NEW YORK — A federal appeals court on Thursday blocked a judge's ruling that found the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy was discriminatory and took the unusual step of removing her from the case, saying interviews she gave during the trial called her impartiality into question.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said the rulings by U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin will be stayed pending the outcome of an appeal by the city.
The judge had ruled in August the city violated the Constitution in how it carried out its program of stopping and questioning people. The city appealed her findings and her remedial orders, including a decision to assign a monitor to help the police department change its policy and the training program associated with it.
During arguments, lawyers in the case said the police department hasn't had to do anything except meet with a monitor since the judge's decision. But the city said police officers are afraid to stop and frisk people now and the number of stop-and-frisks has dropped dramatically.
The three-judge appeals panel, which heard arguments on the requested stay on Tuesday, noted that the case might be affected in a major way by next week's mayoral election.
Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio, who's leading in polls, has sharply criticized and promised to reform the NYPD's stop-and-frisk technique, saying it unfairly targets minorities. He said he was "extremely disappointed" in Thursday's decision.
"We have to end the overuse of stop and frisk — and any delay only means a continued and unnecessary rift between our police and the people they protect," he said in a statement.
The appeals court said the judge needed to be removed because she ran afoul of the code of conduct for U.S. judges in part by compromising the necessity for a judge to avoid the appearance of partiality. It noted she had given a series of media interviews and public statements responding to criticism of the court. In a footnote, it cited interviews with the New York Law Journal, The Associated Press and The New Yorker magazine.
In the AP interview, Scheindlin labeled as a "below-the-belt attack" on judicial independence reports that Mayor Michael Bloomberg had reviewed her record to show that most of her 15 written "search and seizure" rulings since she took the bench in 1994 had gone against law enforcement. She said it was "quite disgraceful" if the mayor's office was behind the study.
The 2nd Circuit said the cases challenging stop-and-frisk policies will be assigned to a different judge chosen randomly. It said the new presiding judge shall stay all proceedings pending further rulings by it.
After a 10-week civil trial that ended in the spring, Scheindlin ruled that police officers violated the civil rights of tens of thousands of people by wrongly targeting black and Hispanic men with the stop-and-frisk program. She appointed an outside monitor to oversee major changes, including reforms in policies, training and supervision, and she ordered a pilot program to test body-worn cameras.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented plaintiffs in the case, said it was dismayed that the appeals court delayed "the long-overdue process to remedy the NYPD's unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practices" and was shocked that it "cast aspersions" on the judge's professional conduct and reassigned the case.
The city said it was pleased with the federal appeals court ruling. City lawyer Michael Cardozo said it allows for a fresh and independent look at the issue.
Stop-and-frisk, which has been criticized by civil rights advocates, has been around for decades, but recorded stops increased dramatically under Bloomberg's administration to an all-time high in 2011 of 684,330, mostly of black and Hispanic men. A lawsuit was filed in 2004 by four men, all minorities, and became a class action case.
About 5 million stops have been made in New York in the past decade, with frisks occurring about half the time. To make a stop, police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime is about to occur or has occurred, a standard lower than the probable cause needed to justify an arrest. Only about 10 percent of the stops result in arrests or summonses, and weapons are found about 2 percent of the time.
Supporters of changes to the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program say the changes will end unfair practices, will mold a more trusted police force and can affect how other police departments use the policy. Opponents say the changes will lower police morale but not crime.
The judge noted she wasn't putting an end to the stop-and-frisk practice, which is constitutional, but was reforming the way the NYPD implemented its stops.