Foreclosures and ICE Are on the Menu in Philadelphia’s Sheriff Election

An incumbent sheriff faces three challengers in the Democratic primary.

Daniel Nichanian   |    May 16, 2019

Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams (Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office/Facebook)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

The authority of the Philadelphia sheriff is circumscribed. The office doesn’t manage county jails, for instance, unlike in much of the country. But the powers that it does have — mainly, guarding courthouses and running the sales of foreclosed properties — nevertheless have important ramifications for immigrants and for the city’s economic health.

Sheriff Jewell Williams faces three opponents in his bid for a third term in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. They are Rochelle Bilal, a former police officer and president of the Guardian Civic League, the local chapter of the National Black Police Association, as well as Larry King Sr. and Malika Rahman, who are both former sheriff’s deputies.

The campaign is taking place against the backdrop of three sexual harassment lawsuits filed against Williams, who has denied wrongdoing. Two have been settled; a third is still pending.

Philadelphia’s Democratic Party initially recommended endorsing Williams but promptly revoked this recommendation in April. He has the support of prominent local unions, however. John McNesby, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, suggested in April that Bilal’s past support for Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner had cost her support among law enforcement officers.

“She has some loyalty from people who don’t really help our officers,” McNesby told the Philadelphia Inquirer about Bilal. Strikingly, back when she endorsed Krasner in 2017, Bilal did so as the head of a law enforcement group as well since the Guardian Civic League, which had 2,000 members at the time, is a group that represents Black police officers. Krasner has headlined fundraising efforts for Bilal this year.

Two policy areas are on the menu in this election. First, the sheriff’s office is in charge of selling foreclosed property, whether that stems from mortgage debt or tax delinquency (these are called sheriff sales), and some candidates have argued that the sheriff’s office should do more to assist people whose properties is being foreclosed. Another focal point is ICE’s presence inside and outside city courthouses, especially in light of a reported case of an ICE agent trying to find a defendant in a local courthouse in March.

Foreclosures and sheriff sales

Local housing advocates have denounced an increase in the pace of foreclosure sales, and have called on the sheriff’s office to do more to combat Philadelphia’s eviction crisis. Nikil Saval, an organizer with the left-leaning group Reclaim Philadelphia and the Democratic leader of the Second Ward, compared an eviction’s effects to those of a criminal conviction. They are both a “mark on your record” that “has ramifying effects,” Saval told me.

He added that the sheriff’s office could play a “critical role” in shifting from a “culture that favors punishment” to one “that values keeping people in their home.”

Those who support a sustained pace of sheriff sales argue that these represent economic opportunities for buyers, as well as for former owners. Williams has touted his efforts to more efficiently return to former owners the money leftover from a sale if there is an excess once debts and fees are paid off. A WHYY investigation on the impact of the boom in sheriff sales reported that Williams “offers classes on bidding at sheriff sales and has trumpeted the increasing number of successful auctions,” but that “some struggling homeowners say they’re caught in the middle.” The Inquirer also reported last month on complaints that the city is not adequately notifying homeowners of foreclosure sale proceedings. 

A number of Williams’s challengers have called for reform, and I asked all four candidates’ campaigns how they planned to change the office’s approach to foreclosures.

Bilal responded that she would shift the focus of the office from managing sales to preventing foreclosures. She said she would be “rearranging the budget to put less money in advertising and selling homes” and “more money into foreclosure prevention and community education.” This would include better informing people of their options to fight a foreclosure, connecting them with legal assistance, and establishing a “consumer protection division” within her office to investigate complaints.

“You need to use your resources to be an advocate for change,” Bilal told the Philadelphia Tribune upon entering the race in November. “Use those resources at your disposal to be something other than a bully for the banks.”

Rahman told me that her focus would be on better assisting people whose property has been foreclosed, for instance by “supplying” them with “resources to regain housing.” Her position is not “to stop foreclosures,” she said, but to “ensure that foreclosures have the least negative impact.” Rahman similarly told the Philadelphia Tribune that she wants to connect people with nonprofit organizations “so we can assure that if that process has to happen, it is done in a dignified way.”

King and Williams did not answer my request for comment. King has called for a moratorium on sheriff sales, and he has specifically criticized the fees that must be paid by the person whose property is foreclosed.

ICE in Philadelphia’s courthouses

Philadelphia’s sheriff manages security in courthouses, which puts the office at the frontlines of ICE activity. ICE has arrested immigrants who attend proceedings in Pennsylvania courthouses. The Sheller Center for Social Justiceat Temple University published a report in January on the scope of ICE’s presence, and on the fear it creates. “These ICE arrests fundamentally undermine the fair administration of justice by Pennsylvania courts,” Jennifer Lee, a law professor who leads the Sheller Center, told me.

Rebecca Hufstader, an immigration specialist at the Defenders Association of Philadelphia, said that immigrants her office works with consider skipping court dates—which can trigger mounting legal issues—because of “ICE’s presence in and around the courthouse.” It has “a chilling effect,” she told me, “on anybody that is trying to access the justice system, whether it’s our clients, people accessing the civil justice system… We want to be able to tell people to come to court but I can’t make a promise that there won’t be an issue.”

Williams rolled out an agreement with ICE in April. This new policy requires ICE agents to identify themselves to a sheriff’s deputy upon entering a courthouse, and bars them from arresting someone within the courthouse.

Lee and Hufstader both said that the agreement is an important but insufficient one since it does not address arrests outside the courthouse, nor does it limit actions other than arrests within it.

“We would like to see the sheriff extend the policy to the sidewalk outside the courthouse, and we’d like to see more restrictions on asking questions inside the courthouse to anyone that might be in it,” Hufstader told me. Lee agreed, urging the sheriff to “extend its prohibition on arrest without a judicial warrant to the area outside of the courthouse” and address “ICE intimidation inside the courthouse.” As a model, she pointed to the courthouse policy of Bernalillo County, New Mexico.

Bilal and Rahman told me that they both agreed with Williams’s new policy. “No one should feel intimidated or unsafe while in the courthouse,” Bilal said. Rahman emphasized that his was long overdue. “It is our due diligence to make sure that all people who enter that courthouse are safe, secure, and their rights are upheld,” she said. Neither candidate committed to further reforms when asked.

In this Democratic city, the winner of the May 21 primary will face no Republican in the general election; candidates who do not belong to the two main parties can still file to run until August.