The New York Police Department’s practice of stopping, questioning and frisking people on the street is facing its biggest legal challenge this week with a federal civil rights trial on whether the tactic unfairly targets minorities.
Police have made about 5 million stops of New Yorkers in the past decade, mostly black and Hispanic men. The trial, set to begin Monday, will include testimony from a dozen people who say they were targeted because of their race and from police whistleblowers who say they were forced into making slipshod stops by bosses who were too focused on numbers.
“When we say stop, question and frisk, we’re not talking about a brief inconvenience on the way to work or school,” said Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the lead attorney on the case. “We’re talking about a frightening, humiliating experience that has happened to many folks.”
U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has previously said she is deeply concerned about the tactic, is not being asked to ban it, since it has been found to be legal. But she does have the power to order reforms.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly say it is a necessary, life-saving, crime-fighting tool that helps keep illegal guns off the street and has helped New York reach all-time crime lows.
A 1968 Supreme Court decision established the benchmark of “reasonable suspicion” — a standard that is lower than the “probable cause” needed to justify an arrest.
Street stops increased substantially in New York in the mid-1990s, when, faced with overwhelming crime, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani made stop and frisk an integral part of the city’s law enforcement.
Stops rose and crime dropped dramatically in a city that once had the highest murder rate in the U.S. But 51 percent of those stopped were black, 32 percent Hispanic and 11 percent white.
The trial is expected to last more than a month and include more than 100 witnesses. Lawyers will 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, are also expected.