NYPD racist, suit alleges

2013-03-18 22:20

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New York - A law suit challenging the New York Police Department's practice of detaining and sometimes searching anyone officers deemed suspicious got under way on Monday with a lawyer saying that officers have been wrongly stopping tens of thousands of young men based solely on their race.

Darius Charney of the Centre for Constitutional Rights said the policy is legal, but the department is illegally targeting black and Hispanic men because of their race.

Charney called many of the half million annual stops a "frightening and degrading experience" for "thousands if not millions" of New Yorkers over the last decade. He called them "arbitrary, unnecessary and unconstitutional".

The NYPD stopped close to 531 159 people on the street last year, up from more than 90 000 a decade ago. Fifty-one percent of those stopped were black, 32% Hispanic and 11% white. According to US Census figures, there are 8.2 million people in the city: 26% are black, 28% are Hispanic and 44% are white.

The NYPD's policy, known as "stop and frisk," has prompted an emotional debate in this city.

Opponents argue the strategy is unconstitutional and encourages racial profiling, while the city and its supporters say the stops have contributed to a dramatic drop in violent crime.

There were only 419 murders in 2012, the lowest since similar record keeping began in the 1960s, down from more than 2 000 in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the number of people stopped and search by police has increased more than fivefold since Bloomberg took office a decade ago.

"We're putting the NYPD on trial, and the stakes are the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers," said Vincent Warren, director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which filed the suit in 2008 on behalf of four men who said they were wrongly stopped.

Class-action status

The lawsuit has been granted class-action status, meaning thousands of people who have been stopped over the years could potentially join the complaint introduced by the Centre for Constitutional Rights on behalf of four black men.

The suit seeks a court-appointed monitor to oversee changes to how the police make stops. The trial is expected to last more than a month with more than a hundred residents, police officers, scholars and lawmakers expected to testify.

US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has already said in earlier rulings that she is deeply concerned about "stop and frisk," is not being asked to ban the tactic, since it has been found to be legal. But she does have the power to order reforms, which could bring major changes to how the nation's largest police force and other departments use the tactic.

Street stops have become a New York flashpoint, with mass demonstrations, city council hearings, mayoral candidates calling for reform, and, most recently, days of protests following the fatal police shooting of a teen who authorities say pulled out a gun during a stop.

Street stops increased substantially in the mid-1990s, when, faced with overwhelming crime, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani made "stop and frisk" an integral part of the city's law enforcement, relying on the "broken windows" theory that targeting low-level offences helps prevent bigger ones.

About half of the people are just questioned. Others have their bag or backpack searched. And sometimes police conduct a full pat-down. Only 10% of all stops result in arrest, and a weapon is recovered a fraction of the time.

- AP

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