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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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New York City’s newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced the city will drop its appeal of a ruling by a U.S. district court that found the New York City Police Department’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” program unconstitutional and settle an ongoing lawsuit. In August, Judge Shira Scheindlin criticized the police for relying on 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.” De Blasio announced the news on Thursday at a press conference with allies, including the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union. “We’re here today to turn the page on one of the most divisive problems in our city,” de Blasio said. “We believe in ending the overuse of stop-and-frisk that has unfairly targeted young African-American and Latino men.” We air clips from de Blasio, new NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and stop-and-frisk victim Nicholas Peart. We are joined by Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and counsel on their lawsuit against New York City.

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StoryNov 01, 2013Court Blocks NYPD Stop-and-Frisk Reforms, Removes Judge Who Found Program Unconstitutional
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with a historic development in the campaign to end the controversial police policy of stop-and-frisk. New York City’s newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, has announced the city will drop its appeal of a ruling by a U.S. district court that found the program unconstitutional and settle an ongoing lawsuit. In August, Judge Shira Scheindlin criticized the police for relying on a, quote, “policy of indirect racial profiling” that led officers to routinely stop, quote, “blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white.”

AMY GOODMAN: Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg had criticized the court ruling, saying it made officers passive and scared to frisk suspects. During Bloomberg’s three terms in office, innocent New Yorkers were subjected to more than four million stops and frisks.

Mayor de Blasio delivered the news at a community center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a predominantly African-American community that’s had more stop-and-frisks than any other part of the city.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: We’re here today to turn the page on one of the most divisive problems in our city. We believe, in this administration—I think this reflects the values of the people of New York City broadly—we believe in one city, where everyone rises together. We believe in respecting every New Yorker’s rights, regardless of what neighborhood they live in or the color of their skin. And we believe in ending the overuse of stop-and-frisk that has unfairly targeted young African-American and Latino men. We believe in our obligation, the most fundamental one that there is in government, to keep people safe. And the values and strategies that keep people safe, that really give us lasting safety, those values are not compatible with a broken and misused stop-and-frisk policy.

Neither the police commissioner nor I believe it is acceptable when 90 percent of the people stopped and frisked are innocent of any crime. And so we’re taking significant corrective action to fix what is broken. I’m proud to announce today the City of New York is taking a major step to resolve the years-long legal battle over stop-and-frisk, and that we have reached accord with the plaintiffs in the landmark Floyd v. City of New York case. We are doing it through a collective commitment to fix the fundamental problems that enabled stop-and-frisk to grow out of control and violate the rights of innocent New Yorkers.

The agreement we’re announcing today accepts the facts and the road map laid out in last August’s landmark federal court ruling. Those points include, one, a joint and ongoing reform process with direct police community dialogue, ensuring that policies which are driving police and community apart are raised through a direct line of communication with the police leadership. Two, there will be for three years a court-appointed monitor to ensure the police department’s compliance with the United States Constitution. And that limited period of oversight is contingent upon us meeting our obligations. Three, I want to emphasize, as an explanation, that this is a shorter window of monitoring than is customary, and that is in part because of our administration’s explicit commitment to reform, including the installation of an independent NYPD inspector general.

The fourth point I want to make, once this resolution is confirmed by the federal district court, the City of New York will officially drop its appeal in this case.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio speaking Thursday. As he announced that the city would move forward with reforming stop-and-frisk, he was joined by his new police commissioner, Bill Bratton. Bratton returns to the job after leading the NYPD in the mid-1990s, when he embraced a controversial strategy of cracking down on low-level offenses and later expanded the program while leading the Los Angeles Police Department. Well, yesterday, Bratton welcomed the new direction New York will take.

COMMISSIONER BILL BRATTON: For too many young men in this city, particularly young men of color, hundreds of thousands over the last several years, knowing that the city had experienced historic crime declines, they could not understand the significant increase in stop-question-and-frisk. And they understandably asked, “Why? Why me?” For the many young officers in our department, also aware that the crime rates had gone down so significantly, but they were being encouraged to make more arrests, make more stops, make more questions and frisks as part of their day-to-day procedure, those police officers were rightfully asking, “Why more?” So the two entities, the public and the police, the two entities most affected by this policy and the inappropriate way in which it was being applied, shared a commonality of concern. “Why me? Why more?”

These actions that we are announcing today moving us toward resolution, toward a comprehensive reform, are essential. They are necessary to ensure that the fabric of society that must exist between police and the community is in fact rewoven so that we come out of this process stronger than before. And we can do that. And the challenge is: We must do that.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s New York City’s police commissioner, Bill Bratton, speaking Thursday. Well, for more, we’ll be joined by Baher Azmy, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, counsel on their stop-and-frisk lawsuit against the City of New York, involved in the negotiations with the city that led to the settlement Thursday. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in New York City, newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced the city will drop its appeal of a federal court ruling that found the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactics unconstitutional. On Thursday, de Blasio held a press conference alongside attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York Civil Liberties Union.

We’re joined now by Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and counsel on their stop-and-frisk lawsuit against the City of New York. He was involved in the negotiations with the city that led to Thursday’s settlement.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

BAHER AZMY: Thank you, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: First, congratulations.

BAHER AZMY: Thank you.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And second, talk to us a little bit about the negotiations here that went on. This is an extraordinary reversal—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —on the part of New York City government in its attitude toward this lawsuit, and I’m wondering your insights into the actual sitting down with the key figures in the city who negotiated this agreement.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, I think you’re right. After 12 years of being entirely ignored and having a hostile attitude towards us from the prior administration, indeed being blamed for manufacturing a stop-and-frisk crisis—that was the last administration—this administration, led by their new corporation counsel, Zach Carter, reached out to us very early in an attempt to try and resolve this matter. And what was significant about their approach is, I think, from the beginning, they accepted the findings of Judge Scheindlin. They accepted the findings that there had been a decades-long pattern of unconstitutional and racially discriminatory stops. And in general, they were willing to go through with the court-ordered reform process. In other words, they started out far along the way to accepting the legitimacy of the claims—the findings of the judge and the claims of millions of New Yorkers who voted for de Blasio.

AMY GOODMAN: There are so many interesting aspects of this case. Explain for a global audience who Zach Carter is, now the corporation counsel for the new mayor, Bill de Blasio.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, so the corporation counsel is the lead lawyer for the city. He has recently been in private practice, but before that he was the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, the area covering Brooklyn. And most relevant to this issue, he brought civil rights charges against officers who abused and tortured Abner Louima in, I believe, 1999, and so he is very familiar with the NYPD police culture, at least aspects of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Zach Carter for a moment, the city’s new corporation counsel, speaking at Thursday’s news conference.

ZACHARY CARTER: More than 50 years ago, Martin Luther King spoke of a dream, that all citizens would one day be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. The action taken by the city today is a reaffirmation of its commitment to apply that principle to policing, just as it endeavors to do so in arenas of employment, public accommodations, education and all other areas of government activity. No law-abiding citizen should fear the intrusion of law enforcement action simply because of the color of their skin.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Zach Carter, the new city’s corporation counsel, speaking at the news conference. Baher, talk about what this practically means right now.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, so the prior administration had appealed the district judge’s order finding the city liable, and the court of appeals, in a set of very unusual moves, had stayed, stopped the impact of the district court’s ruling. This—

AMY GOODMAN: And removed the judge.

BAHER AZMY: And removed the judge, exactly. And this agreement commits the city to withdrawing the appeal, after we work out some details, some slight modifications to the district court order. And once the appeal is dismissed, we’ll move forward with a remedial process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, there is still a possible holdup in this, in that the court is allowing the policemen’s union, the PBA, to possibly intercede, or at least be heard on the issue of this settlement. Shortly after the city filed its request to settle the stop-and-frisk [case], the court said it wanted to hear the police union’s position on the request by February 7th. This could mean it has not yet dismissed their effort to keep the case alive. This is a statement released by the president of the Policemen Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, after the news. Quote, he said, “We continue to have serious concerns about how these remedies will impact our members and the ability to do their jobs. Our goal is to continue to be involved in the process in order to give voice to our members and to make every effort to ensure that their rights are protected.” What’s your sense of the base of the claim that the policemen’s union here would have?

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, they seek to intervene in the case to try and still limit or reverse the district court ruling. Their claim, as far as we can tell, is borderline frivolous. The union has no interest, no injury, that would come from obeying the Constitution, additional training, additional supervision. The most they’ve done, effectively, is articulate a sort of hurt-feelings justification. That is, some of their officers have been accused by the district judge of engaging in racial profiling, and for that they want to intervene. But the law should not allow an intervention in those circumstances.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, I wanted to ask you, because you also, in your negotiations, have reached—agreed to a concession that the monitoring that the two sides would agree to would only last for three years, at which point it would end. Now, of course, Mayor de Blasio’s point is that in addition to your lawsuit, the City Council passed legislation establishing a permanent inspector general for the police department that had not existed before. But your sense of this compromise that you agreed to and why you felt it was necessary to do so?

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, I think it’s an entirely reasonable compromise, given the city’s commitment to move forward more broadly with the remedial package. The three-year limit on the monitorship actually will only happen assuming the court finds the city has substantially complied with the Constitution and the remedial order. And as the mayor said, the City Council has passed legislation creating an Office of Inspector General. So after that three years, that office could take over the monitoring process. And, of course, the lawyers and the people of New York can continue to monitor and hold accountable the NYPD.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the New York police officer who has spoken out about problems with the stop-and-frisk program that he and thousands of other officers are asked to carry out. Adhyl Polanco joined the New York Police Department in 2005. In 2009, he became critical of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy when his superiors told officers to meet a quota of stops or face punishment. After he spoke out, he was suspended with pay and was then put on modified assignment. This is a clip of Officer Polanco speaking in a video produced by the group Communities United for Police Reform.

ADHYL POLANCO: In 2009, the commanding officers required us to have a one-20-and-five quota system. One-20-and-five means one arrest per month, 20 summonses per month, and five stop-question-and-frisk. So, basically, they wanted to stop at least one person a day. But what happen the day you don’t see the crime? What happened the day you don’t see the violations? People start getting creative.

We would stop a person on the street and on a corner, because the sergeant says, “Stop him.” Why? You don’t ask. You just stop him, you frisk him. If it’s possible, you search him. And these kids, sometimes they’re just walking home from school. They’re just walking to the store. They’re just—they’re not doing absolutely anything. They’re not doing absolutely anything. And it’s a really humiliating feeling. When they go through your pockets, when they stop you, you don’t have no freedom. If you stop and then tell the officer, “I’m not—I don’t have to give you my ID. I don’t have to give you my name,” which is within the law—the law allows you to do that—you’re going to get hurt. In the Bronx, you are going to get hurt.

My turning point was with a bunch of kids on a corner stopped by the commanding officer. There was a 13-year-old Mexican in the group. “Polanco, cuff him.” I said, “For what?” “Cuff him. You don’t ask me questions. Cuff him, bring him back.” His brother come to ask, “Why? What’s going on with my brother? He’s walking home from school. Officer, did he do anything stupid?” The commanding officer looked at my partner, told her, “Cuff him, too. Bring him in.” “For what?” “Oh, we will figure it out later. Just bring him in.” And that was my turning point. That was the time I said, “You know what? Why should I do it to a kid that’s just walking home from school, that we know is not doing anything? Why should I do that? This is not what I became a cop for. This is not what I wanted to do.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was New York Police Officer Adhyl Polanco. He also spoke on Democracy Now! when he went to speak at the trial. His position changed at the New York Police Department. The police put him on modified assignment. He said something interesting on Democracy Now!. When I asked him about should stop-and-frisk end entirely, he didn’t say it should end entirely. He just said that we should treat black and Latino young people the same way we treat whites.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, I think it’s important to recognize that the opinion doesn’t require the end of stop-and-frisk, and the mayor is not committing to that. Stop-and-frisk can be a lawful law enforcement tool, assuming there is a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and it’s being done in a nondiscriminatory manner. And what Officer Polanco identified—and he testified in our trial—was that there was a quota-driven demand to do stop-and-frisks, independent of suspicion, and that there was a profile under which they were supposed to prioritize certain stops and frisks, and that profile was “male, black, 14 to 21,” quote.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, and amazingly, the stop-question-and-frisk incidents have already dropped enormously, from about 200,000 in the first quarter of 2012, which was at the height, and now about, what, 22,000—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in the last previous quarter. You know, this is a huge drop, and yet there’s been no impact on the crime rate at all.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, there’s never been any correlation, despite the city’s general statements to the contrary, between increasing stop-and-frisks and decreasing crime. They’re unrelated, as far as the evidence goes. And what this shows is that the numbers of stop-and-frisks are artificially driven by a quota, by command. It’s not related to the incidence of criminal activity out there. And so, to see a dramatic drop in stop-and-frisk is only to see a dramatic drop in the number of innocent people stopped and frisked, because 90 percent of stops and frisks resulted in no criminal arrests, summons or weapons possession.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Nicholas Peart, one of the plaintiffs in the Center for Constitutional Rights’ lawsuit against the city over stop-and-frisk. He testified in court he was stopped at least five times. He wrote about his experience in a 2011 New York Times op-ed headlined “Why Is the N.Y.P.D. After Me?” He spoke at Thursday’s news conference after being introduced by Mayor de Blasio.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: When I read Nicholas Peart’s op-ed a few years ago, I thought to myself, “How far astray we’ve gone.” This young man exemplifies everything we want for our young people, everything we want for our future—law-abiding, hard-working, good student, focused on his education. Nicholas is an example of how bright New York City’s future could be, but it’s not possible if he and other young men like him are not treated with the respect and the embrace and the faith that they deserve to feel they’re going to be our leaders of tomorrow. So I appreciate Nicholas for his strength, for his courage, for his powerful voice. And I think, because he stood up, it helped create that day when all of our young men of color—all of our young men, all of our young women—know that this city is for them, and we look forward to the day when they are the leaders of tomorrow. Nicholas.

NICHOLAS PEART: Good afternoon, everyone. I decided to take part in the Floyd case because I was tired of the same scenario of seeing my peers being stopped and frisked. I, myself, have been stopped and frisked a number of times, and I understand very well the—of the psychological consequences that it has of a person who has been stopped and frisked from the time he was 14, and now, you know, you carry that burden of being illegally stopped and frisked into your adulthood. So I decided to stand up, stand up for my community. This is a small part of a larger battle that we have. I think the city is going in the right direction by appealing this, but again, you know, we have a long battle ahead of us.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Nicholas Peart, one of the plaintiffs in the CCR lawsuit against the city over stop-and-frisk. The lawsuit was called Floyd v. City of New York. Explain who Floyd was, is.

BAHER AZMY: David Floyd is our lead plaintiff. He’s currently in medical school in Cuba. David Floyd was stopped twice on his block—once about a hundred meters from his apartment, another time literally outside his apartment helping his neighbor with a set of apartment keys enter his house. And both times—he testified at trial to the significance of this, which is that he felt illegal even on his own block. Stepping outside his own house, he felt under siege by the police.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to ask you about the historic significance of this, to your clients, to the country as a whole, and in terms of the major police department in the country totally reversing its stance on how it polices its citizens on this crucial issue, and for some of your clients to be there with the mayor and actually implementing this dramatic change in the way that the police act.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, that is truly significant. I mean, we are talking about the largest police department in the country, the second-largest in the world, and the mayor has abandoned a central premise of policing by the prior administration that they’ve touted forever, this so-called preventative policing, aggressive street encounters, and committed to end racial profiling. And racial profiling is a problem in New York, and so this case is about the David Floyds and the Nicholas Pearts and the Abner Louimas. But racial profiling, the idea that race can be a proxy for suspicion, is also about Trayvon Martin and the experiences of millions of people of color in this country with respect to the police. So, we hope that this turns a page, but there’s still a lot of work to do to make this meaningful and lasting.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the sticking points now? I mean, you just had the news conference. You’re beginning down this road.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, yeah. So, the process we’re going to engage in is a sort of collaborative process overseen by a monitor, in which—

AMY GOODMAN: That was appointed by Judge Scheindlin—

BAHER AZMY: That was appointed—

AMY GOODMAN: —who’s been removed from the case.

BAHER AZMY: That’s right. So the monitor is still there, even if—at least for now, and regrettably, Judge Scheindlin is not.

AMY GOODMAN: But she’s appealing that, isn’t she?

BAHER AZMY: She is appealing that, and that’s pending in the court of appeals. And so, you know, there are a lot of things going on in the courts. But what she ordered—and the irony of her removal is, what she ordered is a fairly modest remedy, which is simply requiring all the stakeholders—community groups, critically, the public advocate’s office, lawyers, the police department, unions—to engage in a joint remedial process. So, one piece of that would be modifying training, supervision, auditing, changing the numbers-based and racially discriminatorily driven stop-and-frisk policy, but also engaging police and communities in a process to think through how to get back trust and to make other kind of creative proposals to build onto sort of real reform for the police department.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And she specifically zeroed in on the necessity to get rid of some of the training materials that the police department had used in the past.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about that?

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, I mean, the training materials were legally incorrect. They were training people on incorrect legal principles.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Bratton and a critical point he made yesterday. This is the new police chief of New York, who was the police chief also of Los Angeles and also, of course, before that, was the police chief of New York. This is Police Commissioner Bratton.

COMMISSIONER BILL BRATTON: Right now we’re in this kind of no-man’s land that—and so, I’m accepting of this process and this move toward settlement, because I need to, as police commissioner, be in a position to say to my officers, “This is how you police constitutionally. This is how you police respectfully. This is how you police compassionately, and that these are the guard rails that you have to stay within.” And police need that guidance. And this settlement, I think, will indeed provide that. And the quicker we move down this road, the better for all concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: You hear that Boston accent. He was also the police commissioner of Boston. Baher Azmy, you hear him saying he feels like they’re in a no-man’s land right now. So, what are cops being told today?

BAHER AZMY: Mm-hmm. Well, they should be told that there is a binding decision that prevents them from policing on the basis of race and requires reasonable suspicion, but that also obligates the command to start talking to the police about what that means. The police commissioner said he’s started that process. I think they’re in part in a no-man’s land because the prior administration, for the four months at the end of their term, rather than being part of this solution, resisted and sowed discontent and resistance to the court order. So, you know, we need to sort of move forward now.

And he actually announced an interesting change just yesterday, The New York Times was reporting this morning. The previous administration had put new recruits, first-year police officers, in a program called Operation Impact, into the highest crime areas. And Bratton announced that he’s going to change that practice, because what it did is it introduced and inculcated real, real tension between new officers and community groups. And the better practice, he’s suggesting, is to pull new recruits into precinct-based policing, because 90 percent of policing is not about hostile interactions with individuals in high-crime areas. It’s learning about the community, offering services. And that is, for example, another, I think, positive step.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, counsel on their stop-and-frisk lawsuit against the City of New York. He was involved in the negotiations with the city that led to Thursday’s settlement. As we wrap up this segment, February 4th is the 15th anniversary of the killing by the New York Police Street Crimes Unit of Amadou Diallo as he put the keys in his door in the Bronx, very much like David Floyd putting the keys in his door.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Wally Shawn joins us. Stay with us.

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