The Heroic New York City Cop Who’s Trying to Stop Stop-and-Frisk

New York City Police officers stand near a demonstration against the city’s ‘stop and frisk’ searches on March 18, 2013.

Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images

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Jennifer Gonnerman has a great piece in this week’s New York about Pedro Serrano—not the eccentric slugger from the Major League series, but an NYPD officer who testified against the department in Floyd v. City of New York, a lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights over the department’s stop-and-frisk policies. (The trial wrapped up earlier this week, and Judge Shira Scheindlin is expected to issue a ruling sometime later this year.) Serrano, a cop working out of the 40th precinct in the South Bronx, started secretly recording his supervisors in 2009. Against departmental policy, they consistently saddled him and his colleagues with hard quotas for arrests and stops. Writes Gonnerman:

At an overtime roll call on June 30, 2010, he recorded Lieutenant Stacy Barrett telling officers she was “looking for five”—five summonses and/or UF-250s. “St. Mary’s Park, go crazy in there,” Barrett said. The NYPD has long contended that it does not have quotas for how many summonses or 250s a cop is supposed to write, but Serrano believed his recording proved otherwise. One month later, he taped another lieutenant at roll call talking about “five-five-five”—shorthand for five summonses, five 250s, and five “verticals” (sweeps of apartment buildings).

Serrano grew up in the Bronx, and, as a boy, was frequently stopped and questioned by police for no clear reason. He entered the police academy in 2004, and soon discovered that it felt just as bad to be the one doing the questioning. “A piece of you dies when you violate people—your humanity,” he told Gonnerman. (Disclosure: I have edited Gonnerman before.) In the courtroom, Serrano’s tapes and testimony seemed to indicate that these sorts of stops were part of a deliberate practice of racial profiling. In one recording, his supervisor, Christopher McCormack, laid it out bluntly:

McCormack: “This is about stopping the right people, the right place, the right location … Take Mott Haven, where we had the most problems. And the most problems we had there were robberies and grand larcenies.”

Serrano: “And who are those people robbing?”

McCormack: “The problem was, what, male blacks. And I told you at roll call, and I have no problem telling you this: male blacks, 14 to 20, 21.”

Read the whole piece. It’s a sad story about a good cop trying to do the right thing in an impossible situation, and it just adds to the mounting evidence indicating that, despite its claims to the contrary, the NYPD puts its officers on a quota system, and if they don’t meet their targets, they get in trouble.

This all goes back to CompStat, the departmental initiative in which crime statistics are rigorously examined, and supervisors are held to account if those statistics don’t consistently decrease. If you watched the third season of The Wire, you’ll remember the CompStat scenes in which district commanders gathered weekly to be chewed out by the top brass, who were themselves under political pressure to reduce the crime rate. All evidence indicates that those scenes are a pretty accurate depiction of what it’s like in the real-life NYPD CompStat meetings. The end result is that cops face tremendous pressure to make stops and arrests so their bosses can have something to bring to the meetings.

Stop-and-frisk primarily comes out of fearful, sclerotic management techniques like these—from policies instituted by weak-willed leaders who prioritize shallow improvements that will play well in the press over substantive, sustainable policing techniques. But stop-and-frisk isn’t playing well in the press. Every reporter who’s paying attention realizes that these tactics are ineffective, counterproductive, passively racist, and likely unconstitutional.

And you know what? Plenty of cops realize this, too. Although Gonnerman leads her story with a scene of Serrano finding his locker covered in stickers of rats, Serrano tells Gonnerman that countless cops have approached him individually to congratulate him on taking the stand. “Every time I was by myself, people would approach me and tell me the same thing: ‘Listen, I can’t shake your hand, man, but good job,’ ” he tells Gonnerman. Rank-and-file cops realize that stop-and-frisk quotas do little but engender resentment among law-abiding members of the communities the NYPD is trying to serve and protect. The mayor and top police officials have had trouble seeing the same thing. Later this year, if Scheindlin rules the way she is likely to—a New Yorker piece this week calls Floyd v. State of New York “Scheindlin’s greatest chance yet to rewrite the rules of engagement between the city’s police and its people”—and decrees that stop-and-frisk is indeed unconstitutional, they’ll have no choice but to open their eyes.

More coverage of stop-and-frisk: Mayor Bloomberg: If You Dare Criticize the NYPD, the Terrorists Win; A Ringing Defeat for Stop-and-Frisk and a Huge Win for Civil Liberties; How About a Friendly Frisking?: The Myth of the “Consensual” Police Encounter.