CCR attorney Sunita Patel discusses racial profiling and stops-and-frisks

Sunita Patel (LL.M. '10)On October 10, the Bickel & Brewer Latino Institute for Human Rights hosted Sunita Patel, Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), as part of their ongoing Lunchtime Speaker Series. Patel led a discussion with NYU Law students on her current case, Floyd v. City of New York, which is pending in the federal court of the Southern District of New York. In her presentation, Patel argued that the NYPD stop-and-frisk program relies on racial profiling and that it is in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Floyd v. City of New York is not the first case that CCR has argued on the subject of stops-and-frisks. In 2003, CCR attorneys reached a settlement on Daniels v. City of New York, a case that resulted in the dismantling of the Special Crimes Unit of the NYPD and the requirement that the NYPD maintain a written anti-racial profiling policy. But despite the settlement, the NYPD’s use of stops-and-frisks continues to increase; in 2010, over 500,000 citizens were stopped and frisked by New York City police, and 87% of those stopped were either black or Latino.

It is because of Daniels v. City of New York that CCR is able to keep track of data involving stops-and-frisks. As part of the case’s settlement, the NYPD is required to send CCR quarterly updates from their UF-250 database, which maintains information on every incidence of stop-and-frisk. However, Patel explained that the reasons stated in the database for stops-and-frisks are not always reliable. Almost half of all stops, said Patel, are recorded as being made on the basis of so-called furtive movements, a term that is extremely vague. “It’s not constitutional to stop someone just on the basis of a furtive movement,” Patel said. But as one student suggested, the UF-250 data could be used in the plaintiffs’ favor. Although a significantly larger number of black and Latino New Yorkers are stopped, there is a significantly lower rate of contraband yield in those cases, indicating that racial profiling, rather than reasonable suspicion, could be the cause of many of those stops.

However, CCR lawyers working on Floyd v. City of New York still face what Patel described as a “14th amendment hurdle.” It is not simply a matter of proving that there has been discrimination; they must also prove intent. “To prove intentional discrimination is very, very difficult,” said Annalisa Miron, the executive director of the Bickel & Brewer Latino Institute for Human Rights.

Despite what she sees as clear evidence of racial profiling, Patel was also careful not to make any blanket statements about the police force. “Not every cop is bad,” she said. There are plenty of cops, she said, who are against both stop-and-frisk and racial profiling, and who believe that it actually makes policing more difficult, since it turns communities against the police force. However, the system is such that there is no outside body monitoring the police. “There is no external oversight of the NYPD that’s not connected with the NYPD itself,” Patel said.

Sunita Patel (LL.M '10) leads a group of students in discussionIn response to a student who asked whether there were any models of cities with better police oversight in place, Patel cited LA, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Miami, and particularly New Orleans, where an office of an independent monitor has been created. What is really needed, Patel said, is “a cultural change within the police department.” That kind of change requires independent, outside forces monitoring police activity, she said, as well as support from inside the police department itself.

Posted October 18, 2011

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