Sunset in Lancaster, Calif.
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is the focus of a federal probe over allegations that deputies discriminated against subsidized housing residents in two high desert cities, officials said.
U.S. Department of Justice officials launched the probe of the nation's largest sheriff's department after minority residents in Lancaster and Palmdale complained of discriminatory practices, sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Thursday.
The Department of Justice planned to announce more details of the investigation at a news conference Friday.
In remarks prepared for the press conference, Sheriff Lee Baca welcomed the investigation and pledged transparency.
"Poverty and crime in the same place is a formula for social failure," he said. "Poor people are entitled to live in peace. Any attention I can bring to our poor citizens is important and will challenge all of us to be more charitable. Civil rights are not a threat to law enforcement but the essence of law enforcement."
In June, Black and Latino families filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Lancaster and Palmdale, claiming the cities tried to prevent them from using federal housing vouchers.
The lawsuit does not name the Sheriff's Department as a defendant but alleges that deputies conducted sweeps against residents and intimidated them.
The Sheriff's Department provides police services for the two cities, which do not have their own police departments.
Baca said in his prepared statement that even though the department wasn't named in the residents' lawsuit, he asked his staff to determine what role his deputies had.
"That role has primarily consisted of providing security for Housing Authority investigators during their compliance checks, allowing investigators to accompany deputies during probation or parole searches of Section 8 homes and conducting fraud investigations," he said.
The sheriff said his department has worked with the county Office of Independent Review, an oversight panel, to develop protocols for future interactions with Housing Authority investigators.
A call to Michael Gennaco, who heads the Office of Independent Review, was not immediately returned.
If federal officials find any problematic patterns, it could lead to a court-mandated consent decree that would require the Sheriff's Department to adopt changes.
Lancaster, population 145,000, and neighboring Palmdale, a city of 152,000, are in the Antelope Valley, a Mojave Desert region about an hour's drive north of Los Angeles.
Associated Press writer Robert Jablon contributed to this report.
Watkins can be reached at http://twitter.com/thomaswatkins