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Federal court to consider legality of NYPD's "stop and frisk"

Published time: May 04, 2012 20:14
Edited time: May 05, 2012 00:14
Monika Graff / Getty Images / AFP

Monika Graff / Getty Images / AFP

The controversial stop-and-frisk technique used on hundreds of thousands of minorities in New York City could soon be brought before a federal judge to decide on the constitutionality of the NYPD’s popular practice.

A federal lawsuit filed against the New York Police Department all the way back in 2008 has cleared some serious legal hurdles, the UK’s Guardian reports, and now it look as though the court will consider if the NYPD can continue to stop people on the streets of the Big Apple and subject them to random searches can continue.

The NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy has come under major scrutiny for the last decade, but a recent analysis of statistics related to the searches suggest that not only has the practice not necessarily led to a decrease in crime, but that in the vast majority of cases police officers are singling out minorities, often searching them on a suspicion and ending up unable to find a reason to charge them with a crime.

In her 86-page ruling that decides the future of the case, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin writes that not only is a correlation between stop-and-frisks and crime “not clear” but that “the policing policies that the city has implemented over the past decade and half have led to a dramatic increase in the number of pedestrian stops, to the point of now reaching almost 600,000 a year."

Last year, the NYPD stopped 685,724 New Yorkers, reports the American Civil Liberties Union. In all, 89 percent of those stopped were either black or Latino. Of the nearly 700,000 cases in just 2011, 88 percent of the people stopped were found innocent.

"The increasingly widespread use of this policing tool in New York City is not to be taken lightly, even in those cases in which the individuals are not detained for more than a few minutes, and even if the practice causes some reduction in the city's crime rate,” explains Judge Scheindlin.

"It is deeply troubling if thousands of New Yorkers are being stopped each year without reasonable suspicion, and even more troubling if African American and Latino New Yorkers are being singled out for such treatment,” the judge says this week.

According to the Guardian, some distinguished New York lawmakers have come out against the technique in recent years. Among them are New York State Senator Eric Adams, who claims that NYPD Police Commissioner once defended the stop-and-frisk practice by allegedly saying it "instill[s] the fear in black and Hispanic youth that every time they leave their homes they will feel that they could be stopped.”

When the case does go before the court, it is likely that the NYPD will have a hard time defending the practice, as well — last month Judge Scheindlin said that she would allow the court to hear the testimony of Columbia University criminologist Jeffrey Fagan. According to the professor, the NYPD made 150,000 unconstitutional or legally unjustified stops in just the five years between 2004 and 2009.

"I think it's very likely that Judge Scheindlin will certify the class, especially since she's recently ruled that Fagan's report can go in, pointing up that it's a policy that discriminates against people of color, especially in New York. It goes to the heart of the case,” Gideon Oliver of the National Lawyer’s Guild tells the Guardian.

Professor Cornell West, a lecturer at Princeton University and renowned civil rights activist, was in New York City this week to defend himself against disorderly conduct charges after being arrested last year during a demonstration where he protested the stop-and-frisk-policy. Speaking in Manhattan Criminal Court Civil on Thursday, Prof. West called the practice “terrorizing, stigmatizing and traumatizing” and equated it to an “extension of slavery.”

"Morality is deeper than skin pigmentation – it's a matter of right and wrong," said West.