Experts hope a federal court opinion last week declaring the New York
Police Department's "stop and frisk" procedures unconstitutional will serve as a
model for other jurisdictions to ensure that officers follow the law when
seeking out criminal behavior.
U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, in Manhattan, issued a 198-page opinion in which she found that officers in the country's largest police department were disproportionately targeting minorities and that they were not following the law in articulating reasonable suspicion -- a necessary element in what is known as a "Terry stop."
Following a two-month nonjury trial this year, Judge Scheindlin found in favor of a dozen plaintiffs who filed against New York City, asserting that the NYPD stop-and-frisk tactic violated their rights to due process and equal protection.
"The evidence showed that the NYPD turned a blind eye to its duty to monitor and supervise the constitutionality of the stops-and-frisks conducted by its officers," the judge wrote.
That practice, she continued, "has been so pervasive and persistent as to become not only a part of the NYPD's standard operating procedure, but a fact of daily life in some New York City neighborhoods."
Further, she found that the city "has been deliberately indifferent" to those violations, and that the NYPD instituted a policy of "indirect racial profiling by directing its commanders and officers to focus their stop activity on the 'right people.' "
Under her ruling, she appointed an independent monitor to ensure NYPD officers conduct their stops in a constitutional manner, is requiring a trial program in which officers from one precinct in every borough will be required to wear body cameras to record individual stops and immediate changes to the stop-and-frisk policies.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he will appeal.
David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said that stop-and-frisk is used in every police department in every town in the United States.
"Terry stops are quite valuable and good tools when you use them judiciously," he said. "It's not something that should be done every time, to every person you encounter."
The U.S. Supreme Court defined a legal stop-and-frisk in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio, in which the majority found that an officer may temporarily detain a person if he or she has "reasonable suspicion" that crime is afoot.
That suspicion must be able to be articulated and cannot be based on just a hunch or gut instinct, Mr. Harris said.
To take the stop a step farther and do a pat-down, or frisk, for weapons, the officer must believe that the person may be armed and dangerous.
"Is there judgment involved? Of course," Mr. Harris said. "Is there discretion involved? Undoubtedly."
In Pittsburgh, the police bureau classifies Terry stops as part of the broader category of "field contacts, or warrantless search and seizure."
In 2012, according to the department's annual report, there were 5,717 such incidents. However, based on the way the bureau collected its data, it is impossible to tell how many people were stopped versus how many people were both stopped and frisked.
In incidents where a frisk resulted in no weapons or contraband being found --
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