Ending a federal lawsuit that began in 2017, two men who were falsely charged with public lewdness by the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) in Manhattan’s Midtown bus station entered into a settlement that requires reforms in the agency’s policing and training practices.
“This is such great and long overdue news!,” wrote Matt Foreman, who headed the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, now known as The Anti-Violence Project, from 1990 to 1996. “[There were] hundreds of victims, some of whom lost their jobs. I worked with so many men and the stories were always the same.”
For decades or longer, police in many jurisdictions across the country have targeted gay, bisexual, and gender non-conforming men who use public restrooms to go to the toilet for public lewdness arrests. It is common for the criminal complaints in these cases to use language that appears to have been copied and pasted from one complaint to another. PAPD officers are notable offenders in this practice.
“I’m proud of the difference we’ve made by standing up against the PAPD’s bias-based policing,” Miguel Mejia, one of the two plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a written statement. “As a commuter who passes through Port Authority facilities on a daily basis, I will feel safer knowing that the reforms we fought for have been put in place, making it so that people like me aren’t arrested just because of who we are or what we look like.”
Mejia and Cornell Holden, the second plaintiff, were represented by The Legal Aid Society, a non-profit law firm, and attorneys at Winston & Strawn, LLP, a private law firm.
While the PAPD did not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement, the settlement says that the agency “has not been, and is not currently, conducting plain clothes police patrols for public lewdness or exposure of a person in the public restrooms at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.” Any future plain clothes operations there “would first be reviewed and approved by senior PAPD officials.”
The agency must use “Sensitivity and Awareness training facilitated by members of the Gay Officers’ Action League” for incoming officers for at least the next three years and it is required to read an anti-bias memo and an instructional memo on avoiding the use of boiler plate language in incident and arrest reports during all roll calls during a 24-hour period within three months of executing the settlement.
The PAPD’s newly-created position of Chief of Agency’s Affairs is required to inform The Anti-Violence Project and Garden State Equality, a New Jersey LGBTQ rights group, that it is the liaison to those agencies. The agency must also create an updated complaint form to file complaints with the PAPD’s Civilian Complaint Review Board that allows complainants to use optional fields to provide their sexual orientation and gender identity.
And restroom signs in single-stall restrooms in the bus terminal “will be promptly replaced, to reflect the following: ‘This restroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression.’”
Neither side must pay attorneys’ fees, but Holden will be paid $15,000 and Mejia will receive $25,000. The settlement will be supervised by a federal magistrate judge.
The Legal Aid Society first uncovered a continuing pattern of PAPD officers targeting gay, bisexual, and gender non-conforming men in a men’s rooms in the Midtown bus terminal operated by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey in 2014. When the PAPD took no steps to correct its officers’ behavior, Legal Aid sued in 2017, alleging that the PAPD police had a “policy and/or pattern and practice of unlawful discrimination” and “targeting, and false arrests of men using” the bathroom.
In 2000, PAPD officers in the World Trade Center arrested Alejandro Martinez in a men’s room there. Martinez was acquitted at a state trial. In his 2005 federal lawsuit, evidence was produced that indicated PAPD police had quotas for public lewdness arrests. Martinez was threatened with violence by police and they directed anti-gay slurs at him and six other men who were arrested on the same day and in the same location as Martinez.
“It has become apparent that many police departments in this country consider themselves to be a law unto themselves despite many federal court decisions determining various conduct unconstitutional including this conduct,” said Mike Spiegel, the attorney who represented Martinez in the federal lawsuit.
There was no allegation in the 2014 arrests in the Midtown bus terminal that police used anti-gay slurs or threatened those arrested with violence, suggesting that the PAPD leadership had the ability to alter the behavior of their officers.
During the Martinez federal trial, a Port Authority police officer gave testimony that showed a clear pattern of a large number of arrests, from 25 to 46, occurring in a few hours in two years or over a period of four months in one year. That pattern suggested that police were not responding to a specific condition or complaint, which is the standard police defense in lewdness arrests, but were simply compiling numbers.
John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University, was hired by the plaintiffs in the 2017 lawsuit. He found that same pattern, according to a report produced for the plaintiffs.
Looking at PAPD public lewdness data from 2013 through 2017, Pfaff wrote that just nine people were arrested for public lewdness in 2013, or 1.% of the 750 arrests made that year. In 2014, public lewdness arrests accounted for 1% of the 448 arrests made that year. Over the next three years, public lewdness arrests by the Port Authority police accounted for 3% or less of all arrests in those years.
An expert witness for the PAPD wrote that the execution of the arrests was consistent with “sound police tactics and probable cause for the crimes of which they were charged.” That expert found no evidence of anti-gay or bisexual bias or a pattern or practice of targeting gay or gender non-conforming men for wrongful arrests.