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Nightmare neighbors upset neighborhoods, strain resources

Karen Cronin was sitting in her front room across the street from Underhill Park when she witnessed her 5-year-old grandson being struck by another child wielding a stick.

Another time, she watched an ambulance haul away a boy who had been attacked at the park by two other boys, who kicked him repeatedly while on the ground, she said.

Last summer, her 13-year-old grandson suffered a cut lip and bruised cheek when he fought off an attack by five children at the park.

“They are scared to death to go over there,” Cronin said of her grandkids.

Neighbors said what happened to the Cronin family is a slice of a three-year nightmare involving assaults, property damage and other crime coming from a household in their midst.

They say fear had descended over the neighborhood and complain that authorities were slow to respond.

But officials said the so-called nuisance house a block from Underhill Park is just one of any number of problem homes that bedevil neighbors and strain law enforcement resources in the city.

“All it takes is for one house to upset the balance of a neighborhood,” said neighborhood resource Officer Dan Strassenberg. “It definitely becomes a question of quality of life for the people around that home.”

Getting an idea of the scope of the problem is difficult since the city does not keep statistics on what it deems chronic nuisance homes. Plus, each case is handled differently, with some cases going to eviction and others being resolved through mediation or code enforcement action.

Beyond immediate police intervention, authorities say residents have several strong legal pathways for fighting back, and they encourage neighbors to make use of them.

Strassenberg said he’s been involved in two dozen evictions in the past four years in East Central Spokane.

Spokane Community Oriented Policing Services Director Christy Hamilton said her office and police are working with a group of 20 residents of northeast Spokane where an adult child of one of their neighbors has moved back home and is believed to be running drugs and prostitutes.

“We’ve got a couple (of chronic nuisance cases) going on in the city at any given time,” Hamilton said.

Legal channels

Problems that constitute a chronic nuisance can include party houses, junked-up yards or more serious cases involving gangs, drugs and weapons.

Police and prosecutors said they prefer to seek resolution of chronic nuisances by making contact with the problem residence and mediating a solution. Landlords are often convinced to seek evictions. Owner-occupied homes can be more difficult, especially if elderly owners have children or grandchildren living with them.

Leading a list of services is a Safe Streets program, available countywide, that gives residents a step-by-step guide for dealing with nuisance houses. Neighborhood victims also can go to civil court and seek judgments of $5,000 per neighbor against problem residents. Hamilton said that in one case a group of neighbors won $60,000 in judgments.

For lesser problems involving garbage, fire hazards and junk cars, complaints can be made through the city’s code enforcement office.

The important thing is for neighbors to pursue legal means of dealing with the problem rather than retaliating or aggravating the situation through words or deeds.

Strassenberg said he frequently hears complaints that residents have reported problems to Crime Check but haven’t gotten a response from police.

If there is a pattern of problems, he said, residents should contact their neighborhood COPS substation or their neighborhood resource officer directly.

In the worst cases, city prosecutors can file a notice of chronic nuisance property, as was done in the Underhill Park example.

If the city can show that a property is a chronic nuisance, there are several more severe penalties available: The person in charge of the property can be fined up to $100 a day plus any costs for bringing the action, for example. The property can be ordered closed for up to a year. Or the owner can be forced to sign a remediation contract.

Eventually evicted

The owner of the Underhill Park-area property, facing a chronic nuisance charge, evicted the problem residents earlier this month, according to Spokane Superior Court and other records.

Strassenberg said the household and its occupants – a mother and nine children – have been the subject of numerous police responses over the years, including investigations for assault and robbery.

Two separate chronic nuisance notices were filed against the home. Each specified three incidents alleging the nuisance, including assault, threats, the arrest of a tenant on a warrant, two fights and a disturbance.

In addition, two of the juveniles living at the home were involved in a series of assaults against other children and a school bus driver on a trip home from Chase Middle School last February. They were charged in Spokane County Juvenile Court in connection with the incident.

A police report showed that a 15-year-old girl who lived at the home pummeled a boy in the face and slammed his face into a window. Before the 19-minute incident ended, the girl had attacked two more students.

The investigating officer reviewed footage from a bus video camera. “It was almost a riot at one time,” the officer wrote.

(The Spokesman-Review has a policy of not identifying juveniles involved in most crimes, except in extreme cases such as homicide or rape.)

Lorrie Stewart, who lives down the street from the home, said she’s been the target of the family’s anger.

“Every type of degrading name they can call a woman they’ve called me,” she said.

In one incident, she was confronted by the children’s mother. Stewart turned the hose on the mother, which resulted in the mother chasing her and hitting her.

The mother was charged with a misdemeanor.

The two ended up filing claims against each other in small claims court. Stewart claimed she had been assaulted. The mother said she was being harassed and that Stewart had used a racial slur.

In court, the mother told the judge, “I will never in my life say my kids are angels.”

Both claims were dismissed.

The mother said she had lost her public housing subsidy as a result of the enforcement efforts.

Teresa Juneau-Simon, who lives nearby, said the family’s race – they are black – is not the issue in a neighborhood as diverse as East Central, but public safety is.

In addition to threats and violence against other children, fire investigators are examining a suspicious garage fire that was started behind the house in August.

Strassenberg said police are never in a hurry to see a mother and children uprooted, but sometimes it’s the only way to get their attention and stop the problem. An eviction usually sends a strong enough message to get people to change their behavior, he said.

“Normally, we don’t have to evict the same family twice,” he said.