New York – Front-running mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio faces political and legal dilemmas now that a judge's ruling critical of the police department's stop-and-frisk tactic has been blocked.
The federal judge's summertime rebuke of the department's stop-and-frisk policy as discriminatory to blacks and Hispanics was a ringing affirmation of one of de Blasio's major campaign themes, helping propel him from also-ran to Democratic nominee nearly 40 points ahead in the polls days before the election.
But on Thursday a federal appeals court temporarily blocked the ruling and took the extraordinary step of booting the judge off the case for "running afoul" of the judicial code of conduct.
The decision arms Republican nominee Joe Lhota with a new line of attack as he insists that a de Blasio victory would handcuff law enforcement and return the city to its crime-filled past. Lhota, a deputy in former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's administration, has been a staunch defender of stop-and-frisk, and on Friday he released an online video saying "the entire premise of the de Blasio campaign collapsed" with the appeals court decision.
It's unclear how the federal case will proceed if de Blasio, the city's public advocate, wins Tuesday's election.
Previously, de Blasio said he would drop the city's appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruling, which ordered a broad set of reforms to the police department's use of the tactic for stopping, questioning and sometimes frisking people. But he could choose to settle with those urging the reforms, eliminating federal oversight and allowing him to manage the police department as he sees fit.
He reiterated Friday that he wasn't going to pursue the appeal but added: "We don't know what the next steps are in the legal process."
During the past decade, there have been nearly 5 million stops, mostly of minority men. Only about 10 percent of the stops result in arrests or summonses, and weapons were found about 2 percent of the time.
Scheindlin presided over a lengthy bench trial in which black and Hispanic men testified that they had been improperly stopped because of their races, and she appointed a federal monitor to oversee changes to training and supervision.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Friday that the department would continue to look into one suggestion ordered by Scheindlin: the possibility of officers using body-worn cameras. But he said the department already does sophisticated stop-and-frisk training that's unparalleled in the country and many of the reforms were unnecessary.
"In my judgment, the quantum of evidence certainly was just not there to make this sweeping indictment of the entire police department on something called indirect racial profiling," Kelly said. "We don't racially profile. It's against our regulations. It's against the law."
City officials say the case should be given a full hearing before a new judge regardless of who wins Tuesday's election. The three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has said it would hear oral arguments on the appeal after March 24.
Even if de Blasio chooses to dismiss the appeal, the case may not be over. Police unions filed motions to become parties in the case and could take it up should the city drop out.
"The sergeants want to make sure that they have a seat at the table as the case progresses both at the district and appellate level," said Anthony Coles, who represents the Sergeants Benevolent Association.
The appeals court has put on hold any reforms and any movement on the case in the district court. It's unclear when the new judge, Analisa Torres, will rule on whether the police unions can join. It's also unclear whether she will amend Scheindlin's ruling should the appeal be dropped.
The panel said it removed Scheindlin because she misapplied a related case ruling that allowed her to take the case and gave media interviews during the trial. Scheindlin said she consented to the interviews under the condition she wouldn't comment on the ongoing case and didn't.
One of the attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights who tried the case, Sunita Patel, said she thought the ruling would stick regardless of the judge.
"Any fair-minded court can look at the 8,000 pages of trial testimony, the lengthy record in this case, and a careful review will show there was no impropriety," she said.