City officials have settled a lawsuit alleging the New York Police Department improperly strip-searched people arrested for minor offenses in Brooklyn, agreeing to pay $650,000 to 20 plaintiffs in the case. But the jury remains out on whether strip-searches are being used by police only in special circumstances for safety and to collect evidence, or as a matter of routine.
The settlement of the suit contrasts sharply with the 2001 settlement of a similar case involving alleged wrongdoing in Manhattan and Queens, when the city agreed to pay up to $50 million in a class-action suit. In that case, the city conceded its Corrections Department illegally strip-searched tens of thousands of people held in custody on minor charges during a ten-month period in 1996 and 1997.
Federal courts have ruled since the 1980s that strip-searches are allowed for those arrested for minor crimes only under special circumstances, such as when police have reason to suspect a detainee may have a hidden weapon or contraband, usually drugs.
In settling the Brooklyn case, the city has admitted no wrongdoing, although statements from those plaintiffs involved in the suit describe how they were humiliated after being arrested for misdemeanor crimes, sometimes publicly strip-searched in view of other inmates and officers of the opposite sex.
Police policy says strip searches, when necessary, should be "conducted by a member of the same sex as the arrested person in a secure area in utmost privacy and with no other arrestee present."
Yet the lawsuit and a report (in pdf format) issued in May by the Civilian Complaint Review Board paint a far different picture. The board investigated dozens of complaints filed since 2002, and found that in 2003, they were substantiated at a rate of about 19 percent.
Twelve strip-search complaints were substantiated by the review board last year. Through July of this year, the board has substantiated 14 strip-search complaints.
While those overall numbers are small, officers interviewed by the Civilian Complaint Review Board in response to complaints often described strip-searches as routine and necessary to look for drugs, even if the person was arrested for different reasons. This led the review board to express concern that the problem was more wide-spread than the number of complaints might suggest.
The review board sent a letter to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly calling for better training of officers on how to conduct strip-searches and when strip-searches were permissible. Police officials have responded by saying that a new training video has been under development to give officers a better grasp of department policies on strip-searches.
Those involved in the lawsuit described their disappointment in the settlement to The New York Times.
One man in the Brooklyn lawsuit described for the Times how he was strip-searched after a traffic accident in which he was arrested on suspicion of having a suspended license. He described the crowded, dirty conditions of the holding cell, and then being asked to drop his pants in view of female officers.
"When the lawyers offered [the settlement] to me," the man told The Times, "they said, 'That's not bad for one night.' I said, 'You go try it.' I'm a knockaround guy. That night was pretty horrible."
When and how police conduct strip-searches have been questions raised by similar lawsuits across the country, and even the definition of "strip" search is not completely clear. Some legal scholars wonder exactly how much of a right people have not to be strip-searched.
But aside from when and where strip-searches are allowed, federal courts have ruled in similar cases this year that in order to reach class-action status -- and be eligible for multi-million dollar payouts, like the 2001 lawsuit -- the plaintiffs must prove that they are likely to be harmed in the future by police strip-searches. If those involved in the lawsuit were only involved in minor crimes, then it is unclear that those involved would be arrested again and subjected to similar treatment, according to the explanation presented by The Times.
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