City officials have announced an interdepartmental effort designed to make public housing safer that would automatically make some accused drug dealers guilty of illegal trespassing if they set foot on any public housing property, even if it's just to visit a friend or relative.
The new effort, called "Operation Safe Housing," also includes measures to keep a closer eye on sex offenders and parolees living in public housing, as well as a speedier process for eviction hearings when the tenant is involved in certain crimes committed on public housing property such as gun felonies, some sex crimes, and the highest-level drug felonies.
"By focusing police resources where they count, we're making it safer for the law-abiding residents of these housing developments," said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly in a statement. "We're putting out the 'not welcome' mat for criminals."
Anyone arrested on felony charges for dealing drugs on public housing property will now be told that they are banned from all public housing grounds. Police will keep a database of the names and faces of banned drug dealers, and officials say the ban will be aggressively enforced. The trespass policy is scheduled to begin in Queens in the fall before spreading to other boroughs.
Similar trespass policies -- some even broader in the types of people kept off of public housing property than the New York policy -- have been enforced in other parts of the country, and such policies have survived challenges in court. Officials from the New York Civil Liberties Union have said that they are concerned that the policy may violate the rights of the accused.
City officials have defended the fairness of the plan. "If somebody has their case dismissed, they'll be off the list," Criminal Justice Coordinator John Feinblatt told the New York Post. "If somebody does their jail time and lives a law-abiding life for a certain period of time, they'll have a special hearing to see if they should be taken off the list."
Crime in public housing complexes actually decreased by three percent in 2003, but, though only about five percent of New Yorkers live in public housing (420,000 people), city officials stated that 11 percent of murders, 11 percent of rapes, and 16 percent of shootings were committed on property belonging to the New York City Housing Authority. Sixty-five percent of the shootings were classified by police as drug-related, compared to 35 percent of shootings elsewhere in the city.
Registered sex offenders with a public housing address will be visited by police every six months to verify their address. A new pilot program will also be established to look after parolees living in some public housing complexes in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Parole officers with the New York State Division of Parole will be given two on-site offices, one in each borough, with the responsibility of looking after parolees living in certain public housing units.
Earlier, the City Council issued a report (In PDF Format) outlining safety concerns in public housing. That report focused mainly on the lack of security of the buildings themselves. Some buildings simply had doors with broken locks, but often residents themselves propped doors open or let strangers into the buildings. The report called for spending to install more secure doors and locks, but noted that the New York City Housing Authority faces a budget deficit of over $300 million due in part to cutbacks in federal funding.