The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in the Antelope Valley, where deputies have been accused of discriminating against mostly minority residents of government-subsidized housing, officials said Thursday.
The announcement comes after allegations from civil rights lawyers that elected leaders in Lancaster and Palmdale have tried to drive out black and Latino residents in the historically white area.
Residents there have complained of surprise inspections of government-subsidized, or Section 8, housing intended to ensure residents are meeting the terms of their assistance. The checks often involved armed sheriff's deputies, they said, which adds a level of intimidation. Activists have also alleged that authorities have threatened to return with search warrants if tenants do not consent to checks of their homes.
The federal civil rights probe will specifically focus on the Sheriff's Department's Palmdale and Lancaster stations, department spokesman Steve Whitmore said.
Federal officials described the inquiry as a pattern-and-practice investigation. If a pattern of misconduct is found, U.S. officials could seek a court-ordered federal consent decree similar to the one the Los Angeles Police Department operated under after the Rampart corruption scandal. It took nearly a decade for the LAPD to have federal oversight lifted.
"We welcome the investigation. The sheriff has nothing to hide," Whitmore said.
Pattern-and-practice investigations are generally launched after multiple allegations of civil rights abuses in one area.
The Sheriff's Department's interactions with minorities in the Antelope Valley have been questioned before.
Last year, an independent monitor of the Sheriff's Department issued a report that questioned deputies' behavior in Lancaster. The monitor, Merrick Bobb, pointed out that 64% of obstruction-related arrests made by deputies in Lancaster were against blacks, despite the fact that 42% of all arrests involved blacks. The group makes up 17% of the overall population there, according to the report.
Arrests solely related to obstruction charges are often perceived as potential indicators of racial bias.
"There are places within the county where it is strongly disproportionate, and one has to wonder what's going on there," Bobb said at the time.
In one recent high-profile case, a jury awarded $575,000 to a Palmdale apartment manager who said he was beaten by deputies. The manager, Noel Bender, was in charge of an apartment complex with mostly black residents.
After a shooting nearby, deputies had allegedly been harassing residents in the complex. During a 2009 check of the apartment, Bender allegedly interfered with deputies and was arrested.
Bender denied interfering, saying he was cuffed and hit multiple times. The manager, who is white, also said a deputy used a racial slur against him.
Earlier this year, civil rights attorneys sued leaders in Lancaster and Palmdale, accusing them of waging an "unrelenting war" against low-income blacks and Latinos. Attorneys for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People said up to 200 minority families were losing their federal housing assistance each year in the Antelope Valley, many after surprise "compliance checks" by housing authorities and deputies.
City leaders, who contract police services out to the Sheriff's Department, have argued that the inspections had been stepped up because of the public's concerns about crime. Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, who declined to comment on the federal probe, has said crime tends to "cluster around Section 8 housing."
Since Lancaster began its stepped-up enforcement, crime stemming from Section 8 housing units has "dropped dramatically," Parris has said.
Though historically white, Lancaster is now one of the more racially diverse cities in California.
The Sheriff's Department has already enlisted its own watchdog agency, the Office of Independent Review, to create new protocols for handling Section 8 calls, Whitmore said.
Whitmore said Sheriff Lee Baca will attend the news conference announcing the federal probe Friday.
"It is the sheriff's opportunity to tell the public and the people of Los Angeles that this has been taken care of," Whitmore said.