NEW YORK (AP) — Many of the 5 million New Yorkers stopped, questioned and sometimes frisked by police in the past decade were wrongly targeted because of their race, lawyers for four men who said they were illegally stopped said Monday. New York Police Department lawyers countered that officers must go where the crime is — and the crime is overwhelmingly in minority neighborhoods.
A civil trial that began Monday in federal court in Manhattan will examine the controversial tactic that has become a city flashpoint, with mass demonstrations, City Council hearings and mayoral candidates calling for reform. The lawsuit, now a class-action, seeks a court-appointed monitor to oversee changes to how the police make stops.
The courtroom and overflow rooms were packed Monday, and stop-and-frisk opponents held an afternoon rally outside the courthouse. The Rev. Jesse Jackson watched the opening statements Monday, telling reporters outside court afterwards: “I heard rationalization and justification rather than explanation from the city. They were not denying. They were justifying.”
The trial is expected to last more than a month.
The mayor and police commissioner say stop-and-frisk is a life-saving, crime-saving tool that has helped drive crime down to record lows.
But Darius Charney, the lawyer for the four men who filed the suit in 2008, said the department is doing stops illegally and must be reformed. He called many of the stops a “frightening and degrading experience” for “thousands if not millions” of New Yorkers.
Charney, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, called the stops “arbitrary, unnecessary and unconstitutional,” and promised plaintiffs will show the judge “powerful testimonial and statistical evidence” that New Yorkers are routinely stopped without suspicion.
The trial will include testimony from a dozen black and Hispanic men who say they were targeted because of their race, along with police officers and criminologists who have studied the statistics on street stops. Lawyers also plan to play hours of audio tapes made by Adrian Schoolcraft, an officer who was hauled off to a psych ward against his will after he said he refused to fill illegal quotas. His former bosses, including some reassigned after their statements were made public, will also speak. Other police whistleblowers are expected to testify.
U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has already said in earlier rulings that she is deeply concerned about stop and frisk, is not being asked to ban the tactic, since it has been found to be legal. But she does have the power to order reforms to how the tactic is used, which could bring major changes to the nation’s largest police force and other departments.
City lawyers said Monday the department already has many checks and balances, including an independent watchdog group that was recently given authority to prosecute some excessive force complaints against police. Officers have more than 23 million contacts with the public, make 4 million radio runs and issue more than 500,000 summonses every year. Comparatively, 600,000 stops annually are not unreasonable, city attorneys said.