On Friday, ProPublica posted the first of a two-part investigation into how police use nuisance abatement cases—lawsuits designed to allow New York police officers to shutter residences and businesses that serve as a site for illegal activities—to kick innocent people out of their homes. The probe, conducted by ProPublica and The New York Daily News, takes a sweeping look at 516 cases filed from January 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014. In about one-third of these cases, the outlets found, people who agreed to give up their leases or were barred from their homes weren't convicted of a crime.
The report is filled with disturbing details about how these cases are handled, and who is most affected. It's worth reading in full, as is their intricate look at the circumstances of each of the 297 people who lost their homes because of the suits. Here's our list of this first section's most disturbing revelations:
The overwhelming majority of people affected are non-white
Most of the residences targeted by police in nuance abatement cases are in neighborhood where at least 80% of residents are non-white, according to ProPublica and NYDN's analysis. From the report:
The toll of nuisance abatement actions falls almost exclusively on minorities, our analysis showed. Over 18 months, nine of 10 homes subjected to such actions were in minority communities. We identified the race of 215 of the 297 people who were barred from homes in nuisance abatement battles. Only five are white.
On some occasions, the reporters found that those who had agreed to prohibitive settlement agreements did not have a firm grasp on the English language, and said that they did not work with a translator before signing binding documents.
The nuisance abatement cases are a part of the NYPD's controversial "Broken Windows" policing strategy
The NYPD is finally moving away from its "Broken Windows" model of policing, a strategy that clamps down on low-level crime and includes practices, like stop-and-frisk, that tend to target people of color. Nuisance abatement suits, according to the report, are a tenet of that faulty system. And the NYPD shows no signs of backing away from it:
The number of nuisance abatement cases filed by the NYPD grew from 214 in 1994 to 1,082 in 2013. The department would not disclose the number of cases it filed in 2014 and 2015, but incomplete data obtained via a Freedom of Information request indicates the unit’s caseload has remained steady.
Over the course of nine years, the cases grew by about 500%.
The settlements punish innocent family members, and tear families apart
On many occasions, family members of those accused of illegal activities were forced to choose between giving up their homes, and refusing the accused from ever stepping foot in their homes again. The report describes a number of heartbreaking scenarios, like this one:
Jameelah El-Shabazz didn’t lose her apartment in the Longwood section of the Bronx as a result of the nuisance abatement action filed against her in September 2011. Two days after she was shut out of her home, she reached a settlement with the NYPD. She agreed to bar her oldest son, Akin Shakoor, for life—even though the district attorney had dropped the criminal charges against them four months earlier, and court filings say they received city payouts totaling $37,500 stemming from the raid.
On other occasions, elderly parents were punished for their children's actions:
At one hearing, Lillie Capers, a 90-year-old woman so frail she could barely speak above a whisper, arrived at court to discuss whether she could remain in the Jamaica, Queens home her family has owned since the 1960s. An undercover officer had bought heroin and cocaine from her adult son, Rodney Capers, several times, and when police searched the house, they found a crack rock, two pipes and a straw with crack residue, and other drug paraphernalia.
Because of the lag time between when the case was filed and the settlement hearing, Capers' son was already living in a treatment facility when her case was heard.
Judges have full discretion over whether or not police can move forward with the case
Once a police officer files a suit, he needs a judge's permission to bar those implicated from accessing their homes until the case is resolved (a process that could take months). It is up to the discretion of the judge whether to grant these "temporary closing orders." One judge the reporters spoke to said he never signs the orders because they're too hard to substantiate:
Manhattan Judge Michael Stallman… routinely crossed out that portion of applications. Stallman said he does this because the NYPD’s attorneys never have any evidence of ongoing illegal activity or information about the outcomes of the underlying criminal cases. “I can’t remember the last time that I’ve ever had information about the disposition of a criminal case,” he said. “I’ve repeatedly indicated that it’s difficult for me to evaluate a civil case where I don’t even know whether the criminal case is pending.”
But other judges seem to sign the orders routinely. The report found that one, Queens Judge Orin Kitzes, "signed them in 235 out of 236 cases that came before him."
The cases are civil, so the accused have no rights to a lawyer
Because nuisance abatement cases are civil, the defendants don't have the right to an attorney. That put's people involved in the cases at a huge disadvantage—according to the report, "just 22% of those without lawyers reached settlements with police that allowed them to keep their apartments without barring anyone, versus 43% of tenants with lawyers."
Plus, the cases are so unfamiliar to most of those involved that they think that the police lawyer who discusses the settlement with them is their lawyer, offering advice with their interest in mind. The report offers examples on what that looks like for David Diaz, who stood to lose his apartment if he didn't bar family members from ever returning:
Diaz said the attorney led him into the hallway, where Diaz tried to argue the only people who should be excluded from his apartment were the two guys who had the drugs in their room. The rest were just sleeping over from a family BBQ the night before. But he ended up having to ban his two brothers and another woman, who were also arrested that day but had their charges dismissed. “He [the lawyer] said I could try to fight it but I’m risking losing the whole apartment, and he said, ‘With your daughter and everything, that’s a big risk,’” Diaz recalled. “And I was like, ‘You know what, you’re right.’ So I just agreed to it.”
Diaz's is just one of many stories that characterize how sloppy and unfair these cases are.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.