NEW YORK (AP) -- A federal appeals court on Thursday blocked a judge's ruling that found the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy discriminated against minorities, and it took the unusual step of removing her from the case, saying interviews she gave during the trial called her impartiality into question.
The city applauded the appeals court's decision. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who was shouted down over the tactic by students during a speech at Brown University this week, said he was grateful for it.
"This is indeed an important decision for all New Yorkers and for the men and women of the New York City police department who work very hard day in and day out to keep this city safe," he said.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the ruling by U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin will be on hold pending the outcome of an appeal by the city. But it may be a nonissue after next week's mayoral election: Democrat Bill de Blasio, who's leading in polls, has said he would drop objections to the ruling, which calls for major changes to the police tactic.
The judge decided in August the city violated the civil rights of tens of thousands of blacks and Hispanics by disproportionally stopping, questioning and sometimes frisking them. She assigned a monitor to help the police department change its policy and training programs on the tactic.
The three-judge panel heard arguments Tuesday. Lawyers in the case said the police department hasn't had to do anything except meet with a monitor since the judge's decision, but the city said police officers are afraid to stop and frisk people now and the number of stop-and-frisks has dropped dramatically.
The appeals panel didn't change the deadline for the appeal and said it expected arguments in March, well after the new mayor takes office.
It said Scheindlin needed to be removed because she ran afoul of the code of conduct for U.S. judges by misapplying a ruling that allowed her to take the case and by giving media interviews and making public statements responding to criticism.
Scheindlin said in a statement later Thursday she consented to the interviews under the condition she wouldn't comment on the ongoing case.
"And I did not," she said.
She said some reporters used quotes from written opinions that gave the appearance she had commented on the case but "a careful reading of each interview will reveal that no such comments were made."
She also defended her decision to direct the plaintiffs to bring the case to her, saying she took the most recent case because it was related to a previous case she heard.
The 2nd Circuit said a new judge would be assigned randomly and will deal with any further rulings. It's possible the new judge could order a fresh set of reforms or review the trial testimony and decide the city didn't violate people's civil rights, but it would be highly unusual.
Stop-and-frisk has been around for decades, but recorded stops increased dramatically under Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration to an all-time high in 2011 of 684,330, mostly of black and Hispanic men. A lawsuit was filed in 2004 by four minority men, who said they were targeted because of their races, and it became a class action case.
To make a stop, police must have reasonable suspicion that a crime is about to occur or has occurred, a standard lower than the probable cause needed to justify an arrest. Only about 10 percent of the stops result in arrests or summonses, and weapons are found about 2 percent of the time.
Scheindlin heard a bench trial that ended in the spring and coincided with a groundswell of backlash against the stop-and-frisk tactic, which became a mayoral race flashpoint. She noted in her ruling this summer that she wasn't putting an end to the practice, which is constitutional, but was reforming the way the NYPD implemented its stops.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented the four men who sued, said it was dismayed that the appeals court delayed "the long-overdue process to remedy the NYPD's unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practices" and was shocked that it "cast aspersions" on the judge's professional conduct and reassigned the case.
De Blasio, the city's public advocate, said he was "extremely disappointed" in Thursday's decision.
"We have to end the overuse of stop and frisk - and any delay only means a continued and unnecessary rift between our police and the people they protect," he said in a statement.
His Republican challenger, Joe Lhota, a deputy under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, praised it.
"The next mayor absolutely must continue this appeal," he said.