NYPD on Trial

Last week, a historic trial challenging the NYPD’s practice of stopping and frisking almost exclusively people of color in New York City got underway.  Allies of Communities United for Police Reform packed the courtroom and hundreds filled overflow rooms to watch the realities of life under the NYPD in their neighborhoods and city be brought to light in federal court.

The trial was, as described by plaintiff’s attorney Darius Charney, 14 years in the making, with its roots in challenges to the police department’s policies after the shooting of Amadou Diallo.

On Monday March 18, both sides presented their opening arguments, with the plaintiffs laying out the evidence to come showing that the NYPD has engaged in a longstanding pattern and practice of unconstitutional and race-based stops.

The central legal claims of the plaintiffs are (1) that the NYPD has a policy or practice of stopping people without the reasonable suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires and (2) that the NYPD stops people on the basis of race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI.

The evidence supporting these claims is too voluminous to cover here, but several particular pieces stood out. In a meeting with NY State Senator Eric Adams, NYPD Police Chief Ray Kelly said the stop and frisk policy was designed to make young black and latino men afraid that they would be stopped wherever they left their buildings, so that “they would leave their guns at home.”

The plaintiffs also previewed the analysis of their expert, Jeffery Fagan, who will testify that the NYPD’s own records of their stops show that the stops were dramatically ineffective, often facially unconstitutional, and based on race. Notably, the rate of weapons recovery, the ostensible purpose of stop and frisk, was around 1% and .15 % for guns.  Indeed, random checkpoints are more efficient at recovering weapons than the ostensibly suspicion based process of stop and frisk.

Race, however, was found to be strongly predictive of where stops occur and who is stopped. Blacks and Hispanics were stopped at a greater rate than their representation in the population, and the race of neighborhoods was predictive of the rate of stops, even controlling for crime, unemployment and other variables.

Moreover, the reasons for stops recorded by officers often appear untrustworthy.  Officers cited presence in a high crime area as a reason for a stop roughly at the same rate, regardless of the actual crime rate of the area where the stop was made. For example, the officers stopping the named plaintiff in the case, David Floyd, claimed that he was stopped because of a burglary pattern in the area when in fact there had only been one burglary in the previous 2 months in the area.

The city’s opening statement outlined the structure of the NYPD and its commitment to what it termed “proactive policing.” The city also sought to dismiss the plaintiff’s arguments by saying that they were part of the “let’s criticize the NYPD bandwagon.” Finally, it attempted to displace the accusations that the NYPD has quotas for the number of stops that its officers must conduct. In fact, they argued there were only “productivity goals” designed to combat officers avoiding work and not “reward laziness.”

As the week went on, victims of stops and frisks have testified about their experience and whistle blowing officers have produced evidence of their supervisors encouraging discriminatory enforcement of the law. Continuing updates can be found on the Center for Constitutional Rights’ website for the case.

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