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The Secret Society Among Lawmen

Despite setbacks in court and superiors' disapproval, a tattooed subculture of L.A. County sheriff's deputies is rising again. Are members macho racists or just brothers of the badge?


He is still proud of his tattoo.

The somber image of Death's hooded skull and scythe tattooed onto the inside of the deputy's left ankle in 1989 initiated him into a select fraternity called the Grim Reapers. Then a street cop at the Lennox station, this deputy has risen to a key position in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department--along with other members of his "club."

The groups--with macho monikers like the Pirates, Vikings, Rattlesnakes and Cavemen--have long been a subculture in the country's largest Sheriff's Department and, in some cases, an inside track to acceptance in the ranks. Senior officers say they began with the creation of the Little Devils at the East Los Angeles station in 1971. Membership swelled in the 1980s at overwhelmingly white sheriff's stations that were islands in black and Latino immigrant communities.

A federal judge hearing class-action litigation against the department described the most well-known of the groups, the Lynwood Vikings, as a "neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang" and found that deputies had engaged in racially motivated hostility. The county paid $9 million in fines and training costs to settle the lawsuits in 1996.

But today, groups like the Grim Reapers are enjoying renewed popularity among young deputies, who say the groups are fraternities that bond on morale-building values, not race. A new group--the Regulators--has formed at Century station, and even suburban deputies are thinking about getting tattoos. Some senior officers say the groups provide emotional support for deputies who contend with a grueling regimen of violent crime and an 11-to-7 overnight schedule that strains family life.

The groups have their detractors. One deputy characterized the Lennox Reapers as "cowboys," and another complained that the Regulators were "acting just like Vikings."

Sheriff Lee Baca has long been a critic of the groups, though he believes an outright ban would be unconstitutional. He urges deputies to stay away from the organizations, saying they encourage unprofessional behavior.

Critics of the department go even further. They charge that the stations with the department's most troubled records--meaning the most frequent excessive-force lawsuits and discrimination complaints--are home to the most active deputy groups.

And the groups are viewed with mistrust by many in the inner-city communities.

"They are generally perceived as rogue cops who have often been accused of acting in very inappropriate ways in the street," said Joe Hicks, executive director of the city's human relations commission. "It doesn't seem to be good for morale or community relations."

Uncovering Evidence

Some of the lawyers now suing the Sheriff's Department on behalf of clients who say they were beaten, shot or harassed have demanded that deputies accused of misconduct roll down their socks and reveal if they have one of the distinguishing tattoos. In one case pending in federal court, attorneys want two deputies who allegedly shot a man to death to show whether their ankles bear the Vikings insignia.

Kevin Reed, an attorney with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People's Legal Defense Fund, who worked on the class-action suit involving the Vikings, thinks the deputy groups encourage a pattern of excessive force.

"There is a bond, not just of being a fellow deputy, but being a Viking, that gives you the comfort that no one is going to write the report that will hang you out to dry," Reed said.

One Viking tattoo displayed in court bore the number "998"--the code for "officer-involved shooting"--Reed said, giving the impression that such shootings were celebrated as a rite of passage.

Former Undersheriff Jerry Harper, who was Baca's boss until he retired after the November sheriff's race, said the 998 tattoos reflect a camaraderie not unlike that of soldiers who have experienced combat for the first time.

"It's a mark of pride. They've been in a deputy-involved shooting and they've survived it," he said. "Obviously, it's a lot more serious than getting a Boy Scout patch."

But David Lynn, a private investigator who testified on the deputy groups to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission--which is to address the issue in a report due in April--has called for the names of tattooed deputies to be cross-referenced with excessive force allegations.

For all his objections, Baca believes such a registry might actually absolve the groups of the most serious suspicions. He thinks many deputies acquired the tattoos for reasons no deeper than peer pressure and heavy drinking.

"Many of them regretted it the day after, when they got a little sober," said Baca, "especially when their wife saw the thing and was very upset." He said the deputies were "caring, hard-working, not prejudiced. And they literally destroyed their lives, many of them, with this nonsense of the drinking and the tattoos. . . .

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