid. He said in a statement that Huntsman's office has already been carrying out such a probe for three years and "not one deputy `gang member' has been identified."
"Almost 6,000 pages were provided to the OIG on this subject almost a year ago, and LASD.org has an entire webpage dedicated to this topic," he said. "There is nothing new."
Villanueva told ABC7 Tuesday the hearing was a "political stunt" that allowed witnesses to testify without cross-examination.
The sheriff said previously that he cracked down on the Banditos presence in East Los Angeles as one of his first acts upon being sworn in. He told reporters he removed the station's leadership and about 30 deputies.
Retired sheriff's Cmdr. Eli Vera, now a candidate challenging Villanueva, challenged that assertion in his testimony Tuesday, saying none of the transfers from the station were forced. Vera also said Villanueva has shown favoritism toward the East L.A. station, beginning with his inauguration ceremony, when the front of the auditorium was reserved for personnel from that station.
"As a professional law enforcement officer, that is a very bad signal for the organization," Vera said.
Vera was demoted from a division chief to commander when he announced his candidacy for sheriff.