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LA County agrees to end racial discrimination in the Antelope Valley

City of Palmdale, California.
City of Palmdale
City of Palmdale, California.

Years after startling allegations emerged that sheriff's deputies were helping officials in the Antelope Valley harass low income blacks and Latinos, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a lengthy agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice Tuesday to end the federal probe.

As part of the agreement, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department will be monitored by a team of policing experts as they re-train deputies assigned to the Antelope Valley and draw up new protocols to hold them accountable.

The county will also pay $700,000 in penalties to people harmed by discrimination and a $25,000 fine to the federal government.

"I do not view this agreement as a set of mandates, but rather as a set of opportunities that will enable the LASD to enhance our knowledge, improve our training, and raise the bar even higher in regard to our policies and practices," Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a written statement.

He said the department has already implemented a third of the 150 changes federal officials were seeking.

The agreement was approved in closed session by a vote of 4-1, with Mark Ridley-Thomas casting the dissenting vote.

Federal intervention in the Antelope Valley began in 2013, when the U.S. Department of Justice wrote the county a letter claiming sheriff's deputies there "engaged in a pattern or practice of stops, searches, and seizures and excessive force in violation of the Constitution and federal law." 

Much of the alleged abuse occurred during inspections of federally subsidized rental properties for low-income tenants.

According to the lawsuit, local officials in Palmdale and Lancaster teamed up with sheriff's deputies and inspectors from the Housing Authority of L.A. County to intimidate African Americans and Latinos who chose to live in those communities. 

"This isn't the first area of the country where this sort of hostility to predominantly African American and minority Section 8 tenants occurred, but it was probably the most extreme," said UCLA Law Professor Gary Blasi, who represented Antelope Valley residents in a parallel lawsuit against the county.

That lawsuit settled in 2012 and resulted in an agreement that local officials would work with local civil rights leaders to improve relations between law enforcement and Section 8 tenants.

Blasi said the trouble peaked in 2007, when the housing crash reduced rents in Palmdale and Lancaster.

Participants in the federally funded Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8, started moving to the area from Los Angeles in higher numbers.

"They could get better housing there, in what was perceived to be a safer neighborhood, with better schools," Blasi said.

Already, Palmdale and Lancaster had undergone changes. From 1990-2010, the African American population doubled in Lancaster and tripled in Palmdale. The number of African American voucher holders also increased.

"The response was rather extreme," Blasi said.

According to the DOJ's letter, some local residents took issue with the growing African American population, writing on social media about the neighborhood "growing darker" and "the creeping darkness." A Facebook page titled "I Hate Section 8" appeared. In 2010, the Antelope Valley had more hate crimes than any other area of the county.

Some local officials sympathized with the sentiment and "repeatedly expressed hostility towards certain types of Section 8 voucher holders," the letter said.

V. Jesse Smith, one of the original plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit, said he's seen an improvement in the relationship between the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and the black community.

He was one of the original plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit that settled in 2012 and one of the founders of a group to ease racial tensions there, called Community Action League.

"If an incident takes place in the community involving racial profiling or an African American or Latino being shot, I get a call," Smith said. Sheriff's officials provide details and a forum for questions he said. "People ask me why we haven't had a Ferguson here, and that's why."

The DOJ took up the issue in 2013, saying things had improved, but not enough. Federal officials set their sights on monetary penalties, as well as new trainings and protocols for sheriff's deputies and housing authority inspectors. 

Smith said the DOJ involvement has pushed the need to create a cultural shift in the Antelope Valley.

"It further strengthens our point of view that African Americans and Latinos were the victims of racism," he said. "We had been saying that over and over and over again. Now the Department of Justice has recognized it."

This story has been updated