The Department of Justice is investigating the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department over allegations that deputies discriminated against subsidized housing residents, officials said Thursday.

Justice officials launched the probe into the nation's largest sheriff's department after minority residents in Lancaster and Palmdale complained of discriminatory practices, sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said.

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.

Sheriff Lee Baca welcomed the investigation and was confident any problems already have been resolved because he had worked with an independent oversight agency to address the issue, Whitmore said.

"Apart from that it appears to be perhaps a waste of money, the sheriff doesn't mind this at all and we are going to fully cooperate," Whitmore said.

A call to Michael Gennaco, who heads the Office of Independent Review, an oversight panel, was not immediately returned.

The Department of Justice planned to announce more details of the probe at a news conference Friday. Officials were not available after hours to provide further details of the case.

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.

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 use force used against minorities during an obstruction arrest than against whites.

Lancaster and Palmdale are cities in the high desert region in north Los Angeles County.


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