U.S. Department of Justice officials have demanded that Los Angeles County, Lancaster and Palmdale pay a total of $12.5 million to residents who the federal government found were victims of harassment and intimidation in the Antelope Valley.
The demand coincides with last week’s accusation by the Justice Department that Antelope Valley authorities conducted a systematic effort to discriminate against African Americans who received low-income subsidized housing and that sheriff’s deputies engaged in widespread unlawful searches of homes, improper detentions and unreasonable force.
Assistant County Counsel Roger Granbo, describing the Justice Department’s position, said the money would go to people whose civil rights were violated when deputies and housing inspectors visited their homes to check on whether they were complying with the Section 8 rental program requirements.
The payments would come from the two cities, the county’s Housing Authority and the Sheriff’s Department, he said. Granbo said he has already told federal officials that the county has no intention of paying its share of such a large amount of compensation.
If talks over the amount stall, the two sides could end up in court with the county disputing the breadth of the federal government’s findings. Granbo said the Justice Department has refused a request to turn over materials from its investigation, including a statistical report that it says shows blacks and Latinos were more likely than whites to be stopped or searched by deputies.
“These negotiations are going to be very critical,” Granbo said. “We’re willing to sit down with them and work something out, but that could be a very tedious process if we don’t know what those findings are based on.”
He said the county has yet to agree on who, if anyone, would be compensated.
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said his city would refuse to pay what he said would amount to at least $10,000 and as much as $40,000 for each person with a claim.
“If the county wants to pay millions, let them do it, but Lancaster isn’t going to pay 10 cents of it,” Parris said.
Palmdale released a statement saying that the proposed settlement was between federal and county officials and that the city “has not been asked nor has it agreed to any participation in this proposed settlement.” The statement said city officials were concerned by the federal government’s accusations and have scheduled a meeting with Sheriff Lee Baca next week to discuss them.
Baca’s spokesman, Steve Whitmore, said the sheriff would not comment on the federal government’s accusations, but that the department adamantly disagreed. Department of Justice officials could not be reached for comment.
The nearly two-year federal civil rights investigation found support for allegations by Antelope Valley residents that black residents were targeted for surprise inspections of subsidized, or Section 8, housing. The checks, which were ostensibly to ensure that residents met the terms of their assistance, often involved deputies, some of them in full SWAT armor.
In a letter to Baca, U.S. Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez wrote that the department’s activities in supporting tough compliance measures against those receiving subsidized housing vouchers were based on “an unsubstantiated and racially stereotypical correlation of race and crime.”
One sheriff’s supervisor, Perez said, told Justice Department officials that he thought all African Americans who recently moved to the Antelope Valley were gang members. Among many problems Perez cited was that deputies accompanied housing inspectors without legal justification and improperly interviewed people and searched homes before individuals understood their rights.
The conduct, he said, had serious consequences for residents, some of whom were forced from their homes and others who were prosecuted for administrative violations of their program contract.
In one case, a deputy sent photographs of luxury vehicles in the garage of one family receiving subsidized housing to an Antelope Valley-based “I Hate Section 8" Facebook page, federal officials found. The family’s home was subsequently vandalized, with “I hate Section 8" followed by a profanity and a racial slur. The family’s son had urine thrown at him by someone who shouted, “You dirty Section 8" and a racial slur. The family moved back to inner-city Los Angeles for fear of more harassment, Perez wrote.
“They treated people here like they had no civil rights,” said attorney Gary Blasi, a UCLA professor of law emeritus who worked on a lawsuit brought by Public Counsel, a nonprofit public interest law firm, on behalf of subsidized housing residents who complained about the inspections.
V. Jesse Smith, president of the Antelope Valley Chapter of the NAACP, said the victims of racial discrimination deserve compensation.
“This [money] will better the lives of a lot of people who have been the victims of injustice,” he said.
Two studies -- one by a sheriff’s sergeant and the other by a Lancaster statistician -- found no link between crime and Section 8 vouchers, according to Perez’s letter. Indeed, the Lancaster analysis asserted that they might keep crime rates lower in some neighborhoods.
Perez credited the Sheriff’s Department with making some reforms that stopped the routine practice of deputies accompanying housing inspectors and introducing new rules that ensure that deputies are present at inspections only when necessary and do not actively take part in inspections.
The Justice Department said the civil rights violations occurred amid a climate of hostility toward Section 8 voucher holders expressed by some Palmdale and Lancaster city officials. Perez wrote that one Palmdale councilman said he wanted to make sure that voucher holders did not “swarm the valley.”
Meanwhile, Lancaster’s mayor publicly complained that it was “unfair” that African Americans receive a disproportionately high percentage of vouchers and that his city should be “waging a war” against the program.
Parris, a veteran civil lawyer, said the Justice Department’s accusations amount to nothing but hot air. “I have yet to see anything actionable In Lancaster,” he said. “I believe the Justice Department is trying to justify its investigation. And, to be frank, it is not there.”
Parris said the federal government has done nothing to help reduce gang violence in his city and he credited Lancaster’s approach to gangs, subsidized housing and other social issues with helping to reduce crime.
Times staff writer Frank Shyong contributed to this report.