NEW YORK (AP) — A class-action suit challenging the New York Police Department's stop and frisk policy got under way Monday with a lawyer saying that officers have been wrongly stopping tens of thousands of young men based solely on their race.
Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights said the policy is legal, but the department is doing stops illegally. Changes must be ordered by a federal judge to ensure the department stops wrongly targeting black and Hispanic men, he said.
He called many of the half million annual stops a "frightening and degrading experience" for "thousands if not millions" of New Yorkers over the last decade. He called them "arbitrary, unnecessary and unconstitutional."
He promised plaintiffs will show the judge "powerful testimonial and statistical evidence" that New Yorkers are routinely stopped without suspicion.
Charney said it will include stories from a dozen black and Hispanic men who say they were targeted because of their race. Police officers and criminologists are also scheduled to testify.
More than a hundred New Yorkers, police officers, scholars and lawmakers are expected to testify about the police department's controversial tactic of stopping, questioning and sometimes frisking people on the street.
Police have made about five million stops in the past decade of New Yorkers, mostly black and Hispanic men.
"We're putting the NYPD on trial, and the stakes are the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers," said Vincent Warren, director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the suit in 2008 on behalf of four men who said they were wrongly stopped.
The case has since become a class-action suit that seeks a court-appointed monitor to oversee changes to how the police make stops. The trial is expected to last more than a month. Lawyers also plan to play hours of audio tapes made by Adrian Schoolcraft, an officer who was hauled off to a psych ward against his will after he said he refused to fill illegal quotas. His former bosses, including some reassigned after their statements were made public, are also expected.
U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has already said in earlier rulings that she is deeply concerned about stop and frisk, is not being asked to ban the tactic, since it has been found to be legal. But she does have the power to order reforms, which could bring major changes to how the nation's largest police force and other departments use the tactic.
Street stops have become a New York flashpoint, with mass demonstrations, city council hearings, mayoral candidates calling for reform, and, most recently, days of protests following the fatal police shooting of a teen who authorities say pulled out a gun during a stop.
Street stops increased substantially in the mid-1990s, when, faced with overwhelming crime, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani made stop-and-frisk an integral part of the city's law enforcement, relying on the "broken windows" theory that targeting low-level offenses helps prevent bigger ones.
Stops rose, and overall crime dropped dramatically in a city that once had the highest murder rate in the U.S.
There were only 419 murders in 2012, the lowest since similar record keeping began in the 1960s, down from more than 2,000 in the 1990s. And there were 531,159 people stopped, more than five times the number when Bloomberg took office a decade ago. Fifty-one percent of those stopped were black, 32 percent Hispanic and 11 percent white. According to U.S. Census figures, there are 8.2 million people in the city: 26 percent are black, 28 percent are Hispanic and 44 percent are white.
About half of the people are just questioned. Others have their bag or backpack searched. And sometimes police conduct a full pat-down. Only 10 percent of all stops result in arrest, and a weapon is recovered a fraction of the time.