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Federal trial to challenge NYPD over its stop-and-frisk tactic

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 5:36 p.m.

NEW YORK — The New York Police Department's practice of stopping, questioning and frisking people on the street will have its biggest legal challenge this week in a federal civil rights trial on whether the tactic unfairly targets minorities.

Police have made about 5 million stops of New Yorkers in a decade, mostly black and Hispanic men. The trial, set to begin on Monday, will include testimony from a dozen people who say they were targeted because of their race and from police who say they were forced into making stops by bosses focused on numbers.

“When we say stop, question and frisk, we're not talking about a brief inconvenience on the way to work or school,” said Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the lead attorney. “We're talking about a frightening, humiliating experience that has happened to many folks.”

U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who had said in rulings that she is deeply concerned about stop and frisk, is not being asked to ban the tactic, because it has been found to be legal. But she does have the power to order reforms, which could bring major changes to how departments use the tactic.

Street stops have become a New York flashpoint, with demonstrations, City Council hearings and, most recently, days of protests because police had shot a teenager who authorities said pulled out a gun during a stop.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly maintain it is a necessary, lifesaving, crime-fighting tool. Street stops increased substantially in New York in the mid-1990s, when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani made stop and frisk an integral part of the city's law enforcement

Philadelphia settled a civil rights lawsuit last year over its stop-and-frisk program by agreeing to court monitoring, and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee backed off plans to adopt stop and frisk after weeks of criticism last summer.

A 1968 Supreme Court decision established the benchmark of “reasonable suspicion” — a standard that is lower than the “probable cause” needed to justify an arrest.

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