Stop and Frisk Lawsuit: Eric Holder and the DOJ Jump Into the Case Against the NYPD


Despite the recent NSA scandal, the Department of Justice (DOJ) seems to have civil rights on the mind when it comes to the ongoing case of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) notorious stop-and-frisk program. Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder with Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez filed a last-minute brief in the Center for Constitutional Rights's case against against the NYPD. The brief suggests a federal monitor of the NYPD if the stop-and-frisk program is indeed found unconstitutional. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Chief Ray Kelly are of course completely indignant.

The policy of stop-and-frisk has been cited as a form of institutionalized racism since its conception. The precedent allows for NYPD cops to stop anyone who they believe to be under suspicion for committing, or planning to commit a crime, felony, or misdemeanor.  If the cop further believes that the suspect may be a danger, the cop can then legally frisk down the suspect. Since Bloomberg took office, 55% of those stopped for suspicion had been frisked. An estimated five million plus have been stopped since 2002.

The biggest criticism of the program is that stop-and-frisk perpetuates race-based stigmas and unfairly affects minorities. The lawsuit at hand cites that the majority of citizens stopped are black and Hispanic, and there are no summons or arrests for 90% of those populations.

The NYPD and mayor’s office defend the program by insisting that there is oversight and transparency in the form of internal investigations and reviews. The recent kerfuffle reflects the doubts of Holder and the DOJ, who think an independent monitor is needed if the program is found to be unconstitutional. The DOJ has implemented federal monitors before in major cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh.

The DOJ brief is very much a vote of no confidence for the NYPD in terms of civil rights. Despite statistics showing a drop in crime in New York, the filing of the brief implies not only that New Yorkers' civil rights may be in question, but also that the DOJ is giving more precedence to civil rights in its work. The NSA PRISM program has been the driving force of the new debate on civil rights and liberties, but stop-and-frisk is overdue for some form of oversight (or at least discussion) as well.

Ultimately, the brief and subsequent implementation of a federal monitor is dependent on the choice of Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin. If the practice is found constitutional, there is still a symbolic action in pressuring and scrutinizing the NYPD, which may have to take internal affairs more seriously. If found unconstitutional, stop-and-frisk will be either be changed or eliminated. Nevertheless, the actions of Holder and the DOJ will produce some change. What kind of change now rests with the court.