Antioch City, Policy Sued for Discrimination

Thursday, May 15, 2008
Simon Read
Contra Costa Times

The Antioch Police Department has been named in a federal lawsuit alleging the department's Community Action Team unfairly targets African-American families enrolled in the subsidized-housing program known as Section 8.

Filed in U.S. District Court earlier this month by Bay Area Legal Aid - a civil legal service for low-income families - the suit alleges the city and police department are engaged in a "concerted and unlawful campaign to seek evidence which could lead to the termination of participants' Section 8 voucher benefits."

Four individuals and a group of Section 8 families are named as plaintiffs. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

Although city officials had not yet been served with the suit, City Manager Jim Jakel dismissed the allegations as "untrue."

"It is the police department's duty to respond to community calls for service and to focus its efforts where it can be most effective to make Antioch safer," he said. "Neighborhood complaints and reported crimes dictate what properties and individuals are the focus of the CAT team's response."

Formed in July 2006, the Community Action Team investigates problem properties that adversely affect neighborhoods and assists the Contra Costa County Housing Authority in monitoring Antioch's subsidized housing.

In December, Bay Area Legal Aid and Public Advocates - a civil rights advocacy group - issued a 41-page report that said black families are four times more likely to be scrutinized by the team than are white families. The team is not "race neutral" in its enforcement of housing laws, and the team interferes with the housing rights of law-abiding black families, according to the report.

Bay Area Legal Aid staff attorney David Levin said his organization met with the city in March to try to avert legal action.

"The city decided to terminate those talks," he said. "Our clients really had no other alternative to protect their civil rights than to seek this hearing in federal court."

City Attorney Lynn Tracy Nerland said Antioch tried to bring both sides to the table.

"It was actually the city that initiated the process and the conversations that led to the meeting in March," she said. "Eventually, we just questioned how fruitful it was going to be with the continual specter of lawsuits and attorney fees."

Because the city had not yet seen the suit, officials were unable to comment on specific allegations.

"Usually, we get served and see the lawsuit before reporters," Nerland said. "The legal process doesn't formally begin until the papers are served."

The lawsuit alleges members of the Community Action Team unlawfully searched homes and made moves to terminate Section 8 benefits for certain recipients without proper cause.

"This case is about our clients and their fair housing rights to live in Antioch," Levin said. "Our clients were facing termination of their Section 8 vouchers and the possible loss of their family home. They came to Bay Area Legal Aid for help."

There are about 1,500 Section 8 homes in Antioch, according to city numbers. Officials said the team responds to citizens' calls and complaints regarding specific properties, whether they be rentals or owner-occupied.

Police logs reviewed by the Times in September showed the team responding to issues reported by neighbors, landlords and the Contra Costa Housing Authority. Many complaints read the same, dealing with loud parties, unruly juveniles, fights - some involving weapons - and piled-up trash.

In one instance, police were summoned to a house after a man fired several rounds in his back yard from a semiautomatic rifle.

Police were summoned to one Antioch house 52 times between April 2000 and August 2006, according to city documents, to deal with rowdy teens and fighting. Loud parties and fights in the street resulted in police visiting another house 20 times between January 2005 and August 2006.

Levin said it was not yet known when the city would be served legal papers.

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