Orlando and Orange County scrap crime-free housing programs

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TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor is standing by Tampa’s controversial Crime-Free Multi Housing initiative, but two other Florida law enforcement agencies are scrapping their versions of the program.

The Orlando Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office plan to end their programs, officials said. That decision may intensify the focus on the Tampa Police Department, whose program has been criticized for disproportionately impacting Black and Hispanic tenants.

The anti-crime initiative used by all three agencies was modeled on a national program intended to stamp out gang and drug activity and violent crime in apartment complexes. Under the program, officers sent letters to landlords when their tenants were arrested and required language in apartment leases giving landlords grounds to evict tenants if they, household members or a guest were involved in criminal activity.

Tampa’s program came under fire from local leaders and civil rights groups in September after a Tampa Bay Times investigation showed that officers sent hundreds of letters that encouraged landlords to evict tenants who were arrested. Landlords also were told about arrests for misdemeanor crimes and arrests that occurred elsewhere in the city. In some cases, police notices put entire families at risk of eviction, even when charges were later dropped.

Roughly 90 percent of the 1,100 people flagged by Tampa’s program were Black tenants, the report found.

The police department made several changes to the program in 2018, including toned down wording in notices that instructed landlords to take action.

After the Times story published, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor announced several reforms to the program on Sept. 18. The city will inform landlords only about “certain serious drug and violent felonies.” A police captain must sign off on notices sent. And landlords will be notified only about arrests that happen on their properties.

“The Tampa Police Department made significant changes to the crime prevention program in 2019 and, in consultation with City Council Chairman Orlando Gudes, made more improvements this year, adding safeguards against unfair evictions,” spokesperson Adam Smith said in an email. “The last thing we should do when violent crime is rising is to pull back on law enforcement collaborations with the community.”

Following the Times investigation, State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, called for the Orlando agencies to end their programs. Police officials said they already were overhauling them.

Orlando officials told the Times in May they had put their program on hold and met with community leaders to discuss changes. They have adopted a new program that advises landlords how to make their properties safer with better lighting, door locks and changing landscaping to preserve lines of sight. Landlords will no longer be sent details of police calls to their properties, but can request those reports.

“We’re acting more as guides or coaches as opposed to being a hammer and getting after people,” spokesperson Autumn Jones said.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office said it plans to eliminate the lease addendum that was part of the crime-free program and focus on preventative measures, as well, said spokesperson Michelle Guido.

“This is one example of moving away from more antiquated programs and toward those that can enhance safety and security of our residents, while helping to build the relationship between law enforcement and the community we serve,” Guido said in an email.

After the Times report, Tampa City Council members expressed concern that the program could lead to whole families being evicted if a single household member is arrested.

They voted to have interim Police Chief Ruben “Butch” Delgado report back on Dec. 2 about how police intend to proceed with notifying landlords and to provide data to back up department assertions that the program has reduced crime.

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