In this June 17, 2012, file photograph, the Rev. Al Sharpton, center, walks with demonstrators during a silent march to end New York's "stop-and-frisk" program. Associated Press photo.
NEW YORK — The nation’s largest police department illegally and systematically singled out large numbers of blacks and Hispanics under its controversial stop-and-frisk policy, a federal judge ruled Monday while appointing an independent monitor to oversee major changes, including body cameras on some officers.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he would appeal the ruling, which was a stinging rebuke to a policy he and the New York Police Department have defended as a life-saving, crime-fighting tool that helped lead the city to historic crime lows. The legal outcome could affect how and whether other cities employ the tactic.
“The city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner,” U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote in her ruling. “In their zeal to defend a policy that they believe to be effective, they have willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy of targeting ‘the right people’ is racially discriminatory.”
Stop-and-frisk has been around for decades in some form, but recorded stops increased dramatically under the Bloomberg administration to an all-time high in 2011 of 684,330, mostly of black and Hispanic men. The lawsuit was filed in 2004 by four men, all minorities, and became a class-action case.
About half the people who are stopped are subject only to questioning. Others have their bag or backpack searched, and sometimes police conduct a full pat-down. Only 10 percent of all stops result in arrest, and a weapon is recovered a small fraction of the time.
Scheindlin noted she was not putting an end to the practice, which is constitutional, but was reforming the way the NYPD implemented its stops.
In her long ruling, she determined at least 200,000 stops were made without reasonable suspicion, the necessary legal benchmark, lower than the standard of probable cause needed to justify an arrest. She said that rank-and-file officers were pressured by superiors to make stops — and that high-ranking police officials ignored mounting evidence that bad stops were being made.
“The city and its highest officials believe that blacks and Hispanics should be stopped at the same rate as their proportion of the local criminal suspect population,” she wrote. “But this reasoning is flawed because the stopped population is overwhelmingly innocent — not criminal.”
She also cited violations of the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
“Far too many people in New York City have been deprived of this basic freedom far too often,” she said. “The NYPD’s practice of making stops that lack individualized reasonable suspicion has been so pervasive and persistent as to become not only a part of the NYPD’s standard operating procedure, but a fact of daily life in some New York City neighborhoods.”
Scheindlin did not give many specifics for how to correct such practices but instead directed the monitor to develop reforms to policies, training, supervision and discipline with input from the communities most affected. She also ordered a pilot program in which officers test body-worn cameras in the one precinct per borough where most stops occurred. The idea came up inadvertently during testimony, but Scheindlin seized on it as a way to provide objective records of the encounters.
Scheindlin appointed Peter L. Zimroth, the city’s former lead attorney and previously a chief assistant district attorney, as the monitor. He did not return a call seeking comment.
At a news conference, Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly blasted the ruling, saying the judge ignored historic crime lows and displayed a “disturbing disregard” for the “good intentions” of police officers who do not racially profile.
“There is just no question that stop, question, frisk has saved countless lives, and most of those lives saved have been black and Hispanic young men,” Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg said police have done exactly what the courts and constitution allow to keep the city safe. The judge simply does not understand “how policing works,” he said, and the result could be a return to the days of crime and mayhem from the 1980s and 1990 — when murders hit an all-time high of 2,245.
“This is a dangerous decision made by a judge who I think does not understand how policing works and what is compliant with the U.S. Constitution as determined by the Supreme Court,” he said. “I worry for my kids, and I worry for your kids. I worry for you and I worry for me. Crime can come back any time the criminals think they can get away with things. We just cannot let that happen.”
Scheindlin presided over a 10-week bench trial this year that included testimony from NYPD brass and a dozen people — 11 men and one woman — who said they were wrongly stopped because of their race. She found that nine of the 19 stops discussed in court were unconstitutional, and that an additional five stops included wrongful frisking.
Witness Nicholas Peart, who wept on the stand during the trial as he described a frightening encounter with police, said Monday that he hoped the ruling would mean “tremendous steps forward.”
“I felt that it restores a sense of trust,” said the 24-year-old Peart, who is black. “Our voices do count, and count towards something greater.”
Lead attorney Darius Charney, of the nonprofit legal advocate Center for Constitutional Rights, praised the decision as historic and noted that it hinged on the testimony from those stopped.
The class-action lawsuit was the largest and broadest legal action against the policy at the nation’s biggest police department, with 35,000 officers.
City lawmakers have also sought to create an independent monitor and make it easier for people to sue the department if they feel their civil rights were violated. Those bills are awaiting an override vote after the mayor vetoed the legislation.
The monitor appointed Monday will examine stop-and-frisk specifically and can compel changes. The inspector general envisioned in the city legislation would look at other issues but could only make recommendations.
The appeal process could take time, and the ruling will likely be on hold, meaning one of the candidates running in the November election to succeed Bloomberg will deal with the outcome. New Yorkers were skeptical of any real change in the near future.
“Eventually it might trickle down into real change, but it’s only just happened,” said Carlos Jones, 26, of Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood, who said he was stopped several times. “I know a lot of officers really don’t care about it, and they’re still going to do their job to the worst of their ability, which is stopping and frisking people for no reason.”