Volume 78 / Number 8 - July 23 - 29, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Fran Luck at a recent anti-eviction rally.

Holy bag search, Batman! Security picks on picnickers

By Laurie Mittelmann

Fran Luck, a radio producer for WBAI who has lived in the East Village for 40 years, couldn’t believe that a security guard recently asked to inspect her bag before she could enter the grassy area at the center of Tompkins Square Park.
“I felt that it was an abridgement of civil liberties,” Luck said.

The security officer, who she said was dressed in street clothes without identifying insignia and wouldn’t reveal his name or who hired him, reached inside her bag when she opened it to display a picnic meal that she and her friend Pete Dolack had brought to the free screening of “Batman Begins” in the park that has been home to political activists for decades.

“We were like, ‘Who are you? This is a public park.’ And he said, ‘Tonight it’s a private park,’” Luck said.

“Is the Constitution — the Fourth Amendment that protects you against unreasonable search and seizure — in effect when a private group has been granted the right to take over part of the park?” she asked this week, as she recounted the incident.

Bob Perl, a local real estate broker and developer, and Josh Boyd, a nightclub and lounge owner and president of Downtown Diversified, organized and funded the movie event that takes place every other Wednesday at sundown.

Boyd said that Luck and Dolack are in the extreme minority of the more than 1,000 people who attend the event and voice no problem with the search.

“I’m getting approached by people all of the time on the streets, telling us how thrilled they are with the event,” Boyd said.

Perl and Boyd said they are happy to provide the officers — who they hired from Fifth Profession, a security company — to check for items like alcohol and fireworks. Perl said the Ninth Police Precinct expects private security at such large-scale events as their screenings.

“It’s our moral as well as legal obligation,” said Perl. “If people came in here on bicycles or with pit bulls, we’d have to say, ‘Wait — is this safe?’”

Detective Jaime Hernandez, Ninth Precinct community affairs officer, said that it does help the police if people who are hosting a large-scale event in a park provide security.

“There are less resources needed for us to put in the park, and then we can go out and do what we actually need to do as a police department,” he said.

However, Luck believes that there is no probable cause for this kind of search.

“There’s a difference between stopping a dangerous situation that has developed and searching inside of everyone’s bags,” she said.

When the security guard started rummaging in the bag carried by Dolack, Luck said they both started protesting that they had only brought food. The guard told Luck that he didn’t like her attitude and that she would have to leave.

She said that she had already passed through the gate and told him that she had the right to be there. He followed them inside.

“I thought he was going to tackle me,” Luck said.

“He was a very large, menacing person, probably a foot taller than me,” Dolack said. “Is Tompkins Square Park now some kind of Chelsea nightclub where the bouncer decides who gets in?” he asked.

Luck does not believe that police should be allowed to search bags at events in the park, either, but that at least there would be a formal channel for complaint with community boards, for example, if the officers were city employees as opposed to workers from private firms.

“You want these things done by entities that you can recognize,” she said, comparing the situation to how guards from a private security firm, Blackwater, instead of members of the U.S. military, protect American dignitaries in Iraq. “This is a dangerous trend,” she warned.

Luck and Dolack plan to still attend the next movie screening in the park, featuring “Better Off Dead,” the 1985 cult teen black comedy starring John Cusack.

“I hope squatters and people from the neighborhood come out on July 30 to reclaim the park,” Dolack said.

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