Police accused of discrimination

A civil rights group says that a special police task force “Community Action Team” harasses African-Americans families

A CONTRA COSTA TIMES report by Cassandra Braun and Simon Read

A civil rights group and a legal advocacy organization are investigating whether the Antioch Police Department is discriminating against African-American families in the subsidized-housing program commonly referred to as Section 8. Public Advocates and Bay Area Legal Aid are looking into assertions that a special police task force known as the Community Action Team is targeting and harassing Section 8 residents in a “concerted campaign” to drive them out of Antioch, representatives from both groups said Wednesday.

“The complaints have had a consistent pattern,” said Elizabeth Voigt, an attorney with Public Advocates, a civil rights advocacy group with offices in San Francisco and Sacramento. “They feel like they’re constantly being watched and police are coming to their homes for things that are not related to legitimate crime enforcement. They are fearful of police and feel their rights have been violated.” Antioch police strongly disputed charges of discrimination or profiling based on race and economic status. Officers on the community task force have acted within the law, Antioch police spokesman Capt. Steve McConnell said. “We think (the allegations) are lopsided and sensational,” McConnell said Wednesday. “We have never targeted African-American residents. All of our investigations are complaint-driven by residents in the area. When a member of the CAT team responds, they have no idea who they’re dealing with.” The residents’ concerns stem from the activities of the department’s Community Action Team, or CAT, a four-officer task force that works closely with city code enforcers and county housing authorities to investigate properties with chronic criminal activity or nuisance complaints. The team was created in July 2006 to address the hot-button issue of blight and “problem” homes in Antioch. Bay Area Legal Aid housing attorney Monique Doryland says that in the past year her group has received a steady number of complaints from Antioch residents who have faced revocation of their housing subsidy voucher. Those challenges were based on recommendations forwarded to the Contra Costa Housing Authority from the CAT, Doryland said. Residents say that they were subjected to illegal searches, surveillance and other unwarranted acts of intimidation. Doryland questions whether police have the authority to tackle noncriminal housing issues. McConnell, however, says that many of the CAT cases involved alleged criminal behavior, including drug activity and parole violations. A number of the investigations subsequently revealed unauthorized tenants living in the homes and other Section 8 violations. “This is not a discrimination issue. It’s a criminal issue,” Councilman Jim Davis said. “If laws are being broken, we have to address that no matter what. At that point, discrimination doesn’t come into play. It’s fairly applied across the board.” Councilman Reggie Moore is waiting to see what the investigation turns up. He said he believes the Antioch Police Department needs to do a better job reaching out to Antioch’s minority community. “In council chambers, I’ve asked Chief Hyde what we’re doing to diversify the police force,” he said. “I think it’s an obligation the council has to the entire community. Any racial intolerance is something I find very unacceptable, and I’d move aggressively to correct it.” Since it began in July 2006, the CAT team has investigated about 200 properties with noise, unkempt yards, criminal activity and other problems, the city’s police department reported. The precise number was not immediately available, but at least half of those were Section 8 rentals. This year, 41 cases have been sent to the housing authority board for review, McConnell said. In a joint request for documents, both advocacy groups requested a vast set of records related to the team’s activities, communications and arrests and citations, among a host of other documents pertaining to the department’s general procedures. Antioch police have 10 days to respond to the request. Meanwhile, McConnell says the CAT team is resuming its activities and is confident that the department stands on solid legal ground.