LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to pay out $725,000 in victims’ compensation and civil penalties in a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department over allegations that sheriff’s officials systematically targeted racial minorities in the Antelope Valley.
The board’s closed session vote was 4-1 — with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas dissenting.
Under the legal agreement, the Sheriff’s Department does not admit or agree with the DOJ’s findings, but Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the settlement would allow his department to build on progress it has already made as it “seek(s) to strengthen the bonds of trust with the community we serve in the Antelope Valley.”
The agreement requires the department to provide “bias-free policing” and to train its deputies on stops, searches and detention so that they do not make arbitrary searches and only make stops warranted by “reasonable suspicion.” That suspicion cannot be based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or perceived immigration status.
The Justice Department initially had demanded that the county and cities of Lancaster and Palmdale pay $12.5 million to residents whose rights were violated.
The final settlement calls for $700,000 to be placed into a settlement fund for victims of discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Another $25,000 must be paid to the federal government as a civil penalty.
Federal officials accused the county and the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale in 2013, after a two-year investigation, of waging a campaign of discrimination against black residents, particularly those living in low-income subsidized housing.
Federal officials said some sheriff’s personnel in the Antelope Valley had engaged in a “pattern or practice of stops, searches and seizures and excessive force in violation of the Constitution and federal law.”
Investigators also found discrimination against African-Americans in violation of the Fair Housing Act. That discrimination often took the form of teams of armed sheriff’s deputies accompanying county housing agency investigators on surprise inspections of Section 8 housing, looking for violations of housing rules.
Tenants told stories of being intimidated by as many as 10 armed deputies and Public Counsel said the crackdown created a climate of fear and hostility. Some officials at the time argued the compliance checks were needed to root out abuses in the program.
In 2012, the county settled a suit brought by the NAACP and other civil rights organizations charging discrimination against residents of federally subsidized housing. Under that earlier settlement, the Sheriff’s Department put a moratorium on “enhanced investigation agreements” with Palmdale and Lancaster and vowed to retrain deputies on the rights of Section 8 tenants.
McDonnell said in a prepared statement that his department has already implemented a third of the approximately 150 requirements under the new DOJ agreement.
“While much more work is ahead of us, this agreement highlights the positive strides the committed men and women of this department have already made on so many fronts — including training in regard to constitutional law and racial profiling awareness, practices related to Section 8 housing compliance checks and policies regarding traffic stops, arrests and detentions,” McDonnell said.
Other requirements under the DOJ settlement mandate community engagement and outreach efforts, including informing residents of their right to refuse searches.
The Sheriff’s Department must also ensure that investigations by housing authorities are not being used “to harass residents in their homes or motivate residents to relocate.”
The 57-page agreement also directs the department to revise its use-of-force policies to clarify that deputies can use force only as a last resort and not against individuals “who may be exhibiting resistive behavior, but who are under control and do not pose a threat to the public safety, themselves, or to other deputies.” [Read the settlement agreement here.]
Deputies will also be prohibited from threatening or intimidating anyone who is taking photos or video of police activities.
“We are confident that this settlement represents a commitment by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to respect the rights of residents and promote mutual confidence between law enforcement and the community,” said Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division.
“This agreement puts in place a structure that will foster lawful, bias-free policing in the Antelope Valley, and ensures compensation for persons charmed by past unlawful conduct.
“We look forward to continuing our positive partnership with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to implement the terms of this settlement agreement and to help restore the community’s confidence in fair, equitable, and effective law enforcement.”
[Information via City News Service.]
Previous related story: Civil rights leaders react to DOJ findings, call for citizens review board