Stop-And-Frisk in Public Housing

Judge Shira Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan made the right decision last week when she granted class-action status to a lawsuit brought by public housing residents and visitors who say they were illegally stopped or arrested by the police in their buildings.

The ruling in Davis v. the City of New York clears the way for a trial in one of three federal class-action suits challenging different aspects of the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program, under which hundreds of thousands of times a year people are detained, often while doing nothing wrong.

Judge Scheindlin, who oversees all three cases, has issued a blistering series of rulings making it clear that many police stops in New York City violate the Fourth Amendment. Courts have long ruled that police officers can legally stop and detain a person only when they have reasonable suspicion that the person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime.

Earlier this year, in Ligon v. City of New York, Judge Scheindlin excoriated the Police Department for persisting in making illegal stops and arrests outside private apartment buildings — even after prosecutors had pointed out that they were wrongful. Last month, she ruled in Floyd v. City of New York that street-stop tactics violated the constitutional rights of minority citizens who were disproportionately singled out. She also appointed an independent monitor who will be responsible for reforming Police Department practices.

The city has sometimes tried to deny that the Police Department has an actual stop-and-frisk program. But the judge points out in the Davis case that police training materials actually direct officers to approach and question people in New York City Housing Authority buildings “without reasonable suspicion of trespass, and to arrest for trespass those who fail to leave or affirmatively establish their right” to be present in a building.

The Housing Authority’s population is larger than most cities. It houses more than 400,000 New Yorkers in more than 330 developments spread around the five boroughs.

In certifying the class action, Judge Scheindlin said that the police policy has led to “large numbers of apparently unjustified trespass arrests,” and testimony presented thus far supported the inference that many of the Housing Authority’s black or Hispanic residents had been “impeded in coming and going freely from their homes and having guests.”

One resident, the president of a public housing leadership group, testified that life for families harassed by stop-and-frisk policies in their own apartment buildings was like life in a “penal colony.”

Beyond being illegal, abusive stop-and-frisk practices have made law enforcement even more difficult by causing law-abiding people to be deeply wary of the police. Instead of appealing these cases, the next mayor needs to bring department policy in line with the Constitution.