The New York Police Department’s (NYPD) controversial stop-and-frisk program, Operation Clean Halls, is once again under fire.
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on behalf of residents that were subjected to questionable police frisking that oftentimes resulted in an arrest for trespassing.
Under the program, the City police patrol thousands of buildings in high-crime residential neighborhoods in an effort to prevent drug use and sales. Landlords can request that the police conduct patrols in the hallways and stairwells to remove non-residents who may be trespassing. Because the NYPD has access to the privately owned buildings through written contracts with landlords (landlords often give police officers keys to the buildings), the NYCLU says those agreements could be rescinded.
This program sets up an argument for the “Rule of Law” standard that the U.S. Constitution employs verses the “Law and Order” standard that can be the modus operandi for placing too much authority into the hands of discretionary leaders, according to the NYCLU.While many residents are grateful their buildings are safer, many civil liberty union activists say some officers have allegedly abused the law’s stop-and-frisk intention and turned it into an “arrest-and-jail” of innocent residents.
While the line between keeping the peace and maintaining civil liberties is a delicate balancing act, the NYCLU lawsuit wants the City’s stop-and-frisk program to follow a written protocol with which all parties agree.
Some judges have labeled the exercise of unlawful trespassing arrests as a “dreadful practice,” and it’s simply a trap to ensnare “innocent individuals” trying to live their normal lives.
A growing number of civil liberties organizations have voiced their concern and say the heavy-handed program violates the rights’ of residents and their guests.
“Operation Clean Halls has placed hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly black and Latino, under siege in their own homes,” Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director explained. “For residents of Clean Halls buildings, taking the garbage out or checking the mail can result in being thrown against the wall and humiliated by police. Untold numbers of people have been wrongly arrested for trespassing because they had the audacity to leave their apartments without IDs or visit friends and family who live in ‘Clean Halls’ buildings. This aggressive assault on people’s constitutional rights must be stopped.”
New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly couldn’t disagree more.
"I would suspect that the attorneys in this case live in buildings with doormen and they have a level of safety that people who live in tenements, which most of those buildings are, don't have," Kelly said. The purpose of the program is to provide Landlords and Tenants with a safe environment in some of NYC’s worst crime and drug riddled areas pursuant to a contractual relationship between the Police and Landlords.
But civil liberties groups contend that the police department continues to blur the lines of personal safety and police state tactics. The NYCLU believes that the NYPD’s enforcement of Operation Clean Halls is a violation of the U.S. Constitution, the New York State Constitution and the Federal Fair Housing regulations.
The lawsuit also alleges that the citywide practice unfairly targets lower-income minorities who tend to live in those higher risk neighborhoods.
“The NYPD uses Clean Halls as a license to stop anybody, at any time, on suspicion of trespassing,” said lead NYCLU attorney Alexis Karteron. “As a result, people who live in Clean Halls buildings are under constant threat of being stopped, frisked, harassed and even arrested by police officers. This type of activity has no place in a free society, and we’re confident the courts will put a stop to it.”
One of the plaintiffs, Jacqueline Yates, lives in a Bronx apartment complex that is enrolled in the contentious frisking program. Yates’ said NYPD officers harass her teenage sons while they socialize in the buildings’ stairwells, lobby and courtyard. She also complained that friends and family are reluctant to visit her home because they are afraid of being arrested for trespassing.
“My children shouldn’t be treated like criminal suspects in their home. They shouldn’t expect to be bothered by police officers every time they leave our apartment,” Yates said. “I believe the NYPD has a role to play in our community. But right now, they don’t make us feel safe. We feel under attack in our homes.”
In an effort to combat illegal activity in high-crime areas, the NYPD introduced the controversial stop-and-frisk program in 1991. Now, 20 years later the small program has grown into a labyrinth of 3,895 buildings that condones stop-and-frisk arrest practices.
The NYCLU criticizes the harsh tactics and says the police department does not employ any meaningful standards or oversight.
The stop-and-frisk practice even ensnares minors. Another plaintiff A.O., who cannot be identified by his full name because he is 17, says he was unlawfully stopped and arrested for trespassing last year shortly after exiting a Clean Halls building with two friends in Queens where he was visiting. Once the boy was arrested, he was taken to a local police precinct and charged with trespassing. However, the Queens County District Attorney’s office declined to prosecute the minor.
“They arrested me even though I was doing nothing wrong – just walking with some friends, minding our own business,” he said.
According to NYPD data, NYPD officers made 329,446 stops on suspicion of trespassing between 2006 and 2010, representing 12 percent of all stops. Civil liberties groups suggest those numbers do not represent all the stops. The statistics also show that only 7.5 percent of reported trespass stops ended in arrests. “The 10 precincts with the most trespassing stops in 2010 – at least 28,209 stops – accounted for nearly as many stops as reported in the remaining 66 precincts combined. More than 5,000 people were stopped for suspicion of trespassing in the Bronx’s 40thPrecinct alone,” according to the NYCLU.
Residents of the affected communities complain that the NYPD is dictating the rules outside the Constitution and undermining the community’s relationship with law enforcement, yet the contracting Landlords have not been named in any legal proceedings thus far.
“The NYPD’s Clean Halls program impacts the entire community – mothers, fathers, neighbors and
friends – not only those arrested,” said civil rights attorney Chris Fabricant, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Pace University Law School. “This practice has steadily eroded the community’s faith in the police, and undermined the legitimacy of our criminal justice system. For every one of the plaintiffs who spent months fighting their wrongful arrests, there are hundreds of others who were forced to plead guilty to crimes that they did not commit because they did not have the resources to attend countless court appearances contesting the charges. Any faith in our justice system is destroyed by this process.”
Fabricant explains that, “rookie police officers do not know who belongs in the buildings. They do not know the difference between the trouble -makers and the regular kids who live in the buildings, many of who lack government-issued identification, virtually assuring arrest if police stops them. This creates resentment and fear of the police amongst young people, which is counter-productive to effective policing.”
“These officers do not have tenant rosters; they do not know the residents. Put simply, they do not know who is trespassing and who is simply going about their life in a perfectly legally way,” according to testimony from Professor Fabricant.
He further reveals, “As recently reported by The New York Times, in one eight-block section of Brownsville, Brooklyn, police stopped-and-frisked 52,000 people in a four year period, over ninety percent of whom had committed no offense.”
“But those criticizing the policy say that this has nothing to do with the privacy of landlords -- especially since landlords participating in the program are required to post information that informs tenants that the building is a part of TAP (Operation Clean Halls),” Karteron said.
The NYCLU lawsuit seeks a declaration that the NYPD’s practices are unlawful and seeks an injunction against the department that requires the NYPD and the City to:
Stop asking people inside and around Clean Halls buildings for their IDs or about their destination without suspicion that they are trespassing or engaged in other wrongdoing;
Stop arresting people for trespassing in Clean Halls buildings without establishing whether or not the person is authorized to be there;
Establish citywide standards for enrollment of buildings in Operation Clean halls;
Establish policies concerning the authority of NYPD officers to enter Clean Halls buildings;
Implement training for officers who patrol Clean Halls buildings;
Submit for review a protocol to significantly reduce the number of unjustified stops and arrests of people in Clean Halls buildings; and
Award compensatory damages to named plaintiffs.
The federal class-action lawsuit filed by the NYCLU, Latino Justice and The Bronx Defenders and names the City of New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly as well as individual police officers as its defendants.
To watch a video of the plaintiffs, to see photos of them or to read the full complaint, visit; http://www.nyclu.org/news/class-action-lawsuit-challenges-nypd-patrols-of-private-apartment-buildings.
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