Little Scrutiny of Public Housing Patrols Amid Calls for Police Reform

J. David Goodman

December 15, 2014

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/16/nyregion/amid-calls-for-police-reform-little-scrutiny-of-public-housing-patrols.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

In the housing projects of New York, police officers can demand identification from people who are hanging out in a public space, like a building lobby. Even if they prove that they live in the building, officers may cite them for “lingering.”

It is not a crime, but it is a violation of the New York City Housing Authority’s rules.

There are many such rules that govern life in the projects, like no playing in the hallways and no barbecuing without a permit. Breaking any of them can put a tenant at risk of eviction from a system that offers some of the most affordable housing in the city.

Simply waiting outside for a pizza delivery can draw the attention of the police, said Ronald Thomas, who described being approached by two officers recently in the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn. Only the deliveryman’s arrival spared Mr. Thomas a citation, he said.

“If you’re standing in front of the building, you can’t do that,” Mr. Thomas, 24, said. “You can’t sit in the park after dusk. They don’t let you do much around here.”

The deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of police officers — Eric Garner in July and Akai Gurley in November — have prompted many to criticize a host of law enforcement practices in New York, such as the zealous enforcement of minor crimes in minority neighborhoods and the aggressive patrolling of the city’s public housing complexes.

The federal Justice Department opened an investigation this month into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Garner’s death after a grand jury on Staten Island declined to bring charges in the case. In Brooklyn, the district attorney has impaneled a grand jury to hear evidence in the case involving Mr. Gurley, who was fatally shot in a public housing stairwell in what officials have labeled an accident.

The City Council Public Housing Committee, prompted by the death of Mr. Gurley, is scheduled to hold a hearing on Tuesday on safety in buildings operated by the Housing Authority, which is also known as Nycha.

But amid the broader calls to ratchet down the pressure on low-level crimes, little scrutiny has been paid to a routine patrol tactic used by the Police Department: In public housing, officers walking a beat are watching not only for offenses big and small but also for behavior that is not illegal. 

Attention to such noncriminal rule-breaking — recorded on forms known as field reports — is growing, frustrating some public housing tenants as well as elected officials who say the police should focus on crime, not acting as what amounts to armed hall monitors.

For many of the more than 400,000 people who live in Housing Authority properties, clearing smokers from lobbies or raucous teenagers from hallways is a welcome step toward ensuring a level of order expected by tenants anywhere.

As the number of recorded stop-and-frisk encounters involving the police has fallen precipitously in recent years, the tally of field reports — which are also used to flag needed building repairs – has soared, to more than 32,500 last year, from about 19,400 just two years before.

So far this year, the number has remained high.

On Staten Island alone, the number of field reports filled out through the end of October had jumped to 1,935, from 182, over the comparable period last year, department statistics show. In all of 2012, just 40 such reports were filed.

“Most of the field reports then were based on needs for repair in the building,” Assistant Chief Edward Delatorre, a former top housing police commander who now leads officers on Staten Island, said in an interview in August after Mr. Garner’s death drew attention to police practices. “This year,” Chief Delatorre said, “most of them are for violations of rules.”

In many ways, the focus on rules represents a return to an earlier era of community policing. The reports date back more than a half-century to when public housing was policed by its own force that was separate from the Police Department, and stops for rule-breaking were routine.

Juanita Brown, 52, a resident of the Bushwick Houses, welcomed the heavy presence of officers in her Brooklyn development, where crime is up 40 percent this year. Those who do not want them around, Ms. Brown said, “have something to hide.”

Just as the police have had to take on roles in safeguarding schools and dealing with people with mental illness, officers in public housing have been asked to broaden their mission well beyond law enforcement. But when officers are given such responsibilities, critics say, petty matters that might have been overlooked or otherwise addressed short of criminal prosecution can lead to arrests.

“It’s one thing to police minor offenses, which is problematic enough,” said Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Bronx Democrat who leads the Public Housing Committee. “But if you’re also aggressively policing rules, that strikes me as beyond the confines of what the police should be doing. You’re creating more opportunity for escalating tensions between communities of color and the police.”

Arrests for trespassing on public housing grounds, the subject of a current federal lawsuit against the Police Department, are often the product of officers’ first observing what they believe to be a noncriminal violation of the authority’s rules. Jeffrey A. Fagan, a Columbia Law School professor who has analyzed stop-and-frisk encounters in public housing for the plaintiffs in the federal case, said that “lingering” was frequently listed as the reason for the initial stop.

Reasonable suspicion of a crime is necessary for officers to make a legal stop of a person on the street. But for an interaction in a housing project stairwell that may feel every bit like a stop to the person being questioned, officers often have no basis beyond the authority’s rules.

“If you’re standing in the staircase with a few friends, they write you up,” said Anthony Wallace, 27, who lives in the Bushwick Houses. “Or if you’re standing in the hallway for a certain amount of time. I think they’re trying to treat this like a prison.”

The practice raises constitutional questions about the routine interactions between the police and public housing residents. “To me, it has all the problems of stop-and-frisk, plus the problem of officers doing stops without even the pretense of unlawful activity,” said Christopher T. Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

After Mr. Gurley’s death in a stairwell darkened because of a broken light, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton observed that officers help get broken locks or windows fixed in public housing. They do so with the same form used to record rule-breaking.

While the Police Department tracks the number of field reports filed, because the same small handwritten form is used to note both damage to buildings observed by officers and rule violations, a spokeswoman said a count of how many rule-breakers had been cited in recent years was not readily available.

The department’s patrol guide instructs officers to be on the lookout for rules violations. That begins a chain of actions — asking for identification, conducting a stop if reasonable suspicion of a crime develops — that can end in an arrest.

“Getting your mail, that’s not lingering,” said a housing commander who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “But if you’re hanging out with your friends, or sitting in the stairways for a period of time, that’s lingering.” (A Housing Authority tenant cannot legally be accused of loitering, a penal law violation, in his or her own building, though many, including officers, use the two terms interchangeably.)

At that point, officers can request identification. “If they’re not a resident of the building, then they’re trespassing,” the commander said. “That’s an arrest.” 

While a single rule violation rarely leads to eviction, several can contribute to a tenant’s ouster, said Rebecca Greenberg, a lawyer with South Brooklyn Legal Services who handles eviction cases involving housing authority residents.

All field reports are sent to the authority, the police said. But the agency does not track how many of each type — damage or rule-breaking — it receives, said Joan Lebow, its chief spokeswoman.

In general, Ms. Lebow said, a violation results in a tenant’s being told to meet with management to put a stop to the behavior. Few, if any, reports of rule-breaking appeared to directly lead to evictions, she said.

Fritz Umbach, an associate professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies policing in public housing, said: “You could argue, no harm, no foul, because Nycha is not doing much with them.” But, he added, “They are pretexts for contraband discoveries” and could create constitutional problems.

For residents, interactions over rules have the look and feel of police stops. Many recalled giving officers their information for noncriminal transgressions; most said they never heard back.

Trevor Forde, 32, said an officer wrote him up for being in a playground after dark two months ago.

“We can’t even walk in our own parks,” Mr. Forde said. “It makes no sense.”