NEW YORK (AP) — Devin Almonor, the teenage son of a former police officer, said he was thrown against an unmarked car and temporarily handcuffed walking home from a bus stop. Medical student David Floyd was frisked by officers outside of his apartment as he helped a neighbor locked out of his home.
For both, the experience was humiliating and frightening — and they say — illegal because they believe they were stopped because of their race. Both are black.
"I am not a criminal. I did not commit any criminal acts," said Floyd, who testified along with Almonor at the opening of a federal trial Monday challenging the constitutionality of some encounters under the controversial law enforcement tactic of stopping, questioning and frisking New Yorkers on the street.
Police have made about 5 million stops during the past decade, mostly of black and Hispanic men. Lawyer Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights which filed the suit in 2008 on behalf of Floyd and three others, called many of the stops a "frightening and degrading experience" that violates the civil rights of many New Yorkers. The class-action lawsuit seeks broad reforms to the practice, and asks for a court-appointed monitor to oversee the changes.
About half the people who are stopped are subject only to questioning. Others have their bag or backpack searched. And sometimes police conduct a full pat-down. Only about 10 percent of all stops result in arrest, and a weapon is recovered a small fraction of the time.
The mayor and police commissioner say stop-and-frisk is a life-saving, crime-stopping tool that has helped drive crime down to record lows. On Monday, city lawyers said officers have more than 23 million contacts with the public, make 4 million radio runs and issue more than 500,000 summonses every year. Comparatively, 600,000 stops annually are not unreasonable, they said.
Police go where the crime is — and crime is overwhelmingly in minority neighborhoods, they said, and officers do not targeting people solely because of their race.
"The New York Police Department is fully committed to policing within the boundaries of the law," said Heidi Grossman, an attorney for the city. "Crime is not distributed evenly across the city."
The tactic is legal. Officers are allowed to make stops based on "reasonable suspicion," a less rigorous standard than "probable cause" needed to justify an arrest. Police are required to fill out a form where they check off the justification for stopping someone, which includes, "furtive movements," suspicious bulge and if someone fits the description of a crime suspect.
Almonor said that he was handcuffed by officers after they stopped him walking back to his apartment in 2010 when he was 13 years old. The teen, now 16, had been walking from a bus stop, and said the officers didn't explain why they had stopped him. In the back of the car, he started crying because he was afraid, and testified that one officer said: "Why are you crying like a little girl?"
"It made me feel scared," he said, recalling the incident. "I didn't know what was going on."
Floyd, 33, is a medical student studying in Cuba. He testified about two encounters, one in 2007 where he was frisked while walking home, and the second about a year later where he was frisked outside of his apartment. In the latter encounter, the officers told him that there had been a string of robberies in the area, but Floyd said that in both instances he believes he was wrongly searched without permission.
City lawyers sought to discredit the two witnesses by suggesting their stories had evolved over the years to become more dramatic, and their memories were faulty.
U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has already said in earlier rulings that she is deeply concerned about stop and frisk, has the power to order reforms to how it is used, which could bring major changes to the nation's largest police force and other departments.
City lawyers said the department already has many checks and balances, including an independent watchdog group that was recently given authority to prosecute some excessive force complaints against police.
Both Almonor and Floyd said they were speaking out because they didn't want the same injustice to happen to anyone else.
"Police officers are individuals carrying weapons, carrying guns," Floyd said. "And if they are not being responsible, it just makes for a difficult situation."
The trial is expected to last more than a month.