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Friday, June 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Stop-and-Frisk Data Is Fair Game for Landmark Trial

MANHATTAN (CN) - A Columbia University criminologist can tell a jury about research that he says proves racial bias permeates police stop-and-frisks, a federal judge ruled Monday.

In rejecting objections to the expert testimony of Dr. Jeffrey Fagan, the court pointed to an affidavit from sitting state Sen. Eric Adams, D-N.Y. New York City Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly allegedly told Adams, a former police captain, that the program specifically targeted black and Latino men.

Adams' affidavit says: "Commissioner Kelly stated that the NYPD targets its stop-and-frisk activity at young black and Latino men because it wants to instill the belief in members of these two populations that they could be stopped and frisked every time they leave their homes so that they are less likely to carry weapons."

Though Kelly denied the allegations, city lawyers openly argued that stop-and-frisks could be justified for their "deterrence" value.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin blasted this rationale Monday.

"It is notable that the city acknowledges that 'deterrence' is a goal of its stop-and-frisk policy," she wrote. "Deterrence is of course a crucial aspect of law enforcement (and criminal justice policy in general) and it may lawfully be pursued in many different ways - more cops walking their beats, better detective work, etc. But it may not be accomplished through the use of unlawful stops." (Parentheses in original.)

The ruling marks one of the final phases of pretrial motions in a class action that alleges unconstitutional racial profiling. The four lead plaintiffs have posed the strongest challenge against the decades-old practice of "preventative policing" in a federal courtroom.

Toward the beginning of her 71-page order, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin gave a rough statistical outline of NYPD stop-and-frisk practices.

"On over 2.8 million occasions between 2004 and 2009, New York City police officers stopped residents and visitors, restraining their freedom, even if only briefly," Scheindlin wrote. "Over fifty percent of those stops were of black people and thirty percent were of Hispanics, while only ten percent were of whites."

After each stop, police must fill out two-sided forms, known as UF-250s, with demographic and other information.

"All of these records are compiled in a database - a database that now contains a wealth of information about millions of interactions between police officers and civilians," the order states. "The information is both incredibly rich and inevitably incomplete: rich because the dozens of boxes on the worksheet are designed to solicit the very information - who, when, where, why and how - that courts (and the NYPD itself) use to evaluate whether a stop was lawful; incomplete because a fill-in-the-blank document can never fully capture the nuances of a human interaction, because these worksheets capture only the quick responses of police officers rather than of the civilians who have been stopped, and because police officers do not always fill them out perfectly."

Scheindlin refused a request by city lawyers to suppress the database based on these imperfections.

"Thousands of New York City police officers have spent an enormous amount of time documenting, in significant detail, the circumstances that led to the stops at issue in this lawsuit; the NYPD has invested tremendous time, money, and energy in compiling, reviewing, and analyzing that data," Scheindlin wrote. "Although by no means perfect, this information can surely help the jury to evaluate the parties' claims and defenses."

In a footnote, the judge also took the city to task for the irony of its request.

"It is worth noting that the defendants are challenging the accuracy and utility of a form that they helped create and that their officers fill out," the footnote states.

Scheindlin summarized Professor Fagan's findings about the data, which consists of millions of files from five years of stop-and-frisks.

"The racial composition of a precinct, neighborhood, and census tract is a statistically significant, strong and robust predictor of NYPD stop-and-frisk patterns even after controlling for the simultaneous influences of crime, social conditions, and allocation of police resources.

"NYPD stops-and-frisks are significantly more frequent for black and Hispanic residents than they are for white residents, even after adjusting for local crime rates, racial composition of the local population, police patrol strength, and other social and economic factors predictive of police enforcement activity.

"Blacks and Latinos are significantly more likely to be stopped by NYPD officers than are Whites even in areas where there are low crime rates and where residential populations are racially heterogeneous or predominately white.

"Black and Hispanic individuals are treated more harshly during stop-and-frisk encounters with NYPD officers than whites who are stopped on suspicion of the same or similar crimes."

Specifically, Fagan found that the "percentage of stops whose suspected crime is uninterpretable has grown dramatically from 1.12% in 2004 to 35.9% in 2009." Roughly 5 percent of stops resulted in an arrest, and about 6 percent produced a summons, according to the study.

"Overall, guns are seized in less than one percent of all stops: 0.15 percent," the study states. "Contraband, which may include weapons but also drugs or stolen property, is seized in 1.75 percent of all stops."

The city did persuade Scheindlin that Fagan reached an "inadmissible legal conclusion" in classifying more than 170,000 stops as "unjustified."

Scheindlin suggested that the parties agree on a shorthand phrase such as "apparently unjustified" stops at trial.

A trial date is expected after the court determines whether to certify the lawsuit as a class action.

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