Operation Clean Halls: a Violation of the Fair Housing Act?

A federal lawsuit filed last week by the NY Civil Liberties Union, the Bronx Defenders, and LatinoJustice PRLDEF against NYPD’s “Operation Clean Halls” is all over the news this morning. This program allows landlords to request a police presence in privately owned apartment buildings (like ones that we at organize) to check ID’s and dissuade criminal behavior.   The program is part NYPD’s larger “Stop and Frisk” policy in which police stop “suspects” to check for illegal substances or activities. It is widely believed that the “Stop and Frisk” program disproportionately target people of color.  An article in the Atlantic Cities reports that “some 84 percent of the people stopped in 2009 were black or Latino; those groups represent 53 percent of the city’s population.”

What does it mean for tenants to have a police presence in their building?  A Bronx tenant told a WYNYC reporter her experience in a building with police presence. Fawn Bracy is a named plaintiff in the case:

I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched police throw my son and his friends up against the wall, 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 lawsuit points out ways Operation Clean Halls infringes on tenants’ constitutional rights.  The Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures, and plaintiffs claim this is in direct contradiction with what is takes place New York City apartment buildings (people’s homes) as a result of Clean Halls.  The First Amendment guarantees us the right of freedom of assembly. Many tenants feel threatened and discouraged from gathering by intimidating police presence. Jacqueline Yates, Bronx tenant, describes her experience with the program in the same WNYC article:

You get to the point that you don’t feel like a human being. I got family members that don’t send their kids over because they’re scared they’re gonna be stopped.

Plaintiffs in the case are also arguing that the city is in violation of the Fair Housing Act because the program disproportionately impacts people of color.

In almost all the buildings we work in, tenants voice their concerns over lack of security. Strangers come in and out freely, and many buildings have an active drug presence. Parents are worried about unsafe environments for their children. Some tenants have asked us, as an organizing tactic, to help them work together to force their landlord to implement Clean Halls. It is important, when debating Clean Halls, to recognize the complexities of programs like this which attempt to increase security and make buildings safer for tenants who live there.  It is important to recognize that security is something desperately wanted by many community members. However, according to tenants lived experiences, Operation Clean Halls has not been effective or helpful in discouraging crime. It does not provided that needed security nor does it protect tenants. As WNYC reports,

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.

We believe that this lawsuit provides space to have a reinvigorated conversation about building and community security. Hall Monitor programs and Neighborhood Watches have been known to work, but there needs to be larger policy shifts which don’t function though racial and gender discrimination. How can we actually hold the NYPD and the city accountable for the racist implications, and how can we create safe neighborhoods in new, creative ways?


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