A rowhome in Spring Garden (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

Evictions in Philadelphia have surprisingly little to do with the Sheriff’s Office. Though the sheriff has the power to serve evictions, the task is usually handled by a private force hired by a court-appointed attorney known as the landlord-tenant officer.

These private security contractors — who are often armed — have long been a part of the local eviction system. They recently garnered attention after a landlord-tenant officer (LTO) contractor shot Angel Davis in March while trying to evict her from her North Philadelphia home. 

Another contractor hired by the LTO opened fire on (and missed) a pitbull while serving an eviction in Olney in late June. And after this story first published, on July 18, another tenant was shot while being evicted in Kensington. She was taken to the hospital in stable condition, while a man, likely the LTO-hired contractor, was taken into custody.

Now, local legislators are seeking support for a bill in the Pa. General Assembly that would ban private officers from carrying out evictions, a move not favored by landlords. City Council is also looking into the issue; a June committee hearing delved into Philly’s eviction and landlord-tenant systems, and the (lack of) rules governing the process.

This added scrutiny has drawn attention to Philly’s current LTO, Marisa Silberstein Shuter, and resurfaced old allegations of nepotism, which is rampant in the city’s judicial system, per a 2019 report.

Local politicians, ethics lawyers, and legal organizations such as Community Legal Services have all called for the reform if not the abolishment of the landlord-tenant officer system, with some suggesting all eviction service responsibilities be handed to the sheriff. 

It’s an ongoing problem: Philly landlords seek evictions more often than peers in most major U.S. cities, which is partly why attorneys and advocates organized to help craft the city’s successful eviction diversion program during the pandemic. The program, which mandates tenant-landlord mediation, has been held up as a national model. 

At the June Council hearing, Councilmember Jamie Gauthier opened by saying the LTO and their private contractors “follow a harmful formula that traumatizes neighbors.” By the meeting’s end, it was clear councilmembers are working on a contract that would rein in some of the office’s current practices. 

How does it all work as of now, and how did we get here? Read on.

Where did the idea for a landlord-tenant officer come from?

Before the LTO, evictions were served by Philly’s Office of the Constable — an institution that dated back to colonial times. 

By midcentury, the office was home to many a petty extortionist willing to exploit their power. 

“Many constables spend the major part of their time and efforts in a type of work nowhere prescribed as within the powers and duties of a constable … the collection of small debts,” reads a 1956 Penn Law Review article. It continues, “In their efforts to make collections, constables frequently exceed the bounds of legal activity.”

In the late 1960s, state constitutional changes empowered counties to change the setup. Philadelphia abolished the office in 1970, in part the result of a lawsuit seeking to stop constables from auctioning off possessions of people set to be evicted.

Those complaints are echoed in a 2021 report on constables in New Jersey, where legislators are only now considering abolishing the position statewide

The Philadelphia bill that created the landlord tenant officer gives that officer all the responsibilities of constables (which still exist elsewhere in the commonwealth) as described in the Landlord Tenant Act of 1951

So what does the LTO do?

One of the responsibilities of the president judge of the Philadelphia Municipal Court is to appoint an landlord-tenant officer, who collects regular fees from all landlords in the city. Those fees pay for the execution of the two court orders that sanction the eviction of tenants from their homes: a writ of possession and an alias writ

When landlords need someone to deliver these writs, they reach out to the LTO. Shuter, the current LTO, has said she works only with contractors who have licenses to carry firearms — but city rules don’t require they get any specific law enforcement training. 

Yes, landlords could also ask the Sheriff’s Office to serve those orders, it’s just that LTO contractors are cheaper. In recent years the fee for the private contractor was $95, while the Sheriff Office’s current fee is north of $300, according to The Inquirer. 

Homes on North 50th Street in West Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Who gets to be LTO?

The president judge has typically appointed a local attorney with a private practice to be Philly’s landlord-tenant officer, though they have the liberty to pick anyone they deem qualified. 

One past officer, Al Sacks, was a former constable. Robert H. Messerman, an attorney first appointed in the late 80s, held down the LTO for longer than anyone in the city’s history, for nearly 30 years. 

Shuter was appointed LTO in 2017.

Nepotism is a concern here?

Shuter is married to Municipal Court Judge David C. Shuter and the daughter of Alan K. Silberstein, a former president judge. 

When she was appointed, these connections sparked allegations of nepotism and financial conflicts of interest. Judge Shuter presides over certain eviction cases, so his decisions to order evictions could potentially enrich his spouse. 

Shuter’s appointment doesn’t trigger anti-nepotism rules because she is paid through fee collection, not as an employee of the courts, according to a spokesperson for the First Judicial District.

Shuter has not made any public comment since one of her LTO contractors shot Angel Davis in March, and has generally declined to comment on her personal connections. 

Why did an LTO contractor shoot someone? 

In March, it was initially reported that an LTO contractor was serving an eviction notice at Davis’s residence in the Girard Court Apartments when an altercation started. The police say Davis brandished a knife, a claim disputed by an eyewitness. 

What is certain is that Davis was shot in the head and hospitalized in critical condition. She is reportedly still recovering from her injuries. 

Bodycam video of the incident has not been released, and though the police sought a warrant to charge Davis with aggravated assault, the District Attorney’s Office declined to sign off on it due to a lack of evidence.

Will the LTO contractor face charges?

To date, there haven’t been any criminal charges filed against Davis or the person who shot her. 

There’s no specific protocol — like PPD’s mandatory review of officer-involved shootings — that must be followed, but the DA could still bring charges, and Davis or the officer could still file complaints against each other. 

Rowhomes on the 1500 block of North 33rd Street in Strawberry Mansion (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY) Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

What other issues does the LTO system present?

The June 21 hearing by Council’s Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development, and the Homeless addressed immediate and longstanding concerns with the office. It was attended by lawyers, residents, housing advocates, landlords, and others. 

A primary complaint centers on the system’s unpredictability. Courts have rules for the timing of serving writs that depend on the kind of landlord-tenant dispute at hand and on the agreements worked out between the two parties. These schedules appear to often be disregarded by the LTO. 

Shamus Brennan, an attorney with the AIDS Law Project, testified that a former client was 

locked out two weeks earlier than a settlement agreement with their landlord had permitted. 

Personal accounts from residents who have been evicted describe similar treatment — and radio silence from the LTO when they’ve attempted to get in touch. 

Marisa Shuter has said that’s on purpose, to lower the odds of a confrontation. 

“It is the policy of the office not to disclose the date and time of the eviction to the tenant in order to protect the safety of tenants, landlords and their representatives and Deputy Landlord-Tenant Officers,” she told WHYY News in 2020.

The officer who shot Angel Davis showed up in advance of an April eviction date without warning, according to Davis’s mother

Councilmember Kendra Brooks, speaking at the June hearing, also sketched larger issues with Philly’s eviction system, from the regularity with which tenants don’t receive notice of their eviction hearings to the lack of housing that evicted tenants can find and inhabit quickly. 

If the LTO is abolished, what would replace it?

State senators Nikil Saval and Sharif Street are seeking cosponsors for a bill that would bar private offices from serving orders resulting from Landlord-Tenant Court cases. 

The memo issued by the legislators notes that the Sheriff’s Office is also empowered to do this work, and asserts public entities should handle evictions. 

“This arrangement between Municipal Court and the landlord-tenant officer is untenable. It does not allow for public oversight over an area of grave public concern: the forced removal of someone from their home,” reads the memo. 

Local property owners are skeptical of the effort. HAPCO Philadelphia, the city’s main advocacy group for landlords, noted that the current system is “more efficient and less costly” than relying on sheriffs. The added cost would be passed down to tenants in the former of higher rent, HAPCO spokesperson Doug Shimmel suggested. 

In the wake of June’s hearing, however, some kind of change seems close. 

Marc Zucker, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, echoed the hopes of decades of grassroots lobbying and advocacy as he testified in favor of  “transparency, accountability and training” for the LTO and contractors. 

Said Zucker: “Our hope is that meaningful progress can be achieved in the next several months.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...