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Justice Department Investigates Civil Rights Violations in City of Bell

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On top of local and state investigations, the city of Bell is now being investigated by the federal Justice Department over the possibility that its exorbitant towing and retrieval fee policies violated its citizens civil rights.

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Details from the L.A. Times on the embattled city government's latest legal troubles:

Law enforcement sources told The Times that the investigation is looking at whether Bell officials violated the civil rights of Latino residents by aggressively towing cars and charging residents exorbitant fees to get their vehicles back.

Federal officials are also looking into complaints about other ways the city tried to boost revenues, including through aggressive code enforcement, the sources said....Bell charges $300 for unlicensed motorists to retrieve their cars, triple what Los Angeles County and neighboring cities charge....

if officials find wrongdoing, the goal would be to punish those responsible and not to establish federal oversight overBell or the Bell Police Department.....

Bell police officers have admitted spending lots of time targeting younger looking drivers in junky looking cars hoping to find unlicensed drivers so they can then impound the vehicles. The city of Bell has been the topic of lots of negative press attention lately over the exorbitantly high salaries paid to city officials.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo professor Victor Valle says that small California towns have a long history of corruption, often manifesting in using state redevelopment money to aid private well-connected interests. From an L.A. Times story on Valle's research:

California redevelopment agencies have their origins in a 1950s state law and in the political culture that dominated California during its suburban boom. Valle's new book, "City of Industry: Genealogies of Power in Southern California," describes the birth of this culture in Industry.

Founded in 1957, the City of Industry has never had more than 800 residents. But in the late 20th century it received hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax dollars redirected for redevelopment.

By the 1970s, Valle writes, "Industry was no longer just a city; it was now a huge redevelopment mill, the largest in California, perhaps the nation." A few men and their families got rich.

Valle's account of Industry's founding and its evolution into a kind of playground for developers echoes the modern-day account of the goings-on in Bell, where Rizzo and company won themselves the power to raise their salaries in a tainted election in which fewer than 400 people voted.

L.A. Observed on how local Spanish-language media broke the Bell police impound abuse story. Past City of Angles blogging on Bell's legal troubles.

(Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

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