LOWER MANHATTAN and MELROSE, THE BRONX (PIX11)—It's a police initiative that the NYPD says has helped to lower crime drastically. But is Operation Clean Halls a case of overly aggressive policing, as civil libertarians claim? It's a question a federal judge will decide as the 21-year-old program goes on trial.
It's a situation, however, that is more than just a legal argument for some residents in the Bronx, where much of the case is centered.
"I feel like I'm being harassed, and I ain't bothering nobody," said Willie Hayes, who's lived in the same building, 290 East 163rd Street, for 10 years. His building is one of dthousands whose landlords have signed onto Operation Clean Halls, which allows NYPD officers into their buildings on patrol, in an effort to identify and subdue criminals before they carry out crimes.
The New York Civil Liberties Union, however, calls the program a violation of people's rights, after residents in some Operation Clean Halls buildings reported being detained, and even arrested, by police, even though they'd done nothing wrong.
Part of the 52-page complaint the NYCLU filed with the court details some incidents the civil liberties organization says grossly violated the rights of residents. In one case, a teenager, referred to as J.G. in the complaint, was returning home from an errand his mother, Jaenean Ligon, had sent him out on to buy ketchup. When he got to the front door of his apartment building, according to the legal brief, cops demanded that J.G. prove that he lived in the building. He showed I.D., but then police buzzed his mother in their apartment and told her to come downstairs and identify her son.
"Terrified that lG. was injured or dead," the complaint reads, "Ms. Ligon ran out of the apartment to find out what had happened to J.G. As she approached the lobby she saw J.G. standing just outside the vestibule near the mailboxes, surrounded by four officers. She collapsed and began weeping."
"One officer began laughing," the complaint continues, "[and] asked Ms. Ligon if J.G. was her son, and handed her the ketchup."
"Harrassment. That's what it is," said Mike Decosta, who lives in the same building as J.G. and Ms. Ligon. "They should go after the people that are really doing the crime." Decosta, who works as a security guard at a sporting goods store, told PIX11 News that he has been stopped by officers in or near his building up to 20 times in a two week period.
Residents in other nearby buildings, including 363 East 163rd Street, tell similar stories. "They had a gun to my head, told me to get on the floor," Steve Sanchez said about a recent stop by officers operating under the guidelines of Operation Clean Halls. "I didn't see no badge, I didn't know if they was cops or anything."
Eventually, he said, the plainclothes officers showed their badges to him. They also arrested him on charges of loitering and attempting to sell drugs. He had to spend the day in a holding cell. The charges were eventually dropped.
"[The program is] being abused," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, "and has become a vehicle to stop people and throw them against the wall, and to search people, without reasonable suspicion."
However, PIX11 News learned during visits to some of the Operation Clean Halls apartment buildings listed in the complaint, not everybody there is against the program.
"There used to be shooting like clockwork at 3:00 in the morning, so that's calmed down a lot," said Tina Holloway, who lives in an apartment complex cited by the lawsuit as having overly aggressive cops posted to it. "[The bullets] could go in any of these buildings," Holloway said about what used to be, years ago, regular overnight gunfire. Now, though, she says, "I feel safer. I really do."
Another resident of her complex, Charles Houston, agreed. "They should keep doing what they're doing," he said, "Because it's helping." However, when asked if Operation Clean Halls was lowering crime, he answered, without hesitation, "Not really."
Tina Holloway, who had said she supports the police initiative, also pointed out another thing. She said that since citizens have called for a change to the city's stop and frisk policies over the last year or so, and both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly responded by implementing changes to stop and frisk that have reduced the number of incidents, she's noticed police being less adamant in their Operation Clean Halls patrols, even though the police presence is still in place.
Despite the change, she said she still feels just as safe.
The NYCLU is seeking a court order that would scale back Operation Clean Halls. The hearing into the matter is expected to last into next week.