All over Manhattan, the NYPD is sending undercover cops into bodegas and liquor stores to buy beer underage or hawk stolen electronics, and using those stings to extract fines from business owners, then hit them with onerous penalties. Sorry, did I say all over Manhattan? I meant in Inwood, East Harlem, and Washington Heights, neighborhoods with primarily Hispanic residents.
Today, ProPublica and the New York Daily News offer the latest installment of their excellent joint reporting on “nuisance abatement,” a law which allows the NYPD to take action against locations where they suspect there is criminal activity, without actually charging owners or tenants or offering them a chance to argue their side in court. Previously, they’ve covered New Yorkers who have been kicked out of their homes on no more than thin suspicion of drug use or sales; today’s article focuses on nuisance abatement at businesses.
The piece opens with a striking anecdote about a laundromat owner in Inwood. In 2013, a man entered the business offering what he said were stolen Apple products. A customer bought them, and was arrested—the seller was an undercover cop. Seven months later, more officers arrived, threatening to close the business for a year if the owner didn’t agree to pay a $2,000 fine, install security cameras whose footage would be accessible to the NYPD, and subject his business to warrantless searches. Fearing he’d lose his business otherwise, the owner agreed, even though he’d had nothing to do with the illegal purchase.
Most of the other instances of nuisance abatement documented in the piece involved underaged people buying beer or liquor at bodegas or liquor stores. Multiple employees quoted in the piece gave similar stories about the undercover buys that did them in: An apparently adult-looking person would enter the store at a busy time of day, come to the counter with a can or bottle palmed so as to obscure the label, put money on the counter, and walk out before the cashier would have had a chance to check ID, even if they wanted to. (Surveillance footage from one bodega seems to corroborate this claim.) Then, they’d be faced with a difficult choice: face long-term closure, or agree to pay fines and install cameras and card readers that would allow police to access customers’ ID information, at their own expense.
By analyzing public records, the reporters found that these actions happen “almost exclusively” in minority neighborhoods, despite no evidence that these neighborhoods have particular problems with underage alcohol sales.
When the nuisance abatement law was instituted in the 1990s, it was meant to crack down on obviously illegal businesses like brothels. Now, it’s used to punish otherwise legal mom-and-pop stores. ProPublica and the News even dug up a 20-year-old white paper in which Commissioner Bill Bratton argued in favor of using less intrusive and powerful legislation known as the “padlock law” instead of nuisance abatement against legitimate businesses that commit violations. Under the padlock law, officers must make three arrests, one of which leads to a conviction, before shutting down a business, and give a business owner notice that they are under threat of closure. Nuisance abatement, on the other hand, does not require any arrests or notices. According to one NYPD source quoted in the piece, the padlock law hasn’t been used in 15 years.