MANHATTAN (CN) - Curbing racial disparities in the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk program requires a federal judge to act "boldly and broadly," a civil rights lawyer said at the start of a landmark federal trial.
Although he filed the current class action two years ago, civil liberties attorney Darius Charney told the court Monday, "Really, this trial is 14 years in the making."
His organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed a different lawsuit aimed at reforming police stops in early 1999, weeks after the police killing of an unarmed immigrant, Amadou Diallo, brought racial profiling into scrutiny.
The 2003 settlement of that case required the NYPD to explain the basis for each of its stops on a UF-250 form and install protocols to oversee the program.
Street stops nevertheless ballooned after the settlement, overwhelmingly targeting blacks and Latinos, according to NYPD data.
City lawyers insist that this is because most criminal suspects belong to these ethnic groups, but three separate federal lawsuits have alleged that racial discrimination and quotas are to blame.
Presiding over these cases, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin has consistently found that the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies stand on shaky constitutional ground.
The most significant stop-and-frisk case on her docket, Floyd v. City of New York, asks her to appoint a court-appointed monitor to reform the NYPD.
On Monday morning, lawyers spent a large portion of their arguments dissecting the research of Columbia Professor Jeffrey Fagan, who analyzed a 2.8 million-file database of stops.
The professor found that police seized guns in only 0.15 percent of all stops, and found "contraband" in general in 1.75 percent of all stops.
By contrast, authorities seized drugs from 5 percent of cars netted in a random checkpoint in the case of Indianapolis v. Edmonds.
Charney cited this case to argue that the NYPD fell far short of chance, let alone the "reasonable suspicion" standard.
City lawyer Brenda Cooke claimed that the low hit rate is evidence that the program is successful in preventing guns and drugs from turning up on the streets. She also insisted that Fagan's data vindicated the NYPD by finding that 88 percent of police stops are "apparently based on reasonable suspicion."
When Fagan takes the stand, he is expected to testify that he was commenting on whether officers wrote a basis for suspicion on the form, not whether their stops were substantiated.
In finding racial bias, Fagan measured his statistics against the demographics of city's population. Cooke claims, however, that the racial bias "virtually disappears" when measured against known criminal suspects.
She argued that the 87 percent rate of blacks and Latinos stopped is a "close correlation" to the 80 percent rate of known criminal suspects in these ethnic groups.
In Staten Island, whites make up 77 percent of the population, 67 percent of criminal suspects and 63 percent of those stopped, she added.
Critics of this type of statistical analysis slam it for "selection bias" because the race of an alleged perpetrator is only known in 50 to 60 percent of cases.
Charney was quick to note, however, that the case is "about much more than numbers; it's about people."
His lead client, David Floyd, says he was helping a neighbor get into his apartment when three plainclothes officers stopped him. Charney said police justified the stop based on a "supposed burglary pattern" in the neighborhood that did not exist.
Floyd is one of the 12 witnesses prepared to testify about an allegedly illegal stop.
After opening arguments this chilly morning, critics of the stop-and-frisk program crowded onto nearby Foley Square for a press conference.
One of the speakers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said, "I heard the arguments today in the courtroom, and New York's arguments seem to be to justify, not deny. To rationalize. ... 'We do these things to keep the city safe.' It is unfair. It is unjust. People have an obligation stand up and fight back, and we will not give up until we have justice and an even playing field."
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.