Tlaib, protesters demand Detroit police halt assisting evictions

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — More than 50 protesters gathered Saturday in front of the Detroit Police Department's 10th Precinct demanding officers stop assisting with evictions after a family was allegedly targeted as squatters by a landlord.

Local activist groups Detroit Eviction Defense and Detroit Will Breathe called the protest to demand justice for Whitney Burney and her four children, who were evicted from their northwest Detroit home on Dec. 19.

Protesters gather in front of the Detroit Police Department's 10th Precinct on the city's northwest side on Saturday urging police to stop assisting evictions. Detroit Police Cmdr. Tiffany Stewart addresses the crowd.

The landlord allegedly told police that Burney was a squatter and was assisted with the eviction by four police officers from the precinct, Burney said. The Detroit Police Department was unable to disclose the landlord's name pending an investigation.

The activists claim that police would have known the landlord was "lying" if they had seen the history of text messages Burney had between her and the landlord acknowledging her as a tenant.

Burney said the landlord sexually harassed her and was hostile after she refused his advances.

Whitney Burney, middle, addresses supporters on Saturday, Jan. 16. in front of the Detroit Police Department's 10th precinct. She says four officers assisted in her wrongful eviction based on the landlord's claim that she was a squatter.

It was "a very traumatizing experience," Burney said. "My children and I were forced to leave our home, all of our belongings, our Christmas gifts on a cold winter day."

Burney said before she rented the home, she and her children were living in a shelter and struggling to get back on their feet. She also claimed she called the police to file a claim prior to the eviction and the officer wouldn't take her report.

After the protest, Detroit police Cmdr. Tiffany Stewart told The Detroit News that officers do not engage with evictions.

"There is a policy in place," Stewart said. "On that day, we dispatched to the location on reports of a squatter. ... A commander-level investigation found that the sergeant assigned did not follow policy at the time and that is being reviewed."

City officials are working with Detroit police and its nonprofit partners "to make sure Burney is made whole again," Stewart said.

Chelsea Neblett, Detroit's financial empowerment manager, said on Dec. 21, the city was made aware of the incident and immediately tapped the United Community Housing Coalition and other resources for the displaced family.

"We met with Whitney at the property on Dec. 23 and we were not able to retrieve her items (without a warrant). We've arranged a case manager for her and currently supporting her with a hotel stay while they work on permanent housing for her," Neblett told The News.

Members of the Detroit Eviction Defense and Detroit Will Breathe march to the 10th Precinct Police Department in Detroit on January 16, 2021.

As the protesters marched from Nardin Park toward the Detroit Police Department on Livernois Avenue they were met by officers outside the front doors.

The crowd, led by Detroit Will Breathe organizer Tristan Taylor, demanded the names of the officers who assisted the eviction and that they be removed from the department. They also demanded officers stop assisting evictions without first filing a case in court.

Stewart told them, "We respect your right to protest. We hear you and we understand your concern. At this point in time, we have made sure that our officers are trained so that this does not occur again."

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib joined the protest Saturday and said many single mothers in the city have been targeted by predatory landlords.

"For them to use government-funded police to do the illegal eviction, that alone is more traumatizing," Tlaib said to protesters. "It is so important to understand that we are in a global public pandemic and they still have time to go and stand by a sexual predator to evict a mother and her four children in the middle of winter. It is unjust and it's one story of many."

Tlaib recalled stories of undocumented residents who were being taken advantage of by landlords who would ask to have sex with their children as a form of rent payment.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib speaks with members of the Detroit Police 10th Precinct about the eviction of single mother, Whitney Burney and her four children just before Christmas.

Following the march, Tlaib also confronted officers to debrief them on what occurred in December.

"This continues to happen," Tlaib said. "If they call the police, the police criminalizes them. They focus on the poor, the vulnerable, not the predators, not the people that are targeting our neighbors."

Joe McGuire, a spokesman for Detroit Eviction Defense, said the organization helped Burney refile the report.

"I went there myself and saw that the house was stripped bare, her belongings were scattered on the front lawn, smashed mirrors, a garbage can full of her things," McGuire said. "While there were some things left inside, the police would not open the house to retrieve those things because they didn't have a warrant."

Joe McGuire of Detroit Eviction Defense stands with Tristian Taylor of Detroit Will Breathe on the steps on the 10th Precinct in Detroit to hand deliver a list of demands to the police department.

McGuire, along with Taylor, said "this is not a new issue, but a movement that can make sure folks are protected."

"It's not a slow process to get an eviction in court. Do it that way so a judge can review it, so the tenant gets a chance to tell their side of the story. ... There's no excuse for circumventing that process," McGuire said.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_