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COLUMN ONE

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?

March 24, 1999|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR and TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

"I cannot dismiss it as a little club or as a social group," Baca said. "I see it as the wrong message to a public that desperately wants to be close to us, desperately wants to trust us. Having a Grim Reaper tattoo does not bring confidence in you as a deputy."

By Invitation Only

Although their total numbers are not known, the tattooed officers are found throughout department ranks. Many have risen to positions of leadership. Group members are said to be predominantly white and male, though Latino members are reportedly common. There are few black or female initiates, group members say.

"It's no more than some of the fraternities at different schools," said the deputy who became a Grim Reaper at Lennox.

The deputy, who is white, was honored the day he was asked to become a Reaper. His buddies drove him to a tattoo parlor and gave the artist the secret stencil with the Reaper icon. The tattoo was numbered and his name entered into a ledger kept by a veteran officer.

To him, the tattoo "showed that you were respected by your peers." The symbols are not meant to be sinister, but the more forceful logos--like a bolt of lightning--have higher status, he said.

"What am I going to get--a tattoo of Winnie the Pooh?" the deputy asked.

Even Baca acknowledges the appeal of the groups.

He recalls confronting the issue of Viking membership two years ago when he was a regional department chief. He was meeting with deputies at the new Century station, which replaced Lynwood. His superiors warned him to be cautious, Baca said.

"I think there was more of an interest of protecting me from what they perceived to be a backlash," Baca said. "Since I was the only one out there voicing an objection to it, they didn't want me so far out on a limb that my overall effectiveness as a chief might be mitigated.

"Well, now I'm the sheriff, so I'm not worried about mitigation," Baca said. "Don't like it. Never have. Never will."

Today, some officers have told Baca they're thinking about getting their tattoos removed.

One of them, Lt. Paul Tanaka, was made a top aide to the sheriff just after the election in August. Tanaka was tattooed as a member of the Vikings while a young deputy in 1987--a year before he was named in a wrongful-death suit stemming from the shooting of a young Korean man. The department eventually settled for close to $1 million.

Now Tanaka, a recently elected Gardena city councilman with aspirations to rise in the department and local politics, would like to disassociate himself from the group.

"Paul doesn't have anything to say about [the tattoo]," said Sheriff's Department spokesman Capt. Doyle Campbell. "It is perceived by some in a way that was never intended. He's having it removed. He wants it behind him."

It was 1990 police misconduct litigation that first hurled the deputy clubs--and the Vikings--into the public eye.

The lawsuit, which asked the federal court to take over the Lynwood station, produced numerous accounts of "Animal House"-style thuggery. There were the deputies who shot a dog and tied it under their commanders' car; the deputies who smeared feces on a supervisor's engine. There was the map of Lynwood in the shape of Africa, the racist cartoons of black men, the mock "ticket to Africa" on the wall.

U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter concluded that many deputies engaged in racially motivated hostility against blacks and Latinos. In 1996, the department was ordered to pay $7.5 million to 80 alleged victims of excessive force in the area policed by the Lynwood station, and spend $1.5 million for mandatory training.

Then-Sheriff Sherman Block said Hatter's characterization of the Vikings as a "neo-Nazi" group was "irrational and wrong." He said the Vikings were primarily a social organization, and he found no proof they ever acted against minorities. Block said then he believed the group no longer existed.

The 1992 Kolts Commission report on police brutality in Los Angeles said deputy "cliques" like the Vikings were found "particularly at stations in areas heavily populated by minorities--the so-called 'ghetto stations'--and deputies at those stations recruit persons similar in attitude to themselves."

The report said evidence "does not conclusively demonstrate the existence of racist deputy gangs." Nevertheless, it went on to say, "it appears that some deputies at the department's Lynwood station associate with the 'Viking' symbol, and appear at least in times past to have engaged in behavior that is brutal and intolerable and is typically associated with street gangs."

There never has been a follow-up report or investigation by an independent entity since.

Within the department, Baca said, he was sufficiently concerned about the Vikings to send in a no-nonsense Latino commander to run the Lynwood station in 1989.

He said he sent in Capt. Bert Cueva "to specifically stamp out this Viking phenomenon."

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