For years the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has struggled with groups like "The Vikings," "Jump Out Boys," and "Grim Reapers" — secretive, sometimes violent cliques that brand their members with hidden tattoos.
But these aren't street gangs.
Instead, these groups have plagued the department from within its own ranks, made up of uniformed deputies who, working out of their local stations, quietly claim membership of groups with names like "Red Devils" and "Regulators." The groups have been dismissed in the past as nothing but a show of camaraderie in a tough, dangerous profession, but critics argue they encourage violence, foster a code of silence, and embolden a culture among deputies that bears no small resemblance to gangs in the streets.
Top brass at the department have pledged for years to address and stamp out the problem, but the possibility that gang-like cliques of deputies still exist inside the department has resurfaced around a recent wrongful death lawsuit over the shooting of a black man in Compton by two deputies in 2016.
In a sworn deposition in May, one of the two deputies involved said he and more than 10 other deputies at his station share the same tattoo — a skeleton emerging from flames, wearing a riot helmet and holding an AK-47.
The deputy's statement and the sudden reemergence of the so-called cliques in the public eye have now prompted the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department to launch an inquiry, its first look into the existence of deputy cliques in more than six years.
John Sweeney, a lawyer who represents the family of Donta Taylor, who was shot and killed by deputies on Aug. 25, 2016, told BuzzFeed News he believes the cliques' culture played a role in the deadly shooting. He also said plans to root out members of the clique himself during the trial.
"This is a gang-like mentality and a gang-like ethos," Sweeney said. "This is not policing."
Sweeney said he applauds Los Angeles Sheriff Jim McDonnell's inquiry, but he remains skeptical. Previous investigations into the cliques have produced few results and, at times, have dismissed the cliques' existence with a "boys will be boys" attitude, he said.
Deputy cliques have surfaced during some of the most troubling times for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department since at least the 1970s. When the department has faced allegations of racist policing tactics, violence in the jails, or corruption at the top of its administration, deputy cliques have repeatedly emerged as having played a key role in the scandals.
Most memorably, the Vikings from the department's Lynwood station in the 1980s and 1990s were noted as being one of the most aggressive and problematic groups within the department — one that officials said acted as a force of intimidation not just among the mostly black community it patrolled, but toward those in the department who tried to stamp out the group.
The NAACP ended up suing the county in 1991, accusing deputies from the Lynwood station of systemic bias.
In that case, the Vikings were found to have engaged for years in racist behavior, including keeping a map of Lynwood shaped like Africa, and tattooing racist nicknames on deputies' bodies, including "Chango [monkey] fighter."
The federal judge in the case called the Vikings a "neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang" that was operating with the knowledge of top supervisors in the sheriff's office, leading to a $6 million ruling against the department.
The case prompted the department to conduct its own review in 1992, known as the Kolts Report, which found deputy cliques had adopted behavior identical to that of street gangs, including using gang symbols with their hands, graffitiing the community with the substation number and the Vikings' name, and inking themselves with identifying tattoos.
Members of the Vikings, the review found, "appear at least in times past to have engaged in behavior that is brutal and intolerable and is typically associated with street gangs." The report recommended commanders "root out and punish severely any lingering gang-like behavior by its deputies."
But the cliques continued to thrive.
One internal report from the department sometime in the mid-2000s found that a group known as the Regulators formed at the department's Century Station sometime around 1999 and continued for at least eight years. The group's influence was so strong, the report found, that it impacted overtime assignments and promotions, overruled supervisors, and "would run the station as a subculture fraction."
In 2012, deputy cliques again returned to the public spotlight as the sheriff's department tried to address the increasing use of force by deputies at the county jails. Again, it was found that the culture of the cliques played a central role in encouraging violence against inmates.
In the county's 2012 "Report of the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence," it was found two of the toughest floors of the Men's County Jail were home to the "2000 Boys" and the "3000 Boys" — deputy cliques that were found to encourage violence from deputies toward inmates, were insubordinate to supervisors, and used violence as a way to "earn ink," allowing deputies to get tattoos identifying themselves as members of the clique.
One deputy, a supervisor told investigators, fractured the eye socket of an inmate who was not resisting, in order to become a clique member.
The 2012 report found that the two groups used Roman numeral tattoos on their calves to identify membership in the cliques, and that by the time the investigation was conducted, the groups' influence and insubordination had grown to such levels that efforts to stamp them out had failed miserably.
When a sergeant tried to break up the 2000 Boys, one of the deputies reportedly helped spark a small riot in the jail "to bury the Sergeant in paperwork so he would not be able to walk the floor and supervise," according to the report.
In February 2006, another captain in the department tried to rotate deputies off of the floor in an effort to break up the clique; according to the 2012 report, the plan was axed by then-assistant sheriff Paul Tanaka.
Tanaka, who was convicted in 2016 for obstructing an FBI investigation into the county jails, admitted publicly to having been a member of the Vikings clique from Lynwood.
Sweeney said he believes Taylor's shooting in 2016 may have been an "initiation" for one such clique in the Compton station.
According to the department, Taylor ran away from LA sheriff's deputies Samuel Aldama and Mizrain Orrego after the two asked if he was on parole or probation. The deputies told investigators Taylor had responded in the negative, and appeared to pull out a stainless steel handgun before running from the deputies.
At the end of the foot pursuit, Aldama and Orrego said they saw Taylor holding what appeared to be a firearm before they shot several rounds. No gun was ever retrieved.
During a sworn deposition in the wrongful death suit, Sweeney said he asked Aldama about his tattoos, suspecting a group existed in the Compton substation. He said Aldama described several of his tattoos on his arms. Then Sweeney asked about the tattoo on his leg.
"I didn't know he had a tattoo on his leg," the lawyer said. "I just know from doing these cases year after year that he was probably in one of them."
Aldama admitted to having the tattoo on his leg but said it was a symbol of "hard work" for the deputies. In the tattoo, the letters "CPT" — for Compton — are inscribed on the skeleton's helmet. The Roman numeral XXVIII also appears on the magazine for the AK-47, representing the sheriff's department Station 28, in Compton, where the deputies were based.
Aldama said more than 10 but fewer than 20 deputies in his substation have the same tattoo. "I knew I had a gang at this point," Sweeney said.
During the deposition, Aldama also said he had "ill feelings" about black people, which Sweeney said is a factor in many of the deputy cliques that have existed in the LA sheriff's department. Aldama later backtracked and said he had not understood the question.
Aldama said he had gotten the tattoo two months before the deadly shooting of Taylor. The deputy also said he paid $400, in cash, to a tattoo artist whose name he could not recall and who came to his home to do the work, making the transaction untraceable.
"Those gang tattoos, they try to hide them from the public," Sweeney said.
Many of the cliques try to hide the existence of the tattoos, he said, and their placement on the body is specifically picked so they aren't easily viewed. Sweeney points out they are never placed on the arms, since deputies switch from long- to short-sleeve uniforms, depending on the weather.
"It's all part of a secret society, and a secret gang," he said. "It's something the public will never see."
Since then, Sweeney said he's focused his attention on finding other deputies with the same tattoo, hoping to uncover more information of what he believes to be another clique within the sheriff's department.
Meanwhile, McDonnell, who is running for reelection as sheriff this year, has said an inquiry into the possible existence of new cliques has been underway for some time. He said the department, along with the county's counsel and inspector general, launched an inquiry before Aldama's deposition was released, although he did not confirm the existence of that inquiry until last week.
"We want to be able to assure the public that there are actions being taken and if the tattoos are indicative of something serious, something that is leading to violent behavior or misconduct, that we are going to get to the bottom of it and deal with it appropriately," McDonnell told KTLA during an interview. "Public trust is our currency and perceptions of the community are important to us."