Assistant Atty. Gen. Tom Perez speaks at a news conference about the federal… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
A top official with the U.S. Department of Justice vowed Friday "to peel the onion to its core" regarding allegations that Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies in the Antelope Valley have harassed minority residents of government-subsidized housing.
Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez said investigators would parse Sheriff's Department records and arrest data to determine if deputies were "used" in an alleged effort to drive out black and Latino residents of historically white Palmdale and Lancaster.
Perez said the investigation would focus, in part, on determining whether minorities accounted for a disproportionate share of misdemeanor and obstruction arrests. Arrests solely related to obstruction charges are seen as potential indicators of racial bias.
A county monitor last year issued a report showing that 64% of obstruction-related arrests in Lancaster involved blacks, while only 42% of all arrests involved blacks.
"While the rates of felony arrests are similar to elsewhere in the county, the two cities appear to have unusually high rates of misdemeanor arrests and particularly high rates of arrests of African Americans," Perez said.
Investigators also will look into allegations of racially motivated stops and searches and improper attempts to identify subsidized-housing residents during routine traffic stops.
Perez said federal investigators will probe whether deputies, who often accompany housing inspectors, have conducted essentially warrantless searches when checking whether government-assistance recipients are in compliance with the terms of the housing program, known as Section 8.
The inquiries are part of a federal civil rights probe, known as a pattern-and-practice investigation, officially announced Friday in the sheriff's Palmdale and Lancaster stations. 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.
Perez was careful to note that the Rampart investigation was more broad, focusing on a number of issues throughout the department, whereas this probe relates to only a small portion of the sheriff's jurisdiction.
Sheriff Lee Baca joined Perez at the news conference, vowing to open his department to federal investigators. Perez said Baca has been fully cooperative.
City officials in Palmdale and Lancaster have argued that intensified checks of Section 8 housing areas are warranted because the residences are hubs for crime.
In his statements, Baca refused to endorse that notion.
He did, however, say he knew of no civil rights-related complaints from citizens in the Antelope Valley. His spokesman later explained that the stations had received such complaints, but they were "at a certain level that they don't need his attention yet."
The announcement of the federal probe was welcome news to recipients of Section 8 housing assistance and local activists.
Shanna Blackburn, who lived in Section 8 housing in Palmdale, said she was "glad that something is being done.... It's just been totally discrimination, totally harassment."
The 37-year-old said armed sheriff's deputies showed up at her door four years ago. It was early morning and she was out taking her younger children to school. Her 17-year-old son was at home. Deputies accused him of being a gang member and raided Blackburn's home in search of evidence to confirm that, she said.
They confiscated Blackburn's computer and took her son, leaving a search warrant on her kitchen counter.
Blackburn insisted that her son was a good student and had never been in trouble. Deputies found nothing in the raid and her son was never charged, Blackburn said. But three months later, Blackburn got notice that her Section 8 benefits were being cut off.
"I've been trying to get help, trying to get my benefits back, but we've never gotten any help," she said. The mother of three said she hoped the federal probe might get her "some justice."
The Sheriff's Department's official watchdog, the Office of Independent Review, has been working with the department to implement new policies that would better define what deputies are allowed to do when it comes to housing checks.
"The deputies just didn't have a clear idea of what their role should be," said Michael Gennaco, the watchdog agency's chief. "Who's getting consent [to enter] the house? Should the deputies get separate consent? Yes.... Were they doing housing enforcement where when they're just supposed to be in a support role?... They probably were."