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Newly elected LA County sheriff Robert Luna inherits a deeply troubled department

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Voters in Los Angeles have ousted their sheriff after just one term. Alex Villanueva wasn't exactly the progressive reformer that he'd pledged to be, doing things like launching criminal investigations into his critics. And now retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna confronts what to do with the deeply troubled department. Frank Stoltze of member station KPCC in Los Angeles joins us.

Frank, thanks so much for being with us.

FRANK STOLTZE, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

SIMON: This is the largest sheriff's department in the country, and it's received a lot of attention over the past few years - legal attention. One sheriff went to federal prison.

STOLTZE: That's right. That happened after Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff concocted this scheme to hide an inmate who was working as an FBI informant from the FBI. They did that in order to cover up jailhouse beatings by deputies. Two successive sheriffs billed themselves as reformers - Jim McDonnell and Alex Villanueva - but had mixed results. Voters threw them out. Problems have persisted - the California attorney general now investigating allegations of a pattern and practice of civil rights violations, including excessive use of force and racial profiling. And one more thing - a federal jail monitor has described inhumane conditions inside the sprawling jail system here, which the sheriff operates.

SIMON: And I gather there're reports of gangs of deputies inside the sheriff's department. This is something you talk about in a new podcast.

STOLTZE: Yeah. It's pretty extraordinary. A report by Loyola Law School found there have been at least 18 subgroups where deputies from the same station wear matching tattoos. Some of them appear to be benign. Others seem to act like street gangs. One at the East LA station is called the Bandidos. They all wear this tattoo that features a skeleton wearing a sombrero, bandolier and pistol. A lawsuit by a group of deputies said their Bandido colleagues withheld backup for deputies that didn't support their misconduct and removed ammunition from the shotgun of one rival deputy.

For our podcast, "Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff," I talked to one deputy who witnessed Bandido deputies knocked unconscious two colleagues during a fight. We distorted this deputy's voice because he fears retaliation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "IMPERFECT PARADISE: THE SHERIFF")

STOLTZE: You said they were straight up gangs. I mean, you're calling them gangsters.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, yeah. There's no one way around it. It's not a brotherhood. It's not a frat. It's not a - street gangsters. They're actually gangsters. They fight like gangsters.

STOLTZE: One deputy from the Compton station has accused a colleague of shooting someone to gain entry into a group known as the Executioners. Multiple sources say the FBI is investigating these groups. Membership in these secret groups appears to be small, but the concern is that they represent a culture of impunity inside the sheriff's department.

SIMON: Frank, is it harder to reform a sheriff's department than a police department, given the unique role that sheriffs fill?

STOLTZE: Yeah, it is, Scott. I mean, county sheriffs are elected by voters every four years and have a lot more autonomy than city police chiefs. Chiefs are appointed and can be much more influenced by city councils and mayors. So sheriffs are as much political creatures as they are law enforcement leaders, more influenced by their deputies unions, which often give to their political campaigns. Things got so bad with the outgoing sheriff here that LA voters approved a measure that now gives the board of supervisors the power to remove an elected sheriff with a four-fifths vote.

SIMON: Please tell us about the new sheriff in town, Robert Luna.

STOLTZE: Sure. He's a veteran law enforcement leader. He ran the Long Beach Police Department. But that's an agency with 800 officers. He'll now have nearly 10,000 deputies under his command. And he is an outsider going into a department that notoriously does not like outsiders.

SIMON: Frank Stoltze of member station KPCC. He has a new podcast out called "Imperfect Paradise: The Sheriff."

Thanks so much, Frank.

STOLTZE: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.