In Antelope Valley, relations between minorities and Sheriff's Department are improving

Some of the worst abuses by deputies against blacks and Latinos appear to be over in the Antelope Valley

Miguel Coronado pulled up to the tile-roofed beige house where he had been handcuffed and shoved into a patrol car six years before — for telling a girl that she could refuse to talk to the sheriff's deputy who was questioning her.

He became an outspoken critic of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and was among those who brought allegations of racially biased policing in the Antelope Valley to federal authorities.

"I felt like I really hated them," Coronado said of sheriff's deputies. "I felt like, 'What do I have to do to get some respect?' They were aggressive, brutal, insensitive and discriminatory."

But revisiting the quiet Lancaster subdivision on a recent afternoon, he reflected instead on how much things have changed. Residents rarely call him anymore to complain about the Sheriff's Department, when he used to get several complaints a day, he said.

Coronado and other civil rights advocates say the Sheriff's Department has made significant progress in improving community relations in the Antelope Valley, particularly with African Americans and Latinos. Some of the worst abuses, including raids of subsidized housing recipients, appear to be largely in the past, they said, and local officials are doing a better job listening to concerns.

Coronado now has the cellphone numbers of high-ranking sheriff's officials on his speed dial — and he says they pick up when he calls. He sits on Lancaster's planning commission as an appointee of the mayor.

At a time when the deaths of black men at the hands of police are dominating national headlines, law enforcement and minority leaders in the High Desert suburbs of Los Angeles are locked in an increasingly warm embrace.

But the extent of the progress can be difficult to measure. In the Antelope Valley's run-down apartment complexes, tattered subdivisions and gravel-road trailer parks, young blacks and Latinos still play cat-and-mouse with sheriff's deputies who assume they are up to no good. The minority men say they feel unfairly targeted, while sheriff's officials say aggressive policing is needed in high-crime areas.

Last month, federal officials announced a settlement that legally binds the Sheriff's Department to a long list of requirements, among them that deputies adhere to basic rules of politeness.

Despite the improvements, and despite the election of a new sheriff generally regarded as progressive, the settlement is necessary to ensure there is no backsliding, said Darren Parker, a local civil rights activist.

"We have to put in checks and balances so that after we're gone, somebody doesn't suddenly forget where we are," Parker said.

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The dry, sunbaked expanse of the Antelope Valley was rural and predominantly white until the 1980s, when blacks and Latinos began arriving from  Los Angeles.

The new residents were blamed, sometimes in blatantly racist terms, for crime and gang problems. The Section 8 federal housing subsidy program became a touchstone for that racial animosity, with sheriff's deputies accompanying county housing authorities on military-style sweeps.

In 2010, a sheriff's deputy posted a provocative photo on the "I Hate Section 8" Facebook page. The deputy had snapped the photo, of luxury cars in the Palmdale garage of a Section 8 voucher recipient, while he was conducting an official compliance check.

Soon, the home was vandalized with racist graffiti. Someone threw urine at the family's son while yelling a racial epithet. The family eventually left town.

"In reality, the Antelope Valley was a Ferguson before there was a Ferguson," said Pharaoh Mitchell, who co-founded an advocacy group for minorities in the area.

A lawsuit by public interest attorneys helped to end the Section 8 raids. The lawsuit also mandated monthly meetings between community leaders and local officials that were the genesis of the improved relations touted by Coronado and others.

In June 2013, after initiating an investigation based on the community leaders' complaints, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report concluding that Antelope Valley sheriff's deputies illegally targeted racial minorities.

The report, which was the starting point for last month's settlement, cited the Section 8 raids and also criticized deputies for stopping minorities at a higher rate than whites. Deputies sometimes used unnecessarily harsh techniques like throwing bystanders in the back seat of patrol cars or immediately asking blacks and Latinos whether they were on probation or parole, the report said.

By then, the political landscape had already begun to change, with the improvements continuing in the last several years, several civil rights advocates say. At a recent meeting of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Lt. Randy Harris of the Lancaster sheriff's station spoke to a friendly audience.

"I want to learn from this group so we don't have to go through this again," he said.

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But in the rougher parts of the Antelope Valley, some residents complain that sheriff's deputies continue to single them out because of their race.

In a Palmdale neighborhood of apartments, empty lots and worn-looking single-family homes, Vincent King said sheriff's deputies are less aggressive than when he first moved to the area from Watts in 2007. Still, King, 34, said he no longer drives his prized 1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and plans to sell it after being repeatedly stopped by deputies.

"I can't have an American muscle car, here in America, because I'm black," he said.

Down the street, a 22-year-old nursing student said deputies often stop him because he fits the stereotype of a Latino gang member.

Recently, he said, he was walking home from the store with milk for his daughter when deputies stopped him, asking where he was going and whether he was on probation or parole. They searched his pockets and made him sit on the curb, he said.

"They're really rude sometimes. They're very harassing. They see me walking down the street, and I get pulled over quick," said the student, who would give only his middle name, Ruben.

On the law enforcement side, Sgt. Steve Owen has worked the streets of Lancaster for 23 years. His quarry on a recent morning: two young black men, who had eyed him suspiciously when he drove past them earlier. He gunned the engine of his patrol car, jumping a curb to zoom across the lawn of an apartment complex.

The two men darted around a corner into an alley, where the car could not follow.

"If they had anything, they already got rid of it," Owen said.

"You broke the sprinkler!" called a woman watching from her doorway as Owen roared back out in reverse.

In the office of building manager Yadira Santiago, Owen apologized about the sprinkler. He pressed Santiago for information about the two young men — he believed they knew something about a recent shooting. Santiago was eager to cooperate.

"I'm glad you're riding through like that. We need the help," she said.

Later, Owen said he pursued the men to prove to a reporter and photographer that they would run away. He had no legal reason to stop them, he said, and would not have treated them like suspects had he spoken with them.

"We come out and look for criminals, look for people violating the law," Owen said. "It doesn't matter what color they are."

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Under the settlement with the federal government, the Sheriff's Department will collect statistics on stops and searches to determine whether any racial groups are being unfairly treated. The settlement also includes $700,000 to be distributed to victims of the Section 8 raids.

A third of its 150 or so terms have already been fulfilled, according to sheriff's officials. But it will still bring an unprecedented level of outside scrutiny to the Antelope Valley.

In the past, the city and the Sheriff's Department used aggressive tactics to stop the gang violence that was then prevalent, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said.

"It required a heavy fist, but now it's time to be nice, and we are," Parris said. "Do I think people's rights were violated? No. Was there strict enforcement of the law? Yes."

Chief Anthony LaBerge, who manages patrol operations in the northern part of the county, said the department has already cut down on booking suspects for resisting arrest, a tactic that was overused and created unnecessary animosity.

He questioned an analysis in the 2013 federal report showing that African American and Latino pedestrians were stopped at higher rates than whites and that the cars of African American drivers were searched at higher rates. The analysis did not account for higher crime rates in some minority neighborhoods where crime suppression is most needed, LaBerge said.

Still, deputies are being trained not to throw suspects in the back seat for reasons of convenience and to ease into any questioning about probation or parole status, sheriff's officials said.

"Many of the personnel assigned here also call it their home," said Capt. Pat Nelson, who is in charge of the Lancaster sheriff's station. "Because of that, they have a personal stake in how the Sheriff's Department is perceived and how it does its policing. By and large, we're on the right track."

Twitter:@cindychangLA

Times staff writer Abby Sewell contributed to this report.

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