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Courts Expose Stop-and-Frisk as Racist, Unconstitutional NYPD Harassment Strategy: 8 Important Facets of the Legal Decision

A US district judge has exposed the NYPD game as an illegal system of quotas and racial profiling imposed on field police from the top of the NYPD.

This month, a federal judge in New York dealt a blow to “stop-and-frisk,” a policy that resulted in  685,000 recorded police stops in 2011. Eighty-five percent of those stopped were African American and Latino, mostly youths.

US district judge Shira Scheindlin granted class-action certification to a stop-and-frisk lawsuit against the city of New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The plaintiffs allege that the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy regularly violates the Constitution by illegally stopping and searching scores of people belonging to a particular demographic -- black and Latino. Pending the city's appeal, the class-action ruling will put stop-and-frisk on trial.

Plaintiffs in Floyd et al. vs City of New York also argue that they were stopped by police who did not have the legally necessary "reasonable suspicion" that they had committed or were going to commit a crime. What's more, the suit alleges, police often performed frisks, but not because they saw a bulge they suspected to be a weapon, another legal requirement.

In her written decision, Scheindlin said the alleged constitutional violations result not from the actions of rogue officers, but from a policy handed down from the very top. "The stop-and-frisk program is centralized and hierarchical," said Scheindlin, "Those stops were made pursuant to a policy that is designed, implemented and monitored by the NYPD's administration."

Scheindlin's ruling cites "overwhelming evidence" -- a spike in stop-and-frisks and the NYPD's own words -- indicating that at the "highest levels of the department," police are enforcing a policy that leaves behind a trail of daily injustices.

For years, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly have used distortions and misinformation to promote and justify a policy that violates the constitutional rights of those who were stopped. Now, the Scheindlin findings have exposed the NYPD game for what it is, an illegal system of quotas and racial profiling imposed on field police from the top of the NYPD.

"Suspicionless stops should never occur," Scheindlin wrote in her decision, adding that, "Defendants' cavalier attitude towards the prospect of a'"widespread practice of suspicionless stops' displays a deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers' most fundamental constitutional rights." Stop-and-frisk, which the data shows is a form of racial profiling, violates not only the Fourth Amendment -- protection from unreasonable searches -- but also the 14th Amendment, which includes the equal protection clause, the plaintiffs charge.

The Scheindlin decision was informative and comprehensive, including a number of important facts and observations. Here are eight important points from the decision.

1. Soaring numbers. The rate of stops has grown exponentially under the Bloomberg administration. Scheindlin's ruling notes that police conducted 2.8 million documented stops of people between 2004 and 2009, about half of whom were frisked. In contrast, in 1998, Scheindlin explains, NYPD officers made roughly 150,000 stops per year. In 2004 alone, officers recorded more than 313,000 stops, "and since then the number has increased every year except 2007, rising to over 684,000 in 2011." Scheindlin cites the large increase as evidence of a centralized policy change.

2. No reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion that a person is involved in a crime is necessary for a legal stop. Eighty-eight percent of those stopped, however, are not charged with any crime. As Scheindlin noted, the data shows that "according to their own records and judgment, officers' 'suspicion' was wrong nearly nine times out of ten." 

3. Imaginary bulges. Officers' suspicions were similarly unsubstantiated when reportedly searching for guns. A "suspicious bulge" was cited as a reason for about 10 percent of all stops, but guns were seized in less than 1 percent. "For every 69 stops that police officers justified specifically on the basis of a suspicious bulge, they found one gun," the decision notes.