Civil rights activists on Thursday called on Lancaster and Palmdale to end what they say are intimidation and discrimination tactics employed by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies against mostly minority families who are living in Section 8 housing in the desert communities.
The civil rights groups issued their plea in the wake of complaint filed in the fall of 2011 in federal court seeking to end what they called an "unrelenting war" against blacks and Latinos who are receiving federal housing subsidies.
The potential threat of a lawsuit was enough for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week to vote to bar its sheriff’s deputies and county housing investigators from accompanying housing officials from Lancaster and Palmdale on routine Section 8 compliance checks.
“We call on the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale to end the discrimination they’ve perpetrated on Section 8 participants in their two cities for years,” said Catherine Lhamon, director of impact litigation at Public Counsel, the public-interest law firm representing the unnamed plaintiffs in the federal complaint.
“The County has done the best of what government should do, which is to say it will not be party to discrimination," Lhamon said. "We are eager for the cities to step up.”
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris denies racial discrimination and reacted angrily to what he called the county’s “backroom deal” to settle litigation that the body isn’t even a party to. He said the county’s decision will hurt law-abiding families and seniors.
“The meritless settlement by county counsel will drive up costs for everyone and sends the wrong message to the public – that committing housing fraud is acceptable,” he said in a statement. “This proposed settlement is not warranted based on the facts of the case and lets criminals know that they can act with impunity.”
Palmdale city officials will discuss the pending litigation at the next City Council meeting on Feb. 1.
In August the U.S. Justice Department launched in a civil rights investigation to learn whether there was a “pattern or practice” of race-based discriminatory policing by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies stationed in Lancaster and Palmdale.
The DOJ is probing whether deputies have illegally identified through routine traffic stops individuals who use Section 8 vouchers and whether the department used warrantless searches of African-American families’ homes under the pretense of housing authority compliance checks.
“At times, it is alleged that the deputies approach the Section 8 recipient’s home with guns drawn and in full SWAT armor and conduct searches and questioning themselves, unrelated to the housing program,” read a DOJ press release announcing the investigation. “During the course of the investigation of the LASD, the Justice Department will consider all relevant information, particularly the efforts that LASD has undertaken to ensure compliance with federal law.”
The Department of Justice is also looking into whether there is a systematic effort to discriminate against African-Americans and Latinos among officials in Palmdale and Lancaster and the L.A. County’s Housing Authority.
The DOJ has conducted similar probes of state and local law enforcement agencies before - in New York, Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Washington, D.C. and Louisiana.
In response to the federal probe, Sheriff Lee Baca said in a statement that he asked his staff to evaluate its role in assisting Housing Authority investigators.
Baca said the Sheriff’s Department primarily provided security for Housing Authority investigators during their compliance checks, accompanied investigators during probation or parole searches of Section 8 homes, and conducted fraud investigations.
He welcomed the DOJ’s inquiry.
“My support for transparency in the interest of the public requires me to share the Sheriff’s Department’s reports and proposed protocols regarding the issues that may be of concern to the public and the Civil Rights Division,” Baca wrote.
“My office, the Office of Independent Review, and the County’s special counsel will assist the Civil Rights Division in acquiring any additional information requested.”