Sheriff Who Claimed He Would Clean Up The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Gang Problem Has Instead Allowed It To Thrive
from the chief-inmate-willing-to-keep-running-the-LASD-asylum dept
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has long contended it has no gang problem. We’re not talking about the many gangs roaming the streets of Los Angeles. We’re talking about the cliques formed by deputies that identify themselves with patches, tattoos, tactics, and a general disregard for the rights of the people they serve.
The LASD has been the subject of multiple federal investigations for violating rights and breaking laws. Sheriff Lee Baca — who found himself convicted of obstruction — no longer runs the department. It is now in the hands of Sheriff Alex Villanueva, a supposed “reformer” who campaigned on promises to clean up the corruption infesting the Sheriff’s Department.
Nothing has changed under Villanueva. The department is facing a federal lawsuit over the presence of gangs within its ranks. Sheriff Villanueva has continued to deny the department hosts gangs composed of deputies, but those employed by the department say otherwise. Rather than root out the bad apples who are rotting his barrel from the inside out, the Sheriff has chosen to spend his time and energy attacking his critics.
His “Public Integrity” unit hasn’t done anything to increase the department’s integrity. Instead, it has chosen to open criminal inquiries into the department’s many critics. The Sheriff has also threatened city council members with defamation suits for publicly discussing the department’s gangs. And while the Sheriff continues to fight a losing battle against public perception, new details about gang activity within his department continue to leak out — like the recounting of a deputy camping trip that culminated in one deputy trying to remove another deputy’s “unauthorized” gang tattoo with [re-reads allegations] bullets.
Dana Goodyear has written a long expose on the (relatively) new sheriff in town, showing how Alex Villanueva’s campaign promises to reform the department have been discarded in favor of becoming the LASD’s Enabler-in-Chief. This isn’t a new problem. The only thing that’s new is the installation of yet another sheriff who pretends the problem doesn’t exist.
Deputy gangs, or “subgroups,” with names like the Grim Reapers, the Regulators, and the Vikings, have plagued the sheriff’s department for fifty years. Members have been accused of serious breaches of department policy and violations of constitutional rights, of terrorizing the public and harassing their fellow-deputies, and of retaliating against whistle-blowers.
You can’t fix a problem you refuse to see. That’s been the modus operandi of the LASD for decades. Regime changes have changed nothing about the department’s culture, which accepts, protects, and denies LASD gangs.
If you cross gang members — like Deputy Rosa Gonzalez did — other officers would not only ostracize you, but leave you to die.
In a lawsuit that Gonzalez filed in 2015, she claims that a sergeant—who admitted under oath to being a tattooed Bandito—removed her trainee and threatened to sabotage her career if she objected. She filed a grievance, and then punishment began. Fellow-deputies, she alleges, refused to provide her with backup. Once, responding alone to a burglary at a grocery store, she radioed for help repeatedly, but no one came to her aid.
Deputy Lopez eventually obtained a $1 million settlement from L.A. County. But that settlement did nothing to encourage LASD officials to address the multitude of problematic officers they were supposed to be overseeing.
Villanueva upset the incumbent to become Sheriff, earning plenty of support from people who felt he would finally reform the rogue department.
Mark Gonzalez, the chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, told me that Villanueva met all his members’ criteria. “Everyone felt he was thinking and preaching the word of the Party,” he said. “He was about reforming the sheriff’s department, cleaning house, raising standards, doing community policing, and restoring trust.”
But once elected, Alex Villanueva went from being a man of the people to being part of the problem. The man with the power to change things instead deployed his power to insulate his deputies from criticism, investigations, and L.A. County residents. Villanueva claimed he would deploy a “zero tolerance” policy to address the formation of gangs/cliques within the department.
[T]he department has made no systematic attempt to determine which of its members have tattoos, and has yet to fire anyone for connection to a deputy gang. Instead, according to people who know the department well, the Banditos are thriving under Villanueva. The East L.A. deputies’ lawsuit claims that Villanueva put an alleged Bandito in charge of the department’s communications office; he was subsequently promoted to captain of the Homicide Bureau and then made a commander of the Detective Division.
Sheriff Villanueva — sometimes aided by his wife, a retired LASD deputy — has instead wielded his power to attack whistleblowers, stonewall oversight efforts, and open investigations into his critics and rivals. LASD gangs continue to thrive, apparently confident the “reformer” heading the department has zero interest in solving the LASD’s problems.
Instead of opening investigations into suspected gang members, Villanueva has become a prominent far-right talking head, appearing on Fox News to say dumb stuff about the “woke left” making it too difficult for law enforcement officers to do their jobs. He claims five decades of departmental gangs are not his problem. Instead, he portrays the problem he refuses to address as fake news used by his opponents to attack him.
One of Villanueva’s first moves as sheriff was to rehire Carl Mandoyan, a fired deputy (and suspected deputy gang member) known around the LASD as “Creepy Carl.” Mandoyan had been terminated for several violations, including suspected domestic violence, stalking, and lying to investigators. Mandoyan also sported a Grim Reapers tattoo, allegedly symbolic of his membership in this LASD gang — something Mandoyan referred to in a taped call in which he threatened a female LASD trainee with ending her law enforcement career. His threats were also physical: he allegedly choked the trainee and twice attempted to break into her home.
Villanueva compared Mandoyan to the falsely accused Duke lacrosse players. The Civil Service Commission upheld the firing but Villanueva quietly hired Mandoyan as his driver during his run for election as Sheriff. Once Villaneuva was in office (thanks to the backing of one of the state’s largest police unions, which obviously knew Villanueva wasn’t the reformer Democrats thought he was), Mandoyan was rehired and rewarded with 18 months of back pay.
Villanueva isn’t the only problem. His wife, Vivian, had plenty of power as well. Being a formed LASD deputy and married to the current Sheriff has its benefits, as those complaining about Villanueva’s refusal to address department misconduct have discovered.
At some point, the East L.A. deputies figured out that Vivian was accessible. “She started building her network,” the mid-career deputy told me. “People associated with East L.A. have gotten promotions multiple times.” The deputy who worked with Villanueva said, “I call it the secret formula—get an introduction from someone in the inner circle, text her, and tell her your sob story.” The arrangement helps Vivian advance loyalists. According to the former insider, Vivian boasts, “I’ve got spies everywhere,” keeping tabs on those who might undermine her husband.
This is what that access and allegiance means in practice.
One particular friend of Vivian’s, Carrie Robles-Placencia, seems to have had her career saved by her proximity to power. One evening in November of 2017, Robles-Placencia, a trainee at East L.A. Station who reportedly had previously worked under Vivian, was driving a department S.U.V. to a call. Without turning on her siren, she ran a red light and collided with another car. In the resulting multi-car accident, Robles-Placencia accelerated onto the sidewalk, where she struck and killed two children, aged seven and nine, who were standing with their mother.
The L.A.P.D., which responded to the accident, found Robles-Placencia at fault, and the county has paid out more than $22 million in settlements. But the district attorney declined to file criminal charges, and Robles-Placencia has reportedly received no discipline.
Siding with Villanueva or his spouse means being able to step over the cooling corpses of children to collect your paycheck. Robles isn’t a deputy, but she now works for the Sheriff’s “Executive Project Team,” drives a county vehicle, often accompanied by the Sheriff’s wife. Tax payers are not only on the hook for Robles’ county paycheck but for the $22 million in settlements paid to the victims of her reckless driving while training as a LASD deputy.
Beware of self-proclaimed reformers. If and when this Sheriff is ousted from office, the LASD will be even worse than the one he inherited from a sheriff who faces multiple federal investigations. Problems can’t be fixed if the people with the power to fix them don’t believe they’re actually problems. Sheriffs in the United States have far too much power. Just because they’re subject to the whims of voters doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to do an extraordinary amount of damage while in office. Perhaps it’s time to make their positions private, which may make them less subject to public ousting, but far more likely to be shitcanned by local officials when they abuse their positions.