Meet the Pennsylvania City That Evicts Domestic Violence Victims for Calling the Cops
In Norristown, Pennsylvania, domestic violence victims get kicked out of their homes for calling the cops too many times.
More specifically, a municipal ordinance from this backwards town encourages landlords to evict tenants who call for police assistance, even in cases of domestic assault. The ACLU is challenging that ordinance on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment, and also disproportionately affects women and people of color.
The ACLU filed its lawsuit on behalf of Lakisha Briggs, who was threatened with eviction for the first time on May 23, 2012, weeks after police officers responded to a third domestic violence call at her house. In this particular incident, her abuser had “chased Ms. Briggs down the alley with a brick and followed her to her house, where he attacked her.”
“You are on three strikes. We’re gonna have your landlord evict you,” officers told Briggs after apprehending her ex-boyfriend, according to the lawsuit. After a judge refused to force Briggs out of her home, Norristown revoked her landlord’s license and tried to evict her. According to court documents, the ACLU came to Briggs’ defense and stopped the eviction, compelling the city to repeal the ordinance in question. But just two weeks later, the city passed a nearly identical law.
Now, the ACLU is challenging the latest version of Norristown’s “disorderly behavior” ordinance, which fines landlords and evicts tenants if someone requests police assistance at a property three times or more in four months. The suit claims the law violates Briggs’ First Amendment right to petition the government, which includes calling for police assistance. The ACLU also claims violations of the Violence Against Women Act, “which protects many domestic violence victims from eviction based on the crimes committed against them” and the Fair Housing Act, “which prohibits discrimination based on sex.”
As the ACLU notes, Norristown is not the only city “nuisance ordinances” or “crime free ordinances” that suppress the rights of domestic violence victims. Professors from Harvard and Columbia looked at similar laws in Milwaukee, finding that “Nearly a third of all [nuisance] citations were generated by domestic violence.” The study, published in the American Sociological Review, also found that “properties in black neighborhoods disproportionately received citations, and those located in more integrated black neighborhoods had the highest likelihood of being deemed nuisances.”
A recent study of Milwaukee’s nuisance ordinance showed that domestic violence was the third most common reason that police issued a nuisance citation, far above drug, property damage, or trespassing offenses. The study also established that enforcement of the ordinance disproportionately targeted African-American neighborhoods. The result? Women of color, like Ms. Briggs, were less able to access police protection.
Effective law enforcement depends on strong relationships between police and members of the community. These ordinances undermine that trust, by punishing victims who call 911 and coercing them to endure escalating violence in silence. Even worse, Norristown reports that domestic violence victims make up 20 percent of its homeless population. In order to reduce domestic violence and homelessness, Norristown should repeal the ordinance, and keep it off the books for good. And other towns that are considering enacting or enforcing these ordinances should learn the same lesson.