By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A civil liberties group said on Wednesday it was suing the New York City Police Department for patrolling inside apartment buildings, saying residents are routinely stopped while simply going to check their mail.
Nearly every day police "unlawfully" stop and question residents of apartment buildings enrolled in a program called Operation Clean Halls, according to the lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union and a dozen tenants.
"If you live in one of the thousands of apartment buildings enrolled in Operation Clean Halls, you are a suspect for no other reason than where you live," Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU's executive director, said at a press conference.
"Taking out the garbage, checking the mail or, yes, even going out for a pack of Skittles, can result in you being detained, thrown against the wall for police questioning, and even arrested for trespassing if you so much as dare to leave your apartment without an ID, particularly if you're a young black or Latino man," she said.
The lawsuit comes as national attention is focused on the racially charged case of an unarmed black Florida teenager shot dead by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Trayvon Martin, 17, was killed as he returned from a convenience store carrying a bag of Skittles candy and a can of iced tea. No arrest has been made.
Black community leaders say the case is part of a nationwide pattern of discrimination. In New York, police have come under fire for a crime-fighting tactic known as "stop and frisk," which critics say unfairly targets blacks and Latinos.
The Operation Clean Halls program is meant to protect residents of buildings in high-crime areas and is aimed at targeting illegal activity, including drugs and trespassing. When landlords and building managers enroll their private buildings in the program, they allow police to patrol hallways, staircases and the building's grounds, and ask residents or visitors for identification.
Signs are posted in the building stating that it is part of the program.
The New York Police Department issued a one-line statement in response to questions about the lawsuit.
"By challenging uninvited individuals, police are providing a level of safety to tenants that residents of doormen buildings take for granted," Paul Browne, a police spokesman, said in an e-mail.
Several tenants participating in the lawsuit said they lived in fear of their children, particularly their sons, being arrested as they came and went from their homes.
"It bothers me when my son has to run from the police when he hasn't done anything wrong," Fawn Bray, who lives in a Clean Halls building in the Bronx, said at the press conference.
She said her 17-year-old son had become used to being stopped by police and "thrown against the wall" and that he had been arrested more than once for trespassing.
"A trip to the store can result in a weekend in jail for him," she said.
The lawsuit is not calling for the end of patrols, but is seeking to restrain police from stopping people and questioning them. The lawsuit also seeks better monitoring of the program and training for officers.
The New York police department has come under criticism recently for a program that spied on Muslims after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and police are accused of racial profiling.
A black New York City councilman who said he has been stopped by police on numerous occasions recently introduced a set of bills aimed at curbing "stop and frisk."
The bills would require officers to identify themselves and present a business card when stopping a person, and to inform targets of their right to refuse a search. A third bill would expand the number of groups protected from racial profiling.
It is not clear if the proposals command majority support in the council.
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Greg McCune)