House Arrest, Redefined
On a recent Tuesday around 9 p.m., 21-year-old Terrence Brown left his Bronx apartment to take out the garbage. Dressed in slippers and pajamas, he walked down the hall to the trash chute. Three police officers approached him.
"Do you live here?" one of them asked.
"Yes," he said.
Brown tells the Voice that an officer then asked, "What are you doing?"
Brown explained that he was throwing out the garbage, but the officers asked for his ID anyway.
But Brown had given his ID to police officers about a week earlier in an unrelated incident.
So he got slapped with a ticket for trespassing—in his own home.
"I just tried to keep it respectful," says Brown, a produce manager at a Stop & Shop in the Bronx. "That's trespassing? I was in my pajamas and slippers. . . . And the next thing I know, I have a ticket and three cops in my face."
This kind of policing is exactly what the New York Civil Liberties Union is targeting in a new lawsuit. The group claims that the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk program, which stops an overwhelming majority of black and Latino suspects, is also taking place in private buildings.
Landlords citywide can sign up for a program called "Operation Clean Halls," which is intended to prevent drug use and sales through indoor patrolling.
In Manhattan, a Clean Halls–associated initiative run by the district attorney's office called the Trespass Affidavit Program, TAP, also targets trespassing in buildings with drug problems.
TAP operates in more than 3,200 buildings, but the NYCLU says that the initiatives are shrouded in secrecy. The NYCLU claims that the D.A. denied a public-records request to identify participating buildings. The advocacy group fired back on January 20 with a lawsuit filed in the New York State Supreme Court.
"We were hearing directly from people that building residents were being subjected to pretty intense police practices—getting stopped in lobbies, stopped at the mailbox, at the garbage chute, in the hallway," says Alexis Karteron, NYCLU senior staff attorney.
(Stop-and-frisks are also resulting in an increased number of lawsuits by people arrested—see this week's cover story)
"When you already have a record of doing a poor job of catching criminals when you are engaged in these kinds of practices on the street . . . why would you then extend the program to private buildings?" says Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, a faculty research fellow for the Center on Race, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College. Clean Halls likely disproportionately targets minorities and low-income residents the same way stop-and-frisks do, she adds.
Still, some recognize a need for cops in crime-ridden buildings.
Corey Palma, 33, who was walking past a Bronx Clean Halls building on a recent Friday, says he understands why the police have such a strong presence.
"The police are crazy around here—but they need to be," Palma says, adding that gunplay is the norm in his neighborhood. Palma, who works as a chef, still recalls with disdain an incident when the police harassed his girlfriend outside her apartment.
"I'm a black male," Palma adds. "I look suspicious."
A representative for Fernando Cabrera, Bronx city councilman, said that in 2011, Cabrera received 15 constituent calls for tougher policing.
State Senator Gustavo Rivera begs to differ. He says it's clear that the police stops are not working and are inappropriate. "We have to stand up and call it what it is: an unconstitutional practice that does not make for safer streets."
The D.A.'s office declined to comment, though a spokesperson noted that the office only brings charges for lawful arrests. (When the Voice asked the mayor about Clean Halls at a recent press conference, he said he didn't know about the issue. The NYPD did not respond to several requests for comment.)
A judge ultimately dismissed the charge for Brown, the 21-year-old ticketed while taking out his trash. But he's still bitter: Since he was 16, officers have searched him for drugs and bothered him for biking, spitting, trespassing, and walking down the street—because he is black, he says.
"It just makes me feel like a criminal," Brown says. "It doesn't matter what I do in life. I'm always gonna be seen as criminal. I may look the part. But I'm not."
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