Port Authority Settlement Will End Undercover Bathroom Patrols

Miguel Mejia arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on a warm summer evening eight years ago with plans to get a fresh tattoo in New Jersey. Before catching his bus, he made what he thought would be a quick stop at the men’s restroom.

But at the urinal, Mr. Mejia sensed he was being watched and, glancing to his right, saw a man in blue shorts smirking at him. Mr. Mejia ignored him and walked out. Then came a shoulder tap: Port Authority police officers said he was under arrest.

“I’m like, ‘What did I do? What’s the reason?’” said Mr. Mejia, who is now 51. “They said that I know what I did.”

Mr. Mejia was charged with public lewdness, which includes exposing oneself or performing sexual acts in public, but was acquitted at trial. He later learned that others had similarly disputed the accounts of Port Authority officers. So in 2017, he joined a class-action suit arguing that the agency was engaged in a pattern of “unlawful discrimination, targeting and false arrests.”

The Port Authority Police Department has now agreed to end plainclothes bathroom patrols, update sensitivity trainings for new officers and improve the process for filing complaints against officers, according to a settlement reached this week.

Marlen Bodden, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society’s special litigation unit, which worked on the case with the firm Winston & Strawn, said in a statement that the agency had long engaged in “egregious misconduct” that led many Black and Latino people to be falsely arrested “when they simply were using the restroom during their commutes.”

“This settlement not only brings an end to those practices,” she said, “but also ushers in critical reforms to address future discriminatory practices.”

The agreement arrives at a time when the issues at the center of the case — plainclothes policing and the treatment of L.G.B.T.Q. people by officers — have fallen under intense scrutiny over the years. Sting operations, often targeting gay men for public sex in bathrooms or parks, have been criticized in several states, including California, where six years ago a judge called a police department’s tactics discriminatory.

In the Port Authority case, lawyers representing the plaintiffs said the behavior that officers described often never took place at all — and that innocent people were ensnared.

The settlement — which also involves changes like designating single-stall restrooms at the bus terminal as gender neutral — would help ensure such issues do not resurface, the lawyers said.

The agency said in a statement on Wednesday that for the last few years, officers had stopped plainclothes patrols for public lewdness in the bus terminal’s restrooms, and that it was committed to maintaining high standards for its employees.

The agency’s police force, with more than 2,200 uniformed members, has been the subject of numerous suits over L.G.B.T.Q. issues. Last summer, a transgender officer sued the agency, accusing co-workers of referring to him as “it,” deliberately calling him by his former name and making other offensive remarks. The suit is ongoing.

In 2005, a jury in a federal case found that officers regularly led sweeps for lewdness “without regard to probable cause” at a Lower Manhattan PATH station. Lawyers said few changes were instituted afterward. Now, the agency has agreed that it would only restart plainclothes policing for public lewdness with the approval of senior officials.

In Mr. Mejia’s case, an officer claimed that he tried to initiate an encounter with another man. Mr. Mejia said that he thought officers might have targeted him because of the jewelry he was wearing that day — a gold necklace and a pendant.

Another plaintiff, Cornell Holden, 35, was arrested two months earlier, also at a Port Authority bathroom for public lewdness, charges which were later dismissed. He said that he overheard the officer who arrested him call a colleague — the man who Mr. Holden said was standing next to him at a urinal — “the gay whisperer.”

Others have reported similar experiences, including one man who had been in a 10-year relationship when he said he was falsely accused. He recalled an officer remarking “you gay people” as he was arrested and said that the experience led to a decline in his mental health.

Several other plaintiffs said in affidavits that police tactics involved enticement, with officers peering over urinal dividers, moving their arms suggestively and holding eye contact.

Arrests for public lewdness have since dropped, even as the litigation continues. And a former Port Authority police commander, John Fitzpatrick, previously acknowledged that complaints of sex in the men’s room were now “few and far between.”

John Pfaff, a Fordham University law professor who analyzed several years of agency data for the case, noted that such arrests spiked around 2014, composing about 13 percent of all arrests that year. Otherwise, they often represented under 3 percent of arrests annually.

The difference was likely not explained by increased enforcement overall, Mr. Pfaff wrote, since other categories of arrests fell. He found that only five officers, including the ones who arrested Mr. Mejia and Mr. Holden, accounted for seven out of 10 public lewdness arrests in 2014.

The busts also occurred during times of the day when such acts were least expected at the bus terminal — the nation’s busiest — like during morning and evening rush hours, he wrote.

“These results certainly suggest that the spike in public lewdness arrests was the result of intentional policy choices,” he said.

Michael Coan, a former deputy chief in the New York Police Department’s detective bureau who served as an expert witness for the Port Authority on the case, disagreed, writing in his own report that officers “acted properly and exercised sound tactics.”

For Mr. Mejia, the settlement represents a satisfying resolution to a lengthy and frustrating case. But the mental toll of the arrest and court battle that followed will continue, he said.

Mr. Mejia has never returned to the Port Authority bathroom where he was arrested, he said in an interview last week. And he has retained “a little bit of paranoia” about it, he said, feeling uncomfortable around law enforcement and seeking to avoid the terminal altogether. It has been more than a year since he has passed through the station.

“Even now, to this day, if I were to go through there, I probably would be looking behind me,” he said.

“Yes, there should be some sense of peace,” he said, now that the case had settled. But he later added, “But what happened to me still happened to me.”