By Joseph Ax and Marina Lopes
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran on a pledge to reform the police department's aggressive use of stop-and-frisk practices, reached a deal with a civil liberties group on Thursday to end the long legal fight.
Last August, a federal court judge found the New York police department's practices unconstitutional. That decision was appealed by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who argued the tactic was instrumental in the city's historic drop in violent crime.
The agreement will end the lawsuit, brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and empower a court-appointed monitor to oversee the department's reform of stop-and-frisk over three years.
De Blasio called it a "defining moment in our history," saying it would "lay the foundation for not only keeping us the safest big city in America, but making us safer still."
De Blasio's announcement came at a press conference in Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood, where police stops were especially frequent. Lawyers for the plaintiffs who sued the city over stop-and-frisk joined city officials at the event.
The city asked the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York on Thursday to send the case back to a federal judge "so that the parties may explore a resolution," according to a court filing.
City lawyers asked the court to put the appeal and other pending motions on hold for 45 days while the sides seek to settle the case.
"Today is the beginning of a long-overdue process: the reform of the NYPD to end illegal and racially discriminatory policing," said Vincent Warren, CCR's executive director. "For too long, communities of color have felt under siege by the police, and young Black and Latino men have disproportionately been the target."
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.
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 circuit 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 Judge Annalisa Torres, who will need to approve any settlement.
(Writing by Edith Honan; editing by Gunna Dickson)