A huge number of false arrests occur when the police do “vertical sweeps” of NYCHA buildings. Teams of police officers enter the buildings as teams, go to the top, then “sweep” the hallways and stairwells for, well, people. NYPD, apparently, believes that if you are standing in a hallway in a NYCHA building, you are a suspicious person who may be detained, frisked and required to produce identification. We have asked police officers accused of making a false arrest in NYCHA housing many times “why did you stop the person and ask for id.?” to which it is casually responded “because we were doing a vertical sweep.”
The casualness of the response, as if the answer is the most obvious thing in the world, always disturbs me for two reasons. One is that not a single police officer has seemed to reflect on what the word “sweep” provides. You sweep dirt, you sweep garbage, you sweep debris. Human beings shouldn’t be “swept”. Now “sweep” can also mean to search as well. But that’s not what they are doing, they’re sweeping the halls of human beings.
More importantly than some insulting semantics, however, is the apparent belief that when NYPD makes a decision to sweep a building, the constitution does not apply in that space at that moment in time. The reasonable suspicion or probable cause to detain you does not occur because of something YOU are doing, rather, you are a suspect because of what police officers are doing, their vertical sweep. The practice is unconstitutional of course, but it’s common constitutional wisdom in the NYPD.
Very often, these temporary detentions escalate into something worse, like false arrests and 24 hours or more behind bars, because often if you cannot immediately prove that you live in the building, or are visiting someone, you will be arrested for trespass. Don’t worry though, at least you can feel good about the fact that you helped a cop meet his arrest quota, and helped the arresting officer make some overtime.
And all too often, these detentions escalate into police use of excessive force. When I walk into my building after a day at work, sometimes I get annoyed if a neighbor is a little too talkative in the lobby and I just want to go home. Imagine how you might feel if a stop, frisk and identification check was not out of the ordinary when you entered your building? You might, after a while, challenge the authority of the cop doing it. You of course have every right to challenge the cop’s authority, but that’s usually the easiest way to find yourself being beaten down.