People in New York City public housing are subject to more than double their share of police stops, according to government data recently filed in a class action lawsuit over police practices in public housing. Tenants of the New York City Housing Authority make up about five percent of the city’s population. In each of the past seven years, between 11 and 15 percent of all police stops were made on public housing properties. The disparities are even greater when it comes to stops made on suspicion of trespassing: In each of the four years from 2006 through 2009, public housing accounted for half of all the trespassing stops made in the city.
The trespassing lawsuit is being heard in a Manhattan federal court. A similar suit has already gone to trial over trespassing stops in private buildings whose landlords allow police greater access than usual under the ‘Clean Halls’ program. Police are authorized to question people in common areas like lobbies and stairwells—essentially bringing the practice of stop-and-frisk indoors. The plaintiffs argue that stops are so frequent that police effectively run pedestrian checkpoints on public housing grounds.
Kis Ravelin, a 23-year-old resident of the Washington Houses in East Harlem who was arrested for trespassing after being stopped in the lobby of his own building, tells Child Welfare Watch that he assumes he’s subject to suspicion every time he sees a police officer in his development. “It makes you feel like an experiment gone rogue,” he says. “Like they’re waiting for you to go haywire.” His case was promptly dismissed by the court, but not until he’d spent a night in jail. Ravelin was interviewed as part of a six-month Child Welfare Watch investigation of police relationships with NYCHA tenants, focusing on both young people and older residents; the report will be published in the upcoming Fall 2012 issue of the Watch.
The NYPD defends trespass stops as an indispensable tool for preventing violent crime in public housing. The overall rate of reported crime is 30 percent higher in NYCHA developments than in the rest of the city, according to police data. Rates of violent crime are nearly twice as high, and drug crime rates are four times higher. In one NYCHA-issued survey, nearly half of respondents said they were afraid to leave their own apartments because of crime.
Aida Melendez, 61, has lived in the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem all her life and serves on her building’s Resident Watch. At night, she says, “if you don’t know how to tuck and roll, you better not be outside.”
But higher crime rates don’t directly account for the elevated number of police stops on public housing properties, according to an analysis by Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia University law professor hired by plaintiffs to analyze crime and enforcement data.
Even controlling for crime rates, socioeconomic conditions and the volume of police presence, Fagan found that people on public housing grounds are close to four times likelier to be stopped on suspicion of trespassing than people in immediately surrounding neighborhoods.
Some policing experts argue that such aggressive, targeted enforcement can make crime more intractable in vulnerable communities, because it undermines police officers’ ability to collaborate with residents. “Good police work involves building relationships with people in communities. They’re the ones who know where crime is happening and who’s committing it,” says Paul Butler, a Georgetown University professor and former prosecutor for the federal Department of Justice. “The police need friends. They’re making enemies.”
The city’s policing numbers point to a reality more complicated than either side would contend. Following negotiations with tenant leaders in 2009, the rate of trespassing stops on public housing grounds dropped by nearly 60 percent. Last year, public housing accounted for just under a third of the city’s total trespassing stops—still an outsized proportion, but a significant decrease from the 50 percent it represented in preceding years.
There’s no evidence that cutting down on trespass stops tied the police department’s hands when it came to enforcement. During the same period, the total number of arrests on public housing properties barely declined at all.