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Advocates Say Police Have Too Much Discretion in Updated Public Housing Policy

no trespassing sign
A sign at the Richmond Redevelopment Housing Agency. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the agency responsible for public housing, has made a few changes to its policy about how - and for how long - it bars certain visitors from its housing development properties.

The new policy is more specific than the old one, which permitted barment for any visitor unable to provide a “lawful social or business reason” for being on the property, but advocates and some residents say the language still gives too much discretion to authorities to dictate who can - and can’t - enter these communities.

RRHA says the purpose of the policy change was to ensure residents aren’t unjustifiably restricted in having family and friends visit them. 

“The intent of the previous policy was to prevent any loitering or other gatherings of non-RRHA residents on our properties,” said Ben Titter, legal counsel for RRHA, in a phone interview with VPM. “But the language that was there we felt could be revised.”

C.R., a former RRHA resident whose full name we aren’t using because he fears retaliation, says he was barred from RRHA property in 2017 by a Richmond police officer while sitting in his car, waiting to pick up a friend. He says the officer started asking him a bunch of questions like where he was going, and what he was doing, which he took offense to. 

“I'm sitting in a car waiting on somebody, how can you label that as anything?” C.R. told VPM. “You don't even say I did anything. You just say, it's possible I could have done something [selling drugs]. That's what's on the paper [barment notice].” 

C.R. says he didn’t realize how serious the barment was initially. “I thought I could just go to the [RRHA] office, say what happened and it'd be over with,” C.R. said. “But that was not the case.” 

C.R. says nobody told him about the official appeal process; according to both the old and new RRHA barment policies, an administrative appeal can be requested but only within 21 days of the barment notice. 

C.R. believes he’s still on the housing authority’s Barred Persons List, and says he hasn’t been notified if - or when - he’s been removed. That’s affected his ability to visit friends and family without the fear of being arrested and going to jail. 

“All the time, [I have to say to family and friends]: ‘I can't come over there, buddy they might bother me over there, I’m not messing around,’ ” he said. 

building
Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the agency responsible for public housing, has made a few changes to its policy about how - and for how long - it bars certain visitors from its housing development properties.

In perhaps the largest change, RRHA created an across-the-board three-year time period for all barments. The new policy removes a one-year barment period for “non-violent activity” that was in the old policy. 

Another change: Richmond police will automatically remove those on the banned list after three years. Ben Titter with RRHA says the old policy required people to formally request to be taken off the list of barred visitors through its appeals process which he acknowledges was administratively burdensome. 

“We found that there were many individuals who were eligible to come off the list but hadn't made that request,” Titter said. “And therefore, they stayed on the list. And in an effort to prevent that from continuing to happen, we worked with RPD to make the change so that it's now an automatic three years.” 

Titter says the Barred Persons List has grown to about 10,000 people. He expects that now, with older cases removed, it’ll shrink to about 300 people. 

The new policies mean C.R.’s barment should be over. We were unable to check on his status with RRHA, as doing so would have exposed his identity. 

Colette McEachin, Richmond’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, is on RRHA’s intervention and prevention task force headed up by Brian Swann, the agency’s director of public safety. RRHA credited the Commonwealth’s Attorney in a press release for developing the changes.

McEachin told VPM Tuesday that she was not aware there were previously separate barment time-limits for criminal and other non-violent, non-criminal activity. She said she wasn’t involved with drafting the policy changes, and directed questions about the language to RRHA. “RRHA and its legal staff rewrote the actual RRHA policy, I didn't have anything to do with that,” McEachin said.

While she said it made sense to “prune” the list, she said the policy is designed to help protect residents so that “once the person was charged with a crime, they could not go back to that location and do something of a retaliatory nature.” 

But Yohance Whitaker, a community organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, is concerned that RRHA resident voices were not included in the dialogue about shaping this policy, and others. He’s advocating for a civilian oversight body to make sure residents have a say in policy decisions that affect them.

“We really need to be thinking about the ways that we shift power away from law enforcement in making these decisions and shift the power to Black and brown communities,” Whitaker said. 

Whitaker says it’s dishonest to call the policy changes “family friendly,” when he doesn’t think the policy itself reflects what the community wants. He says when he’s talked to RRHA residents about what safety means to them, nobody has mentioned barment, separation or increased police presence. 

“The things that I hear are: after school programs for the youth, a vibrant community center, fully-stocked refrigerators, meaningful employment opportunities, strong family and community connections,” Whitaker said. 

“To me, it's a reactive definition [of safety],” said community advocate Keisha Cummings. “The shift has to be from reactive to proactive. To me, public safety is investing in the kids and giving them something to do.”

She says the barment policy only leads to further criminalization of already marginalized communities. 

“I know a resident in Gilpin Court who was charged four times within two weeks of trespassing because he was going to his home,” Cummings said. “Where else was he supposed to go when he got barred?”

….

RRHA stated in a press release that now, only criminal activity will result in barment. Titter said that’s specifically supposed to be limited to criminal activity on RRHA property. But according to the updated policy, barment notices can still be issued for “non-violent activity or crimes committed which affects the health, safety, welfare or quiet enjoyment of public housing residents.”

 

Omari Al-Qadaffi, a community organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, says while the removed language made “common sense,” he wouldn’t go so far as to call the policy changes progressive. 

He worries that the vagueness of the remaining language about “non-violent activity” and affecting the “quiet enjoyment of public housing residents” gives police too much discretion to harass or arrest people without cause.

“That could be playing your music too loud. Or, talking to somebody. Maybe smoking,” Al-Qadaffi said. “The barment policy has been used as a pretext for police interaction with residents for decades.”

Richmond police also have discretion to determine who is in violation of this policy, and who ends up with a criminal charge. RRHA housing managers can make requests that someone be barred to RPD for violations of lease terms. 

Al-Qadaffi says he thinks it’s problematic that any police officer in the state of Virginia has the ability to bar someone from RRHA property, and would prefer if an RRHA staff member more familiar with the community had the ultimate say. He’s also concerned about the 21-day time limit to request an administrative appeal.

“People are generally intimidated by those types of processes,” Al-Qadaffi said. “Perhaps you were accused of a crime that you didn't commit, and maybe you were incarcerated for some time, and then you didn't make that 21-day deadline. I can think of a number of different reasons [why someone could miss the deadline]. I don't even know why that restriction exists.”

RPD maintains the Barred Persons List, and is supposed to report a redacted “read only” copy of the names of those on the list on a monthly basis to be accessed by RRHA’s Housing Manager, according to the new barment policy. 

RRHA’s policy states that visitors are assumed to be lawful “unless an Officer observes firsthand, or obtains reliable information, that a person is engaged in activity on Authority property that would support a finding of probable cause or reasonable suspicion that a person is engaged in unlawful activity in violation of the Authority’s lease, applicable local ordinances or regulations, or state or federal law.” 

It also states that the trespass-barment policy applies not only to all individual tenant dwelling units, but common areas within public housing neighborhoods and the “privatized streets and sidewalks.” 

“How do public dollars get paid to fix the streets out there, but you can tell the public they can't drive on the street?” C.R. questioned.

C.R. says he’s not optimistic that the policy changes will lead to actual change for RRHA residents.

“They [cops] gonna do what they wanna do,” C.R. said. “I know they are. Some of them, not all of them.” 

RPD did not respond to an interview request about the barment policy changes, but in an email a spokesperson stated that “based on the new RRHA policy, RPD officers will consult the updated barment list when necessary in order to enforce the barments from RRHA property. Whether through tips, calls for service, patrol and/or engagement, when officers identify subjects listed on the RRHA barment list, the officers will use their discretion to either request the subject leave RRHA property, issue a trespassing summons, or both. The offense is a misdemeanor.”