The federal civil rights challenge to the contentious New York Police Department tactic of stop, question and frisk is closing after more than nine weeks of testimony from men who say they were wrongly stopped because of their race and police officers and officials who believe the nation’s largest force operates with integrity.
U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin was scheduled to hear summations in the lengthy trial Monday. She must then examine more than 7,000 pages of trial record and may order major changes to the policy, reforms that could have a nationwide impact on how police departments operate.
More than 5 million stops have been made in New York in the past decade, mostly of black and Hispanic men. Police must have reasonable suspicion to stop someone, a standard lower than probable cause needed to justify an arrest. Only about 10 percent result in arrests.
About a dozen black and Hispanic men told the judge of disturbing and uncomfortable encounters with police that left them feeling confused, angry and scared. One witness, 24-year-old Nicholas Peart from Harlem, wept on the stand as he described how he was handcuffed and put into the back of a squad car. A teenager told how he was stopped walking down the street. In each instance, the witnesses said they could find no basis for the stops other than they were minorities. But many of the officers who did the stopping also explained their legal reasoning.
Lawyers for the men who sued police say officers are making illegal stops in part because they felt pressure from superiors instituting illegal quotas. Some officers testified said they were punished for not making enough stops and were harassed by fellow officers upset they had blown the whistle. Yet others said no quotas existed and they never felt pressure to make a stop.
The trial has provided a rare window into the NYPD, with about a dozen officials testifying on how they do their jobs. Officers are told to stop the “the right people, at the right time in the right location,” a phrase first heard in the early days of the case on a secret recording made by one whistleblower officer during a heated exchange over his performance evaluation. Since then, it has been repeated by nearly every official who testified.
“It’s a tool that needs to be used properly, and as borough commanders you should have adequate checks and balances in place, and you should be looking at them with your staff,” said Deputy Chief James Hall, who is in charge of patrol. “There is a focus on when it is used … right time, right location, you know, right individual.”
Police have said the phrase means the location where crimes have been occurring, at the time they have been occurring, and an individual who matches the description of a crime suspect, or someone who appears about to commit a crime. Lawyers for the men who have sued say, though, that the phrase is code for targeting blacks and Hispanics in poor neighborhoods.
Plaintiffs say a court monitor must be appointed to facilitate changes in training, supervision and the documentation of street stops. An expert for the city testified that the department has already enough checks and balances already in place.
The tactic has become a city flashpoint, with the mayor and police commissioner defending it is a necessary crime-fighting tool, and other city lawmakers calling for major change.