Public Housing Residents Petition Against Security Harassment

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COLUMBIA - Monday marks the beginning of a thirty day time period that the Columbia Housing Authority, or CHA, has to respond to harassment claims against the CHA security departmentt. Residents started a petition gaining than 100 signatures against the Security Department of CHA in late February. Residents and guests are complaining of "harassment" from the officers on staff. The petition took officials at CHA by surprise.

Common complaints made by residents included being repeatedly asked for identification, badgering guests, being followed off property by officers, the use of discriminatory language as well as having their cars and homes constantly searched.

Shantae Hill-Cook, the lead resident in the petition, with the help of Bishop and community activist Lorenzo Lawson are spear heading the complaint. Hill-Cook and Lawson are filing the formal complaint through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) against the agency for housing discrimination.

Lawson, a former CHA resident, suggested Hill-Cook start the petition. "I wanted to know that there was more than just an isolated incident. I didn't want to go by just one or two people. Because I know that with people sometimes it's a personal thing. This is truly an issue, a problem that is happening on a large scale."

Chief Executive Officer Phil Steinhaus says he has yet to see the petition and wasn't informed of the allegations. He also questioned the complainant's intent. In an email sent to KOMU 8 News Steinhaus wrote, "I believe the public housing resident who circulated the petition did so because she was hoping to make our CHA Safety Officers leave her alone and not trying to identify the unauthorized person who is living at her residence."

Lawson and Hill-Cook say they are going straight to HUD with the complaint. According to HUD, "If the alleged discrimination occurred within a state or locality in HUD's Fair Housing Assistance Program, HUD will refer the complaint to that agency. That agency must begin to work with the complainant within 30 days, or HUD can take the complaint back." All complaints and services follow the rules of the Fair Housing Act.

Steinhaus said there were plenty of outlets within CHA that would have allowed Hill-Cook to make a formal complaint such as the Residence Association. Hill-Cook previously wrote a six page letter in early January about being harassed by CHA security. Steinhaus said he and the head of CHA Safety Mark Brotemarkle received and addressed that complaint.

Steinhaus said crime on property has gone down because of the practices of CHA Safety.

Hil-Cook says those practices make her feel over-policed. "Anytime I have a guest they have to show their ID's. They could be already in my house and I could get a knock on my door asking for my guests' identification," Hill-Cook said.

Lawson says residents' civil liberties are at stake. "You can just come into somebody's house and start asking for ID's? That's being in prison. That's what guards do," Lawson said. "So I'm poor, that means I have to be in a prison-like institution."

Steinhaus said he he has the utmost faith in CHA's Safety Department and says the department has made internal adjustments, including encouraging officers to wear micro cameras.

According to Steinhaus, the officers are required to turn them on before each encounter with residents and leave them on until the encounter is over.

KOMU 8 News will continue to follow the actions of Columbia Housing Authority and HUD related to this complaint.