NEW YORK — The U.S. Justice Department has treaded carefully into the debate over the New York Police Department’s stop, question and frisk policy, telling a federal judge that it strongly endorses an independent monitor to oversee changes should she decide civil rights violations have occurred.
Lawyers for the Justice Department filed a 21-page statement of interest in the case late Wednesday, the last day to file paperwork. The court papers say the government was weighing in “only in order to assist the court on the issue of remedy, and only should it find that NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices are unlawful.” It did not say whether it believed the practices to be unconstitutional.
“The department has extensive experience working to ensure that police services are delivered in an effective, constitutional manner,” the Justice Department said in a statement following the court filing. “Our statement of interest is intended to share our experience relevant to fashioning an appropriate remedy, should it be required.”
U.S. District Court Judge Shira Sheindlin is considering whether to order reforms to the police policy after a 10-week bench trial in which a dozen people testified that they were stopped by police solely because of their race.
About 5 million people have been stopped by New York police in the past decade, most of them black and Hispanic men. Lawyers for the four men who sued say hundreds of thousands of those stops were unconstitutional, and they want a monitor to oversee changes to police department training, supervision and policy.
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City lawyers, the mayor and the police commissioner have all argued that the stops are not wrongful, and the policy is a necessary crime-fighting tool that has helped drive down crime to record lows. Several police officials testified at the trial about how stops are conducted, and many officers disputed the witnesses’ version of the encounter. In order to stop someone, police need reasonable suspicion, a standard lower than probable cause, which is needed to justify an arrest.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday lambasted the idea of a monitor.
“This is just a terrible idea, and it’s not needed,” he said, reiterating his arguments that such oversight could muddy officers’ understanding of the rules and authority they are to follow.
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“The NYPD has brought crime down in a ways that nobody, nobody thought was possible … The NYPD has just done a spectacular job, and it just makes no sense whatsoever when lives are on the line to change the rules and hamper the Police Department from doing their job. They comply with the law; we are 100 percent confident in that.”
The Justice Department paperwork, first reported by the Daily News of New York, did not mention the merits of the other reforms requested.
In its statement, the Justice Department noted that it sought and secured reforms to police misconduct in dozens of law enforcement agencies nationwide, and gave the judge citations to peruse the cases. It singled out as a particular success a consent decree in Pittsburgh in 1997 where reforms were overseen by a monitor until 2002.
“An independent monitor can be essential to ensuring that complex institutional reform is achieved,” the statement said.
In those cases, the Justice Department took a lead role in litigation and reforms, but it has not in the case against the NYPD. However, it is significant that the government is weighing in on the issue.
City lawyers argued the department does a good job policing itself with an internal affairs bureau, a civilian complaint board and quality assurance divisions.
Judge Scheindlin did not say when she would rule but promised it would be timely.
As for whether the city would appeal the ruling if a monitor is imposed, “it’s all hypothetical,” Bloomberg said. “We feel very strongly that we are doing what’s right to protect the public, and we’re doing it within the law.”