Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies harassed and intimidated blacks, Latinos and other residents in the Antelope Valley, the U.S. Justice Department has concluded after a two-year investigation.
Federal officials found a pattern of sheriff's deputies using unreasonable force, intimidation and "widespread" unlawful detentions and searches. Many of the findings involved residents who received low-income subsidized housing.
The allegations mark another setback for a troubled department that is also the subject of a federal investigation into deputy misconduct and brutality in the jail system.
Sheriff's officials said they are still negotiating with the Department of Justice over a settlement in the Antelope Valley case. But documents released Friday indicate that both sides are seeking a court-enforceable order and an independent monitor who would track the department's progress.
The findings are a vindication for Antelope Valley residents, who have long complained of surprise inspections of government-subsidized, or Section 8, housing. The checks were intended to ensure that residents meet the terms of their assistance. The inspections often involved armed sheriff's deputies, they said, which added a level of intimidation.
"This report confirms what we've been saying all along," said V. Jesse Smith, president of the Antelope Valley chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. "There is a great deal of injustice against blacks and Latinos in this community, and the good thing is that they are on the path to implementing some of these recommendations as we speak."
Civil rights attorney Connie Rice agreed, adding that it was gratifying that the Justice Department was able to expose the alleged misconduct.
"This is stuff like you used to find in the 1950s," Rice said. "It's 2013 in the big city, but when you get out into the rural areas and rural counties, things change. They don't always get the message."
The Justice Department laid out multiple areas in which deputies in the Antelope Valley abused their power:
Blacks, and to a lesser extent Latinos, were more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by deputies, even when controlling for factors other than race. Investigators concluded that deputies made stops "that appear motivated by racial bias."
Deputies commonly and improperly detained people in the back seat of their patrol cars — a tactic that must have a clear justification or else violates the Constitution and sheriff's policy. This kind of treatment was reserved not only for suspects, investigators said. Federal authorities found one instance in which two deputies handcuffed and detained in the back of their patrol car a woman who was the victim of domestic violence. They said there was "no articulated reason" for the treatment.
The department showed a pattern of unreasonable force, even against people who were handcuffed.
Supervisors failed to intervene when deputies were involved in unconstitutional policing. The investigators said the department had good policies against misconduct but found they were not often followed.
The investigators also said city officials in Palmdale and Lancaster expressed hostility toward some residents of subsidized housing. Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said Friday he rejected the criticism.
"It is the most useless decision I have seen. All they do is come down and tell us how bad we did," Parris said. "I expected a lot more, and they are going to have to do a lot more if they want me to sign off on anything.... The idea we are at war with African Americans is not true."
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore also took issue with the findings.
"We disagree with their assessment about us racially profiling," he said. "We've been tracking this since 2000, and our information is completely different."
He added, however, that Sheriff Lee Baca "always believes we can improve."
There are a number of possibilities after federal authorities find a pattern of misconduct in a local law enforcement agency. But based on the documents released Friday, the county's longtime monitor of the Sheriff's Department, Merrick Bobb, said it appears both sides are moving toward a consent decree. Whitmore, however, said it's too early to know if a decree will be issued.
Under a decree, both sides agree to a set of reforms, a federal judge signs off on the agreement, and a monitor is appointed to make sure the local agency follows through and reports those findings back to the judge.
The Los Angeles Police Department operated under such a decree after the Rampart corruption scandal, and it took about a decade in that case for federal oversight to be lifted.
Consent decrees are not uncommon. More recently, the police in Seattle entered into one after that agency was found to have a problem with excessive force.
Law enforcement agencies, however, do bristle under that kind of burdensome, and sometimes prolonged, federal scrutiny.
"Officers don't like it because they don't like someone looking over their shoulder; they don't like the stigma," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor.
Levenson said that in this case, any consent decree would probably be much narrower in scope than the one the LAPD faced.
Federal authorities have more specific findings of wrongdoing here, and the problems are focused in the Antelope Valley, just one portion of the sheriff's sprawling jurisdiction that spans three-fourths of the county.
Other, less burdensome, settlements could involve memorandums of understanding or agreement in which the two sides also agree on a set of reforms but could possibly do so without a monitor watching over the local agency.
Those agreements typically are weaker, said Bobb, a county-appointed monitor of the Sheriff's Department and the court-appointed consent decree monitor in Seattle.
Under a consent decree, if the local agency does not live up to its promises, the feds can take it to court, and a judge can find the agency to be in contempt — which could result in a fine, or a court order.
Without a consent decree, federal authorities would have to successfully bring a new legal action in order to force the local agency to comply.