RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A judge in New York City is hearing arguments this week about the controversial policing tactic known as stop-and-frisk. This case concerns a relatively small number of searches done without warrants that took place in the hallways of apartment buildings. It's being watched closely because it's the first of several major stop-and-frisk lawsuits to go to court. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The program at the heart of the lawsuit is called Operation Clean Halls. For more than 20 years, it's allowed the NYPD to patrol inside privately owned low-income apartment buildings with the landlord's consent. But residents of those buildings and their guests accuse the police of abusing that power. Bronx resident Pablo Lopez says that's what happened to him and a friend in December of 2010.
PABLO LOPEZ: We were going to a party, and we were at the entrance of the building. We were not even inside the building yet. We were ringing the doorbells. They just came up, asked us what we were doing, and in fractions of a second they just took us. They arrested us.
ROSE: Lopez says the police didn't even wait to talk with the building resident he was visiting. They just arrested him and his friend for trespassing.
LOPEZ: We spent three days in booking for that stupid thing. We go in on a Friday, we came out a Sunday.
ROSE: Lopez says the charges were dropped. But critics of Operation Clean Halls say stops like this shouldn't happen in the first place.
ALEXIS KARTERON: That's exactly what this case is about, that it's happening way too much.
ROSE: Alexis Karteron is a staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union. She spoke outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan, where a judge is holding hearings this week on the NYCLU's lawsuit.
KARTERON: We're not challenging the Clean Halls program as a whole. What we're challenging is the fact that too many New Yorkers who live in Clean Halls buildings feel like the police are stopping them for no reason, when they're taking out their garbage or checking their mail or just going about their daily business, going in and out of their homes.
ROSE: The case is one of three major lawsuits against the NYPD's use of stop-and-frisk. Last year, the department made more than 680,000 warrantless stops.
The NYPD did not respond to our request for comment, neither did the City Law Department, which is defending the police in court this week. But city officials insist that stop-and-frisk is legal and makes the city safer. Here's Michael Best, a lawyer in the mayor's office, testifying before city council last week.
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MICHAEL BEST: Stop, question and frisk as a tactic is one element - it's an important element, but it's one element in the city's proactive crime strategies that the police department has used for years now to drive crime down substantially and to make this the safest big city in America.
ROSE: But even some in law enforcement question the value of arrests from Operation Clean Halls. An assistant district attorney from the Bronx testified this week that her office routinely declines to prosecute these trespassing cases because they rarely hold up in court.
A lawyer for the city countered that the NYPD has put new training procedures in place that should address many of the complaints in the NYCLU lawsuit. Even Pablo Lopez - the guy who was arrested for trespassing back in 2010 - says he's noticed a recent drop in the number of police stops around his apartment building in the Bronx.
LOPEZ: Actually, I kind of seen it reduce. Before, they were here every day. And now it's just less and less. And I'm not saying it's not as safe as before, but we're not getting stopped as before, I would say. I don't know. I just find it weird.
ROSE: That's in line with a steep drop in the number of stops reported citywide in the second quarter of 2012. But it's not enough to satisfy critics of stop-and-frisk who've been waiting a long time for their day in court.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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