L.A. County Sheriff’s Department fosters ‘gang-like activity’ among jail deputies, suit alleges

Two deputies who were allegedly attacked by six colleagues at a Christmas party in Montebello last year say the department encourages lawlessness in its jails that has led to violence.

Greg Yates LA Times QuotesMay 05, 2011 | By Robert Faturechi and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

Two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who were allegedly attacked by other deputies at a Christmas party last year have accused the department of encouraging an atmosphere of lawlessness and violence among its jail employees, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The allegations stem from an altercation at a Montebello banquet hall last December when about half a dozen deputies allegedly assaulted two others and punched a female deputy who tried to intervene in the face. The deputies who were described as the aggressors worked on the third floor of Men’s Central Jail, where they were believed to have formed an aggressive clique known to flash gang-like hand signs.

In March, the department moved to fire six deputies in what was called one of the largest terminations in connection with a single incident in Sheriff’s Department history. Prosecutors are still considering whether to file criminal charges.

According to an attorney for the two deputies, the exchange began when Deputy Chris Vasquez, who was outside the banquet hall smoking a cigarette, told a deputy from the third floor that employees there were too slow in moving inmates down to the jail’s visiting area and said they should work faster.

Authorities have characterized that comment as a taunt, but attorney Greg Yates, who represents the two deputies, described it as a friendly suggestion.

A short time later, Vasquez was waved over by the other deputy and his colleagues. When Vasquez approached, one told him, “Hey, tell the rest of these guys what you told me,” according to Yates’ account of the incident.

“You know you disrespected us by talking like that,” replied another in the group, Yates said.

At that point, one of Vasquez’s friends, Deputy Elizario Perez, approached and tried to pull Vasquez away, Yates said. But within moments Perez was pulled around and assaulted while Vasquez was jumped by the rest of the group, the attorney said.

“This was not mutual combat, this was not one-on-one,” Yates said. “This was a beat down.”

The two deputies are alleging the Sheriff’s Department fosters “gang-like activity” among its jail deputies that has led to violence between inmates, against inmates and, in this case, against fellow deputies. The allegations come amid other recent accusations of brutality inside county jails. Last February, an ACLU representative spurred an internal criminal investigation after she said she saw two deputies, unaware of her presence, beating an unconscious inmate for at least two minutes.

Public records obtained by The Times show that deputies assigned to the third floor of Men’s Central Jail, where the gang-like clique is believed to have been formed, had a higher number of use-of-force incidents against inmates during a recent four-year period than those assigned to any other floor at the downtown L.A. facility.

In response to allegations that a gang-like clique had formed inside its jails, department officials say they have implemented regular staff rotations that might prevent deputies from forming such groups.

The lawsuit filed in federal court alleges the department is “grossly inadequate” in “disciplining and controlling … deputies, particularly with respect to illegal acts and acts of excessive force.”

Gregory Smith, who is also representing the injured deputies, blamed sloppy hiring, saying the department needed to improve background checks so deputies “don’t adopt the culture of the inmates they are charged by the public to guard.”

Sheriff’s officials have refused to name the deputies involved. The lawsuit identifies seven deputies: Alfonso Andrade, Hernan Delgado, Joseph Gonzalez, Juan Navarro, Jeffrey Rivera, Mauricio Rodriguez and Jason Snyder. The deputies could not be reached for comment.

Sheriff’s officials would not confirm whether those names include the six whom the department has moved to fire. Attorney Richard A. Shinee, whose firm is representing the deputies on behalf of the deputies union, has said the men plan to fight the department’s efforts to fire them.

Yates said his clients have lasting injuries, including back problems and deteriorated vision. One suffered a concussion, he said.

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore denied the allegations that the Sheriff’s Department fosters “lawlessness” among jail employees, saying the department has taken swift action in response to the incident. “The whole story will be told, and we look forward to the opportunity to tell it.”