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Feds vow to 'peel onion' on bias claims against sheriff's deputies

August 19, 2011 |  1:09 pm

Sheriff Baca on Antelope Valley civil rights probe
An official with the U.S. Department of Justice vowed Friday morning “to peel the onion to its core” on allegations that Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies in the Antelope Valley have harassed minority residents of government-subsidized housing.

Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez said investigators would parse sheriff’s records and arrest data to determine if deputies were “used” to help drive out black and Latino residents of the historically white high desert.

Perez said one investigation focus would be determining if minorities accounted for a disproportionate share of misdemeanor and obstruction arrests. Arrests solely related to obstruction charges are often perceived as potential indicators of racial bias.

A county monitor last year issued a report showing 64% of obstruction-related arrests in Lancaster involved blacks, despite the fact that only 42% of all arrests involved blacks.

“While the rates of felony arrests are similar to elsewhere in the county, the two cities appear to have unusually high rates of misdemeanor arrests, and particularly high rates of arrests of African Americans,” Perez said.

Other investigation focuses would be allegations of racially motivated stops and searches; and identifying subsidized housing residents during routine traffic stops.

Perez also said federal investigators will be determining if deputies, who often accompany housing inspectors, have conducted essentially warrantless searches when checking whether residents who receive government assistance are in compliance with the terms of the program.

The inquiries are part of a federal civil rights probe, known as a pattern-and-practice investigation, officially announced Friday into the sheriff’s Palmdale and Lancaster stations.

If a pattern of misconduct is found, U.S. officials could seek a court-ordered federal consent decree similar to the one the Los Angeles Police Department operated under after the Rampart corruption scandal.

It took nearly a decade for the LAPD to have federal oversight lifted.

Perez, however, was careful to note that the Rampart investigation was broader, focusing on a number of issues throughout the entire department, whereas this probe relates to only a small portion of the sheriff’s jurisdiction.

Sheriff Lee Baca joined Perez at the news conference, vowing to open up his department to federal investigators.

Perez told the media Baca was fully cooperative thus far. In his statements, Baca refused to endorse the notion city officials have presented that government-subsidized, or Section 8, housing areas are hubs for crime.

He did, however, say he was heartened that he knew of no civil rights-related complaints from citizens in the Antelope Valley. His spokesman later explained the stations had received such complaints, but they were “at a certain level that they don’t need his attention yet.”

A group of civil attorneys who recently sued the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster for subsidized-housing discrimination were pleased with the announcement of the federal probe of the sheriff's department.

“We welcome the Department of Justice’s efforts to safeguard fair housing in the Antelope Valley and ensure people can seek a better life for their families free from harassment and fear,” the lawyers said in a joint statement Friday.


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Photo: L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, right, and Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez talk about the investigation into allegations of discrimination. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times