Police, don’t let illegal evictions slip into tenant-landlord disputes (Editorial board opinion)
Even at the best of times, the relationship between landlords and tenants can be strained.
These are the worst times: The second year of the pandemic and a statewide moratorium on evictions preventing landlords from bouncing tenants who don’t pay rent.
Some owners, tired of waiting for their money, take justice into their own hands. They remove tenants’ belongings, change locks, turn off heat and water to force their tenants, in flagrant violation of the rules in force before the pandemic that force landlords to take legal action.
And they do so with impunity because the police refuse to enforce a law that makes illegal evictions a crime.
Editor Marnie Eisenstadt documents the egregious case of Syracuse woman Kelicia Sterling, who returned from a trip to find the key to her non-functioning North Side rental home and her belongings and memorabilia strewn in the wind . Housing advocates in central New York City say there are dozens and dozens of similar cases falling under the radar because police won’t intervene.
When Sterling called Syracuse Police on July 8, they didn’t answer for several hours and called back later to say no one could come. Sterling called back the next day and got the same response.
Police did not come to take his statement until July 12, when a legal aid lawyer made a third call on behalf of Sterling.
Rather than arrest the owner, Lenny Dyer, Officer Daniel Shipe went out of his way to side with Dyer. He made guesses about Sterling’s finances, questioned her veracity, and even suggested it was she who could be arrested. Shipe never even wrote a report, but his body cam recorded the entire encounter.
The job of the police is to stop when a crime is committed, not to intervene or take sides.
Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick and Police Chief Kenton Buckner agree Sterling’s case deserves a second review. They warn us that this “one loophole” must not “overshadow what has otherwise been a successful collaborative effort” around illegal evictions.
If they define success over the past three years as eight arrests by Syracuse police and eight prosecutions of landlords by the prosecutor’s office – even as dozens and possibly hundreds of tenants have been illegally evicted – what does failure look like?
Meanwhile, the problem is about to get worse. The statewide moratorium on evictions expires on January 15, 2022. Housing advocates expect a tsunami of evictions, charging police with yet more landlord-tenant disputes. Prosecutors and courts had better staff to handle the throngs of cases coming their way.
The state of affordable housing in Syracuse was lousy before the pandemic. There’s not enough. The city’s housing stock is old and in poor condition. Absent owners are not invested in the community. None of this will change overnight.
But with an order from their leader, the police can be ordered to enforce the law.
The law prohibits illegal evictions. The police have the power to arrest homeowners who do so. The police can also force landlords to reinstate tenants if it appears that the eviction was illegal.
Cops shouldn’t play the role of judge and jury, as Shipe appeared to do in the case of Kelicia Sterling. File the report, proceed with the arrest, and let the well-established legal process for evictions deal with it.
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