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U.S. Justice Department demands $12.5 million Section 8 settlement


The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials have demanded that Los Angeles County, Lancaster and Palmdale pay $12.5 million to residents who the federal government found were victims of harassment and intimidation in the Antelope Valley, it was reported this week.

The Justice Department last week accused Antelope Valley authorities of conducting a systematic effort to discriminate against African Americans receiving subsidized housing (Section 8) and said that sheriff’s deputies engaged in widespread unlawful searches of homes, improper detention and unreasonable force.

Assistant County Counsel Roger Granbo told the Los Angeles Times that, under the Justice Department’s plan, the money would go to people whose civil rights were violated when deputies and housing inspectors visited their homes to check on whether they were complying with Section 8 rental program requirements.

Federal authorities said they have asked for payment for victims of that discrimination.

“It is not an order to pay,” Granbo said of the Justice Department’s demand for payment. “That’s where they want to start the negotiation. But Granbo says the federal government has failed to look at changes in the way the county handles compliance checks for tenants who qualify for Section 8 housing vouchers.

As part of a January 2012 agreement to settle a discrimination suit brought by the NAACP and other civil rights advocates, Los Angeles County and Palmdale officials agreed to new protocols and training for county workers handling the checks.

They also moved to limit the involvement of sheriff’s deputies only to cases in which county workers needed additional protection—a response to allegations that teams of deputies, sometimes in riot gear, conducted unannounced raids to intimidate families.

“I think we have resolved all of the issues,” Granbo said. “I’m not sure what more can be done.”

The DOJ has not reviewed the process for compliance checks since December 2011, despite multiple requests, according to Granbo.

“We have implored them to come to the county of Los Angeles,” Granbo said.

The move to demand compensation for the victims, is significant, said V. Jesse Smith of the Antelope Valley NAACP following a Tuesday press conference with The Community Action League (TCAL) addressing the DOJ report.

“We are pleased with the report. It validates and affirms what African Americans and Latinos have been complaining about for years. The reported laid it out in detail, what people had experienced,” said Smith, noting that the monetary recommendations added teeth.

Compensation payments would come from the two cities, the county’s Housing authority and the sheriff’s department, he told the newspaper, adding that he already has told federal officials that the county has no intention of paying its share of such a large amount.

If talks on the sum fail, the two sides could end up in court.

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris told The Times his city “isn’t going to pay 10 cents of it,” and Palmdale said in a statement that it had not been asked to be part of a settlement.

Smith called Parris’ comments rhetoric designed to pacify a particular constituency.

“Prior to the DOJ report, Mayor Parris along with the NAACP and TCAL had developed a working relationship. We have been working together . . . on a community advisory council,” said Smith, adding “ I’m more concerned with what the mayor does as opposed to what he says. And based on his actions he has been making an effort to work with the community to address  problems.

“I do not take the rhetoric at face value. The mayor made a commitment to work with us,” said Smith of their behind the meetings, which he said have been particularly fruitful in Lancaster and less so in Palmdale.

Among the results is a pilot program that is currently in development that could help non-violent offenders avoid receiving felonies if they get caught up in the criminal justice system, or get an expungement. It would also help with employment and other services.

Smith said final details for the program has not been totally worked out yet.

Last week, the Justice Department announced preliminary agreements with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to make broad changes to policing in the Antelope Valley and enforcement of Section 8 housing.

The agreements were the result of a two-year civil rights probe which found that the Lancaster and Palmdale sheriff’s stations engaged in a pattern or practice of stops, searches, seizures and excessive force in violation of the Constitution and federal law.

In addition, DOJ investigators found a pattern or practice of discrimination against Blacks in its enforcement of the Housing Choice Voucher Program—Section 8 housing—in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The federal probe of Antelope Valley sheriff’s stations found:

• that Blacks, and to a lesser extent Latinos, are more likely to be stopped and/or searched than Whites, even when controlling for factors other than race, such as crime rates

• the widespread use of unlawful back-seat detentions, which violates the Fourth Amendment and sheriff’s department policy

• a pattern of unreasonable force, including a pattern of the use of force against handcuffed individuals

• a pattern of intimidation and harassment of Black Section 8 residents by sheriff’s deputies, often in conjunction with county housing investigators; and

inadequate implementation of accountability measures to intervene on unconstitutional conduct that allowed these problems to occur.

“We are encouraged by the response of Los Angeles County to our findings,” said Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for the Dog’s Civil Rights Division.

“While our investigation showed significant problems in LASD’s Antelope Valley stations, we are confident that we will be able to reach an agreement that will provide meaningful and sustainable reform,” he said. “We look forward to continuing our positive partnership . . . and believe this work will help restore the community’s confidence in fair, equitable, and effective law enforcement.”

The proposed changes set out in a statement of intent include a revision of the sheriff department’s stop-and-search and use-of-force policies and training, and increased community outreach.

In addition to its investigation of the department, the DOJ investigated the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster to determine whether there has been a systematic effort to discriminate against Blacks.

As a result of the findings, a complaint was filed in federal court against the county of Los Angeles, the Housing Authority, the sheriff’s department, and the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale for alleged violations of federal law.

Through ongoing negotiations, all parties were seeking to avoid contested litigation and resolve the matter in an agreement to be entered as an order of the court, prosecutors said.

In order to give the community clearer understanding of the DOJ report and how the $12.5 million might be distributed, the NAACP and TCAL will host a town hall forum July 10 at 6 p.m.

Smith stressed that this meeting is to hear about the DOJ report only. People who have complaints about mistreatment should call the NAACP office at (661) 222-8144 and leave a message for Shunnon Thomas. You should receive a response within 48 hours.