Tenants, Cops, and Community Organizing
On the night of February 25 1995, St. Paul police and a city housing inspector arrived at the home of Louise and Carl with their guns drawn, but without a search warrant. Carl allowed them into his downstairs apartment, according to the St. Paul Tenants’ Union (SPTU). The family was buying the house on a contract for deed and renting the upstairs apartment to two young men. Louise had suspected the men of dealing drugs and called the police. After one of the men threatened her at gun point, she moved out of the house with her two-year-old child. The police responded to Louise and Carl’s concerns by raiding their home.
During the raid, SPTU reported, police ripped furniture, cut apart children’s toys, etc. No drugs were found, but a housing inspector condemned the home and posted a vacate order. Carl was arrested and detained for a parole violation, and the home was left unsecured. The family had to move into a hotel until their money ran out. They were homeless for over two weeks and lost their jobs in the chaos. The couple was not informed of their right to appeal the condemnation and ultimately lost their home when the city proceeded with condemnation orders.
The St. Paul Police department conducted this raid under the auspices of the Focusing Our Resources on Community Empowerment (FORCE) program. While community crime prevention (CCP) programs like FORCE are often presented as a friendlier face on the nation’s anti-crime obsession, CCP is frequently “community-based” in name only. Many local programs are top-down initiatives headed by police departments and government agencies and dominated by the most affluent, the more highly educated, and the property-owning population of inner-city neighborhoods. The methods of the FORCE unit show how authorities can use the term “community-based” to stretch the boundaries of fairness and target ‘the dangerous classes’ – usually lower-income renters and racial minorities.
The FORCE Unit
In 1992, St. Paul City initiated the FORCE program as a comprehensive approach to its drug problem. FORCE works by enlisting the assistance of neighborhood residents in the anti-drug effort, calling on residents to become the “eyes and the ears” of the local police department. Neighborhood residents create block watches and identify any suspicious activity, reporting their findings to the police.
Drug Raids and Housing Condemnations
The central element of the St. Paul drug war was combining housing inspections and drug raids. A housing inspector accompanied the FORCE team on all drug raids and conducted code compliance inspections on the spot. This allowed the team to condemn a unit and force the tenants out whether or not drugs were found on the premises. Most drug raid condemnations forced the tenants to evacuate almost immediately.
The St. Paul Tenants Union (SPTU) fought the FORCE condemnations for a number of reasons. First, innocent household members, those not even suspected of illegal drug activity, were losing their homes because of the alleged behavior of the drug suspect, according to homeless shelter intake workers quoted by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Second, SPTU was concerned about the circumvention of tenants’ rights and the denial of the constitutional right to due process. In drug raid condemnations, families were forced out of their homes usually within 24 hours. This process ignored their right to a hearing and essentially applied a punishment before a legal finding of wrongdoing had occurred. According to Charlie Hollins, vice president of the SPTU, “tenants who are evicted as a result of FORCE condemnations are not even notified of their right to appeal the condemnation. This is a right that landlords and homeowners are given.” In some cases, it was clear that FORCE was not even interested in a legal finding of guilt. Arrests were made in less than 50 percent of the FORCE raids.
Third, despite the fact that most FORCE raid target users and not dealers, according to Joan Pearson, executive director of SPTU, the program focused on punishment. There has never been a coordinated effort to link drug treatment to the FORCE activities. According to FORCE housing inspector Jim Halvorsen, “the whole philosophy behind the unit is to move [the drug problem]. What you have to understand is that I only want to move it outside the city limits. Let them go to Roseville or Maplewood [suburbs of St. Paul], I don’t care, as long as it isn’t in the city of St. Paul.”
Fourth, these condemnations were contributing to homelessness in the city. According to the FORCE inspector’s estimate, 25 percent of the properties he condemns become vacant. The November 17, 1993 St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that “‘Condemnation’ is more and more listed as a reason families end up in shelter. Ironically, perhaps, one reason is that city housing inspectors now accompany police on crack raids, in an effort to make neighborhoods more habitable.”
Finally, SPTU had data to show that 93 percent of FORCE raids had targeted African-Americans, though they make up less than 10 percent of the city’s total population. Though the program was supposed to be citywide, virtually all of the raids occurred in the heavily minority neighborhoods of Frogtown, Summit-University, and the East Side.
“The Tenants Union has heard story after story about families, including children, who are mistreated during raids,” said Hollins. “We hear reports of children as young as 8 years old being handcuffed with guns pointed to their heads and being thrown to the ground where they are searched. We hear reports from a young mother who is handcuffed and not allowed to pick up her baby who is crying on the floor, frightened by 8 officers with drawn guns”
Fighting the FORCE
SPTU attacked FORCE on three tracks. First, tenant advocates requested that the police department make public its statistics on FORCE team activities, and enlisted the aid of the City Council in making the FORCE unit respond to their requests. Second, they organized in the community around the issue of drug raid condemnations in order to get SPTU’s side of the story out.
The community organizing was important because block clubs tended to support FORCE efforts. There was a sense among SPTU activists that the cards were stacked against them; the police were pitching the program as the only way to save neighborhoods, and block club residents, desperate to preserve their communities, often agreed.
Finally, SPTU organized a legal challenge to drug raid condemnations. In the fall of 1995, SPTU prepared lawsuits to challenge the city’s policy of having a housing inspector accompany the police on FORCE raids, and the lack of notice of right to appeal given to tenants whose apartments have been condemned.
Close to three years of SPTU advocacy ultimately brought changes. By late 1995, the City’s health department had agreed to post a notice of tenants’ rights to appeal all of the condemnations it initiates. Later, FORCE agreed to provide information on social service agencies after its drug raids. Finally, in December 1995, FORCE discontinued the practice of having the housing inspector accompany police on their raids.
SPTU also negotiated a working arrangement of sorts with one of the more active block clubs. SPTU got the block club to agree to contact the group about their concerns about a property before it got to the point of a drug raid and/or condemnation. At that point, SPTU would contact tenants and tell them the local community organization was targeting their house, and that they may lose their housing in the near future.
Another initiative of the FORCE unit was to establish a tenant screening service run by the St. Paul Crime Prevention Coalition (SPCPC). Although SPCPC claimed to be a “community-based organization,” the idea for the coalition came from Chief of Police William Finney. The head of the police FORCE unit was a founder of SPCPC, and a local resident employed by the police department as a block club organizer was active in the coalition.
The coalition provided landlords with sample forms for prospective tenants to fill out. The forms included questions such as “Have the police ever come to your residence?” and “Do you or have you ever had a case worker from a public housing agency or county human service agency?” Though filling out the form was “voluntary” for the apartment seeker, the form indicated “if the [prospective] applicants refuse to sign this form; the word ‘refused’ will be indicated on this form and will be considered in the review of the application.” The logos of the City of St. Paul and the St. Paul Police Department adorned the top of the form.
SPCPC took names from the daily notices of tenants involved in eviction proceedings and added them to their problem tenants list. What SPCPC did not list, however, were the outcomes of cases, and this put them in violation of state law. SPTU also claimed that the screening service disseminated false and misleading anecdotal information, failed to verify the information provided by landlords, and did not notify tenants of their rights to see their records and challenge information on them.
Constant pressure by SPTU finally ended the illegal and unfair practices of SPCPC. The coalition soon lost its funding and went out of business less than three years after it had formed.
Though largely successful in its attempts to temper the excesses of the local “community-based” war on drugs, SPTU has had to fight the perception that because they are interested in preserving the legal rights of tenants, they are defending criminals and drug pushers.
At the height of the public debate in St. Paul, the police chief wrote in a letter to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the city’s major daily newspaper: “I question the motives of the Tenants Union. Do they stand with the honest residents who have called on FORCE and have seen positive results, or with drug dealers who would turn our city into a drug-infested jungle?”
In response, SPTU officials wrote: “We see a problem . . . when under the guise of ‘community empowerment,’ many low-income tenants and people of color are subject to civil rights violations that result in enormous personal and financial losses as well as the loss of their homes.”