A landmark trial challenging the New York police department’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy began in a lower Manhattan court on Monday.
The class action suit accuses the NYPD of violating the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers on a widespread and systemic basis.
New York city police officers stopped 685,724 citizens in 2011, continuing an upward trend that began when Michael Bloomberg became mayor. Nearly nine out of 10 of those stopped in 2011 had committed no crime. The vast majority were black or Latino, though figures released in August revealed police stops had dropped by more than 34% compared to the year before.
In opening statements Monday, attorney Darius Charney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the organizations bringing the suit, argued the case is about more than numbers. “It’s about people,” Charney told a packed courtroom at the southern district courthouse.
The stop-and-frisk program has been a signature feature of NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly’s career. With vocal support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Kelly has argued that the practice saves lives – particularly those of young men of color who are disproportionately the targets of violent crime – and removes guns from the streets.
But critics say stop-and-frisk has resulted in racial profiling, which humiliates innocent people and degrades the relationship between communities of color and the police department. In arguments Monday morning, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the suit pointed out that recent figures show guns are recovered in just 0.15% of stops.
In 2012, with a mayoral election fast approaching, stop-and-frisk had emerged as a hot political issue. Addressing the court Monday, city attorney Heidi Grossman urged Judge Shira Scheindlin not to be swayed by “media advocates” and focus on evidence, arguing” the vast majority of stops are legal.”
Floyd is the broadest of three stop-and-frisk class action suits Scheindlin is currently presiding over. The suit is seen by many opponents of the practice as historic opportunity to effect change. Over the last year Scheindlin has batted down numerous attempts by the city to have the suit thrown out.
“No case is more critical for the future of our city than this one,” CCR said in a statement distributed to attendees of the trial. “At stake are the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who have been illegally stopped by the NYPD – and the rights of untold numbers of New Yorkers who may be stopped in the future. The NYPD makes more than half a million stops a year, which equate to literally thousands of stops a day.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue the department routinely violates the fourth and 14th amendments of the constitution by allegedly stopping people without cause and targeting African American and Latino communities.
As many as 100 witnesses are expected testify in the case, including numerous NYPD whistleblowers, the department’s spokesman, Paul Browne, and the NYPD’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, Joesph Esposito.
Monday’s proceedings offered a glimpse the arguments to come. Attorneys for the plaintiffs laid out their plan to illustrate a “wide gap” between what NYPD numbers say on paper and what they translate into in practice. They seek to prove that rights violations stemming from stops are the result of the department’s hierarchical structure. “The problem starts at the top and ends with the stop,” Charney said.
Attorneys for the defendants – who include Kelly, Bloomberg, the department itself and several named and unnamed officers – plan to attack the plaintiffs’ expert witness, Columbia professor Jeffrey Fagan, who has analyzed millions of copies of NYPD stop forms, known as UF250s–and determined that race better predicts whether an individual will be stopped than crime.
“The form alone simply does not tell the whole story,” Grossman said Monday. “The department explicitly prohibits racial profiling,” she added. Communities of color “demand and deserve” the department’s protection, she said.
Plaintiffs in the case are seeking injunctive relief in the suit, rather than damages. Remedies discussed Monday included comprehensive reform of officer training and the establishment of a court-appointed monitor to oversee departmental practices.
Sitting in the back of the courtroom Monday was the Rev Jesse Jackson, who indicated he was not impressed the NYPD’s defense so far. “They were not denying. They were justifying,” Jackson said.
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