and Elisabeth Voigt
In the past year, numerous complaints have surfaced from African-Americans participating in the Section 8 rental assistance program in Antioch. These tenants are law-abiding citizens, mostly single mothers, who moved to Antioch so their children could have a better life.
Although they have done nothing to warrant police scrutiny, they say they are being unfairly targeted by a special unit that the Antioch Police Department created for the express purpose of policing Section 8 families. That unit - known as the Community Action Team (or CAT) - has responded, in some circumstances, to criminal activity. No one is faulting it for this. What is troubling is that the CAT is also indiscriminately sweeping into its net families who are guilty of nothing more than being poor, black and recipients of Section 8 assistance.
When these tenants turned to Public Advocates Inc. and Bay Area Legal Aid, we launched a six-month investigation to determine the validity of their claims. We did not rely on anecdotes from the tenants or outside advocates. Instead, we analyzed nearly a thousand pages of documents provided by the Antioch Police Department and the Housing Authority.
Our investigation, released in a 35-page report in December, validates the tenants' experience, and reveals a disturbing pattern of the CAT interfering with the housing rights of law-abiding low-income African-American families.
The police department's own data shows that 40 percent or more of CAT cases involve purely non-criminal activity. These are innocent families, not "drug dealers," who are being subjected to police scrutiny. Also, African-American families are approximately four times more likely than white households to be subjected to CAT investigations.
Perhaps most troubling is the finding that the CAT has routinely forwarded to the Housing Authority requests to terminate the housing assistance of families who are without fault. After a hearing, half of these CAT referrals were determined to be unfounded. Worse yet, 70 percent of these unfounded cases involved African-American families.
These findings are based on hard numbers that demonstrate a pattern of policing African-American Section 8 tenants without legitimate crime enforcement reasons. This raises serious concerns the city should address.
Some members of the Antioch community have attacked the report, and us, at times making false statements to justify their position. The Antioch Press and other news outlets have repeated these misrepresentations as fact. We want to set the record straight.
First, we offered as early as last August and continue to be willing to meet with members of UCBN to engage in a constructive dialogue about balancing the need for legitimate crime enforcement with the need to make all residents feel welcome.
We have, in fact, responded to all residents who called and left contact information and sent e-mails to Gary Gilbert, though Mr. Gilbert has not responded. However, we never agreed to attend the Jan. 16 meeting. Mr. Gilbert knew we were unable to attend two weeks before the meeting occurred but was quoted as saying we backed out, which he knows to be untrue.
In addition, we have not filed a single complaint to the city of Antioch, despite comments attributed to city officials that we have.
Nor have we accused the police department, public officials, or Antioch residents of racism, or attributed motive to anyone. We have presented an analysis of the facts presented to us. It is interesting to note that, while critics have been vociferous, not a single person has found fault with our data analysis, no one has presented new data refuting what we present, and no one has argued that it is acceptable for a police department to scrutinize the innocent.
Instead, critics are creating a smokescreen by arguing that the CAT is making them safe from drug dealers and violent criminals and accusing anyone raising issues about police conduct of being soft on crime. But their attacks cannot obscure the main point here. It is not legitimate law-enforcement activity that has Antioch's Section 8 tenants upset. They are upset that the CAT has cast its net so broadly that it sweeps in as many innocent families as criminals.
In purely law-enforcement terms, a 50-percent success rate means that something is broken. If it is broken in a way that falls especially hard on African-Americans, there is all the more cause for concern.
This report should raise serious questions in the mind of every fair-minded person. City officials should respond by ensuring that efforts to protect the safety of Antioch residents do not unfairly single out their law-abiding African-American neighbors. Our report makes a number of constructive recommendations.
Public officials and community leaders can take positive steps to integrate Antioch's newest residents into the community, building a stronger community for all regardless of race, ethnicity or economic status. Or they can continue to deny they have a problem, and ignore the issues raised by our investigation. This report serves as a call to action we hope they will heed. We are prepared to help.
A copy of the report can be accessed at www.publicadvocates.org.
Jamienne S. Studley is president and Elisabeth Voigt is staff attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy and achieving tangible legal victories advancing education, housing and transit equity. Public Advocates spurs change through collaboration with grassroots groups representing low-income communities, people of color and immigrants, combined with strategic policy reform, media advocacy and litigation, "making rights real" across California since 1971.