MANHATTAN (CN) - Since New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reversed his predecessor's stop-and-frisk policies, civil rights lawyers have had one roadblock left in the way of reform: the police unions.
Lawyers representing several of those unions demonstrated on Wednesday that they would not go down gently.
Attorneys, reporters, activists and other spectators gathered to watch the showdown in a cavernous appellate courtroom and an overflow room where proceedings were transmitted via closed-circuit TV.
One judge on the panel warned that the court would not tolerate disruptions even though "this case attends to issues that excite emotions on all sides."
In two hours of argument, the unions took turns vying for a chance to upend the deal that city attorneys reached in the civil rights case earlier this year.
The city's settlement implements many of the court-ordered reforms that federal judge directed last year in the landmark case of Floyd v. The City of New York, which held the NYPD accountable for racial profiling in conducting street stops.
De Blasio dropped his predecessor Michael Bloomberg's appeal of this ruling earlier this year, and new police commissioner Bill Bratton agreed to make officers submit to the oversight of a court monitor, wear body cameras and document their stops more thoroughly.
A federal judge refused to let the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and other unions intervene in the settlement in July this year.
If the unions lose their appeal, the city and lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights will be able to start carrying out the court order.
Judge Barrington Parker remarked early on that it appeared that the unions were trying to "accumulate chips" in their negotiations with the city.
"You want to use this proceeding as leverage in your collective bargaining agreement, and I don't think that's a proper basis for an intervention," Parker told a lawyer from the Detectives' Endowment Association.
Joseph DiRuzzo, who represents the detectives for the firm Fuerst Ittleman David & Joseph PL, said that his clients also have safety and privacy interests at stake.
For example, the language of the ruling leaves it unclear whether officers could turn off their body cams when they used the restrooms, DiRuzzo asserted.
Judge Jose Cabranes noted that the court order expressly invited the unions to be heard on how the reforms are implemented.
When DiRuzzo said that the city would be "driving the proverbial bus" of those negotiations, Parker pointedly countered: "The people driving the bus are the communities you're serving, and they should be driving the bus. Isn't that right?"
Spectators shouted approval of that remark in the overflow room , but it seemed the courtroom itself remained quiet.
The third member of the appellate panel, Judge John Walker, summarized the unions' objections as being the alleged "reputational damage" and depletion of their "collective bargaining rights."
Baher Azmy, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, downplayed both gripes.
"[The unions] framed their harms exclusively in the hypothetical," he said. "It 'could.' It 'may.' It 'might.'"
Nothing in the order affects the unions' collective-bargaining rights, and the city's actions are justified by "management prerogative," he added.
"We're eager to move the [settlement] process forward," Azmy said.
New York City's lawyer Richard Dearing echoed Azmy's sentiments throughout his turn at arguments.
"From the city's perspective, we have turned the page," he said. "We are turning a corner."
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