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Monitor: NYPD enforcing social distance rules unlike stop and frisk actions

NYPD officers guard City Hall in Manhattan on

NYPD officers guard City Hall in Manhattan on Tuesday near an encampment of protesters. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

A special federal monitor has tossed cold water on a request by civil liberties attorneys to use a landmark stop and frisk court ruling to end NYPD enforcement of social distancing rules in the COVID-19 pandemic.

A lawyer for private attorney Peter Zimroth, who was appointed by a Manhattan federal court judge to monitor police compliance with the 2013 ruling, said in a court filing last month that any complaints about racial disparities in the NYPD's enforcing of social distancing rules were outside the scope of the original stop and frisk decision.

Zimroth was appointed by the judge to oversee various reforms in the NYPD aimed at ending any stop and frisk-related violations of the constitutional rights of black and Hispanic men.

Zimroth’s counsel Benjamin Gruenstein, also argued that any attempt to enjoin the NYPD social distancing activity “would intrude improperly upon the public health decision-making of state and local officials.”

The 2013 ruling called stop and frisk "indirect racial profiling" because it targeted racially defined groups. 

Lawyers for plaintiffs suing the NYPD over racial disparities in stop and frisk actions argued in May court fillings that there were similar disparities in the way cops enforced social distancing rules. NYPD data released in May showed that out of 125 arrests connected to the coronavirus, 64.4% of those arrested were black and 24% Hispanic, a total of nearly 90%. 

Based on that data and allegations over excessive use of force by city cops, the civil rights lawyers argued that the NYPD had violated the terms of the 2013 court order, asking for an injunction and other legal remedies.

But in a letter to Manhattan federal Judge Analisa Torres, Gruenstein said any social distancing enforcement by cops wasn’t the subject of the stop and frisk order and therefore an injunction was inappropriate. He also said that since state Attorney General Letitia James was looking at the police actions, getting Zimroth involved would be a waste of resources. 

Gruenstein took no position on whether cops acted illegally in enforcing social distancing rules or making arrests related to the coronavirus. Rather, in a footnote, Gruenstein said the record didn’t show that the NYPD had a policy of “explicitly using race to determine which people to enforce the COVID rules against.”

Torres still must rule on whether she agrees with Zimroth or wants to proceed further in the dispute. Attorneys for the plaintiffs didn’t immediately return requests for comment Wednesday.

In May, Newsday reported that the NYPD found that many of the so-called social distancing arrests actually involved cases where there was a crime victim requiring police help.

“The crimes are characterized as COVID-19 related due to the circumstances of occurrence, remarks made by the arrestee at the time of the alleged crime or afterward, or statements made by a victim,” the NYPD said in a statement at the time.

The arrests were for hate crimes, domestic violence, weapons possession, robbery or fights, according to the department.

Since the social distancing controversy erupted, the NYPD has stopped enforcing related rules. Cops coming across a large gathering will tell people to move along and only make arrests for penal law violations, said a department spokesman.

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