A controversial crime-fighting tactic used by police departments around the country was dealt a substantial blow Monday, when a federal judge ruled that the way New York City practices “stop and frisk” was unconstitutional.
Siding with four men who said they were unfairly targeted by the tactic, Federal District Judge Shira Scheindlin found that the NYPD had engaged in widespread “indirect racial profiling,” violating the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause.
“This case is about the tension between liberty and public safety,” Scheindlin wrote in her opinion, noting that between 2004 and 2012, the NYPD stopped more than 4.4 million people, over 80 percent of whom were black or Hispanic. “In each of these stops a person’s life was interrupted.”
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The ruling, which ordered the NYPD to take measures to prevent racial profiling, does not end Stop and Frisk so much as it punts the decision to the next mayoral administration. It is a potential blow to the legacy of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has vigorously defended the policy as integral to the 30 percent drop in violent crime during his twelve-year tenure. “Nowhere in her 195-page decision does she mention the historic cuts in crime or the number of lives that have been saved,” Bloomberg said, vowing to appeal the decision.
“You are not doing away with stop-and-frisk,” William Bratton, the former Chief of the New York and Los Angeles Police Departments, tells TIME. “The heart and soul of [the judge’s] finding is that the department has not put enough resources in this issue,” he says.
Long before Monday’s ruling, critics have questioned the tactic’s effectiveness in deterring crime. “There’s no evidence that stop and frisk actually is effective,” says Dr. Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law and public heath at Columbia University. “It’s a difficult social science question to answer, but so far, nobody has come up with any evidence to suggest that it is.”
Stop and Frisk grew out of a 1968 Supreme Court decision, Terry v. Ohio, which permitted police officers to detain a person based on “reasonable suspicion” that he or she might be about to commit a crime. Prior to Terry, police officers had to have a greater deal of certainty—probable cause—before they could search an individual.
While proactive searches are common practice in many police departments, use of Stop and Frisk increased in New York after the 1994 introduction of CompStat, a statistics-based crime tracking system. For the past decade, the number of UF-250 forms (the document NYPD officers fill out when they stop and frisk someone) filed by a unit has factored into its performance grade, creating an incentive for more stops. The tactic was also the centerpiece of a 2002 effort to find and remove more guns from city streets.
But the stops did not affect New Yorkers uniformly. The vast majority occurred in lower-income, minority neighborhoods. From 2003 to 2008, the highest cumulative number of stops occurred in poorer neighborhoods such as East Harlem, Brooklyn’s East New York and Jamaica, Queens. The neighborhoods with the lowest number of stops were wealthier parts of the city such as downtown and midtown Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Park Slope. In 52% of 4.4 million stops between 2004 and 2012, the person stopped was black. In 31%, the person was Hispanic.
“What stop and frisk has done is sort of criminalize everyone in certain communities, or people who look a certain way,” says Dr. Delores Jones-Brown, Professor in the Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
In ruling for the targets of these stops, Scheindlin put in motion a process to undo that alleged bias. She appointed a federal monitor, an independent lawyer from the New York office of Arnold and Porter, Peter L. Zimroth, to oversee reforms at the NYPD, which will likely involve more training for police, better supervision of officers, and changes to the way data is collected and analyzed.
Although Bloomberg says he’ll appeal the ruling, the next mayor of New York City will determine the long-term direction of the NYPD, after the election in November. “Now the political priority is turned to the mayoral candidates to put pressure on them to pledge to withdraw the appeal and accept the outside court appointed monitor,” says Robert Gangi, the founder of the Police Reform Organizing Project in New York.
Democratic mayoral candidates cheered the court order. Public advocate Bill de Blasio says he will not appeal the ruling and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former comptroller Bill Thompson have promised to work with the federally appointed monitor. Republican candidates George McDonald and Joe Lhota pledged to appeal the court decision. “The last thing in the world the NYPD needs is another monitor, on top of all oversight it has already,” says Lhota.
This is not the first time that federal intervention has compelled a major city to reform its police department. Last summer, the Department of Justice announced an agreement with the city of New Orleans to implement police reforms with federal oversight, including the elimination of racial profiling. Similar agreements were reached between the federal government and the cities of Oakland and Los Angeles.
The results in those two cities provide a window into the possible outcome for New York, says Frank Zimring, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley law school. Oakland agreed to reforms in 2003 but has failed to implement them. “What you see there is delay becoming an art form, its own kabuki, ten years leading to nothing, except one furious federal judge.” By contrast, Los Angeles, which implemented reforms after a settlement in 2001, has made considerable progress in both the efficiency of the police department and its reputation for respecting civil liberties.
The outcome in LA is the “best case fantasy that litigants and liberals would project onto the New York screen,” says Zimring. Bratton, the police chief who oversaw the reforms, agrees. “While it will be costly, in the long run it will be beneficial,” he says.
It’s just not clear how long that road will be. “This is a first step in a chess game that is going to have a hundred different moves throughout governments and police administration,” says Zimring. “It could work out well, it could go badly. It could produce endless delay and hostility or it could produce cooperation.”