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N.Y.C. judge causes a stir on stop-and-frisk

Wednesday, August 21, 2013 - Updated: 4:09 AM

Judge Shira Scheindlin of Federal District Court in New York upheld the bedrock principle of individual liberty when she ruled that the tactics underlying New York City's stop-and-frisk program violated the constitutional rights of minority citizens. She found that the city had been "deliberately indifferent" to police officers illegally detaining and frisking minority residents on the streets over many years.

Judge Scheindlin was clearly speaking of Mayor Michael Bloomberg when she concluded: "The city's highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner. In their zeal to defend a policy that they believe to be effective, they have willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy of singling out 'the right people' is racially discriminatory and therefore violates the United States Constitution."

The judge made clear that she was not striking down the program -- which remains an important tool for law enforcement -- but requiring the city to use that tool in a way that does not discriminate against African-Americans and Hispanics and that comports with constitutional guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure. Given the city's refusal to alter its practices significantly, Judge Scheindlin had little choice but to appoint an outside monitor to oversee sweeping changes in how the New York Police Department trains its officers and carries out the stop-and-frisk policy.

Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers can legally stop and detain a person only when they have a reasonable suspicion that the person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime. Over the years, however, the Police Department has adopted a strategy that encourages cops to stop and question mainly minority citizens first and to come up with reasons for having done so later. This has resulted in people in some neighborhoods being stopped without reason scores of times a year. These unconstitutional stops, Judge Scheindlin wrote, have exacted a "human toll" in demeaning and humiliating law-abiding citizens. She is currently overseeing three lawsuits against this troubled program. The ruling issued on Monday, in Floyd v. The City of New York, was filed by plaintiffs alleging racial profiling in street stops.

At the heart of the Floyd case are statistics showing that the city conducted an astounding 4.4 million stops between January 2004 and June 2012. Of these, only 6 percent resulted in arrests and 6 percent resulted in summonses. In other words, 88 percent of the 4.4 million stops resulted in no further action -- meaning a vast majority of those stopped were doing nothing wrong. More than half of all people stopped were frisked, yet only 1.5 percent of frisks found weapons. In about 83 percent of cases, the person stopped was black or Hispanic, even though the two groups accounted for just over half the population.

The city has consistently said that the disparity was justified because minority citizens commit more crimes. But Judge Scheindlin trenchantly rejected this argument. As she pointed out, "this reasoning is flawed because the stopped population is overwhelmingly innocent -- not criminal. There is no basis for assuming that an innocent population shares the same characteristics as the criminal suspect population in the same area."

The evidence clearly showed that the police carried out more stops on black and Hispanic residents even when other relevant factors were controlled for, and officers were more likely to use force against minority residents even though stops of minorities were less likely to result in weapons seizures than stops of whites.

To remedy these ills, Judge Scheindlin laid out the steps that the city would be required to take in the Floyd case and in the related case of Ligon v. The City of New York, which was brought on behalf of people who said they were illegally stopped, given tickets or arrested in private apartment buildings. She chose Peter Zimroth, a respected lawyer and former prosecutor, to serve as the monitor. Zimroth's immediate responsibility will be to develop a set of reforms governing Police Department policies, training, supervision and discipline on stop-and-frisk. The ruling also establishes a process that could be used to revamp other police policies and practices.

Mayor Bloomberg, who has steadfastly supported this corrosive and socially damaging program, seemed unchanged on Monday. He arrogantly dismissed the suit and this ruling as the work of "one small group of advocates -- and one judge," repudiating the outrage about stop-and-frisk that has been growing in the city for years.

-- The New York Times


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