NEW YORK (AP) – A nonprofit worker wept on the witness stand Tuesday as he described an unnerving episode of being handcuffed near his home while an officer took his keys and went inside his building. Nicholas Peart, a 24-year-old black man, is one of about a dozen New Yorkers expected to tell their stories of being stopped, questioned and frisked by police in a federal trial challenging how police use the tactic. About 5 million stops have been made during the past decade, mostly of black and Hispanic men.
The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of some of the stops, with lawyers arguing the policy unfairly targets minorities.
City attorneys said officers operate within the law and do not target people solely because of their race. Police go where the crime is, and crime is overwhelmingly in minority neighborhoods, city lawyers said.
Peart's mother died of cancer, and he is the guardian of his three siblings, two small boys and his disabled 20-year-old sister. The stocky community college graduate testified that he was stopped four times, starting on his 18th birthday.
But it was a stop in 2011 that reduced him to tears.
He testified that he was walking to the corner store at about 11 p.m. to get milk when officers stopped him, handcuffed him and put him in the back of a squad car. One officer took Peart's keys, he said, and went into his building. Peart said he was concerned because he didn't know how his siblings would react if the officer knocked on the door.
"I was afraid he would go into my apartment, and I wasn't there to take care of the situation,'' he said.
Eventually the officer returned and he was freed.
Peart, pausing to collect himself, said he felt criminalized by the episode.
"To be treated like that, by someone who works for New York City, I felt degraded and helpless,'' he said.
City lawyers played audio recordings in an effort to show some of the stops were justified. In one case, officers stopped Peart and his two companions because three crime suspects seen in the area were wearing nearly identical clothing, according to a radio call. The lawyers also sought to discredit witnesses by suggesting their stories had evolved to become more dramatic and their memories were faulty.
Peart testified that he filed one complaint against police where he lied and said he had been physically injured. He also said one of the stops happened in May 2011, not April 2011, had trouble recalling the race and descriptions of officers who stopped him and published angry Facebook posts insulting the police department.
Lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the class-action lawsuit, are trying to show a pattern of racist and inappropriate behavior by the police.
Stop and frisk is legal, but the lawyers who sued say it must be reformed. They are asking for a court-appointed monitor to oversee any changes ordered by the judge.
About half the people who are stopped are subject only to questioning. Others have their bag or backpack searched. And sometimes police conduct a full pat-down. Only about 10 percent of all stops result in arrest, and a weapon is recovered a small fraction of the time.
A police whistleblower, Adhyl Polanco, testified that his superiors only cared about arrests, summonses and stops. He said they told him he needed 20 summonses, five street stops and one arrest per month, or he'd face poor evaluations, shift changes and no overtime.
"They can make your life very miserable,'' he said.
Polanco was suspended with pay for years after internal affairs officers brought charges of filing false arrest paperwork; he says the charges came because he detailed a list of complaints to internal affairs.
The mayor and police commissioner say stop and frisk is a life-saving, crime-stopping tool that has helped drive crime down to record lows. Officers have more than 23 million contacts with the public, make 4 million radio runs and issue more than 500,000 summonses every year. Comparatively, 600,000 stops annually are not unreasonable, city lawyers said.
U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has said in earlier rulings that she is deeply concerned about the tactic, has the power to order reforms to how it is used, which could bring major changes to the nation's largest police force and other departments.
City lawyers said the department already has many checks and balances, including an independent watchdog group that was recently given authority to prosecute some excessive force complaints against police. The police commissioner still has the final say on whether officers are disciplined.
In Albany on Tuesday, state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said restrictions on stop and frisk were among the few remaining issues in closed-door negotiations over the state budget.
*Pictured above is Nicholas Peart.