TEN­SIONS EASE

In the An­te­lope Val­ley, once- strained re­la­tions be­tween mi­nori­ties and Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment deputies are im­prov­ing

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Cindy Chang

Miguel Coron­ado pulled up to the tile- roofed beige house where he had been hand­cuffed and shoved into a pa­trol car six years be­fore — for telling a girl that she could refuse to talk to the sher­iff ’ s deputy who was ques­tion­ing her.

He be­came an out­spo­ken critic of the Los An­ge­les County Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment and was among those who brought al­le­ga­tions of racially bi­ased polic­ing in the An­te­lope Val­ley to fed­eral author­i­ties.

“I felt like I re­ally hated them,” Coron­ado said of sher­iff ’ s deputies. “I felt like, ‘ What do I have to do to get some re­spect?’ They were ag­gres­sive, bru­tal, in­sen­si­tive and dis­crim­i­na­tory.”

But re­vis­it­ing the quiet Lan­caster sub­di­vi­sion on a re­cent af­ter­noon, he ref lected in­stead on how much things have changed. Res­i­dents rarely call him any­more to com­plain about the Sher­iff ’ s Depart­ment, when he used to get sev- eral com­plaints a day, he said.

Coron­ado and other civil rights ad­vo­cates say the Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment has made sig­nif­i­cant progress in im­prov­ing com­mu­nity re­la­tions in the An­te­lope Val­ley, par­tic­u­larly with African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos. Some of the worst abuses, in­clud­ing raids of sub­si­dized hous­ing re­cip­i­ents, ap­pear to be largely in the past, they said, and lo­cal of­fi­cials are do­ing a bet­ter job lis­ten­ing to con­cerns.

Coron­ado now has the cell­phone num­bers of high- rank­ing sher­iff ’ s of­fi­cials on his speed dial — and he says they pick up when he calls. He sits on Lan­caster’s plan­ning com­mis­sion as an ap­pointee of the mayor.

At a time when the deaths of black men at the hands of po­lice are dom­i­nat­ing na­tional head­lines, law en­force­ment and mi­nor­ity lead­ers in the High Desert sub­urbs

of Los An­ge­les are locked in an in­creas­ingly warm em­brace.

But the ex­tent of the progress can be dif­fi­cult to mea­sure. In the An­te­lope Val­ley’s run- down apart­ment com­plexes, tat­tered sub­di­vi­sions and gravelroad trailer parks, young blacks and Lati­nos still play cat- and- mouse with sher­iff ’ s deputies who as­sume they are up to no good. The mi­nor­ity men say they feel un­fairly tar­geted, while sher­iff ’ s of­fi­cials say ag­gres­sive polic­ing is needed in high­crime ar­eas.

Last month, fed­eral of­fi­cials an­nounced a set­tle­ment that legally binds the Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment to a long list of re­quire­ments, among them that deputies ad­here to ba­sic rules of po­lite­ness.

De­spite the im­prove­ments, and de­spite the elec­tion of a new sher­iff gen­er­ally re­garded as pro­gres­sive, the set­tle­ment is nec­es­sary to en­sure there is no back­slid­ing, said Dar­ren Parker, a lo­cal civil rights ac­tivist.

“We have to put in checks and bal­ances so that af­ter we’re gone, some­body doesn’t sud­denly for­get where we are,” Parker said.

::

The dry, sun­baked ex­panse of the An­te­lope Val­ley was ru­ral and pre­dom­i­nantly white un­til the 1980s, when blacks and Lati­nos be­gan ar­riv­ing from Los An­ge­les.

The new res­i­dents were blamed, some­times in bla­tantly racist terms, for crime and gang prob­lems. The Sec­tion 8 fed­eral hous­ing sub­sidy pro­gram be­came a touch­stone for that racial an­i­mos­ity, with sher­iff ’ s deputies ac­com­pa­ny­ing county hous­ing author­i­ties on mil­i­tary- style sweeps.

In 2010, a sher­iff ’ s deputy posted a provoca­tive photo on the “I Hate Sec­tion 8” Face­book page. The deputy had snapped the photo, of lux­ury cars in the Palm­dale garage of a Sec­tion 8 voucher re­cip­i­ent, while he was con­duct­ing an of­fi­cial com­pli­ance check.

Soon, the home was vandalized with racist graf­fiti. Some­one threw urine at the fam­ily’s son while yelling a racial ep­i­thet. The fam­ily even­tu­ally left town.

“In re­al­ity, the An­te­lope Val­ley was a Fer­gu­son be­fore there was a Fer­gu­son,” said Pharaoh Mitchell, who co­founded an ad­vo­cacy group for mi­nori­ties in the area.

A law­suit by public in­ter­est at­tor­neys helped to end the Sec­tion 8 raids. The law­suit also man­dated monthly meet­ings be­tween com­mu­nity lead­ers and lo­cal of­fi­cials that were the ge­n­e­sis of the im­proved re­la­tions touted by Coron­ado and oth­ers.

In June 2013, af­ter ini­ti­at­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion based on the com­mu­nity lead­ers’ com­plaints, the U. S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice re­leased a re­port con­clud­ing that An­te­lope Val­ley sher­iff ’s deputies il­le­gally tar­geted racial mi­nori­ties.

The re­port, which was the start­ing point for last month’s set­tle­ment, cited the Sec­tion 8 raids and also crit­i­cized deputies for stop­ping mi­nori­ties at a higher rate than whites.

Deputies some­times used un­nec­es­sar­ily harsh tech­niques like throw­ing by­standers in the back seat of pa­trol cars or im­me­di­ately ask­ing blacks and Lati­nos whether they were on pro­ba­tion or pa­role, the re­port said.

By then, the po­lit­i­cal land­scape had al­ready be­gun to change, with the im­prove­ments con­tin­u­ing in the last sev­eral years, sev­eral civil rights ad­vo­cates say.

At a re­cent meet­ing of the Na­tional Assn. for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple, Lt. Randy Harris of the Lan­caster sher­iff ’ s sta­tion spoke to a friendly au­di­ence.

“I want to learn from this group so we don’t have to go through this again,” he said.

::

But in the rougher parts of the An­te­lope Val­ley, some res­i­dents com­plain that sher­iff ’ s deputies con­tinue to sin­gle them out be­cause of their race.

In a Palm­dale neigh­bor­hood of apart­ments, empty lots and worn- look­ing sin­gle- fam­ily homes, Vin­cent King said deputies are less ag­gres­sive than when he first moved to the area from Watts in 2007.

Still, King, 34, said he no longer drives his prized 1987 Chevro­let Monte Carlo, and plans to sell it af­ter be­ing re­peat­edly stopped by deputies.

“I can’t have an Amer­i­can mus­cle car, here in Amer­ica, be­cause I’m black,” he said.

Down the street, a 22year- old nurs­ing stu­dent said deputies of­ten stop him be­cause he f its the stereo­type of a Latino gang mem- ber.

Re­cently, he said, he was walk­ing home from the store with milk for his daugh­ter when deputies stopped him, ask­ing where he was go­ing and whether he was on pro­ba­tion or pa­role. They searched his pock­ets and made him sit on the curb, he said.

“They’re re­ally rude some­times. They’re very ha­rass­ing. They see me walk­ing down the street, and I get pulled over quick,” said the stu­dent, who would give only his mid­dle name, Ruben.

On the law en­force­ment side, Sgt. Steve Owen has worked the streets of Lan­caster for 23 years. His quarry on a re­cent morn­ing: two young black men, who had eyed him sus­pi­ciously when he drove past them ear­lier. He gunned the en­gine of his pa­trol car, jump­ing a curb to zoom across the lawn of an apart­ment com- plex.

The two men darted around a cor­ner into an al­ley, where the car could not fol­low.

“If they had any­thing, they al­ready got rid of it,” Owen said.

“You broke the sprin­kler!” called a woman watch­ing from her door­way as Owen roared back out in re­verse.

In the of­fice of build­ing man­ager Yadira San­ti­ago, Owen apol­o­gized about the sprin­kler. He pressed San­ti­ago for in­for­ma­tion about the two young men — he be­lieved they knew some­thing about a re­cent shoot­ing. San­ti­ago was ea­ger to co­op­er­ate. “I’m glad you’re rid­ing through like that. We need the help,” she said.

Later, Owen said he pur­sued the men to prove to a re­porter and pho­tog­ra­pher that they would run away. He had no le­gal rea­son to stop them, he said, and would not have treated them like sus­pects had he spo­ken with them. “We come out and look for crim­i­nals, look for peo­ple vi­o­lat­ing the law,” Owen said. “It doesn’t mat­ter what color they are.”

Un­der the set­tle­ment with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, the Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment will col­lect sta­tis­tics on stops and searches to de­ter­mine whether any racial groups are be­ing un­fairly treated. The set­tle­ment also in­cludes $ 700,000 to be dis­trib­uted to vic­tims of the Sec­tion 8 raids.

A third of its 150 or so terms have al­ready been ful­filled, ac­cord­ing to sher­iff ’ s of­fi­cials. But it will still bring an un­prece­dented level of out­side scru­tiny to the An­te­lope Val­ley.

In the past, the city and the Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment used ag­gres­sive tac­tics to stop the gang vi­o­lence that was then preva­lent, Lan­caster Mayor R. Rex Par­ris said.

“It re­quired a heavy f ist, but now it’s time to be nice, and we are,” Par­ris said. “Do I think peo­ple’s rights were vi­o­lated? No. Was there strict en­force­ment of the law? Yes.”

Chief An­thony LaBerge, who man­ages pa­trol oper­a­tions in the north­ern part of the county, said the depart­ment has al­ready cut down on book­ing sus­pects for re­sist­ing ar­rest, a tac­tic that was overused and cre­ated un­nec­es­sary an­i­mos­ity.

He ques­tioned an anal­y­sis in the 2013 fed­eral re­port show­ing that African Amer­i­can and Latino pedes­tri­ans were stopped at higher rates than whites and that the cars of African Amer­i­can driv­ers were searched at higher rates. The anal­y­sis did not ac­count for higher crime rates in some mi­nor­ity neigh­bor­hoods where crime sup­pres­sion is most needed, LaBerge said. Still, deputies are be­ing trained not to throw sus­pects in the back seat for rea­sons of con­ve­nience and to ease into any ques­tion­ing about pro­ba­tion or pa­role sta­tus, sher­iff ’ s of­fi­cials said.

“Many of the per­son­nel as­signed here also call it their home,” said Capt. Pat Nel­son, who is in charge of the Lan­caster sher­iff ’ s sta­tion. “Be­cause of that, they have a per­sonal stake in how the Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment is per­ceived and how it does its polic­ing. By and large, we’re on the right track.”

Pho­tog r aphs by Michael Robin­son Chavez Los An­ge­les Times

DEPUTIES check the IDs of peo­ple in a park in Lan­caster. In 2013, the U. S. found deputies in the re­gion il­le­gally tar­geted mi­nori­ties.

CIVIL RIGHTS ad­vo­cate Miguel Coron­ado was once a sharp critic of deputies’ be­hav­ior. Now he says the depart­ment has made progress in im­prov­ing re­la­tions with mi­nori­ties.

Pho­tog r aphs by Michael Robin­son Chavez Los An­ge­les Times

SGT. STEVE OWEN, who has worked in the An­te­lope Val­ley for 23 years, pa­trols a strip mall known for drug deal­ing.

A LAW­SUIT man­dated monthly meet­ings be­tween com­mu­nity lead­ers and off icials. The meet­ings were the ge­n­e­sis of the cur­rent im­proved re­la­tions.

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