A federal judge Monday found that the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk search tactics violated the constitutional rights of racial minorities in the city and ordered a federal monitor to oversee broad reforms in the department. Federal District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin did not find stop-and-frisks unconstitutional in themselves, but ruled that NYPD's policy on them amounted to "indirect racial profiling."
The stop-and-frisk program did, however, contribute to the arrest and temporary jailing of tens of thousands of New Yorkers caught with small amounts of marijuana. Possession of small amounts was decriminalized in New York in 1978, but the NYPD effectively invalidated decriminalization by intimidating people into removing baggies of weed from their pockets and then charging them with public possession, a misdemeanor. Such tactics helped make New York City the world leader in marijuana arrests.
In her ruling Monday, Judge Scheindlin argued that the city's stop-and-frisk policies showed disregard for both the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. She said the evidence showed that police systematically stopped innocent people in the street without any objective reason to suspect them of wrongdoing.
Scheindlin didn't limit her criticism to the actions of police officers, but also held high NYPD and city officials responsible for what she called a "checkpoint-style" policing tactic.
"I also conclude that the city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner," she wrote. "Blacks are likely targeted for stops based on a lesser degree of objectively founded suspicion than whites," she noted.
While Scheindlin wrote that she was "not ordering an end to practice" of stop-and-frisk searches, she said that the racially disparate manner in which searches were carried out demanded reforms that "protect the rights and liberties of all New Yorkers, while still providing much needed police protection."
In addition to the outside monitor, Scheindlin ordered other remedies, including a pilot program in which officers in five precincts will be equipped with body-worn cameras to record street encounters and a "joint remedial process" where the public will be invited to provide input on how to reform stop-and-frisk.
While Scheindlin noted NYPD's expressed purpose in the widespread searches was to reduce the prevalence of guns on the street, she said police went too far in their zeal, stretching the bounds of the Constitution as they did so.
"The outline of a commonly carried object such as a wallet or cellphone does not justify a stop or frisk, nor does feeling such an object during a frisk justify a search,” she ruled.
And, after hearing more than two months of sometimes wrenching testimony from stop-and-frisk victims, Scheindlin deplored what she called "the human toll of unconstitutional stops," calling them "a demeaning and humiliating experience."
"No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life," she wrote. And it wasn't just fear of being stopped. Racial minorities in the city "were more likely to be subjected to the use of force than whites, despite the fact that whites are more likely to be found with weapons or contraband."
The city and the NYPD had argued that the targeting of young people of color was justified because they were more likely to commit crimes, but Scheindlin wasn't buying, especially since the searches usually came up empty.
"This might be a valid comparison if the people stopped were criminals," she wrote. "But to the contrary, nearly 90% of the people stopped are released without the officer finding any basis for a summons or arrest." The city had a "policy of targeting expressly identified racial groups for stops in general," she noted. "Targeting young black and Hispanic men for stops based on the alleged criminal conduct of other young black or Hispanic men violates bedrock principles of equality," she ruled.
The ruling didn't sit well with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has defended and championed stop-and-frisk as an effective crime fighting measure. In remarks after the verdict, Bloomberg lashed out at the judge and the ruling.
"This is a very dangerous decision made by a judge who I don’t think understands how policing works," Bloomberg said."The judge clearly telegraphed her intentions, and she conveyed a disturbing disregard for the intentions of our police officers, who form the most diverse police department in the nation. We didn’t believe we got a fair trial," he complained.
“Our crime strategies and tools -- including stop, question, frisk -- have made New York the safest big city in America," Bloomberg said. "We go to where the reports of crime are," he added. "Those, unfortunately, happen to be poor neighborhoods, or minority neighborhoods.... There are always people that are afraid of police ... some of them come from cultures where police are the enemy. Here, the police department are our friends."
And the police know best, he added. "The public are not experts at policing," Bloomberg said. "Personally, I would rather have [Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly decide how to keep my family safe, rather than having somebody on the street who says, 'Oh, I don’t like this.'"
But the Center for Constitutional Rights suggested that the mayor should grow up and do what's right.
"The NYPD is finally being held to account for its longstanding illegal and discriminatory policing practices," the group said in a statement Monday. "The City must now stop denying the problem and partner with the community to create a police department that protects the safety and respects the rights of all New Yorkers."