How quickly the New York Times forgets. A spate of gruesome violence in the city’s housing projects this summer had brought the elevated crime there even to the Times’s attention. A four-year-old boy was killed during a shootout on July 22 at the Forest Houses in the Morrisania section of the Bronx; the gang gunfire erupted at a basketball tournament held in honor of a girl fatally stabbed at the same project the previous year.
On July 5, New York police officer Brian Groves was shot in the chest in the Lower East Side’s Seward Park Housing Extension. Only Groves’s bulletproof vest saved his life. Groves was on “vertical patrol” in the project’s stairwells, responding to residents’ complaints of drug dealing; when he opened the stairwell door, he saw a man with a pistol, who shot Groves at close range after the officer had chased him down five flights. A building resident told the Times that strangers roamed its halls: “There’s a lot of loiterers at night opening the door to people who don’t live there.”
The night before, a gang shooting in front of the A.K. Houses in East Harlem had taken the life of a 21-year-old college graduate on his way to graduate school; he was felled in a case of mistaken identity. His mother told the Times that she hoped more people and politicians from black neighborhoods would support Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s efforts to get guns off the streets. A 17-year-old girl had been killed in identical circumstances at the same location two years before. On June 16, an 88-year-old woman was beaten to death in her apartment in the Pelham Parkway Houses in the Bronx. The intruder, who ransacked her apartment, had apparently followed her as she returned from grocery shopping on a Saturday morning.
These incidents are just a few of the thousands of murders, assaults, sexual crimes, and drug transactions that annually afflict the city’s housing projects. In July 2010, an 11-year-old girl walking her dog was repeatedly sodomized in an elevator of Brooklyn’s Kingsborough Houses. So far this year, public housing has accounted for nearly 20 percent of all shootings in the city, 10 percent of felony assaults, and 11 percent of rapes, though less than 5 percent of city residents live in the projects. Patrolling public housing for trespassers, who are often there for the worst of reasons, is a key aspect of bringing safety to their law-abiding residents.
Such disproportionate crime is out of sight, out of mind, however, in the Times’s latest installment of its anti-New York Police Department vendetta. A front-page article on September 26 triumphantly reported that the Bronx District Attorney was no longer prosecuting trespass arrests in Bronx housing projects unless the arresting officer personally confirmed the validity of the charge. Prosecutors adopted this policy, wrote reporter Joseph Goldstein, after “discovering that many people arrested on charges of criminal trespass at housing projects were innocent, even though police officers had provided written statements to the contrary.”
The headlines on the news story and the follow-up lead editorial the next day made clear why the Times thought this issue was important: “Prosecutor Deals Blow to Stop-and-Frisk Tactic,” announced the front-page headline. “Losing Faith in Stop-and-Frisk,” read the editorial’s title. Lest anyone miss the point, the front-page story began: “In a significant blow to New York City’s use of stop-and-frisk tactics...” Still not satisfied that the reader would grasp that the trespass arrest issue is really about stop-and-frisks, Goldstein continued: “By essentially accusing the police of wrongfully arresting people, the stance taken by Bronx prosecutors is the first known instance in which a district attorney has questioned any segment of arrests resulting from stop-and-frisk tactics.”
This narrative has two problems: what the Times is reporting as fact—that “many people arrested on charges of criminal trespass at housing projects were innocent”—is seriously contested, and the legal claim behind the Bronx D.A.’s new policy is unrelated to the stop-and-frisk issue. The Times based its story on a July 18 letter from an arraignments chief in the Bronx D.A.’s office to the head of the NYPD’s legal bureau. Chief Jeanette Rucker wrote that Legal Aid defense attorneys had complained to her that their clients were arrested for trespassing in public housing, though they were legally on the premises. Rucker’s assistants investigated the claims and “in many (but not all) of the cases the defendants arrested were either legitimate tenants or invited guest [sic],” she wrote.
But Commissioner Kelly has raised serious doubts about the claims in Rucker’s letter. According to a September 6 letter from Kelly to Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, a commanding officer in the Internal Affairs Bureau (which investigates police misconduct) asked Rucker for the specifics of the cases she referred to in her letter. Rucker responded that “she could not provide specifics and that she knew of only one case which was dismissed due to an error on the part of the involved police officers,” Kelly wrote. Yet according to the assistant district attorney who handled that one case, Kelly says, even that arrest was valid. It was dismissed later upon Rucker’s request only because the defendant was of limited mental capacity and had recently lived in the building. The department has analyzed numerous criminal trespass cases and interviewed the defendants, Kelly added, without finding any officer misconduct. Though the review of Bronx trespass cases would continue and officers in the Bronx would receive supplemental training, Rucker’s “estimation of the issue” appears to have been in error, Kelly concluded.
Asked if the claims in Kelly’s letter were correct, a spokesman for the Bronx District Attorney responded: “That matter is in litigation so we’re not commenting.” What “matter” exactly was he referring to? “Everything you’ve been reading in the paper.” Was only one trespass case dismissed? “We’re not confirming or denying that there was only one case.” Are the claims in the Times’s article about “many” false trespass arrests correct? “We have no comment on whether the Times is correct.”
This is hardly a robust refutation of Kelly’s allegations or a rousing confirmation of Rucker’s. Yet Goldstein proceeds as if the rash of false-trespass arrests is simple fact. He buries his mention of the Kelly letter deep in his article, long after the usual (in this case irrelevant) recitation of allegedly racist stop-and-frisk data. Kelly “suggested” that Rucker was unable to provide specifics of the dismissed cases and that she could cite only one example of an arrest dismissed for officer error, Goldstein says. Kelly, however, was not making a “suggestion”; he was reporting the exchange between Rucker and the Internal Affairs Bureau Commander.
Goldstein has converted an active dispute into a virtually settled certainty. And in framing the dispute as a “significant blow” to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics, he fails to make some critical distinctions. Rucker is claiming that officers in the city’s housing projects are making false arrests. That legal charge is different from the one the Times and its phalanx of anti-cop politicians and activists routinely level against stop-and- frisks—that officers stop individuals because of their race, not their behavior. Rucker’s letter to the NYPD doesn’t mention stop-and-frisks; it does not allege that the officers made trespass arrests on the basis of race or that they singled out trespass suspects on the basis of race. In the Times’s view, however, anything that an NYPD officer does that begins with a discretionary approach to a suspect can now be folded into its anti-stop narrative. An allegedly unlawful interrogation presumably could also be the basis for redoubling the attacks on stop-and-frisks, if the suspect had been arrested on the basis of an officer’s observations in the field.
False arrest is a far more damning accusation than the charge that the NYPD is stopping too many people or is stopping them on the basis of race. No other city prosecutor has leveled the false-arrest accusation against the police (nor, for that matter, have they claimed that the NYPD is singling out stop subjects because of their race). And the Times itself seems less interested in the false arrest charge per se than in using it to discredit proactive policing across the board. The real agenda here is to return policing to its passive, wait-till-a-crime-happens stance of the 1970s and 1980s. And perhaps, at the end of the day, the Bronx District Attorney’s office is itself using the false arrest claim pretextually in order to disrupt policing generally. D.A. Robert Johnson is not exactly a zealot for law enforcement; his office declines to prosecute 23 percent of all misdemeanor and felony arrests presented to it by the NYPD, a rate over three times as high as the rest of the city, according to the NYPD.
If Bronx officers now have to take the time to justify every trespass arrest they make, they may well decide that the arrest is not worth it. Perhaps they have already done so: trespass arrests in the Bronx fell by nearly 25 percent in August 2012, compared with August 2011, while in Brooklyn and Manhattan, trespass arrests were down less than 5 percent over the same period, according to the Times.
Though the D.A.’s false-arrest charge is on its face unrelated to the racist stop-and-frisk charge, there is a lawsuit against NYPD actions in the city’s housing projects that directly echoes the larger campaign against stop-and-frisks. The elite law firm of Paul, Weiss, along with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Legal Aid Society, charges (preposterously) that vertical police patrols in the city’s housing projects are “intentionally discriminatory” because the residents of those projects are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. A parallel suit filed in March 2012 makes a similar case against authorized police patrols in private buildings. (Attorneys in this latter suit filed the Rucker letter with the court last week and gave it to the Times.)
These courtroom attacks on the city’s efforts to enforce trespassing laws on behalf of poor New Yorkers are deeply irresponsible. Like the broader war on stop-and-frisks, they threaten to plunge the city back into the grim chaos of the 1970s. The vast majority of Paul, Weiss’s partners lives in doorman buildings, if they live in the city at all. Why? Because they understand that trespassers are usually criminals. Were a Paul, Weiss partner to take up residence in a city housing project, he would either bring his own private doorman, or he would demand that the police provide some semblance of similar protection. Patrolling a housing project’s dark stairwells, roofs, and elevators is a thousand times more dangerous than sitting in a lobby screening entrants, but the city’s anti-NYPD brigades only see racism in these officer efforts.
It was earlier civil libertarian crusades that made vertical patrols in the city’s housing projects so essential to their residents’ well-being. Throughout much of the twentieth century, tenant leaders in public housing backed the strict screening of residents, fines for rule violators, and the eviction of troublemakers and criminals, as Fritz Umbach, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor, chronicles in The Last Neighborhood Cops. Starting in the late 1960s, however, federally funded poverty lawyers, inspired by welfare-rights activists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, argued that all such attempts to enforce public order in the projects were discriminatory and oppressive. Political pressure and lawsuits stripped the Housing Authority of its power to maintain order and led to the explosion of crime in the 1970s, which the NYPD began to bring under control only with the onset of proactive policing in the 1990s.
Some lawful occupants of the city’s projects and low-income buildings have undoubtedly been asked by a cop to prove their residency, just as some innocent pedestrians in the city’s streets have been stopped on suspicion of casing a potential robbery victim or carrying a gun. The legal standard for making a stop is not absolute certainty, but “reasonable suspicion” that the person might be engaged in unlawful behavior. Officers cannot always get it right, and when their suspicions prove unfounded, they must courteously explain why they made the stop in the first place. But until the city’s crime is spread proportionally through all its neighborhoods, it is absurd to expect that police activity should be so distributed. It’s not racism that brings a high level of police patrols to New York’s public housing, but the victimization of its residents. The New York Times’s refusal to recognize that fact puts not just the law-abiding poor, but the entire city, at risk.