A 1999 story in the Los Angeles Times refers to them as “deputy clubs,” fraternal orders in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department with names like the Regulators and Compton Executioners. A commission appointed in 1992 to investigate the Sheriff’s Department’s racist policing practices said that these clubs are found “particularly at stations in areas heavily populated by minorities — the so-called ‘ghetto stations’ — and deputies at those stations recruit persons similar in attitude to themselves.”
In the neighborhoods that these groups terrorize, they are known simply as “gangs.”
In June 2020, 18-year old Andres Guardado was murdered by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies Miguel Vega and Christopher Hernandez. The two men, said to be prospective members of the Compton Executioners, were reportedly made full members after shooting Guardado five times in the back.
Cerise Castle, a journalist and an L.A. native, has heard about these Deputy Gangs all her life. Guardado’s death led to her series “A Tradition of Violence,” a history of Deputy Gangs published earlier this year by the nonprofit journalism organization Knock LA. It’s impressive work, so I was pleased to be able to discuss it with Castle on the phone the other day. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
LENNY: Talk about a great lens through which to look at policing as a whole. These gangs of police officers, it's all very dystopian.
CERISE: It's something that's fascinated me my whole life. I'm still sort of processing how it's come completely full circle for me. Starting out hearing about it in childhood, and now it’s probably 90% of what I write about.
Maybe start by answering the question, what is a deputy gang?
It’s essentially the same thing as what people think of as “normal” gangs, criminal street gangs. They're basically the same thing, except while criminal street gangs are categorized as criminal enterprises, sheriff gangs are funded by taxpayers, and they have carte blanche through their badge and peace officer powers to carry out the functions of their criminal enterprise. So the only real difference is that there are no consequences for sheriff gangs.
I guess one class of gang kind of threatens the system, and the other props it up.
Sheriff gangs are really the cause of a lot of the issues that we're facing in L.A. County, especially through a lens of crime. One of the key characteristics of these gangs is being okay with doing bad police work. You know, falsifying reports, giving reports to lower ranking newer people to fill out, people that may not even be familiar with the situation. And that has very real consequences. Oftentimes the actions of these gangs are themselves driving crime.
So when did this tradition of gangs in the LA County Sheriff's Department begin? What was the first gang, and what do you understand about the origins of this practice?
The first gang that we know about is a gang called the Little Devils. They were documented in the early 1970s. Following the Chicano Moratorium, a protest of about 25,000 Latino people marching in East Los Angeles to denounce the Vietnam War. Latino men were the the people that were dying the most frequently over in Vietnam.
And the day started out quiet on the part of the sheriff's deputies. Sherman Block, who was sheriff at that time, gave the instructions to keep a “low profile.” And that happened until the late afternoon, when the sheriff's deputies started assaulting people. They took batons and were beating people. They were firing these so-called less lethal munitions in the crowd. They killed journalist Ruben Salazar when this happened, an L.A. Times journalist and a very outspoken police critic. The night before his murder, he actually told friends that he suspected he was under monitoring and surveillance by the sheriff's department. And he went on to die less than 24 hours after that conversation.
The legacy of that day and of the Little Devils lives on in the logo for the East Los Angeles station which is called the Fort Apache logo.
Fort Apache is a nod to a movie of the same name, about an outpost in the western United States run by white men. They routinely refer to the people they are charged with policing as savages. And they go on to kill a number of indigenous people in this film. And this is the name of the logo of the East Los Angeles station. It features a riot helmet and boots. It says the words “low profile,” which is a sort of mocking nod to Sherman Block’s instructions that day. And in Spanish, it says “always a kick in the ass,” around the edges. And this logo is prominently featured at the East Los Angeles Station, and it's a pretty great window into how exactly the Sheriff's Department looks at community members.
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And you notice that all over the country now, with these “thin blue line” flags that are everywhere, this whole notion that the public are savages. The police are the one small outpost of sanity, the thin blue line between order and chaos. That sort of law enforcement attitude makes a mockery out of the whole notion of democracy.
One hundred percent.
We have a sheriff here in Los Angeles County that throughout the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has openly stated that he would not enforce mandates. He will not enforce the county vaccine mandate, and famously went on Fox News with Tucker Carlson and stated this to the nation. He reported last week that only just over 40% of our Sheriff's Department is vaccinated against the Coronavirus. These are the people that are working in our courts, that interface with the community, increasingly outside of their jurisdiction. So they’re not just in the areas that they are tasked with policing. And we know that they are unvaccinated. This is a very real threat to many of the areas that they're in, communities of color, low income areas where people don't have the same access to medical resources, and we are seeing higher rates of infection and death.
How many gangs are there now?
There are at least 18 gangs that I have been able to confirm. I have heard anecdotally about many more, not just in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, but throughout Southern California and the United States. Here in LA County after the creation of the Little Devils, many of the members were promoted and moved to other units and other stations throughout the department. And they took the gang culture with them, and trained up younger generations on their version of policing. And their means — their ways of running a station and running a department. That continued export of those ideals has built the culture of the sheriff's department that we see today.
As those people are promoted and rise through the ranks, they take the gang culture with them, they train younger generations who see it as the way to become successful in this department. And they go on to create their own gangs. And chapters continue to form.
These gangs must serve some sort of a function within the Sheriff's Department.
These are the most decorated people in the department. These are the guys that everybody wants to be their friend, these are the guys that are promoted, given commendations, given medals, given decorations for these abuses of power. This is what's celebrated inside the sheriff's department.
Following procedure is seen as a negative thing. Whistleblowers are forced out of the department. You have your life threatened by your colleagues. Your family's safety is threatened. That's really the only two ways that'll go.
This is a brave series that you did. Have you faced any repercussions for your reporting, from police or otherwise?
Immediately after publishing the series, I received a deluge of death threats that came in via text message and through my social media. I would receive phone calls from numbers that are spoofed, and they would be heavily breathing or calling me a rat or snitch. And telling me that I needed to, you know, have someone put a bullet in my head.
Following that, I was detained at a press conference by sheriff's deputies, one of the deputies that I wrote about in my series, who was responsible for the deaths of two small children under the age of 10. She ran over them in her car and [it was] settled by the county of Los Angeles for over $10 million. I saw her at this press conference, I noticed that she was watching me, pointing at me and talking about me with a lieutenant. Several minutes after that happened, [the lieutenant] approached me and detained me for about 15 minutes. He also attempted to pull me behind the building with a group of four other deputies. I wasn't released until another journalist who saw what was happening continuing to scream that I was press. They didn't listen to me when I told them I was press, they told me that I wasn't a real journalist and continued to try to drag me behind this building.
I've been threatened by the sheriff himself, he has instructed people to sue me. I haven't been sued for my series, because we do a very robust fact checking process and we have very high editorial standards. And his campaign manager just a few weeks ago threatened to disclose my personal address online and said — his words — it's a threat.
So yeah, I've faced a lot.
Through public records requests, I was able to find out that a team of crime analysts began monitoring my social media earlier this year, and made plans to continue to keep a monitor on me shortly after I published the series. I don't know the extent of that monitor. I have public records request pending about that.
It's been really scary. It's something that I think about a lot. I've had to change how I go about my life. I can't go to press conferences anymore without a bodyguard. I can't do field reporting without a bodyguard. I had to move. Whenever I get in my car, I have to think about if I should even be taking my car. And I have to park miles away from places when I go there, because I'm worried about GPS trackers being put on my car, that sort of thing. Because that kind of thing happens all the time. And you know, even more disturbingly, we know that the Sheriff's Department kills people that look like me all the time, over the smallest things that aren't even violations. I mean, I report all the time on the Sheriff's Department killing people who have cell phones in their hands, they [police] say they were in fear for their life. This is a very real fear that I have, and it's something that I think about constantly.