The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is flouting state law requiring the adoption of a deputy gang policy and refusing to answer questions from LA County’s Civilian Oversight Commission, according to internal communications reviewed and obtained exclusively by LA Public Press. 

The commission issued recommendations to eliminate deputy gangs in its February 2023 report on the matter. The department was tasked with creating a policy prohibiting deputies from participating in deputy gangs and having deputy gang tattoos. These policies are also required by California law as of 2022. Undersheriff April Tardy, who is the head of the sheriff’s department’s working group on deputy gangs, wrote in a letter dated February 28, 2024, to the commission that while the department had drafted policies, they have remained in “meet-and-confer” discussions with deputy unions for one year – a violation of the penal code. 

“The Department is working with its labor organizations on a number of policies, including the law enforcement gang policy.  We believe in the meet and confer process, as it has the potential for developing stronger policies that are embraced by all of our employees,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement to LA Public Press. “We have existing state law and an existing Department policy that we are using to hold personnel accountable.”

The department’s current policy is more permissive than the law requires. It only prohibits groups that “[violate] the rights of and membership in groups that “promote” that conduct. It doesn’t name that conduct as grounds for termination. In a report, the Office of the Inspector General called the policy “ineffectual.”

Tardy has openly admitted to having a tattoo affiliated with an alleged deputy gang – groups of officers who identify themselves by a name and symbol, like matching tattoos, and engage in a pattern of on-duty behavior that intentionally violates the law or fundamental principles of professional policing. 

The department has also refused to answer specific questions about the Industry Indians deputy gang, one of many gangs inside of the sheriff’s department. In January, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion requesting that Sheriff Robert Luna provide a report back on the gang to the Office of the Inspector General and the Civilian Oversight Commission’s Deputy Gang Ad Hoc Committee. 

The inquiries refused by the department include: how long the gang has been in existence; other incidents of misconduct linked to the gang or the Industry Station, as well as any related investigations; the quality and outcome of any investigations; the impact the Industry Indians deputy gang has had on community relations; steps taken to address deputy gangs inside of the sheriff’s department and an update on the status of internal policy related to deputy gangs required by California law. 

The sheriff’s department did not comply.

Instead of a report back, Tardy sent a different letter to the Commission that refused to answer the majority of the questions. 

In a letter to the Civilian Oversight Commission dated March 4, 2024, Tardy cited the California Public Records Act, which exempts personnel records from disclosure, as the reason for her refusal to respond. The California Public Records Act does not apply to the Board, which is tasked with overseeing the department. 

The Board of Supervisors can require county officers to produce records for the Civilian Oversight Commission. Ad-hoc committees are not required to make the documents public, therefore maintaining confidentiality.  

The sheriff’s department said it  “is willing to work with the COC, County Counsel, and labor organizations in building transparency and ensuring the COC has access to materials necessary to do its work.  Any access to confidential material must be consistent with the law, and discussions are ongoing about how best to address these issues.”

Deputy gangsters assault teenagers at a bowling alley

On February 28, 2022, a group of deputies met at the Bowlium bowling alley in Montclair to celebrate a colleague’s promotion. When it closed at 11 pm, they made their way into the parking lot where a sergeant in the group pushed open the car door he walked past, according to a Montclair police report on the incident. 

One of several teens in the car exited the vehicle and the deputies began shouting homophobic slurs at him. Shawn Merrick, a former Industry station deputy, flashed a gun, according to witness statements. Merrick has two uses of force on his record that resulted in two different people with fractured bones in their face, and one non-hit shooting. Another Industry station deputy, Justin Masri, punched a teenager in the face. 

Both Merrick and the sergeant who initiated the attack admitted to internal sheriff’s department investigators that they had tattoos linked to the Industry Indians, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

The Times reports that two deputies and two sergeants, including the one who was newly promoted, were fired for their participation. They have filed appeals with the County’s Civil Service Commission. 

LASD continues to avoid accountability

In her letter to the oversight commission, Tardy grouped the commission’s questions about the sheriff’s department’s investigation into the incident into a set of three categories: questions for which a response is permissible; questions for which a response was previously provided; and questions the Sheriff’s Department and county counsel decided they were exempt from. Several of the questions Tardy provided a response to were not answered. 

Tardy refused to answer questions about the outcome of the investigation into the Bowlium assault, any other misconduct linked to the Industry Indians or the Industry Station, or any ongoing investigations. She claimed her answers were protected from disclosure to the Ad Hoc committee under the California Public Records Act. 

Tardy wrote that the sheriff’s department only learned about the Industry Indians as a result of the Bowlium investigation in 2023 – despite the fact that former Undersheriff Timothy Murakami stated in sworn testimony to the oversight commission that he had heard of the gang during his time at the department, which predated the incident. 

Tardy did not answer whether any early warning signs of deputy gang behavior had been ignored by the department. 

The department has not conducted a study into the community impact of the deputy gang, but Tardy said in the letter it had requested additional funding to complete one. 

To answer the commission’s inquiries on ongoing steps and actions towards addressing deputy gangs, the status of the sheriff’s department’s gang policy as well as a community engagement plan to restore confidence in communities impacted by the Industry Indians and Industry Station misconduct, Tardy cited the February letter she sent to the commission. 

That letter was sent to respond to the commission’s request for an update on the sheriff’s department’s efforts to address the recommendations to eliminate deputy gangs. Tardy responses to each of the 26 recommendations revealed that the department has taken minimal, and often no effort to implement the recommended policies. 

The department “does not intend to implement” the recommendation to flatten the chain of command, and “does not plan to incorporate” rotations deputies between assignments. She also wrote the department will not create a system that would allow sworn personnel to only work in the court and custody system, or explore assigning academy graduates first to patrol instead of the county jail system as recommended.  

Tardy refused to answer whether the department would investigate violations of a policy banning deputy gangs, whether the department asks about deputy gang affiliation in use of force reviews and personnel misconduct investigations, or if supervisors were being held accountable for deputies under their purview who are involved in deputy gangs. The commission also recommended that the sheriff’s department create a procedure for notifying the district attorney’s office if a testifying witness deputy is a participant in a deputy gang – a precedent set by a 1963 legal ruling. Tardy wrote the department is in the process of updating manuals to make that obligation clear. 

Several of the recommendations asked for the Sheriff and upper-level management to communicate the negative career consequences associated with joining a deputy gang, and to create an initiative to end their existence. Tardy, who is also the first woman and Black person to be Undersheriff, said that she and Sheriff Luna frequently address personnel about the “negative consequences” of creating or joining a deputy gang. She also said the department had created a video about “deputy tattoos,”, but did not say if it was being shown to department members. 

Another large contingent of recommendations pertained to requiring that personnel in high level supervisory positions like captains and commanders be asked about any involvement in deputy gangs. For promotions to the rank of sergeant and lieutenant, a test is given. For captains and above, it is an interview process. A recommendation was also made to ensure senior executives and unit leaders implement policy regarding deputy gangs, and be disciplined for unwillingness to support it. 

Tardy asserted that all interviews for promotions of captain or above included questions relating to deputy gangs and tattoos. However, Jose “Joe” Mendoza, an alleged Bandito, was recently promoted to the rank of Chief under Sheriff Luna.

 “Since the beginning of my administration the question of any Department related tattoos has been asked in the interview portion of the promotional process for the rank of Captain and above, which has never been done before. Our Department will not promote any personnel who have exhibited behavior consistent with law enforcement gang activity as outlined in State law or Department policy. We are aware that he had a Department related tattoo, but we also recognize his open and honest statements about denouncing deputy gangs, subgroups, and cliques,” Sheriff Luna told LA Public Press. “As we move forward in changing the Department culture to eradicate deputy gangs, personnel that share their experience can have great influence on the future generation of deputies. “

Tardy did not answer whether any of the recommendations to assure enforcement of a deputy gang policy or discipline for upper-level management who refused to enact it is underway. Instead, she touted the hiring of Dr. Barney Melekian, a former Pasadena Police Chief and Undersheriff of the Santa Barbara Police Department, to the sheriff department’s Office of Constitutional Policing. 

A recommendation was also made to place two captains instead of one at high-activity stations, which Tardy said is currently underway at the Lancaster, Palmdale, and East Los Angeles stations. Each of those stations has been reported to have high instances of deputy gang behavior. The commission also advised the sheriff’s department to host a series of community meetings to understand the impact of deputy gangs, which the department began hosting in August of 2023. 

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