ANTIOCH -- The city's police chief realizes his overwhelmingly white police force no longer reflects the racial makeup of the community, and he's trying to do something about it.
Allan Cantando, who's been chief for just over a year, has begun speaking at black churches and will hold a community meeting in Spanish, all in an effort to build trust with minority groups and diversify his police force.
Cantando said his push has nothing to do with the racial tension involving residents and the police department in recent years, including a series of lawsuits alleging that the department targeted African-Americans in the federal Section 8 housing program and that officers racially profiled and used excessive force against seven black teens during a melee outside a gas station in 2007.
But the reach-out effort is a reflection of the massive changes in Antioch's racial makeup during a period of rapid population growth in recent decades.
"We're in a rebuilding phase, and I think it's important for a police department to mirror the community for which it serves and foster trust," said Cantando, who has spent 25 years in the Antioch department and also lives in the city. "It's important to understand that Antioch is a melting pot."
The city's black population has jumped from less than 2 percent 20 years ago to more than 17 percent, while Latinos now represent about a third of Antioch's residents.
As of earlier this month, only six of the police department's 93 sworn officers were black, and 11 Latino.
Scholars say it's not surprising that a city like Antioch has experienced some racial hostility between minorities and the police. Elliott Currie, a professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, says that historically, incidents such as the Los Angeles riots stem from negative encounters between minorities and white police officers.
A police department's culture, in addition to its racial makeup, affects relationships with minority groups, he said.
"When there is a bad relationship or a sense of distrust or lack of interest, it can interfere with the quality of crime prevention," Currie said. "But, anything that creates a genuine sense that concerns are being heard is a good thing as far as law enforcement."
Many of Antioch's minority residents came from inner-city areas to find affordable housing, and as a result carry a lot of real or perceived prejudices, said the Rev. Kirkland Smith, pastor of Grace Bible Fellowship.
Cantando attended three services at Grace Bible last month so that the predominantly black congregation "would get to know me, and I would get to know them."
During the Aug. 19 visit, Smith told Grace Bible congregants: "(The police) are not our enemies. They are our friends and brothers."
Years ago, Smith met Cantando, then a police captain, under different circumstances.
Their first meeting "was over a fiery situation," with Smith speaking on behalf of some congregation members who were in trouble.
"We were able to see past some of the smoke and work maturely through it and find some common ground," Smith said.
Tactics used by Antioch police in the mid-2000s, including a task force that responded to nuisance complaints in neighborhoods, drew allegations of racial profiling.
The federal Section 8 lawsuits claimed Antioch police unfairly targeted black renters who were enrolled in the housing program to try to get them removed from their subsidized housing and the city. A class-action suit¿ was settled last fall, another was dropped by the accusers, and the third was decided by a jury in the city's favor.
The incident at the gas station started when police tried to ticket a teen for blocking traffic. He fled to a nearby Gas City station, where it was alleged that police used excessive force. Antioch, along with the school district, reached a $720,000 settlement with plaintiffs; the city's portion was $200,000.
Odessa Lefrancois, president of the East County NAACP chapter, says the department's tone has improved and racial tension has declined significantly in recent years, particularly among young African-American men.
"Things used to be pretty separated. It's been easier to reach (Cantando) and talk to him," she said.
Cantando points out that when a minority interacts with police, the message can be relayed more easily when he sees an officer of the same race.
"There's a feeling that person has walked in their shoes," Cantando said.
Antioch police Det. James McMurry, who is black, said his dealings with residents often depend on their attitude toward police, rather than skin color.
"The situations are the ones that create the perception, whether they are positive or not so positive," said McMurry, a 20-year police veteran who returned to Antioch five years ago. "People build their impressions around their personal involvement."
Reaction from about a dozen minority teens interviewed throughout Antioch this week varied. One teen, who gave only his first name, James, said that black or Latino officers may have been brought up differently from their white counterparts and handle situations with a bit more care.
Dijon Billings' opinion differed. The 16-year-old said the encounter might be a bit more comfortable but "still, if people are up to no good, they are going to jail" regardless of the officer's skin color.
Cantando plans to hold a meeting in Spanish at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in October and reach out to other churches.
Some Latinos fear law enforcement because of their immigration status and language barriers, Councilwoman Mary Rocha said. "Just for the head of the department to come out and make that effort, it's very powerful," Rocha said.
Most church members at Grace Bible were encouraged by the police chief's visit.
"I think it's a great idea, especially given how much Antioch has changed," Grace Bible Fellowship member Yolanda Jones said.
Cantando also hopes that churchgoers who are in law enforcement consider transferring to the East Contra Costa city. He said a couple of people have contacted him since attending the church services.
Antioch police officials have tried to recruit new officers at diversity fairs and other events, but the efforts haven't yielded good results.
"The only color they cared about was green," Cantando said. "We need to go where the people are, so if they have questions about pay, benefits, schedule and the amount of work, they can hear what they can expect instead of reading about it and guessing."
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.