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Justice Department steps into NYC stop-and-frisk lawsuit

By Chris Francescani and David Ingram

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department asked a federal judge to appoint an independent monitor to oversee the New York Police Department if she rules the department's stop-and-frisk policy is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin presided at a 10-week civil trial over the New York police practice of stopping people suspected of unlawful activity and frisking those suspected of carrying weapons.

Critics of the policy say it targets minorities and violates their Fourth Amendment rights for protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Scheindlin is expected to issue her ruling in the coming weeks. Her decision could dramatically affect police practices, people living in high-crime areas, and some of the city's most visible officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is running to succeed Bloomberg when his third term ends this year.

The lawsuit was filed in 2008 by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of four black men who said they were stopped based on their race.

Justice Department officials, in court papers filed late on Wednesday, said the federal government "takes no position" on the facts of the case, and only seeks the appointment of a monitor if Scheindlin "should find that the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices are unlawful."

Bloomberg said on Thursday that appointing a monitor was "a terrible idea."

"It just makes no sense whatsoever when lives are on the line to change the rules and hamper the police department from doing their job," He said at a press conference in Queens. "They comply with the law. We are 100 percent confident in that."

Bloomberg has consistently defended stop-and-frisk and has rejected suggestions that the NYPD needs independent oversight, just as his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, had before him. Kelly has called stop-and-frisk the cornerstone of successful policing that has driven crime rates to historic lows.

Other major U.S. police departments have come under independent oversight in recent years as a result of federal lawsuits, including Seattle and New Orleans.

The Justice Department, in its court filing, defended the idea of independent oversight, saying "reform through a court-ordered process improves public confidence, makes officers' jobs safer, and increases the ability of the department to fight crime."

The debate over stop-and-frisk became a focal point for NYPD critics last May after the New York Civil Liberties Union released statistics showing police stops have risen sharply during Bloomberg's administration - from 160,851 in 2003 to 685,724 in 2011. About half of the 2011 stops resulted in physical searches.

The analysis also concluded that the policy disproportionately targets minorities, and noted that in 2011, NYPD records showed police conducted more stops of black males between the ages of 14 and 24 than the total number of young black males living in New York City. Just 1.8 percent of searches of minority suspects that year resulted in weapons seizures.

Kelly has said the practice saves minority lives. In 2011, 96 percent of shooting victims and 90 percent of homicide victims were minorities.

The practice is also at the heart of the department's campaign to rid city streets of illegal guns, an issue that Bloomberg has spearheaded nationally through his gun control coalition, Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

The issue has animated the mayoral race. Quinn has championed Kelly's role as police commissioner and said she would ask him to stay on if she becomes mayor next year.

She also has expressed support for a pending City Council bill that could separately create independent oversight of the police department, a move that puts the front-runner candidate at odds with Bloomberg.

Peter Vallone Jr, head of the City Council Public Safety Committee, said imposing any sort of oversight over the police department could make Kelly - who polls highest among New York City public officials - think twice about remaining in office under a new mayor,

"If Ray Kelly decided to stay on, it would be as police commissioner, not to be the deputy monitor of the police department," Vallone said.

(Editing by Scott Malone and John Wallace)

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