The Sheriff Who Wouldn't Evict

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Kimberly White / Bloomberg News / Landov

Last week, Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Illinois issued a press release that quickly became news across the country; he was suspending all foreclosure evictions in the area because banks weren't notifiying tenants about their landlord's problems. "These mortgage companies only see pieces of paper, not people, and don't care who's in the building," Dart said in the release. "We're just not going to evict innocent tenants. It stops today." The Illinois Bankers Association quickly fired back with its own public statement, calling Dart's move "vigilantism." But supporters have been just as vocal; one local resident wrote a letter to the Chicago Tribune hailing Dart as a true American patriot, proclaiming "Dart for President." TIME spoke with the 46-year-old sheriff about his controversial decision, his duties during the economic crisis and how he thinks evictions should be carried out.

How has the housing situation changed since you were first elected three years ago?

Obviously, it would be no shock to anybody to hear that we're having a record number of foreclosures going on in our county like I'm sure is going on in every county in the United States because of the financial crisis right now. It's gotten crazier than it's ever been.

How is the eviction process breaking down?

In theory, the bank has gone to court because Mr. Jones did not fulfill his requirements on his mortgage, and he's in default so they go ahead with foreclosure proceedings. Then we go out and find out that it isn't Mr. Jones who's living there. It's Mrs. Smith, who lives there with her three children. Has Mrs. Smith been served with anything? No.

Tell me about your thoughts on the "cavalier" attitude at the root of this problem.

I don't consider myself an economic expert and I'm not going to pontificate about what put our economy in the crisis it's in now, but it does seem abundantly clear that lenders were giving subprime loans out, mortgages to people they had not done their due diligence on in the first place, and it's caused a lot of mortgages to go bad. I think we all agree to that. What we're seeing is the other end of that: now those same people who acted recklessly and carelessly on the front end are asking me to rather carelessly and recklessly go and throw out whoever happens to be living in that building. And that is the same type of mindset that got us off the track in the first place.

I'm supposed to make sure that justice is being done and people's rights are being looked after. When you are sitting there witnessing horribly unjust things occuring, I could just be the typical bureaucrat who falls back on, "Hey, I'm just following the law." But that's wrong, it's plain-old wrong, call it what you want. Last I checked our constitution, people are allowed due process rights before property is taken away from them. The people I'm talking about now have no idea they're even the subject of a lawsuit. And somehow, that is justice? Somehow that makes sense?

How are evictions typically carried out?

I go out on quite a few of our evictions myself and — I'm not kidding with you, I run the 2nd largest jail in the country — we have a very large police department so we see alot of nasty things. But my experience on these evictions are truly some of the most traumatic things I have ever seen. I'm going to these homes while the family is being put outside, because we first have to clear the house, and the movers then come in and take whatever possessions these folks have, and they put them out on the street. And it's not always done with the most care, let's put it that way. And you look at these little kids and you sit there and say to yourself, "This isn't right here." This kid didn't do anything wrong, and the few possessions they have are now on the street.

Your announcement has gotten quite a response, what are the reactions you've seen?

Apparently our website's server crashed twice. We've never had input like that ever, and we've never had phone calls like this either. I tend to think my staff tries to read me the nicer stuff instead of the e-mails where people are calling me names [laughs], but there's been a lot of very favorable things written and a lot of favorable comments. I've had so many people stop me on the street who are excited about what I'm doing.

Did you anticipate such an overwhelming response?

I think there is this sense that people have right now that the larger entities treat people like numbers and pieces of paper. To blindly continue to go along with that and just act as if that's okay because I have an order telling me to do that — I think people realize that that's the wrong way to go.

How do you respond to critics like the Illinois Bankers' Association, who say you're ignoring the law, that this is a publicity stunt?

Nothing surprises me anymore. I'm aware this is not the normal way to proceed and I am aware that there is a legal court order, but I am more aware that we have a higher role here to make sure that justice is being served, and it is not being served, and I am not going to be party to that. If I was asking them to do crazy stuff here, I would say they have a point. But I'm not. This is your property, bank, find out who's in it please.

You've also argued that the banks are the ones breaking the law.

There was a statute passed here in Illinois that gives these renters a 120-day grace period to get their stuff together and get moved out, and nobody knew who was eligible for the 120 days or when it started or not because — once again — no one even knows they're there.

You recently met with several county judges who oversee foreclosure proceedings to talk about reform measures, how did that come about and what is the aim?

We gave them language that we think can resolve this issue. Basically, it requires these mortgage holders, primarly the banks, to do the work we've asked them to do. And we think, with that, we might be able to put this behind us. Now, will it lengthen the foreclosure process for the banks? Yeah, it could. But my goal here is not to ensure all the banks are taken care of around-the-clock no matter who's expense. The goal here is to ensure that justice is being done. We need to get this right, and until we do, we can't just keep throwing people out on the street and hide behind a court order — "I know I just destroyed your life and your family and, oh God, that's horrible about your children crying all the time, but hey, I have a court order." Enough's enough.

You were a state prosecutor and a state representative before becoming sheriff, how has this background affected your approach?

I've worked with police departments throughout my career. But I think the fact that I'm not a traditional sheriff in the sense that I'm not a police officer, I think it helps me in a lot of respects because I have a tendency to look at things from a little bit of a different angle. And I'm not saying that's necessarily the best or the worst thing, but I'm saying that I can sometimes look at things that have been sitting there for awhile and done a certain way and say, "Maybe we ought to take this in a different direction."