Merit Commission gives one-year update, announces plans for moving forward

PALMDALE – A little over a year ago, civil rights organizations and faith-based community leaders in the Antelope Valley united to form the Merit Commission. The move was triggered in part by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s report, which revealed a disproportionate amount of arrests involving African Americans and Latinos.

Monday morning, the Merit Commission held a press conference to update the community on its progress, the ongoing justice department investigation, and its format for future town hall meetings regarding the over arrests of Latino and African Americans in the Antelope Valley.

Darren Parker

Darren Parker

Merit Commission Member Darren Parker said the group held three town hall meetings last year to gather complaints from the community on negative interactions with law enforcement. Parker, who is also chairman of the Antelope Valley Human Relations Commission, said the town hall meetings yielded more than 100 different complaints in three different categories – Section 8, illegal immigration stops, and false arrests or negative interactions with law enforcement.

He said the Merit Commission compiled the information and sent it directly to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Subsequently, the department of justice opened up a wide major probe into the over arrests of African Americans and Latinos here in the Antelope Valley,” said Parker.

Parker said the data compiled from the Merit Commission’s town hall meetings was also used by the lawyers who brought the lawsuit against the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale in June, which claimed Black and Latino families on Section 8 were victims of constant, unbearable harassment at the hands of housing authority investigators, sheriff’s deputies and local politicians.

However, Parker said the Merit Commission is not involved in the Section 8 lawsuit.

“The department of justice has joined into that investigation along with a lawsuit from the NAACP, TCAL [Community Action League], and other community members, which we have no part of,” said Parker. “The other separate investigation that the Department of Justice is running has to do with the over arrests of African Americans and Latinos here, and that is the part that Merit [Commission] is actively involved in.”

Parker said the Justice Department will be in town for investigations from September 26th to 29th, though an exact meeting location and time has not been announced.

“We expect the Justice Department to come out initially to focus on Section 8 issues, but with them coming here it will raise the attention of everyone that’s been affected, whether it’s Section 8 or over arrests,” said Parker. “So we hope to do a meeting two weeks after the Justice Department [visits] in order to be a safety net to catch some of those issues of people who weren’t able to attend the meeting or found out afterwards.”

Parker did not have an exact time and location for the Merit Commission’s next town hall meeting, saying only that it would take place in mid-October and that all complaints and issues gathered at that meeting would be forwarded to the Justice Department.

He said the Justice Department will return again at the end of October to focus exclusively on the over arrests of African Americans and Latinos. Following the second visit by the Justice Department, the Merit Commission will hold more town hall meetings that will involve law enforcement.

“Subsequent town hall meetings will involve the Sheriff’s Department from both the two cities as well as the commander,” said Parker. “We hope to address each of the incidents on a case by case basis and form a working relationship to build better community relations with law enforcement in the Antelope Valley.”

Juan Blanco

Juan Blanco

“We are committed to working with law enforcement to improve community relations as we collectively move forward,” said NAACP President and Merit Commission member Juan Blanco. Blanco also said the community could benefit from an oversight committee to review actions of impropriety by the sheriff’s department and district attorneys.

“There are oversight committees in other communities,” Blanco said. “It’s about time we had one.”

Several other community leaders, who attended or spoke at Monday’s press conference, included: Jackie Contreras & Lillian Gilindo of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Imam Kamal Abdul-Jabbaar, from the Human Relations Commission and the Muslim Community, Bishop Kenja from the Christian Fellowship Church, Bishop Henry Hearns, Pastor of Livingston Cathedral of Worship, and Mario Trullijo, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney and Candidate for County District Attorney 2012.

The Merit Commission also announced community-building tools it had put in place since its formation, including a Fatherhood Program through the Christian Fellowship Church; a Men’s Program through Livingston Cathedral; initiatives by the High Desert Alliance of Black Educators; and commitments to provide legal assistance by the Law Offices of George Jones and Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Mario Trullijo.