A federal judge today found the stop-and-frisk tactic widely employed by the New York Police Department to be unconstitutional, sparking simultaneous cheers of triumph from reform-minded community organizations and indignation from some city officials.
Judge Shira Scheindlin handed down the 195-page decision on Monday morning, August 12, stating that stop-and-frisk violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by government, and the 14th Amendment equal protection clause.
The NYPD has “Adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling by targeting racially defined groups for stops based on local crime suspect data” and “the city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner,” wrote Scheindlin.
Scheindlin decreed that a federal monitor should oversee reforms in the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, stopping short of ordering the policy scrapped outright.
Stop-and-frisk is a policy wherein police officers stop, question and often frisk citizens–often young black men or individuals belonging to an ethnic minority group–who have committed no wrongdoings, other than that they fit a broad description of a possible suspect, or that they may have been acting in what the officer(s) judge to be a “suspicious” manner.
Advocates for police reform have long charged that stop-and-frisk equates to legalized racial profiling, although the NYPD and Mayor Michael Bloomberg maintain that it is not, and that racial profiling is illegal.
Numerous Brooklyn elected officials welcomed the news as a necessary first step towards positive reform.
“Certainly everyone wants safer streets, but that should not be used as an excuse to put in place questionable policies that undermine our country’s most basic civil liberties,” said Congressmember Nydia Velázquez. “Today’s decision, by upholding our most sacred constitutional protections, is a victory for all Americans.”
Congressmember Hakeem Jeffries agreed, noting that, “Black and Latino communities throughout New York City have long understood that the NYPD stop and frisk program is out-of-control. We are gratified that a federal court has now confirmed that deeply-held sentiment.”
Officials also commented on the appointment of a federal monitor–lawyer Peter Zimroth–to oversee the NYPD.
Councilmember Brad Lander called the appointment “an important step toward reforming the use of stop-and-frisk,” but said that the City Council must take it a step further.
“Next, the City Council must override Mayor Bloomberg’s veto of the Community Safety Act – which remains necessary, even with the appointment of a monitor – so we can restore trust and accountability, provide better oversight of the NYPD, and end all forms of discriminatory policing,” said Lander.
Councilmember Jumaane Williams, who was stopped and detained during the West Indian Day Parade in 2011, added that “today’s ruling is not a cause for celebration but rather validation that our cause has been just. Thousands of men and women of color in this city have been wronged — they have suffered the embarrassing indignity of being physically stopped, questioned and frisked by law enforcement officers simply because of the color of their skin.
“This ruling does not take away that pain nor does it mean that this battle to end this practice is over,” Williams added. “What today’s ruling says to me is that we need to redouble our efforts as a city, collectively, to work together to solve the issues of gun violence and crime.”
Several mayoral candidates also weighed in.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn praised the ruling as affirming “facts that too many New Yorkers know to be true: under the Bloomberg administration, with the acquiescence of Speaker Quinn, millions of innocent New Yorkers — overwhelmingly young men of color — have been illegally stopped. The overuse and misuse of stop-and-frisk hasn’t made New York a safer city, it has only served to drive police and community further apart.”
Comptroller John Liu stated that the ruling “highlights the enormous flaws in the NYPD’s ‘stop and frisk’ tactic, which has served to undermine trust between communities and law enforcement. The judge’s call for reforms must be heeded, and – longer term – the tactic should be abolished. It’s time to put an end to stop and frisk once and for all.”
Both de Blasio and Quinn are calling for an independent inspector general for the NYPD.
Former Councilmember Sal Albanese criticized that stance, taking a middle-of-the-line position. Albanese maintains that “stop and frisk is a legal police tool that keeps our city safe when it is used properly.
“There was never any doubt that the city was casting too wide of a net and focusing on quantity rather than quality when numbers peaked in 2011. Since then, the NYPD has moved in the right direction by training officers better and reducing unnecessary stops. This ruling will accelerate that process,” Albanese said. “The NYPD has made us safer than ever [and] we need more officers on patrol to keep it that way.”
Former Congressmember Anthony Weiner also took a more circumspect approach, celebrating the ruling as “a teachable moment,” but suggesting that the court “withhold the need for a federal monitor until after a new mayor and police commissioner are in place in January.”
Other officials questioned Scheindlin’s ruling.
According to State Senator Marty Golden, “stop, question, and frisk is an effective program which has saved the lives of thousands of New Yorkers and keeps our streets safe. We have a chain of command in the NYPD, and a system in place to investigate the actions taken by police officers if they violate the law. Having the Justice Department install a monitor to look over our [officers] will do nothing to increase public safety, and only act as a deterrent on our police officers to effectively do their jobs.”
Mayor Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Kelly echoed that sentiment during an afternoon press conference wherein they defended the policy and stated their intention to appeal the ruling.
“Our police officers follow the law and follow the crime,” insisted Bloomberg, who maintained that NYPD officers do not profile based on race, only stopping people who “fit the broad description” or who “act suspiciously.”
“We go where reports of crime are. That happens to be poor or minority neighborhoods, but that’s not our objective in going there,” Bloomberg added, citing lower crime statistics as proof that stop-and-frisk is a successful deterrent.
Kelly seemed to take personal offense at Scheindlin’s ruling.
“What I find most disturbing and offensive about this ruling is [the idea that] the NYPD engages in racial profiling. That is recklessly untrue. It is prohibited by law and our own regulations, “said Kelly. “We train our officers that they need to make reasonable suspicion when making stops and I can assure you that race is never a reason to make a stop.”
Kelly went further, suggesting that the act of stopping a person who has not committed a crime is what in fact prevents them from going on to commit a crime.
“The fact that stops often do not lead to arrests or summonses misses the point. When a police officer stops and makes inquiry of an individual about to burglarize a location, the officer has stopped a burglary,” Kelly said. “When officers stop and make inquiry of young men about to strong-arm a bodega owner as he leaves his store late at night, they’ve stopped a robbery or perhaps worse.”
Concluded Bloomberg: “This is a very dangerous decision made by a judge who doesn’t understand how policing works and how it follows the constitution as determined by the Supreme Court. . . I worry for my kids and your kids. Crime can come back any time.”