By Basil Katz
(Reuters) - A judge on Wednesday granted class-action status to a lawsuit challenging the New York Police Department's controversial crime-fighting tactic known as "stop and frisk."
District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan said that the lawsuit, filed in 2008 by four black men claiming they were improperly targeted by police because of their race, had established their cases were emblematic of a city-wide problem.
The NYPD has strongly defended the tactic, arguing it has been critical in taking guns off the streets and achieving an historic drop in crime rates. The police deny that race or quotas motivate stops and say they are stopping people considered suspicious.
"It is indisputable that the NYPD has an enormous stop and frisk program," Scheindlin wrote in her 56-page opinion.
"The unlawful stops of putative class members result from a common source," the judge said: "The department's policy of establishing performance standards and demanding increased levels of stops and frisks."
The class in question will be all "persons stopped or stopped and frisked on the basis of being black or Latino" since January 2005, the ruling said.
New York City's law department said, "We respectfully disagree with the decision and are reviewing our legal options."
The New York Civil Liberties Union this month said that in 2011, police performed more stop and frisk searches of young black men in aggregate than the total number of young black men living in New York.
Judge Scheindlin, who has issued several rulings in the plaintiffs' favor, said the city's "cavalier attitude towards the prospect of a 'widespread practice of suspicionless stops' displays a troubling apathy towards New Yorkers' most fundamental constitutional rights."
Darius Charney, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought the case, said the ruling acknowledges the extent of illegal stop-and-frisks.
"The Court has rightly recognized that illegal stops-and-frisks are not limited to a few rogue police officers but are the product of a program designed at the highest level of the police department and affect hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of New Yorkers," Charney said .
The judge set a May 29 hearing in the case.
(Reporting By Basil Katz; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)