An amazing lawsuit was filed in New York last week. It seems Mike Bloomberg’s notorious "stop-and-frisk" policy – known colloquially in these parts by silently-cheering white voters as the "Let’s have cops feel up any nonwhite person caught walking in the wrong neighborhood” policy – isn’t even the most repressive search policy in the NYPD arsenal.
Bloomberg, that great crossover Republican, has long been celebrated by the Upper West Side bourgeoisie for his enlightened views on gay rights and the environment, but also targeted for criticism by civil rights activists because of stop-and-frisk, a program that led to a record 684,330 street searches just last year.
Now he’s under fire for a program he inherited, which goes by the darkly Bushian name of the "Clean Halls program." In effect since 1991, it allows police to execute so-called "vertical patrols" by going up into private buildings and conducting stop-and-frisk searches in hallways – with the landlord’s permission.
According to the NYCLU, which filed the suit, "virtually every private apartment building [in the Bronx] is enrolled in the program," and "in Manhattan alone, there are at least 3,895 Clean Halls Buildings." Referring to the NYPD’s own data, the complaint says police conducted 240,000 "vertical patrols" in the year 2003 alone.
If you live in a Clean Halls building, you can’t even go out to take out the trash without carrying an ID – and even that might not be enough. If you go out for any reason, there may be police in the hallways, demanding that you explain yourself, and insisting, in brazenly illegal and unconstitutional fashion, on searches of your person.
The easiest way to convey the full insanity of this program is to simply read stories from the complaint. The first account comes from Janean Ligon, a 40 year-old black woman from East 163 St. in the Bronx. She lives with her three sons, J.G., J.A.G., and Jerome, all of whom have been repeatedly stopped and harassed.
According to the suit, Mrs. Ligon in August of last year sent her son J.G. to go to the store to get ketchup. He went to the store, got the ketchup, and started home. Just outside the door to his apartment, he was stopped by four policemen, two in uniform and two in plain clothes. They ask him why he’s going into the building. He explains, produces identification, and even shows the police the ketchup in his bag. But that’s not enough. After that:
… One officer asked J.G. to identify the apartment in which he lived. J.G. responded, telling the officer his family's apartment number. The officers then rang the bell to Ms. Ligon's apartment. Over the intercom, Ms. Ligon heard a man say that he was a police officer, and he needed her to come down to identify her son.
Terrified that J.G. was injured or dead, 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, asked Ms. Ligon if J.G. was her son, and handed her the ketchup.
In another incident, police stopped three friends of a Bronx resident named Alex Lebron as they were leaving his apartment. Lebron’s mother saw the teenagers being interviewed in the stairwell, approached the police and told them she knew them and everything was okay. She then went to her apartment and told her son that the cops were talking to his friends. Lebron, according to the suit, then races downstairs "to prevent their arrest." Here’s the rest of the story, according to the complaint:
Mr. Lebron encountered his handcuffed friends and the two police officers in the lobby of his building. He told the officers that he lived in the building and that the teens had been visiting him. The officers responded that it was "too late" and placed the three young men in a police van…. The arresting officers took W.B., J.G., and their friend to the 44th Precinct, where they were locked in a cell. After approximately two hours, they were given summonses for trespassing and released. The trespassing charges against W.B., J.G., and their friend were later dismissed.
This is Michael Bloomberg’s New York – where, in a stirring homage to the underappreciated Wayans Brothers classic Don’t Be a Menace to South Central (While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood), you really can be arrested for "being black on a Friday night." (Okay, the Lebron incident was actually a Wednesday night – June 15 of last year).
Stories like this "Clean Halls" program are beginning to make me see that journalists like myself have undersold the white-collar corruption story in recent years by ignoring its flip side. We have two definitely connected phenomena, often treated as separate and unconnected: a growing lawlessness in the financial sector, and an expanding, repressive, increasingly lunatic police apparatus trained at the poor, and especially the nonwhite poor.
In recent years, as Wall Street firms turned into veritable felony factories, we had pundits and politicians who cranked out reams of excuses for one white-collar criminal after another and argued, in complete seriousness, that sending a rich banker to jail "wouldn’t solve anything" and in fact we should "tolerate the excesses" of the productive rich, who "channel opportunity" to the rest of us.
On the other hand, we’ve had politicians and pundits in budget fights and other controversies railing against the parasitic poor, who are not only not "productive" enough to warrant a break, but assumed to be actively unproductive (they consume our tax money and public services) and therefore sort of guilty in advance.
When I read this "Clean Halls" story I immediately thought of the various robosigning scandals. If even one law enforcement official had been able to take just one stroll through, say, the credit card collections office of a Chase or a Bank of America at any time in the last decade, he would have seen rows of cubicles full of entry-level employees whose entire job was to sit around all day long, right out in the open, forging court documents. Whole departments attended to this job for years and years and somehow nobody with a badge ever got a whiff of it.
But in New York, we have cops cruising through private buildings, checking bags full of ketchup 200,000 times a year. Makes sense, doesn't it?