RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The New York Police Department is being taken to court today over its practice of stopping people in high-crime areas. The class-action suit emerges from criticism of the NYPD's frequent use of warrantless stops in high-crime neighborhoods, saying it is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. But defenders of the practice, known as stop-and-frisk, say it is legal and that it has helped make the city safer than it's been in 50 years. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The case is a class-action suit, so the stories of the plaintiffs are all different. But they do have some basic things in common.
NICHOLAS PEART: I remember squad cars pulling up. They just pulled up aggressively, and the cops came out with their guns drawn.
DAVID OURLICHT: Threw me up against the wall, took everything out of my pockets, threw it on the floor, dumped my bag out on the floor, and my books and everything.
PEART: It left me embarrassed, humiliated and upset - all three things rolled up into one.
OURLICHT: Had the guns to the back of my head. Like I didn't want to look up or move because there were so many guns drawn. And it's scary.
ROSE: Nicholas Peart and David Ourlicht are two of the plaintiffs. Both say they've been stopped and frisked multiple times by the NYPD without doing anything wrong. The NYPD makes hundreds of thousands of warrantless stops every year. The department says that tactic is one reason the city is safer than it's been since the 1960s. Here's Police Commissioner Ray Kelly testifying last week before the New York City Council.
RAY KELLY: Last year we had the lowest number of murders that we've had in 50 years, lowest numbers of shootings. Something is going right here.
ROSE: In a statement, the city law department says police must be able to stop people who act suspiciously in order to prevent crime. But critics say that suspicion is often based on skin color and little else. Darius Charney is a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the groups that's suing the NYPD. He points out that the overwhelming majority of those who get stopped are young black and Latino men from some of the city's roughest neighborhoods.
DARIUS CHARNEY: The racial composition of these neighborhoods is the most significant predictor of the stop activity. And to us that's a pretty damning piece of evidence and really, we think, shows that this whole practice is really about race and it's about occupying these communities of color.
HEATHER MAC DONALD: The police don't make deployments based on population or race. They make deployments based on crime.
ROSE: Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She admits the city's stop-and-frisk policy may not be perfect. But she points out that crime - especially violent crime - happens disproportionately in minority neighborhoods.
DONALD: Getting stopped can be humiliating, infuriating; it's scary. But it is a lesser evil than the crime rates that the city was saddled with in the early 1990s that were disproportionately taking black and Hispanic lives.
ROSE: No one disagrees that New York is much safer than it used to be. But critics of stop and frisk say crime is down in other big cities too and none of their police departments rely on the practice as heavily as the NYPD. Those critics argue that stop and frisk is counterproductive because it creates distrust with the very people the NYPD says it's trying to protect. Here's plaintiff David Ourlicht.
OURLICHT: Every time I go outside, I have the thought in the back of my mind like, is this time the time that they're going to - that when they stop me they're going to shoot me? We're talking about the police force.
ROSE: The hearing that begins today is expected to take a month or more. When it's over, a federal judge will decide if the NYPD can continue to stop and frisk as usual, or if the department will be forced to make changes its critics have sought for years. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.