A Lakewood city councilman plans on introducing an ordinance that would remove domestic violence as a ‘nuisance activity’ under the city’s decade-old public nuisance ordinance. Even though the city no longer enforces that aspect of the nuisance ordinance, according to Councilman Dan O’Malley, the revision would eliminate a potential perceived barrier for domestic violence victims looking to seek protection.
Enacted in 2008, the public nuisance ordinance allows the city to levy fines and force evictions of troublesome property owners and tenants. Under the ordinance, fines and evictions can be levied for activities including drug dealing, noise violations, animal abuse, gambling violations and domestic violence, among other things.
The inclusion of domestic violence in that list of prohibited activities has been a point of contention among those in the domestic violence advocacy community for years. Councilman O’Malley plans on introducing an ordinance Monday that will strike domestic violence, menacing and stalking from that list of prohibited activities.
“For a long time, we’ve been hoping and praying that this day would come. It’s amazing Lakewood is stepping up to the plate,” said Leslie Quilty, the chief operating officer for the Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center. “Victims of crime now won’t feel as hesitant. They will feel safe to call 911 and they won’t feel like they’re putting their housing in jeopardy.”
O’Malley said the city no longer enforces the domestic violence aspect of the nuisance ordinance. However, the fact that it remains on the city’s books can create the perception that it is enforced, he said.
“What we want to do is to make sure our law is consistent with our practices and make sure that that is removed from the list,” O’Malley said. “I would hate for a victim, a potential victim of domestic violence, to think that they have to choose between protecting themselves and keeping their home. Let’s make sure we’re getting rid of any potential unintended consequence and just remove this from our law.”
Neither O’Malley nor Quilty believe the ordinance was created to punish those who are victims of domestic violence. Instead, that part of the ordinance has created unintended consequences they said.
“If there is something in our law right now — especially if it’s something that is going unused — that is at all creating any kind of confusion or creating any hesitancy on the part of a victim, we need to do what we can to remove those barriers,” O’Malley said.
In late 2017, Cleveland State University researchers released a report on the impact of public nuisance ordinances, which are called criminal activity nuisance ordinances (CANO). O’Malley described the report as ‘troubling.’ The report found that CANOs unfairly punish domestic violence victims and those with mental illness.
The report found that more than 30% of Lakewood’s public nuisance declarations had to do with domestic violence incidents. One case, in particular, was especially troubling.
In 2016, a neighbor called police to report that a woman, who was bleeding profusely from a broken nose, had come to the neighbor’s house seeking help. The victim’s boyfriend, who had a lengthy history of domestic violence, had just viciously assaulted her. The victim also had a concussion and bruising.
Three days after the incident, the Lakewood’s law department notified the victim’s landlord that the incident triggered the city’s public nuisance ordinance.
“Your tenant had a visitor over to the residence where he assaulted her. He was charged with felonious assault. This activity qualifies the property as a nuisance,” the law department’s letter stated.
As the ordinance is written, the potential exists for the victim to be re-victimized, Quilty said.
“It’s often a very difficult decision. If not only you call 911 and you’re finally reaching out for help but then you also get cited on that and potentially it could lead to your eviction, there’s some hesitancy,” Quilty said. “Abusers have this power and control over the victim. If they are the renter or owner of the property and now they have to move out of that property, the abuser has even more power.”
Domestic violence is often a seriously underreported crime. Removing a potential barrier from reporting domestic violence is O’Malley’s priority, he said.
“We want to make sure those folks know the police are there to help them, they are there to protect them,” O’Malley said. “They shouldn’t think twice about seeking that protection if they find themselves in that kind of danger.”
If the Lakewood City Council eventually approves the measure, the city would be the eighth in Cuyahoga County to remove domestic violence as a nuisance activity. Nearly two dozen cities in Northeast Ohio have some semblance of a public nuisance ordinance, according to the CSU study.
O’Malley said Lakewood Mayor Mike Summers co-sponsored the amendment to the public nuisance ordinance. The amendment only includes the elimination of domestic violence, menacing and stalking from the list of nuisance activities. Upon being introduced, the ordinance will be referred to the Council’s public safety committee for further consideration.
“One 911 call could save a life and that’s absolutely imperative that we remove those barriers to saving lives,” Quilty said.