By Larry Neumeister
NEW YORK — A federal judge gave the green light Wednesday to a lawsuit accusing the New York Police Department of discriminating against blacks and Hispanics with its stop-and-frisk policies aimed at reducing crime, citing evidence that officers are pressured to meet quotas and are punished if they do not.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan let proceed a 2008 class-action lawsuit seeking to hold the city and the Police Department liable for any failures to carry out the crime reduction program in an unbiased manner. The lawsuit alleged that the Police Department purposefully engaged in a widespread practice of concentrating its stop-and-frisk activity on black and Hispanic neighborhoods based on their racial composition rather than legitimate non-racial factors.
Scheindlin noted that police officers had testified about quotas and plaintiffs submitted audio recordings of roll call meetings in which instructions regarding stop and frisks and summons and arrest activity were given.
"Plaintiffs have presented the smoking gun of the roll call recordings, which, considered together with the statistical evidence, is sufficient circumstantial evidence for this claim to survive summary judgment," the judge said. Parties sometimes succeed with a summary judgment motion to have a case tossed out prior to trial. But Scheindlin rejected many of the city's arguments, saying the plaintiffs had presented enough facts to let the case proceed to trial.
The judge said a jury could determine whether the Police Department has engaged in a widespread practice of suspicion-less stops and frisks and whether the city could be liable if the practice was "so manifest as to imply the constructive acquiescence of senior policy-making officials." She said a trial can also determine whether police leadership has failed to adequately train officers.
City attorney Heidi Grossman noted that the judge made clear in her written ruling that the city does not have a policy of stopping minorities based on race.
"While the Court has left it for the jury to determine whether the city has taken adequate action to ensure that stops of New Yorkers are handled appropriately, we are confident the jury will find in the City's favor," she said.
The Police Department said it made 601,055 street stops of potential suspects last year, with about 10 percent of the stops resulting in arrests. In 2009, there were 575,304 stops.
The RAND Corp. research organization, in a study commissioned by the NYPD and released in 2007, concluded the raw data "distorts the magnitude and, at times, the existence of racially biased policing."
The study acknowledged that "black pedestrians were stopped at a rate that is 50 percent greater than their representation in the residential census." But it said using the census as a benchmark was unreliable because it failed to factor in variables such as a higher arrest rate and more crime-suspect descriptions involving minorities.
Scheindlin said the city may have been too dismissive of a report offered by plaintiffs that concluded that 24 percent of recorded stops and frisks from 2004 through 2009 "lack sufficiently detailed documentation to assess their legality," while 6 percent of stops "lack legal justification."
The judge said the city had taken remedial steps to improve its stop-and-frisk policies, but she could not say that corrective actions were sufficient to ensure intentional discrimination was not occurring.
She said it should be left for trial to decide whether police officials had been "deliberately indifferent to the need to train, monitor, supervise, and discipline its officers adequately in order to prevent a widespread pattern of suspicion-less and race-based stops."
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