Challenge to NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactic heads to court; more than 100 witnesses to testify

NEW YORK — The New York Police Department’s practice of stopping, questioning and frisking people on the street is facing its biggest legal challenge this week with a federal civil rights trial on whether the tactic unfairly targets minorities.

Police have made about 5 million stops of New Yorkers in the past decade, mostly black and Hispanic men. The trial, set to begin Monday, will include testimony from a dozen people who say they were targeted because of their race and from police whistleblowers who say they were forced into making slipshod stops by bosses who were too focused on numbers.

Recent polls show a stark divide over how blacks and whites view the tactic, while among Hispanics, disapproval of the practice has grown. The debate has drawn in Muslim-Americans concerned about NYPD surveillance revealed in a series of reports by The Associated Press; the family of a 16-year-old shot by police who say he couldn’t have had a gun; and City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who was detained at the September 2011 West Indian Day Parade. He recently tangled with Kelly on the issue during a public safety hearing.

U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has said in earlier rulings that she is deeply concerned about stop and frisk, is not being asked to ban the tactic, since it has been found to be legal. But she does have the power to order reforms, which could bring major changes to how the nation’s largest police force and other departments use the tactic.

Street stops have become a New York flashpoint, with mass demonstrations, City Council hearings and, most recently, days of protests after police shot a teenager who authorities say pulled out a gun during a stop.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly say it is a necessary, life-saving, crime-fighting tool that helps keep illegal guns off the street and has helped New York reach all-time crime lows.