LANCASTER — As the Antelope Valley grapples with a rash of race-related attacks, the Sheriff's Department says union seniority requirements make it difficult to assign more minority deputies to the troubled area.
The department's problem exemplifies obstacles encountered in implementing recommendations made by the county Human Relations Committee more than a year ago to lower racial tensions in the high desert suburbs, a region of dramatic demographic shifts.
Failure to carry out the recommendations has been blamed by some civil rights leaders for the sudden outbreak of racial violence--six incidents in 22 days, beginning with a machete attack on a black teenager July 8 by white youths shouting "white power."
Of the 268 deputies assigned to the Antelope Valley station, 16 are Latino, four black and one of Asian descent, and the other 247 are white, said the station commander, Capt. Mike Aranda, last week.
Efforts to add more minority deputies founder on the seniority rules of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and because the Antelope Valley, isolated from the Los Angeles urban core, is regarded as a desirable assignment, Aranda said.
"We're such a distance from the rest of the world," he said. "It's attractive for personnel who already live here and want to work here too."
Because many minority deputies were hired during diversification campaigns of recent years, they do not have the seniority to advance on a waiting list dominated by longer-serving white deputies, Aranda said.
"My hope is that something could be worked out with the association," he said.
Seniority rules can be overridden "in situations where there's a demonstrated need to fill a spot with a specific skill"--such as language ability--said association spokesman Jeffrey Monical. But the association will not advance minorities over senior white deputies just to meet the Human Relations Committee's recommendations, he said.
"Right now the people in the Antelope Valley are well-served in public safety," he said, arguing that the seniority system in effect channels to the high desert some of the most experienced law enforcement officers in the county.
Racial crimes are reported in many cities across Los Angeles County, but tough economic times and changes in the Valley's demographics have contributed to rising tensions in the Antelope Valley, local civil rights activists say.
The number of jobs in the aerospace industry--long the valley's mainstay--have declined. Meanwhile, large numbers of African Americans and Latinos have moved into the area. The white population of Palmdale, 84% in 1980, was down to 60% last year. African Americans, who made up 3.3% of Lancaster's population in 1980, were 7.2% of the 97,291 residents in 1990.
Although Aranda says there is little he can do about adding more minority deputies, Ron Wakabayashi, executive director of the Human Relations Commission, said there are other steps the department could take to combat the violence.
He applauded Aranda for doubling his gang enforcement detail from seven deputies to 14 and for assigning a deputy to promote racial understanding among students at local high schools.
He also praised the department for the swift arrest of skinhead suspects one day after the assault that began the recent series of incidents. Marcus Cotton, 16, was slashed with a machete, but not seriously injured, and his cousin Angela McKenzie, 17, was spat upon. Two suspects in the attacks, both 16, now face federal criminal charges, and one also faces a state hate-crime charge.
But Wakabayashi added that the department's public relations could have been more effective.
Because deputies had a solid description of the suspects early on, they should have held a news conference, not only to help track down the assailants but to send a strong message to the public that the crime was receiving the highest priority, Wakabayashi said.
The lack of such a public display of urgency could have contributed to the desire for revenge on white victims that appeared to motivate a string of subsequent attacks, he said.
"Anyone who shares in a group identity, or has some anxiety that they might be identified in with the group, starts believing that they might be victimized," Wakabayashi said.
"After a while, their anxiety starts shifting to anger and they're going to want law enforcement to go out and take care of things. I think it's important for them and local officials to clearly demonstrate that they have a strong control of the situation."
The attack on Cotton was followed by five suspected race-related attacks--four of them attacks on whites by African Americans who made reference to skinheads or white racists, deputies said.
Deputies said that in at least two of the incidents, the victims appeared to be skinheads--white youths with shaved scalps who wear military-type attire and are often white supremacists.