The Department of Justice announced an investigation into allegations of racial discrimination by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department on Friday. Deputies in the Antelope Valley, specifically in the historically white cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, have been repeatedly accused of unwarranted stops and searches of black and Latino residents of government subsidized housing, according to the Associated Press.
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department is accused of attempting to identify and harass residents of subsidized housing in the region through unjustified but routine traffic stops. Additionally, the Justice Department wants to determine whether warrantless searches of housing projects by LASD deputies violated the civil rights of their low-income residents, according to AP.
These residents, many of whom receive assistance from the federal government through Section 8 or Housing Choice vouchers, have protested surprise inspections of their homes by housing authorities who are accompanied by armed sheriff's deputies. Inspections like these are intended to make sure that the terms of assistance are being met by recipients, but are often used as an opportunity to conduct illegal searches and seizures. This unwarranted policing has many concerned that the sheriff's department and city officials are operating with a dangerous systemic bias against residents of color.
Joe Brown, president of the Pasadena chapter of the NAACP, believes the profiling is not the result of poor individual policing, but rather a sign of top-down discriminatory practices. He explained that as the price of real estate in cities like Pasadena began to rise, places like Lancaster and Palmdale, with affordable housing more readily available, began to look attractive to lower-income people of color. Because of public transportation, people could live in these outlying distant communities yet still make the commute back to more central areas of Los Angeles for work. Brown charges that Lancaster's mayor, R. Rex Parris, has worked to turn his city back into the white haven it once was by ordering the sheriff to harass people in public housing.
"It's really about economics, but the city's mayor has made it about race," said Brown.
The Los Angeles Times points out that up to 200 families of color in the Antelope Valley region lose their federal housing assistance each year, most after surprise "compliance checks" administered by housing authorities and armed deputies.
According to a 2010 study by the Police Assessment Resource Center, an independent watchdog organization, black residents made up 64 percent of all discretionary arrests--the sort that grow out of charges like disturbing the peace or hostility to an officer--made by LASD deputies in Lancaster. Arrests based only on these sorts of discretionary charges are often seen as monitors of racial bias by a law-enforcement agency.
"We need to stop and question that level of disproportionality and try to figure out what is going on. Raising questions of racial bias is certainly pertinent here when you see these types of statistics," said Niaz Kasravi, the senior manager for law enforcement accountability in the NAACP's national office.
Kasravi says that correcting the national problem of racial profiling relies on establishing widespread standards and measures. "It would be much easier to understand what's going on if we had some sort of national statistics," Kasravi explained. "We know racial profiling exists. It's a reality ... but it's very difficult to prove without any real measures in place, laws that require us on a national and local scale to collect data, and laws that will hold officers who violate measures accountable. That's exactly what's needed before we can begin to see an end to this problem."
Brown has hope that the Justice Department's L.A. investigation will change institutionalized bias of law enforcement agencies all over the country. "It will send a message that you cannot target any particular group because of their income," he said. But Kasravi stresses that the devil is in the details. "If the DOJ finds discrimination, is it actually going to issue recommendations which will hold those who are violating policies and discriminating against people of color accountable effectively?" she asks. "There is potential, but its a matter of how it plays out."