New York, New York (ProPublica) – Police Commissioner Bill Bratton strongly defended the department’s use of nuisance abatement actions Thursday saying they were a critical law enforcement tool against businesses such as bodegas accused of selling alcohol to minors.
“We have and will continue, and I will emphasize that, we will continue to aggressively enforce nuisance abatement as a cornerstone of our efforts to keep neighborhoods safe,” Bratton said.
“Nuisance abatement is that tool,” he said. “I like it, and we’re gonna keep using it.”
Bratton’s comments came in response to a recent New York Daily News and ProPublica investigation that found the NYPD frequently brought nuisance cases against immigrant-owned shops, using stings to extract settlements in which storeowners agreed to warrantless searches, steep fines, and to install cameras and data-storing card readers that police can access at any time.
Many storeowners complained they’d been entrapped, describing instances in which undercover operatives came in during a rush, threw money down and walked out, obscuring what they had bought. Merchants said they often found out about nuisance cases when officers served them with closing orders shuttering their business until the matter was resolved. In cases involving alcohol violations, merchants sometimes faced a kind of double jeopardy, getting hit with sanctions both by the State Liquor Authority and the city based on the same allegations.
The president of the Bodega Association, Ramon Murphy, said earlier this week that his group is considering a civil rights lawsuit over what he deemed disparate treatment.
“The police are picking on the most vulnerable stores, those with owners that are less educated about city laws and regulations,” Murphy said. “They are using intimidation tactics that force the owners to give up their legal rights. We will fight back with all of the legal weapons at our disposal.”
The Daily News and ProPublica reviewed 646 nuisance abatement cases filed by the NYPD against businesses over an 18-month period beginning in 2013. The review found that the businesses targeted were almost exclusively located in neighborhoods where most of the residents are minorities. Almost 60% of the cases cited alcohol violations.
Back in the 1990s, during Bratton’s first tenure as police commissioner, he wrote in a white paper on “Broken Windows” policing that the city Padlock Law was more appropriate for legitimate businesses accused of offenses such as illegal gambling, because the police wouldn’t want to disrupt the community’s access to services like groceries with the closing orders. He also wrote that for alcohol violations, police should work through the State Liquor Authority.
But after the NYPD got permission to bring its own nuisance cases in the 1990s, police eventually stopped using the Padlock Law, which requires three arrests to bring a case, including one that results in a conviction. The occupants are given notice throughout the process and the location cannot be closed until after a hearing before an NYPD administrative panel.
The nuisance abatement law requires three allegations of illegal activity, but arrests are not necessary to bring a case. A Supreme Court judge oversees the process. The NYPD begins these cases with a secret request for an order closing the location before the tenant or storeowner has had the opportunity to appear in court; the Daily News/ProPublica review found judges approved such orders 70% of the time.
Bratton said on Thursday morning that he doesn’t know why the city stopped using the Padlock Law, but that the nuisance abatement law is “more focused on the use of due process,” and that the process has judicial review because it is overseen by a judge.
He added, “I would also point out that the use of nuisance abatement is usually a response to complaints. Complaints from neighborhood residents, complaints from politicians, complaints from our police officers.”
This report was prepared by Sarah Ryley and Rocco Parascandola for ProPublica.