A joint investigation published today by ProPublica and the New York Daily News shines light on the NYPD’s enforcement of a little-known law that allows the department to kick people out of their apartments without charging them with a crime or even arresting them. The process, known as nuisance abatement, is used almost exclusively against people of color.
The nuisance abatement law was drafted in the 1970s as a way to crack down on Times Square brothels, but its use has greatly expanded by then, ProPublica and the Daily News report. Under the law, police can take civil action to shut down the use of places they believe are being used to commit crimes, using as little as affidavits from anonymous confidential informants as evidence.
Early in the extraordinarily thorough piece, reporter Sarah Ryley details some of the New Yorkers she encountered who’d been targeted by nuisance abatement actions: a man who was kicked out of his home and barred from seeing his daughter over gambling charges that were eventually dropped, a mother who was asked to bar her son from entering her apartment after a powder used for religious purposes was mistaken for cocaine, a man rendered homeless over a low-level drug charge that was eventually dropped.
Because nuisance abatement is a civil and not a criminal process, those on the receiving end of actions are not entitled to an attorney. Police often give an emergency appeal to a judge before enforcing an action, giving them the ability to temporarily remove people from their homes before they have a chance to argue their side. Without a place to stay or a lawyer to represent them, many of those targeted agree to incredibly far-reaching settlements in exchange for renewed access to their homes: barring family members from ever entering again; allowing police to conduct warrantless searches at any time; in some cases, moving out themselves.
Lillie Capers, a 90-year-old woman interviewed for the piece, was the target of nuisance abatement after her son sold drugs to an undercover police officer. The court orders used by the department require that locations are used for illegal activity in an ongoing manner, but Capers’ son was already living in a court-ordered drug-treatment when police issued an abatement action against her. Without a lawyer or even a judge present, she was pressured to sign a settlement barring her son from the home she owns for a year.
“I’m protecting the kid who wants to go to school and shouldn’t have to walk past the drug dealer’s door every time. I’m protecting that kid’s grandmother,” Robert Messner, who heads the NYPD unit that issues the abatements, told Ryley. “I’m not as concerned about the drug dealer. If the guy ends up in a homeless shelter, yes, I’m sorry he ended up in a homeless shelter. But if that’s what it takes so that a whole generation of kids can grow up and whose parents can’t afford to send them to fancy schools, if that’s what it takes, I’m okay with it.”