Lakisha Briggs is a nursing assistant, mother and domestic violence survivor, who was evicted from her home for calling the police one too many times about her abusive boyfriend.
Talking to The New York Times, Briggs said she had called the police numerous times in the past after instances in which her boyfriend threatened or beat her. She said when the cops came, her boyfriend would be arrested and put in jail for a few days. When he would be released a few days later, he would show up at her door where Briggs says she felt she had no choice but to let him in.
One day, after Briggs had been warned that one more call to the police would result in her eviction, she says her boyfriend got drunk and slashed her head and neck with a broken ashtray.
“If I called the police to get him out of my house, I’d get evicted,” she said, explaining why she didn’t call for help. “If I physically tried to remove him, somebody would call 911 and I’d be evicted.”
Despite pleading with neighbors not to call the police while her boyfriend was beating her, Briggs said her neighbors called for help. As a result, city officials ordered her landlord to evict her within 10 days. If he refused to do so, the landlord would lose his rental license.
While it sounds harsh to evict a tenant who is a victim of domestic abuse, it’s a reality for many in the U.S., as under municipal laws in many towns throughout the nation, landlords are mandated to evict tenants if police receive 911 emergency calls to a home more than three times in four months.
Part of the pressure to evict the domestic violence survivors comes from the police and city ordinances, but victims have also reported they received increasing pressure from their landlords not to call the police. Concerning for landlords is that if the police are called to the same address more than three times per month, the home is labeled as a nuisance property and a letter goes out to the landlord requiring him or her to take action.
Sandra Park is a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. She said, “The problem with these ordinances is that they turn victims of crime who are pleading for emergency assistance into ‘nuisances’ in the eyes of the city … They limit people’s ability to seek help from police and punish victims for criminal activity committed against them.”
One of the cities particularly affected by such an eviction policy is Milwaukee, Wis. In a joint study by Harvard University and Columbia University, Matthew Desmond, an assistant professor of sociology, and Nicol Valdez, a graduate student in the department of sociology, conducted an analysis and examined every nuisance citation in Milwaukee in both 2008 and 2009. What they found was that the top nuisances cited in letters to landlords were “trouble with subject,” “noise” and “domestic violence.”
When it comes to these types of evictions, the researchers found that nearly one-third of all citations were categorized as domestic violence, which most landlords “fixed” by evicting the battered women. Though reports of domestic violence accounted for about 4 percent of police calls, domestic violence was cited in about 16 percent of nuisance property ordinance letters.
The study also found that there was a racial disparity. “Properties in black neighborhoods disproportionately received citations, and those located in more integrated black neighborhoods had the highest likelihood of being deemed nuisances.”
Though the study was released earlier this year, the authors noted that Wisconsin state law and the city of Milwaukee’s ordinance changed in 2011 and have since removed domestic violence calls, along with stalking and sexual assault, from being considered a nuisance. However, Desmond cautions that there are other calls to police that still count under the nuisance ordinance that could be domestic violence. But says the law change “is a step in the right direction.
“I don’t think we can assume that fixes everything,” he said, adding that domestic violence “hides behind a lot of categories — 911 abuse, subject with weapon, noise. It’s not always called ‘domestic violence.'”
Carmen Pitre is the executive director of the Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee. She said, “A lot of clients don’t know about the exemption and don’t always feel at liberty to talk about it, and the cycle of violence continues.”
Don’t blame the landlord?
According to the study’s lead author, Matthew Desmond, while the study largely focuses on and is critical of the actions taken by landlords who choose to evict tenants who are victims of domestic violence, he says the police officers are also to blame, since they have off-loaded their responsibilities onto landlords.”
He explained that “After 911 became citizens’ primary source of communication with the police, the volume of calls departments received quickly outpaced their capacity to handle them. Inundated with calls, police departments began devising strategies to screen out non-emergency requests,” the study says. “One such strategy was to rely on nuisance property ordinances, which allow police departments to penalize landlords for their tenants’ behavior.
“Although nuisance ordinances vary across jurisdictions, most share three common features. First, they designate properties as ‘nuisances’ based on excessive service calls made within a certain timeframe. Second, they include a broad list of ‘nuisance activities’ that provoke the calls. And third, they coerce property owners to ‘abate the nuisance’ or face fines, property forfeiture, or even incarceration.”
One unnamed landlord reported that he told a female tenant who was a victim of domestic violence that instead of calling the police, she should “obtain a gun and kill [her partner] in self-defense…” The landlord explained that because his female tenant had failed to heed his advice and continued to call the police, he decided to evict her.
Tristan Pettit is a lawyer who largely represents landlords in eviction actions. He said in cases of domestic violence, a landlord also has to consider the risk to other tenants.
“The landlord knows he has a volatile situation and needs to protect his other tenants, too. They are stuck,” Pettit said. “Whether domestic violence is in there or not, my clients have the same problem. Police just push it off on landlords and have us do police work and we are not the police.”
In response, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said the study failed to illustrate how officers used the the ordinance proactively to solve problems rather than punish the victims or pass off responsibility onto the landlords.
“Nuisance abatement is a tool in the tool kit. It is a problem-solving technique to abate an ongoing condition,” Flynn said. “The overarching goal is not, ‘can we get out of work?’ It is ‘can we solve the problem?'”
However, other landlords the researchers spoke to said they were told by police the only way to get rid of the nuisance letters about their property was to evict the tenants, which is likely why the researchers found several instances in which landlords were discouraging tenants from calling 911.
One landlord sent a memo to tenants saying “they cannot just dial 911 when they feel there may be an emergency. They must first make sure it is a real emergency.” Another posted a sign that read “Don’t waste the Police Department’s time with these frivolous calls or you will be the one who is evicted.
Tony Gibart is a spokesman for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence. He said “A landlord who threatens eviction if his or her tenant calls police may be eliminating one of the few options the victim has to stay safe. On the other hand, a landlord who helps a victim escape by changing the locks or allowing the victim to relocate to another apartment can be a part of the solution.”