In the winter of 2008, around Christmastime, Hector Suarez sat down in front of his widescreen TV to watch a football game. He can't remember who was playing -- it could have been Dallas, the Giants or maybe even Washington. It was 6:00pm and his niece, who lives in another building in the Louis H. Pink Houses project in Brownsville, Brooklyn, had sent her boyfriend Adam Cooper over to deliver her uncle a hot meal. Suarez had just had back surgery and was finding it difficult to walk. Cooper dropped off the plate of food and told Suarez that the lobby was full of cops. Some guy had thrown a brick at a patrolling officer who narrowly escaped.
Cooper and Suarez watched the game for 20 minutes or so, traded a few words and then Cooper left. An hour later Suarez's niece called to ask where Cooper was. Suarez stuck his head outside and looked down the stuffy concrete corridor. His neighbor caught sight of him and told him that some tall man with a mink on had been arrested.
By the time Suarez went downstairs the police had already taken Cooper. Suarez asked an officer what had happened. "Get your fucking ass upstairs before you get arrested too," is what he remembers the officer saying. Suarez didn't want to get arrested, so he walked back into the cramped metal elevator and went back up to the small apartment where he has lived for over 14 years. That is how he remembers it.
Adam Cooper, a 32-year-old African American, was charged with trespass and held in police custody for three days. The charges were eventually dropped. Cooper claims that the police did not bother to knock on Suarez's door to check whether he was a guest.
Over a year later, Cooper and Suarez are now plaintiffs in a federal class action suit against the New York Police Department and the New York City Housing Authority. The complaint accuses the two agencies of encouraging aggressive patrols and illegal stops and arrests in public housing all over the city. But more significantly, the complaint, headed by the Legal Aid Society and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, asserts that this practice of vertical patrolling discriminates against blacks and Latinos. The complaint comes only a year after the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a suit alleging the NYPD practices racial profiling during its stop and frisk procedures.
In 2003 the NYPD launched Operation Clean Halls, which allows the police to stop, search and question anyone they deem to be suspicious. When officers conduct a "vertical patrol," they walk through and do a sweep of the hallways, stairwells, rooftops and landings, to ensure the building is safe and that no one is trespassing or engaging in criminal activity. The NYPD may only do this in buildings where they are given permission to do so, such as NYCHA buildings. Residents can be charged with trespass if they enter prohibited parts of the building, such as the rooftop or the basement, or if they cannot provide identification or proof of residence. Non-residents can be charged if they are uninvited or if the person they are visiting is not there to confirm they are a in fact a guest.
There are no comprehensive figures on cases where trespassing was the sole charge, but the Legal Aid Society claims that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be stopped and arrested on suspicion of trespass. They also claim that there has been a surge in unlawful arrests for trespass in the housing projects in recent years.
William Gibney, a senior attorney at The Legal Aid Society, said the organization initiated the action because there had been an influx of cases of "unjustified" arrests for trespass in public housing. Among the 16 plaintiffs in the class action are residents from all five boroughs in the city and their visitors who had been arrested for trespass.
"Both people's rights are being violated here - the person who is getting arrested, but also the person who is the resident of the apartment," said Gibney. "They should have the right to a normal life in public housing, and that is not the situation when visitors are getting arrested when they come to see you."
"Could you imagine police officers roaming the halls of apartment buildings on the Upper East Side questioning everybody who they see and arresting people when they can't prove they are legitimately in the building?" he added.
But Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Are Cops Racist?, thinks that the issue has little to do with race. Mac Donald said she could not comment on the actual allegations made in the complaint, but rejected the Legal Aid Society's claim that the trespassing arrests in NYCHA buildings represented a broader pattern of discrimination.
"The idea that the NYPD is targeting public housing out of some animus towards blacks shows a lack of knowledge about policing strategy," said Mac Donald. "Police deploy their resources where crime is highest," she added. Mac Donald claimed that one of the problems could be the NYPD's training and putting rookie officers on foot patrol in high-crime areas.
"In years past it may have been the case that officers in those particular areas knew the residents and were able to distinguish between who was a resident and who was an outsider," said Mac Donald.
Suarez said he welcomed the police presence, but argued the main problem was that officers from the local precinct didn't patrol the buildings often enough. "If they patrol on the regular, they'd know who was doing what," said Suarez.
Currently NYCHA and the NYPD are meeting with tenants groups, but when contacted for further information on the nature of the meetings NYCHA responded with a statement confirming that the meetings had taken place and made no further comment. The NYPD would not comment on the meetings or the complaint.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story states the complaint is headed by the Legal Aid Society and the N.A.A.C.P.. That is incorrect. It is headed by the Legal Aid Society and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which has been a separate entity from the NAACP since 1957.