Police expand powers in public housing

Police expand powers in public housing

One night late in June 2007, William Miller Herndon was found on the 800 block of Hardy Drive in the Westhaven public housing complex, unresponsive and with multiple gunshot wounds. He was taken to UVA Hospital, where he died. A month later, Jason Scott Marshman was arrested and, in December, indicted for first degree murder stemming from the Westhaven shooting. Neither was a resident.

In an attempt to address what Noah Schwartz, executive director of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA), called “violent-crime issues,” CRHA put into effect on March 1 a policy expanding city police’s authority on CRHA’s properties. The policy is targeted at nonresidents, who have often been the source of violent incidents. But some residents are uneasy about the officers’ new powers in areas where city police Chief Tim Longo says that the relationship between his department and residents have been “relatively stressed” in the past.

Police can now request ID at Westhaven and other public housing complexes to check against a list of 268 people barred from the property.

“It’s something the police have talked about for years,” Schwartz says about the new policy, which gives police authority to stop people and ask for identification and, in some instances, bar nonresidents from CRHA property. “It was an issue that was out there. We were just more receptive to the discussion, is the best way to put it.”

But some residents worry that giving police the authority to stop people on CRHA property and ask for ID might open the door for harassment.

Harold Folley, a longtime Westhaven resident, says he doesn’t think the police department should be this closely involved in what he sees as CRHA’s responsibility.

“At one time in Westhaven, if you were a troublemaker, the housing authority would put you out,” he says. “They didn’t have no problem with that. And residents knew that.”

Folley says there are concerns that officers, given the authority to stop and question people, won’t be sensitive to individuals. “If you have a young cop who just started, even two years ago,” he says, “you’re not going to know who’s on the bar list [from] five years ago. I don’t know how they’re going to tweak [the agreement] to where people don’t feel like they’re being harassed.”

The bar list is a CRHA document that lists 268 people barred from being on public housing property. Police now have the authority to add people to that list, though anyone added to the list is able to contest it.

If an officer has reasonable suspicion that someone on CRHA property is on the bar list, doing something illegal or acting in a way that would violate CRHA’s leasing agreements, that officer now has the authority to stop the person and ask for identification.

Police Sergeant Steve Upman says that police aren’t able to bar residents, invited guests or family members of residents. If police stop someone who is a resident, or who has a legitimate reason to be on CRHA property, they issue notification of the contact to the housing authority. CRHA can take it up as a lease-enforcement issue, says Schwartz.

Longo, Schwartz and Upman all made it clear that the policy is not intended to be a mandate for police to indiscriminately stop and question people.

“You have to have at least some type of reasonable suspicion when you’re getting into asking people for identification,” says Upman. “One of the things that residents were afraid of over there were the police coming through and doing a blanket thing. What I’ve been telling officers is, ‘Let’s tread slowly…let’s use our discretion.’”

In the 1980s, City Council converted public housing sites into private properties, owned by CRHA, which limited city police in their proactive powers. Upman approached Schwartz a little over four months ago with the idea of making officers agents of CRHA. Both men took the idea to the CRHA board, and over a four-month period, an agreement was fleshed out with the input of some residents and resident advocacy groups. The Board approved it unanimously on January 28, 2008.

The agreement, while making officers agents for CRHA, effectively streamlines the process of responding to problems, such as the late-night shooting on March 10 in Westhaven, where no one was hurt.

Schwartz, who acknowledges that residents were concerned about how police would handle the expansion of authority, points to the unanimous approval of the policy and says, “Folks all agreed that it was something to try. And if it doesn’t work, if we think it’s being abused, we have the authority to undo it.”

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