The Growing Presence of Police Fuels Anger Among New York City’s Youth

Lainie Cassel

On the 163rd street block that intersects with Teller Avenue in the Bronx, a
small “riot” recently broke out between local residents and police officers.
According to one report, the incident began when unidentified residents tossed
glass bottles in the direction of a police mobile stationed outside their building. It
ended in typical fashion, with a swarm of New York City police officers proceeding
to beat, pepper-spray and arrest large numbers of people, many of whom were
bystanders.

Residents in the building complex believe the chaotic scene was a result of the
recent increase in police harassment, which has fueled a growing tension between
the buildings youngest residents and the New York City Police Department (NYPD).
While Bronx residents have faced steady harassment by the NYPD for years,
many say it has gotten increasingly worse. “We can’t even go to the store without
getting harassed anymore,” a young man who preferred not to be identified told
me, “they’re trying to control our lives.”

Although not all police reactions escalate in the way this one did that spring
afternoon, aggressive patrolling inside public and privately owned buildings is a
common practice used by the  NYPD. One tactic that has especially fueled tension is called “vertical patrols”, a practice that was developed in the 1960’s in response to the growing black population in high-rise housing projects. When employing vertical patrols, officers will sweep buildings from top to bottom in search of what they say is criminal activity. During the sweeps, the NYPD will often stop, search, and demand proof of residency from anyone they pass in the hallways.

Residents on 163rd Street explained to me that during vertical patrols, police have
gone so far as to check for unlocked doors in an attempt to enter their homes. One
of the young mothers there, Melody (who preferred to leave out her last name),
asserted, “You don’t even have to leave your house to be harassed anymore, we’re
not even safe in our own homes.”

A group of young fathers inside Mott Haven Housing Projects, on the Bronx’s south
side, say that they have never seen harassment so bad in their buildings.
Longtime residents of the New York City Housing Authority, they claim they have
become prisoners in their own homes. One of them, a former member of the street
gang the Bloods, says, “We no longer fight each other like we used to, Crips, Bloods,
whatever. The police have become our biggest enemy.”

During the patrols, residents, young men especially, are stopped and checked for
identification. If unable to provide proof of residency on the spot, the resident or
visitor will often be ticketed or arrested.

Many of the youth also complain of being “violated” during such stops. “They feel
like they can just put their hands all over us. They wear those badges like they
God,” one young man told me as he described how cops stopped him while
trying to come home from work late at night. According to his report, the three
officers stripped him naked in the downstairs hallway and after some 30 minutes of
questioning, allowed him to return to his apartment.

In communities of color throughout New York City, vertical patrols are a daily
reality. The practice began to make headlines only recently when the New York
Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), along with other groups, filed a lawsuit against the
NYPD. The lawsuit specifically targets Operation ‘Clean Halls’, the program run by
the NYPD that allows them, with the permission of the landlord, to patrol privately
owned buildings. The program began in 1991 and was modeled after the vertical
patrols already used in public housing.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU recently announced in a statement, “For residents of Clean Halls buildings, taking the garbage out or checking the mail
can result in being thrown against the wall and humiliated by police.” According
to Lieberman, “Operation Clean Halls has placed hundreds of thousands of New
Yorkers, mostly black and Latino, under siege in their own homes.” Her numbers
do not include the nearly half million residents living in public housing who are
similarly subjected to the NYPD practice.

NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly has backed up the controversial programs, citing
their success in reducing crime rates. To critics of Operation ‘Clean Halls’, Kelly
responded, “Landlords invite the police in to at least stop and talk to people who
are uninvited in the building. This is the level of safety that people have in buildings
with doormen.”

However, according to a recent investigation conducted by the newspaper, The
Village Voice, New York City’s crime reduction program may have very little to do
with successful policing and much more to do with the way in which the statistics
are collected.

The investigation highlights NYPD “whistleblower” Adrian Schoolcraft who argues
that police departments have been underreporting criminal activity. Through
Schooolcraft, the Village Voice obtained a 95-page report detailing how Brooklyn’s
81st precinct successfully lowered their crime rates by documenting felony crimes
as misdemeanors and in some cases, not even entering reports in the computer.

The Village Voice and the New York Times have exposed cases of underreported
crime in precincts throughout the city. The articles site top-down pressure to
lower crime rates as one of the leading causes of crime manipulation. For a police
department heralded around the world, one can only wonder why this controversy
has not earned more attention.

Beyond statistics, however, the most overlooked aspect of the recent NYPD
controversies is the tremendous affect Kelly’s police model has had on residents,
especially young men and women of color. Largely the targets of the NYPD’s
harshest tactics, many youth have expressed their rage through similar “riots” as the
one that occurred on 163rd Street in the Bronx. With high levels of unemployment
leaving more jobless youth in the streets this summer, residents believe harassment
will only escalate, further fueling similar conflicts.

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