City Reaches Settlement With Some Individual Plaintiffs In Trespass Case; Illegal Arrests in Public Housing Projects Continue
FRIDAY, MARCH 04, 2011

While the City has reached settlements with a number of plaintiffs in the federal class action "trespass" lawsuit against the City and the New York City Housing Authority, illegal arrests continue. William D. Gibney, Director of the Criminal Practice's Special Litigation Unit, told The New York Times that "we still see too many instances of illegal arrests occurring around the city in public housing residences.”

The Legal Aid Society, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, and the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, filed a federal class action lawsuit January 29, 2010, against New York City and the New York City Housing Authority challenging their unlawful policy of routinely subjecting NYCHA residents and their visitors to unlawful stops and arrests purportedly to enforce the trespass laws. The complaint asserted that police officers indiscriminately stop and arrest people living in or visiting NYCHA residences. As a result, people who have a legitimate and lawful reason for being on NYCHA property, including residents, are routinely detained and/or arrested for criminal trespass. Of the 16 claimants originally named in the lawsuit, nine have agreed to settle.

The New York Times
March 4, 2011
Policing in Public Housing Leads City to Pay Some Plaintiffs
By Al Baker and Joseph Goldstein

New York City has quietly reached settlements with several plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that the city’s trespassing-enforcement policies in public housing complexes are discriminatory and unlawful, lawyers and others said this week.

Of the 16 claimants originally named in the lawsuit, which was filed in January 2010, nine have agreed to settle, according to court papers, city officials and lawyers involved in the case. The city made its offers in October and December and is in the process of paying a total of slightly more than $170,000, with individual payments ranging from $5,000 to $75,000, said a spokesman for the comptroller’s office.

The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in Manhattan, claims that residents of public housing complexes, as well as their visitors, are subjected to police aggression and unwarranted trespass stops and arrests. Both stops and arrests have increased substantially between 2004 and 2008, the plaintiffs say. The suit also contends that the city’s enforcement tactics are aimed at minority-dominated communities and, therefore, violate equal protection rights.

“You could not imagine this practice going on in many of the white neighborhoods of the city,” said William D. Gibney, director of the special litigation unit for the Legal Aid Society.

Despite the settlements, the suit, filed by the Legal Aid Society, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, is continuing, with depositions set for “the next few weeks,” said Johanna B. Steinberg, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense fund.

None of the payments are an admission of wrongdoing, said Connie C. Pankratz, a spokeswoman for the city’s law department. She declined to discuss the city’s strategy in settling with some plaintiffs and said the city had filed a motion to dismiss the overall claim.

“We believe the settlements were in the best interest of all parties,” Ms. Pankratz said.

Before the lawsuit was filed, public housing officials arrayed a “safety and security task force” to address tenants’ safety concerns, said Sheila Stainback, a spokeswoman for the city’s housing authority. Days after it was filed, Reginald H. Bowman, the president of a council of public housing residents’ leaders, wrote to the plaintiffs that the litigation could harm a process of “influencing the change in policy and practices that we all agree need to be changed.”

On June 8, the Police Department put new public safety initiatives into effect for public housing, an effort that began a year earlier partly in response to concerns raised by the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Specifically, police officials revamped the rules for floor-to-floor sweeps of high-rises to make clear that officers could not temporarily detain someone suspected of trespassing unless the officer reasonably believed the person should not be there. The department also developed new training for officers, focusing on the legal standard for taking police action.

“Police officers assigned to public housing developments try to provide safety for the low-income residents who live there that occupants of doormen buildings elsewhere take for granted,” said Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman. “One of the ways they accomplish this is through vertical patrols.”

Lawyers pursuing the lawsuit say more is necessary.

“We still see too many instances of illegal arrests occurring around the city in public housing residences,” said Mr. Gibney, of the Legal Aid Society. “So, the change that did occur has not seemed to stop the practice.”

He and Ms. Steinberg said that while the settlements were a welcome compensation for some of the plaintiffs, the loss of more than half of the original complainants did not help the case. Still, Ms. Steinberg noted, all that is needed to go forward is “at least one person.” Six plaintiffs remain; one withdrew from the case without a settlement.

Eleanor Britt, 63, one of the remaining plaintiffs, said no price could be put on the issues of policing, safety and civility in the city’s housing authority.

Things crystallized for her in January 2009, when her grandson Roman Jackson, then 24, was arrested on a trespassing charge while talking with others in a stairwell at the Taft Houses in Harlem. He did not have identification with him. The police took him away, she said, then knocked on her door, where he was living, asking for his identification. The charge was later dismissed.

“The district attorney looked at the paperwork and said, ‘We are not going to move on this case,’ ” Mr. Gibney said.

Before it was cleared up, though, the episode rippled with trouble in Mr. Jackson’s life. He received letters the next week from his employer “to ask him what happened,” Ms. Britt said. “He was just very, very upset by what happened.”

Now, she said, “I want to see change take place. It’s about being treated with dignity and respect.”