Civil rights leaders in the Antelope Valley demanded reforms from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday, claiming 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 sheriff's 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 getting arrested or having their cars confiscated simply because of their race. 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 need 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 people at a press conference tempered their criticisims of local leaders by saying progress has already been made. One example cited was the city of Lancaster renaming and reorienting a commission that had once exclusively targeted residents who were getting government subsidized housing.
Sheriff Lee Baca has declined requests for interview but released a statement Tuesday saying his department “does not condone racial profiling” and asking federal authorities to release the data that supports their findings of racial profiling.
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 got Section 8 subsidies followed the rules. Awarding monetary compensation to the alleged victims of civil rights abuses, he said, would reward some who violated program rules.
“The DOJ had a predetermined conclusion when it started its investigation,” Antonovich said.
Black and Latino activists stressed they wanted to solve the problem and not cast blame. One leader called Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris was called a “good faith” partner. Parris, also an attorney, is now 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 U.S. Attorney’s investigation as unfair.
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 sheriff’s 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 NAACP vice president Cynthia Beverly, whose nonprofit One Way Up works with disadvantaged students throughout the Antelope Valley, said she refused to “sugarcoat it.”
“The discrimination and racism in this community is still here,” Beverly said.
Times staff writer Abby Sewell and Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.