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NYPD 'stop and frisk' trial starts Monday

New York City police officers demonstrate the stop-and-frisk

New York City police officers demonstrate the stop-and-frisk tactic at a training facility at Rodman's Neck. (June 12, 2012) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

David Ourlicht says his first experience with the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" tactics came when he was 15, growing up in the East Village. Later, as a college student in Queens, he was rousted walking home, and then stopped a month later heading to his mother's for dinner. And then, again, in Harlem, taking a cigarette break one morning.

Ourlicht, one of the lead plaintiffs in a closely watched federal trial scheduled to begin Monday over the city's alleged abuse and overuse of the tactic, says he has never been arrested, and has no criminal record. He's tired of the almost routine harassment, and he wants the stops to stop.

"I want my future children, my friends, my family to not have to go through this," said Ourlicht, 25, who is half-black and half-Italian and plans to attend law school. "I want to see the police working with people, not being aggressive."

"Stop and frisk" has its roots in a 1964 Supreme Court decision that said even when police lack probable cause to arrest a person for a crime, they can stop anyone that they have "reasonable suspicion" is up to no good. They can then conduct limited questioning and frisk the person for weapons.

But the NYPD, the lawsuit alleges, has distorted that limited power into a citywide tactic that is deployed widely, unconstitutionally and in a racially discriminatory manner. One that has produced arrests or summonses in barely 1 out of every 10 stops, while targeting blacks and Hispanics 84 percent of the time, and resulting in a gun-seizure rate of just 0.15 percent.

The class action suit will be heard by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in federal court in Manhattan. The plaintiffs want the judge to rein in the use of the tactic, and to order better training and stiffer standards on when and how people are stopped.

"These stops are not being undertaken when there is the kind of reasonable suspicion required by the Constitution," said Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "The evidence will show a systematic pattern of race-based policing that needs to be dismantled at its core."

The city, however, contends that its program -- which hit a record of 684,000 stops in 2011 -- has been a key contributor in controlling crime and provided vital assistance in taking guns off the street. It pledges a "vigorous" defense at trial.

"Precinct by precinct, the rates at which minorities are stopped are consistent with the rates at which minorities are identified as crime suspects," law department official Celeste Koeleveld said in a statement Friday. "Furthermore, police officers must be able to stop and question people who act suspiciously in order to do their jobs."

The trial is expected to last seven to eight weeks. In addition to individuals like Ourlicht, who will describe their encounters with police, Azmy said, the trial will feature testimony from police "whistle-blowers" about pressures to achieve high numbers of stops and experts who dispute that there is a link between stops and crime rates.

Experts say the trial, in part, may be as much about the past as the future. Under intense criticism, the NYPD reported a 22 percent drop-off in stops, to 533,000 last year. And most of the candidates to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg have promised reforms.

Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the city's stop and frisk program had grown largely because of its statistical, numbers-driven approach to crime control, requiring commanders to throw resources at any precinct-level spike in crime.

"Now you have to have a plan, and more often than not that plan involves stop and frisk," he said.

O'Donnell said the time is probably ripe for a better, more focused strategy that brings down the total number of stops while ratcheting up the number of effective ones. But he warned that Scheindlin -- who has already signaled strong dissatisfaction with the police -- has to be cautious about accusations of "handcuffing" the NYPD.

"The courts have to be careful about getting involved in police operations, trying to micromanage the police," he said. "Does she want to take ownership of a higher crime rate?"

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