By Marina Lopes and Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City's new mayor on Thursday announced a settlement with a civil liberties group that sued the city over its stop-and-frisk practices, which he fiercely challenged as a candidate, paving the way for court-ordered reforms to take effect.
A federal judge found the New York Police Department practices unconstitutional in August.
Mayor Bill de Blasio's predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, appealed, arguing that the tactic was a key factor in the biggest U.S. city's historic drop in crime.
The agreement will end the lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights and will empower a court-appointed monitor to oversee the police department's reform of stop-and-frisk over three years.
"Today is the beginning of a long-overdue process: the reform of the NYPD to end illegal and racially discriminatory policing," Vincent Warren, the group's executive director, said in a statement. "For too long, communities of color have felt under siege by the police, and young black and Latino men have disproportionately been the target."
In a news conference in Brooklyn's high-crime Brownsville neighborhood - where police stops have been particularly frequent - de Blasio called the settlement a "defining moment in our history."
The mayor said the deal would "lay the foundation for not only keeping us the safest big city in America, but making us safer still."
The city has asked the federal appeals court that had been considering Bloomberg's challenge to send the case back to a lower court so that the parties could explore a resolution, according to a court filing.
City attorneys also asked the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put the appeal and other pending motions on hold for 45 days while the sides seek to settle the case.
Still, it was not clear the fight is over. Several police unions have asked permission from the 2nd Circuit to continue the appeal even without the city and have until early next month to file responses. The city said it had not consulted with the unions on the deal.
"DOUBTS AND CONCERNS"
Bloomberg and his longtime police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, had steadfastly defended stop-and-frisk as an essential tool that had helped lower crime rates citywide.
But de Blasio made his opposition to stop-and-frisk a central part of his campaign for City Hall and vowed to change the strategy when he installed his own commissioner, Bill Bratton.
"Instead of securing confidence, legitimacy and procedural justice for residents,(stop-and-frisk) has instead raised doubts and concerns about the police force in this city," said Bratton, who joined de Blasio at Thursday's news conference with other city officials and lawyers for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Under stop-and-frisk, police officers stop and search individuals on the street based on "reasonable suspicion."
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, however, found after a trial that the policy disproportionately affected minorities. Blacks and Latinos comprised more than 80 percent of all police stops in 2012 despite making up just over half the population.
The case, known as Floyd v. City of New York after the lead plaintiff, David Floyd, was first filed in 2008.
Scheindlin herself became a source of controversy after the ruling. In a highly unusual move, the 2nd Circuit removed her from the case in October during the city's appeal, finding that she compromised her appearance of impartiality by steering the litigation to her courtroom and granting media interviews on the subject.
The appellate court issued a second opinion weeks later, softening its criticism of Scheindlin and stating explicitly that it made "no findings of misconduct, actual bias, or actual partiality."
After Scheindlin's removal, the case was reassigned to U.S. District Judge Annalisa Torres, who will need to approve any settlement.
On Thursday, a slight 14-year-old named Terrell Tomero stood outside the Brownsville Recreation Center while de Blasio spoke. The youngster said he was most recently stopped and frisked on Wednesday when police searched him for guns and drugs. He said it was the sixth time he has been stopped.
"Skin color, that's the only reason I get frisked. Now I won't have to worry about cops stopping me," the black teen said.
"It needs to stop," said Adam Lomax, 17, of Brooklyn's Flatbush neighborhood. The Hispanic youth said he was stopped and questioned a few days ago by police on his way home from school.
"It should be done but not at the rate it is happening," Lomax said. "It is uncomfortable to have someone coming up to you and asking to search you when you haven't done anything at all."
(Editing by Edith Honan)