By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK CITY (Reuters) - Several thousand New Yorkers marched silently down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue from lower Harlem to the mayor's Upper East Side townhouse on Sunday to protest the New York Police Department's contentious stop-and-frisk policy.
Civil rights leaders the Reverend Al Sharpton and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Benjamin Jealous marched with U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, union and civil liberty leaders.
Joining the marchers were likely mayoral candidates, including New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation magazine.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD officials have vigorously defended the stop-and-frisk tactic, arguing it has been crucial in taking guns off the streets and achieving a historic drop in crime rates. The police deny that race or quotas motivate stops and say they are stopping anyone considered suspicious.
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 for that demographic, according to a New York Civil Liberties Union analysis of departmental statistics.
"This program needs to be scrapped and needs to start from square one," Jealous told Reuters.
Bloomberg acknowledged the criticism last week but said the program should be "mended, not ended."
The mayor said new training videos and precinct-level audits of stop-and-frisk data by commanding officers - who will be held accountable to senior police officials - will address critics' concerns.
He insisted the program is vital, particularly in high crime areas, where police make stops "not because of race, (but) because of crime."
Jose Lopez, 26, said at the march that he has been frisked repeatedly in the lobby of the Brooklyn city housing apartment building where he lives, and described the searches as invasive.
"It was never just a pat down," he said. "It was always a hand in my pocket, a hand in my backpack."
Sharpton and other civil rights leaders met recently with Bloomberg to discuss the program.
"We've agreed to keep talking," Sharpton said. "But he said he's not backing down off 'mend it, don't end it,' and we say 'end it, it can't be mended.'"
Rangel said he believes there's a middle ground.
"There's no one answer on either side of this," he told Reuters. "Do we want police to suspect someone has a gun and not stop them and not frisk them?" he asked, and then answered his own question. "Hell, no."
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Stacey Joyce)