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By Sharon Bernstein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Law enforcement officers in suburbs north of Los Angeles illegally subjected black and Latino residents to traffic stops, searches, property seizures and excessive force, a U.S. Justice Department probe found on Friday, although the agencies involved deny discrimination.
The two-year probe looked at alleged harassment of minority residents in Antelope Valley communities by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies and Housing Administration investigators.
The findings released on Friday found the officers engaged in a "pattern of intimidation and harassment" of African-Americans who participate in the federally funded Section 8 affordable housing program in the area, which is a dormitory suburb of Los Angeles.
Both the sheriff's department and the housing authority said in letters released on Friday that they had broken no laws. The housing authority said it had implemented "significant measures to address the alleged discrimination.
The sheriff's department also implemented new procedures, but a spokesman said that was only because "in the spirit of yes, we can do better, the sheriff immediately made some changes."
"We adamantly disagree with the Department of Justice's assertions," said spokesman Steve Whitmore. "We have not discriminated against members of the public."
But Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez wrote in a letter released on Friday that the probe had substantiated allegations of discrimination and abuse.
"Complaints of bias against LASD deputies have merit," Perez wrote in his letter to L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca. "One supervisor stated directly to DOJ officials that he thought all African-Americans who recently moved to the Antelope Valley were gang members."
The letter said the department engaged in a number of illegal and unconstitutional practices, among them repeated raids of the homes of Section 8 recipients, supposedly to find out whether residents were abiding by the terms of the public assistance program.
Deputies also stopped African-American motorists more frequently than whites and were more likely to engage in excessive force when the person they were detaining was black, the letter said.
Latino day laborers were also unlawfully detained as they stood in public places seeking work, the letter said.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis. Editing by Andre Grenon)