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Critics Challenge NYPD Clean Halls Program in Court

Monday, October 15, 2012

Civil rights groups on Monday began making their case in U.S. District Court to limit a citywide policy that allows the police department to patrol more than 10,000 private buildings.

They’re seeking a judicial order to end the practice of stopping people on suspicion of trespassing outside so-called “Clean Halls” buildings. Landlords give the NYPD permission to patrol the inside of their building at any time through the Clean Halls program. The New York Civil Liberties Union and other critics filed a class action lawsuit in March over arrests made outside the participating buildings.

The preliminary injunction focuses on buildings in the Bronx — the borough with the highest participation. The NYPD patrols about 5,000 buildings there, according to the City Law Department.  NYCLU attorneys argued that in 2011, officers stopped 1,137 people on suspicion of trespassing in public areas like courtyards and sidewalks outside Bronx buildings, not inside the dwellings.  

NYCLU Staff attorney Alexis Karteron said the program, which has been around for about 20 years, hasn’t been regulated it in any serious way until this year. “That has meant the police officers have been under the mistaken impression that simply if people are near Clean Halls buildings they can stop them on suspicion of trespassing,” Karteron said.

In July, a Bronx DA employee suggested a change in policy that would require arresting officers be interviewed before prosecuting a trespassing case. Jeannette Rucker has worked for the Bronx DA’s office for 21 years and is chief of the Complaint Room and Arraignments. She testified that she proposed the change after years of observing the problem.   

“It started in 2007— and continued through ‘08 and ‘09. Judges started dismissing these cases right and left,” the plain speaking Rucker said on the stand. But one thing that stuck in her mind was a letter from a Clean Halls building resident who described the arrest of an invited visitor. “I said ‘I wish this was an isolated incident but we all know it is not.’”

She testified that as questionable cases kept coming up she asked an aide to prepare a more formal review of the policy, and she and other representatives from the four other DA’s offices met with the NYPD’s Kerry Sweet of the Legal Bureau to discuss the exit stops.

City lawyers say there is insufficient evidence to support plaintiffs' claims. A spokesperson from the city’s Corporation Counsel said, “We believe [they] aren’t entitled to a preliminary injunction that would prevent the police department from continuing this important public safety program.” Brenda Cooke argued the city has improved training for officers about when they can and can’t stop someone as part of the city's broader stop-and-frisk program.

The trial resumes Tuesday morning, with Rucker back on the stand for cross examination, followed by witnesses who’ve been subject to some of the alleged stops.

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