POLITICS
06/13/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Jun 13, 2014

Poll Question On NYPD Housing Patrols Stirs Up Debate

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

In the wake of the tragic stabbing of two children in a New York City public housing building earlier this month, the pressure is high on politicians to do something -- anything -- in response. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday the city will speed up efforts to deploy cameras at 49 housing developments.

It's natural to wonder whether the New York City Police Department might be doing more. A Quinnipiac Poll released Thursday asked whether "the police should or should not restore the program where they patrolled public housing projects and asked people in the hallways for ID?"

The poll found that 59 percent of respondents supported resuming such a program while 30 percent were against it.

"At least in this emotional time, the civil liberties spokespeople are out of touch with the people they speak for," pollster Mickey Carroll concluded in an accompanying press release. "Almost two-thirds of black voters want the police back in the public housing projects, checking people in the hallways."

But there may be a problem with the poll's wording: The police department never said it terminated an ID-checking "program," and the implication that the police stopped checking people in public housing is undermined by the available statistics.

As of June 8, police have conducted 94,000 patrols in public housing this year, according to numbers released to the Wall Street Journal. This represents a 14 percent decrease but hardly an end to the practice. Arrests for criminal trespassing are up 8.8 percent. The NYPD's alleged practice of stopping too many people in public housing on flimsy grounds, meanwhile, is still the subject of a federal lawsuit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund raised objections to the poll's question after it was released.

"I'm not sure what the NAACP doesn't like," Carroll said in an email. "We asked about resuming the patrols and questioning. As I understand it, they had either stopped -- or cut way back on -- the questioning. And there was, as you know, criticism of the whole idea. The basic point, clearly, is that people -- even some two-thirds of Black voters -- like the cops to patrol and question in public housing, right?"

Pat Smith of Rubinstein Associates, a public relations firm that represents Quinnipiac, defended the poll's wording. He said pollsters believed police officers are leery of asking people in public housing for ID after U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin's rulings last year against stop and frisk, as well as a law passed by the City Council last year that allows citizens to bring lawsuits over discriminatory stops. He said the question's wording rested on the combination of both the patrols and the ID checks.

"We believe in practice the program no longer exists," said Smith. He could not point to an official acknowledgement.

The poll's suggestion that the program is over has angered police-reform advocates, who said it distorts the ways the force has and hasn't changed under new Commissioner William Bratton.

"I'm really troubled by the idea that this was some sort of program that existed and then it stopped," said Jin Hee Lee, an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Instead, said Lee, the police tactic of stopping people for an ID during "vertical patrols" of public housing units continues. Policy for those patrols appears to remain unchanged from when former Commissioner Ray Kelly issued a revision to the force's patrol guide in 2010, stating that an officer "may approach and question persons who may be violating Housing Authority rules and regulations."

"The [poll] question implies that vertical patrols that are patrolling inside the building are free to ask any person for identification," said Lee.

According to a city filing in a lawsuit by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Legal Aid Society against the police department, "an officer must have, at a minimum, an objective credible reason to engage a citizen in an encounter (encounters are not permitted on mere whim) and reasonable suspicion to stop (temporarily detain) a person." In the case of an encounter, the department's guidance to officers "does not require that a person answer an officer's questions regarding their identity … nor does (it) instruct that a person's silence escalates the level of an officer's suspicion."

Lee said the poll's wording detracts from conclusions about what tactics the police should and should not be using in public housing. She maintains that civil liberties advocates have never asked for an end to police stops on housing development grounds. Rather, they want a rigorously enforced standard of reasonable suspicion.

"It's not as if police officers shouldn't be allowed to do their job," she said.

This story has been updated to include comment from Mickey Carroll and to identify the Legal Aid Society as a partner in the lawsuit against the NYPD.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Jin Hee Lee as Jin Hin Lee.

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