New plan for police searches

April 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service Sun staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- A week after a judge blocked a more ambitious approach, President Clinton announced an initiative yesterday intended to increase police searches for illegal drugs and weapons in public housing projects plagued by gang violence.

A federal judge had halted an effort by the Chicago Housing Authority, which was backed by the Clinton administration, to conduct these searches without warrants.

But Mr. Clinton said yesterday that Attorney General Janet Reno and Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros had come up with a "constitutionally effective way" of allowing more voluntary or emergency searches of public housing.

Instead of trying to gain a new power for warrantless searches, Mr. Clinton would encourage housing authorities to make more aggressive use of powers they already have.

Most notably, the administration would urge the housing authorities to ask tenants when they sign leases to give standing consent to having their apartments searched for drugs or weapons.

The president's proposal would also allow officials to enter apartments without a warrant in emergency circumstances -- which would be determined by the local authorities -- if there is not enough time to obtain a judicial warrant.

Nothing Mr. Clinton put forward yesterday would be binding on the local housing authorities that run federally financed housing projects across the nation.

Instead, the president and Mr. Cisneros hope to spur more action against crime by making clear what can be done and to show that they support such actions.

"It gives you a road map of what is a legal and constitutional search policy," one administration official said. "For many public housing authorities, the fact that the federal government will provide clarity on many of these things will give them the impetus to move ahead."

Mr. Clinton announced the initiative in his radio address yesterday morning. "Every law-abiding American, rich or poor, has the right to raise children without the fear of criminals terrorizing where they live," he said.

The new policy, he said, would allow the residents to "take back their homes."

In Baltimore, reaction to Mr. Clinton's address was divided. Tenant leaders and civil rights advocates opposed the searches, while the head of the Baltimore housing authority applauded the idea.

"Oh, absolutely, I agree with him," said Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore's housing commissioner. "I think any landlord deserves the right to get rid of the criminals. And in a high-rise situation, you're stuck with a little different dynamic that requires a different type of action."

Since last June, Baltimore has done "sweeps" of 12 high-rise public housing buildings. During the clean-ups, housing authority officials visit each apartment while police secure the buildings, and hundreds of maintenance people fan out to make repairs.

But unlike sweeps in some other cities, Baltimore gives 48-hours' notice before its actions. The city housing authority also does not search apartments during the sweeps.

"Generally, with the notice, most of the illegal activity disappears from our buildings," Mr. Henson said.

He also said that the goals of the sweeps in Baltimore are to evict squatters, secure the buildings and make repairs to public areas -- not to confiscate large caches of weapons and drugs, as in some cities.

Dorothy Scott, tenant council president at East Baltimore's Flag House Courts public housing project, is pleased with the improvements since the housing authority swept the project's three high-rises last summer.

After those sweeps, the housing authority installed metal detectors at the buildings' entrances and instituted new procedures to restrict the flow of unwanted visitors. The agency also hired security guards from N.O.I. Security Inc. The result has been a dramatic decrease in open drug dealing and violent crime at the high-rises, housing officials have said.

Despite that success, Ms. Scott said that she would oppose the housing authority doing searches without warrants.

"It's a bad thing," Ms. Scott said.

"Everybody in public housing is automatically associated with the worst things that go on there. I think it is unfair that we all are stigmatized because of that."

Susan Goering, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland, agreed.

"I think the searches are a short-term fix for which tenants will pay a price in the long run," she said. "This says that people in public housing have fewer rights than other people. That is highly un-American."

Spokesmen for Mayor Kurt W. Schmoke and for the city police department could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The plan Mr. Clinton announced would have its most immediate effect in Chicago, where local officials had implemented broad, impromptu searches of public housing apartments that angered some tenants who felt their right to privacy had been violated.

These tenants were joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued on their behalf.

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