Plaintiffs allege the policy leaves black and Latino residents 'under siege in their own homes.'

“I have more fear of them than I do of any criminal element.”

Those are the words of Letitia Ledan, a resident of New York City. And she’s talking about the New York Police Department.

Ledan appears in a video produced by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which last week filed a federal class action suit against the city and its police commissioner, Ray Kelly, over a program called “Clean Hallways.” The program, which started in 1991 at the height of New York’s crime crisis, allows landlords to grant the police blanket permission “to conduct patrols in the hallways and stairwells of their building to remove non-residents who are loitering.”

The NYCLU suit alleges that the program creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the thousands of buildings where it's in place, and that it violates the federal and state constitutions, the federal Fair Housing Act, and New York common law. In a press release, the group outlined what they see as the problem:

“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. “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.”

The NYPD’s response was tone-deaf at best. "By challenging uninvited individuals, police are providing a level of safety to tenants that residents of doormen buildings take for granted," said deputy commissioner Paul Browne in a statement.

Except residents of doorman buildings do not get thrown up against a wall and arrested for trespassing if they can’t produce ID.  They don’t have to worry about their friends getting arrested if they come over to visit. They don’t have to wonder if their sons are going to be able to get past security and up to their front door. From a WNYC report on the suit:

"I can't count the number of times I've watched police throw my son and his friends up against the wall," said Fawn Bracy, a Bronx resident and another named plaintiff, "and I have to run downstairs and just keep running and running and stopping them from harassing these kids for just sitting in their own courtyard where they live at."

The intentions of the Clean Halls program are good. But the problem is that the level of trust between the minority community and the NYPD has been damaged again and again over the years. Incidents like the death of Ramarley Graham, an unarmed black teenager who was followed into his building and shot dead in his own bathroom as he apparently was trying to flush a baggie of pot down the toilet, confirm people’s worst fears about what the police are capable of doing. And the NYPD’s stubborn insistence that there is no problem, that they’re just trying to make people safer, can’t change the fact that for many people, they are a source of fear, intimidation, and routine humiliation.

Clean Halls is part of the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, which disproportionately targets minorities, according to a report from the Center for Constitutional Rights (this lawsuit is the third to challenge the policy). Some 84 percent of the people stopped in 2009 were black or Latino; those groups represent 53 percent of the city’s population. And the tactic is on the rise: 597,364 people were stopped in 2009, compared to 97,837 in 2002.

It can be a frightening experience.

A middle-aged black man I know talked about the terror he experienced when he was stopped by the police one day on the street near his home. There had apparently been a shooting nearby and cops were cruising for the perpetrator. My friend was wearing a parka with the hood up – it was a bitterly cold day – and when the squad car pulled up in front of him all he could think of was that he wished he weren’t wearing that hood and that his hands weren’t in his pockets. (This was long before the Trayvon Martin case made hoodies a cultural flashpoint.)

My friend feared for his life instinctively. He described to me the relief he felt when he was able to get his hands out of his pockets safely, pull down his hood, and show the officers his gray hair.

They let him go. But he knew if he had been a young man, it could have ended very differently.

The suit challenging Clean Halls doesn’t call for the abolition of the program. It seeks an injunction that would, among other things, require officers to stop asking for ID “without suspicion that they are trespassing or engaged in other wrongdoing”; stop arresting people for trespassing “without establishing whether or not the person is authorized to be there”; and would make the city provide better training for officers in the program.

Tough policing has succeeded in making New York a much safer city. But the NYPD’s culture of arrogance has undermined its credibility in the city’s poorest communities, the very places where crime rates are still high. Disingenuous and insulting arguments like the “doormen building” comment just reinforce the divide between the police and the people they are supposed to protect. It’s time for the NYPD to show some humility. But at this point – with notoriously intransigent and pugnacious Ray Kelly at the helm – it’s hard to imagine that happening.

Top image: Plaintiffs Fawn Brancy (left) and Jaqueline Yates. Images courtesy NYCLU.

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