L.A. County Settles with the Feds over Sheriff’s Harassment of Minorities

Thursday, April 30, 2015

When the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued Los Angeles County in 2013 for the wretched way its Sheriff’s Department systematically treated minorities in the Antelope Valley cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, it recommended a $12.5 million figure as compensation for the abused.

Earlier this week, the county Board of Supervisors signed off on a settlement that puts aside just $700,000 for people whose civil rights had been violated, with a maximum of $20,000 per victim. The deal, which also includes a list of department reforms for training and use of force, must be approved by a judge.

County Supervisor Michael Antonovich said in a statement, “This settlement is not an indictment of the men and women in uniform assigned to the Antelope Valley,” but, of course, that is exactly what it is.      

The DOJ sent a 46-page letter (pdf) to then-soon-to-be-ousted-Sheriff Lee Baca in 2013 outlining its complaints. They included “pedestrian and vehicle stops that violated the Fourth Amendment, stops that appeared motivated by racial bias,” the “use of unreasonable force” and “a pattern of intimidation and harassment.”

Blacks and Latinos were routinely stopped and searched more frequently than whites, according to the letter, but were often released without being cited, revealing “biased law enforcement.” Deputies regularly detained community members, “including domestic violence victims and minor traffic offenders,” and illegally stuffed them into the backseat of patrol cars.

The Los Angeles Times said the department agreed to stop backseat detentions and would begin all encounters with a cheery introduction. It will also gather data on stops and searches.  

Minorities made up the “vast majority” of people in use-of-force incidents who were handcuffed in violation of the department’s own guidelines. The nation's largest sheriff's department investigated only one misconduct complaint out of 180 made by residents over a one-year period.    

The department admitted no wrong-doing, while agreeing to be monitored by three outside experts for compliance. The county picks up the tab for that, which could cost around $3 million. New Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the department has already implemented a third of the settlement’s 150 provisions.

While the department works on the other two-thirds, it can also ponder a separate DOJ complaint about alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act that is under negotiation.

Allegations include deputies intimidating African Americans and others while accompanying local housing investigators during checks on low-income people who used government vouchers. There were reports of up to nine deputies, with guns drawn, intimidating residents during surprise inspections meant to ensure that the occupants were abiding by government-subsidized housing rules.

This is the second department settlement in recent months. Last December, the county supervisors agreed to federal monitoring of jails, after inmates filed a class-action lawsuit alleging they had been beaten by guards. That settlement also did not involve monetary payments or an admission of responsibility and was signed off on by a judge last week.    

Federal officials indicted 18 former and then-current deputies in December 2013 and charged them with beating jail inmates and visitors, falsifying reports and obstructing the FBI. The five cases included a six-count indictment alleging a broad conspiracy to jack around the FBI during an investigation.

Deputies reportedly found out that an inmate was an FBI informer and hid him from the FBI and U.S. Marshall’s Office, which were trying to fetch him for testimony before a federal grand jury in a civil rights investigation. After deputies failed to convince a judge to issue an order compelling the FBI to release information about its investigation, deputies showed up at an FBI agent’s home and allegedly attempted to extract the information using false allegations that they had an arrest warrant for the agent.  

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

LA Settles Claims That Police Harass Minorities (by Elizabeth Warmerdam, Courthouse News Service)

Los Angeles County Settles Civil Rights Case with Justice Dept. (by Brian Melley and Tami Abdollah, Associated Press)

Antelope Valley Deputies Must Limit Backseat Detentions, Be Polite (by Cindy Chang and Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times)

L.A. Sheriff Denies Federal Claim of Discrimination . . . but Agrees to Stop Doing It (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

United States of America v. County of Los Angeles et al (U.S. District Court for Central District of California) (pdf)

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