The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday launched an investigation into how the Sheriff's Department conducted a narcotics-search operation at Los Angeles Trade Tech College in which 33 students, all minorities, were detained.
The Oct. 17 incident has fueled allegations of racial profiling from civil rights groups and sparked changes in the way the Sheriff's Department communicates with the Los Angeles Community College District.
Deputies detained 32 African American students after investigating drug activity on campus for several months. A Latino student videotaping the incident also was detained, according to Sheriff's Department officials. No one was arrested.
A video posted on YouTube.com shows several clusters of black students sitting on campus building steps, surrounded by deputies.
"I will tell you that the sheriff's actions were the worst kind of racial profiling," said Catherine Lhamon, racial justice director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which is investigating the incident. "I am shocked and dismayed that at this stage in our city's history that the sheriff would persist in believing that rounding up every black male student that they could find would be permissible police conduct."
An investigation conducted by the college district, which oversees the trade school, concluded last week that the student roundup constituted racial profiling: using racial or ethnic characteristics to determine whether a person is likely to have committed a crime.
Sheriff Lee Baca said that deputies who conducted the undercover sting operation, without the knowledge of campus officials, said they believed they were observing a narcotics sale in progress. Hoping to keep the suspect in sight, deputies detained all the students surrounding the activity, Baca said.
"The outcome certainly, any way you slice it, ended up being racial profiling," said Marshall "Mark" Drummond, chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District.
The Trade Tech student body is 53% Latino, 31% black, 8% Asian and 6% white, according to community college data.
Baca, whose agency polices the college district's nine campuses, disagreed that the students were detained based on race but acknowledged to the community college's Board of Trustees that the operation was flawed.
"The tactics that were used were done not as a result of bad intentions," Baca told The Times on Tuesday. "They were basically done by people that didn't have the expertise. They were not trained to do this type of work. You can't stop 30 students from going to class and consider that catching the right suspect. But it had nothing to do with race."
In the future, the Sheriff's Department will notify the college district's eight trustees before launching an investigation of alleged illegal activity on campuses, he said. Any such operation would require approval from the district's chancellor, he added.
Baca has offered to meet with the students who were detained.
"They deserve to receive an explanation and an apology for the detention," he said.
The supervisors' move adds their investigating arm, the Office of Independent Review, to the mix.
"We must engage immediately in steps to address the actions of the sheriff's deputies and the policies of the Sheriff's Department," Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke said in a statement she read at the board meeting. "The Sheriff's Department, when practical, must make its operations more transparent, or perhaps better communicate with all parties involved."
The community college district said it has offered counseling to the students involved and set up meetings with faculty, staff, students and community civil rights groups, including the county Human Relations Commission.
"This is not acceptable," Drummond said. "We have to be smarter. We have to think more carefully. We have to be more sensitive. Hasty action in these things can spring nothing but trouble."