City Witness Stumbles in Stop-and-Frisk Case


     MANHATTAN (CN) – New York City’s witness lacks the expertise to testify about the bulk of arguments he planned to discredit a Columbia University criminologist’s findings that police disproportionately stop and frisk blacks and Latinos, a federal judge ruled.
     U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin has pushed forward a class-action lawsuit that calls for court monitoring to make sure that New York City police evenly deploys the controversial tactic.
     The four minority men who filed the case plan to call a Columbia professor, James Fagan, to testify about his research into a 2.8 million-file database detailing five years of police stops.
     Fagan found that roughly 5 percent of stops resulted in an arrest, about 6 percent produced a summons, and only a fraction of a percentage turned up a gun. But the professor allegedly discovered that stops were skewed toward minorities in a pattern that could not be explained by the demographic makeup of a neighborhood.
     On Friday, the city’s star witness, New York University public policy professor Dennis Smith, was restrained from using several of the arguments he planned to attack Fagan’s findings.
     The Center for Constitutional Rights, whose lawyers represent the plaintiffs of the landmark case, released a statement by its executive director praising the ruling.
     “Judge Scheindlin’s ruling confirms what those challenging stop and frisk have been saying for years: there is no evidence that the practice reduces crime and, in any event, the issue in the case is not whether stop and frisk is a good or bad crime-fighting strategy, but whether the practice is legal and constitutional, and whether these police stops respect, or violate, people’s rights,” Vincent Warren wrote. “The ruling soundly rejects the false choice propounded by the NYPD, between living in a safe city and being free of unconstitutional, racially discriminatory policing.”
     Smith can still argue that Fagan’s analysis used the wrong “benchmark” by failing to account for the racial distribution of the perpetrators of crime in New York City, and his challengers are free to point out that he has never conducted a statistical study about that theory, Scheindlin wrote.
     However, Smith’s lack of statistical expertise makes him unqualified to propose his own analysis based on arrest and crime complaint reports.
     “Smith is unable to ‘establish that both the choice of variables and the actual running of the model were methodologically sound,'” the order states. “Without these verifications, Smith’s testimony is inadmissible.”
     Since constitutionality and effectiveness are separate questions, Smith cannot credit the city’s “historic drop in crime” to stop-and-frisk tactics, Scheindlin ruled.
     “[A]dmitting Smith’s testimony – and permitting the parties to delve into the question of whether the stop and frisk program actually reduces crime – would risk turning the trial into a policy debate over the wisdom of the program rather than a judicial proceeding that assesses plaintiffs’ constitutional claims,” the order states.
     In Fagan’s statistic that police only find guns in 0.15 percent of stops, Scheindlin wrote, “I found … powerful evidence of a widespread pattern of unlawful stops.”
     Smith, on the other hand, claims the low “hit rate” demonstrates that stop-and-frisks are effective in keeping guns off the streets.
     Scheindlin brushed aside that “speculative” theory, which she said “is surely not based on any scientific methodology.”
     “I also note that Smith’s hypothesis is not even couched as a rebuttal of Fagan’s hypothesis that the low hit rates suggest a lack of reasonable suspicion; instead, Smith appears simply to attempt to justify stops on the basis of their deterrent impact, regardless of their legality,” the order states.
     The judge stressed that the jurors are only to weigh constitutional concerns, and neither set of experts can share their opinions about the NYPD’s motives or whether stop-and-frisks work.
     The next conference is scheduled for Aug. 27.

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