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by Margaret Reuter, Center for New York City Law at New York Law School
In the News: Plaintiffs in racial profiling case get highly sensitive police personnel files
(june '00) The racial profiling lawsuit
In October 1999, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin allowed a lawsuit to go forward that was brought by six Black and Hispanic men aged 23 to 31. They alleged that racial profiling was so endemic to the NYPD, and especially the Street Crimes Unit, that Black and Hispanic men were accosted, questioned, and fiercely handled by SCU officers based on their color and ethnicity without suspicion of wrongdoing. The SCU was once considered the elite anti-crime corps drafted to interdict illegal weapons in high crime areas. The complaint described some of the SCU's alleged practices:
Generally, not always, SCU officers operate at night in teams, roaming the streets in unmarked cars, including taxi cabs. Until recently, the unit's officers were in plainclothes. SCU officers routinely stop or "toss" people at random, often based solely on an individual's race and/or national origin. In a typical stop, SCU officers will rush up to an individual on the street or pull over a car. Those stopped are then peppered with questions about whether they possess firearms and/or drugs and why they are in the area. Often, SCU officers thoroughly frisk the people they stop and completely search their persons and belongings, scouring clothes, belongings, wallets and vehicles, despite the absence of reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The SCU's stop-and-frisks are sometimes violent encounters, with SCU officers shoving individuals against walls, cars, and sometimes throwing them to the ground.
Judge Scheindlin found that the men alleged enough facts about racial profiling to warrant a trial on whether SCU's practices constituted unconstitutional searches and seizures and violated the equal protection clause. In particular, she found that the alleged stop-and-frisk policy was likely to recur and refused to postpone this lawsuit until investigations by the federal and state authorities were concluded.
City must turn over police discipline records
The case is now in the discovery phase and the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, which represents the six Black and Hispanic men, has asked the City to turn over various documents including the personnel records of the SCU officers from 1995 on and the NYPD's statistical analyses of SCU arrest demographics. The requested personnel files included the NYPD's Central Personnel Index; files from CCRB and Internal Affairs; all command discipline, charges, and specifications, which include witness and officer accounts as well as personal information about the officers such as residence, family members, medical, psychological and financial records. The requested SCU arrest information called for any statistical analyses of SCU officer demographics and arrests, crime and arrest data by patrol borough, 911 calls reporting gun use, arrest demographics department wide and for SCU, and SCU arrests declined for prosecution. Judge Scheindlin ordered the City to produce the records.
Her ruling on the officers' disciplinary records was a major departure from statutory and case law that protects cops' personnel files from disclosure. The state privilege against disclosure is intended foremost to protect officers' privacy from fishing expeditions by every criminal defendant hoping to cast doubt on the defendant's arrest. Judge Scheindlin ruled that the plaintiff's claims--that SCU had a policy or custom of permitting widespread constitutional deprivations--can only be demonstrated by review and analysis of such disciplinary records. The court ordered disclosure of a redacted form of the records. The City must disclose the time, date, and location of the alleged misconduct, a short narrative describing the nature of the complaint, and what action, if any, was taken in response. All other identifying information, such as names, address, and personal information must be redacted.
Federal and State investigations
On December 1, 1999 New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's Office released his analysis of 175,000 police officer UF-250 "stop" reports from January 1998 to March 1999. The analysis revealed that, even accounting for differential crime rates, Blacks and Latinos were twice as likely as whites to be stopped and frisked. The full text of the report can be found on the Attorney General's website.
The US Civil Rights Commission released a draft of its report on allegations of NYPD racial profiling practices to the New York Times on April 27, 2000 (which is unfortunately not available on the Commission's website). On May 16th, the Police Department issued its 38-page response to the Civil Rights Commission draft, claiming that the Commission recklessly relied on unsupported and uninvestigated anecdotal allegation. The NYPD response can be found on their site.
Meg Sounds Off: Million Moms
I went to the Million Mom March in Washington, DC on Mother's Day, with my family happily in tow. We boarded a specially chartered Amtrak train filled with nearly a thousand moms and their families. The day was beautiful, often festive, and emotionally overwhelming as mothers, teachers, and surviving family members told of the violent deaths of their children. One of my 9-year old daughter's playmates was there. Her father was killed in the Post Office massacre in Montclair, New Jersey. That fact is too much for my daughter to handle; she worries about having nightmares if she thinks much about the risk of wanton violence.
Gun control must be federalized. The superhighway of guns coming to New York and New Jersey from the South obliterates any sensible gun regulation these states can muster. As Anna Quindlen remarked if we can register our cars and send in warranty cards to register our refrigerators, we can register guns. If we can put safety locks on every cabinet in the house to protect our toddlers, we can put safety locks on guns. That was the speech that my twelve-year-old heard the loudest and clearest. Visit www.millionmommarch.com for more information.
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