One Victory in the Continuing Struggle for Dignity and Equality
Added Nov. 7, 2014: We are happy to report that the new City administration this year greatly reduced “stop and frisk,” dropped the appeal of this case, and is working with the plaintiffs to formulate new policies.
Added Nov. 19, 2013: We are sorry to report that on Oct. 31, a 3-judge panel of the Court of Appeals granted the City’s motion to stay the district court’s remedial order. It also ordered the judge removed from the case. The appeal will be heard next year.
New York, N.Y.––On Aug. 12, a federal judge ruled unconstitutional the most-favored tactic of the NewYork City Police Department––stopping and frisking young African-American and Latino men, without even a “reasonable suspicion” of their being involved in criminal activity. The tactic has long been used to harass and intimidate racial minorities.
The legal victory in Floyd v. City of New York was the culmination of years of community-based agitation against the ubiquitous, harsh encounters that terrorize youth and often include violent harm to them, including several deaths. Recent months saw an increase in protest demonstrations against the practice around the city.
“Reasonable suspicion” is grounds for stopping and briefly detaining someone for investigation, according to the U.S. Supreme Court—a much lower standard than the “probable cause” needed to arrest someone. The nine-week trial in Floyd proved that the cops in the streets usually had no more grounds for “reasonable suspicion” than observing “furtive movements,” and were in fact carrying out a deliberate Police Department policy of stopping people based on their color and their presence in certain neighborhoods.
4.3 Million Stops in 8 1/2 Years
The court found this practice to be a violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, which are supposed to protect us against unreasonable searches and seizures, and against unequal treatment under the law, respectively. An earlier law suit had resulted in the police being required to keep records of their stops; the records revealed that 4.3 million stops were conducted between Jan. 2004 and mid-2012. The records also make plain the racial basis for stops: about 83 percent of the stops were of African Americans and Latinos, in spite of the fact that those groups constitute only about 50 percent of the city’s population.
In an 195-page decision, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin found conclusively that the police had practiced “indirect profiling” and “deliberate indifference” to whether the stops had a proper basis. Evidence at trial showed that “officers were routinely subjected to significant pressure to increase their stop numbers, without corresponding pressure to ensure that stops are constitutionally justified.” Some precincts even required cops to fill quotas for stops, and credited them for all their stops, including the illegal ones.
“A Demeaning and Humiliating Experience”
The judge discussed the “human toll” caused by the stops, which she found to be “a demeaning and humiliating experience.” Plaintiffs had also testified that their treatment by the police made them feel they did not belong in certain areas of the city.
The ruling did not require that stop-and-frisk be ended, but rather ordered federal monitoring of the police and community participation to effectuate reforms.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg denounced the decision, announced that the City will appeal, and promised to continue current stop-and-frisk practices during his administration. He also repeated his often-made claim that stop-and-frisk has been responsible for the reduction in crime in New York, although he has yet to explain how this could be the case since the stops increased after the crime rate fell, and stops increased more and more each year for no known reason.
The mayor also insists that the stops are the best way to get guns off the streets, ignoring the fact that very few weapons were ever found this way. Moreover, that cannot be a justification for the profiling, because and the weapons rate was higher for whites than for African Americans or Latinos.
Just Over 1% of Stops Found Weapons
Weapons were seized in 1.0% of the stops of African Americans, 1.1% of the stops of Latinos, and 1.4% of the stops of whites. Other interesting statistics: contraband other than weapons was seized in 1.8% of the stops of African Americans, 1.7% of the stops of Latinos, and 2.3% of the stops of whites. In 23% of the stops of African Americans and 24% of the stops of Latinos, the officer recorded using force; the rate for whites was 17%.
The court’s decision coincided with the 50-year anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement’s historic March on Washington. Major demands at the commemorative march on Aug. 24 centered around ending police profiling and brutality, as well as race-based impunity for police and civilians alike such as resulted in George Zimmerman’s recent acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin (see editorial). Continued racial discrimination in employment, housing, education, healthcare, etc., much of it tied to poverty and lack of jobs, was also a focus of the march.