Police Stop-and-Frisk Called ‘Degrading’ to New Yorkers

A lawyer for a citywide class of New Yorkers who say they were targeted with racially biased, unconstitutional police stops asked a Manhattan federal judge to order a halt to the practice.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin heard opening statements today in the case of four black men who say they were stopped and questioned or frisked by New York police without reasonable suspicion. Sitting in the back of the packed courtroom was the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr., the civil rights leader.

The police department has “laid siege to black and Latino neighborhoods in the last eight years,” said Darius Charney, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, the organization that filed the suit. He told the judge that being stopped and frisked isn’t a mere inconvenience but “a frightening and degrading experience and a serious deprivation of liberty.”

David Floyd, Lalit Clarkson, Deon Dennis and David Ourlicht, who represent the citywide class, claim the New York City Police Department has a widespread, illegal practice of stopping people in the street that disproportionately targets black and Latino New Yorkers. They claim the department fails to train officers in proper procedures and imposes quotas that encourage illegal stops.

The city denies that its policies are illegal.

‘Fully Committed’

“The evidence will show that the NYPD is fully committed to policing the city within the bounds of the law,” Heidi Grossman, a lawyer for the city, argued in her opening statement. Grossman denied that the police disproportionately target blacks and Latinos. “Crime drives where police officers go, not race,” she said.

Police officers are required to have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before stopping and frisking people in the street. The men say police have made more than 4 million stops and frisks in the past nine years. Of those stopped, 80 percent were black or Latino, according to court papers.

“Rather than offering an explanation, they’re offering rationalizations and justifications,” Jackson said during a break in the trial, after hearing the city’s opening statements. Jackson said race-based stops by police are only part of a larger problem that includes racially biased lending and foreclosure practices.

Nonjury Trial

The four men represent New Yorkers who have been illegally stopped or frisked by city police since January 2005. They are seeking an order from Scheindlin, who is trying the case without a jury, barring the practice and ordering changes to the department’s policies. They’re also asking that Scheindlin appoint a monitor to ensure the department complies with any orders she makes.

In ruling last year that the men may represent a citywide class of people illegally stopped by police, Scheindlin criticized the department’s “cavalier” attitude toward a “widespread practice of suspicionless stops,” saying it shows a “deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers’ most fundamental constitutional rights.”

On their list of more than 100 witnesses, the Floyd plaintiffs included dozens of current and former police officers and people who allegedly observed illegal stops.

The plaintiffs will present testimony from experts including Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law and public health at Columbia University, who will discuss his statistical analysis of police stop-and-frisk data for 2003 through the first half of 2012.

City Experts

They said they will also present experts on police practices and remedial measures necessary to curb illegal stops. The plaintiffs estimate they will need as many as 30 trial days to present their evidence.

The city said it has a political scientist, Dennis Smith, and a finance professor, Robert Purtell, to counter Fagan. The city said it may take an additional five days to mount a defense.

The Floyd case is one of three federal court challenges to the department’s “stop and frisk” practices. In Ligon v. City of New York, Scheindlin in January ordered that police cease making suspicionless “trespass” stops outside privately owned buildings in the borough of the Bronx.

She suspended that order while the city appeals. Davis v. City of New York, also in Scheindlin’s court, challenges police stops in public housing.

‘Reasonable Suspicion’

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police must have “reasonable suspicion” that crime is afoot to justify such stops. New York state appeals courts last year threw out at least two convictions of teenagers who were found with guns in stop-and-frisk searches.

The New York Civil Liberties Union said in a statement last week that police made 97,296 street stops in 2002, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first year in office. The number grew to 685,724 in 2011, the group said. The police made 533,042 stops last year, according to the NYCLU. Of the stops last year, 89 percent resulted in no arrest or ticket, the group said.

The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

The case is Floyd v. City of New York, 08-cv-01034, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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