NEW YORK – The goodwill surrounding a deal to resolve how New York City carries out its stop-and-frisk crime-reducing tool is raising hopes that the new mayor will amicably resolve other disputes that have spilled into the courts as well, including the police department's eavesdropping in Muslim communities.
A judge presiding over a 44-year-old civil rights case in Manhattan voiced optimism, or at least wishful thinking, and civil rights lawyers are lining up to test the limits of how far Mayor Bill de Blasio will go to settle cases that sometimes challenge the balance between preserving public safety and protecting civil rights. De Blasio had made reforming stop-and-frisk a centerpiece of his campaign and had promised to make a decisive break with some of the positions of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.
"While this is clearly a new day and a new administration, time will tell as to whether some of these other controversies in which we are engaged will be resolved," Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said Friday.
The new administration has already signaled it hopes to settle a $250 million lawsuit filed on behalf of five black and Hispanic people convicted in 1990 of raping and beating a white woman jogging in the park a year earlier. After serving six to 13 years in prison, their convictions were tossed in 2002 when evidence emerged linking someone else to the crime.
Just minutes after the city withdrew its challenge Thursday to a court-ordered monitor to oversee a rewriting of the stop-and-frisk program, U.S. District Judge Charles Haight mused in a written order: "Even so neutral and apolitical an individual as a federal judge may be permitted to wonder whether these changes on the thrones and in the corridors of municipal power may have an effect upon the resolution of disputes as this class action, now in its forty-fourth year."
He added: "If changes have occurred or will occur in the city's perceptions or intentions, no doubt they will manifest themselves in due course."
The class action of which he spoke is a 1971 lawsuit brought by the Black Panther party that carries the name of lead plaintiff Barbara Handschu. It alleged that police engaged in widespread surveillance of legitimate political activity and resulted in the Handschu consent decree that established the Handschu guidelines spelling out how New York City can conduct surveillance.
The judge noted the city had defended its surveillance of the Muslim community in part on grounds that it had concluded that its efforts complied with the Handschu guidelines, though he said he may have to eventually view police reports himself to determine the legality of some of the police actions.
Civil rights lawyers challenged the surveillance of Muslims following a series of stories by The Associated Press that revealed the NYPD intelligence division infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds.
The city hasn't signaled whether it is reconsidering its position on another crucial legal front in Brooklyn federal court, where civil rights attorneys have accused police of undermining free worship by spying on innocent Muslims at city mosques. A lawsuit filed last year asked a judge to halt a surveillance program that the police department has said is critical to its efforts to detect and thwart terror threats.
"While the new administration undoubtedly will disagree with us in some cases, we do expect it to be much more respectful of civil rights and to settle cases fought by the Bloomberg administration," said Christopher Dunn, the NYCLU's associate legal director. "In addition, we are particularly optimistic that newly appointed Corporation Counsel Zach Carter will take a radically different approach to civil rights issues."
Meanwhile, city lawyers and de Blasio's office had no immediate comment Friday on their plans for a state court case brought by the Bloomberg administration to try to block an anti-racial-profiling law passed last year, but de Blasio has strongly supported the anti-profiling law the case seeks to block.
One of the measure's sponsors, Councilman Jumaane Williams, on Thursday reiterated calls for the new administration to drop the suit against the anti-profiling law. He said abandoning the appeal in the federal stop-and-frisk case was "a great first step. Still, the job isn't done."