Reacting to the New York Police Department’s aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics, the Bronx district attorney’s office has halted all prosecutions of people at public housing projects for trespassing, unless and until they can conduct an interview with the arresting officer. This is the “first known instance in which a district attorney has questioned any segment of arrests resulting from stop-and-frisk tactics,” according to the New York Times.
The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics came under fire after news emerged that police stops in New York City increased by more than half a million between 2003 and 2011, and that New York officers conducted more stops of young black men in 2011 than there are young black men in the city. A significant proportion of NYPD stops, 10 to 15 percent, occur at public housing facilities, where police can arrest someone who they believe does not live at the housing project and is not a guest.
After receiving numerous complaints from defense attorneys about trespass arrests, Jeanette Rucker of the Bronx DA’s office conducted an investigation that yielded disturbing results. The New York Times explains:
[S]he found that “in many (but not all) of the cases the defendants arrested were either legitimate tenants or invited guests,” she wrote.
In some cases, Ms. Rucker claimed, the police arrested people even when there was persuasive evidence that they were not trespassing, citing “several instances where defendants who were guests, had the person whom they were visiting verify this fact to the arresting officer, yet the defendant was arrested anyway.” In those cases, the deposition from the arresting officer “indicated the defendant did not know the name of any tenant or the apartment number.”
From 2009 to 2011, the police arrested more than 16,000 people on trespass charges in public housing, according to a report filed as part of the federal litigation over the arrests.
According to another account by counsel for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, some officers were under the mistaken impression that they “were entitled to stop and question anyone inside” public housing.
The findings led the DA’s office to require in-person interviews with arresting officers before prosecuting people for trespass in public housing. But as the Legal Aid Society in New York’s chief lawyer Steven Banks says, this is exactly the type of thing prosecutors should be doing anyway to verify the legal support for these arrests.
Over the last few months, the number of stops has dropped a dramatic 34 percent, following public outcry, new NYPD policies and three court rulings that question NYPD tactics. But that has not changed the impression that the stops are deeply discriminatory. A poll out earlier this week found that 64 percent of New Yorkers, and 80 percent of African Americans, think the police favor whites. The poll also found that a majority of New Yorkers think stop-and-frisk has led to the harassment of innocent people.