Conservatives may have set their sights on the Obama administration’s drone program as proof our civil liberties have all but evaporated, but if they truly cared about the expanding police and surveillance state, they’d be taking New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to task over the city’s deeply-problematic stop-and-frisk program. Thankfully a federal court may instead.
Last week, a federal judge granted class-action status to a lawsuit challenging the practice of the New York Police Department to “stop and frisk” anyone they chose outside residential buildings in the Bronx. And by “anyone they chose” I mean primarily black and Latino men. U.S. District Judge Shira Schedlin, troubled by the practice, found that a group of black and Latino residents who live in the Bronx could bring claims on behalf of potentially thousands of people who have been stopped outside buildings for nothing more than being a man of color. “While it may be difficult to say where, precisely, to draw the line between constitutional and unconstitutional police encounters, such a line exists, and the N.Y.P.D. has systematically crossed it when making trespass stops outside TAP buildings in the Bronx,” Judge Scheindlin ruled.
According to the lawsuit, the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program violates the Constitution because it allows and embraces profiling, rather than requiring police have any individualized suspicion or reasonable belief that a person is about to commit a crime. Parts of the program, including one called “Operation Clean Halls,” embraced profiling explicitly and, according to the court, must be halted immediately.
In the decision, the judge ordered the police “to cease performing trespass stops” outside the private buildings in the program unless officers have reasonable suspicion, a legal standard that requires officers to be acting on more than just a hunch. The fact that a person was simply seen entering or leaving a building was not enough to permit the police to stop someone, “even if the building is located in a high-crime area, and regardless of the time of day,” the judge ruled. Nor is it enough for an officer to conduct a stop simply because the officer had observed the person move furtively, Judge Scheindlin said.
Much of the ruling criticizes the training the N.Y.P.D provides officers, which Judge Scheindlin suggested purposefully tried to evade the Fourth Amendment. According to the court, the evidence in this case, “strengthens the conclusion that the N.Y.P.D.’s inaccurate training has taught officers the following lesson: Stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later.”
The ruling came after a seven-day hearing in October where nine black and Latino residents testified about being stopped while leaving their homes or visiting friends and relatives as guests. “Because any member of the public could conceivably find herself outside a TAP building in the Bronx, the public at large has a liberty and dignity interest in bringing an end to the practice of unconstitutional stops at issue in this case,” the judge wrote. “For those of us who do not fear being stopped as we approach or leave our own homes or those of our friends and families, it is difficult to believe that residents of one of our boroughs live under such a threat. In light of the evidence presented at the hearing, however, I am compelled to conclude that this is the case.”
The court described the process like this: as a person exits a building, the ruling said, “the police suddenly materialize, stop the person, demand identification, and question the person about where he or she is coming from and what he or she is doing.” The court continued: “Attempts at explanation are met with hostility; especially if the person is a young black man, he is frisked, which often involves an invasive search of his pockets; in some cases the officers then detain the person in a police van.”
Despite protests from law enforcement that stop-and-frisk is a necessary tool in reducing crime, the N.Y.P.D. is going to have to make some changes, and soon. This ruling was the first in a set of three cases challenging the practice before the court, and if the tone and substance are any indication, the court is not impressed with Mayor Bloomberg and his men and women in blue. And it shouldn’t be. Heightened policing of communities of color doesn’t make anyone safer if that policing is based on assumptions first and evidence second.
Photo from Elvert Barnes via flickr.