The Atlantic

When the Police Call Your Landlord

Crime-free-housing programs are quietly giving police widespread influence over landlords and their tenants.

On a February day last year in Kansas City, Missouri, Officer Aaron McKie sat at his desk in the back corner of the Metro Patrol Division, composing a letter to a landlord. “I have been notified by my Metro Patrol District Officers of ongoing issues at your rental property,” he typed on police-department letterhead. The property—a modest house a few doors down from a highway overpass—was home to a 31-year-old woman and her two small children. About a week earlier, according to a police report, officers had visited the house on a welfare check. But when the woman met them, one officer thought she smelled of PCP. Another spotted her boyfriend in a car nearby. In the car, the officers found a large bottle “filled with what appears to be PCP” (the report doesn’t elaborate) and arrested the woman and her boyfriend. “I need your help solving this problem,” McKie wrote to the woman’s landlord, inviting a follow-up phone call.

McKie works in crime-free multi-housing, a department program whose dull name belies an expansive mission: The Kansas City Missouri Police Department’s website lists seven full-time crime-free-multi-housing officers, whose duties include monitoring goings-on in the city’s rental units, then sharing information—about alleged gun violence, burglaries, drug sales, domestic violence, and other offenses—with property owners and managers. The officers (who refer to themselves as “crime-free officers,” for short) sometimes let landlords know even if tenants are accused of crimes far from home. McKie said that in some cases—like if police find drugs in a home, or make multiple arrests of a tenant—he will actively push the landlord to evict. But he stressed that police have no power to force anything, and any decisions are left up to the landlords. (Captain Tim Hernandez of the department’s media unit said that police “are not involved with the eviction process.”)

In the incident involving the 31-year-old mother and her boyfriend, McKie said he received a call from her landlord’s representative in response to his letter. McKie said that when they spoke, he didn’t ask for an eviction, but did explain that repeated calls for police could lead the property to be classified as a chronic nuisance. According to Kansas City law, that classification can result in fees or even boarding up the house. Current state court records do not show any pending charges from the encounter or any convictions resulting from it. (A spokesman for the landlord said that the tenant “remains in good standing,” but declined to provide details, out of respect for her privacy. The tenant could not be reached for comment.)

Police officers who run the Kansas City program used the word displacement to describe what their program accomplishes. While police aren’t the ones doing the actual evicting—that is ultimately up to the landlords—officers provide the information landlords sometimes use to remove people police see as threats or disturbances to neighbors. Displacing such people is a function usually left to the criminal legal system. But sometimes, housing cases can accomplish what criminal cases—with their slow time lines, presumptions of innocence, and exacting standards—cannot.

Lawmakers in Missouri have recently loosened certain sentencing requirements for people who commit nonviolent crimes, a policy that could reduce the prison population in a state that the Vera Institute of Justice reported had the 12th-highest incarceration rate in the nation in 2018. Displacing people through crime-free-housing programs gives officers another tool. “It just seems like it takes so much for them to have to go to prison, and even when they’re in prison they’re not there very long,” McKie’s colleague Kelly Stamm, also a crime-free officer, said. “All we do is we chase these people, and hopefully chase them out of our city.”

Kansas City is one of hundreds of American cities with crime-free-housing programs, which have proliferated over the last 30 years. Police officers and civilian employees across the country monitor crime reports about rental properties and renters, and share the information with landlords and property managers in an effort to combat crime. Many police departments now dedicate full-time officers to this mission. Sometimes, the information provided by officers can lead to the eviction of tenants suspected of crimes, long before anyone is tried in criminal court. In certain cities (though not Kansas City), officers can even order landlords to evict such tenants. Landlords who refuse to do so face consequences, including fines, loss of their rental license, and—though rarely—even prison.

Supporters say the program works, making residents safer. While critics acknowledge the need to keep communities safe—especially low-income communities, in which residents sometimes feel neglected by police—they worry that crime-free-housing programs facilitate police interference in what should be a private sphere, including by using landlords to inflict punishment outside of the criminal-justice system for crimes tenants may not have even committed. They also raised concerns that the programs could import biases from the criminal-justice system into housing decisions, making it harder for low-income people, people with disabilities and drug addictions, and people of color to find and keep affordable homes. At a time when leaders of all political leanings are working to reform America’s sprawling criminal-justice system, crime-free-housing programs are quietly expanding the system’s reach.

In 1992, a crime-prevention specialist named Tim Zehring invited property managers in Mesa, Arizona, to a meeting and showed them three newspaper clippings. Each told a story of stray bullets striking renters in their homes. “A 79-year-old Mesa woman was shot in the stomach Sunday morning after a gun accidentally discharged in the apartment above her,” one read.

Crime was “making it horrible” for residents in apartment buildings, he recently remembered telling the gathered managers, and he needed their help: “I asked them, ‘What would it take for you to trust the Mesa Police Department so we can work together?’”

At the time, the idea that landlords could—and should—be partners in crime fighting was percolating around the country. Just four years earlier, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan had signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which identified a “reign of terror” in public housing and enlisted providers to fight it. The law mandated that every public-housing lease make any criminal activity occurring on or near public housing grounds to evict, regardless of whether the crime was committed by a tenant or a guest.

Government lawyers pushed the idea in private housing, too. The same year, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office launched the Narcotics Eviction Program, which encouraged landlords to evict suspected drug dealers and allowed the office to take over eviction proceedings if the landlords refused. Soon after, the Milwaukee Police Department’s Drug Abatement Team started informing landlords of tenants’ suspected drug-related crimes, sometimes asking courts to board up and even forcibly sell homes when the landlords failed to respond to the information in a way that satisfied detectives.

In Portland, Oregon, a market-research consultant named John Campbell, after organizing with his own neighbors to address violence and crime in his neighborhood, developed a one-day workshop he called the Landlord Training Program and delivered it through the Portland Police Bureau. The program instructed landlords in topics such as screening potential tenants, dealing with maintenance, and enforcing leases. It also taught landlords that they had a unique crime-fighting tool that police did not: Police could arrest, but arrestees might return home. Eviction could more permanently remove people.

Campbell began sharing his material outside of Oregon, starting with Arizona, where Zehring used it in meetings with property managers. “The more I am involved with this program, the more I am impressed with what you have done,” Zehring wrote to Campbell from Mesa in January 1993. But he noted that there had been controversy around the program in nearby Tucson, and characterized it as “some people claiming ‘the big, bad police’ were teaming up with the ‘big, bad landlords.’”

Indeed, the new paradigm of using property managers as crime fighters had attracted widespread concern. It also had resulted in lawsuits in state after state, with tenants arguing that they should not be evicted on the basis of crimes perpetrated by a guest or a single member of the household.

In Tucson, Paul Gattone, then a tenants-rights lawyer and the founder of the Southern Arizona People’s Law Center, protested the Landlord Training Program, saying it would increase evictions of tenants of color. In a recent interview, he remembered a racist suggestion in one version of Tucson’s Landlord Training Program manual—that all Asian people looked alike. In a chapter on recognizing gang members, a section titled “Asian Gangsters” read, “Male Asian gangsters can change their identity somewhat easily. This is usually done by hairstyle.” Carla Johnson, now an assistant chief in the Tucson Police Department, helped pilot the Landlord Training Program there. She said the passage is not in any current materials, and said criticism like Gattone’s “causes us to reflect and to scrutinize what we are doing because we don’t want to cause harm.” She added, “Our implementation came from a good place of trying to ensure that people could live in safe places.”

In the January 1993 letter to Campbell, Zehring wrote that he had added new parts to the Mesa program: a heightened emphasis on a property’s physical security, and a “block watch”–style training for residents. He told Campbell he hoped these additions would make the program look less as if it were geared exclusively toward landlords and would attract tenants’ support. He also sought Campbell’s blessing to change the titles on the manuals that Mesa police would use, from “Landlord Training Program” to “Crime Free Multi-Housing Program.” “In Arizona, ‘landlord’ means ‘slumlord,’” he wrote. Campbell agreed to the title change.

Three phases—landlord training, security assessment, and what Zehring later called a tenant “safety social”—became the signatures of Zehring’s Crime Free Multi-Housing Program. A “crime-free lease addendum,” similar to the one Congress mandated in public housing, making illegal activity, by any resident or guest, anywhere near a rental property, grounds for eviction, became a central part of the program as well.

Zehring promoted his program, speaking at conferences for law-enforcement officials and rental-property managers. In a TV interview with Good Morning Arizona about two and a half years after the Mesa program began, Zehring said the program was already running in 16 states.

Excited by Zehring’s enthusiasm, Campbell traveled to Mesa to see his work in action. But when he did, he recently told me, he was concerned by its “high level of police control.” “It set up landlords as volunteers, in very close partnership with the police,” Campbell said. He thought that Zehring dangled the benefit of close relationships with the police as a reward for participating. “That’s not the direction [the original Landlord Training Program] was about,” Campbell said.

After visiting Mesa, Campbell’s lawyer sent a letter to the Mesa Police Department accusing it of copyright infringement, saying it had allowed people to adapt Campbell’s materials without permission, and in ways he didn’t approve of. The letter demanded that the department either stop using the program or seek Campbell’s consent on future adaptations. The department denied any wrongdoing. Over the years that followed, as Zehring promoted his version of the crime-free-housing program, Campbell taught his own course and made efforts to publicly distance himself from Zehring’s approach.

Zehring helped create the 1996 version of a manual copyrighted by the Mesa Police Department. “Criminals Are Like Weeds,” reads one header. The manual refers to “the two-legged urban breed of predator” and warns that “lions only hunt when hungry; but criminals are always a danger.” Some parts are more conciliatory, though. One section reads, “Rental properties are not complexes. Complexes are disorders! Rental properties are small communities where people live.”

In 1999, Zehring ran his first conference, and in 2000 he started a nonprofit called the International Crime Free Association. The organization says that the program is now in almost 2,000 cities in the U.S. and five countries, though Zehring told me he doesn’t keep a list. He has said the program works, claiming that fully certified buildings consistently see reduced crime and significant drops in calls for police service.

But as crime-free-housing programs spread, they have evolved in some cities to be increasingly broad and harsh, concentrating more and more power in the hands of police officers. Cities started making crime-free housing mandatory for landlords, and when police instructed landlords to evict, the landlords had to comply. In Faribault, Minnesota, refusal to evict became a misdemeanor crime. Some cities required landlords to conduct criminal background checks on applicants. Cities also passed laws compelling tenants to sign crime-free lease addenda with expanded prohibitions, mandating eviction for any crime, committed anywhere, by any household member or guest.

In recent years, organizations including the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Institute for Justice, the St. Louis Realtors, and the Washington State Office of the Attorney General have spoken out or initiated legal action against the most extreme iterations of crime-free-housing laws on behalf of both tenants and landlords. They argue that the laws, and the way they are carried out, discriminate against racial minorities; that forced evictions violate tenants’ and landlords’ due-process rights; and that government-ordered removal of people from their homes without compensation violates constitutionally protected property rights. Alexis Karteron, an associate professor and the director of the Constitutional Rights Clinic at Rutgers Law School, said, “It is troubling to think of police inserting themselves into people’s homes, whether it is their apartments or just the complexes where they live. It is troubling to think of police departments turning landlords into their agents, engaging in crime-control activities with them.”

Neither Zehring nor the International Crime Free Association are named in the lawsuits. Still, Zehring said his organization has changed its training and website in response, and he encourages officers to be retrained to ensure that “they are in compliance with recent changes we have made.”

He told me that he and his association advise against mandatory crime-free-housing programs that require landlords to follow police recommendations, and the association shouldn’t be held accountable for those programs. But he acknowledged that some cities might choose to adopt them anyway. “We train them, and they are on their own,” he said. “You come; you get the training; you graduated; congratulations, you’re on your own.”

Aaron McKie invited me to Kansas City this past September to observe the inner workings of his department’s program. In 2007, McKie trained with Zehring, who certified him as an international trainer. Now he is one of Kansas City’s longest-serving crime-free officers and the president of Mid-America Crime Free, one of the most active regional groups promoting crime-free housing. Through his group, McKie has trained police officers in Missouri, as well as in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Kansas, to run their own crime-free-housing programs.

One Wednesday morning in Kansas City, McKie stood before a room of about 30 property managers, assistant managers, leasing agents, and maintenance workers and welcomed them to phase one of their crime-free-housing certification. The audience was seated at three rows of folding tables, under the vaulted ceiling of a cavernous event space in the Sheet Metal Workers’ Local No. 2 hall.

McKie introduced Bob Wise, a retired landlord’s attorney and Mid-America Crime Free’s executive director. Dressed all in black and pacing the front of the room as he talked, Wise told the audience he had worked with landlords for decades and remembered a time when police were more hesitant to share information with them. “Now there’s more of an understanding,” he said. “Okay, here’s what the police can do; here’s what your lawyers can do; here’s what we can do working together.”

He explained that it once was legal for landlords to deny any applicant who had a felony record. Now, under a recently enacted Kansas City law, landlords have to consider the “frequency, recentness, and severity” of applicants’ crimes. More than 19,000 people move to Missouri communities every year from prison. “The problem I have is, it sort of turns you all into parole officers,” Wise said. “How do you determine the likelihood that this person will commit another crime? I don’t know how to do it.”

To avoid this difficult task, Wise proposed a different approach: “In your advertising, your social media, wherever it is, you run ads, you put in one more line that says, ‘We do criminal background checks on all applicants.’” He added, “Somebody sees an ad like that they might figure, ‘They’re gonna know about my record, I’ll try somewhere else.’” He told the crowd to be thorough, as well. Many landlords, he said, ask only about convictions. He advised that they “tighten up that question” and ask about pending charges, guilty pleas, and probation.

Wise spoke for three hours, not only about crime but also about how to use leases to avoid liability from negligence claims and, if management ended up in court, how to prevent tenants from asking for jury trials. The audience nodded, taking notes.

Six of Kansas City’s crime-free officers sat at the back of the room. As part of their day-to-day duties, the officers regularly call, email, and visit property managers to share information about incidents involving tenants; during a break, some of the attendees waved or said hello to the familiar officers. A property manager at the training and another who had previously completed it sang the program’s praises, and told me that they only wished they heard from the officers more often.

When everyone settled back inside, Wise introduced the crime-free lease addendum. Many traditional leases already prohibit certain illegal activity on the property, but Mid-America Crime Free’s lease addendum makes drug activity anywhere, by any tenant or anyone “affiliated with” the tenant, at any time, grounds for eviction. “It gives us some rights to evict people which might not be covered by ordinary landlord-tenant law,” Wise told the room.

In criminal court, arrest reports are just allegations of wrongdoing, but in housing cases they are often accepted as evidence that criminal activity occurred. Bringing up a slide with the heading “Burden of Proof: Not as Hard as You Think,” Wise explained that the burden of proof required to prove a case in civil court—where housing matters, such as disputes over evictions, are heard—is lower than in criminal court. “This is kind of the purpose of the whole program,” he stressed. “You can get people off your property for what would ordinarily be considered criminal offenses without necessarily proving they committed a crime.”

When Wise finished his morning talk, everyone clapped. (While he’s now retired, he used to take cases representing landlords, and he told me later that Mid-America Crime Free had been “a great source of business.”)

In the afternoon, one crime-free officer, Trevor Singer, discussed how to improve a property’s security elements, including by using lighting and having bushes clearly define property lines to keep trespassers away. Another crime-free officer, Vito Mazzara, closed the program with an hour-long talk about drug crimes and prosecutions. Referring to hypothetical tenants, he said, “Even if they’re arrested on scene with drugs, with a needle in their arm, that may not go to trial for anywhere from six months to two years … depending on the case.” He looked around the room. “Who can be faster at getting that person out as a problem?” A woman called from the back, “Me!” Mazzara pointed at her like she was the winner on a game show. “That’s right,” he said.

Afterward, as attendees filed out of the training, grabbing their phase-one completion certificates off a table by the door, some property managers stopped to take photographs with the officers, which Wise had suggested earlier. He had said that they should frame the photos and place them somewhere visible to residents and applicants. “It sends a message,” he had said: “‘The police are our friends.’”

Several hours north of Kansas City, 35-year-old David Trotter-Ford is suing Faribault, Minnesota, over its crime-free-housing laws. In October of this year, he and seven other plaintiffs represented by the ACLU are scheduled to go to trial against the city, claiming that a package of laws, including a crime-free-housing law, violated the Fair Housing Act by intentionally discriminating against black and Somali residents. (Paul Reuvers, an attorney for the City of Faribault in the case, denied that the laws were discriminatory in either their intent or their impact.)

In 2015, Trotter-Ford (who is black) spanked one of his children and one of his then fiancée’s children with a belt. When a family member reported bruises on one child, the Rice County Social Services Department temporarily removed some of the children from the home. Less than two weeks later and (according to the lawsuit) before Trotter-Ford had been charged with anything, police ordered the whole family evicted. “It was all like, bam, bam, bam,” Trotter-Ford told me. “They”—social services—“came, then the eviction, and then I got charged.” (The lawyers for the City of Faribault contested some aspects of this account, saying that Trotter-Ford was not on the lease and that Trotter-Ford’s fiancée, Makayla, was already facing an eviction unrelated to the crime-free-housing ordinance which had been issued without “urging by the Faribault Police Department.” The ACLU acknowledged that Makayla had previously received a letter from her landlord about an eviction but argued that it did relate to the crime-free-housing program.)

Once Trotter-Ford pled guilty to neglect and he and Makayla completed parenting classes, the Rice County Social Services Department returned the children to their care. The couple, who later married, struggled to find a new house in town—at least partly a result of criminal background checks mandated by Faribault’s crime-free-housing program, Trotter-Ford argued in his lawsuit. Eventually, the family left Faribault altogether.

While crime-free-housing programs are often advertised as three-phase certification programs, these phases can be a veneer of what is, in fact, a vast and ongoing information-sharing program. In many cities, crime-free-housing coordinators monitor police reports regularly, looking for reports about rental units or their tenants, which they share with property managers. Sometimes landlords hear about allegations before tenants even know they’ve been charged, and long before any conviction.

In the fall, I called crime-free-housing coordinators in several states to learn about the day-to-day information sharing that forms a significant part of their work. The crime-free-housing coordinator Carl Leoni has run the program in DeKalb, Illinois, for almost seven years. Nearly every day, he told me, he sits scrolling through police reports, in a space that was converted from a storage room. When he spots an arrest at a rental property, he sends the details to landlords. The DeKalb Daily Chronicle reported that in 2016 Leoni’s work contributed to 44 evictions. (Leoni said many evictions occur because landlords were planning on it anyway, or because tenants are late in rent payments, and his letter “is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”)

In Joplin, Missouri, the crime-free officer Scotty McDowell said he keeps separate spreadsheets tracking police interactions for around 20 apartment buildings he monitors. He updates the sheets weekly and sends them to the apartment managers or owners. In the Landlord Education Assistance Program in Davenport, Iowa, Captain Jane Imming told me, custom software notifies police officers of calls to rental units; in 2018, there were more than 16,000. An officer then manually reviews the information and any reports related to the calls to determine which are “founded,” and notices about founded reports are mailed to landlords.

Across the country, letters and emails flow between crime-free-housing officers and landlords (or their property managers): an arrest for armed robbery, drugs, a tenant’s boyfriend overdosing in her apartment, a person hitting a pedestrian with his car, a resident forging a prescription. Tenants are unlikely to know that the reports, and other information about their private lives, are being shared.

Deborah Archer, an associate professor and one of the faculty directors of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU School of Law, raised concerns about the close level of coordination between police and property managers in a 2019 Michigan Law Review article titled “The New Housing Segregation: The Jim Crow Effects of Crime-Free Housing Ordinances.” “Race plays an undeniable role in policing,” she wrote. In 2016, black people made up just 13 percent of the U.S. population but 27 percent of arrests. Crime-free officers, Archer worries, may carry that racial bias from the criminal-justice system into housing.

A recent investigation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development gave shape to Archer’s concerns, finding that in Hesperia, California, African American renters were close to four times as likely as white renters to be evicted under its crime-free-housing law, and Latino renters were 29 percent more likely to be evicted than white renters. In December, the U.S. Justice Department filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city, San Bernardino County, and the county sheriff’s department. Archer, who has researched crime-free-housing laws for the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project (she helped develop the Faribault suit but is not currently working on it), called the programs “a modern driver of segregation and exclusion.”

Tim Zehring is aware of the critiques of crime-free housing. The International Crime Free Association’s website links to an ACLU presentation that discusses how nuisance ordinances and crime-free leases can impact domestic-violence survivors and lists some of the concerns the ACLU has raised. “I teach the law and nothing but the law,” he said. Any city whose actions raise the ACLU’s concerns, he insisted, was not following his training.

Early one Monday morning, McKie turned on his computer and opened a log of the weekend’s incident reports, which officers filed when a crime was reported, when they suspected a crime, or when an arrest was made: 174 in total. Scanning the reports, McKie took a long drink of coffee. He had been up all night, working a private-security shift.

His work habits are inherited. McKie’s father worked two jobs—days with KC Water and nights in the Kansas City Star’s mail room—to keep him and his brother in private school. After graduation, McKie bided time working as a vehicle detailer at a car dealership until he was old enough to enter the police academy’s training program. Now, his office is filled with the mementos of a 20-year career. When I visited, trophies from Mid-America Crime Free’s golf tournaments sat on his filing cabinet, and a soaring stack of leftover water bottles from the department’s baseball games stood beside it. Pinned to the wall was his certification as an international trainer for the crime-free-housing program.

Those involved in crime-free-housing programs emphasize their role in helping to remove people they describe as dangerous—referring to gang members, people involved in gun violence, and tenants who threaten their neighbors and landlords. But when I sat in McKie’s office, and later in the offices of Kansas City’s other crime-free officers, I watched them get involved in a diversity of incidents—some that might have posed danger to neighbors, some that might have inconvenienced them, and others that seemed to affect mostly the tenants themselves.

Captain Hernandez of the department’s media unit said the department does not keep full records of crime-free officers’ interactions with landlords, because officers aren’t required to track them. But the files he shared with me—incomplete and unofficial records from crime-free officers over the past three years—showed more than 400 evictions related to incident reports that included threats toward staff, shots fired, shoplifting, and the smell of marijuana. (Hernandez said that the information given in those reports “should not be considered accurate stats or factual outcomes,” later adding that the reports represent what the officers “were informed or had heard was in progress” and that officers do not need to verify the information in the reports because they are unofficial.)

In his office, McKie scrolled through the weekend’s reports until he spotted one with the familiar address of a rental apartment. “Domestic violence,” he said, printing it to share with management. “Non-aggravated assault.” Crime-free officers sometimes share reports about domestic-violence survivors with landlords. While a new law in Missouri generally prohibits landlords from evicting people for experiencing domestic violence, evictions are permitted if the victim allowed the abuser into the house. McKie stressed that evictions typically don’t happen until the landlord has received multiple reports of violence in the home, and he said it was important to inform them because “information sharing helps us solve issues.” “We can’t just continue to allow you to put yourself in that situation, or the property to continue to get damaged because you guys can’t get along,” he said. He added, “I mean, if you’re going to continue to stay with this person that’s abusing you, then you can do it elsewhere.” (McKie later said police try to help domestic-violence survivors, and that it’s often “another violation that causes an eviction.”)

Scott Mason, the director of marketing at the Rose Brooks Center, a local organization that helps domestic-violence survivors, noted that the Kansas City Missouri Police Department had supported the new domestic-violence law, and he expressed concern that landlords might evict domestic-violence survivors after crime-free officers share reports. “The person that knows best how to stay safe is the victim,” he said. He explained that a survivor might let someone into the home to prevent violence from escalating, and that evicting survivors endangered them, as they might turn to their abusers to avoid homelessness. (Hernandez said he hasn’t been aware of “an assessment where [crime-free] officers’ actions jeopardized the safety of domestic survivors.”)

When he reached the end of the list, McKie checked his voicemails, and a man’s deep, slightly muffled voice came from the speaker. “Officer McKie, some things happened over the weekend. One person was killed, and another guy was beat up on. Please give me a call as soon as you can.” The man was desperate to move and had called regularly since a patrol officer had given him McKie’s number. McKie recognized the voice immediately and told me he was trying to help the man find a new place to live. “I’m going to help in some way, somehow, the best I can,” he said.

The deeply felt sympathy that McKie and many of his colleagues display for some residents stands in sharp contrast to their disdain for others. They seem to divide tenants into two groups: people who cause problems, and people who suffer from them; those who need protecting, and those who must be removed for the protection of others.

The crime-free-housing program isn’t a one-way relationship. Just as officers count on managers for help, managers count on them. Last spring, McKie said, the manager of an apartment complex that had been the site of a homicide asked him to organize a warrant sweep there. McKie complied, running a list of tenants’ names that he said management provided him against the department’s database of outstanding warrants, then assembling a group of 33 officers to arrest 18 of the 46 tenants who had them. (The property-management company declined to comment.)

McKie acknowledged that the people arrested, mostly on warrants for city-ordinance and traffic violations, likely weren’t responsible for the most serious crimes plaguing the complex. “But they are going to be the eyes and ears now, because they don’t want to get evicted,” he said. In other words, he hoped that they would keep an eye on their neighbors to avoid more police attention at the property.

In general, Kansas City crime-free officers tout their program’s success at reducing crime. But Hernandez, of the media unit, said he had no easily accessible data on the crime-free-housing program’s overall impact on calls for service or crime. Captain Chris Sicoli, who helped start the program in the early 2000s, said he used to track results closely and that they showed that the program worked in participating properties, but he said he no longer has those records.

Crime-free officers also act as the eyes and ears for landlords on issues that have nothing to do with illegal activity. They encourage patrol officers to fill out informal “crime-free reports” after service calls, which might note details such as physical damage to the property or suspicion that unauthorized tenants might be living there. McKie said that, depending on the lease, these smaller issues can be used as “a step in the process” to evict residents when property managers are suspicious of a larger issue but don’t have evidence for it.

Though the officers speak with property managers every day, the program is mostly unseen by tenants. McKie said most evictions result from tenants falling behind on their rent, not from alleged criminal activity. Singer, his colleague, said that even if landlords believe there is a lease violation, it is easier to just evict for nonpayment of rent. An eviction notice doesn’t have to mention the crime-free-housing program at all.

While in Kansas City, I stopped by a meeting of a tenants’ group—close to 60 people gathered at a union hall. The group, KC Tenants, was organizing a campaign to pass a local tenants’ bill of rights and planned to participate in an upcoming forum with four Democratic presidential candidates. At the end of the meeting, when the floor opened up and I asked for reflections on the local crime-free-housing program, it became clear to me that many in the room—if not all—had never heard of it.

Tara Raghuveer, the founder of KC Tenants, later said the program “stinks of surveillance.” “We know working-class and black and brown folks are already overly policed, and we also know those are the same people who struggle to find and keep decent and affordable housing,” she said. “That sort of coordination between law enforcement and property managers seems like a stacking of systems that already mistreat people.” She, too, learned of the program only when I described it, and she said tenants have a right to know more.

Despite police assurances that the program exists to benefit residents, none of the residents I spoke with during my time in Kansas City actually knew about it. But when I described the program, it seemed to help them make sense of certain mysterious housing experiences.

One married couple told a story of their eviction after one was arrested for robbing a store nearby; charges were later dropped. Chiquita Smith said she gave officers her name and address when they were called to settle a dispute between her cousin and a neighbor. Days later she was evicted, along with her 14-year-old son, for being an unauthorized tenant in a sister’s house. None of the tenants knew for certain if the crime-free-housing program had anything to do with their evictions, but their experiences echoed those that crime-free officers described.

And yet, despite their surprise, tenants weren’t entirely opposed to the idea of information sharing between police and landlords. Since being evicted, Smith had only found one apartment that would even consider her application, and she called it “roguish.” In a place like that, she said, she welcomed programs that might keep her child safe. But as I told her more about the program’s enforcement, she grew concerned. She was shocked that she could be evicted by her landlord for the actions of other people in her household. Ultimately, Smith said, the program made her nervous that she might lose her home for simply being in the wrong place, or with the wrong people, at the wrong time.

Debi Brumit, who is currently suing Granite City, Illinois, over an eviction demand under the city’s crime-free-housing law, said that while she appreciated the idea behind the program, she worried about its breadth. In June, police ordered Brumit, her fiancé, and two of her grandchildren evicted after one of her daughters was accused of stealing a van. “They are pushing it,” Brumit said of the program. “They’ve just taken it too far.” In a court document, the city said her daughter was registered as a household member in “paperwork filed with the City” at the time of her arrest. Brumit says her daughter wasn’t living with her and hadn’t been allowed to stay there for at least a month. (Granite City recently altered its ordinance so that arrests occurring outside a rental unit, which previously could trigger eviction demands from the police, would no longer do so. Arrests in the unit, and some convictions—for certain crimes committed anywhere in the city, whether by a tenant or a guest—still can.)

It is rare for crime-free-housing laws to be challenged. Most tenants who receive eviction notices never go to court at all. Those who do go rarely have lawyers, and they almost always lose. (A study published by Tara Raghuveer, the founder of KC Tenants, found that, between 2006 and 2016, landlords won more than 99 percent of eviction cases in Jackson County, and only 1.3 percent of tenants with eviction cases had lawyers.)

If the case against Faribault goes to trial, it will be a significant public hearing on whether crime-free-housing programs are, at least in some places, violating people’s civil rights and worsening racial discrimination—and whether they have actually improved public safety. Brumit’s case, and the case against the City of Hesperia, California, could also influence crime-free-housing programs across the country if they get to trial.

In the meantime, cities keep adopting crime-free-housing programs, and the trainings continue. Zehring’s organization is hosting a training in May. Mid-America Crime Free is running one the same month.

One afternoon this past September, a pair of crime-free officers, Singer and Benjamin Ryan, drove around a neighborhood in their patrol area, past two-story homes with peaked roofs and large lawns enclosed with chain-link fences, and slowed down in front of a small, somewhat dilapidated house. Singer had received an email about the house, suggesting that it could use attention. Police had been there the day before, and, although they concluded that there “wasn’t an offense,” they said they believed that the residents were using PCP. Singer and Ryan discussed contacting the owner of the house to share their concerns about his tenants and see, as Singer put it, “if he cares that they’re doing drugs on his property.”

Earlier, Ryan had explained how PCP use could cause problems throughout the neighborhood. “People are like, ‘Oh, I’m not hurting anybody,’” he said. “Yeah—yeah, you are. Because, okay, you may not have had any reaction this time, the next time, or the time after that, but sooner or later you’re going to be out naked in the street, punching cars or going into people’s houses or assaulting people, and not even realize that you’re doing it.” Singer, who was driving, agreed. “We’re trying to be proactive,” he said.