Imagine lying in bed in a deep slumber only to be rudely awakened by police ransacking your home. You haven’t committed a crime but officers search your residence for no reason other than that you’re poor and a minority. A class action lawsuit filed this week by public housing residents in Stockton, Calif., alleges that police officers did just that. Over and over again.
Filed by nine tenants of the Gateway Apartments, the class action suit accuses Stockton police officers of repeatedly searching their homes without warrants as part of a “neighborhood blitz” program. The blitz program aims to “clean up ‘blight and high crime areas’ by combining uniformed policing and code enforcement, and targeting specific identified targets.” But Gateway tenants state in the lawsuit that police abused the program, which they describe as “invasive” and “war-like.” They say authorities entered their homes on numerous occasions, not to search for code violations but to see if they were involved in criminal activities.
The residents who filed the suit are all Black, Latino, poor or have disabilities. Using the “blitz” program as an alleged cover, Stockton police reportedly demanded 24-hour access to the tenants’ homes and would threaten them with arrest, fines or eviction if they did not consent to the searches, even if officers arrived late at night or during meal times.
The suit describes blitz program as “an intentionally nasty, punitive and wholly unjustified tactic” that served to “target low-income people, racially profile, and deny low-income people, people with disabilities and people of color their constitutional rights.”
Even expectant mothers weren’t spared the humiliation of the searches, according to the suit. “Pregnant women and mothers of infants were intruded upon, without regard to the impact on their health,” it states.
If the allegations are true, the Gateway tenants truly lived in a police state, where the authorities not only entered their homes at all hours but also asked for copies of their bills and looked at personal items unrelated to any unlawful enterprise. In fact, police never arrested the tenants involved in the suit nor did they find drugs or weapons. Adding insult to injury is that while the police officers told residents they’d entered their homes to check for housing code violations, the Gateway Apartments grew increasingly dilapidated, with actual code violations left unchecked by the police.
Vermin overtook vacant apartments in the complex, but the authorities apparently did not demand changes from the owners, who have yet to speak out on the lawsuit in which they, along with the police, are named as defendants. Stockton police also reportedly ignored actual crimes— drug sales, gambling and prostitution—that took place in the vacant apartments, according to the suit. Yolanda Huang, the Oakland-based attorney for the plaintiffs, described the living conditions in the apartment complex as “abominable.”
“It is abhorrent that we allow these housing conditions to exist, that people are paying rent to live in such situations and that our government takes it upon themselves to harass and fine the tenants, and to violate the tenants’ constitutional rights, but not take the necessary action to ensure that landlords profiting from the rents meet statutory habitability standards,” she told the Courthouse News Service.
This case is a frightening example of how Americans marginalized in society because of their skin color, class or disability status not only must fear police while driving or walking down the street but in their own homes.
The Gateway tenants seek punitive damages on 13 counts, among them illegal search and seizure, equal protection violations, housing and public safety code violations, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, nuisance, negligence and unlawful business practice.
It’s difficult to believe that American citizens can be treated as criminals in the place where they should feel the safest. If the allegations against the Stockton police are true, one not only hopes justice is served but authorities no longer behave as if it’s okay to trample upon a person’s rights just because of their wealth status or skin color.