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When Domestic Violence Victims Call Police for Help—and Get Evicted Instead

Apr 13 2017 4:02 PM
When Domestic Violence Victims Call Police for Help—and Get Evicted Instead

Photo by Riley J.B. via Stocksy

When Rosetta Watson called 911 she expected police to help protect her against her abusive ex-boyfriend. Instead, due to the city's "chronic nuisance ordinance," the two phone calls she made prompted her eviction.

Rosetta Watson called the police several times between September 2011 and February 2012. Watson, who is disabled and black, told them she needed protection from her abusive ex-boyfriend. One time, she called to them that he had kicked open the front door of her apartment in Maplewood, Missouri and punched her in the face while she slept. Another time, she told police that he hit her breast and choked her. Watson feared for her life.

The police arrested her alleged abuser at least three times, but he wasn't detained for long. Instead, Watson was forced to move out of Maplewood, according to a new federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on Friday. Under the city's chronic nuisance ordinance, more than two police calls made at the same address within a 180-day period would prompt an eviction, even if the tenant is a domestic victim. The ACLU charges that, by enacting and enforcing the code, the city violates a person's constitutional right to police assistance, as well as fair housing laws.

What's more, according to the complaint, people labeled "nuisances" must also leave the city for six months. The small suburb is one of several in St. Louis County that require residents to have an occupancy permit; anyone deemed to have violated Maplewood's code will have theirs revoked. Watson, who lost her Section 8 voucher in the process, ended up moving to St. Louis.

Read more: The Domestic Violence Victims with Nowhere to Go

"For that to happen to somebody who has called the police for domestic violence sends a huge message that their government does not think that they are worth very much," said Sandra Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project.

Maplewood City Manager Martin Corcoran, who is named in the suit, told Broadly the city would not comment on the ACLU lawsuit until it had a chance to review the complaint.

Park told Broadly that Watson lost faith in police protection because of Maplewood's treatment. She felt blamed and humiliated. So much so that, when Watson's abuser broke into her St. Louis home in July 2012 and stabbed her in the legs, she didn't call 9-1-1. Instead, she drove herself to the hospital, where staff contacted police. Officers arrested her attacker, who was sentenced to less than a year in jail after pleading guilty to domestic assault in the third degree, according to the lawsuit. He died a year later.

What happened to Watson is not an isolated incident. For decades, cities across the country have enacted nuisance ordinances in attempt to curb disruptive behavior. But research shows that "crime-free" ordinances single out domestic violence victims who call police. And advocates say that has a chilling effect on survivors, who are forced to choose between calling 9-1-1 and having a place to live.

Under the city's chronic nuisance ordinance, more than two police calls made at the same address within a 180-day period would prompt an eviction, even if the tenant is a domestic victim.

An oft-cited 2012 study out of Milwaukee, for example, found that nearly a third of evictions or eviction under the city's ordinance included domestic violence calls. The ACLU also analyzed ordinances in two upstate New York cities and discovered that domestic violence accounted for 38 percent to 48 percent of nuisance enforcement warnings or actions, according to a 2015 report.

"These ordinances punish domestic violence survivors for calling police in the most draconian ways," Park said, "by both removing them from their homes [and] their entire community."

The issue was first exposed nationwide in 2013, after the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Lakisha Briggs, a single mother living in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Briggs was evicted from her apartment because Norristown officials considered three police calls responding to domestic violence as "strikes" under its nuisance ordinance. That last "strike," though, involved a near-fatal assault that landed Briggs in the hospital. Despite the severity of the attack, Norristown officials still pushed for Briggs' eviction.

Norristown repealed its ordinance as part of its settlement with the ACLU and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which launched its own investigation into the borough in June 2013. The case also prompted Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass pass a bill prohibiting municipalities from penalizing tenants or landlords for calling the police. California and Illinois also passed limited versions of this law.

Maplewood and Norristown aren't the only municipalities to face litigation over their statutes. In 2015, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Surprise, Arizona on behalf of a domestic violence survivor who was evicted for calling police four times within 30 days. Surprise officials have since repealed its nuisance law.

Photo by Sean Locke via Stocksy.

The exact number of ordinances across the country is unknown, but Park said there are "at least in the hundreds, if not thousands" on the books.

Friday's lawsuit comes a month after the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council (EHOC) filed its own federal complaint against Maplewood. The fair housing organization charges that enforcement of the city's chronic nuisance ordinance disproportionately targeted women, people with disabilities, and people of color, thus violating both the Fair Housing Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act.

According to that suit, EHOC had studied ordinance use from 2010 to 2015, and found that more than 55 percent of all enforcement actions were brought against Black residents, even though they made up 17 percent of Maplewood's population. The council also discovered that more than a quarter of actions involved issues of mental illness or other disabilities, while over 37 percent stemmed in part from domestic violence.

Nearly one-seventh of those domestic abuse-related cases involved female victims. Instead of providing help, Maplewood officials labeled those women as "nuisances," EHOC claims. The domestic violence survivors, all of whom were black, had their occupancy permits revoked.

"What we're seeing is they're enforcing it against people they regard as 'undesirable' in the town," said attorney Sasha Samberg-Champion, who is representing EHOC in its case.

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By HUD's own standards, Maplewood's selective enforcement of its ordinance violates federal law. In September, HUD released a final rule affirming that any city statute shown to disproportionately impact domestic violence survivors seeking police help goes against the FHA. This also applies to people of color, people with disabilities, and other protected classes.

The guidance advises offending municipalities to repeal their ordinances in order to follow fair housing practices. And ultimately, that's what EHOC and the ACLU want to see happen in Maplewood.

"We will accept nothing less," Samberg-Champion said.

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