LOS ANGELES -- Days after Austreberto Gonzalez anonymously reported a fellow Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy to internal affairs for assaulting a colleague behind the parking lot of Compton station, a text popped up on his phone.
It was a photo of graffiti scrawled on a dial pad at the station's parking lot entrance: "ART IS A RAT," it read.
It was one of the first instances of retaliation that continued for months, exacted by the Executioners, a band of deputies with matching tattoos that wields vast power at Compton station, he alleges in a claim filed against Los Angeles County. The claim says the group -- sporting tattoos of a skull with Nazi imagery and an AK-47 -- celebrates deputy shootings and the induction of new members with "inking parties."
In recent years, the claim says, its members were involved in setting illegal arrest quotas and threatening work slowdowns -- which involve ignoring or responding slowly to calls -- when they did not get preferred assignments.
The allegations have revived long-standing concerns that inked deputy groups -- with monikers such as the Spartans, Regulators, Grim Reapers and Banditos -- operate out of several sheriff's stations and represent what many in the community see as criminal gangs within law enforcement. The existence of such fraternities has sparked multiple internal investigations and recently a federal probe by the FBI, but the groups have remained entrenched, with many civil liberties advocates accusing the Sheriff's Department of turning a blind eye.
"We have a gang here that has grown to the point where it dominates every aspect of life at the Compton station," said Alan Romero, an attorney representing Gonzalez in the claim, which is a precursor to a lawsuit. "It essentially controls scheduling, the distribution of informant tips, and assignments to deputies in the station with preference shown to members of the gang as well as prospects."
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said during a live Facebook broadcast Wednesday that "there is no gang of any deputies running any station." But he said he was disturbed by the allegations in the claim and that "swift administrative action" is being taken.
In a statement later, Villanueva said he ordered an investigation.
"I take these allegations very seriously and recently enacted a policy specifically addressing illicit groups, deputy cliques, and subgroups," he said, referring to measures he enacted in February that prohibit deputies from participating in cliques.
Inspector General Max Huntsman said Thursday that he is "aware of no implementation whatsoever" of the policy and said his office can't effectively investigate the secret societies "because of the obstruction of the Sheriff's Department." He said the criminal investigation of Banditos members who were allegedly involved in an off-duty beating in 2018 amounted to a "cover up," noting that more than 20 deputies were not required to give statements.