Officer Serrano’s Hidden Camera: The stop-and-frisk trials of Pedro Serrano

Jennifer Gonnerman, Officer Serrano’s Hidden Camera: the stop-and-frisk trials of Pedro Serrano:NYPD rat, NYPD hero. New York Magazine, 19 May 2013. “Officer Pedro Serrano walked through the heavy wooden doors of the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx and headed upstairs to the locker room. For eight years he’d been working out of this 89-year-old station house, with its broken fax machines and crummy computers. “We work in a shithole,” the cops there would say, “but it’s our shithole.” Serrano, 43, had the day off—he’d stopped by only to pick up some papers—but when he got close to his locker, he noticed something strange. Someone had placed a dozen rat stickers on the door.”

Excerpts from story:

No matter how well he knew the Bronx, leaving the police academy and joining a precinct felt disorienting. “The minute you got out of training—different world,” he says. “Ninety percent of the stuff they taught you did not exist.” At the academy, for example, he’d been told never to target anyone solely because of his skin color. The message seemed unambiguous: “If you racial-profile, you’re going to get fired.”…

Cops wrote summonses for all sorts of minor offenses: “unreasonable noise,” “bicycle on sidewalk,” “unlawfully in park after hours.” And when they saw someone they suspected of criminal activity—if they spied a bulge in somebody’s pocket where a gun might be and saw that person touching that spot—they stopped and frisked him. This blitz of activity was part of the NYPD’s “hot spots” strategy: By flooding crime hot spots with cops—and ordering them to give out summonses and perform stop-and-frisks—the NYPD could prevent more serious crimes.

This was the theory, at least. But from Serrano’s perspective, many of the summonses seemed to make no sense. “This happened to me—they rolled up to this poor Mexican guy sitting on the stairs and said: ‘Write him.’ I’m looking at Sarge, like, ‘What am I writing him for?’ ” The sergeant said, “Blocking pedestrian traffic.”

Later, back at the precinct, Serrano read what exactly constitutes “blocking pedestrian traffic.” “This guy was sitting on the stairs, and there is room for someone to walk by,” he says. “If a person is trying to enter the building and cannot because you’re blocking them, that’s blocking pedestrian traffic. But he was not blocking pedestrian traffic.”

Sure, the guy would only have to pay a small fine, but if he never went to court—if he forgot, or couldn’t scratch together the money, or was an undocumented immigrant afraid to enter a courthouse—the court would put out a warrant for his arrest. And the next time the police stopped him, they’d take him to jail.

Every time Serrano handed out a summons to someone he believed didn’t deserve it, he thought, I can’t do this. I got to do twenty years of this? “It made me feel like crap.”

When he was in junior high school, Pedro Serrano moved into the Bronx’s Little Italy with his mother and three siblings. ­He formed a tight clique with several neighborhood kids, including Little Man Ivan, Freckle-Faced Ivan, and Karate Pete. The shouts of “You spic!”; the kids chasing him on his way to school; the unwritten rule that they couldn’t step inside Ciccarone Park—it was all part of growing up Puerto Rican in this Italian neighborhood. “We needed a group of people to count on just to survive,” he says. “We didn’t belong in the neighborhood, and they made it known.” Looking back on those years, Serrano describes having lived through a “racial war.” And it was a war that Serrano felt he was fighting on two fronts, against the neighborhood kids and the cops.

“The police would stop, come out of the car, frisk us whenever they felt like it,” he says. “You were Hispanic or black in a high-crime location—it happened every day, and you just got used to it. You don’t question it. At first you get upset. But after they hit you or arrest you or summons you, you get to know real quick: Just let them search you and they’ll go away.”…

When it comes to street stops, one of Serrano’s former co-workers says, “We can’t just stop everybody. And that’s what they’re teaching the new guys to do: Just stop everybody … Just to get the numbers. That’s it. Doesn’t matter: Just get the numbers.”…

ong before NYPD officers talked about 250s, the act of an officer stopping a civilian on the street and patting him down was known as a “Terry stop.” In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in Terry v. Ohio that a police officer could stop and frisk someone on the street even if he had no probable cause to arrest him; all cops needed was “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. In New York City, controversy over this police tactic erupted in 1999 after four officers trying to stop a man in the Bronx wound up firing at him 41 times. The killing of 23-year-old Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, transformed stop-and-frisk into a political issue.

In the years that followed, the number of street stops made by NYPD officers grew at an astonishing rate from 97,296 stops a year to 685,724 between 2002 and 2011. (The number dropped last year to 533,042.) Most stops happen in high-crime neighborhoods, places like East New York or Brownsville or Mott Haven. In 2011, 87 percent of the people stopped were African-American or Latino. And in the overwhelming majority of stops—nearly 90 percent of them—police officers didn’t make an arrest or hand out a summons.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have insisted the policy is part of the reason the NYPD has been able to keep down the crime rate. Kelly recently told The Wall Street Journal, “If you don’t run the risk of being stopped, you start carrying your gun, and you do things that people do with guns.” Critics of the policy insist these street stops amount to racial profiling. Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia law professor who has studied the NYPD’s numbers for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), criticizes stop-and-frisk’s low “hit rate”—for finding guns or making arrests—pointing to a Supreme Court case in which cops at a checkpoint who stopped motorists at random actually had a higher arrest rate….

By this time, Serrano knew he wasn’t the only cop secretly taping his superiors. Officer Adrian Schoolcraft had recorded a year and a half of roll calls in Brooklyn’s 81st Precinct; excerpts appeared in The Village Voice in the spring of 2010. That same year, a cop named Adhyl Polanco in the precinct next to Serrano’s, the 41st, went public with recordings he’d made, including one of a roll call in which cops were told to do “one and twenty”—one arrest and twenty summonses—a month.

Serrano followed the officers’ stories in the media and knew how both men had been treated by their bosses after they fought back. Schoolcraft was suspended from his job, but not before officers had gone to his apartment, cuffed him, and hauled him off to the psych ward at Jamaica Hospital, where he was ­confined for six days. Polanco was transferred to the viper Unit in ­Brooklyn and spent his shifts watching video monitors of ­housing projects. No longer allowed to do real police work, he’d become, in NYPD parlance, “a broken toy.”