L.A. County Sheriff’s Department Pays Price as Clandestine Deputy Cliques Persist

James Real, the owner of American Beauty Tattoo in Sunset Beach is seen in an undated photo. He said he saw L.A. County sheriff's deputies come into his shop to get inked with identical tattoos of a skeleton in a cowboy hat. Each design included a number in sequential order — more than 100 in all. (Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

James Real, the owner of American Beauty Tattoo in Sunset Beach is seen in an undated photo. He said he saw L.A. County sheriff's deputies come into his shop to get inked with identical tattoos of a skeleton in a cowboy hat. Each design included a number in sequential order — more than 100 in all. (Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The image on the deputy’s calf depicted a skeleton in an officer’s uniform, wearing a cowboy hat and clutching a smoking rifle.

Jason Zabala said he was inked by an artist who worked at a Sunset Beach tattoo shop and was the 140th person to get the same design. The tattoo, he said, was a proud mark of camaraderie among his fellow peace officers.

But years later, a judge would order Zabala and another Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy to answer questions about whether they were members of a clique and allow their tattoos to be photographed as part of a wrongful-death lawsuit. The county paid $1.5 million to settle the case last year. Zabala denied he was part of a clique.

The Sheriff’s Department is paying a growing price for its failure to find a solution for an issue that decades of watchdog reports and lawsuits have highlighted as a problem.

Read the full story on LATimes.com.