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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Is There Something Dirty About ‘Clean Halls’?

MANHATTAN (CN) - A Columbia University professor and Bronx prosecutor took the stand Monday against Operation Clean Halls, New York City police stop-and-frisk operations in apartment buildings.

Three federal lawsuits seek court intervention to make the NYPD curb racial profiling in stopping and questioning suspects.

One class action, Floyd v. City of New York, broadly addresses racial disparities in stops. A second class action, Davis v. City of New York, targets "vertical patrols" in public housing complexes.

The final lawsuit, Ligon v. City of New York, convened Monday for arguments on a preliminary injunction that would impose court oversight overs police stops of private housing residents and their guests for alleged trespass.

All three cases were assigned to U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has written many strongly worded opinions on constitutional concerns about stop-and-frisk policies.

Jeanean Ligon, 40, filed her case in March, claiming the Clean Halls program created a state of "siege" in her building.

Ligon said she sent her 17-year-old son, J.G., out for ketchup in August 2011, then found he had been detained by four unidentified officers.

Ligon says she was "[t]errified that J.G. was injured or dead" when an officer buzzed her intercom to have her identify him downstairs. She says she "collapsed and began weeping" when she saw him surrounded.

The New York Civil Liberties Union's Christopher Dunn spoke Monday for Ligon and her co-plaintiffs about the program's "growing controversy."

While Clean Halls has existed for more than 20 years, the NYPD has no documentation showing how it sprang into existence, Dunn said.

The lawyer said that the city turned over a May 2012 "Atlantic" magazine article about Clean Halls, but claimed it found no documents outlining criteria for enrollment or announcing the launch of the program. The only signs of the program are those tacked onto buildings, warning against trespassing, Dunn said.

His first witness, Columbia Professor Jeffrey Fagan, examined the NYPD's data on Clean Halls-related stops, concluding that more than 60 percent appeared unjustified.

After each stop, police must fill out two-sided forms, known as UF-250s, with demographic and other information.

The professor described his analysis of these forms as "extremely uncomplicated."

"It was basically counting and sorting," Fagan said.

Of the more than 15,000 trespass stops, Fagan said, he focused on the 1,857 that took place outdoors close to buildings enrolled in Clean Halls.

Of that subset, Fagan said, more than half justified stops on the basis of "furtive movements" and "keyless entry," categories that he considered vague.

"It's not very clear at all that there's any basis for attributing 'furtive movements' to trespassing," he said.

City attorney Brenda Cooke sought to undermine his data on cross-examination.

She claimed that Fagan ignored the other side of the form, where officers wrote that many of these stops took place in high-crime areas.

Fagan replied that his study disregarded this side of the form because "we did not believe that they would contain information that would be relevant."

Many of the "keyless entry" cases that Fagan counted were more alarming than his analysis indicated, Cooke said.

She read one description that stated: "Ongoing investigation, e.g. robbery patterns."

Fagan said that was an isolated case.

Another description stated: "Defendant is known not to live at location."

Fagan asked: "Why can't the person who doesn't live at that address not be visiting someone who lives at that address?"

After the professor stepped down, a Bronx prosecutor testified against the program.

A bespectacled older woman in a conservative red suit, Jeannette Rucker served as bureau chief for the Bronx District Attorney's Office's arraignments office, a post she calls its "central nervous system," since 2007.

Rucker described herself as hardened by decades of work for the department, previously as deputy chief.

"Twenty-one long years," she harrumphed.

Though the Clean Halls program lasted nearly as long as her tenure, she testified that she had her first doubts about the program in 2007, when judges started dismissing trespassing cases in droves.

"Like most DAs, I took it with a grain of salt," Rucker said, referring to the dismissals.

In rapid-fire delivery, she said that the trend persisted for 4 years, until she had a law school intern investigate Clean Halls trespass stops.

"I found we were dead wrong," she said. "We had to clean up our act."

In February 2011, she said, she met with Kerry Sweet, deputy inspector of the NYPD's Legal Bureau, and arranged for a meeting this June with district attorneys offices for all five boroughs.

"We call them the Five Families," Rucker said.

She said none of the departments formally responded to her concerns, but individual officers replied to a letter she drafted outlining how she viewed the problem.

In July, she made headlines for announcing that her bureau would no longer handle trespassing cases with supporting depositions and would interview the officers directly.

Monday's hearings closed before the end of her direct examination, and she will face questioning by city attorneys today.

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