The door that Timothy Stansbury Jr. Almost made it through five weeks ago, as he was heading to the roof of his Bedford-Stuyvesant project, still stands unlocked and unprotected, as do the other 4,750 doors to the roofs of city housing projects. “Mothers always tell their kids not to go up there, but anybody can,” said Michael Smith, 20, a neighbor of the late Stansbury. Roofs are some of the most dangerous places in the complexes. That’s why Officer Richard Neri was up there in the first place. Two days before the shooting, a jury found William Hernandez guilty in a case where prosecutors said he raped a teenage girl four times on the roof of an East Harlem project, smashed her head, and then threw her naked body 14 floors to the ground. A day earlier, Andre Shobey allegedly pulled a gun in the elevator of a Lower East Side project and forced a 15-year-old onto the roof, where he sexually assaulted and robbed her.
The Housing Authority has known of the dangers of its open-roof policy for years. In a 1988 case, a housing police officer testified that “20 or more” forcible robberies and “several” rapes had occurred on the roof of the Wagner Houses in Harlem, just one of the city’s 346 complexes. Police would not give out citywide statistics on roof crimes for this article, but officers have good reason to want to get people off them. Last July, a sniper atop one Brooklyn project wounded a cop. In 1999, two officers in Queens abandoned their patrol car when a rain of bullets fell down from above. Police can arrest a civilian on a project roof for trespassing, but it’s unclear if they typically do.
The city building code requires that rooftop doors be kept unlocked from the inside. That makes tenants safer from fire, though less safe from crime. The International Building Code, an industry model adopted by 44 states and numerous cities, including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., permits roof doors to be locked, both from inside and outside. Since smoke rises, rooftops are not even considered safe places to be in fires, and it’s unclear if the open-door requirement makes sense for housing projects.
Given the present building code, the housing authority doesn’t see a way to do anything but leave the top doors unsecured. In fact, according to a resident, there are latches on the outside of the roof doors where Stansbury lived in order to make it easier for people up there to get in. Many private landlords, bound by the same New York City laws, have installed motion detectors that sound an alarm when people ascend the staircase to the roof. The alarm ceases if the person retreats but continues if the person doesn’t, at which point security personnel can be notified. “That’s something that right now is not possible to do,” Housing Authority spokesperson Howard Marder said. “I don’t know if police would be able to respond every time the alarm went off.” If the police did request that roof doors be secured, Marder said, “we’d have to look at our resources.” Crime has indeed decreased in projects without these alarms and the authority has been spending millions on better security, including $30 million to install networks of cameras in 15 dangerous projects.
Even if some system were put in place, the Housing Authority doesn’t think it would last long. “I guarantee you that someone would find a way to disable the alarms on rooftops,” Marder said. True, but the authority replaces front doors and intercom systems even though they too get vandalized. With persistence, money, and the right strategy, roof trespassers might learn not to even bother. No one thought people would pick up after their dogs, or stop jumping turnstiles, or step outside to smoke. New Yorkers like to think that they can’t change their worst habits, but they can.