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Civil rights groups call for halt to Tampa police Crime-Free housing program




  • In US
  • 2021-09-17 12:54:00Z
  • By Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla.

TAMPA - A coalition of local and civil rights groups is calling on Tampa Mayor Jane Castor to scrap a Tampa Police Department program that encouraged landlords to evict individuals and families based on arrests, including some where charges were later dropped.

In a letter sent Thursday to Castor and members of Tampa City Council, groups including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the NAACP Hillsborough County Branch called on the city's elected officials to "immediately end" Tampa's Crime-Free Multi Housing program.

Castor on Thursday continued her support of the program that she launched in 2013 when she was the city's chief of police.

The initiative was aimed at stamping out drug and gang crime in apartment complexes. Landlords were encouraged to make tenants sign a lease addendum stating they could be evicted if involved in criminal activity. Police sent landlords notices when their tenants were arrested.

The civil rights groups cited a Tampa Bay Times investigation published Wednesday revealing that 90 percent of the 1,100 people flagged in the program were Black tenants. Three-quarters of the 100 apartment complexes police enrolled in the program were in neighborhoods where U.S. Census block data shows the majority of residents are Black and Hispanic.

"Put simply, the Program does far more harm than good, and that harm is borne almost exclusively by Black people," the letter states. "By tightly weaving together housing policy and the criminal legal system, the Program compounds the over-policing of people of color in Tampa and causes catastrophic consequences for tenants of color."

The ACLU of Florida Greater Tampa Chapter, the Civil Rights Clinic at New York University and the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law are among other signatories of the six-page letter.

The Times investigation revealed that officers sent hundreds of notices that told landlords they were "required to take immediate action through notice to cure, notice to vacate or eviction" of arrested tenants. Officers recorded more than 300 tenants as "evicted" on a police database, although it's unclear if they were evicted, forced out of their homes by a notice to vacate or simply moved away.

Landlords were also routinely informed of the arrests of juveniles and of domestic violence and other misdemeanor and non-violent arrests. Police sent 140 notices detailing arrests that took place more than a mile from a tenant's apartment complex. In dozens of cases, charges detailed to landlords that put tenants at risk of eviction were later dropped.

Two local elected leaders also are expressing concerns about the program.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Castor, state Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, called on her to immediately discontinue a program she said "is putting people in danger of homelessness, discrimination and police violence."

Hart told the Times she is concerned at the disparate impact of the program on the Black community. She also questioned why the threat of eviction was being used during public health and affordable housing crises.

"We need to find another way to do this as opposed to the police sending a letter to my landlord and me getting kicked out with children," she said.

Tampa City Council Chairman Orlando Gudes, who served with the city's police department for 26 years, also wrote to Castor requesting a 90-day suspension of the program so it can be re-evaluated.

"We need to take a look at what we are doing and making sure the police department is not doing evictions," Gudes told the Times.

In a statement sent to the Times on Thursday, Castor defended the program she said has made high-crime apartment complexes safer for tenants.

"Everyone deserves to live in a safe neighborhood, regardless of their economic status," Castor said in a statement emailed to the Times. "As violent crime is spiking in cities across America, this is no time to stop effective collaborations between the community, law enforcement and property managers that are making our city safer."

The mayor also wrote to the Hillsborough NAACP, saying she wanted to provide "facts and much needed context" about the Times' investigation.

The letter states that the program is part of a strategy that "dramatically reduced crime in communities where many of our most vulnerable residents live." It includes a quote from longtime Robles Park Village resident Lorraine Wright: "The (drug) dealers are gone. Thank you TPD ... I'm finally able to sleep."

Reva Iman, the Robles Park tenant council president, told the Times she wants the neighborhood to be safe, but called it unfair that it's mostly Black tenants who face eviction when there isn't the same consequence in predominantly white neighborhoods.

Police provided the Times statistics for 51 apartment complexes that participated in the program through at least 2020, showing that reports of serious crime had fallen by about 28 percent since 2013. Crime reports, however, rose at 11 of the properties.

It's unclear how much of the improvements can be attributed to the program versus other crime initiatives. The overall drop in crime at participating properties is in line with a 25 percent drop in violent and property crime reports across the city over the first seven years of the program.

Police have operated the program less aggressively since 2017, when the Times began requesting copies of letters sent to landlords. After that, the department sent fewer letters to landlords and toned down wording that instructed landlords to take action. But officers are continuing to report tenants to their landlords.

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