With affordable housing and plenty of open space, the sun-scorched high desert of north Los Angeles County has long been a draw for some families looking to escape urban grit for a safe place to raise kids.
But some minority residents who tried to make that fresh start in Lancaster and Palmdale say they were met with discrimination by law enforcement and government officials.
On Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was investigating claims that deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department discriminated against blacks and Latinos, especially those living in subsidized housing.
"Every time I look up, the police are over here," Palmdale resident Doriann Johnson said. "They think everybody is suspects. It's all day, every day."
Justice officials will determine if deputies violated the civil rights of residents while conducting warrantless searches _ sometimes with guns drawn _ at housing projects while accompanying housing officials on inspections.
The probe of the nation's largest sheriff's department also will examine whether deputies tried to identify residents of subsidized housing during routine traffic stops in the region about an hour's drive north of Los Angeles.
"I don't see them pull any Caucasians over with their mohawks and big-hoop earrings," said Norris Carter, 26, who claimed he had been arrested after an unjustified traffic stop and manhandled by a deputy who threw him to the ground and left him on hot pavement.
Federal officials have drawn no conclusions, but preliminary results indicated the cities appear to have unusually high rates of misdemeanor arrests, particularly of blacks, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tom Perez said at a news conference.
Talking to people in the community, "we heard troubling accounts of allegedly unjustified stops and seizures," he said. "We will be investigating whether there is, indeed, a practice of racially motivated stops and/or arrests. We intend to peel the onion to its core."
Both cities contract with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services. 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.
Sheriff Lee Baca said he had not seen any complaints that specific deputies at stations in Lancaster or Palmdale had violated civil rights. However, Baca said he has been fully cooperating with the investigation, which he welcomed along with any complaints from citizens.
While it's important to fight crime at housing projects, "we are not going to enforce the law on the backs of the poor who, in effect, are obeying the law," the sheriff said. "Civil rights are not a threat to law enforcement but the essence of law enforcement."
Street after street in Lancaster and Palmdale is lined with beige or salmon-pink apartment buildings advertising cheap rents, zero down payments and sometimes the option of using housing subsidies.
Sitting on front lawns and porches to escape the summer heat inside their homes, some people said they were fed up.
Deanna Allen said she lost her six-bedroom, subsidized housing after her 16-year-old son came to visit her, an apparent violation of his probation in a criminal case. The housing had cost her only $375 a month, with the government picking up the remainder of the $2,000 tab.
"They came with probation officers and five or six police," Allen said of her encounter with authorities.
The discrimination issue has been simmering for years, with residents saying things took a turn for the worst after R. Rex Parris was elected mayor of Lancaster in 2008. They claim he bumped minority members from city panels and boards, and embarked on a systematic crackdown on residents of subsidized housing, often having deputies accompany housing officers on compliance checks.
"There is a concerted effort among elected officials in Palmdale and Lancaster to do ethnic cleansing," said Jesse Smith, a board member of the Community Action League, a plaintiff in a June civil rights lawsuit filed against the two cities. Officials in both cities have denied the allegations.
Palmdale Mayor James Ledford Jr. said the city takes pride in its diversity. Since he took office in 1992, he has seen his city evolve from a mainly white town to one where more than 50 percent of residents are Latino.
"Inclusion has always been my mantra," he said. "We absolutely would never stand for what I am hearing is being investigated."
Ledford said he was not aware of any racial concerns and urged residents to come to City Council meetings if they had issues.
Parris did not return multiple calls seeking comment. Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for Lancaster, said the city had no comment.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district spans the cities, called the federal investigation overkill.
"Inquiries should be based on compelling evidence and facts, not grandstanding," he said in a statement that also called the allegations absurd, and noted that 86 percent of the subsidy recipients in Lancaster and Palmdale are minorities.
Lancaster has a population of 145,000, while neighboring Palmdale is a city of 152,000.
The civil rights lawsuit claimed the cities have targeted minority families with unnecessary sweeps at housing complexes and created an advertising campaign to dissuade voucher participants from moving there.
The lawsuit does not name the Sheriff's Department as a defendant but notes that deputies accompanied federal housing authority investigators on compliance checks.
Baca said his department has worked with the county Office of Independent Review, an oversight panel, to develop protocols for future interactions with county Housing Authority investigators.
Michael Gennaco, who heads the review board, said lines may have been blurred in the past between housing enforcement and regular policing, and deputies needed better guidance.
"If the DOJ identifies other issues, bring it on," he said.
A July 2010 report by the Police Assessment Resource Center found a "seemingly overzealous" use of obstruction charges to arrest black people in the Lancaster area. The same report also found deputies were more likely to use force used against minorities during an obstruction arrest than against whites.
The center is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit police oversight organization headed by Merrick Bobb, who has been retained for many years as special counsel to the county Board of Supervisors to monitor and review the Sheriff's Department.
Bobb and the center issue semiannual reports to the board.
Associated Press writer Robert Jablon contributed to this report.
Watkins can be reached at http://twitter.com/thomaswatkins