CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Coming up in a few minutes, we'll dive a little deeper into what's going on with the abortion debate in Texas. But first, we want to talk about a development that's affecting recipients of housing assistance in Los Angeles County. The U.S. Department of Justice this week ordered LA County and the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, California to pay a total of $12.5 million in damages to residents of subsidized housing. That follows a two-year investigation by the department.
The investigation found officials in those places had harassed and intimidated minority residents who received the federal housing subsidy known as Section 8. But the county and the two cities refuse to pay. Reporter Richard Winton has been covering this for the Los Angeles Times, and he joins us now. Welcome.
RICHARD WINTON: Good morning.
HEADLEE: What launched this investigation to begin with two years ago? Was it complaints from the residents?
WINTON: Yeah, it was essentially complaints from the residents. There was a - it started in August 2011, the investigation, and they did extensive polling and examination and interviewing of people in the Antelope Valley. It's an area about 17 miles north of Los Angeles, in the higher Valley. It's kind of separated from the rest of the region.
HEADLEE: So it's normal for housing officials to make visits to the homes of people who receive Section 8 funding, and make sure that they are abiding by the terms of their contracts in exchange for receiving public assistance. What does the Justice Department say was out of the ordinary or exceptional?
WINTON: Well, and to be very specific here, I mean, we have - they alleged that not only that there was the issues with the housing, there were also issues with pedestrian and vehicle stops by deputies. They were - they basically say that was essentially racially motivated policing, as well as - as well as how the housing was handled, and particularly, harassment of Section 8 residents.
For instance, an example being, typically in Section 8 inspections, one inspector would turn up and take a brief look at a house. Well, here, we had examples of where there were seven or eight people or deputies accompanying the inspector in a house, and then finding other reasons to detain the resident or cite the resident for things.
HEADLEE: And in fact, Thomas Perez, who's the U.S. assistant attorney general, sent a letter to the county sheriff of Los Angeles and detailed very specific instances. What were those?
WINTON: Well, the specific allegations here are pedestrian and vehicle stops that violated the Fourth Amendment, stops that appeared to be motivated by racial bias, the use of unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment - and including on people who were handcuffed - and discrimination against Antelope residents on the base of their race by making housing unavailable, altering the terms and condition of the housing, and coercing and intimidating and interfering with the housing rights.
HEADLEE: And in fact, there was one instance in which a deputy's accused of posting a photo in a Facebook group that's called "I Hate Section 8."
WINTON: Yes, there was a - in 2010, a deputy sent to the Facebook administrator, of a page called "I Hate Section 8," a photo of two Hummers in a garage of a Section 8 resident. This resident apparently allowed a friend of theirs to store some cars in their garage.
Subsequently, there were racial epithets were sprawled across that garage. And urine was thrown on the son of the person. And eventually, they moved out of the area, and this was one of the examples cited. Actually, it's on page two of the letter.
HEADLEE: So why does LA County and these two cities refuse to pay the damages?
WINTON: Well, here - their issue here is - they have made some changes already since this investigation began - but their issue here is, they essentially - well, this is what the Justice Department is demanding - this is much of a negotiation about what - how they'll be overseen, how much they'll pay in compensation.
These things will all be negotiated. So they're not going to immediately just fork over the money.
HEADLEE: And they also claim that they don't know - they have no access to the specific investigation itself, that the Justice Department has kept certain records closed.
WINTON: Yeah. I'm looking here, and sitting in front of me, I have about 50-something-plus page poll, which is written. However, they want to see the actual science behind the allegations there were racial stops. They want to see, specifically, how did they show this? What is the formula they've used? It's been very controversial for the last about 15 years about how can you find or determine that the policing is motivated by race and the science of that. So they want to actually see it, specifically, as well.
The mayor of Lancaster, I've spoken to extensively, has cast some doubts about some of the science. For instance, he says - he argues that he is not surprised that more African-Americans were ticketed for jaywalking in his city. He says they are disproportionally, economically disadvantaged and are more likely to be walking on streets, and a lot of these citations are issued near buses. They are much more likely, he says, to take buses. And he says he wants to actually see all the breakdown numbers before doing anything on this.
HEADLEE: So what happens if the county and cities refuse to pay? What comes next?
WINTON: Oh, well, if they decide not to pay or they can't negotiate this out in some lesser form, they'll - eventually, everyone will end up in court. Now the question is, what's the next stage? If they go to court, they could end up with a forced consent decree with some massive oversight of the sheriff's department and possibly a monitor.
This has happened in other cities. It happened in Los Angeles. We had with the - that was negotiated but essentially after what we had, the Rampart scandal, which was a policing...
WINTON: ...Misconduct scandal, we ended up with an outside - we had a federal judge appoint a monitor, essentially, who then, for the next like six years, basically monitored everything the department did on a quarterly basis, issuing, like, giant audit reports, which is quite odorous and expensive.
HEADLEE: I assume you mean onerous instead of odorous?
WINTON: Yes, yes. Yes, yes.
HEADLEE: Richard Winton is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Thank you so much.
WINTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.