Lawyers Urge Council to Increase Oversight of NYC Police Raids
A civil rights lawyer and a senior lawyer with the Legal Aid Society urged the City Council yesterday to increase oversight and accountability of how the Police Department handles raids like the one that led to the death of a 57-year-old Harlem woman last month.
The two lawyers, testifying at a Public Safety Committee hearing called to examine the procedures for obtaining and executing search warrants, said the Police Department and the courts should take a number of measures, including having the courts keep better records of warrants and having the department publish data it plans to collect for a new search warrant database.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly also testified during the sometimes contentious four-hour hearing, called by Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., the chairman of the committee, in response to the May 16 raid that killed the woman, Alberta Spruill. Ms. Spruill, a city worker, died of a heart attack after the police, acting on a bad tip, threw a concussion grenade into her apartment. The death was ruled a homicide, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Mr. Kelly apologized for it. The commissioner produced a 24-page report detailing the department's mistakes.
At the hearing yesterday, in several heated exchanges with council members, Mr. Kelly defended the department against accusations that such raids are carried out almost exclusively in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, saying that the police execute most search warrants for guns and drugs in the neighborhoods where the most crime occurs.
Susan L. Hendricks, the deputy attorney in charge of the criminal defense division of the Legal Aid Society, which represents poor defendants, said the Council should endorse state legislation to require the department to maintain and publish data about: the use of no-knock search warrants; the use of concussion grenades; mistaken searches; injuries inflicted on bystanders and destruction of personal property.
She also said court oversight of warrants should be enhanced. She called for legislation that would improve the courts' ability to oversee warrants by requiring the police to provide judges with a list of occupants of the home to be searched, their ages and other information.
"There has always been - and there should be - concerns about the dangers police face when executing search and arrest warrants," Ms. Hendricks said. "But it is clearly time to examine the dangers that search warrants pose to innocent members of the public."
David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said officials were re-examining some of the issues she raised.
At the hearing, Councilman Vallone said the death of Ms. Spruill raised questions why changes in search warrant procedures were not made sooner, citing earlier mistaken raids in Queens.
Among those testifying was a 66-year-old Queens woman whose Richmond Hill home was broken into in a mistaken police raid in January 2002, just three days after she retired from her job as a Police Department staff analyst.
The woman, Mary C. Bardy, said she did not plan to sue, and still had not received an adequate explanation of why the police broke down her door and ordered her and her family, including her 2-year-old granddaughter, to lie down on the floor at gunpoint. "The easiest way to understand what that's like is to reflect back on Elian Gonzalez," she said. "I think we all saw that on television - armed police, machine guns, that's what came into our house."
Chris Dunn, a lawyer with the New York Civil Liberties Union, noted that some new procedures that were put in place in October 2002 after the other mistaken raids were not followed when the police sought the search warrant for Ms. Spruill's apartment. He said the committee should require the department to explain and report occasionally about the additional reforms prompted by her death.
Earlier in the hearing, during Mr. Kelly's testimony, after several council members praised his and the mayor's quick acknowledgement of the mistakes that led to Ms. Spruill's death, Councilman Charles Barron made a point of distancing himself from the comments of his colleagues at the beginning of a sharp exchange. "Commissioner, excuse me if I don't join your fan club this morning," he said, adding that he was "livid."
"I'm not impressed even with you and the mayor coming forth and saying, `It's a mistake, we're being held accountable, we're sorry, this shouldn't happen again,' " Councilman Barron said. "We have been so Giuliani-ized that anything that comes that's supposed to be normal seems like it's something special. I'm getting tired of what I feel are crimes being considered mistakes and tragedies."
He asked whether the commissioner was monitoring the effect of police enforcement programs on civil liberties in his Brooklyn district, East New York. He suggested that Operation Impact, which the department credits with significantly bringing down crime in many areas, was leading to police harassment of local youth, a problem that he called "a powder keg" that he said was "ready to explode any minute."
Mr. Kelly urged Mr. Barron to come forward directly to him with specific information on brutality or harassment. He said that crime was down significantly in East New York and that the Impact program was "working for the people who live in the 75th Precinct."