Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies in the Antelope Valley are prohibited from routinely detaining people in the back seat of patrol cars and must start most encounters by politely introducing themselves, according to the terms of a federal settlement finalized this week.
Sheriff’s deputies in the high desert have been known for a harsh brand of policing that singles out blacks and Latinos, particularly those in subsidized housing.
That reputation attracted the attention of the federal government, which reached the settlement with Los Angeles County officials to ensure that deputies do not discriminate against minorities.
Some of the changes have already been implemented, sheriff’s officials and community members said, and complaints from minority residents are less frequent. Recipients of the federal housing vouchers known as Section 8 are no longer subjected to raids by deputies that sometimes had the effect of forcing them out of their homes.
But the settlement, which includes a $700,000 payment for victims, makes the new style of policing a legal requirement. Three law enforcement experts will serve as monitors, and a federal judge can step in if the Sheriff’s Department is not fulfilling its obligations.
The cost of the monitors, to be paid by the county, may top $3 million, a spokesman for L.A. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich said. The county will also pay $25,000 in penalties to the federal government.
“This agreement puts in place a structure that will foster lawful, bias-free policing in the Antelope Valley, and ensures compensation for persons harmed by past unlawful conduct,” Vanita Gupta, head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said in a written statement.
The settlement requires the Sheriff’s Department to collect data on stops and searches to determine whether minorities are being unfairly targeted. It also governs the everyday interactions that deputies have with residents.
Where possible, deputies should introduce themselves and state the reason for stopping and detaining someone, the agreement states.
Handcuffing people and having them sit in the back seat of a patrol car — once a routine practice, according to federal authorities — is not allowed during most routine traffic stops or for domestic violence victims. If someone is detained in the back seat, the deputy should explain why “in a professional and courteous manner.”
Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who took office in December, said his department has already implemented one-third of the settlement’s roughly 150 requirements. But he said he will not be satisfied until “we are in full compliance with the high bar that we have willingly taken on.”
In a June 2013 report describing alleged civil rights abuses by the Sheriff’s Department in the Antelope Valley, federal officials stated that 30 of 180 civilian complaints involved back-seat detentions.
The report also found that deputies used unreasonable force, including fist strikes to the head and face, against people who were handcuffed. Deputies sometimes retaliated with force against those who were disrespectful to them, the report found, in one case pepper-spraying a man who spit on them when he was already restrained.
Those practices are specifically prohibited by the settlement.
The data to be collected by the Sheriff’s Department includes the race of people who are stopped, searched, detained in back seats or arrested for minor offenses such as jaywalking or walking on the wrong side of the street.
The 2013 report cited an analysis showing that African American pedestrians in Lancaster were nearly 40% more likely to be stopped by deputies than if race were not a factor. African American drivers who were stopped by deputies in the Antelope Valley were searched at a rate 10% to 15% higher than whites, the report said.
The settlement is expected to take four years to fulfill.
“I’m very troubled any time the county has to pay an exorbitant amount of money for monitoring because there were some bad actors or bad actions,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis, who took office in December.
The federal settlement only involves the Sheriff’s Department and does not include the county housing agency, which is negotiating separately and may agree to compensate people who lost their housing assistance because of raids in the Antelope Valley.
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said the settlement, along with other litigation involving the county jails, demonstrates the need for a strong civilian oversight board.
“It is both a testament to how horrible things got in the past and how much the system and the Board of Supervisors could not prevent what was going on in the past,” he said.
Darren Parker, an Antelope Valley civil rights leader, said he has been getting phone calls from people interested in applying for the settlement money, which is restricted to Fair Housing Act violations. The maximum amount per claimant is $20,000.
“I think we finally have a foundation to catapult from,” Parker said. “I hope the new policies will trickle down so people can actually feel confident about law enforcement.”