Leroy Downs was a thirty-something Staten Island resident when two New York City police officers in plainclothes backed him up against a fence and aggressively searched his clothing on an August night in 2008.
His offense? Arriving home from work and not going directly inside his residence.
According to court documents released by the U.S. District Court of Southern New York, Downs had been talking on his cell phone via earpiece in front of his home, when an unmarked car drove past, reversed, and then parked before authorities exited the vehicle and accused him of smoking marijuana.
Downs was a drug counselor at the time, and he, like millions of others, had just fell victim to an unconstitutional “stop and frisk.”
Federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled on the practice Aug. 12, deeming the policy a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
“This case is about the tension between liberty and public safety in the use of a proactive policing tool called “stop and frisk,’” she wrote in her decision.
“The New York City Police Department (NYPD) made 4.4 million stops between January 2004 and June 2012. Over 80% of these 4.4 million stops were of blacks or Hispanics.”
Scheindlin noted that each stop resulted in an interruption of the person’s life with detention and questioning taking place on public streets. “More than half of the time the police subjected the person to a frisk.”
The case was brought by four men, Lalit Clarkson, Deon Dennis, David Floyd, and David Ourlicht, who all claimed they were stopped, questioned, and in some cases frisked with no reasonable cause.
Clarkson was a 31-year-old Black male dressed in “slacks, a tie, and a collared shirt” when he left his job in the Bronx for lunch around 1:00 p.m.
After buying a sandwich at a Subway sandwich shop and stopping for another “food item” at a bodega, court documents say Clarkson was stopped and surrounded by officers in plainclothes because they claimed to have “seen him walk past a building down the block that they knew to be a drug building.”
The building was on Clarkson’s natural route back to his job as a as a teacher’s assistant at Grand Concourse Academy on 169th Street.
Time and time again the scene is replayed in the judge’s 195-page decision.
Many of the victims were young teens. Some were questioned and frisked as they waited on street corners for younger siblings to exit school buildings, others were handcuffed for walking home- unaware that their route took them through areas where 911 calls had just made.
In efforts to tackle the problems, Scheindlin ordered changing “certain policies and activities of the NYPD.”
The judge has ordered a trial program “requiring the use of body-worn cameras in one precinct per borough, a community-based joint remedial process to be conducted by a court-appointed facilitator, and the appointment of an independent monitor to ensure that the NYPD’s conduct of stops and frisks is carried out in accordance with the Constitution…”
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was clearly unhappy with the decision on Aug. 12, according to the statements he made in front of press.
“Throughout the case, we didn’t believe that we were getting a fair trial,” he said. “This decision confirms that suspicion, and we will be presenting evidence of that unfairness to the Appeals Court.”
“Stop-Question-Frisk – which the Supreme Court of the United States has found to be constitutional – is an important part of that record of success. It has taken some 8,000 guns off the street over the past decade – and some 80,000 other weapons.”
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly also had a few qualms with the decision.
“What I find most disturbing and offensive about this decision is the notion that the NYPD engages in racial profiling,” said Kelly, in a transcript of statements from Monday’s press release. “That simply is recklessly untrue. We do not engage in racial profiling, it is prohibited by law, it is prohibited by our own regulations.”
“We train our officers that they need reasonable suspicion to make a stop, and I can assure you that race is never a reason to conduct a stop.”
Kelly also pointed out that if certain minorities are being stopped more than others, it’s because their neighborhoods are producing crime at an alarming rate.
“To that point, last year 97 percent of all shooting victims were black or Hispanic and reside in low-income neighborhoods,” he said. “Public housing where five percent of the city’s population resides experiences 20 percent of the shootings. There were more stops with suspicious activity in neighborhoods with higher crime because that’s where the crime is.”
Regardless of the statistics, Judge Scheindlin said her ruling was based off “constitutionality of police behavior, not its effectiveness as a law enforcement tool.”