MANHATTAN (CN) - New York City's Operation Clean Halls, which lets landlords put city police patrols in privately owned buildings, puts hundreds of thousands of mostly minority New Yorkers "under siege" in their own homes, residents say in a federal class action.
The 52-page complaint filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union relates tales of a 17-year-old detained after buying ketchup for his mother; a woman's call to 911 after her boyfriend, a police sergeant, was detained for bringing Chinese take-out into her building; and a high school junior arrested for "trespassing" in his own home.
The NYCLU sued the NYPD in January, demanding records on the program, which the rights group says has raised alarms for its members ever since it was established in 1991.
"Operation Clean Halls has placed hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly black and Latino, under siege in their own homes," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. "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 police. Untold numbers of people have been wrongly arrested for trespassing because they had the audacity to leave their apartments without IDs or visit friends and family who live in Clean Halls buildings."
Shortly before releasing that statement, attorneys filed the class action on behalf of 12 New Yorkers and one former resident who say they were stopped in their own homes.
Of the plaintiffs, three are 17-year-olds represented by their mothers.
In an email, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne defended the program, which he compared to having a doorman.
"By challenging uninvited individuals, police are providing a level of safety to tenants that residents of doormen buildings take for granted," Browne wrote.
But unlike doormen, the police patrols often stop and frisk residents and guests - invited and "uninvited" - without reasonable suspicion, the plaintiffs say.
"For residents of Clean Halls Buildings and their visitors, merely exiting a Clean Halls Building frequently leads to being stopped, searched, and interrogated by NYPD officers on public sidewalks and in exterior courtyards," the complaint states. "These stops typically involve full searches and questioning as to the person's reason for having been inside the building, and frequently result in arrest or the issuance of a summons if the person cannot affirmatively justify his presence to the police officer's satisfaction.
"Such seizures also take place in the lobbies, vestibules, stairwells, hallways, and other public areas of Clean Halls Buildings, where residents are often illegally stopped, searched, questioned, issued summonses, and even arrested without cause for allegedly trespassing inside in their own buildings. They are frequently stopped and forced to produce identification while engaged in completely innocuous activities like checking their mail or taking out their garbage. To avoid arrests or summonses for trespassing, many residents of Clean Halls Buildings are compelled to carry identification with them whenever they exit their apartments for any purpose-including trips to the laundry room or to visit a neighbor.
"Illegal stops inside Clean Halls Buildings sometimes occur during floor-by-floor sweeps by NYPD officers, known as vertical patrols. Upon information and belief, hundreds of thousands of vertical patrols take place annually in Clean Halls Buildings. For instance, testimony before the New York City Council Committee on Public Safety by Inspector Michael C. Phipps, the Commanding Officer of the NYPD's Housing Borough Manhattan, indicates that the NYPD conducted approximately 240,000 vertical patrols in privately owned buildings in 2003 alone.
"Residents of some Clean Halls Buildings are stopped, questioned, and searched by NYPD officers on a regular basis - sometimes multiple times a week. For many young men of color in particular, being searched and seized by NYPD officers in and around their homes has become normalized and is simply a routine part of their lives."
There are 3,895 Clean Halls buildings in Manhattan alone, the NYCLU says.
In one Bronx apartment, lead plaintiff Jeanean Ligon, 40, said she sent her 17-year-old son, J.G., out for ketchup last August, 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.
"One officer began laughing, asked Ms. Ligon if J.G. was her son, and handed her the ketchup," the complaint states.
Plaintiff Jovan Jefferson, 20, says he is stopped "two to three times every month" outside his building, and was arrested for trespassing in his building three years ago, when he was a high school junior.
Even a police sergeant is not safe from arrest for walking into a Clean Halls building, according to the complaint.
"In October 2006 NYPD Sergeant Reginald McReynolds was stopped in the stairwell of his girlfriend's apartment building, which is enrolled in Operation Clean Halls, while returning to her apartment with a take-out Chinese food order," the complaint states. "One officer asked Sergeant McReynolds, 'What fucking apartment are you going to?' McReynolds indicated that he was going to his girlfriend's apartment, and the officers threatened to arrest him for trespassing. Ivelisse Cruz, McReynolds' girlfriend, took pictures of the incident as it unfolded and called 911. Sergeant McReynolds's arrest was reported by major media outlets, including the New York Daily News, and CNN."
McReynolds is not a plaintiff in the complaint.
Defendants include New York City, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Officers Johnny Blasini, Gregory Lomangino, Joseph Koch, Kieron Ramdeen, Joseph Bermudez and Miguel Santiago, and 12 John Doe officers.
The plaintiffs say that Clean Halls violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly; Fourth Amendment rights prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure; 14th Amendment due process guarantees; Fair Housing Act protections against discrimination, and other state and civil rights laws.
They seek a judgment ending the program, establishing citywide standards, monitoring police around Clean Halls homes, and compensatory damages.
Plaintiffs are represented by Alex Karteron with the NYCLU, J. McGregor Smyth Jr. with The Bronx Defenders, Juan Cartagena with LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and M. Chris Fabricant, of Brooklyn.
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