The FBI is investigating a secret society of tattooed deputies in East Los Angeles as well as similar gang-like groups elsewhere within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, multiple people familiar with the inquiry said.
The federal probe follows allegations of beatings and harassment by members of the Banditos, a group of deputies assigned to the Sheriff’s East L.A. station who brand themselves with matching tattoos of a skeleton outfitted in a sombrero, bandolier and pistol. The clique’s members are accused by other deputies of using gang-like tactics to recruit young Latino deputies into their fold and retaliating against those who rebuff them.
In interviews with several deputies, FBI agents have asked about the inner workings of the Banditos and the group’s hierarchy, according to three people with close knowledge of the matter who spoke to The Times on the condition that their names not be used because the investigation is ongoing.
In particular, the sources said, agents have been trying to determine whether leaders of the Banditos require or encourage aspiring members to commit criminal acts, such as planting evidence or writing false incident reports, to secure membership in the group.
The agents also have inquired about other groups known to exist in the department, which has nearly 10,000 deputies and polices large swaths of the sprawling county. They have asked for information about the tattoos and practices of the Spartans and Regulators in the department’s Century station, and the Reapers, who operate out of a station in South Los Angeles, according to the sources.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he could not comment when asked about the FBI probe Wednesday. An FBI spokeswoman also declined to provide any information.
The secretive groups have been entrenched in the department for decades. Defenders say the cliques are harmless fraternities, likening them to close-knit groups in the military. But time and again, the deputy clubs have come under fire for promoting aggressive tactics and an us-versus-everyone mentality.
A watchdog panel in 1992 pressed the Sheriff’s Department to address the problem. Two decades later, a blue-ribbon commission sharply criticized the department for turning a blind eye and allowing the groups to use excessive force against people in the county jails and on the streets.
The Times reported last year that a new tattooed club of lawmen surfaced at the Compton station after a deputy there admitted under oath to having ink of a skeleton holding a rifle. The deputy — who was accused of excessive force in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man — said as many as 20 of his colleagues have the same tattoo.