It’s unthinkable that a woman calling 911 because her husband or boyfriend is beating her could risk a Tacoma nuisance citation.
But there it was in black and white: A Tacoma city ordinance had domestic violence on the same list as other chronic nuisances such as urinating in public, indecent acts and prostitution.
A victim contemplating calling 911 had to weigh her options: Should she call for help and risk a violation that could lead to eviction, or should she stay silent?
This terrible dilemma was officially eliminated from city code Tuesday when the Tacoma City Council unanimously voted to scratch domestic violence from the nuisance ordinance.
We have to wonder how such a tone-deaf policy stayed on the books for 17 years. If anything, city government needs to strengthen access to DV support systems, not impede it under the threat of a nuisance violation.
The old ordinance made no distinction between victim and perpetrator. When police received repeated calls from the same address, as is typical in families living with an abuser, officers could have enforced a code that puts victims in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t position.
Labeling domestic violence as a nuisance was not only misguided, it was unnecessary. To crack down on those who sow disorder in the home, police can still respond to underlying offenses listed in the ordinance, such as noise, assault and reckless endangerment.
Tacoma is not the only city slow to get wise. According to a recent article in Slate Magazine, an estimated 2,000 US municipalities penalize households perceived to be a nuisance. These “crime-free” ordinances put pressure on landlords to either evict tenants who are making 911 calls or get them to stop. They also can stoke public distrust of law enforcement.
It just proves there is more work to be done to change society’s view of domestic violence, which, by the way, is not a nuisance but an emergency, and very often a crime.
Credit for finally removing DV from Tacoma’s list of disorderly behaviors goes to City Council members Keith Blocker and Catherine Ushka, who sponsored the resolution.
A week before the vote, Rebecca Stith, former chair of the city’s Human Rights Commission, argued on behalf of the change, saying abusers have used city code to keep women from reporting abuse. She called it “a weapon in the arsenal of the abuser. It’s one more thing they can hold over the victim’s head.”
Stith added that ordinances like Tacoma’s have a “discriminating impact particularly on poor women of color.” This comes as no surprise; study after study shows the overlap of poverty, inequality and domestic violence.
Tacoma officials are hardly the first to recognize problems with nuisance ordinances. At least two states, New York and Illinois, have adopted laws establishing the right of tenants to call police or emergency assistance without fear of losing their housing.
Of course the big question is: Did Tacoma police enforce the code against DV callers? Public information officer Wendy Haddow says “no,” adding that in her two decades with TPD, she’s never seen nor heard of that happening.
Haddow tells us that police routinely receive multiple calls from the same residence, but they often involve a mental health or disability issue. If domestic violence is the reason for a call, she says officers follow a strict protocol that includes a safety plan for victims and possible arrest of the perpetrator.
But Kim Tosch, a member of the Human Rights Commission, told a different story to the City Council. She said she’s heard of cases where police officers have expressed frustration with a caller complaining of abuse.
On average, in the United States, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. One in 15 children are exposed to intimate partner violence each year, and 90 percent of these kids live on the frontlines of violence.
But at least now abusers in Tacoma can’t weaponize an archaic city code to stop victims from seeking help. And women can no longer be held responsible for actions taken by their abuser.
Other Washington communities should take this as a cue to honestly examine their own “crime free” ordinances. Punishing victims of violence, people living with disabilities and mental-health issues, and other vulnerable individuals is the last thing cities should be doing.
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