LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – Sheriff Alex Villanueva denied a report Friday that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was under federal investigation for an alleged secret society of tattooed deputies.

In an interview Friday with CBSLA’s DeMarco Morgan and Suzanne Marques, Villaneuva refuted a Los Angeles Times report that the FBI is investigating 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.

“I can actually say they are not investigating it. What I can say is we’d be more than happy to assist them in any way, shape or form if and when they decide to do an investigation, but that is not happening right now,” said Villanueva.

Members of the Banditos clique 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, according to the Times.

FBI agents have asked several deputies 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 their names not be used because the investigation is ongoing.

Investigators have inquired about other groups known to exist in the department, which has roughly 10,000 deputies and polices large swaths of the sprawling county, sources told the Times, and 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.

An FBI spokeswoman declined to provide any information.

And while Villanueva denied any active investigation, he told CBSLA similar reports of such secret societies have “always been a concern.”

“This is a concern that goes back to the 1970s, and it resurfaces every ten years or so,” he said.

Villaneuva says upon taking office in December, he made it a priority to remove the station captain from East L.A. and replaced the entire management team at the station. A department policy specifically addressing deputy cliques has also been implemented, the sheriff said.

While he acknowledged there is behavior “that is of some concern” in the department, Villanueva said both criminal and internal affairs investigations are underway.

“We’re doing everything physically, legally possible,” he said. “The results will speak for themselves.”

In 2011, the FBI secretly opened an investigation into reports of inmate abuse by deputies working in the county jails. Former Sheriff Lee Baca and other senior staff were convicted of conspiring to obstruct the FBI.

The current investigation appears to have been spurred by a group of deputies who in March filed a legal claim against the county accusing sheriff’s officials of failing to address a hostile work environment in the East L.A. station.

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)

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