Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
New York Police officers regularly walk the floors, stairwells and roofs of public housing developments looking for suspicious activity. These so-called vertical patrols are also conducted at private buildings when requested by building owners.
It was during one of these patrols that a 30-year-old-police officer was shot in the chest early Thursday morning in the Seward Park public housing development on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, after he came across a gunman in the stairwell of the building, according to police.
At a Thursday afternoon press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the controversial tactic of vertical patrols and used the opportunity to bring up a lawsuit challenging the practice. “The [New York Civil Liberties Union] and others are suing us to limit both these patrols – despite the fact that they have been instrumental in saving lives and bringing down crime in what are often crime and gang riddled buildings,” he said.
The New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit challenges the practice of vertical patrols and alleges that an untold number of individuals are being stopped without cause. “Subjecting people who are not engaged in suspicious behavior to routine interference with their daily lives simply because of where they live and the color of their skin does not build trust. It does not respect dignity and it doesn’t make us any safer,” NYCLU Director Donna Lieberman said. Lieberman acknowledged that Thursday’s shooting exemplified the challenges police face but said officers should be counted on to do a very difficult job while not violating people’s rights.
Mayor Bloomberg sees the vertical patrols as beneficial to the residents who live in places where they occur. “The NYPD goes to these buildings for a very simple reason: it’s where crimes are being committed and to give residents of these buildings some security that those in doorman buildings are afforded,” he reasoned.
While the NYCLU lawsuit challenges vertical patrols in private buildings, a similar, but separate, lawsuit by the Legal Aid Society challenges the practice in public housing developments where, according to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, violent crime persists.
“About 4 percent of New York residents live in public housing. About 20 percent of violent crime occurs in public housing,” Kelly said. According to the NYPD, 35 people were shot in public housing developments in the last 28 days.
Bishop Mitchell Taylor, CEO of the East River Development Alliance, runs social service programs at two public housing developments in Queens. He conceded crime maybe higher in public housing, but said there was a larger point.
“What are we doing to address the issues of crime,” he posited. “Public housing residents are the lost population. They are the last to be considered.”
Taylor pointed to low graduate rates among young black and Latino males in public housing and high levels of unemployment that hover around 16 to 18 percent.
Officials say more than 400,000 people live in public housing. Some advocates say the number exceeds 600,000.