By Greg Morris, New America Media
NEW YORK — Mayor Bloomberg boasts that when New York does something, like banning super-size soft drinks, the world pays attention. Now a class action lawsuit against the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s stop-and-frisk tactics is putting him and a policy he championed in an ugly glare.
Filed in 2008 by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Floyd et. al v. City of New York charges that the NYPD interdicted millions of ordinary people on the city’s streets merely for being people of color — or “walking while black,” in the words of the New York Times. As many as 5 million people were subjected to searches over a period of several years as they walked home or walked to the store or simply hung out in front of their homes, according to statistics compiled by the ACLU.
Last year, the CCR won another federal class action case against the city for racial bias in its failure to promote black firefighters. On March 8, 2012, a federal judge ruled the New York Fire Department had to pay $128 million in back pay to the plaintiffs.
What would happen if CCR’s federal lawsuit prevails against the NYPD?
As precedent, the CCR points to the 2002 Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement which resulted from a settlement after the ACLU joined with the Cincinnati Black United Front to file suit alleging racial profiling and discriminatory law enforcement. Enacted in April 2002 with a five-year time frame, the agreement aimed to improve police-community relations as well as education, hiring practices and accountability within the police department.
Other cities are dealing with similar legal challenges to abusive police behavior. The Special Litigation Section of the Justice Department is opening an investigation of the use of force by police officers in the Cleveland police department.
And the Justice Department is currently negotiating a consent decree to settle a federal lawsuit against the City of New Orleans.
A federal consent decree means that a court can order timely injunctive relief against a city and maintains jurisdiction over the case to ensure that the settlement is followed. Failure to obey the order can cause a court to find the party in contempt and impose other penalties.
Plaintiffs in lawsuits generally prefer consent decrees because they have the power of the court behind the agreements; defendants who wish to avoid publicity also tend to prefer such agreements because they limit the exposure of damaging details. Critics of consent decrees argue that federal district courts assert too much power over the defendant.
Floyd et. al v. City of New York is the culmination of years of protests, lawsuits, and demonstrations by New Yorkers to abolish stop and frisk. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in silent protest on Father’s Day last June 17, passing Mayor Bloomberg’s residence. On March 18, activists from organizations like Communities United for Police Reform, who have worked to educate people about how to deal with repressive police stops, rallied at Foley Square to mark the trial’s start.
Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly defend the policy as key to the city’s crackdown on crime. CCR’s Executive Director Vincent Warren, speaking at the Foley Square rally, rebutted their claim, pointing out that less than 1 percent of stop-and-frisk interdictions resulted in gun confiscations.
Djbril Toure, a member of the Malcolm X Grass Roots Movement, which organized cop watch patrols and workshops to teach people their rights when stopped by police, said the trial “vindicates decades of our work.”
Toure underscored the life and death consequences of “repressive police policies” by reading off the names of New Yorkers gunned down by police — like Sean Bell, Adamadou Diallo, Abner Louima, and Kimai Gray (shot on March 10 by police officers who claimed he pointed a gun at them.) Sixteen-year-old Gray’s death sparked a major civil disturbance described by news reports as a riot in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.
NY City Council member Jummane Williams, who represents Brooklyn, warned that anger is bubbling up and that “every proper leader in New York” should address the problem before it goes too far.
A week into the trial, City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn announced at a press conference in front of the police department headquarters that the Council had agreed to create an inspector general to oversee the police department. And the Legal Services of NY filed its own federal class action lawsuit against the NYPD, alleging “routine discrimination against immigrant New Yorkers who seek police assistance in times of crisis.”
Perhaps most damaging to the Mayor’s credibility on stop and frisk was testimony by two whistleblower police officers about the pressure officers face to make a certain number of stops. If you didn’t make your quota, said one, “you’ll become a pizza delivery man.”
Greg Morris is a veteran reporter who teaches journalism at Hunter College.