Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
When Gloria Parker dipped into her retirement savings to purchase a home in a suburb of Cleveland nearly a decade ago, she thought it would give her a bit of security as she aged. But now, the 70-year-old is on the verge of losing what she worked so hard to obtain because she can’t afford to pay the more than $12,000 in fines she owes the city just for 911 calls.
Where Parker lives, in South Euclid, Ohio, a local ordinance allows the city to fine residents if the cops repeatedly show up at their house—something that’s happened to Parker’s family numerous times—to deal with a “nuisance” or criminal complaint. Parker, whose adult son has schizophrenia, was punished under the law after her child’s worsening mental health needs triggered repeated visits from the police.
And Parker’s son, who doesn’t even live with her, was usually the one calling the cops—not her. On one occasion, Parker was fined after her son called 911 and “made bizarre and threatening complaints against his mother and family members,” according to a lawsuit Parker filed against South Euclid in late August alleging the violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and her constitutional rights. Another time, he called the police to say he was suicidal. That cost her too.
“I feel that no one is there to help me,” Parker said. “I just feel like they don’t care. It bothers me because I might be homeless. And I don’t know what to do. I worked all my life.”
“What am I to do? Where am I to go?” she added.
Under South Euclid’s broad anti-nuisance policy, which exists in a variety of controversial forms in cities across the country, the local police chief can declare a home a problem and threaten fines if two or more incidents happen at—or even near—one address within a year. (Under city law, “nuisance activities” or incidents can range from possessing a stink bomb to assault.) If the cops are called to the home again, the property owner can be punished with a series of escalating fines, regardless of whether they were at fault.
In Parker’s case, each fine related to the 911 calls was assessed as a lien against her home meant to be collected with her property taxes—which she can’t afford with the added debt, according to Emily White, an attorney representing her in her lawsuit. Ultimately, Parker could be subjected to tax foreclosure.
“We pay taxes to have police protection, and I don’t see why we would have to pay and be fined for that,” Parker said.
Michael Cicero, an attorney for South Euclid in this case, said the city was unable to comment on the pending lawsuit at this time.
“I just feel like they don’t care. It bothers me because I might be homeless. And I don’t know what to do. I worked all my life.”
Parker, who’s Black, also feels the city’s nuisance ordinance isn’t being used against white people in the same way. Her lawsuit accuses South Euclid of maintaining “a pattern and practice of applying its criminal nuisance ordinance selectively against people with disabilities and their families, and people of color.”
“There’s an older, white guy that lives across the street, a little further down,” Parker said. “Anybody that’s non-white, he’ll cuss them out. The lady that’s next door to him, she’s called the police on him several times. They haven’t done anything to him.”
About 45% of South Euclid’s approximately 21,000 residents are Black, and the suburb has grown less white in the past decade.
Nuisance laws, also known as crime-free housing ordinances, have come under fire for enforcing segregation by essentially driving people of color out of their homes. An analysis of nuisance citations handed out from the beginning of 2008 to the end of 2009 in Milwaukee, for example, found that properties “located in more integrated Black neighborhoods had the highest likelihood of being deemed nuisances.” What’s more, nearly a third of all citations were generated by reports of domestic violence, often resulting in landlords evicting abused women.
Cities, however, typically say these laws serve some sort of public safety purpose, like defraying costs or curbing crime.
Yet another nearby suburb of Cleveland, Bedford, wound up having to dismantle its nuisance law as part of a settlement last year after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others sued on behalf of a Black woman who was threatened with eviction for contacting the police about a neighbor who had intimidated her and been disruptive. The lawsuit noted that Bedford, where a majority of residents are non-white, had even repeatedly fined a group home for disabled children because the staff there sought assistance for kids with mental health crises and other emergencies.
“When they are punishing calls for service—which is often the way they are implemented—you are chilling people reporting crime and sending the message that the city does not see calls for service as something they need to respond to,” said Sandra Park, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, which was involved in the Bedford case.
“There’s never been any evidence that this type of ordinance decreases crime,” Park added.
Gloria Parker's house in South Euclid, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of source)
Officials in Bedford weren’t shy about the original intent behind their criminal nuisance ordinance, either. After it was passed in 2005, the mayor at the time said, according to the Cleveland Scene: “One of the things that we take pride in is middle-class values. We believe in neighborhoods, not hoods. That is one of the reasons we passed that nuisance law tonight.”
“I have made mention of the students walking down the streets, and those are predominantly African American kids who bring in that mentality from the inner city,” the mayor continued.
Parker’s lawsuit describes South Euclid’s ordinance as “effectively identical” to Bedford’s.
But challenges to these laws aren’t unique to Ohio. Maplewood, Missouri, was also forced to change its nuisance law after an ACLU lawsuit alleged a survivor of domestic violence had been effectively banished from the city for six months after four calls to the police about her former boyfriend’s abuse. In a separate case, the ACLU also went after Faribault, Minnesota, in part on behalf of a Black woman who was evicted as a result of the city’s nuisance law. Her white neighbors had called the cops on her dozens of times, sometimes over innocuous incidents like hosting barbecues.
The nuisance laws have also repeatedly ensnared people with disabilities and mental illnesses, too. After a review of lawsuits and public records requests, for instance, two law students at Harvard University found that a landlord in Baraboo, Wisconsin, was warned he’d be subjected to penalties if he didn’t “abate” a nuisance at his property: a mother who had called the cops twice for help with her suicidal daughter.
‘He’s my child’
Even without these ordinances, bringing in the police to address symptoms of a person’s mental illness can be an immensely fraught decision. People with serious, untreated mental health issues are 16 times more likely to die at the hands of police when compared to other civilians.
Parker said she was never told of an alternative service she could rely upon to address her son’s needs. Other Midwestern cities like Chicago have announced pilot programs that would send mental health workers and medical professionals—not cops—to calls concerning behavioral problems.
“He’s my child, and for him to not be able to come see me because I’m afraid that if I call the police…,” said Parker, with her voice trailing off. “I’m just scared now that everything falls back on me.”
Parker started being threatened with punishment over 911 calls in 2015, when she first received a letter from the local police chief telling her that officers had already responded to her property twice for nuisance violations. Any future calls would result in her “being charged for police services,” the letter said. She got a similar warning letter in 2018.
Then, in September of 2018, she was at last fined—in part over an incident in which she called police for help because her son pushed her, which prompted cops to tell her she should evict her child. (She eventually did, although he wasn’t her tenant and didn’t live with her; he just visited often.) Police also noted her son “was involved in an altercation with mall security at a Foot Locker shop,” according to Parker’s lawsuit.
The fines piled on from there, sometimes just days or weeks apart: Between Feb. 19 and Feb. 27 of 2019 alone, Parker received letters about three financial penalties. One was over her son calling police to say he was suicidal and needed help, for which he was transferred to a hospital after initially resisting officers’ attempts to handcuff him. The second came because Parker’s son dialed 911 to say he had a drinking problem and wanted to go to the hospital. The third punishment happened when Parker’s son phoned the cops to complain about Parker leaving him at home.
At this point, the debt is so stressful that it’s affecting Parker’s memory and ability to sleep.
On some occasions, Parker said, she’d just leave her house and sleep in a parking lot to avoid calling the cops over her son. Other times, police would drop her son off at her house without her permission.
“It’s really scary when you get 70 and you think you’re going to be out on the street,” Parker said. “It’s scary. It’s just scary. I’m scared.”
Parker’s lawsuit demands that the nuisance ordinance be found unconstitutional or unlawful—making it unenforceable—and that her debts be eliminated. In the meantime, though, she feels she can’t visit with her son or call the police if she’s in danger.
“It really doesn’t help the larger community to basically tell family members that if they try to maintain their relationship with their loved one that they will get a bill from the police every time that loved one calls the police, or that they call the police,” said White, Parker’s attorney.