Judge: NYPD's 'Stop and Frisk' Policy Is Unconstitutional

By Chris Hoenig


Calling it “indirect racial profiling,” a federal judge has ruled that the New York Police Department’s controversial “Stop and Frisk” policy is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin stopped short of ordering a complete halt to the program, but she did appoint an independent monitor to oversee reforms to the practices to bring them in compliance with the Constitution. Officers in some of the busiest “Stop and Frisk” precincts will have to wear cameras as part of their uniforms, part of a one-year trial program to monitor and create an “objective record” of police interactions in the community.

City officials, who say that the “Stop and Frisk” program is a vital component to fighting crime, have blasted the decision. Mayor Michael Bloomberg says the city will seek to have the ruling put on hold while it appeals. But supporters of the ruling say police officers have been racially profiling city residents for years and will now have a chance to repair their relationship with those they serve and protect.

Bloomberg is in the final year of his third term as mayor, and the program is not supported by those running to replace him in City Hall. Bill Thompson, the former NYC Comptroller, has even compared “Stop and Frisk” to the suspicions that led George Zimmerman to follow and ultimately kill Trayvon Martin.

Under the Bloomberg administration, the NYPD has also targeted Blacks and Latinos for marijuana-possession arrests, even though studies have shown that whites actually smoke marijuana more than nonwhites. More than 85 percent of those arrested as part of an operation that cost the city at least $440 million were Black or Latino.

The “Stop and Frisk” Program

The NYPD’s policy allows officers to stop and frisk people for reasons including “furtive movements”; the possibility the suspect could be “casing a location” or “acting as a lookout”; or for “wearing clothes commonly used in a crime” or “inappropriate attire for the season.” Even just an officer’s knowledge of a suspect’s prior criminal behavior provides the legal grounds for a stop. A search can then be conducted if an officer finds a hard object, the outline of a weapon or obtains permission from the individual that was stopped.

The legal basis and criteria that allow for programs like “Stop and Frisk” were put in place in the1960s and 1970s; the exact start of the NYPD’s policy isn’t clear. But the first legal challenges came in 1999, when a lawsuit was filed following the shooting death of an unarmed African immigrant. ThenNew York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer followed with a civil-rights inquiry into the program, alleging widespread racial profiling.

Eye-Popping Statistics

The NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk” policy has been one of the city’s biggest controversies for years. In 2003, as part of a settlement of the 1999 lawsuit, Judge Scheindlin ordered the NYPD to release detailed statistics about the program, part of an effort to allow the NYPD to self-police. The results have been alarming.

More than half of those stopped are Black, even though Blacks made up only 25 percent of the city’s population in the 2010 Census. Only about 10 percent of those who are stopped by the police are issued a summons or arrested, including only about 8 percent of Blacks who are stopped. Latinos made up about one-third of those stopped and issued a summons or arrested.

In 2011, young Black men accounted for more than 168,000 stops. To put that in perspective, only an estimated 158,000 young Black men even live in NYC.

In one Brooklyn neighborhood, the NYPD conducted more than 52,000 “Stop and Frisks” over a roughly four-year period, an average of 13,000 per year. Given Brownsville’s population of just 14,000, that equaled more than 92 percent of all of its residents being stopped once a year.

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