New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reacts to a federal court’s decision on the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practice, and outlines the reasons for appealing. Photo: Getty Images.
The New York Police Department violated the Constitution with its practice of stopping and searching people suspected of criminal activity, a federal judge ruled Monday in a decision likely to lead police departments across the country to take a close look at their crime-fighting tactics.
Finding that New York City’s so-called stop-and-frisk program amounted to “indirect racial profiling” by targeting blacks and Hispanics disproportionate to their populations, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered the installation of the department’s first-ever independent monitor to oversee changes to its practices. City officials have argued that stop-and-frisk is a key component in their largely successful efforts to fight crime, but opponents have criticized it as a blatant violation of civil rights.
New York City officials immediately criticized the decision. “No federal judge has ever imposed a monitor over a city’s police department following a civil trial,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He said the city didn’t receive a fair trial, citing comments from the judge that he said “telegraphed her intentions,” and he said the city would seek an immediate stay while appealing the decision.
Mr. Bloomberg credited stop-and-frisk with helping drive crime in New York City to record lows. Murders in the city are at levels not seen in more than five decades, for instance. The mayor, who leaves office at year-end after three terms, predicted that should the judge’s decision stand, it could reverse those crime reductions “and make our city, and in fact the whole country, a more dangerous place.”
While New York’s stop-and-frisk practice is much more widely used than those in most other cities, police experts said the ruling is likely to lead police in other cities to tread more carefully in their own tactics.
“It’s definitely a wake-up call to any police chief in the country to be mindful to constitutional rights,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He added that “whether you do [stop-and-frisk] a little or a lot, because of this ruling, you have to be very cautious” about not violating those rights.
Pearl Gabel for The Wall Street Journal
Police stop a group in the Bronx in September 2012.
Police experts said the practice is larger and more coordinated in New York City, where on a daily basis extra patrol officers are sent into neighborhoods where crime patterns have been identified.
While officials in some cities said they wouldn’t be directly affected by the ruling, experts said the order for monitoring and other remedies in New York, including a pilot program in which officers will be equipped with “body-worn cameras,” is likely to be watched by city and police officials elsewhere.
“Even though the decision itself only applies to the NYPD, the fact that it’s the largest police department in the country and it is the NYPD means there will be a lot of publicity,” said Samuel Walker, a criminal-justice professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska Omaha, who testified as a plaintiffs’ expert on police monitors at the trial.
Under the pilot camera program, officers in the precinct in each of the city’s five boroughs with the highest number of stops in 2012 will be required to wear the body cameras for a year. After that, the federal monitor will weigh whether the cameras reduced what the judge calls unconstitutional stops and if their benefits outweigh their costs.
The ruling has the potential to embolden civil-liberties groups to confront police departments in other urban areas where officers are stopping minority residents at a rate disproportionate to their population. Stop-and-frisk advocates say that could mean broader scaling back of what they view as a powerful crime-fighting tactic.
A federal court judge ruled the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice in violation of the United States Constitution, why small talk is actually a big deal, and will protein bars made with cricket flour sell in the U.S.? Photo: AP.
A federal court judge ordered an independent monitor to oversee reforms to the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practice after ruling it violated the U.S. Constitution. Tom Namako reports on Lunch Break. Photo: AP.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reiterates the success of stop-and-frisk and claims that New York is a “poster child” that the rest of the country looks up to. Photo: Getty Images.
The civil-rights lawsuit challenging the policy, one of three class actions before Judge Scheindlin, was brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of plaintiffs who had been stopped by the NYPD. “They did this because they believed what the NYPD was doing was wrong and they wanted it to stop,” said Darius Charney, an attorney at the center.
The judge’s decision Monday came three months after she heard nine weeks of trial testimony as part of the suit challenging the policy, in which officers have stopped and sometimes frisked about five million people since Mr. Bloomberg took office in 2002. One of the plaintiffs who testified in the trial, David Ourlicht, said he cried when he learned of the decision.
“It’s a big victory for New York. As far as America as a whole, it shows the polarization,” he said.
The other two class actions regarding the stop-and-frisk policy are pending trial.
Stops, by law, must be based on reasonable suspicion of a crime, a standard that city officials insist that NYPD officers have met. During testimony, it was revealed that more than 80% of those stopped were black or Hispanic, approximately 90% of whom were released after being found not to have committed any crimes.
The city argued during testimony that it focused a disproportionate share of its resources in minority neighborhoods with high crime rates and that its practices were “not racially biased policing.”
Judge Scheindlin stated in her decision that the city adopted a “policy of indirect racial profiling by targeting racially defined groups for stops based on local crime suspect data.” The result, she said, is “the disproportionate and discriminatory stopping of blacks and Hispanics in violation of the Equal Protection Clause” of the Constitution.
Judge Shira Scheindlin named a monitor to oversee stop-and-frisk.
Under a landmark 1968 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Terry v. Ohio, police officers are allowed to stop those they have reasonable suspicion committed a crime or are about to commit a crime and frisk them if they have reasonable belief to think them armed or an imminent danger.
Police including the NYPD have been practicing stop-and-frisk for decades, but the practice has come under more scrutiny in New York since 2003, when the NYPD began to be required to report to the City Council the total stops made quarterly. That number had steadily escalated to more than 685,000 a year by 2012 before drastically dipping this year.
Police departments elsewhere say they are trying to balance the rights of citizens with their responsibility to fight crime.
Adam Collins, Chicago Police Department director of news affairs, said all police departments have procedures to question potential suspects when appropriate. He said the Chicago department “uses contact cards to document these interactions and does not engage in any form of racial profiling.”
Over the past two years, he said the CPD “has instituted additional training, mandatory for all officers, around how they are to interact with these individuals and the community to ensure a full understanding of the questioning and potential search.”
The New Orleans Police Department recently updated its stop-and-frisk policy. The tactic allows police officers to “frisk the outer clothing” of a person they believe to be involved in a crime, according to a statement from the office of New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu. If an officer “reasonably suspects the person possesses a dangerous weapon, he may search the person,” according to the statement.
—Meredith Rutland, Jacob Gershman and Tamer El-Ghobashy contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared August 12, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Judge Reins In Frisking By Police.
August 12, 2013
By SEAN GARDINER
Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.