NEW YORK — A federal judge must now decide whether the nation’s largest police force has been unjustly stopping black and Hispanic men under a polarizing tactic known as stop, question and frisk, and whether changes are needed to department policy, training and supervision.
During a 10-week civil rights trial that ended Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Schiendlin heard testimony from 12 witnesses, all minorities, who said they were stopped by New York City police chiefly because of their race. She also heard from police who made the stops and from policy experts.
About 5 million stops have been made in New York in the past decade, with frisks occurring about half the time. In order to make a stop, police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime is about to occur or has occurred, a standard lower than the probable cause needed to justify an arrest. Only about 10 percent result in arrest or summonses and a weapon is recovered a fraction of the time.
The tactic has become a city flashpoint, with the mayor and police commissioner defending it as a necessary crime-fighting tool, and other city lawmakers calling for major change.
During the trial, minority witnesses told of frightening encounters with callous officers they said were so bent on numbers that everyday New Yorkers were harassed. The toll has been massive, lawyers challenging the New York Police Department policy argued.
“They laid siege to black and Latino neighborhoods over the last eight years … making people of color afraid to leave their homes,” Gretchen Hoff Varner, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Monday during summations.
She said that blacks and Latinos make up a little more than 50 percent of the city population, but 85 percent of the people stopped by police as part of the tactic are black and Hispanic.
In their testimony, many of the officers who stopped the dozen witnesses spoke of dangerous crime patterns, crime suspect descriptions and observations they made while on patrol that led them to use the tactic. City attorney Heidi Grossman said those clear explanations for many of the stops — none were solely based on race — prove officers were not profiling.
“They failed to show a single constitutional violation, much less a widespread pattern or practice,” she said of the plaintiffs, adding there was “no indication of racial motivation whatsoever.”
Grossman said the witnesses in the class-action case had faulty memories and were “woefully lacking” considering that lawyers had years to find the best examples of people who said they were stopped because of their race.
“The alleged complaints of racial profiling are more fiction than reality,” she said. “It is not the NYPD’s policy to target black and Hispanic youth to instill fear in them so they feel they can be stopped at any time.”
Scheindlin is not being asked to ban the tactic because it has already been found to be legal. She has been asked to order changes in how stop-and-frisk is implemented. She has already said the profiling accusations are troubling. She gave no time frame on when to expect her ruling.
On Monday, the judge played devil’s advocate, interrupting both sides to ask questions. She asked the plaintiffs, for example, if most of the crimes were committed by minorities, why would it be a surprise that those stopped were mostly minorities. She asked city lawyers whether the argument that crime suspects are mostly minorities then leads to profiling by police.
She even raised the possibility of ordering the NYPD to make officers wear cameras to help dispel discrepancies between encounters. Neither side had suggested body-worn cameras as a potential fix, but a policing expert who testified made passing reference to it as being useful in another city.
The case delved into NYPD policy and procedure — and the difficulty of explaining intuition that comes with being an officer. Grossman said the phrase “the right people, at the right time in the right location,” repeated by most of the officers on the stand was shorthand for a comprehensive reason for stopping.
The phrase first appeared early in the trial on a recording made secretly by an officer of his superiors. The officer says the tapes prove illegal quotas were in place and said he felt pressure to make stops and were punished for falling short. Another officer said the NYPD wanted “quantity not quality.”
Grossman argued the city did not link illegal quotas to any wrongful stops. More than 30 other officers, including former Chief of Department Joseph Esposito, testified there were no quotas, but motivating performance goals were necessary because some cops avoid engaging with the public.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the department was turning a blind eye to the issue.
“The police department has said over and over and over again that there’s no problem,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Jonathan Moore.
He said a court-appointed monitor was needed to shepherd changes in training, policy and supervision because the department could not be trusted to do it alone.