Judge did not provide timeframe for when ruling will be given but said landmark federal trial is ‘timely and pressing matter’
Civil rights attorneys called for sweeping changes to the New York City police department’s controversial street-stop practices in the closing arguments of a landmark federal trial.
US district court judge Shira Scheindlin will now determine if the nation’s largest police force is responsible for longstanding and widespread constitutional rights violations, including systemic search and seizure and racial profiling abuses.
If Scheindlin sides with the plaintiffs in the case, the department could find itself supervised by an outside monitor, a shift the mayor and the police commissioner have said will put the city at risk.
While the judge did not provide a timeframe on when she would issue her ruling, she described the case as a “timely and pressing matter”.
“It has to be done,” she said.
Approximately five million people have been stopped by the NYPD over the last decade. The vast majority have been African American or Latino and roughly nine out of 10 have walked away without an arrest or a ticket. By law, a police officer must have reasonable suspicion that a crime is about to occur or has occurred in order to make a stop.
The two-and-a-half month trial was the result of a federal class action lawsuit filed by four African American men in 2008 who claimed to represent hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers unlawfully stopped by the NYPD. Eight more witnesses, all African American or Latino, also testified to being stopped, and in some cases frisked and searched, unlawfully. Together the plaintiffs described a total of 19 stops. Forty-one police officers also testified, including a recently retired chief of the department, as well as several law enforcement experts.
With more than 450 exhibits, the trial generated 8,000 pages of testimony. It also included numerous audio tapes secretly recored by three NYPD officers in three separate precincts, purporting to capture evidence of supervisors setting quotas for specific numbers of stops, summonses or arrests, and encouraging officers to stop minority youth.
“The city has been on notice since 1999 about these constitutional rights violations,” Johnathan Moore, an attorney for the plaintiffs said Monday, citing the fatal police shooting of Amadou Dialo. The unarmed African immigrant’s death resulted in class action suit targeting stop-and-frisk practices. The lawsuit served as a predecessor to the trial that closed Monday.
Moore laid out a number of proposed solutions to the ongoing controversy, including revising forms officers fill out when stopping people to include a narrative component requiring them to articulate the reasonable suspicion behind their stops. Moore also called for an internal NYPD order empowering supervisors to set performance goals to be rescinded. He then described the need for a “joint-remedy process” that would involve a mediator with experience in law enforcement reform facilitating conversations between the department and community groups.
Plaintiffs in the case have long advocated for the establishment of a court-appointed monitor to insure the department’s stop-and-frisk practices are constitutional. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly have argued a monitor would result in undue interference that would lead to a rise in violence.
In considering remedies for the department, Scheindlin expressed interest in equipping police officers with body-worn cameras, an idea first articulated by the city’s expert remedy witness. “I’m intrigued by it,” Scheindlin said. “[It] could solve a lot of problems.”
Lawyers for the city attempted to convince the judge the plaintiffs had “broken their promise” to prove the department’s stops were motivated by race.
Returning to a phrase she used in the opening arguments of the trial, city attorney Heidi Grossman called the quota allegations a “sideshow”. Grossman added that the plaintiffs had been “fast and loose” in describing a 700% increase in reported stops over the last decade.
Despite “license to cherry pick” from thousands of potential witnesses, the plaintiffs had “failed to show a single constitutional violation, much less a widespread pattern or practice”, Grossman said “The alleged complaints of racial profiling are more fiction than reality.”
Earlier in the trial, New York state senator Eric Adams testified that he twice heard Kelly say the department’s stop practices are intended to “instill fear” in young men of color. “It is not the NYPD’s policy to target black and Hispanic youth to instill fear in them so they feel they can be stopped at any time,” Grossman said.
Regardless of whether the department intended to instill fear through its stop-and-frisk practices, testimony in the trial suggested it has happened.
Officer Pedro Serrano, who surreptitiously recorded roll call meetings and conversations with his NYPD supervisors, said he and his fellow officers in the Bronx were “handcuffing kids for no reason” as a result of his precinct’s alleged quota system. Serrano choked up on the witness stand, saying he joined the suit as a concerned father and Latino who had been stopped by police on numerous occasions.
Nicholas Peart, a 24-year-old African American man, struggled for words as he recounted lying face down on the concrete on his 18th birthday, in full public view, as an officer felt his groin and buttocks. He was released without charge. Peart had been visiting his sister at the time and said the stop made him feel as though he did not belong in her neighborhood.
Devon Almonor, who is also African American, said he felt angry and scared when he was stopped, frisked, searched and driven to a police precinct at 13 years old. The officer who stopped Almonor said the boy had been suspiciously looking over his shoulder before he was stopped. The officer admitted to asking the boy why he was “crying like a little girl” as they drove to the precinct.
Both Peart and Almonor, along with several other witnesses in the case, were present for Monday’s closing arguments. They watched as Scheindlin challenged the city on the the number of stops resulting in arrests, summonses or weapons seizures, its so-called “hit rate”. According to department data, out of 4.3m stops conducted between 2004 and 2012, fewer than 1% uncovered weapons and 0.14% led to a gun.
“What troubles me is the suspicion seems to be wrong 90% of the time,” Scheindlin said. “What can I infer from that?”
“We don’t believe [the court] should be concerned about the hit rate,” Grossman said, arguing a stop that did not result in a ticket or arrest could still prevent a crime.
Speaking to reporters outside court NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said the individual stops examined in the trial repeatedly revealed the officers involved had reasonable suspicion to justify their actions. Browne defended stopping people who are unarmed.
“Say there’s five people who generally fit the description,” he said. “The officers are going to stop those people, at least briefly, and the person with the gun may or may not be among them. We know there’s one gunman but we’ve stopped five because we don’t want that one to get away.”
“We try to do it courteously,” he added. “That’s not often done. Sometimes it can be done better.”
Browne addressed the issue of pressure on police officers to make stops. “There are some officers who will complete quotas when they’re asked to do what they’re required to do as police officers,” he said. While he said the lazy officers are a “tiny minority”, Browne added that “we will have occasional police officers who, for self-serving purposes, make statements like that, and that’s what you had in this case”.
Darius Charney, a lead attorney with Center for Constitutional Rights, said the city’s own expert witness aided the plaintiffs’ case by agreeing that the department could benefit from an outside monitor and community input. “Essentially he made our case for us,” Charney said.
“The solutions to these problems are very complicated,” Charney said. “You’re really going to have to bring in someone with expertise. The police department has shown its not up to the task, so we need to bring in an expert to help fix these problems.”
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This article first appeared in Salon.
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