NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Police Department performed more frisk searches of young black men in 2011 than the total number of young black men living in New York City, according to a new analysis of the department's controversial stop and frisk program.
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), a prominent rights group, charged on Wednesday that the program disproportionately targets minorities, particularly young black and Latino men.
Last year the department performed 168,126 on-the-spot searches of black men aged 14 to 24 out of a total population of 158,406, according to an NYCLU analysis of departmental statistics.
The total number of police stops rose from 160,851 in 2003, one year after Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, to 685,724 in 2011, with only a slight increase in recovered illegal firearms. About 53 percent of those stops resulted in physical searches, according to the NYCLU.
In 2003 the program recovered 604 illegal guns, and in 2011 it seized 780 such weapons.
NYCLU president Donna Lieberman called the stop and frisk program a valuable crime-fighting tool that has been severely abused by the NYPD.
"The spin of the NYPD has been quite successful ... in inoculating the NYPD against criticism, but crime has declined in urban areas all over the country without this out-of-control level of abuse of stop and frisk," she said.
Without disputing the NYCLU's figures, police challenged the report's conclusions and responded with their own statistics showing gun violence in the city disproportionately affects the same population of young black men who are being stopped.
The city's murder rate has dropped significantly for two decades, and falling crime rates in the city have "saved black lives," the written response said.
"Last year, 96 percent of all shooting victims in New York were black or Hispanic, as were over 90 percent of murder victims," police said.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has argued that the department's aggressive efforts to get illegal guns off the street has driven down crime, protected cops, and made criminals think twice about leaving home with illegal guns.
New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio - a potential Democratic mayoral candidate in next year's election - called on Bloomberg Wednesday to direct the NYPD to use the department's widely copied CompStat program to reduce the number of stops and frisks the department performs each year.
CompStat - short for computer statistics - is a police performance management tool put in place in 1995 that tracks and analyzes crime data and holds police district and precinct commanders to account for their crime-fighting performance.
Combating illegal guns in New York has been one of Bloomberg's signature issues during his three terms in office. He has sent undercover investigators to gun shows in states with weaker gun laws than New York to show how easy it is to circumvent regulations against criminals buying weapons. Last month, Bloomberg said 85 percent of all guns recovered from crimes in New York City came from out of state.
Critics charge police are rapidly losing the support of minority communities, a vital tool in community-based policing.
Only 1.8 percent of blacks and Latinos searched by the police last year had weapons on them, compared with 3.8 percent of whites, the NYCLU report said.
"Ninety-eight percent of the time, (police) are wrong," said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the NYCLU.
The Bloomberg administration did not respond directly to the NYCLU report, but Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson said in a statement "the Stop, Question and Frisk (program) keeps guns and other weapons off the streets and saves lives.
"Make no mistake, we will not continue to be the safest big city in America if Mr. de Blasio has his way," Wolfson said.
Reporting by Chris Francescani; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Walsh