Did you know that there are towns in this country that penalize people—even victims of crimes—if they call 911 too many times?
Domestic violence survivor Rosetta Watson found this out the hard way in 2012 when the city of Maplewood, Mo., evicted her from her residence and barred her from living anywhere else in the city for six months. They did all of this because Watson had called police four times asking for protection from her abusive ex-boyfriend.
Watson was the victim of a local ordinance which declares calling 911 to report domestic violence more than two times in a 180-day period a “nuisance.” The ordinance does not differentiate between perpetrators and victims—everyone in the situation is a nuisance as far as the ordinance is concerned. Victims are not protected.
What makes the ordinance worse is the fact that living in Maplewood requires an occupancy permit, and if you are determined to be a “nuisance” under the ordinance, your occupancy permit can be revoked and any future ones denied for six months. In essence, you can be forced into a homeless situation all because you tried to get help from the police.
Exactly who does that protect, and who does that serve?
Maplewood officials knew that Watson was the victim of domestic violence. City records showed that the man had physically assaulted her, but even with that evidence, officials decided she should have her occupancy permit revoked.
Watson was forced to move to St. Louis where her ex tracked her down again. He broke in her home and stabbed her.
In addition to being attacked again by her violent ex, Watson also lost her Section 8 voucher, which was crucial to her being able to maintain stable housing.
In April 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Missouri filed a federal lawsuit against Maplewood on Watson’s behalf. The suit alleged that Maplewood’s ordinance “violates fundamental constitutional rights, including the First Amendment right to petition the government for assistance and the rights to travel, equal protection, and due process.”
They also made the argument that federal Violence Against Women Act preempts the ordinance.
On Tuesday, the Maplewood City Council approved a settlement agreement which will provide compensation for Watson and an overhauling of the ordinance.
As part of the agreement, Maplewood will no longer enforce the ordinance against crime victims and it will no longer penalize residents for calls made to police or for emergency services. Additionally, city officials will be trained on how to support victims of crime. The city will also provide records to the ACLU on an annual basis showing how it is enforcing the ordinance overall.
While signing the settlement agreement, Watson told the ACLU, “I thought calling 911 would help stop the abuse, but instead Maplewood punished me. I lost my home, my community, and my faith in police to provide protection. I brought the case to make sure that other women in Maplewood do not suffer the way I did.”