A federal judge has concluded that many Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies at the Lynwood station routinely violate civil rights, are motivated by "racial hostility" and use "terrorist-type tactics" with the knowledge of their superiors.
U. S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. issued the written finding this week in support of his Sept. 23 order that the Sheriff's Department abide by its own use-of-force policies. The order was temporarily blocked by the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which will decide whether Hatter has the power to supersede Sheriff Sherman Block's authority over the Lynwood station.
In unusually strong language, Hatter found that a "neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang" of deputies--the Vikings--exists at the Lynwood station with the knowledge of department officials. "Policy makers" in the department, Hatter said, "tacitly authorize deputies' unconstitutional behavior."
The judge's findings are directly at odds with how department officials have characterized the Vikings, which they say is a harmless social group.
More than 70 Lynwood residents filed a civil rights lawsuit last September alleging that deputies engaged "in systematic acts of shooting, killing, brutality, terrorism, house-trashing and other acts of lawlessness and wanton abuse of power," especially against Latinos and blacks.
Although testimony has not yet been heard in the case, Hatter has received affidavits from dozens of Lynwood residents who claim to have been victimized by Lynwood deputies.
Sheriff's officials have disputed the allegations, saying many of the plaintiffs were gang members or criminals seeking to discredit deputies.
Deputy Pat Hunter, a Sheriff's Department spokesman, said the judge's finding "is not a new action but substantiation for the action he had previously ordered on Sept. 23." Hunter declined further comment.
Attorneys for the Lynwood plaintiffs applauded the judge's findings.
"After looking at 2,000 pages of the record, the court has found our evidence far more credible," said Constance Rice, Western regional counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund. "It's a very strong order and a very strong set of findings. He found there is a direct link between department policy and unconstitutional behavior."
In the five-page document, Hatter wrote: "The evidence presented by the plaintiffs is more credible that that presented by the defendants."
Patrick T. Meyers, principal deputy county counsel and a spokesman for the defense, could not be reached for comment.
In issuing the preliminary injunction Sept. 23, Hatter directed the 8,000 officers and 4,000 other employees of the Sheriff's Department to abide by department regulations, especially those that outline when deputies can use force and how to conduct searches.
The judge also asked that the Sheriff's Department begin sending him every brutality complaint lodged against it.
Block opposed the injunction, saying it would, in effect, transform every violation of department guidelines into a federal crime.
On Sept. 24, the federal appeals court issued an emergency stay of Hatter's decision pending arguments scheduled for the first week of December.
In support of his decision, Hatter filed his written findings Tuesday with the appeals court. The document was released to attorneys Thursday.
Among Hatter's key findings:
* Several plaintiffs were charged with crimes after they were allegedly brutalized by deputies. The judge said there is "an unwritten Sheriff's Department policy of charging a person injured (by deputies) in the course of a routine stop." Many of the criminal charges were later dropped because of "unreasonable force" during the arrests.
* In an apparent attempt to persuade the plaintiffs to drop the lawsuit, Lynwood deputies confronted the plaintiffs on several occasions since the case was filed in September, 1990.
* "The actions of many deputies working in the Lynwood substation are motivated by racial hostility," Hatter said. "These deputies regularly disregard the civil rights of individuals they have sworn to protect. Many of the incidents which brought about this motion involved a group of Lynwood-area deputies who are members of a neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang--the Vikings--which exists with the knowledge of departmental policy makers."
* Many of the deputies and sergeants in Lynwood "intimidate and ridicule blacks and Hispanics."
* "There is a direct link between departmental policy makers, who tacitly authorize deputies' unconstitutional behavior, and the injuries suffered by the plaintiffs."