In New York, a 20-Year-Old Policy Suddenly Prompts a Lawsuit

Since 1991, the Clean Halls program has allowed the NYPD to arrest apartment dwellers with little or no cause. Why is the city being so secretive -- and why are residents only now fighting back? 

Jacqueline Yates, a 53-year-old former correctional officer, is a resident of a Clean Halls building in the Bronx and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the NYPD. (Julie Turkewitz)

In late March, three civil rights groups filed a class action lawsuit against the New York City police department, alleging that a little-known crime-fighting program violated the constitutional rights of tens of thousands of New Yorkers.

The program, called Operation Clean Halls, permits police to conduct vertical patrols inside and around private residences, seeking out trespassers and drug crime. The lawsuit, which was filed by the NYCLU, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and the Bronx Defenders, questions whether the police have overstepped their Fourth Amendment boundaries while implementing the program. The suit alleges that officers have used Clean Halls to make baseless stops and trespassing arrests in primarily black and Latino neighborhoods, cuffing residents in their own hallways as they stepped out to buy a bottle of ketchup, or while they waited outside a girlfriend or sister's building.

The suit is part of a larger public outcry against the NYPD, which is also under fire for its surveillance of American Muslims, its dealings with Occupy Wall Street protesters, and its increasingly frequent practice of stopping and frisking black and Latino men. But few have pointed to the thick information wall surrounding Operation Clean Halls, which has been in existence, in some form, since 1991.

"The NYPD and New York City in general under [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg operate on the premise that data is power," said Donna Lieberman, executive director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. "They claim to develop public policy based on 'The facts, ma'am, and only the facts.' At the same time, they are as stingy as stingy can be about giving out the facts, which they and only they have."

Clean Halls, also known as the Trespass Affidavit Program, began in Manhattan under Mayor David Dinkins' administration, a time when New York faced widespread homelessness, a faltering economy, and a crack-fueled crime wave. While Dinkins was often criticized during his administration, today he is credited with setting in motion a series of policies that began to turn the city around -- including the hiring of thousands of new police officers.

Clean Halls was one of his programs for buckling down on crime. To enroll, the police department asks landlords to sign an affidavit, permitting officers to enter a private building at any time and question and arrest unlawful loiterers. Building owners provide the police with a tenant roster, and anyone not on that roster, or who cannot give a reasonable explanation for presence in the building, is subject to arrest.

The program later expanded into all five boroughs, but it's unclear how fast it spread or how many landlords enrolled their buildings. The lawsuit's text says there are 3,895 Clean Halls participants in Manhattan, and nearly every building in the Bronx is enrolled. But the NYPD will not release the list of residences registered for the program, saying the release of this data would constitute an unwarranted invasion of landlords' personal privacy.

The NYCLU is embroiled in a separate lawsuit with the police department to obtain that information.

New York also allows the police to conduct patrols inside city-owned public housing buildings, as do many other cities across the nation. In New York, though, patrols of public buildings are subject to a level of transparency and regulation that the police department has not extended to private Clean Halls buildings. A list of all public housing residences is available online, for example. And in 2010, the police department amended the code of conduct for patrolling inside public buildings, amid complaints of baseless stops and arrests.

Critics of Clean Halls argue that while the program may have legitimate crime-fighting origins, the opaqueness surrounding it has allowed the program to expand unchecked. "I want the police to be involved," said Jacqueline Yates, a 53-year-old former correctional officer and resident of a Clean Halls building in the Bronx. "We need them, there is no doubt about that. It's the way they go about policing."

Yates, who is one of 13 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said Clean Halls has defined the past few years of her life: Visitors have stopped coming for Sunday dinners, stymied by frequent searches as they leave the building. And she has taken up a semi-permanent post near her fourth floor window, intervening two to three times a week, she said, when her sons are searched by police in their courtyard.

While residents in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods may never hear of Clean Halls, people in several parts of the Bronx said that the program's implementation is so intrusive and haphazard that it has placed parts of the borough under siege. Frequent searches and baseless arrests, they said, are not merely inconveniences. They also deepen a long-standing schism between law enforcement and neighbors, disrupt employment and schooling, and discourage visits from family and friends, unraveling community ties.

"At this point, I'd rather come home and deal with a robbery than deal with being stopped by the police," said Dominick Walters, a 20-year-old college student who has been arrested twice for trespassing while visiting friends or acquaintances. Both cases were dismissed, but not before both Walters and the city spent a considerable amount of time and money clearing his name. After his first arrest, Walters spent four days in a cell, sleeping in the dress coat and tie he had donned that day for work as a salesman. By the time he emerged, he'd missed two days on the job.

Spokespeople for the police department and the Manhattan District Attorney's office declined to speak to The Atlantic. But the NYPD has argued that Clean Halls is a necessary part of a crime-fighting tool kit. In March, for example, police Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne pointed out that in the 20 years since the program began, violent crime has declined dramatically in the city.

While the constitutionality of Clean Halls is unclear, it is certain that the program will continue to expand unless police Commissioner Raymond Kelly is forced to make a change. For now, once an owner enrolls a building in the program it remains a participant into perpetuity, regardless of whether it continues to be a high-crime residence.

"When you think that it's normal for the cops to stop you every day, all day, and that's the thought that you have in your head, you don't think anything -- college, a job -- is going to make a difference," says Yates, referring to her teenage sons. "It's hard for someone who's not around to realize how deep it goes."