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Monday, August 11, 2008

New York Times Covers Former Davis Police Chief

Even if the article in Sunday's New York Times were not about our old friend, former Davis Police Chief Jim Hyde it would be pretty fascinating.

That is because in a lot of ways there is tremendous change going on in American society, equivalent perhaps to the changes that occurred in the 20th century when large numbers of African-Americans fled from the south to northern cities which in turn spawned a flight of white city dwellars to the suburbs. Now the rising cost of urban housing is causing almost a reverse migration with many whites moving back to the cities and many African-Americans fleeing to the more affordable suburbs aided at times by programs like the Section 8 federal housing program.

Writes the New York Times:
"Under the Section 8 federal housing voucher program, thousands of poor, urban and often African-American residents have left hardscrabble neighborhoods in the nation’s largest cities and resettled in the suburbs.

Law enforcement experts and housing researchers argue that rising crime rates follow Section 8 recipients to their new homes, while other experts discount any direct link. But there is little doubt that cultural shock waves have followed the migration. Social and racial tensions between newcomers and their neighbors have increased, forcing suburban communities like Antioch to re-evaluate their civic identities along with their methods of dealing with the new residents."
In addition to these forces, the foreclosure crisis plays a role as well:
"The foreclosure crisis gnawing away at overbuilt suburbs has accelerated that migration, and the problems. Antioch is one of many suburbs in the midst of a full-blown mortgage meltdown that has seen property owners seeking out low-income renters to fill vacant homes."
Like I said, this would be an interesting story even without the presence of the formerly polarizing police chief of Davis in the story. The issue of "overbuilt suburbs" could probably keep us going for a week with talks about new waves in smart development and questions about what will happen to suburbs as towns struggle to redevelop their cores in hopes of cutting down on the need to consume gasoline in commutes.

For all the talk about racial reconciliation, it appears that the presence of African-Americans in a town like Antioch is just as explosive today as the notion of forced busing and integration was in the 1970s. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

On the front lines of these kinds of cultural struggles is often the face of law enforcement and it is here where our old friend rears his head once again and plants himself firmly in the conscience this time not just of Davis but apparently the entire nation.

The action filed as Antioch last month claims discrimination, intimidation, and illegal property searches. Police allegedly routinely questioned and harassed Section 8 residents about their housing status, writing letters to the county's housing authority recommending termination of subsidies.

According to the Times article:
"A December 2007 study of Antioch police records by Public Advocates, a law firm in San Francisco, counted 67 investigations of black households, compared with 59 of white families; black households, it found, are four times as likely to be searched based on noncriminal complaints and to be contacted by the police in the first place."
Like any profiling claim, the contentions are difficult to sustain even with such statistics--for all statistics can be a matter of coincidence as well as intent.

For their part, Chief Jim Hyde of the Antioch Police Department denies these claims.

But here is a very telling statement in the New York Times article:
"Chief Hyde also said that the local housing authority was not meeting its obligation to screen tenants properly, and that as his department focused on nuisance issues, the police had become a de facto enforcement arm of the federal government."
The question that immediately jumps to my mind is whether this an appropriate role for the police department to play. I understand the frustration that the police may have if the federal government is being negligent in its duties to enforce its own laws, but at the same time, if the police have gone beyond their own charge, they invite these sorts of complaints and law suits.

The Times article tells a number of stories about white residents complaining about the problems that the Section 8 housing has brought.

There is clear conflict within these stories on the one hand fear and on the other hand a recognition that there is a racial component to that fear and wondering if that is an appropriate response.
Laura Reynolds, 36, an emergency room nurse, said that she often came home to her Country Hills development tract after working a late-shift to find young black teenagers strolling through her neighborhood.

“I know it sounds horrible, but they’re scary. I’m sorry,” said Ms. Reynolds, who like her two friends said she was conflicted about her newfound fear of black youths. “Sometimes I question myself, and I think, Would I feel this way if they were Mexican or white?”
Is this is a legitimate fear and concern or is it being overblown by cultural and racial stereotypes? The problem that I fear is that some are playing on the legitimate fears of residents to their own political advantage. This is far from a new phenomena.

Brad Seligman is a lawyer with a nonprofit civil rights advocacy group based in San Francisco, the Impact Fund. They are one of the groups along with the ACLU, Public Advocates, and the NAACP that have accused the city's police department of racial profiling.

Mr. Seligman is quoted in the New York Times saying:
“Instead of driving while black, it’s renting while black.”
The New York Times talks about an African-American couple, Thomas and Karen Coleman, two of the plaintiffs.
In June 2007, a neighbor told the police that Mr. Coleman had threatened him. Officers from the police community action team visited the house and demanded to be allowed in.

“I cracked the door open, but they pushed me out of the way,” Ms. Coleman said.

The officers searched the house even though they did not have a warrant, said the Colemans, who are now part of the class-action suit against the department. The police questioned Mr. Coleman, a parolee at the time, about his living arrangement. He explained that he and his wife were separated but in the process of reconciling. The police accused the family of violating a Section 8 rule that only listed tenants can live in a subsidized home.

After the raid, officers made repeated visits to the Coleman home and to Mr. Coleman’s job at a movie theater. They also sent a letter to the county housing department recommending that the Colemans be removed from federal housing assistance, a recommendation the authority rejected.

“They kept harassing me until I was off parole,” Mr. Coleman said.
If the account of the Colemans is accurate, we see a number of problems with not only the police's conduct, but their role in this process.

First, even as a parolee, police cannot enter a person's residence without a warrant and without permission to enter.

Second, the police accused the family of violating a Section 8 rule but the family's situation was obviously more complicated than that. Frankly it is not the police's authority to enforce Section 8 rules which are federal. Moreover, by inserting themselves into the process they probably overstepped their boundaries.

Unexplained in this story is the fact that obviously there was no evidence that Mr. Coleman threatened anyone, otherwise they could have simply arrested him and revoked his parole.

Even if the authorities in Antioch technically acted appropriate here, a questionable contention at best, their insertion into this process is part of the problem. Instead of calming the situation down, they seem to be throwing fuel on the fire.

This is part of the problem I had with the Police Chief while he was in Davis. Two years ago, I obtained public records that show that Chief Hyde in response to citizen complaints about police conduct and in response to the HRC pressing the issue, instead of diffusing the situation, launched a PR campaign against the HRC from the police station. Emails show efforts by the police chief to drum up opposition to the HRC. Emails show derogatory statements made by the police chief to the HRC, its chair, and others in this community. While the Chief perhaps had every right to mobilize a counter response to the HRC's complaints, the method in which it was undertaken was polarizing and increased the heat and the tensions.

Moreover the police chief chose to finally take a new position in Antioch, a move he had been looking to make for some time, long before disagreements with the HRC arose. He chose that opportunity to throw the final fuel to the fire, further inciting tensions as he left the scene and forced those who stayed in Davis to clean up his mess including a number of lawsuits that the city currently faces from actions, which took place under his command.

These patterns seem to be reemerging in Antioch. Thus far, it seems that the police chief has the backing of the Antioch Mayor and City Council who also gave him a raise this month. The next question will be how much teeth this lawsuit has and whether the findings by the court, which figures to be a long and drawn out process, will vindicate or indict his current practices.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting