With Nuisance Laws, Has ‘Serve and Protect’ Turned Into ‘Silence and Evict’?

This piece originally appeared at MSNBC.com

When Nancy Markham called 911 multiple times between March and August 2014 because of her abusive ex-boyfriend, the single mother didn’t know that her calls for help would only lead to more fear and insecurity. Instead of serving and protecting her, the police department of Surprise, Arizona, tried to silence and get Markham evicted from her rental home — all because of an ill-conceived nuisance ordinance the city passed in 2010.

Under the law, landlords in Surprise faced civil and criminal penalties if they rented to tenants who called the police four times within 30 days, or when two or more crimes occurred at the property at any time, with no exception for tenants who needed emergency assistance. The law also required landlords to adopt “crime-free” leases that authorized the eviction of tenants when any criminal activity occurred at the property, even when the tenant was the victim of the crime. All three parts of the law applied to Markham’s circumstances, and the police pressured her landlord to start the eviction process, even though they had finally arrested her ex for domestic violence after four months of violent and threatening behavior.

Markham, however, fought back with the ACLU’s help, and this week the city repealed the nuisance ordinance that empowered police to silence victims of crime who called 911 and force their evictions. While this is an important victory, her story is just one example among many. Local nuisance laws penalizing tenants and landlords for calls for emergency assistance or for any criminal activity occurring at the property are widespread and growing in popularity.

Harvard sociology professor Matthew Desmond describes the devastating impact of these laws in his newly released book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” His study of Milwaukee’s ordinance concluded that calls about domestic violence — including incidents where perpetrators beat pregnant women; used box cutters, knives, or guns against women; or threw bleach or lighter fluid at them — were the third most common reason for a nuisance citation. In 83 percent of cases where landlords received a nuisance citation for domestic violence, they either evicted or threatened to evict the victim if she called police again.

The St. Louis nuisance ordinance stopped domestic violence victims from calling police — for any reason, according to Saint Louis University professor Gretchen Arnold, who studied its impact. One survivor told her, “If you getting abused, raped, stabbed, shot, you’re not allowed to call police ‘cause they say it’s a nuisance law … We just in danger. If anything happens to us, we can’t call no police. We just got to deal with it.’”

When are people considered victims of crime, deserving of help, and when are they seen as nuisances?

An ACLU study done with the Social Science Research Council similarly determined that two New York nuisance laws were enforced against people who were victims of a variety of crimes, including larceny and assault. In both cities, domestic violence incidents made up the single largest category of criminal activity resulting in enforcement of the ordinance.

These laws contribute to the cycle of homelessness, poverty, and crime that too many low-income people face — especially African-American women. Desmond’s research found that racial bias influenced police enforcement decisions: A tenant living in a black neighborhood in Milwaukee was three times more likely to receive a nuisance citation compared to a tenant in a white neighborhood who had also violated the ordinance. Black women are both kicked out of their homes and blocked by these laws from accessing a fundamental government service — police protection. 

As police practices come under scrutiny nationwide, the prevalence of these laws raises serious questions about police bias against survivors of domestic violence, most of whom are women. When are people considered victims of crime, deserving of help, and when are they seen as nuisances? Shouldn’t people be able to exercise their First Amendment right to seek police assistance without regard to their gender, race, income, or status as tenants?

In December, the U.S. Department of Justice issued landmark guidance to law enforcement agencies on “Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias in Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.” The guidance explains that providing less protection to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault violates survivors’ civil rights. Nuisance laws clearly run afoul of the guidance. Not only are police withholding protection from victims, they are punishing them for asking for help in the first place.

We sued Surprise on behalf of Nancy Markham, and the city agreed to completely repeal the ordinance and compensate her. But it shouldn’t take a federal lawsuit for cities to recognize how counter-productive these laws are. Reducing the number of calls to police means that a city no longer receives reports of crime, not that it has reduced crime. Forcing a crime victim to move does nothing to actually address the crime itself, it may simply make her more vulnerable to it.

Homelessness and domestic violence are serious issues, requiring thoughtful policy solutions and adequate funding for services. Nuisance laws contribute to housing instability and crime. One simple step forward that cities can take is to repeal these ordinances and send the message: Reaching out for police aid won’t result in an eviction notice.

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MissP

I need HELP FAST! I've been a victim of domestic violence, at the hands of the super in my building. Through the connections with a Supreme Court Judge Mark Baber he gave the super a TRO, while I sat in a hospital. I had a hidden camera in front of my door, where I received hundreds of texts harassing, stalking, and threatening me and my son. After many complaints to management, Rachel Castillo kept saying SUPER denied any wrong, I asked for them in writing she refused to give any copies. my car was a target as well, I have all the tickets and Orange labels MOVE OR TOW, and security was told to comply or loose their jobs. I caught the landlord and a Police Officer that resides in building talking outside one day, after that the officer not only threaten me to drop camera charges, BC he installed it but to his own admission they were a trial run if he got security account of the many buildings landlord owns. As "Police" said to me if ME or My Son ever want police protection we drop the charges. I went to the Prosecutor with that information. Only to find out from another tenant cop did it to her as well and she got a restraining order against the cop. The officer also told me to stay off social media because I was posting how I was living without a bathroom sink and medicine cabinet for months, that's when I got HACKED, police officer, wife,and kids had gone through all my friends under assumed profiles, as they called it DECOY. THEY were gonna back the super and the building and they'll use all I have. All my passwords were changed my IP address was being used in New Brunswick. That's when my lawyer was asked to represent The mayor of WEST NEW YORK, on his indictment of HACKING. and his left hand man was PO Beinvenido Fontanez. Who at this point has made me out to be nuts, out of my mind. They claimed I mumble and talk to myself, its made them fear for their safety. His wife wrote a letter which I just found out about, that I asked to help me get the super and manager fired. All false after they told me to drop the case Ive never spoken to them even though they went to court one day as a witness for the super on that day I had the Judge recused because of his connections to the landlord. super didn't get his TRO, that's when the building went after me and no worker or work was allowed to continue. My entrance to the elevator was compromised by the super one morning. He Jumped out as I came in my foot got caught with the door I lost 2 nails and lost sensation. When I asked management to supply me with video footage they refused for months. When I went to police station to pick up report, there was none written. I spent 6 months in Supreme court fighting TRO, and I couldn't get one. Than the lawyer I had wanted me to just get out of my apartment at that point I said my son has a year left in school and his deceased fathers family still have weekly visits. Conflict of interest I was told by other lawyers in the area that knew of my situation. The super has done this to other single moms and widows in the building I have proof. Now my landlord hasn't stopped violating me. entering my apartment with out permission, changing my lock when I wasn't home, disconnecting gas and electric,mail tampering, spying on me. giving other tenets services just to sign off on me. Three day evictions left by my door for all to see. They called DYFUS child protective services they scooped so low. theres a tenet in the building that pressed 2 harassment charges against me I don't even know her but she complied with the supers wishes. I've won representing myself as far but im getting unfair treatment in court, Im disabled and im being tested every single day. my nerves are at a point im afraid to leave my apartment. im consumed with anxiety not knowing what they're coming up next. My complaints and questions in regards to HUD laws and my disability was the reason my manager says I took it too far. As of yesterday I received papers informing they are terminating my lease and I have to leave no later than August 2016. I know about the illegal kick backs to get friends and family into the building. The non profit org the landlord has to help single mom from going homeless. All employees have now given apartments including manager which has section 8 so theyre invested interest are to side with owners. I don't have a neutral person I can speak to all tenets have been made aware of my situation. please help. 646-321-2891 email missvivianperez@gmail.com

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