A Squatters Action Team within the Detroit Police Department was found to be arresting residents for trespassing instead of letting civil eviction proceedings run their course. That team is now being investigated after reporting from Outlier Media earlier this month. 

Assistant Chief of Police Eric Ewing told Outlier Media the department has begun an investigation into the Squatters Action Team and its arrest of a Detroit renter caught on the wrong side of a housing scam. 

Ewing also confirmed the “team” is a misnomer. Only a single individual, Sgt. Lestine Gilbert, makes up the office, which acts as a centralized hub for cases DPD believes involve squatting. 

The team originally had two members when it started in 2017, Ewing said, but now when officers encounter a potential squatting situation, they are supposed to get direction from Gilbert on how to proceed. The department would not tell Outlier how many incidents Gilbert advises on  each month, how many arrests are made because of the Squatters Action Team or how often these arrests occur at an address where there is already an eviction case proceeding through civil court. 

The department also did not make Gilbert available for an interview due to what spokesperson Jackson Vidaurri said was a “medical issue.” 

Gilbert was the lead investigator in the case of Jai Kiser, who was arrested for trespassing in the apartment she had been renting in Detroit’s Bagley neighborhood. Kiser paid rent to someone who wasn’t given permission to lease her unit. Kiser was later involved in an eviction case over the dispute and was ordered to leave the property by a certain date. But before her time in the unit was up, she was arrested. 

Kiser now faces a misdemeanor charge that carries jail time and a $5,000 fine. No one in Detroit will rent to her, she says, because of the criminal charge and eviction on her record. But she is also being told by the court to stay in Detroit until her criminal case in April. She is still in debt for a $4,400 bail bond. 

Ewing declined to comment on Kiser’s case because it’s currently under investigation. “Once we look into it, we’ll present those findings,” he said. “I don’t have information to share at this point in time.” 

Police Commissioner Ricardo Moore said the board will discuss the action team at its meeting on Thursday. 

“The Detroit Police Department should not be engaged in eviction activities,” Moore wrote to Outlier. “This is clearly stated in policy with the process clearly defined on the City of Detroit’s website.” 

Squatters, or people occupying a property without permission, have few rights in Michigan. Landlords or police can forcibly remove a person who is unlawfully in a home by changing the locks or arresting them. 

But in Detroit, the exact definition of unlawfully occupying a property is made more complicated by the city’s notoriously informal rental market. Many deals between landlords and renters are made without leases. It is common for rent to be paid in cash and receipts are not always provided to tenants. When there is an accusation of squatting, the lack of formality can make it more difficult for outside actors like the courts or police to determine who is telling the truth. 

“In the city of Detroit, that can be very, very difficult to actually determine because of how many times we see these rental properties change hands,” said Marie Reimers, an attorney with Lakeshore Legal Aid. 

She added that most landlords won’t conduct a forcible eviction because they don’t want to be held liable if their claim isn’t certain.

Ewing said the police department is qualified to determine whether someone is squatting, and arrest them if necessary. 

“We only do squatting cases,” he said. “If there is some documentation that the individual who’s living inside that location, or believes they have a right to be there … we have to investigate and make that distinction.” 

Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood wrote to Outlier that a squatting investigation begins by asking for documentation establishing ownership of the property. It then includes, but is not limited to, “speaking to the landlord and the tenant, looking for evidence of visible forced entry, illegal use of utility, contents of the residence, body language of involved parties and more.” 

Ewing didn’t say why Gilbert was put in charge of handling squatting cases or cite her qualifications, except to say that, “She’s done a number of these cases throughout her career.” 

Gilbert answered questions about squatters and the work of her team from the Detroit City Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee on Sept. 26. The office of Councilmember Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who chairs the committee, said she has no plans to bring this topic back as a discussion item in the near future, but may prepare a “memo” with follow-up questions.

The Detroit Justice Center is considering filing a lawsuit against DPD by the end of the month over Kiser’s arrest. Donovan McCarty, a staff attorney at the Detroit Justice Center who is representing Kiser, declined to provide many specifics of the lawsuit, but said it could involve complaints about violations of constitutional rights and improper search and seizure. 

“It doesn’t feel as though (the Squatters team) has any real process or provides any training for people on the ground,” McCarty said. “It seems decisions are made by one person, Sgt. Gilbert, who just decided to be vindictive against our client because she wasn’t cooperating in the way she wanted her to.” 

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or (313) 403-7221. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Sign up to receive it