Detroit residents, activists protest use of police in evictions

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the entity that sold Geraldine McKissick's former home to its current owner.

More than 100 people took to the streets of Detroit on Saturday to protest police involvement in evictions.

The protest, organized by local activist groups Detroit Will Breathe and Detroit Eviction Defense, kicked off in front of Detroit Public Safety Headquarters on Third Street and proceeded through downtown.

Rosey White of Detroit regains her composure while talking about her 2016 eviction.

The demonstration, which followed a protest in January on the same issue, highlighted the stories of multiple women who said they have experienced illegal evictions, poor housing conditions and the loss of their homes to tax foreclosure.

Rosey White said she decided to speak publicly about her experience after seeing news coverage about Whitney Burney, who was evicted from her northwest Detroit home in December. Burney alleged that her landlord falsely claimed she was a squatter and enlisted the help of Detroit Police Department officers from the 10th precinct to evict her and her four children.

White said she went through a similar experience in December 2016, when she claims her landlord falsely told Detroit police she was a squatter and officers showed up unannounced to evict her, causing her to lose all of her possessions, become homeless for a time, and struggle to find work. White has since secured new housing, but said she continues to deal with the trauma from what she experienced.

"I literally had to start my life over. I didn't have anything," she said. "It was very difficult for me to get back on my feet, and when I saw Ms. Burney's story, it was like looking in the mirror because the exact same thing happened to me. That tells us that the issue is not resolved and we need solutions to resolve it."

Detroit police officials have insisted that the department's policy is not to get involved with evictions.

A police review determined that department policy was not followed in Burney's case. And the city has been working with police and nonprofit partners to resolve the situation, including helping Burney secure housing and compensate her for her losses. A city spokesman said Saturday that the city is awaiting paperwork so it can reimburse Burney.

But White claimed that up until recent news coverage of her situation, police did not respond to her after she first reached out in 2016 to complain. 

"Do you know how humiliated, disrespected I feel to have to see Ms. Burney's story on the news and know that was also my story and that the same shenanigans are ongoing today?" she said. 

Detroit Eviction Defense and Detroit Will Breathe organized a demonstration, Saturday, April 10, 2021, where more than 100 people protested in front of Detroit Police headquarters then marched through downtown Detroit to demand police stop getting involved with evictions.

A spokesman said the city connected White to a housing assistance agency but is unaware of any requests for financial compensation related to her case.

Detroit police spokeswoman Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood said police have tried to contact White to investigate her complaint but have not yet connected with her.

"We're more than willing to invest any allegations that come through our office related to misconduct," she said. She reiterated that it is the department's policy not to get involved in evictions, and said there would be an investigation if officers are alleged to have broken that policy.

Protesters march east on Michigan Avenue toward downtown Detroit.

Meanwhile, police officials have said that officers will be trained and the department's policy on evictions will be emphasized to new recruits, to prevent similar incidents from occurring.

Still, activists say the actions taken up to this point aren't enough. They contend that police involvement in illegal evictions continues to be an issue.

"This can really upend someone's life," said Joe McGuire, of Detroit Eviction Defense. "And the department, if you bring this up to them, will say, 'That's not our policy. Officers aren't supposed to get involved in evictions.' But yet it keeps happening."

Activists are demanding that the city and police punish police officers who assist landlords with illegal evictions, hold landlords accountable for attempting illegal evictions, conduct an audit of police-involved evictions and make the findings public, compensate tenants with similar experiences, and make citywide changes to the way officers are trained and supervised. 

"We want to see real changes from the department and the city, to show that they're doing something to make sure that this doesn't happen again," said McGuire. "We're just demanding that they follow their own policy."

Taura Brown of Detroit gets on the email lists of various organizations before the rally. She is fighting eviction from her home in Detroit's Tiny Town.

The protest featured several other speakers who said they, too, have experienced systemic barriers to stable housing.

Geraldine McKissick, 58, for example, said she is attempting to get back ownership of her house after losing it to tax foreclosure due to being overtaxed. McKissick said she lost the home, once owned by her grandmother, after living there for 19 years. The home was sold to its current owner at a Wayne County tax auction.

"Black homes matter. Generational wealth matters," she told the crowd Saturday.

Meanwhile, White said she is speaking out in the hopes that no one else will experience what she did.

“What I went through was very traumatic. I don’t want it to happen to anybody else," she said. "So I think that it’s important that they are aware of what’s going on and that they make active changes to prevent this from happening again.”

Twitter: @JGrzelewski