The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of a New York Post crime reporter who was the victim of racial profiling by NYPD officers.
The reporter, Leonardo Blair – a Jamaican-born black man – was stopped, arrested and jailed without justification in November while walking from his car to his aunt’s home in the Bronx. The lawsuit maintains that Blair’s constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments were violated and names the City of New York, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and NYPD officers William Castillo and Eric Reynolds as defendants.
“Leo Blair was handcuffed and hauled to a precinct house for simply walking down the street,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “Walking while black is not a crime, and yet every year hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers are stopped, searched and interrogated by the police for doing just that. For justice in our city to be truly just, the NYPD needs to start treating all New Yorkers fairly, regardless of the color of their skin.”
According to data released earlier this week, New York City police officers stopped more people on the streets during the first three months of 2008 than during any quarter in the six years the Department has reported the data.
In 2007, the NYPD stopped about 469,000 New Yorkers – almost 1,300 people every day. Eighty-eight percent were completely innocent. Though they make up only a quarter of the City’s population, more than half of those stopped were black. Another 30 percent were Latino. Though whites make up more than 35 percent of New York City’s population, they were only 11 percent of those stopped. In 2006 and 2007, blacks and Latinos were the target of about 90 percent of the nearly one million stop-and-frisk encounters.
The suit also challenges the legality of a database the NYPD maintains with the names and addresses of every person stopped and frisked by the police, even though more than 90 percent of those people, like Blair, have done nothing wrong. That police database likely now has the names and home addresses of over one million law-abiding New Yorkers.
“The NYPD is using its sweeping stop-and-frisk operation to build a massive database of the names and addresses of law-abiding New York City residents, most of are black or Latino,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, lead counsel on the case. “As a result of this, hundreds of thousands if not more than one million New Yorkers who, like Leo Blair, have done nothing wrong now are at risk of becoming the subjects of criminal investigations by virtue of being in the database.”
Blair, 28, immigrated to the United States in 2006 and resides here on an optional practical training visa. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2007 and landed a job writing for the Post. At the time of his arrest, he lived with his aunt and uncle in the Bronx.
On Nov. 28, Blair was returning home after visiting his then-fiancé and current wife. He parked his car on Arnow Avenue, and began walking to his family’s house. He returned to the car to make sure he’d locked the door. Upon resuming his walk, he noticed a patrol car following him.
An NYPD office threateningly asked Blair what he was doing. Officer Castillo jumped from the patrol car and confronted Blair on the sidewalk, ordering him to raise his hands in the air. Officer Reynolds exited the patrol car and joined the confrontation.
Though baffled and frightened, Blair cooperated with the officers as they questioned him and searched his bag without reasonable grounds to believe he had committed a crime.
Blair, who had no criminal record, dropped his hands after the officers had completed their search, which upset one of the officers. Blair was handcuffed and pushed into the backseat of the patrol car.
At the 49th precinct, Blair endured hostile and demeaning remarks from police officers while standing in a jail cell (the officers, for example, said they were shocked that though Blair is black, he did not live in “the projects.”) Hoping to end the ordeal, Blair informed the officers that he was a reporter for the Post. Only at that point was he released.
“The only reason why I declared to these officers that I was a reporter for the New York Post, that that I was a graduate of Columbia University, is because I wanted it to end,” Blair said. “I should not have to pull on cards to be respected as an individual.”
Blair was issued two summonses, one alleging he disobeyed a lawful order and the other alleging he made “unreasonable noise.” A judge dismissed both summonses on Feb. 8.
“The NYPD must be held accountable for harassing this hard-working, innocent young man and permanently scarring his record with an unwarranted arrest,” said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU associate legal director. “This systemic racial profiling has to stop.”
The NYCLU is asking the court to issue a declaratory judgment that the defendants violated Blair’s constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. It also is asking that all records of Blair’s arrest, including those entered in the NYPD’s massive stop-and-frisk database, be sealed or expunged.
Also serving as counsel on the case are NYU Civil Rights Clinic students Erin Braatz, Jonathan Herczeg and Jessica Thomas, as well as NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg.