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NYPD oversight follows claims of racial profiling

NEW YORK – The most expansive plans in years to impose new oversight on the New York Police Department passed the City Council on Thursday, as lawmakers voted to create an outside watchdog and make it easier to bring racial profiling claims against the nation's largest police force.

Both bills passed with enough votes to override expected mayoral vetoes. And a pending federal court case could also add separate monitoring. Still, the measures' passage marks an inflection point in the public debate and power dynamics that have set the balance between prioritizing New Yorkers' safety and protecting their civil liberties.

Proponents see the legislation as a check on a police department that has come under scrutiny for its heavy use of a tactic known as stop and frisk and its extensive surveillance of Muslims, as disclosed in a series of stories by The Associated Press.

"It's not a crime to be who you are," said Councilman Brad Lander, who spearheaded the measures with Councilman Jumaane Williams.

Critics say the measures would impinge on techniques that have wrestled crime down dramatically and would leave the NYPD "pointlessly hampered by outside intrusion and recklessly threatened by second-guessing from the courts," in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's words.

The initiatives follow on decades of efforts to empower outside input on the NYPD, or at least facets of it. But the new measures are further-reaching, proponents and critics agree.

One would establish an inspector general with subpoena power to explore and recommend, but not force, changes to the NYPD's policies and practices. Various law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department, already have inspectors general.

The other would give people more latitude if people felt they were stopped because of bias based on race, sexual orientation or certain other factors. A federal judge already is considering a suit by four minority plaintiffs who claim they were stopped solely because of their race, along with hundreds of thousands of others stopped in the last decade.

Under the changes approved by the city council, plaintiffs wouldn't necessarily have to prove that a police officer intended to discriminate. Instead, they could offer evidence that a practice such as stop and frisk affects some groups disproportionately, though police could counter that the disparity was justified to accomplish a substantial law enforcement end. Such suits couldn't seek money, just court orders to change police practices.

"(The measures) can have a tangible effect by virtue of the policy work that will come out of an inspector general's office and by virtue of the accountability that will come out of the profiling bill," said proponent Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "But, also, they will be a statement to the people of New York that we care about fair and just policing."

But Bloomberg says they could tie the police department up in lawsuits and complaints, inject courts and an inspector general into tactical decisions and make "proactive policing by police officers extinct in our city."

The measures could "threaten all that we've achieved in making New York the safest big city in the nation," he said Monday.