Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Exposing Unconstitutional Police Practices From New York to New Orleans

By Alison McCrary
As violent crime continues to surge and dozens of New Orleans police offers are under indictment, investigation, or have already pled guilty to serious crimes, the New Orleans Police Department has expanded policies that effectively undermine the already-challenged public confidence in the NOPD.

The Louisiana Justice Institute (LJI) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana (ACLU) have received numerous complaints from law abiding citizens who have been stopped and interrogated by NOPD officers in apparent violation of the U.S. Constitution. A similar policy of the New York Police Department was challenged in court as unconstitional and racially discriminatory. As a result, the NYPD made substantive changes to the policy and its implementation.

What will it take for the New Orleans Police Department to learn from the costly lessons taught to New York Police Department by civil rights litigation?

Police officers may stop individuals but only in compliance with a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Terry v. Ohio, which held an officer may stop an individual and conduct a field interview or carefully limited search only if the officer has reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred or is about to occur. Such constitutional stops are referred to as “Terry stops.”

While limited Terry stops are needed to investigate “reasonably suspicious” criminal activity on our streets, under the leadership of the newly appointed Superintendent Ronal Serpas, numerous law abiding citizens have reported an increase in unconstitutional stops not warranted by the reasonable suspicion requirement. Such “Serpas stops” violate the law and the constitutional protections guaranteed to citizens.

NYPD is facing a federal civil rights class action lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices, which among other policing issues was the topic of a New York Times article earlier this year.

Through Floyd v. City of New York, which stems from Center for Constitutional Right's landmark racial profiling case, Daniels v. City of New York that led to the disbanding of the notorious NYPD Street Crime Unit, the organization collected over ten years worth of the NYPD’s own data on officer stop-and-frisk activity.

The data collected by the Center for Constitutional rights revealed that in New York City:

· Over 80 percent of NYPD initiated stops are of Blacks and Latinos while Whites comprised only 20 percent;
· Nearly 90 percent of all stops uncovered no weapons, contraband or evidence of criminal activity;
· Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be frisked after a NYPD-initiated stop than Whites, and,
· Blacks and Latinos are more likely to have physical force used against them during a NYPD-initiated stop than Whites.

In New Orleans, the ACLU of Louisiana last week raised the question of whether all the stops being conducted by NOPD officers were proper. The ACLU received numerous reports from New Orleanians who said they were stopped for no apparent reason and were required to provide identification. New Orleans police officers are collecting personal information on residents.

However, NOPD could not answers questions raised relating to exactly how many stops the New Orleans police officers are making and whether there has been an increase since NOPD leaders have begun scrutinizing the stops at the Comstat meetings. NOPD said that long-term data is not readily available because officers have been slowly shifting to entering the information into a centralized database instead of the district ones. However, such information is legally required to remain on file at NOPD according to case precendent.

What will it take for NOPD to recognize and respect the rights of citizens who are protected by the Constitution of the United States? Respect for the legal rights of the citizens they serve is essential to the NOPD restoring public trust and being successful in making New Orleans a safer place for everyone to live and work.

If you believe you have been improperly stopped, please share your story with the Louisiana Justice Institute by calling 504-872-9134 and/or file a complaint through the ACLU’s website.

Alison McCrary is an attorney and Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow at the Louisiana Justice Institute. She received her Juris Doctor of Law from Loyola University College of Law where she served as a member of Moot Court and president of the Public Interest Law Group. Alison is a member of the National Lawyers Guild.

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