Over the last three months, ProPublica has teamed up with New York Daily News reporter Sarah Ryley to produce a series of stories on the New York City Police Department’s enforcement of nuisance abatement laws. The laws were initially conceived to halt illegal activity — like prostitution and drug dealing — by shuttering establishments where it occurred. But Ryley found that police have frequently moved to evict people from their apartments or businesses based on questionable or even nonexistent evidence.
In dozens of cases, residents have been cleared of crimes, but they or their relatives have been deemed a nuisance and removed from their homes anyway, at least temporarily. On this week’s podcast, Ryley talks to ProPublica reporter Joaquin Sapien about how the law has disproportionately affected minority neighborhoods. She also describes courtroom proceedings where settlements are reached outside a judge’s presence and people give up their rights without understanding what’s happening.
A few highlights:
How did you decide that you were going to look into nuisance abatement? What did you find early on that told you there was a story here worthy of deeper exploration?
Ryley: I first came across this story when I was working on another project a few years ago about police misconduct lawsuits. There was one case that was over a wrongful arrest. I learned that it was a nuisance abatement case and that there were actually four other apartments in that same building that also received nuisance abatement cases on the same day. The raids were carried out by the same officer, the most sued officer on the force. Thirteen arrests were made. One dog was shot dead. There was a huge amount of fallout over this raid. It resulted in only one conviction for a misdemeanor marijuana offense, and yet all five apartments received these nuisance abatement actions seeking to close down the apartment for a year unless they signed a settlement.
I could see that there was definitely potential for a story but I wanted to broaden it beyond just that one detective and determine if it was more systemic than that.
You observed some court proceedings in Queens, and there were many people coming in and out who were at risk of losing their homes. It seemed like a lot of folks didn't really understand what exactly was happening in the courtroom. Take us into that courtroom.
Ryley: Before I went to court, I had talked to a lot of people on the phone and asked them to describe how the court proceedings went. Over and over again, people said that the judge was never in the room, the attorney pulled them out into the hallway. I think five or six people mistakenly referred to the NYPD attorney as their court-appointed attorney, or the attorney that the court provided to me, or the attorney who was there to help me.
When I went to court, though, it basically just confirmed what I had been hearing on the phone, which was pretty shocking to me… The judge, on both days, never entered the room.
You spoke with the head of the NYPD Civil Enforcement Unit. I thought he used sort of a flawed logic to defend the program, saying that nuisance abatement is about places and not people. Almost as though people aren't living in these places.
Ryley: I was very shocked that he said that during an on-the-record interview. I think that it came off as a little callous, given how severely people are impacted when they lose their homes.
It was a long process to set up the interview. I actually ended up doing two interviews with him. I probably had to send dozens of emails, make dozens of calls. Finally, I cornered an official at a different event and finally got it setup… They are definitely defensive of the program.
Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read Ryley's nuisance abatement series, including the latest, Officials Were Warned of Trouble With NYPD Lockout Orders, And Then Police Kicked Out Wrong Family