MANHATTAN (CN) - Public housing residents can proceed with a class action lawsuit claiming that New York City and the New York City Housing Authority allowed the police to set up "checkpoints" that routinely violated tenants' rights in front of their homes, a federal judge ruled.
A lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund praised the decision in an email.
"The City and NYCHA must be held accountable for their continuing violations to ensure the common goal of maintaining safety and security for all New Yorkers," Johanna Steinberg told Courthouse News.
In another email, a city attorney defended the program.
"We are disappointed with the decision, but continue to believe that we will ultimately prevail in the lawsuit," said Celeste Koeleveld, executive assistant for Public Safety. "Vertical patrols help keep residents safe, and the NYPD's policy is sound."
The residents complain that, under the police, "officers indiscriminately stop and question every person they observe, without objective individualized suspicion of a crime, and unlawfully arrest individuals for trespass without probable cause."
They claim that the city "failed to supervise and discipline officers" involved in these practices and has not "instituted any follow up procedure or disciplinary action when charges are dismissed or where it is otherwise established that an individual was arrested without probable cause."
When they first filed the lawsuit on Jan. 28, 2010, the NYPD allegedly codified this policy in its patrol guide under the heading "Interior Vertical Patrol of Housing Authority Buildings," but the police say that they were revising the policy before the lawsuit.
In 2009, a flurry of complaints by Civilian Complaint Review Board, NYCHA representatives, and tenant leaders prompted NYPD leadership to revise the patrol guide to "provid[e] additional guidance to police officers patrolling NYCHA properties," according to one court document.
After a hearing that December, the NYPD replaced that section of the Patrol Guide with new language describing how to approach and question those entering public housing sites, and budgeted $2.7 million to create a 90-minute training program - implemented in two phases - for officers using these guidelines.
The NYPD says that about 90 percent of Phase 1 of that program has been completed, and Phase 2 has not yet begun.
The residents, however, say that there is no evidence showing that the training reduced the alleged civil right violations.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin sided squarely with the plaintiffs on that point, giving them the suit the green light in a 22-page order.
"As Plaintiffs point out, Defendants have provided no 'admissible evidence, statistics, or reports demonstrating that the violations articulated in the Complaint have been resolved,' let alone completely and irrevocably eradicated," she wrote, later adding, "Even assuming that the challenged conduct has ceased, Plaintiffs have no concrete assurances that Defendants will not resume their allegedly unlawful arrest and trespass enforcement practices."
Scheindlin added that the $2.7 million budget is a non-binding rejection, which future officials could ignore.
"In other words, Defendants are 'free to return to [their] old ways,'" the order states. "Granting summary judgment at this stage of the litigation would foreclose any opportunity for judicial review precisely where it may be needed the most - in the context of alleged continuing constitutional violations by the entities entrusted with protecting the public interest."
Steinberg, the plaintiffs' attorney, agreed with the judge's reasoning.
"The Court's ruling affirms what Plaintiffs have consistently argued - that simply changing the NYPD Patrol Guide is not the same as ceasing the unlawful practices of officers on patrol in public housing."
The parties will meet for a conference on August 9.