A few months ago, after visiting his son and grandchildren at the Melrose Houses in the South Bronx, Jose Suarez says two plainclothes police officers jumped out of an unmarked van and ordered him to put his hands against the wall. The officers told Suarez they suspected he was selling drugs inside the building and demanded his identification.
“I told them I’m a working citizen,” says Suarez, 50, who works as a janitor in the city’s courts. “I don’t sell drugs, I don’t buy drugs. I don’t do drugs.”
Suarez is one of many residents complaining of aggressive policing tactics—including unnecessary stop-and-frisks—at housing developments run by the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA.
The police tactics and tenant complaints are not new, but a federal class-action suit challenging the NYPD over thousands of stops and trespass arrests on NYCHA properties is.
What’s also new is an effort by NYCHA to bring tenant leaders and police officials together to discuss the enforcement tactics and their impact.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Legal Aid Society filed the suit against the NYPD and NYCHA late last January, on behalf of 16 plaintiffs. The suit, Davis, et al. v. City of New York, charges that police officers routinely and indiscriminately stop and arrest black and Latino NYCHA tenants and their visitors for criminal trespass.
An earlier lawsuit, Floyd, et al.v City of New York, was filed in 2008 by the Center for Constitutional Rights. It alleged that the NYPD practices racial profiling in its stop-and-frisks of law-abiding City residents. The Center’s recent review of citywide police stop-and-frisk records showed that stops grew to 575,304 in 2009, up from 531,159 in 2008. (While the police tactic is referred to as “stop-and-frisk,” some of the police involve questioning rather than a suspect being searched.)
Some tenants blame the police-resident tensions on a flood of inexperienced officers unfamiliar with public housing. Before 1995, NYCHA developments were patrolled by a Housing Police force of officers who’d been walking the NYCHA beat for years. That experience was lost after the merger of the Housing Police with the NYPD 15 years ago. In 2003, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly launched Operation Impact, a saturation program that sent thousands of rookie officers into so-called “impact zones”—places like housing projects where crime rates did not mirror the citywide decrease in crime.
Deborah Aviles, vice president of the Mott Haven Houses residents association, says that inexperienced officers are unaccustomed to dealing with public housing, half of whom live below the poverty line and 95 percent of whom are black or Latino.
“They’re not experienced,” Aviles says. “They’re scared. So the first thing they’re going to do is try to be tough.”
At a meeting with a group of fellow tenants in the Mott Haven Houses community center a few weeks ago, Aviles passed out instructions on how to react when stopped by police. Hands shot up around the room as residents shared stories of interactions with police. Some claimed to have witnessed elderly residents being detained while police patted down their pockets. Others said they saw neighbors being handcuffed and put into police vans because they could not show ID.
Mayor Bloomberg, Kelly and other city leaders have defended the intensified police activity as a major factor needed to tackle crime rates in these neighborhoods.
The NYPD did not respond to City Limits’ requests for comment. Privately, police officers say that stopping, questioning and frisking NYCHA residents or their visitors are necessary to catch criminals.
“I understand them not wanting to be stopped,” said one officer standing on the corner of 147th Street and Third Avenue in Mott Haven in late February. “But what else can we do?” he said, declining to give his name. “We are here to keep you safe. If you work with us, we will help you.”
Eugene O’Donnell, a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former NYPD officer says Operation Impact’s success is hard to quantify. No one can prove it’s working, O’Donnell says. “But it’s not disproven, either,” he added. “There are cities now where there’s no enforcement to speak of, and crime is going down.”
Last month, a district court agreed to hear the Davis case. The Floyd case is still in discovery phase.
But there are signs that police policies could change regardless of what happens in the courtroom.
NYCHA Communications Officer Sheila Stainback says that while NYCHA cannot comment on pending litigation, the Housing Authority began addressing residents’ complaints before the suit was filed. “NYCHA has been engaging residents, resident leaders and the NYPD in discussions these past few months on how to resolve these issues,” Stainback wrote in an email message in February. “Such initiatives began soon after Chairman John B. Rhea took the reins of NYCHA in June 2009.”
Part of that response includes a Safety and Security task force, compiled of public housing tenant leaders from around the city, and NYCHA and NYPD representatives. The task force met with Kelly last December and February.
In February tenant leaders and police officers on the task force’s “Police Policies and Procedures” subcommittee met twice to discuss policing techniques on NYCHA properties. The tenants reviewed the vertical patrol procedure from the NYPD handbook, and submitted written changes to the officers on the task force.
Much of the tenants’ proposed changes involve specifying the NYPD’s responsibility to ensure the “habitability” of NYCHA properties. But they were also able to lay out precise instructions for officers to follow when approaching individuals on NYCHA property. While the current NYPD handbook vaguely instructs officers “be alert of persons loitering within NYCHA’s buildings,” the new procedure instructs officers to first ask individuals if they live in the building and then, if not, whether they are visiting a resident. If the individual is found to be neither a resident nor a visitor, officers can ask that individual to leave, but are not entitled to immediately arrest that person for trespass.
According to minutes from the last meeting on February 25, Kelly accepted the changes and instructed his staff to revise the handbook.
The officers on the task force also assured tenant leaders they will begin to retrain officers in a matter of months, using an instructional tape that NYCHA residents and leaders plan to create.
Overall, to Mott Haven Houses tenant association president John Johnson, the entire process has been encouraging. “I was just surprised by the openness of the conversation and their willingness to take our suggestions,” Johnson says. “I’m feeling a lot more positive than I did initially.”
Some NYCHA residents are requesting more police coverage; indeed, opponents of stop-and-frisk say they don’t want fewer police around, but want cops to use different tactics.