In the 1970s, Times Square was a very different place, filled with streetwalkers, porn shops, and brothels disguised as fleabag motels. Efforts to clean up the neighborhood proved futile. Police would arrest prostitutes and their Johns, only to see them back on the streets, sometimes within hours.
Sidney Baumgarten, then Mayor Abe Beame’s smut czar, hatched a new plan: Target the location instead of the offenders. His brainchild was the Nuisance Abatement Law, which was enacted in 1977 and gave the Mayor's Office unprecedented powers. Now the city could surprise a problem business with a closing order, obtained at a secret hearing, and immediately shut it down while the case was being decided.
With the orders in hand, police could scour every room for more evidence without having to obtain a search warrant. Once the gates were closed, the entire operation was uprooted; no more revolving-door arrests. Nuisance cases could be based on a dozen categories of offenses — from prostitution to drug sales to code violations — but they were all explicitly aimed at sex businesses within the confines of Midtown. Within five years, the Mayor's Office had used the law to cut the number of sex businesses there nearly in half.
But people felt such a powerful tool should be used to help other areas of the city. The NYPD was granted authority to bring its own cases in the 1990s. Commissioner Bill Bratton, during his first tenure as the city’s top cop, called it the "most powerful civil tool available" in Broken Windows policing. Today, the law is being used much differently. A joint investigation by the New York Daily News and ProPublica found it’s been used to kick innocent people out of their homes, and to threaten perfectly legal mom-and-pop shops with yearlong closures, often over relatively minor offenses. And the targets of these actions are almost exclusively located in minority neighborhoods.
So what does Baumgarten think of his law today? “I think it’s wrong. I think it’s unconstitutional. I think it’s over-reaching,” he has said. Read the chat.
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