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2016 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Nuisance Abatement

Judges comments

A powerful piece with strong interactive and documentation looking at how NYPD abused a community often neglected.

About the Project

For decades, the New York Police Department have been using the nuisance abatement law to threaten businesses and homes with closures over accusations of illegal activity. The cases were filed openly in state courts, yet received virtually no real scrutiny. Typically, the NYPD’s efforts have been portrayed as ridding the city of drug-dealing delis, houses of prostitution and nightclubs that are hotbeds of violence.

Many of the targets, at least in recent years, are families accused of low-level drug charges that did not result in a conviction, and mom-and-pop businesses accused of selling alcohol to undercover minors. And the targets were almost exclusively located in communities of color.

The actions are as outrageous as they were reckless. Nobody independently vetted the allegations made by detectives, or even verified whether the alleged criminals still occupied the places they were seeking to close. As a result, sometimes police served closing orders on empty places, or on the wrong family.

Reporter Sarah Ryley began unraveling this startling reality in early 2014, after coming across a wrongful arrest lawsuit that mentioned the city had tried to evict a woman from her home even though her criminal charges had been dismissed. She wanted to see if this was systemic or an anomaly. Because the NYPD is notorious for dragging out public records requests for years, Ryley, along with several other reporters from ProPublica, manually entered details on 1,162 cases into a spreadsheet.

Ryley then conducted a geospatial analysis of the data, merging it with several other datasets to ultimately track dozens of factors. The reporters also created a second spreadsheet to track the dispositions of the underlying criminal charges against 300 people who gave up their leases or were banned from homes, which involved querying 10 different criminal courts. They found fewer than half of these people were convicted of a crime as a result of the underlying police investigation. Scores weren’t even prosecuted for one.

It was a unique collaboration even for ProPublica, which is used to collaborating. Reporter Sarah Ryley, who works for the News, split time between both newsrooms and relied on each of their strengths: The News’s deep connection with New York City and ProPublica’s expertise at landing large and complex data stories.

The series included several online-only features:

  • Detailed case studies on all 300 people who gave up their leases or were banned from homes.
  • Interactive maps that clearly showed the racial disparity in whom the NYPD targeted.
  • A social campaign that included a reddit chat, podcast and Twitter narratives that laid out key findings.
  • A detailed methodology on how the data analysis was conducted. The primary dataset was also made available to the public.

The series had immediate and wide-ranging impact.

  • Before the first story was published, the state court system put out an advisory notice recommending that judges limit the granting of ex parte closing orders on homes, and that they made significant changes to courtroom procedures.
  • New York’s City Council is working on a package of legislation that would add more safeguards to the law.
  • There’s been at least one civil rights lawsuit, and several other non-profit law firms have said they’re looking into filing class action cases.
  • NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has begun monthly meetings with the association that represents the mostly immigrant bodega owners.
  • The NYPD and the Law Department are also doing a complete review of their nuisance abatement cases, and in the meantime have said they would make several procedural changes and have almost completely stopped filing them.
  • Numerous elected officials on the city, state and federal level have written letters, requested meetings with the NYPD, and said they’re looking into taking action.

The overwhelming outrage sparked by the series will undoubtedly force the city’s most powerful agency to make reforms that will protect some of the most vulnerable tenants and businesses from unwarranted harassment and excessive penalties for low-level offenses.