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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sharply Critical of Police, Judge Widens Stop-and-Frisk Suit

Sharply Critical of Police, Judge Widens Stop-and-Frisk Suit 
The New York Times by Al Baker  -  May 16, 2012

Saying the New York Police Department seems to have little regard for constitutional rights, a federal judge on Wednesday elevated to class-action status a lawsuit accusing officers of using race as a factor in stopping people on the city’s streets, opening the door to a vast number of additional plaintiffs. The decision by the judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, of Federal District Court,  provides possible legal recourse for hundreds of thousands of people who have been caught up in the Police Department’s increasingly vigorous stop-and-frisk practice, which critics say unjustly ensnares blacks and Latinos. Over the weekend, in fact, the police disclosed that they had made more than 200,000 such stops in the first three months of 2012 – placing the Bloomberg administration on course for the largest number of annual stops in the 10 years the department has been measuring them. In granting the four named plaintiffs class action, for a legal effort mounted in January 2008, the judge wrote that she was giving voice to the voiceless. “The vast majority of New Yorkers who are unlawfully stopped will never bring suit to vindicate their rights,” Judge Scheindlin wrote. Judge Scheindlin said the evidence presented in the case showed that the department had a “policy of establishing performance standards and demanding increased levels of stops and frisks” that has led to an exponential growth in the number of stops. The judge sharply criticized the Police Department’s stance in its filing opposing the granting of class-action status. The department argued that if the court were to grant a blanket injunction banning its stop-and-frisk practice, it would not prevent any questionable stops from happening. Instead, such a ruling would represent “the kind of judicial intrusion into a social institution that is disfavored.”   Judge Scheindlin chided the department’s arguments, calling them “cavalier” and saying that they displayed “a deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers’ most fundamental constitutional rights.” And she said that if the department were “engaging in a widespread practice of unlawful stops, then an injunction seeking to curb that practice is not a ‘judicial intrusion into a social institution,’ but a vindication of the Constitution and an exercise of the courts’ most important function: protecting individual rights in the face of the government’s malfeasance.” Asked about Judge Scheindlin’s decision at a news conference at 1 Police Plaza, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said he had no comment because the litigation was continuing.

In the past, Mr. Kelly has vociferously rejected the notion that officers engage in racial profiling, but has argued that the street-stop tactics have helped to reduce crime and saved lives by leading to guns being confiscated by officers. “It is what it is,” the commissioner said of the ruling. Asked if the city would appeal the judge’s ruling, which is allowed, Connie Pankratz, a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department, said it was too early to say. “We respectfully disagree with the decision and are reviewing our legal options,” she said. The decision comes as the issue has already become a flash point in the 2013 mayoral race. Last week, the prospective candidates for mayor laced into the effectiveness of the street stops that the department and many officers view as a core of policing: The right to stop people and ask them questions. The department has released data showing that in about half of the cases, a frisk of a person is carried out when the officer perceives some danger to themselves or others. The stops – as a practical matter – are notable for the measure of racial disparity that occurs: black and Hispanic people generally represent more than 85 percent of those stopped by the police though their combined population makes up a smaller share of the city’s racial composition. Critics, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, also point out that the number of those who get arrested or issued a summons hovers around 10 percent of the stops – and that it is proof that the majority of those stopped have done nothing wrong. The suit was filed on behalf of the lead plaintiff, David Floyd, and three others, by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Darius Charney, a lawyer with the center, pointed out a portion of the decision in which the judge noted that there was “indisputable evidence” that the department’s street-stop program stemmed in design and implementation from the highest levels of the agency. “This is not just about five or six bad officers; this is about a whole department’s policies and practices,” Mr. Charney said. “Which is why the best way to proceed with this case is as a class action because if affects hundreds of thousands of people in the city.”

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