The city’s lawyers in a 43-page memorandum filed Dec. 3 in U.S. District Court argue against the attempt to broaden the women’s complaint to a class action suit that includes all African-Americans who have ever lived in or will in the future live in Antioch and “who have held, currently hold, may hold or are erroneously regarded by the City and officers and of the Antioch Police Department as holding Section 8 housing vouchers.”
The city’s response argues that the lawsuit filed by the five women has no merit because police were only responding to numerous problems that those women were causing in their neighborhoods. It also pokes holes in the statistical reasoning of experts hired by the women’s legal counsel to support their case. And it argues that there is no reason to expand their complaints to other African-Americans.
The lawsuit was filed in July of 2008 by the Impact Fund and other Bay Area advocacy groups on behalf of Santeya Danyell Williams, Mary Ruth Scott, Karen Latreece Coleman, Priscilla Bunton and Alyce Denise Payne.
It charges that city officials and the police department “have launched a campaign of harassment and intimidation against these residents and their landlords in an effort to reduce the African American Section 8 population and discourage other families receiving Section 8 assistance from moving to Antioch,” according to a statement on the Impact Fund Web site.
In addition it state that the police department “violates their constitutional rights by conducting unlawful, warrantless searches of class members homes; engaging in heavy-handed police investigations of non-criminal activity; actively discouraging landlords from renting to Section 8 recipients; and soliciting complaints about class members from their neighbors.”
In September of 2007 four of the women spoke at a City Council meeting, describing harassment by the police Community Action Team (CAT) officers who searched their homes despite their having done nothing wrong, then contacted the Contra Costa Housing Authority in an attempt to remove them from the Section 8 program. The women said the police actions have been stressful, terrifying and made them feel violated and victimized.
But the women aren’t the innocent victims they portrayed themselves to be, according to the city’s response and City Attorney Lynn Tracy Nerland. “From the beginning, Antioch’s community policing efforts have had a single goal and motivation: to address persistent criminal, drug and nuisance problems and to improve the quality of life for all residents,” Nerland said via e-mail.
The city’s response to the class action request alleges numerous violations and problems at the five women’s residences:
• One woman, who previously pled guilty to welfare and financial fraud, called the police more than 40 times, many for domestic violence involving her crack-addicted, alcoholic ex-husband, but also including her boyfriend, son and daughter. Police also visited the house numerous times dealing with problems such as drunk driving, a no-bail warrant, felony arrests, child neglect, theft, drugs and unlawful tenants.
• Police came to the house of a second woman four times for things such as searching on an outstanding arrest warrant, loud noise at a party and searching for her missing daughter. The woman said she did not have any racial problems with the police in any of those encounters.
• The third woman’s husband, who had numerous felony convictions, was not authorized to live in her Section 8 house but had been there for six months. She complained when police, without a warrant, searched her home for evidence that he was living there, but police are not required to provide a warrant in searches involving paroled felons.
• Police were called to a fourth woman’s home on reports of domestic violence, including an incident in which she admitted making false accusations, violation of a restraining order, lying to police and drug use. Belying her allegation of racial animosity by police, after the suit was filed she asked police to come to her house to counsel her daughter about the danger of contacting older men on the Internet.
• Police also came to the home of the fifth woman numerous times to deal with things such as a 13-year-old driving a car, searching for a criminal suspect, barking dog complaints, domestic violence and theft of a cell phone.
“It is unbelievable really, the complete absence of illegal or discriminatory conduct raised in the depositions of the 5 named plaintiffs!” states the city’s response. “The complaint that racial animus inspired Antioch to cleanse the Section 8 program of African-American residents is hardly met by these plaintiffs.”
The Impact Fund’s class action request contends that there is statistical evidence for alleging racial discrimination because 58 percent of the Community Action Team’s cases in its first six months of operation involved Section 8 residences, although those residences constitute less than 5 percent of Antioch households and about half of Section 8 residences are lived in by African-Americans.
“That bends the rules of statistical analysis and simply doesn’t apply to the real world,” responded Nerland. “This claim requires someone to believe that every home in Antioch is equally likely to be the focus of police activity. To the plaintiffs, the home of a 60-year-old kindergarten teacher is exactly as likely to require police activity as the home of a 30-year-old convicted felon and drug user. This flawed reasoning is exposed by the City’s expert reports and by common sense.”
Nerland pointed out that less than 7 percent of Antioch’s Section 8 residents have been contacted by CAT.
“This completely undermines plaintiffs’ claim that the Community Action Team was engaged in anything other than a professional response to complaints of persistent criminal, drug and nuisance problems,” she said.
“If anything, this statistic reveals what Antioch residents already know: a lack of oversight and criminal background screening by the Contra Costa County Housing Authority allowed egregious behavior to go unchecked in a relatively small number of Section 8 homes. However, if you were living next to one of those homes and subject to assaults, gunfire and late night traffic peeling away from drug deals, most likely the statistics really didn’t matter to you.”
The city hired Vacaville Police Chief Richard Word, an African-American and former Oakland police chief, to look over the CAT’s case files to see if there is a pattern of racial discrimination. He found no evidence of racial discrimination, and praised the city’s community policing efforts.
“In my own experience, I have found that when crime and disorder are allowed to persist, residents can quickly lose confidence in the police,” Word’s report states. “Eventually this lack of confidence turns to both a lack of trust and support. When confidence, trust and support are lost in the police, people grow apathetic and may choose not to call the police to report crimes in progress, such as drug dealing or prostitution, or disorder, such as noisy neighbors, barking dogs, illegal dumping, etc.
“When calls to the police department should be made and they are not, serious crime will likely follow, and with persistent serious crime, particularly violent crime, comes fear … Criminals prey on such neighborhoods. Those who commit crime and engage in acts of disorder learn quickly when neighbors are fearful and reluctant to call the police. And police officers know all too well that ground lost is ground which is difficult to regain.”
Nerland added, “The City of Antioch supports the rights of all of its residents to live in peaceful, crime-free neighborhoods. This was, and continues to be, the sole motivation for the City’s community policing efforts.”
The class action dispute is scheduled to be heard by Judge Saundra Armstrong beginning at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010 in U.S. District Court.