Over a two-year period, the New York Police Department (NYPD) cut the number of trespass stops on public housing grounds by nearly 60 percent. The drop came after a series of negotiations between police and public housing residents.
In general, people on public housing properties are far more likely to be stopped and questioned by police than people in other parts of the city. Tenants of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) make up about 5 percent of the city’s population, yet in each of the past seven years, between 11 and 15 percent of all police stops were made on their properties, according to police data recently filed in a civil rights lawsuit.
One of the most common justifications for a stop on public housing property is suspicion of trespassing: From 2006 through 2009, public housing accounted for roughly half of all trespass stops made by the NYPD.
Some residents argue that the stops are so frequent—and so often groundless—that they amount to a form of systematic discrimination against NYCHA residents. In a 2009 letter to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the Citywide Council of Presidents, an elected body of public housing tenant representatives, described policing in their buildings as “dehumanizing” and compared their homes to penal colonies. A short time later, tenants represented by the Legal Aid Society filed a class action lawsuit against NYCHA and the city, claiming that residents and their guests are routinely arrested on charges of trespassing in and around their own homes. (The suit is being heard by federal judge Shira Scheindlin, who ruled today in a separate lawsuit that the NYPD makes unconstitutional trespass stops outside private buildings in the Bronx.)
In the past, it’s been difficult to put numbers to claims of discriminatory treatment in NYCHA buildings, since the NYPD does not publish detailed information about where stops are made. Newly filed court documents show not only that public housing residents experience drastically disproportionate rates of police enforcement activity—but they also reveal that collaboration between residents and police officials may have led to a significant change in police practice.
Following the letter from the tenant council, police officials began a series of meetings with tenant representatives as part of a task force organized by NYCHA. In response to complaints of police harassment, residents and officials negotiated changes to the way police are trained, emphasizing the requirement that police have reasonable suspicion that a law has been broken before making any trespass stop on public housing properties. In the two years following the implementation of the new training, the number of trespass stops on NYCHA grounds dropped from 33,800 to 14,200.
There’s no evidence that reducing the stops limited the police department’s ability to enforce the law: Even as trespass stops fell sharply, the overall number of arrests on public housing remained nearly flat.
Civil rights attorneys point out that public housing residents continue to be subject to an outsized share of police surveillance and enforcement—even after the reduction in trespass stops. “The numbers are still very high and every week we have more people being arrested for trespass in NYCHA buildings who live in those buildings or are invited guests. People are humiliated and lose time at work. Prosecutors around the city are declining to prosecute a large number of these arrests because there is no evidence of a crime,” says Nancy Rosenbloom, one of the Legal Aid Society attorneys involved in the NYCHA lawsuit.
Other advocates, however, describe the task force as a rare example of collaboration between the NYPD and community members who feel aggrieved by aggressive police tactics like stop-and-frisk.
“Is the problem solved?” asks Reginald Bowman, a long-time tenant activist and current president of the Citywide Council of Presidents. “No, it’s not. But effort is being made to solve it, and I think the community would be better served if law enforcement personnel, victims, litigants, would all come to the table and spend the time, energy and resources they have in solving the problem.”
The past three decades have seen major changes in the city’s approach to collaborations between community residents and the police. In the 1980s, the NYPD implemented an extensive community policing program, assigning thousands of neighborhood patrol officers to the task of developing relationships with residents and working with them to solve quality-of-life problems.
As the department increased its reliance on targeted, “zero tolerance” policing through the 1990s and 2000s, it largely divested from the effort to build partnerships with communities. The NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau—the division responsible for fostering goodwill and developing local relationships—is allocated $12.8 million per year. That’s less than 0.3 percent of the total $4.5 billion police department budget.
Defenders of the NYPD’s policing strategies, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, point to a decade of plummeting murder rates and credit the department with taking guns off the street and saving the lives of thousands of young black and Latino men.
Critics counter that the city has relied far too heavily on aggressive patrol tactics, placing young men of color—especially those who live in public housing—under wholesale suspicion and threat of arrest.
The debate is likely to be central in the upcoming mayoral and City Council elections, with many community advocates calling on the NYPD to recalibrate the balance between cracking down on crime and respecting the rights of people in high-crime places. One question the city faces: At what point do tactics like stop-and-frisk become counterproductive, alienating law-abiding residents who would otherwise help police identify real troublemakers and solve crimes?
“What if we got to a place of trust where community residents could point to a crew and say [to police], ‘You’re focusing on what the kids in that crew are doing, but there’s a couple of older guys driving all the action, putting guns in their hands, and we’re sick of them?’” asks the Reverend Ruben Austria, the executive director of Community Connections for Youth. Austria’s program partners with the Department of Probation to work with young people in the juvenile justice system. “If the police were to go in and bust that person, the community would probably celebrate.”
As it is, Austria says, overcoming mistrust would require a commitment from the top ranks of the police department and City Hall. “Precincts don’t have the support of their own leadership for having real partnerships with community leaders,” he says.
Dominick Walters, a 21-year-old from the Bronx who’s been arrested twice on suspicion of trespassing—once in the building next door to the one he’s lived in since he was 5—puts it like this: “You just make everybody turn against you. It’s supposed to be the cops and the regular people against the criminals. Instead you got everybody against the cops.”
This article was adapted from a feature story about policing in New York City public housing, published in the Winter 2012-2013 print edition of Child Welfare Watch.