The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division announced a sweeping and fairly damning finding that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies in the Antelope Valley had engaged in “a pattern or practice of discriminatory and otherwise unlawful searches and seizures, including the use of unreasonable force.”
Sheriff’s deputies also “engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination against African Americans in violation of the Fair Housing Act,” according to the letter sent to Sheriff Lee Baca on Friday from Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez.
The findings back up what blacks and Latinos in Palmdale and Lancaster have complained about for years. Against a backdrop of two cities hostile to the influx of residents on federal housing assistance — most of whom are black and Latino — county housing investigators and their posses of sheriff’s deputies often showed up at residents’ homes to see if they were complying with the rules of their Section 8 housing voucher program, according to a lawsuit the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People filed a couple of years ago.
The Justice Department was blunt in its assessment, saying that the sheriff’s stations in Lancaster and Palmdale “played a critical role in the campaign against voucher holders in the Antelope Valley, including by intimidating, harassing, and facilitating the termination of voucher holders from the program, both in conjunction with HACoLA investigators and independently.” The letter further said that deputies who targeted African American voucher holders violated the Fair Housing Act.
As grim as the Justice Department’s findings are, it’s encouraging that Lancaster and Palmdale officials, months ago, entered into agreements with civil rights groups to stop what the Justice Department called “hostile messaging” about residents on Section 8. In exchange, the NAACP dropped its lawsuit. Housing investigators are no longer accompanied by sheriff’s deputies on their rounds unless there is a real threat of violence, and in Lancaster, Mayor R. Rex Parris vowed to work with civil rights leaders and change attitudes (starting with his own) about Section 8 residents in the city.
The letter from the Justice Department also commended the sheriff’s department for taking steps to address problems.
But even if city officials and the sheriff’s department have started a good faith effort to change the culture and practices in the Antelope Valley, the important thing is that now the Justice Department will take a hand in devising a plan of action to correct deputies’ conduct. The Justice Department should also probably monitor the progress of those changes. It will be interesting to see how Antelope Valley officials, sheriff’s deputies, and residents met these challenges.