A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that a lawsuit filed against the New York Police Department can become a class action suit, possibly creating a class of potential victims in hundreds of thousands. According to The New York Times' Al Baker, U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin said in her ruling that there is evidence that the NYPD had a "centralized policy" that tied officer performance to "demanding increased levels of stops and frisks," which the lawsuit claims are illegal searches.
While today's ruling makes no claims on whether the practice is illegal or not, it potentially turns a lawsuit filed by a handful of disgruntled citizens into one involving almost anyone who has been questioned by the police during Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration. The official numbers indicated that the NYPD made over 600,000 "street stops" in 2011 and they are on pace for more than 800,000 more this year. The policy — which instructs officers to stop, question, and search anyone on the mere basis of "reasonable" suspicion — overwhelmingly targets young men who are black or Latino. One study even concluded the number of stops young black males last year execeed their actual population in New York.
The NYPD credits the aggressive searches for huge drops in crime rates — which is also feeding rumors that Commissioner Ray Kelly could be the next mayor — but judging by the language in Judge Scheindlin's opinion, that's an argument she doesn't seem terribly sympathetic to. She attacked many of the defense strategy in her ruling, writing that their "cavalier attitude towards the prospect of a 'widespread practice of suspicionless stops' displays a deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers’ most fundamental constitutional rights.” With so many potential victims of such a wide-ranging official city policy, the damages could be astronomical should the city lose in court.
This is also not the only lawsuit in the works, either. The NYPD was sued by another group of residents over "Operation Clean Halls," an extension of the program that allowed police to stop people in the hallways of their own apartment buildings, also by residents of public housing who complained about the same tactic. Both lawsuits are also seeking class action status.