Street Stop Trial Ends in Rapid-Fire Arguments
MANHATTAN (CN) - At the end of a 10-week trial, lawyers faced sharp questioning from a federal judge who will determine whether a monitor is needed to restrain the New York City Police Department from racially profiling in street stops.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, who is deciding the case without a jury, has heard roughly two months of testimony in the case of Floyd v. The City of New York, a class action to determine whether the NYPD's stop, question and frisk tactic unconstitutionally targets blacks and Latinos.
The grueling trial ended Monday with lawyers struggling to sum up their cases in the span of a day, as Scheindlin kept both sides to their time limits while peppering them with questions.
The closing arguments recapped testimony by 12 named plaintiffs about 19 stops they claimed violated their constitutional rights. Many of the plaintiffs sat in the packed courtroom.
To the city's lawyers, they were New Yorkers biased against the police and of dubious credibility.
To those who are challenging stop-and-frisk policy, they were brave individuals putting themselves through grueling litigation for no personal gain.
During the challengers' case, two Bronx police officers - Pedro Serrano and Adhil Polanco - testified that they secretly recorded their supervisors out of frustration of having to fulfill quotas.
A third, Adrian Schoolcraft, was unable to take the stand because he has a pending case against the NYPD in the same court, but his clandestine tapes were entered into evidence.
In Serrano's tape, he caught Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormick telling him to stop the "right people, at the right place, at the right time," and pressed him to elaborate until the inspector replied, "I don't have any trouble telling you this, male blacks 14 to 20, 21."
Dismissing "quotas" as a "sideshow," City Attorney Heidi Grossman, deputy chief of the city Law Department's Social Federal Litigation Division, contended that what the NYPD calls "performance goals" is appropriate to keep New York "the safest city of its size."
Grossman's argument then took a philosophical turn, as she characterized the controversy as one of imperfect language.
"This is not surprising because language is inherently imperfect," Grossman said
She asserted that Serrano "baited" his boss to make racial remarks on the tape, and she downplayed the men as "purported whistle-blowers."
But Judge Scheindlin disputed the premise of her argument.
"Even if these guys have no credibility, the tape says what the tape says," the judge noted.
The parties also wrestled over police officer's so-called "hit rate" for finding weapons, drugs or contraband during a stop. Analysis by Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Fagan found that 12 percent of 4.3 million stops between 2004 and 2012 resulted in a seizure of a weapon, a statistic that the judge said "trouble[d]" her.
"What troubles me is that suspicion appears to be wrong 90 percent of the time," Scheindlin said. "That's a high error rate."
Grossman replied that reasonable suspicion is lower standard for making a stop.
At one point, Scheindlin pointed out that each of the plaintiffs that Grossman alluded to was stopped on suspicion of possessing a gun, and none of them had one.
Grossman deflected that observation by replying, "That's true. We haven't found any gun. Thankfully,"
Her colleague, Brenda Cooke, handled most of the arguments about Fagan's research.
In his research, Fagan drew from forms known as UF-250s that NYPD officers fill out after every stop. He found that black and Latino men accounted for 87 percent of those stopped, questioned and frisk, a disparity that he found lacked any non-racial explanation.
Throughout the trial, city lawyers have faulted him for not including the race of crime suspects in his analysis. Fagan called that approach misleading because the race is unknown for a large percentage of crime suspects.
Judge Scheindlin said that race-based analysis "worrisome" because its logic was a "little circular," possibly leading to "self-fulfilling" results.
While the city is trying to prevent court-ordered monitoring, Scheindlin suggested that hiring a consultant might do the trick, if she finds against them. She noted the city's own witness proposed such a remedy.
The city insists that the NYPD can police itself.
Grossman quoted the department's Chief Joseph Esposito as saying, "The NYPD is a big ship, but it's slowly turning."
Gretchen Ann Hoff Varner, a lawyer from Covington & Burling LLP representing the plaintiffs, began her arguments by describing her clients. She gestured to Leroy Davis, where is the lead plaintiff in a similar case over "vertical patrols."
She said that police told Davis, "Hey buddy, you look like you're smoking weed," when he only had a cell phone. The next person she mentioned, Devin Almonar, a 13-year-old from Harlem, was taken into a police car for allegedly jaywalking. There, a police officer taunted him, "Why are you crying like a little girl," the officer admitted.
Police justified the arrest of another young man, Lalit Clarkson, on the allegation that he was drinking Hennessey in public, but testimony revealed that police did not preserve the alleged bottle or the plastic cup. After recounting several similar stories, she said, "These witnesses have no reason to lie."