The infuriating story of the day comes from ProPublica and the New York Daily News. It seems that New York police have been using nuisance laws to harass immigrant owners of bodegas, laundromats, and other small businesses. They claim the businesses aren’t doing enough to prevent criminal activity, aren’t doing enough to prevent the sale of alcohol to minors or are guilty of some other inaction. They then threaten to shut the place down unless the owner gives police carte blanche to co-opt their surveillance cameras, search their stores, and spy on their customers. ProPublica and the Daily News reviewed 600 such cases. Among the many disturbing things they found:

  • “Nine out of 10 nuisance abatement actions were against businesses located in neighborhoods where most of the residents are minorities.”
  • “The police begin nearly every case with a secret application to a judge requesting an order closing the business while the case is being decided, and before the owner has had the opportunity to appear in court. Judges approved the closure requests 70% of the time.”
  • “NYPD lawyers justify these emergency orders by claiming the illegal activity at the location is ongoing and poses an immediate threat to the community. But the Daily News and ProPublica found the NYPD didn’t get around to filing cases until, on average, five months after the last offense cited.”
  • “Most cases resulted in settlements, 333 of which allow the NYPD to conduct warrantless searches. In 102 cases, the owner agreed to install cameras that the NYPD can access upon request. Another 127 settlements require storeowners to use electronic card readers that store customers’ ID information, also available to the NYPD upon request.”

Most of the alleged “nuisances” appear to have been manufactured by NYPD officers themselves, such as sending an undercover cop or informant into a business to entice customers into buying stolen iPads or other electronics.

Heads should roll over this. This is blatant harassment of relatively powerless people, who provide a service to relatively powerless communities, and whose only offense is their reluctance to harass their customers. We’re talking about hundreds of cases, here. Which means this can’t be dismissed as a few rogue cops, as they tried to do in Philadelphia. (Those cops’ actions were quite a bit worse — and they still got off.) This is policy.  It’s institutional.