The domestic violence complaints left a Maplewood resident homeless. She was punished by the city for her calls.
In September of 2011, Rosetta Watson, an 58-year-old African American woman with disabilities, called the police after her boyfriend at the time, Robert Hennings III, broke down her front door and proceeded to punch her in the face. Just a few months later, she called again on three separate occasions, after Hennings choked, hit and shoved her, putting her life in danger. After the fourth incident, Hennings was finally convicted for domestic assault and sentenced to 200 days in prison. He is now deceased. However, reporting the abuse did more harm for Watson than good and she was ultimately punished by the city in which she lived for her calls.
The complaints left Watson homeless due to an ordinance in her hometown of Maplewood, Missouri, which states that residents can be punished by being evicted from their homes if the police are called more than twice in a six month period. Maplewood is a city of about 8,000 people located about seven miles west of St. Louis. The city’s policy also states its terms as including more than two incidents of domestic violence that result in calls to the police within a 180-day period. Maplewood officials told Watson that the four reports put police officers at risk and caused a disturbance of the peace as well as a “high magnitude of harm.”
Watson was relying on disability payments and a Section 8 rental housing voucher at the time of her eviction. She lost her voucher when she could no longer rent in Maplewood. This left her without stable options for housing and caused brief stretches of homelessness. Watson was forced into moving eight times. Her voucher was finally restored just last year, when the St. Louis County Housing Authority was found to be violating the former resident’s rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a case against the city of Maplewood on Watson’s behalf for allegedly violating the Violence Against Women Act and domestic violence victim’s rights, which includes the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Watson’s lawsuit names the City of Maplewood; the city manager, Martin Corcoran; the police chief, Stephen Kruse; and another city official, Anthony Traxler, as defendants.
The policy the city punished Watson with “resulted in significant harms to Ms. Watson, including violation of constitutional rights, loss of her home and long-term housing stability, as well as severe and ongoing emotional suffering and mental anguish,” according to Sandra Park, an A.C.L.U. senior lawyer. She went on to state, “Nuisance and crime-free ordinances are popular across the country, but they are deeply unfair, dangerous policies. They punish people for crimes occurring at their homes, often resulting in homelessness and the silencing of residents who need to call 911.”
The ACLU has filed similar cases which have resulted in lawsuit settlements in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and Surprise, Arizona. Unfortunately, some ordinances make no notable distinction between complaints made by victims and their perpetrators. All are treated the same. Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania have already passed laws preventing cities from punishing residents for submitting emergency complaints, and more states are expected to follow suit as settlements are reached.