With her Monday ruling that New York City's infamous "stop-and-frisk" policing tactic is unconstitutional, a federal judge may have forever changed how America's largest police force treats people of color. While her ruling did not abolish stop-and-frisk, it promises to add more fuel to a fiery debate locally and nationally over the practice of racial profiling, and whether citizens can expect both safety and dignity at the same time.
Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled Monday morning in a Manhattan federal court that the practice, under fire for years due to its heavy targeting of people of color, violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and ordered than an independent monitor be assigned to oversee reforms.
At an afternoon press conference held by the Center for Constitutional Rights, staff attorney Sunita Patel called the decision in Floyd et. al. v. City of New York an "astounding victory for all New Yorkers" and emphasized that people who had been subjected to police stops will have a voice in the reform process going forward. Patel said the ruling represented an opportunity for the New York Police Department to work anew with communities they police, and "build back trust" they've lost.
That may be easier said than done, judging by Mayor Mike Bloomberg's hostile reaction to Scheindlin and her decision at a separate press conference at Manhattan's City Hall. Repeatedly calling the tactic "stop-question-frisk," the mayor indicated that the city will appeal the ruling and pointed to the city's declining murder and crime rates. He said "the possibility of being stopped acts as a vital deterrent" to teens who might otherwise carry illegal firearms. Now, he said at the press conference, "I worry for my kids and I worry for your kids."
Bloomberg, joined by police commissioner Raymond Kelly, also implied that the judge herself wasn't fair in her ruling.
"Throughout the trial that just concluded, the judge made it clear she was not at all interested in the crime reductions here or how we achieved them. In fact, nowhere in her 195-page decision does she mention the historic cuts in crime or the number of lives that have been saved," the mayor said. "She ignored the real-world realities of crime, the fact that stops match-up with crime statistics, and the fact that our police officers on patrol–the majority of whom are black, Hispanic, or members of other ethnic or racial minorities–make an average about less than one stop a week."
CCR senior staff attorney Darius Charney called Bloomberg's allegations about Judge Scheindlin "completely inaccurate," emphasizing that the trial's 104 witnesses were mostly NYPD officials and 10 years of NYPD data factored into her decision.
Some of that data included the frequency of stops Bloomberg used as part of his defense. A CCR lawsuit in 1999 produced a settlement promise from the NYPD that they would account more closely for those racial disparties, but the number of total stops more than doubled from 2004 to 2011, when almost 686,000 people were stopped--and 87% of those stopped two years ago were black or Latino. That 2011 total included more black men than actually resided in the city that year. The total dropped to around 532,000 stops in 2012, with again 87% of those stopped being black or Latino.
Also a factor were the audio tapes provided by NYPD officer Pedro Serrano, which clearly indicated he was given orders by a white superior officer to target "the right kind of people," meaning "male blacks 14 to 20, 21."
And given that Kelly recently remarked that those in that demographic "are being under stopped in relation to the percentage of people being described as being the perpetrators of violent crime," it was understandable when asked about the mayor's reaction at the CCR press conference, City Councilman Jumaane Williams responded with a bit of incredulity.
"Mayor Bloomberg often confuses someone disagreeing with him as being unfair," said the councilman, who pledged that the City Council will vote next week to override Bloomberg's recent veto of the Community Safety Act, a combination of two bills that would have outlawed racial profiling in the department. The act is still necessary, Williams argued, because the city needs permanent structures in place to deal with profiling "so we don't have to do this again."
Expressing similar sentiments were five young men of color who had been witnesses in the trial. Either through their remarks or their shell-shocked behavior behind the microphone on Monday afternoon, witnesses like David Ourlicht made it clear that once was enough. Halted and emotional in his speech, Ourlicht described how he cried upon hearing about the ruling. "Our voices do count," said witness Nicholas Peart, adding that the entire city--including predominantly white areas, where still the majority of stops were men of color--was involved in the judge's decision.
The effect of the ruling will be immediately felt in communities throughout New York City, said CCR executive director Vince Warren. "The police department will know that someone is watching them," Warren said. "There is a change coming."
Read our earlier interview with one of New York City mayoral hopefuls, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, about "stop-and-frisk."