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Saturday, 3 July, 1999, 17:07 GMT 18:07 UK
NYPD: 'New York Pays Damages'
Mayor Giuliani
Mayor Giuliani: Zero tolerance of punitive damages
By Jane Hughes in New York

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani might claim that his "zero tolerance" policy has brought New York City's crime rate down to near record lows - but New Yorkers have had enough.

The city is facing a class action lawsuit, brought by nearly 70,000 people, because the police have been strip-searching everyone they arrested - even for minor offences like fare-dodging.

In one incident, four youngsters heading off for a party on the subway squeezed through the turn-stile two at a time to avoid paying all four fares.

They were arrested and taken to the local police station.

Ordered to undress, they were forced to squat on the floor and underwent full body searches.

"There was this woman in there with gloves on, and she was telling me to take my clothes off," said one of the four.

"I said, please, I don't have drugs or weapons or anything," said the girl, who declined to give her name.

Emotionally scarred

Civil rights lawyers have strongly criticised the policy, saying the police were not supposed to strip-search people "without a reasonable suspicion that they are carrying a weapon or contraband".

The four youngsters have sued the City and won around $25,000 each in damages.

Amadou Diallo
New Yorkers protested at the fatal shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo
Another victim of "zero tolerance", Debra Ciraolo, was aggressively strip-searched after being wrongly arrested for harassing a neighbour.

A jury has just awarded her nearly $5 million in punitive damages.

Her lawyer, Stephen Weiner, said the experience left her emotionally scarred.

"She told the jury it was like being raped or sodomised," said Mr Weiner. "It felt that much of a violation and was very, very difficult for her to endure."

New York City's bullish mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, has adopted a tough defence in the face of the recent legal rulings.

"There are people that are entitled to some degree of compensation for it," he said, "but they're not entitled to win the lottery over it."

That is also the position taken by the city's legal team, whose leader is Michael Hess.

" We want to properly compensate anybody that the court feels should be compensated," said Mr Hess. "We want a fair settlement but one that considers the taxpayers of the City, who will be financing this settlement."

But lawyers acting for the estimated 63,000 people who have been illegally strip searched are pushing for massive punitive damages to teach City Hall a lesson.

"Cutting down on crime and being aggressive in policing is an important goal," said Matthew Brinkerhof.

"But one has to be ever vigilant in making sure that it isn't done at the expense of people's constitutional rights."

The NYPD has come under fierce criticism in recent months after four officers were charged with the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, who died in a hail of bullets outside his home in the Bronx in February.

The four could face life imprisonment if they are convicted.

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See also:

01 Apr 99 | Americas
NYPD officers charged with murder
04 May 99 | Americas
NYPD on trial for brutality
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