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Contrary to what some might believe, California’s eviction moratorium did not bring an end to all evictions during the pandemic. Disputes over non-payment of rent that pre-dated COVID-19 were allowed to proceed as usual once the courts reopened.
That’s why in late 2020, while officials still encouraged people to stay home, an unlawful detainer case out of San Ysidro went to trial.
The tenant had been $325 behind on rent when the landlord filed the complaint. She argued in her defense that the apartment was uninhabitable. She cited mold in the bedroom, a hole in the wall and broken doors — problems, she said, that management had been aware of for years but never bothered to fix.
In the end, though, the judge sided with the owner and ordered the tenant to pay nearly $15,000 in back-rent, court costs and attorney fees. The judge told her to leave the premises and pay up, a decision that completely disrupted her life.
The task of overseeing the eviction fell to David Pocklington, a senior sergeant who worked out of the court services bureau. He produced a summary of the situation and the tenant for deputies: She was a 35-year-old Black woman with children, including a toddler, and had worked as a nurse’s assistant.
She had also been a victim of domestic violence and witness intimidation. More recently, her only contact with police had been related to a loud music complaint. There were no active warrants for her arrest.
The writ to take possession of the apartment was still five months away from expiring by the time Pocklington got it in early 2021, so there was plenty of time to comply. Those orders are typically good for 180 days and, according to Pocklington, deputies would often wait until the final week to proceed with the lockout.
In an email to colleagues, Pocklington argued the woman did not meet the standard that the Sheriff’s Department was using to prioritize evictions during a public health crisis. He didn’t believe she posed a threat to the neighborhood, which was one of the reasons the department was using when deciding to expedite a court order.
To prevent the family from becoming homeless, he recommended instead that deputies make contact with the woman and offer to connect her with resources. He was overruled a couple days later when a lieutenant responded: “We have been directed to proceed with the eviction.”
It wasn’t clear who directed the field team to press ahead, but the message was unmistakable. “It was a ‘no, let’s get it done,’” Pocklington told me.
Off-line, he contends, the lieutenant confided to him that the eviction had been pushed up not for health and safety reasons, but for political ones coming out of North County. He checked other records and found that the owners of the apartment lived in Fallbrook, not far from Undersheriff Kelly Martinez, and that the families have had boats docked in the marina over the years. It wasn’t proof of collusion, but it was a connection.
The Sheriff’s Department has said Martinez doesn’t know the owners, and neither her nor then-Sheriff Bill Gore abused their positions to change the trajectory of any evictions.
Shortly after he retired last year, Pocklington shared his documents, including internal communications, with the Union-Tribune and La Prensa, both of which produced stories about the former sergeant’s claims, which the Sheriff’s Department denied. Since then, he’s also filed complaints with three oversight bodies — the San Diego County Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, the grand jury and the California Attorney General.
Pocklington is, if nothing else, persistent. But with the sheriff’s office seriously up for grabs for the first time in decades, his claims raised questions about how the sheriff’s office should be run and to whose benefit.
The sheriff doesn’t just manage jails and patrol the streets of some cities and unincorporated areas. The sheriff is also responsible for carrying out evictions, which can have long-term ramifications for the health and safety of former tenants if they have nowhere else to go. One researcher has found that unhoused people age about 20 years faster than the housed population.
The various moratoriums at state and local levels passed during the pandemic were never meant to bring an end to evictions, only to slow things down.
Tenants, for instance, couldn’t be tossed for non-payment of rent if they demonstrated the pandemic had caused financial hardship and they had sought emergency assistance. But they could be forced to leave for criminal behavior. Other loopholes allowed for an eviction if the property owner was planning to remodel the unit.
Because the Sheriff’s Department has some discretion over when to press ahead with a lockout, Pocklington’s documentation offers a window into a process we don’t often see.
It also brings to bear the economic violence that evictions can cause people who are already down on their luck. Landlords have a business to run. Judges are following the law. Cops are carrying out orders. Everyone can say they’re just doing their job, but they all collectively play a role in making the homelessness crisis worse.
Records Pocklington has shared with reporters show that high-ranking officials were monitoring him and his colleagues, and weighing in on the timing of certain evictions. One lieutenant, in one email, encouraged Pocklington and others to “read between the lines” when he asked for details about eviction cases, because the undersheriff and sheriff were grilling his boss.
It is understandable, on one level, that the county’s top cops would want to know what was happening on the ground in case the Board of Supervisors asked. Gore halted evictions during the early months of the pandemic after hearing from elected officials.
But Pocklington contends that when evictions resumed, his superiors weren’t just inquiring about what his team was doing — they were exerting pressure in ways they hadn’t traditionally.
“Never before had we had someone above the lieutenant get involved in the evictions,” he said. “We handled the evictions, scheduled them, managed them at the sergeant level and deputy level. And now all of a sudden we have the evictions being worked out of the sheriff’s office.”
Lt. Amber Baggs, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, said Pocklington’s claims were false and pointed back to statements she already gave the U-T and La Prensa. Baggs has said the department prioritized evictions based on a variety of factors, including criminal activity, health and safety concerns, the impact on the surrounding community and the tenants’ ability to engage with housing and other services.
Baggs also turned the accusation around, saying Pocklington had “a political motive to disparage the Sheriff’s Department and its leadership.”
Though a Republican, Pocklington donated $570 to the campaign of Dave Myers, a former sheriff’s commander, earlier this year. While Martinez has the backing of most high-profile Democratic politicians as well as the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and Gore, Myers has the official support of the Democratic Party thanks to its progressive base.
Pocklington told me that he’s gotten grief for backing Myers, who’s spoken openly about law enforcement’s brutality toward Black San Diegans, but he sees that as a testament to Myers’s willingness to build relationships with leaders from communities of color. Pocklington said he doesn’t agree with Myers on everything but respects his former colleague.
At the same time, Pocklington acknowledged that his evidence of the department’s politicking on evictions is mostly circumstantial. But taken as a whole, he said, it demonstrates a pattern of applying the law unequally and using deputies as pawns. He’s challenged the motivations underlying the decision to speed up several evictions, not just the one in San Ysidro.
Another case involved an apartment in the Mission Hills. A court order to take possession of the unit came to the attention of deputies in May 2021 and was quickly thrust to the top of the list. In an email, then-Assistant Sheriff Anthony Ray thanked a captain who’d forwarded it along for “the very quick service.” The tenants lived across the street from property owned by Gore, who retired three months ago.
About a month later, Ray, who’s now the interim sheriff, asked about the status of an eviction in Chula Vista, telling a commander that he believes the tenant was running a business out of the house. That property belonged to the head of an association for school administrators.
Yet another case in Lemon Grove ended with the arrest of a tenant’s son, who was wanted on a warrant for allegedly violating probation. Pocklington partnered with the regional fugitive task force and was instructed to approach the man inside the apartment rather than outside, so that deputies could capture body-camera footage of the unit to see whether the tenant had already left.
Pocklington said the sheriff was sensitive to the optics of tossing another Black woman out onto the street, but it nearly escalated into violence when the son darted in the direction of a loaded handgun in the kitchen.
As far as Pocklington is concerned, the problem isn’t necessarily the evictions themselves, but the way they were being prioritized. At times he sympathized with the tenants who needed help. Other times he sympathized with the landlords, some of whom had been hit with HOA fines while they waited for the county to carry out a judge’s order.
Sometimes the decision to prioritize one eviction over another appeared to stem from the fact landlords and their attorneys were CC’ing elected officials on the requests.
In another email, a lieutenant said an elderly landlord with property in Ocean Beach told him that he knows who to call to get a lockout done. In case anyone got the wrong idea, the lieutenant added that the department wasn’t pushing up the eviction at the landlord’s request, but because of “the circumstances in the researched summary, and our attempt to provide good customer service.”
The tenant in that case, according to an internal risk assessment, appeared to be bipolar and the eviction could lead to that person becoming homeless. Nevertheless, Ray responded: “Excellent brief and I appreciate all you and your team are doing to keep America safe.”
Evictions can have devastating effects whenever they occur. Delaying the lockout might give someone a few extra weeks or months, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the tenant will be prepared when they are ultimately forced to leave.
Consider the woman who was tossed out of her San Ysidro apartment. I managed to track her down this week and she said she was surprised when the landlord moved quickly to evict her because she had offered to pay the remaining $325 of her rent with a money order. By the time the paperwork was filed in court it was too late. The decision to banish her from the unit had already been made.
Despite her complaints to the judge about the conditions of the apartment — the mold, the hole, the broken doors — she had liked the location. It was close to public transit and the neighborhood was quiet. Robbing her of that stability has had serious consequences.
“My life went downhill from there,” she said.
For the past year, she’s been living in shelters and cars while continuing to look for work as a caregiver. She wants to pay back the owner, the attorneys and the court but can’t because she’s trying to save up for another apartment.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” she said. “I’ll have to live in a tent.”
That’s the more immediate scandal in my eyes — one that occurs often in the daylight.