In a historic ruling, a federal court has ruled the controversial “stop-and-frisk” tactics used by New York City Police officers are unconstitutional. In a harshly critical decision, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin said police had relied on what she called a “policy of indirect racial profiling” that led officers to routinely stop “blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white.” Since 2002, the police department has conducted more than five million stop-and-frisks. According to the police department’s own reports, nearly nine out of 10 New Yorkers stopped and frisked have been innocent. In her almost 200-page order Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote, “No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life. … Targeting young black and Hispanic men for stops based on the alleged criminal conduct of other young black or Hispanic men violates the bedrock principles of equality.” She also appointed a federal monitor to oversee reforms, with input from community members as well as police. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reacted angrily to the ruling and accused the judge of denying the city a fair trial. We’re joined by Sunita Patel, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel on the case. “This is a victory for so many hundreds of thousands of people who have been illegally stopped and frisked over the last decade,” Patel says.
AARON MATÉ: We begin with a historic ruling in federal court that the stop-and-frisk tactics used by New York police officers are unconstitutional. In a harshly critical decision, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin said police had relied on what she called a “policy of indirect racial profiling” that led officers to routinely stop “blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white.” Since 2002, the police department has conducted more than five million stop-and-frisks. According to the police department’s own reports, nearly nine out of 10 New Yorkers [who] have been stopped and frisked have been innocent.
AMY GOODMAN: In her almost 200-page order, Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote, quote, “No one should live in fear of being stopped whenever he leaves his home to go about the activities of daily life. … Targeting young black and Hispanic men for stops based on the alleged criminal conduct of other young black or Hispanic men violates the bedrock principles of equality,” she wrote.
The ruling came after several months of testimony, much of it from eight plaintiffs who were all African American or Latino. Together they described a total 19 incidents in which they were stopped and, in some cases, searched and frisked unlawfully. Shortly after the decision was announced, the plaintiffs in the case held a news conference alongside their lawyers.
DAVID OURLICHT: When I got the call this morning, the first thing I did was cry. And it wasn’t—wasn’t because I was sad or necessarily happy, but because it was so—you know, I put everything to—you know, it’s important, and to know that it was recognized is just—it’s hard to explain. I think, actually, there is something else I have to say. I think it’s a really good picture of what’s going on in society. I mean, this is a big thing for New York, but as far as America as a whole, it shows the polarization of people of color in this country as how we’re viewed, you know, and I think it—I think it just needs to be recognized.
NICHOLAS PEART: You know, our voices do count, and count toward something, you know, greater. And, you know, this has been a long time coming, this case, and all the time that has been put into it and the sacrifices, you know, just taking off work and coming here and giving our testimony to, you know, a big issue that has transcended beyond communities of black and brown people. You know, this is an issue that folks in Tribeca now understand and folks in Soho now understand and have a really, really accurate understanding of this. You know, so I’m grateful for that and the attention that it has received. And, you know, I think it’s clear, you know, the psychological consequences of “stop and frisk” and it being a rites of passage for so many black and brown boys, and, you know, having this experience and being criminalized and, you know, how that carries on to their adult years. So I think we are taking some tremendous steps forward, and I’m definitely grateful for that.
DEVIN ALMONOR: I just feel glad that my—my lawyers, I commend them, and the judge, for doing an outstanding job on my behalf and the other plaintiffs’. And it’s just the beginning of, like, reparations. And with my case, I could have, like—I could have been like Trayvon Martin, because each—it was just too unbearable, and I could have been in his same place. And my heart goes out to his family. And it’s just—it’s just very hard to get through this, but with the help of my parents and my friends and my lawyers, they’ve done all that they can for me, and I love them so very much.
LALIT CLARKSON: In thinking about it, the reason why I joined on to this case was because many of us, including myself, feel like “stop and frisk” is police abuse, and that that’s the lowest level of police abuse. And once police abuse power when it comes to “stop and frisk,” then they can do it in terms of falsely arresting people, then they can do it in terms of planting evidence. And at the most extreme cases, they can do it in terms of killing people. So I think, for many of us here, including myself, this is important, because if we can find remedies to stop officers from violating our constitutional rights, then maybe other forms of police abuse, as it relates to people in my community and other community members, maybe some of that begins to stop.
LEROY DOWNS: Just really thankful for the people that believed in us, you know, that we weren’t making up these stories. We didn’t fabricate anything. We came to the table and said, “This is our experiences, and we’re speaking for millions of other people that are going through the same thing in this city.” And I’m just hopeful that—I know it’s premature, but I’m hopeful that the monitor—it’s not too much bureaucracy with the other city—court-appointed monitors, that we can really have some teeth in the legislation and really make changes to stop-question-and-frisk, and that the policies can actually change, man, like not just talk about change, but really change, really make those adjustments so that people can walk down the street or can stand in front of their house on a cellphone and not have to worry about, you know, being accused of being a drug dealer or something like that. So, I’m thankful to that. Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Those are the voices of LeRoy Downs, Lalit Clarkson, Devin Almonor, Nicholas Peart, David Ourlicht, all plaintiffs in the stop-and-frisk lawsuit. In her ruling, Judge Scheindlin found, quote, “the city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner.” She also appointed a federal monitor to oversee reforms, with input from community members as well as police. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reacted angrily to the ruling and accused the judge of denying the city a fair trial.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: This is a very dangerous decision made by a judge that I think just does not understand how policing works and what is compliant with the U.S. Constitution as determined by the Supreme Court. We believe we have done exactly what the courts allow and the Constitution allow us to do, and we will continue to do everything we can to keep this city safe. Throughout the case, we didn’t believe that we were getting a fair trial. And this decision confirms that suspicion. And we will be presenting evidence of that unfairness to the appeals court.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mayor Bloomberg of New York City. For more, we’re joined by Sunita Patel, staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, co-counsel on the case.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! Your response to Judge Shira Scheindlin’s ruling?
SUNITA PATEL: It’s an astounding victory for everyone in New York City. She has very correctly and smartly decided that the city is engaging in racial profiling. And this is—it’s a victory for so many hundreds of thousands of people who have been illegally stopped and frisked over the last decade.
AMY GOODMAN: And to those who say that this is the reason crime is down and that the number of lives that have been saved from some—what did I hear one pundit quoting today?—3,000 in a year now down to 300 murders in a year, particularly in black and brown communities, that the number of black and brown lives saved is a result of this racial profiling?
SUNITA PATEL: Well, for one thing, there’s no empirical evidence linking “stop and frisk” to crime reduction generally. Secondly, you know, this is a tactic, that this murder rate reduction has been quoted in the news—I think it’s a little bit blurry. When this administration—that’s a statistic that spans the course of, you know, 15 years. It’s not something—it’s not within the time period that we’re talking about. When Mayor Bloomberg came into office, the murder rate was already down to some—to a very small number. So, they’re taking credit for something that happened way before them, and they’re blurring the math on this issue. In addition, the crime rates have been going down nationally for the last two decades, and there just isn’t a link between the two.
AARON MATÉ: Can you explain what Judge Scheindlin ruled in determining that “stop and frisk” violates the Fourth and 14th Amendment? And also talk about the remedies that she’s ordered.
SUNITA PATEL: Yes. In the Fourth Amendment claim, she’s saying that—she said that the city has a practice, a widespread practice, of going out and stopping people without individualized suspicion that there is crime afoot, which is what is required by the Supreme Court law in Terry v. Ohio. In the 14th Amendment claim, she’s saying that, look, many of these stops are not only based on—lack reasonable suspicion, but they’re on the basis of race. The city and the New York Police Department is using race as a proxy for crime. Rather than looking at what is this person doing specifically that would allow the police to stop them, they’re saying, “Because they’re black or brown in this area, we’re just going to stop them to try to prevent crime,” which is not—is not constitutional, it’s illegal.
And then, in terms of remedies, what she’s done is she said that she’s going to appoint a federal court monitor, which is very common in policing systemic reform cases to oversee the day-to-day activity of reforms. And she’s also said she wants a second phase of the reform, where community members get to have a stake in what reforms are going to happen. And she’s calling for a joint reform process that will have a facilitator, that allows—also allows the New York Police Department to have a seat at the table to say, “Hey, this is what we think would work. This is what we think wouldn’t work.” I mean, you know, this really should be seen as an opportunity by the police department.
AMY GOODMAN: Who will be the court-appointed monitor?
SUNITA PATEL: Someone named Peter Zimroth. He’s a partner at Arnold & Porter. We don’t know—you know, the plaintiffs’ counsel doesn’t—we didn’t have anything to do with this selection of the monitor, but we do know it sounds like he’s going to be very fair-minded. He’s a former corp counsel and just—attorney, and he’s a former district attorney. So, you know, in my mind, I would think that this is someone that the police department and the city should embrace working with, and we really hope that they will do that and decide not to appeal the judge’s very well-reasoned decision.
AMY GOODMAN: During a news conference Monday, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly blasted the ruling and insisted New York City police officers do not engage in racial profiling.
COMMISSIONER RAY KELLY: What I find most disturbing and offensive about this decision is the notion that the NYPD engages in racial profiling. That simply is recklessly untrue. We do not engage in racial profiling. It is prohibited by law. It is prohibited by our own regulations. We train our officers that they need reasonable suspicion to make a stop, and I can assure you that race is never a reason to conduct a stop. The NYPD is the most racially and ethnically diverse police department in the world. In contrast with some societies, New York City and its police department have focused their crime-fighting efforts to protect the poorest members of our community, who are disproportionately the victims of murder and other violent crime—disturbingly so. To that point, last year 97 percent of all shooting victims were black or Hispanic and reside in low-income neighborhoods. Public housing, in just—with 5 percent of the city’s population, resides—experiences 20 percent of the shootings. There were more stops for suspicious activity in neighborhoods with higher crime because that’s where the crime is.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly speaking Monday. President Obama has indicated he may consider appointing Kelly the new secretary of homeland security, to which Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University and a former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor, said, “Ray Kelly needs to be the Homeland Security secretary like Paula Deen needs to run the United Nations World Food Program.” He wrote, “Commissioner Kelly is the poster child for the most racially insensitive police practice in the United States, stop and frisk. During his term in office, the number of times police stop people on the street for questioning increased from about 100,000, in 2002, to almost 700,000 in 2011.” But Commissioner Kelly is saying that they are doing this in high crime communities and saving lives in those communities.
SUNITA PATEL: Well, you know, this is something that was analyzed ad nauseam by the court. We had two statistical experts that testified multiple times in the case, and she said, “This is just absolutely false.” She gave very little weight to this argument, because, in reality, the number of times that officers actually check the box on the UF-250 form, that says that they’re stopping someone based on a suspect description, is not that high. It’s between 10 and 15 percent, depending on the year. Instead, they check this box that says “high crime area.” And when our statistical expert analyzed each incident, from 2002 to June 2012, when that box was checked, you know, we found that when you control for all other factors, race is what is determinative, not—it’s not actually the area and the crime rate.
AMY GOODMAN: What about cameras?
SUNITA PATEL: So the judge has ordered the city to test out in a—and to do a study in an evaluation of body-worn cameras. This is something that has been done in, you know, a few small jurisdictions around the country and has had a favorable impact on the—reducing the number of complaints against police officers. Again, this is something that the police department, if it’s doing its job correctly and is actually not engaging in racial profiling, would actually help and support police officers when there are complaints filed against them. You would actually have a contemporaneous record of what’s going on. It’s similar in some ways to traffic cameras, that are becoming standard in many large urban jurisdictions where there are complaints against police officers.
AARON MATÉ: Now, the term itself, “stop and frisk,” can sound kind of harmless, you know, a “stop and frisk” or—it implies a pat-down. But what is the reality of this practice, that you see from talking to your clients?
SUNITA PATEL: I mean, the reality is—I mean, that’s a great question, because I think a lot of people think of it as a very just like blasé—it’s just a frisk, it’s just a pat-down. What we heard in the trial was testimony from 12 people who said, “Look, this is humiliating, this is degrading. This is something that no one should have to go through.” And even worse, it’s something that is—that an entire generation of black and brown people is becoming desensitized to.
We’re talking about something that is physically invasive and degrading. You know, this is an officer that’s saying, “Hey, put your hands against the wall,” and aggressively putting their hands over their bodies, down their waist, down their pant legs, both sides. And one of our plaintiffs—or one of our witnesses even testified about, you know, being grabbed in the groin area. And he felt—on his 18th birthday. And he just felt that this was so humiliating. He filed a complaint. And, you know, at that young age, to even—to bring that forward and to make that kind of claim and then feel that that was—that the officer was not held accountable, I mean, it really has a lasting detrimental impact on the relationship between the police and the community.
AMY GOODMAN: So what happens from here? The city says they’ll appeal.
SUNITA PATEL: The city says they’ll appeal. As I said earlier, I really hope that after they carefully consider the decision, they’ll decide not to. However, you know, they may appeal. Apparently, Michael Cardozo said that they’re considering when they can appeal. It’s not clear if they can appeal yet. And they will likely file a stay, which is something asking for the court—they’ll ask Judge Scheindlin to stay her injunction, so that they don’t have to do anything right now.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Sunita, for joining us. Sunita Patel is a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, co-counsel on the stop-and-frisk federal action lawsuit. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a Democracy Now! exclusive. Stay with us.