Thirteen plaintiffs, all but two of whom are Black and reside in the Bronx, charge police with “unconstitutional stop, question, search, citation, and arrest policies” operated under the city’s “Operation Clean Halls” program, states a 52-page complaint. Defendants in the suit are the City of New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and 17 city cops.
The New York Civil Liberties Union, Latino Justice Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, and lawyers with the Bronx Defenders submitted the suit.
Police stops occur “in lobbies, vestibules, stairwells, hallways, and other public areas of Clean Halls Buildings,” states the complaint. Residents are “arrested without cause for allegedly trespassing inside their own buildings. They are frequently stopped and forced to produce identification while engaged in completely innocuous activities.” Police also annually conduct hundreds of thousands of floor-by-floor sweeps, known as “vertical patrols.”
Plaintiffs charge the city and police with numerous rights violations as established under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against illegal search and seizure; the First and 14th Amendments on the right to association, assembly, and equal protection; the New York Constitution; and the Fair Housing Act.
The suit also charges defendants with violations of state laws against false arrest, false imprisonment, assault and battery, and malicious prosecution. Plaintiffs are demanding an end to the practices and compensatory payments.
In August 2011, Jaenean Ligon, a 40-year-old Black woman who lives in the Bronx and is lead plaintiff in the suit, sent her 17-year-old son to a nearby store to buy ketchup for the dinner she was preparing. “As he was coming back into the building the cops stopped him,” Ligon told the Militant in a phone interview. “They rang my bell saying they were holding my son and I had to go downstairs to identify him.” She found two undercover cops and two uniformed ones surrounding him in the lobby. “They were grinning with one holding the bag with the ketchup,” she said.
A couple of months later, Ligon’s son and a friend were visiting another friend in a “Clean Halls” building down the block. After leaving that person’s apartment, the cops stopped them in the hallway, Ligon said. “The mother ran out saying they had just left my house. The cops proceeded to handcuff them anyway, taking them to central booking where they were held for a few hours.”
In some Bronx neighborhoods “Operation Clean Halls” exists in “virtually every private apartment building,” the complaint notes. Landlords there simply fill out forms with the city to enroll their buildings “into perpetuity.” Similar programs include some 3,900 buildings in Manhattan as well as areas in Brooklyn and Queens.
“Clean Halls” has been in operation in some form since 1991.
A similar federal lawsuit was filed in 2010 against police operations in public housing units, leading the NYPD to dress up their invasive operations with “new regulations.”
‘Humiliated by the police’“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 the police,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman in a statement.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly responded to the suit at a March 28 press conference by essentially saying residents should be thankful. “I will suspect that, probably, the attorneys involved in this case live in buildings with doormen, and they have a level of safety that people who live in tenements, which is most of what these buildings are, don’t have,” he told reporters. “That is the service that is being provided.”
The complaint cites dozens of examples of harassment.
Jovan Jefferson, a high school student, returned one day to his Bronx apartment to change clothes to play basketball. As he was leaving, cops stopped him in front of the building asking for identification. He said he didn’t have it with him but could get it upstairs. The cops instead handcuffed him for trespassing and put him in a police van. When his mother saw what was happening she ran downstairs saying her son lived in the building. The police said it was “too late” and arrested and jailed him for three nights.
“It’s just wrong what the cops are doing here. They don’t respect our rights,” Trevor Lauriano, a 22-year-old African-American told the Militant inside one of the “Clean Halls” buildings in the Morrisania section of South Bronx, outside of which an elevated police patrol tower operates day and night. The police “stopped me when I was out with my girlfriend. They let me go after questioning me. But you shouldn’t have to go through that.”
At first it “didn’t bother me so much,” Adabella Adon, a building resident originally from the Dominican Republic, told the Militant. “There were a lot of gangs here. When the cops came that got cleaned up. But they go too far. One teenager who lives here gets stopped every day. The weather’s nice but they won’t let anyone sit in the courtyard. And they harass me all the time just because I have Jersey plates on my car.”
According to NYPD data, between 2006 and 2010, the department made 330,000 stops based on suspicion of trespassing. Of those questioned some 94 percent were Black or Latino. Over the past eight years Blacks were arrested for trespassing 12 times more than Caucasians in the city.
Sara Lobman contributed to this article.
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