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LA County Sheriff's Department facing federal investigation in subsidized housing bias case
LOS ANGELES (AP) ' The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is the focus of a federal probe over allegations that deputies discriminated against blacks and Hispanics in two high desert cities, especially those in subsidized housing, officials announced Friday.
The Department of Justice will determine whether deputies systematically violated civil rights in Lancaster and Palmdale while conducting warrantless searches ' sometimes with guns drawn ' of blacks at so-called Section 8 housing projects while accompanying housing officials.
The probe of the nation's second-largest sheriff's department also will examine if deputies tried to identify Section 8 residents during routine traffic stops.
Federal officials have drawn no conclusions, but preliminary results indicated the cities appear to have unusually high rates of misdemeanor arrests, particularly of blacks, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tom Perez said at a news conference.
Talking to people in the community, "we heard troubling accounts of allegedly unjustified stops and seizures," he said. "We will be investigating whether there is, indeed, a practice of racially motivated stops and/or arrests. We intend to peel the onion to its core."
If federal officials find any problematic patterns, it could lead to a court-mandated consent decree that would require the Sheriff's Department to adopt changes.
Sheriff Lee Baca said he had not seen any complaints that specific deputies at stations in Lancaster or Palmdale had violated civil rights. However, Baca said he has been fully cooperating with the investigation, which he welcomed along with any complaints from citizens.
While it's important to fight crime at housing projects, "we are not going to enforce the law on the backs of the poor who, in effect, are obeying the law," the sheriff said.
Baca said his father lived in Section 8 housing until his death. The sheriff said he would not tolerate even a single case of racism.
"Civil rights are not a threat to law enforcement but the essence of law enforcement," he said.
Lancaster, with a population 145,000, and neighboring Palmdale, a city of 152,000, are in the Antelope Valley, a Mojave Desert region about an hour's drive north of Los Angeles.
Both cities contract with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services.
In the past decade, the populations swelled as people living in the Los Angeles area moved to cheaper housing, Many were blacks and Hispanics fleeing the gang- and poverty-stricken inner city.
The probe follows a lawsuit filed in June by civil rights advocates. It accused the cities of waging a harassment campaign to discourage low-income blacks and Hispanics from living in the cities. Officials in both cities have denied the allegations.
The lawsuit claimed the cities have targeted minority families with unnecessary sweeps at housing projects and created an advertising campaign to dissuade Section 8 voucher participants from moving there.
The lawsuit does not name the Sheriff's Department as a defendant but notes that deputies accompanied federal housing authority investigators on compliance checks.
Baca said his department has worked with the county Office of Independent Review, an oversight panel, to develop protocols for future interactions with county Housing Authority investigators.
A July 2010 report by the Police Assessment Resource Center found a "seemingly overzealous" use of obstruction charges to arrest black people in the Lancaster area. The same report also found deputies were more likely to use force used against minorities during an obstruction arrest than against whites.
The center is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit police oversight organization headed by Merrick Bobb, who has been retained for many years as special counsel to the county Board of Supervisors to monitor and review the Sheriff's Department.
Bobb and the center issue semiannual reports to the board.
Associated Press writer Robert Jablon contributed to this report.
Watkins can be reached at http://twitter.com/thomaswatkins