TAMPA — The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating a controversial Tampa Police Department program in which officers alerted landlords when their tenants were arrested and urged they be evicted.
The Justice Department informed the city of the investigation in a letter sent Dec. 21 to Tampa Mayor Jane Castor. The investigation is focused on whether the Crime-Free Multi Housing program violated the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race and other protected categories.
An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that during the eight-year anti-crime initiative officers sent hundreds of letters that encouraged landlords to evict tenants based on arrests, including cases where charges were later dropped. About 90 percent of tenants flagged to landlords were Black renters. That’s despite Black residents averaging only 54 percent of all arrests in Tampa over the same period.
Three-quarters of the roughly 100 apartment complexes enrolled in the voluntary program at its peak were in neighborhoods where U.S. Census block data shows the majority of residents are Black and Hispanic, the Times reported.
The federal letter acknowledges that police ended the initiative Dec. 1. It was replaced by a program called SAFE, under which officers no longer send arrest notices to landlords.
This is the second Department of Justice investigation into Tampa police operations in seven years. A 2015 Times investigation showed that officers issued tickets to bicyclists who were almost exclusively Black. A subsequent federal review concluded the tactic — dubbed “biking while black” — was unfair and often perceived as harassment.
As then-police chief, Castor defended the practice as pro-active policing intended to address high crime areas. One year ahead of her successful 2019 campaign to be city mayor, she acknowledged the citations were a mistake and apologized.
Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis said both investigations show the additional hardships faced by the Black community that are rarely, if ever, endured by other residents of the city.
“It tells me that there was some injustice going on again,” she said. “The truth will come out. The Tampa Police Department has got to stop over policing the African-American community.”
Justice Department officials declined to comment on the investigation. It will will have to consider how much sway officers had over housing decisions. The program did not give them direct say over evictions. But police training materials provided to landlords touted evictions as a way to reduce crime and letters to landlords frequently urged action. “Once you receive this information, you are required to take immediate action through notice to cure, notice to vacate, or eviction,” was standard wording in one police district until it was changed in 2018.
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The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs in 2016 issued guidance stating that arrests should not be the basis for evictions and should not be used to deny tenant applications to live in public housing and federally subsidized properties. National housing and civil rights experts told the Times that the city’s program likely violates the Fair Housing Act because it had a “disparate impact based on race and national origin.”
Castor, who as police chief authorized the launch of the crime-free program in 2013, mentioned the investigation at a Friday news conference. She said the city followed federal guidelines when it started the crime-free initiative and updated the program when the guidelines changed. She touted a 34 to 37 percent reduction in the number of reports of crime at participating apartment complexes.
That’s higher than the numbers police reported to the Times in 2021, when officials said crime reports fell about 28 percent at the 51 complexes that took part in the program through at least 2020.
“We personally believe that if an individual is arrested for a very serious crime, like murder, rape, drug trafficking, that that public information should be made available to their landlord,” Castor said Friday. “Everyone deserves to feel safe in the neighborhood that they’re living in, regardless of their income level.”
The city on Oct. 27 asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs to review the program and its replacement, SAFE. It provides an online dashboard with links for residents or property owners who want to request a police arrest or incident report. Under Florida’s public records law, those reports are already available to every resident.
The Times investigation showed landlords were routinely informed of the arrests of juveniles, incidents of domestic violence and misdemeanor and non-violent arrests, including charges of shoplifting, driving with a suspended license and panhandling. Police sent 140 notices detailing arrests that took place more than a mile from the tenant’s apartment complex. In dozens of cases, charges detailed to landlords that put tenants at risk of eviction were later dropped.
The story detailed cases where entire families were evicted following the arrest of a juvenile or a family member who did not live in the property, but was still on the lease.
Four days after the investigation was published, Castor announced that officers would only inform landlords of “certain serious drug and violent felonies,” that a police captain must sign off on notices sent, and landlords will only be notified about arrests that took place on their properties.