East Chicago enforces ordinance to pressure landlords to evict tenants over criminal complaints | State

East Chicago enforces ordinance to pressure landlords to evict tenants over criminal complaints | State

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EAST CHICAGO — One October afternoon last year, Timiya Andrews was in her living room doing her homework when someone outside let loose 16 rounds from an automatic weapon.

One of those rounds struck 8-year-old Timiya in the head.

She died less than a week later.

The unconscionable slaying sparked outrage, protests and national headlines. It spurred a combined $20,000 reward for information in the case, which remains unsolved. And it led the police department’s second in command to plead for witnesses to give up the “cowardly thugs” responsible.

One thing it did not trigger, however, was much surprise, especially among police officers familiar with the site of the shooting in the notorious 4500 block of Magoun Avenue.

“We knew there was a problem there,” Deputy Police Chief Jose Rivera said. “Shots fired, abandoned vehicle complaints, kids loitering. We started to look at our calls for service and we spent a lot of man hours answering calls for service in different buildings (on that block).”

The East Chicago Police Department provided call logs for one of those buildings to The Times, and the log is peppered with incidents dating back more than a decade. Their type runs the gamut, from runaway kids and parking complaints to assaults and a stabbing.

At this single address, just a few doors from where Timiya was killed, law enforcement logged 41 incidents in 2017, 36 in 2018, a modest 17 in 2019, and a staggering 71 in a 15-month span between the start of 2020 and March 2021.

Rivera said there were times when his officers were answering between six and eight calls per day in the 4500 block of Magoun and after Timiya’s slaying, the pressure from outside the department intensified, even as ECPD regularly patrolled or parked officers to serve as a set of round-the-clock eyes and ears.

“I’m talking about councilmen, the clerk’s office, North Township trustee’s office, precinct committeemen, police officers, city employees, residents,” Rivera said. “The complaints that came in here on an almost daily basis on how horrible that block was; that was the thing that woke us up.

“It was like, ‘Wow, what else can we do?’”

‘Searching the codes’

Jose Rivera wasn’t the only one being pressured to act after Timiya’s slaying.

Damien Ventura was fielding calls as well, from his desk in the East Chicago Building Department, where he works as the code enforcement manager.

“It started with that block, that Magoun block, we had a lot of problems there,’” he said. “And it started us searching the codes.”

About the codes: The work Ventura and his co-workers do typically lands rather low the list of flashiest careers in municipal government, with much of the city’s jargon-filled, lawyer-crafted property ordinances warning of consequences if residents allow “any thistles, weeds, brush, undergrowth or vegetation” to grow too tall or if they fail to fix a broken garbage can lid, lest the neighborhood vermin run wild.

But when Ventura’s phone started ringing about the killing on Magoun, he said he remembered reading about an ordinance in another city that gave code enforcers like him the authority to punish landlords who allowed criminals, or those prone to triggering a law enforcement response, to live in their properties.

And lo and behold, most of the properties on Magoun were rentals.

“So I called the (city) clerk’s office, I mentioned it to them, and they pointed me to say, ‘Hey, what about this ordinance?” Ventura said. “And that was kind of how it started for us … we said, ‘Hey, this is it, this is the winner.’”

The winner’s formal name is Ordinance No. 13-0021, one that is itself an order amending Ordinance 0-01-0016 and one that is given its authority under Indiana Code 36-7-9-4.

In layman’s terms, the measure sponsored by Mayor Anthony Copeland in 2013 allows the city to target properties it defines as a “public nuisance,” specifically those where evidence of illegal activity is occurring, and it gives the city broad power to fine landlords thousands of dollars — $2,500 on first notice and $7,500 for each subsequent notice — if their property is deemed a nuisance. The only way to avoid the fine once a nuisance has been declared, the ordinance states, is by evicting the tenants.

In the nine months or so that the ordinance has been aggressively used for this purpose, the department has targeted 17 properties and the situation at 11 of those properties has been “abated,” by which he means the tenants have been evicted, Ventura said.

He said the department’s use of the ordinance has been challenged only once in court, despite numerous threats from landlords, and that he and Rivera are confident the practice is on solid legal footing, saying the city’s law department has given its approval.

And there is precedent from around the country that backs up that assertion. Rivera said he’s not aware of another agency in Northwest Indiana that has been using a similar tactic — what is sometimes called a crime-free housing program — although the practice has been used elsewhere for decades. (Valparaiso, meanwhile, passed a somewhat similar “disorderly property” ordinance in late July.)

The International Crime Free Association said that an officer named Tim Zehring crystallized the concept with a program in Mesa, Arizona, back in 1992. Zehring, who founded and was executive director of the association, then created a program for other departments to follow, according to the site, which goes on to declare, without citation, that the program shows “an average 75% reduction in crime and/or police calls to participating properties.” The site also includes dozens of testimonials from satisfied police officers and local officials throughout North America.

It’s too early to fully analyze the effect East Chicago’s program will have, although Rivera said he’s seeing an impact on the call logs, including in blocks like 4500 Magoun.

Though the ICFA may claim to have built the first model crime-free housing program, those programs, including the one in East Chicago, vary widely in scope, specificity and reactiveness (or proactiveness), and it’s noteworthy that the ICFA did not help create the East Chicago program. But the aim of the initiatives is almost always the same: to chase away tenants who are causing problems and scare landlords from renting to anyone who might.

One way East Chicago’s program stands out is that it considers calls by volume, not severity, and nothing in the ordinance accounts for legal protections like a presumption of innocence for tenants. The ordinance requires only “evidence of illegal activity” be present and there is no set number of calls defined as an “excessive” amount. To that, Rivera said cutting off problems when they are “minor crimes” prevents them from turning into major issues.

Detractors also said crime-free programs make it harder for those with criminal records or addiction issues to find housing, and Rivera said “that’s true” when asked, although he did add that it was ultimately up to the landlord whether or not to rent to that person.

But Rivera also made no apologies for the fact that one-time criminals, reformed or not, could feel less welcome in his city.

“Those are the consequences of the crimes that you committed,” he said. “My response is, ‘Did you think about that before you robbed that bank? Did you think about that before you broke into that house? Did you think about that before you shot that person?’”

“I don’t care if you’ve changed your life, I have no sympathy for you,” he continued. “Go move somewhere else. It is what it is. As cold-hearted as that seems, I have to protect the public and that’s always my response. It’s not the most popular response, it’s not the most politically correct response, but I will never empathize or sympathize with a criminal.”

When asked what could happen to tenants who are evicted in the course of the ordinance being enforced, Rivera was similarly blunt.

“I’m hired by the city of East Chicago to protect the residents of East Chicago,” Rivera said. “Where they go after they leave East Chicago? Technically not my problem.”

‘We’re going to come after you’

Rivera’s tough talk is not just venting from a 23-year veteran of the force and lifelong East Chicago resident. It also serves one of the program’s underlying purposes.

Rivera and Ventura agree that once word about the program gets out, East Chicago might get a reputation. And a reputation for being harsh on landlords, for counting every call for service against property owners, and for stepping in to potentially impact what once was solely a landlord’s business decision, is a far more desirable reputation than one that persists.

“We want to promote public safety and helpful residents,” Ventura said. “And when we establish that reputation like we’re doing right now, word gets around to all the landlords, gets around to the renters.”

“If that means enforcing an ordinance or enforcing minor misdemeanors and infractions, we will. That’s something we’re going to do to teach a lesson,” Rivera added. “If your intentions are to come here and to take advantage of people and commit a crime then you’re in the wrong city. Because we’re going to come after you.”

Rivera said most landlords have been receptive to the program — though he also added that anyone who didn’t like the program was free to sell his or her property and leave town. He said he even has thoughts of expanding it in the future, adding in a proactive component that would force landlords to run background checks on tenants through the police department to flag potential problems.

The department never officially announced the program — something they were under no obligation to do, especially because the ordinance itself is not new — but Rivera sent out a Facebook post on the department’s page in April and has mentioned the initiative at the handful of community meetings he’s been able to hold in the age of COVID. The response, he said, has been great so far.

There could be an ancillary benefit, too, if residents in East Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods start to feel more comfortable calling law enforcement because they know their complaints are not only being heard, but could be acted upon. To prevent misuse, Rivera offered assurances that calls were vetted and categorized so it’s not as simple as calling the cops on somebody you don’t like enough times to get them evicted.

But he also talked about a hypothetical old lady, someone who, like him, had decided to make East Chicago her home for life. Someone who only wanted to take care of her lawn and sit on her porch. He said for her, a sense of hope that a change could be coming to her neighborhood, a change that once felt unattainable, was a sign the program was doing its job.

“These poor people have been living here for 50, 60 years, (they) maintain their property, and they have to live next to this,” he said. “No, you shouldn’t have to leave.”

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