Civil rights leaders in the Antelope Valley demanded reforms from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on Tuesday, charging that racially biased policing has left residents living in fear.
The U.S. Department of Justice last week found that local authorities conducted a systematic effort to discriminate against African Americans who received low-income subsidized housing and that deputies engaged in widespread unlawful searches of homes, improper detentions and unreasonable force.
Federal officials are demanding $12.5 million in payments to residents who the federal government found were victims of harassment and intimidation.
The civil rights leaders, gathered at the Antelope Valley Courthouse, applauded that demand for payment. But "money can never take away the hurt and pain that these people have experienced," said V. Jessie Smith, president of the Antelope Valley chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
The leaders described a climate in which African Americans and Latinos lived in constant fear of being arrested or having their cars confiscated because of their ethnicity. They asked the Sheriff's Department to form a citizen's review board and to remove the "rogue individuals" who mistreated blacks and Latinos.
"Our beloved Antelope Valley needs surgery to remove this cancer," said Pharaoh Mitchell, president of the Community Action League, a local advocacy group that helped with the federal investigation.
But many of those in attendance at the news conference tempered their criticism of local leaders by saying that progress has been made. One example cited was the city of Lancaster renaming and reorienting a commission that had once exclusively targeted residents who were receiving government subsidized housing. And when a shooting involving a black or Latino victim occurs, Smith says, sheriff's officials make efforts to keep him informed.
"That communication is happening now and that didn't before," Smith said.
Sheriff Lee Baca has declined requests for an interview but released a statement Tuesday saying that his department "does not condone racial profiling" and asking federal authorities to release the data that support their findings of racial profiling.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes the Antelope Valley, also took aim at the federal findings Tuesday.
He said in a statement that the enforcement program was intended to make sure that those who received Section 8 subsidies followed the rules.
Awarding monetary compensation to the alleged victims of civil rights abuses, he said, would reward some who had violated program rules.
"The DOJ had a predetermined conclusion when it started its investigation," Antonovich said.
Black and Latino activists emphasized that they wanted to solve the problem and not cast blame. Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris was called a "good faith" partner by one leader. Parris, who is an attorney, is representing the NAACP in a suit against the city of Palmdale alleging that the city's election process disenfranchises black and Latino voters. Parris has also criticized the Department of Justice's findings as unfair.
Bishop Henry Hearns, a pastor and the first African American mayor of Lancaster, said the Justice Department's report had "great truth" in it, recalling a death threat he received when he ran for Lancaster City Council in the 1990s. But Hearns stopped short of calling the findings a victory. Many deputies are his neighbors and attend his church, and he said they were good people.
"It's not a victory until this community is healed," Hearns said.
But Antelope Valley NAACP Vice President Cynthia Beverly, whose nonprofit One Way Up works with disadvantaged students throughout the area, said she refused to "sugarcoat it."
"The discrimination and racism in this community is still here," Beverly said.
Times staff writers Robert Faturechi and Abby Sewell contributed to this report.