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Testimony, Recordings at Trial Reveal the Racial Biases and Arrest Quotas Behind NYPD’s Stop & Frisk

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A historic trial is underway challenging the New York City Police Department’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy as unconstitutional and unfairly targeting people of color. Recent data shows the vast majority of the five million people stopped and frisked by the NYPD over the past decade are African American or Latino, with nearly 90 percent neither ticketed nor arrested. We play secretly recorded police tapes heard in the courtroom and speak to three guests: Sunita Patel, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel on the stop-and-frisk federal class action lawsuit; Nicholas Peart, a Harlem resident who testified last month about his multiple experiences being stopped and frisked; and Ryan Devereaux, a journalist covering the trial for The Guardian and The Nation. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 31, 2014“We Will Not Break the Law to Enforce the Law”: NYC to Reform Stop & Frisk, End Racial Profiling
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots.” This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to an historic trial underway challenging the New York City Police Department’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy. The federal class action lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, or CCR, charges that the policy is unconstitutional and unfairly targets people of color. Recent data show the vast majority of people stopped by the NYPD are African American or Latino, and nearly 90 percent are neither ticketed nor arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: The highly anticipated trial began in March with testimony from young African-American men who say they’ve been stopped and searched without cause. On Tuesday, the court listened to audio tapes from a Brooklyn station house secretly recorded in 2008 and '09. In one recording, an unidentified speaker says it's important for the community to know the police are the ones who own the streets.

SECRET NYPD RECORDING: If you get too big of a crowd there, you know, they’re going to get out of control, and they’re going to think that they own the block. We own the block. They don’t own the block, alright? They might live there, but we own the block, alright? We own the streets here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In another recording, the precinct supervisors urge cops to pick up their “activity” if they want to avoid getting in trouble with higher-ups. Some say this is a code for ratcheting up arrests, issuing tickets to meet quotas, and conducting stop-and-frisk searches.

PRECINCT SUPERVISOR: First and foremost, we need more activity, alright? The CO wants more activity. The SO wants more activity. The borough is monitoring the activity sheets. So, if your activity falls below par, they’re going to have either you or I or the sergeant or the CO have to explain what’s going on, alright? So, let’s not let it get that far, alright? Please, everyone, just pick your activity up a little bit. I spoke to numerous of you already along the lines last week, the week before, last month. Alright? You know who you are. Just make that—pick it up a little bit, because we don’t want to have to go to the borough and explain anything.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the biggest revelations in the trial came earlier this week when a former New York City police captain testified the NYPD intentionally targeted African-American and Latino men in a bid to, quote, “instill fear.” New York State Senator Eric Adams, who served in the department for more than two decades, recalled a meeting he had in 2010 with New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. According to Adams, Kelly said, quote, “He stated that he targeted and focused on that group because he wanted to instill fear in them that every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police.”

Commissioner Kelly has denied making the remarks, but recently reiterated his belief that stop and frisk is an important crime-fighting tool. Speaking at the National Action Network convention on Wednesday, Kelly said, quote, “I believe that this tactic is lifesaving. It is also lawful and constitutional.”

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined now by three guests.

Sunita Patel is staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, co-counsel on the stop-and-frisk federal class action lawsuit.

And we’re joined by one of her clients, Nicholas Peart. He testified last month about his multiple experiences being stopped and frisked. In 2011, he wrote a piece in The New York Times called, “Why Is the N.Y.P.D. After Me?” Peart is a member of Brotherhood-SisterSol, a community organization in Harlem.

And we’re joined by Ryan Devereaux, journalist covering the stop-and-frisk trial for The Guardian and The Nation, former Democracy Now! fellow.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Sunita, let’s start with you about the significance of this trial. Five million stops and frisks in the last 10 years, more than three-quarters of them black and Latino young men and women?

SUNITA PATEL: Yes, that’s right. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And not so young.

SUNITA PATEL: Not so young, exactly. This is a momentous occasion. This is something that has been 14 or 15 years in the making. I think it’s very important for people to understand that this has roots back to when there was the 41 shots in Amadou Diallo. The first case that CCR filed was in 1999, the Daniels litigation. It was settled, and the problem just—it didn’t get resolved. The city could not address the racial disparities on their own. And we filed a second lawsuit, and this is the second case.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to explain, Amadou Diallo, February 4th, 1999, gunned down in front of his home, with a key in the door, by four New York City police officers. Bruce Springsteen wrote about that in the song we just played, “41 Shots.”

SUNITA PATEL: That’s right. And so, we’re talking about a trial that is, you know, as you put it, historic. It’s 14 years in the making. It’s the first time that a major urban police department has been put on trial for a policy and practice in a class action lawsuit. This is something where not only is the court watching, but we have attention from the community. I mean, every day the courtroom is filled—not just the courtroom, but an overflow room, sometimes two overflow rooms. The community is watching, standing vigil, you know, holding—trying to hold the city and the police department accountable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the importance of the testimony of Eric Adams, a former police captain and now a state senator, directly saying that Ray Kelly told him in a meeting that they were specifically seeking to instill fear in young black and Latino men? Now, of course, not only has Kelly denied that, but some of the other people who were supposedly in the meeting have been somewhat more equivocal about what was actually said. But the importance of that testimony at the trial?

SUNITA PATEL: Well, it’s key testimony. We have unrefuted testimony that this is what Kelly said. You know, the judge has said, we have said, you know, Ray Kelly can come and testify about it, but he’s not going to. And as a result, we have this statement that is—has not been challenged in the court. And you have the highest-level official, the commissioner of the police department, saying that this is a tactic that is being used to instill fear in black and Latinos.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a part of the video used to train New York City police officers. In this clip, an instructor describes a forcible stop and frisk.

POLICE INSTRUCTOR: A level-three, or stop-question-and-frisk, street encounter is a permissible seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, because it is based upon reasonable suspicion. The courts look again to a reasonableness test to determine whether a person has been seized.

The courts will look to an officer’s actions in making this determination. They consider if the officer’s gun was drawn, if the person was physically prevented from moving, the number and tone of verbal commands, the content of the commands, the number of officers present, and the location of an encounter.

Usually, just verbal commands, such as “Stop, police!” will not constitute a seizure. However, a verbal command plus other actions may be considered a seizure—other actions such as using physical force to subdue a suspect; physically blocking a suspect’s path; grabbing a suspect by the arm, shirt or coat; pointing a gun at a suspect; using an ASP or baton to contain a suspect; or placing a suspect against the wall or on the ground. All are permissible uses of force during a level-three encounter.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s a clip from a training video of the NYPD on stop and frisk. Sunita, the relationship between that video and some of the testimony that’s been presented in court about how stop and frisk is used?

SUNITA PATEL: Well, you know, the failure to appropriately train, appropriately discipline and appropriately supervise is really part of the heart of our case. We will hear—we have heard testimony and will hear testimony that the supervisors are not watching what the police officers are doing on the street. Instead, they’re putting pressure on officers to conduct more law enforcement activity. And, you know, this is a policy that comes from the highest levels and is going down to the levels on the street for the beat cops.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicholas Peart, if you could talk about your experience? You’re with Brotherhood-SisterSol in Harlem. You testified in the trial a few weeks ago. You wrote a piece in The New York Times last year about what it meant for you to be stopped. How many times have you been stopped and frisked by New York police?

NICHOLAS PEART: I’ve been stopped between five and 10 times by the NYPD.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you tell the court?

NICHOLAS PEART: I told the court about my stops and my experiences. And I think, you know, one thing that is important about this trial is that it gives the community hope, hope that, you know, there is change that can happen within the NYPD. And I think another thing that’s important is that, you know, a lot of these stops, as some political officials like to say, that these stops are not just minor inconveniences; you know, these are very hostile stops, sometimes provoking. And I’m talking illegal stops and frisks.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe what happened to you.

NICHOLAS PEART: Just—the times that I’ve been stopped and frisked, I’ve been stopped for just living my everyday life. And that’s no reason for me to be stopped. And this happens to thousands of New Yorkers, and it has been overlooked for years. And I’m glad that this trial is taking place. It gives the community hope. And I felt empowered to represent the people of New York City who have the similar stories that I’ve had.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sunita, in terms of the actual numbers of stops and frisks that are officially registered, because there’s always been a sense that there are many more that are conducted than that are actually reported by the cops on the beat—although, obviously, the counting or the registering of them has increased in recent years—what during the testimony were some of the clearest examples that you saw that the—of the runaway nature of the stop-and-frisk program?

SUNITA PATEL: Well, I think, you know, we’re talking about something that has just expanded from the original meaning of “Terry stops.” You know, the Supreme Court has given police officers a cabined authority to conduct stops and frisks. Unfortunately, in the New York Police Department, they see this as a, quote-unquote, “deterrent.” And I think, ultimately, that means they don’t believe they have to follow the Constitution in order to conduct stops and frisks.

So, what we hear in the testimony from all of the people who have testified and people who will testify is very common refrains: “Get up against the wall!” You know, in Nicholas’s case, “Take off your shoes so I can pat down your socks,” to allegedly look for marijuana. “We’re going in your pockets now. We’re going to take out what’s in your pockets without permission. We’re going to—we’re going to touch you. We’re going to touch your body on the outside of your clothing, to show you, you know, who has authority here.”

AMY GOODMAN: In October, The Nation magazine released what they say is one of the few known audio recordings of New York City police questioning a young man of color under the department’s controversial stop-and-frisk program. The audio was recorded last June by a Harlem teenager named Alvin, who said he was being stopped frequently by police. On the recording, police can be heard telling the teenager he looked suspicious because he had his hood up and was looking back at the police. They also threatened Alvin with physical violence and used racialized language, calling him a “mutt.” Listen carefully.

NYPD OFFICER: You wanna go to jail?

ALVIN: For what?

NYPD OFFICER: Shut your [expletive] mouth, kid!

ALVIN: What am I getting arrested for?

NYPD OFFICER: Shut your mouth!

ALVIN: What am I getting arrested for?

NYPD OFFICER: For being a [expletive] mutt! You know that?

ALVIN: That’s a law? Being a mutt?

NYPD OFFICER: Who the [expletive] do you think you’re talking to?

ALVIN: Because you’re over here telling me, why I have a bookbag, why I have a bookbag on, and said, for my hoodie.

While they’re holding me—the sergeant’s holding me like this. He’s like, “I’m gonna—I’m gonna break your arm.” I’m like, “Why are you—you’re gonna break my arm?” He’s like, “Yeah, then I’m gonna punch you in the face.” I was, “You’re gonna punch me in the face?” He’s like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “And then I’m gonna arrest you.” I’m like, “Arrest me for what?” He’s like, “For being a mutt.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip that you heard, the beginning of which was a secret recording of a stop and frisk. Ryan Devereaux is also with us, who’s been covering this for The Guardian and also for The Nation. Ryan, talk about the significance of this. And then I want to ask you about Kimani Gray, which is a killing of a young African-American man by police that you covered right before this, certainly sets the context for why people are so disturbed right now.

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Well, in the run-up to the segment, you played the speech from Dr. King, and I think that it’s highly appropriate, you know, in the context of this trial, because I believe that anyone that’s interested in civil rights, in racial justice, in the criminal justice system, should take interest in this case, because it’s important to remember that we’re talking about the largest police department in the country and how they deal with young men of color on a regular basis, on a day-to-day basis. This is no small thing. We’re talking about millions of stops over the course of the last decade. And we’re talking about nearly nine out of 10 of them resulting in no arrest, no summons, and the vast majority of them happening to young men of color.

I mean, this is a—it’s a fascinating trial. Every day the testimony, it’s incredibly engaging. We’re hearing from plaintiffs like Nicholas describing their on-the-ground experiences. We’re hearing from police officers who are frustrated with the system. And now we’re hearing from Columbia Professor Jeffrey Fagan, who’s sort of breaking down the statistics behind stop and frisk. And it’s truly remarkable, you know, the number of stops that are occurring and how few of them really have nothing to do with crime.

And, you know, you travel to different neighborhoods around New York City, and you hear the same sort of stories over and over again from young men talking about how basically at the onset of puberty, they, you know, accepted that police stops were going to be a fact of life. And you talk about parents who are, you know, continually concerned about their kids just being out. I talked to a mother in East Flatbush, where Kimani Gray was shot, who talked about her son. You know, at 12 years old was his first stop. He was coming home from school with his backpack on. It’s that sort of experience, that normalizing of being stopped, that is something that should cause people to take pause and look at.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicholas, it’s like a rite of passage—


AMY GOODMAN: —for young African-American and Latino men in this city.

NICHOLAS PEART: Yes, it’s certainly like a rite of passage. You know, I think, as I pointed out, like it’s not—people who have been stopped so many times, they tend to think that it’s a normal thing. And this isn’t something that is—that everyone else in the city is experiencing. And, you know, it should not be like this. The level of hostility should not exist in these communities. And also I think it’s important to note that, for women, black women who are raising men of color in the city, you know, the level of uncertainty when their son walks out the door, it shouldn’t exist, especially from law enforcement.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sunita, we have a minute. The judge in this case, Shira Scheindlin, has already ruled on a related case, in the Clean Halls policy, and was—and had some pretty strong words for the New York Police Department on that case. How do you see the judge handling this case, because she’s had it now for quite a while?

SUNITA PATEL: Yeah, I think that she sees that these cases are related. That case is—covers a small section of this larger case. And so, what she’s done is, after she hears all the testimony, she’s going to hear testimony on what’s called the remedy phase, and in which she’s asking all sides, “If I find that there is a problem here, that there is a widespread constitutional problem, what should I do about it?” And we have an expert who will testify about the need for oversight and accountability in a police department that can’t fix the problem itself.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to wrap in 10 seconds. Ryan, very quickly, Kimani Gray—explain what happened.

RYAN DEVEREAUX: Kimani Gray was a 16-year-old boy that was shot by the police last—last month, allegedly after pointing a gun. It caused massive unrest in his neighborhood, protests in which people were throwing bricks at the police, and bottles. And I think that that anger that you saw wasn’t—it was triggered by one incident, but I think it was sustained by a deep-seated frustration with the way the police operates in that neighborhood.

AMY GOODMAN: And you interviewed the one eyewitness who said he did not point a gun—

RYAN DEVEREAUX: She insists that he had nothing in his hands at the time he was shot.

AMY GOODMAN: —at the police. We will continue to cover this historic trial. I want to thank you all for being with us, Ryan Devereaux, Sunita Patel of the Center for Constitutional Right, and Nicholas Peart of Brotherhood-SisterSol in Harlem.

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“We Will Not Break the Law to Enforce the Law”: NYC to Reform Stop & Frisk, End Racial Profiling

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