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Judge rules N.Y. stop-and-frisk policy violated rights

Orders remedies, appoints lawyer to oversee program

David Ourlicht, a stop-and-frisk plaintiff, reacted at a news conference at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

David Ourlicht, a stop-and-frisk plaintiff, reacted at a news conference at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

NEW YORK — A federal judge ruled Monday that the stop-and-frisk tactics of the New York Police Department violated the constitutional rights of minorities in New York and called for a federal monitor to oversee broad reforms.

In a blistering decision that repudiates a major element in the crime-fighting legacy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin found that police had “adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling” that targeted young minority men for stops. Bloomberg said the city would appeal the ruling, angrily accusing the judge of deliberately not giving the city “a fair trial.”

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The mayor cited the benefits of stop-and-frisk, crediting the tactic for making the city safer and for ridding the streets of thousands of illegal guns.

But in her ruling, Scheindlin found that in doing so, the police systematically stopped innocent people in the street without any objective reason to suspect them of wrongdoing.

The stops, which soared in number over the last decade as crime continued to decline, demonstrated a widespread disregard for the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, as well as the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, according to the 195-page decision.

Scheindlin’s criticism extended beyond the conduct of police officers; in holding the city liable for a battery of constitutional violations, the judge found that top police officials acted with deliberate indifference. She said police commanders were content to dismiss allegations of racial profiling as “a myth created by the media.”

Citing statements by the mayor and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, Scheindlin accused the city of using stop-and-frisk as a checkpoint-style policing tactic, with the intent of deterring minorities from carrying guns on the street.

“I also conclude that the city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner,” she wrote.

The judge designated an outside lawyer, Peter L. Zimroth, to monitor the police department’s compliance with the Constitution.

Scheindlin also ordered a number of other remedies, including a pilot program in which officers in at least five precincts across the city will wear body-worn cameras in an effort to record street encounters. She also ordered a “joint remedial process” — in essence, a series of community meetings — to solicit public input on how to reform stop-and-frisk.

The decision to install Zimroth, a former corporation counsel and prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, will leave the department under a degree of judicial control that is certain to shape the policing strategies under the next mayor.

The Supreme Court had long ago ruled that stop-and-frisks were constitutionally permissible under certain conditions, and Scheindlin stressed that she was “not ordering an end to the practice.” But she said that changes were needed to ensure that the street stops were carried out in a manner that “protects the rights and liberties of all New Yorkers, while still providing much needed police protection.”

The judge found that police were too quick to deem innocent behavior as suspicious, in effect watering down the legal standard required for a stop.

“Blacks are likely targeted for stops based on a lesser degree of objectively founded suspicion than whites,” she wrote.

She found that in their zeal to identify concealed weapons, officers sometimes stopped people on the grounds that the officer observed a bulge in the person’s pocket; often it turned out that the bulge was caused not by a gun but by a wallet.

“The outline of a commonly carried object such as a wallet or cellphone does not justify a stop or frisk, nor does feeling such an object during a frisk justify a search,” she ruled.

She emphasized what she called the “human toll of unconstitutional stops,” noting that some of the plaintiffs testified that their encounters with the police left them feeling that they did not belong in certain areas of the cities. She characterized each stop as “a demeaning and humiliating experience.”

The ruling, in Floyd v. City of New York, follows a two-month nonjury trial in US District Court in Manhattan this year over the department’s stop-and-frisk practices.

Blacks and Hispanics were stopped about 88 percent of the time, a disparity that the police department has sought to explain by saying that it mirrored the disproportionate percentage of crimes committed by young minority men. In severe language, Scheindlin dismissed that rationale.

“This might be a valid comparison if the people stopped were criminals,” Scheindlin wrote. “On the contrary, nearly 90 percent of the people stopped are released without the officer finding any basis for a summons or arrest.”

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