Stop and Frisk Violated Rights, Judge Rules

Opponents of NYC's stop-and-frisk policy rally in 2012. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Opponents of NYC's stop-and-frisk policy rally in 2012. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(The Root) — In a pair of rulings announced Monday morning, a federal judge found that the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk tactics violated the constitutional rights of the city's minorities and must be dramatically overhauled and aggressively monitored. 


In the decision, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled that police officers have for years systematically stopped innocent people in the street without any reason to suspect them of wrongdoing. The initiative allowed police officers to stop and typically frisk tens of thousands of mostly black and Latino young men but produced few arrests or even citations. The practice, the judge found, led to a disregard for the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments, which protect against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government and provide equal protection under the law to all.

"Today is a victory for all New Yorkers," attorneys representing the two groups of black and Latino men at the center of the cases said in a statement released early Monday. "After more than 5 million stops conducted under the current administration, hundreds of thousands of them illegal and discriminatory, the NYPD has finally been held accountable. It is time for the City to stop denying the problem and work with the community to fix it."

The court's orders are both broad and specific and written to address a long-running set of concerns for blacks and Latinos in New York City. But Scheindlin's opinion also appeared to take into consideration the impact that her ruling may have on the national landscape: Over the course of more than 200 pages, she linked the program to a range of social ills, including the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of black and Latino men in the United States and the persistence of stereotypes about who is prone to criminal behavior. Scheindlin's opinion also referred directly to George Zimmerman's acquittal, Trayvon Martin's untimely death and President Obama's impromptu speech after the Zimmerman verdict about race, suspicion and his own experiences with racial profiling.

"No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life," Scheindlin wrote. To help her come to a decision, the judge relied on a statistical analysis presented at trial that found that the racial composition of a census tract played a role in predicting how the department would apply the practice.

But the judge stopped short of ending the practice. "The purpose of the remedies addressed in this opinion is to ensure that the practice is carried out in a manner that protects the rights and liberties of all New Yorkers, while still providing much needed police protection," she wrote.

The Judge vs. the Mayor

Even before today's ruling, Scheindlin, a Clinton appointee to the federal bench, had faced blistering criticism from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city's Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and conservative advocates of racial profiling in police work. Just before 2 p.m. Monday, Bloomberg and Kelly held a joint press conference to respond to the court's ruling. Both men described the ruling as an insult and an error that will do major damage to the NYPD's efforts to fight crime. 


"She ignored the program's crime-fighting capacity," Bloomberg said of Scheindlin, " … and the fact that stops line up with crime statistics … People have a right to walk down the street without being targeted by the police, but people also have a right to walk down the street without being killed or mugged."

According to Bloomberg and Kelly, the court-ordered changes to the program and the independent monitor will, if enforced, lead to more crime in the city. Kelly put it more bluntly: "When we stop and question and sometimes frisk someone on suspicion that they will commit a burglary, we have prevented a burglary … or worse."


By driving down violent crime in the city, stop and frisk has saved more than 7,000 lives, Bloomberg said. Most of these crime victims would likely have been young black and Latino men, he said, making stop and frisk a sort of public service provided to people of color in New York City. The mayor also said that the city will appeal the court's decision.

Although Scheindlin's rulings apply directly only to New York City police, her decisions may have broad implications for the way police in other cities interact with the public. New York, home to the nation's largest police force and lowest crime rate in a major city, has become widely regarded as a leader in the "proactive policing" movement in which police aim to prevent rather than just respond to crime. And although the orders require a series of immediate actions, several legal observers said that the city's plans to appeal the court's decision could put stop and frisk on track for a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court.


The Numbers Behind the Two Cases

The rulings released on Monday detail Scheindlin's response to a pair of cases brought against the city of New York, its police department and several high-ranking municipal officials. In the first, a class action suit brought by young black and Latino men in the Bronx, known as Ligon v. City of New York, challenged the constitutionality of a widespread police practice: Police often stop and frisk mostly young black and Latino men who are seen inside, outside or near any of a number of buildings owned by individuals or even public agencies, such as the New York City Housing Authority, that have requested aggressive anti-trespassing patrols.


In January, Scheindlin ruled that the practice must be reformed and challenged the legal accuracy of some of the training given to police officers about what is a constitutionally allowable stop. But the judge put off ordering any specific changes until today. The second case, known as Floyd v. City of New York, involved a second group of black and Latino boys and men who have repeatedly been stopped, frisked, sometimes handcuffed and, in most cases, never arrested or even given a ticket by New York City police.

Lawyers for the two groups of men who sued the city, most of whom work for the New York-based nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights, also provided evidence that activities some might consider ordinary, certainly nonthreatening — such as adjusting one's pants and carrying a cellphone in a pants pocket — appeared to be enough to make black and Latino men universally suspicious. Indeed, police and city lawyers have repeatedly described adjusting one's pants, glancing over a shoulder while crossing a street, jaywalking and other mundane acts as "furtive movements," and cellphones in pockets as "suspicious bulges."


On the ground, the program known as stop and frisk led to an estimated 4.3 million stop, question and frisk incidents between 2004 and 2012 alone, according to city data. Black or Latino pedestrians — most of them young men — were the focus of 85 percent of these stops, although the two minority groups together make up just over 50 percent of the city's population.

Nearly 95 percent of these stops produced no arrest, no seizure of a weapon or other contraband or even a ticket requiring the recipient to appear in court. In fact, police discovered weapons in just 1 percent of the stops, and guns in only 14 percent. Black and Latino men were also disproportionately stopped and frisked in low-crime sections of the city. During the Floyd trial, a police officer described the entire borough of Queens as a high-crime area while on the stand.


"If the NYPD's policy is to instill fear, it has worked," said Gretchen Hoff Varner, a lawyer representing the group of men suing the city, during closing arguments. 

The men at the center of the two stop-and-frisk cases were not seeking financial compensation.


Scheindlin's orders mandate immediate notification of the ruling to all police officers and new training for existing and future officers on ways to operate a constitutional stop-and-frisk program. Police officers must also produce more detailed records about each stop, and in those cases in which a stop and frisk does not produce an arrest or a citation, an officer is required to give the person stopped a form describing why he or she was stopped and frisked. The form will include identifying information about the officer and instructions for filing a complaint. The orders also require the police department to take more seriously the findings of the Civilian Complaint Review Board about specific officers.

Perhaps most notably, patrol officers in precincts that have produced the city's highest number of stops will be required to wear body cameras that record their interactions with the public in a pilot project that must run for one year. Scheindlin indicated that in a city such as New York, where most people walk or rely on public transportation, body cameras could be as effective as more widely known dashboard cameras in creating a record of stop-and-frisk incidents that includes both the officer and the citizen's point of view and prompts more polite and respectful interactions.


Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.