By Edith Honan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York police conducted more than 200,000 frisk searches in the first three months of this year, a 10 percent increase from the same period last year, even as critics say the practice often is racial profiling.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have long defended the program as one that saves lives and has helped bring violent crime down to historic lows, making New York one of the safest big cities in America.

But the New York Civil Liberties Union and other groups say that black and Latino New Yorkers are stopped with alarming frequency, even though in the great majority of cases they are found to have done nothing wrong.

Last week, the organization released a study that found that in 2011, police performed more stop and frisk searches of young black men than the total number of young black men living in New York.

So far this year, almost all of the stops have involved men, while blacks made up more than half of the stops and a third involved Latinos. About one in ten of those stopped were white and 3 percent of the stops were Asian.

Police spokesman Paul Browne said the demographic breakdown corresponded to crime data. The department provided the data to the New York City Council on Friday and to reporters on Saturday.

Nine in ten stops resulted in no further police action. An arrest was made in five percent of the stops, and a summons was issued in another five percent of cases, down slightly from 2011, police said.

There was a 31 percent jump in the number of illegal firearms confiscated from suspicious individuals, compared to the same period last year.

There were 129 murders through Friday in New York this year, representing a drop of more than more than 20 percent compared to a year ago, police said.

According to Kelly, the fact that crime is down as stop-and-frisk incidents are up is no coincidence.

"If history is a guide, the vast majority of those lives saved were young men of color. Last year 96 percent of all shooting victims in New York were black or Hispanic, as were over 90 percent of murder victims," Kelly said.

The highest number of murders was recorded in 1990, when there were more than 2,200 homicides. Since 2002 there have not been more than 600 murders in a single year. That is the year Bloomberg took office and named Kelly the head of the city's police force.

But the stop and frisk program has vocal critics.

"This program is not an effective crime-fighting tool," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. "And yet it takes a monumental toll on the freedom and dignity of hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers of color every year."

Some say the stop-and-frisk program is alienating the support of minority communities and undermining community-based policing.

"We cannot continue to stop, question and frisk nearly 700,000 New Yorkers in this way without doing harm to the relationship between police officers and the people they are protecting, particularly in communities of color," said New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Quinn, a likely candidate for mayor in 2013, released a statement in response to the data, calling for "significant reform," including better monitoring, supervision and accountability.

(Reporting By Edith Honan; Editing by Vicki Allen)