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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has broad legal authority to crack down on entrenched, gang-like groups of deputies that have been accused of glorifying violence and whose members have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in legal payouts, according to attorneys for the county.

The confidential legal opinion issued last month by the Office of County Counsel knocks down claims by Villanueva that he is limited in what he can do to combat the problem and that an attempt to prohibit deputies from joining the groups would violate their constitutional rights. A copy of the memo was obtained recently by The Times.

“The County’s compelling interest in restoring or increasing public trust in the LASD and preventing the harm subgroups cause to the County, LASD, and community members justifies a policy that bans participation in subgroups,” county attorneys wrote in the memo to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, an independent watchdog group.

The lawyers’ clear-cut stance comes amid heightened scrutiny of the groups, which have plagued the department for decades, as elected officials and community groups increasingly have pressured Villanueva to deal with them decisively. State legislators have passed a bill that would ban “law enforcement gangs” in all law enforcement agencies, while county officials have clashed with the sheriff over what they say are his insufficient efforts.

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