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Domestic violence victims in Milwaukee faced eviction for calling police
Domestic violence victims in Milwaukee faced the risk of eviction if they called police because of a city ordinance that counted the calls as a "nuisance," according to a study.
The city's ordinance says that if police receive three or more calls in a month, the property may be declared a nuisance and the landlord could be charged for police service. At the prodding of police, landlords most often have resorted to evictions in such situations, according to the study by a professor from Harvard University.
To ward off having their property branded a nuisance, landlords have discouraged domestic violence victims from calling police, posting signs and even suggesting extreme measures, according to the study.
"She has been beaten by her 'man' who kicks in doors and goes to jail for one or two days," one unnamed landlord wrote in a letter to police, cited in the study. "We suggested she obtain a gun and kill him in self-defense but evidently she hasn't. Therefore we are evicting her."
The study also found that the nuisance letters and citations were disproportionately issued in Milwaukee's black neighborhoods.
The study, published earlier this year, was based on data from 2008 and 2009. Since then, Wisconsin law and the city's ordinance have been changed so domestic violence calls, along with stalking and sexual assault, cannot be considered a nuisance.
Local victim advocates and the study's author applauded the change but said the problem of domestic violence victims losing housing because of the actions of their abusers persists.
"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," said Carmen Pitre, executive director of the Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee. "This is another layer of being held liable for what is happening in their relationship."
The study's lead author, Matthew Desmond, noted there are other calls to police that still count under the nuisance ordinance that could be domestic violence.
Other categories, too
"It is a step in the right direction. ... I don't think we can assume that fixes everything," Desmond, an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard, said of the law changes. "DV hides behind a lot of categories — 911 abuse, subject with weapon, noise. It's not always called 'domestic violence.'"
The study is critical of landlords but also police, saying that officers are essentially off-loading their responsibilities on landlords.
Evicting tenants is far from easy, said Tristan Pettit, a lawyer who represents landlords in eviction actions and writes a blog on landlord issues. He also said the landlord has to consider the risk to other tenants when abuse is happening.
"The landlord knows he has a volatile situation and needs to protect his other tenants, too. They are stuck," Pettit said. "Whether DV 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."
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said Desmond's study sometimes fails to appreciate how officers use the ordinance to solve problems rather than to punish victims or pass off their responsibility onto landlords. The ordinance allows police to be proactive and see what is driving police calls at a certain problem property, rather than just reacting to it, he said.
"Nuisance abatement is a tool in the toolkit. 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?'"
City's nuisance ordinance
Under Milwaukee's chronic nuisance premise ordinance, enacted in 2001, a property could be declared a nuisance if police are called to an address more than three times in a month for calls that fall under the ordinance.
Once that happens, a letter goes out to the landlord ordering him to take action. Desmond, with help from a student from Columbia University, examined about 500 letters from 2008 and 2009 and matched them with 911 police calls and demographic data.
The study found the top nuisances cited in those letters were "trouble with subject," "noise" and "domestic violence." And while domestic violence accounted for about 4% of calls to police from that period, it made up nearly 16% of nuisances cited in the letters, the study found.
The study's authors called the situation a "devil's bargain."
"The nuisance property ordinance has the effect of forcing abused women to choose between calling the police on their abusers (only to risk eviction) or staying in their apartments (only to risk more abuse)," the study said.
The study also found that actions under the ordinance were most likely in black neighborhoods. The highest rate was in integrated areas, suggesting minority groups within those integrated areas feel threatened and call police more often.
The study's authors interviewed landlords who received nuisance letters about their properties. The landlords said the only option police generally would accept to get rid of the nuisance was eviction. They discovered evidence of landlords discouraging tenants from using 911.
One landlord told police he sent a memo to tenants letting them know, "they cannot just dial 911 when they feel there may be an emergency. They must first make sure it is a real emergency."
Another landlord posted a sign telling tenants to call him, not police.
"Don't waste the Police Department's time with these frivolous calls or you will be the one who is evicted!!"
The comments illustrate the role that landlords can play in the lives of domestic violence victims, said Tony Gibart, spokesman for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
"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," Gibart said. "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."
Change in law
A change in state law in 2009 protected domestic violence victims from being evicted because of the abuse. A second change would not allow leases that permit eviction because of crimes at the property, "even if the tenant could not reasonably have prevented the crime." Gibart said a bill currently before the Legislature would reverse that second measure.
It took Milwaukee until early 2011 to change its nuisance ordinance to exclude domestic violence, along with stalking and sexual assault.
However, Assistant City Attorney Robin Pederson, who handled the nuisance ordinance from 2009 until last year, said the office has long been aware to not count domestic violence incidents under the ordinance.
"When I came on, it already existed and we were already aware of it and we always trained our officers on that issue," Pederson said.
City Attorney Grant Langley did not return a call for comment last week.
District Attorney John Chisholm, whose office deals with the people causing the nuisance, said he would like to see deeper examination of the issue in light of the study.
"You would clearly not want to unintentionally create a disincentive to call police for DV," Chisholm said in an interview earlier this year.
Pitre said since 2007 her staff has been building better relationships with prosecutors, police and landlords in Milwaukee. And while there has been improvement, there is room for more, she said.
She would like to see an examination of how the nuisance ordinance has been enforced since domestic violence was exempted two years ago.
"There is an opportunity to ask ourselves, 'What is happening? Do we need to change to address that?' This is a good time to do it," she said.