In an invasive, war-like operation known as the Neighborhood Blitz, police officers in Stockton, California illegally searched the apartments of poor minorities and physically disabled people, according to a class action lawsuit filed Wednesday. Under the guise of standard housing inspections, armed officers routinely burst into homes with little to no warning, ransacked the premises without warrants, demanded personal information from tenants that had nothing to do with their homes, and threatened renters with arrests and homelessness.
The nine plaintiffs — all of whom are African American, Hispanic, or disabled — allege the Stockton PD stormed into their Gateway Court apartments and subjected them to unconstitutional searches. Rather than giving tenants 21 days’ notice, per Stockton’s municipal code, police entered the units with less than 24 hours’ notice and often walked in without the permission of the people living there. Lacking warrants, the cops examined mattresses, closets, drawers, and cupboards — throwing the contents on the floor. They also searched plaintiffs’ medications and demanded to see personal documents, including bills and rental papers. Officers would come at any time of day or night — barging in when people were eating or sleeping — and several searches of pregnant women’s apartments were conducted without taking the women’s health into account.
If tenants tried to deny entry or failed to comply with officers’ demands, the police threatened to arrest them, place them in homeless shelters, and shut down the apartments altogether. An armed officer was present during all of the searches.
Although the Stockton Municipal Code requires inspections of every rental property in the city, the plaintiffs say they were discriminated against based on their race and low-income status. The city allows some property owners to “self-inspect” their rental units, meaning they are exempt from official sweeps. But the plaintiffs argue that low-income renters were not granted the exemption and specifically targeted by police whose Blitz program was created to monitor and fix “high crime areas.” Instead of cracking down on the property’s owners, who allowed the apartments to become dilapidated and infested with vermin, the police went after individual renters in an attempt to mitigate crime.
While this may be the most recent example, law enforcement sweeps of public housing is one of many police tactics that have contributed to mass incarceration. In the early 1990s, the Chicago Housing Authority illegally raided public housing units for drugs and weapons, until a federal court order halted the practice in 1994. To circumvent the court’s decision, President Bill Clinton emboldened property owners to conduct aggressive, warrant-less searches for drugs and weapons nationwide, setting a precedent for similar apartment raids today. Clinton and former attorney general Janet Reno encouraged housing authorities to ask tenants to submit to voluntary inspections. But if a search was considered an emergency, those authorities could enter homes without official warrants.
At the time, housing advocates feared Clinton’s announcement would undermine the rights of low-income communities of color by subjecting them to unconstitutional sweeps.
The Stockton plaintiffs are seeking $1 million in damages.