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After NYC Elections, 'Stop-and-Frisk' Debate Persists

  • Carolyn Weaver

A bitter legal battle over reforms to the New York City Police Department, the nation’s largest, continues as a new mayor prepares to take office.

The fight pits Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, community groups and civil libertarians against NYPD policies under outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who sharply defends them in court and the media.

Demonstrators rallied for the reforms outside City Hall one day after electing de Blasio, who campaigned in part on promises to change NYPD policies.

Rally speakers, including U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler and several City Council members, together with representatives from local Latino, Arab-American and Muslim organizations, among others, called for changes in policing practices they call abusive and racially discriminatory.

The primary issue concerns a practice known as "stop-and-frisk," in which police detain, question and often search people on the street. In August, federal judge Shira Scheindlin ordered reforms to the practice after finding that police had often violated the Constitutional rights of minorities by enacting stop-and-frisk procedures without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and that the city’s highest officials had “willfully ignored overwhelming proof” of racial profiling by police.

In a decision issued after a class action lawsuit, Scheindlin wrote that people “who would not have been stopped if they were white,” were searched unlawfully. According to evidence presented at trial, from 2004 to 2012 hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers — over 80 percent of them young men of color — were stopped and searched by police who had no objective basis for suspicion. The majority were let go without an arrest or summons after being found without weapons or contraband.

In many police reports, the judge wrote, the only basis reported for a stop was that the subject was in a “high crime” area, or had made “furtive movements.”

During the trial, some police testified that an illegal quota system that pressured them to make at least 25 stops a month or face discipline was used as a job performance metric.

“We were stopping kids walking home from school,” NYPD officer Adhyl Polanco told ABC News. “We were stopping kids from walking upstairs to their house. We were stopping kids from going to the store.”

New York's outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly angrily rejected Scheindlin’s ruling, which the city has since appealed.

“We do not engage in racial profiling. It is prohibited by law; it is prohibited by our own regulations," Kelly said at a news conference. "We train our officers [that] they need reasonable suspicion.”

Crime in New York has declined sharply over the last decade even as the number of stops increased, Mayor Bloomberg said, in part because knowledge of the aggressive policing deterred many from carrying weapons.

“Stop, question, frisk has saved countless lives, and we know that most of those lives saved, based on the statistics, have been black and Hispanic young men,” he said.

In a rare move in late October, a three-judge appeals court panel removed Scheindlin from the case and ordered a temporary stay in the reforms, saying that her comments to the news media could lead a “reasonable observer” to question her impartiality.

The panel did not act to vacate the ruling as requested by the Bloomberg administration, and demonstrators have called on the mayor to drop the city’s appeal to the ruling now, since Mayor-elect de Blasio has said police reforms will go forward when he takes office regardless of what happens in court.

In a separate study of the NYPD released in mid-November, New York State’s Attorney General reported that stop-and-frisks from 2009 to 2012 targeted mostly young men of color, and did not reduce crime.

The study found that only about 3 percent of those who were stopped and frisked were later convicted, mostly for misdemeanors, such as carrying small amounts of marijuana.

Whites and Asians arrested for carrying marijuana, the report said, were 50 percent more likely to have their cases adjourned and later dismissed.

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