NYPD on Trial: Police Say They Are Forced to Harass Kids in Order to Meet Quotas
Last week, NYPD whistleblowers Adhyl Polanco and Pedro Serrano, who secretly recorded supervisors demanding that officers fill quotas, testified in federal court that they were forced to violate the law to meet numbers. “We were handcuffing kids for no reason,” Polanco testified. The two officers are testifying in a class-action suit targeting the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy.
Quotas for NYPD activity are illegal under New York labor law, but secretly recorded roll calls reveal supervisors pushing officers to get "20-and 1," meaning 20 summonses and 1 arrest per month. Monthly quotas also required five "250s," or street stops.
“There’s a difference between” the department’s policies on paper and “what goes on out there,” in real life, Polanco told the court.
The 40th Precinct, where Pedro Serrano serves, recorded the highest number of police stops in the Bronx in 2011. That year, Serrano recorded the 40th Precinct’s commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack, telling him to stop “the right people at the right time, the right location," whom he also identified as people creating "the most problems."
“The problem was, what, male blacks,” Inspector McCormack said. “And I told you at roll call, and I have no problem telling you this, male blacks 14 to 20, 21.”
“We go out there and we summons,” he told Serrano.
Polanco, who is Dominican and said he is from Washington Heights, testified that he joined the case because, “I know what it's like when it's 95 degrees in an apartment on the fifth floor and you go downstairs because you had a fight with your sister, because it's simply too hot, " he said, "and get arrested in your own building for trespassing, as we have seen, get summons, get pat down, get harassed by police -- I don't believe that's why I joined the police department."
“As a Hispanic, walking in the Bronx, I have been stopped many times. It's not a good feeling," said Serrano, who grew up in the Bronx and works in the 40th Precinct.
The class-action suit, Floyd v. City of New York, will ultimately decide whether the city has systematically violated the 4th and 14th Amendments of New Yorkers via the NYPD's racial profiling tactic stop-and-frisk.
Almost 90% of more than half-a-million people stopped annually by the NYPD are black or Latino, and the majority of them are young and living in low-income areas with higher violent crime rates. Nonetheless, the arrests and summonses NYPD officers say they are forced to make are typically for low-level, nonviolent offenses. In one recording played for the court, an NYPD captain urging more activity told officers, “the summons is a money-generating machine for the city.”
Police are legally allowed to stop individuals they have “reasonable suspicion” to believe are committing a crime, and they may then pat down a person if they observe a bulge that could be a weapon. But stops -- less than one percent of which uncover a firearm -- also provide the initial interaction by which officers might uncover an arrest warrant or issue a summons.
Polanco and Serrano testified that supervisors cared more about whether cops met the numbers than whether they met them legally, and that failing to do so would lead to punishment or "retaliation,” which only intensified after they spoke out. They said they were advised to meet their quotas by going after young men of color for crimes they may not even have committed.
"They will never question the quality. They will question the quantity. They are not checking the 250. They are not checking the summonses. They just want to make sure we have them. How we got them, they don't really care," testified Polanco, who has been suspended from the NYPD for three years.
Serrano, unlike previous NYPD whistleblowers Polanco and Adrian Schoolcraft, whose recordings were also played to the court, is remarkably still on the job with the 40th Precinct in the Bronx.
Serrano stressed that the most important police work was of the smallest concern to his bosses. "Sometime we have to sit on a dead body the whole day. Sometime we have to bring a bad car accident to the hospital, where people actually die on the way or die at the hospital. Sometime we get rapes with minors… Sometime we get domestic dispute [that] sometimes turn deadly,” said Serrano.
In a recording one month later, Serrano captured Lieutenant Doute of the 40th Precinct demanding "five, five, and five" for each officer on the shift. Serrano explained that the numbers are quotas for five C summonses, five vertical patrols through buildings, and five 250s (stops).
"There's a lot of pressure on the sergeant to make sure that you get your activity," said Serrano, who stressed that orders are coming from the top of the city. Lieutenants and sergeants, "They have performance goals also. So they are under high pressure to make us [meet quotas]."
Serrano said that high C-summons activity appeases higher-ups who want to see that high-crime areas are being policed. "If there is a crime spike concern area, they want the C summonses to reflect the crime spike so they can say...that we addressed the condition.”
C summonses, or criminal misdemeanor summonses, require the person ticketed to appear in criminal court, a task that can often take a whole day, while the process itself can take months. Kids given C-summonses must miss a day of school to appear in court, and their parents are often left to foot the bill. Should they miss a court date and be stopped, a warrant for their arrest will appear, and they will be taken away handcuffed for failure to pay a now more expensive ticket they may not have deserved in the first place. In areas where summonses are a frequent occurrence, finding a sitter to watch children while you spend a day in court, or falling behind on bills to pay a summons, is a regular part of life.
"Addressing conditions" was a term regularly used in the trial, both by whistleblowers and witnesses who defended quotas they described as easily achievable “goals.” Should there be a high volume of robberies in an area, for example, supervisors want to see officers ticketing people in the area. The strategy is part of the "Broken Windows" theory of policing, which maintains that low-level busts and tickets for street crimes will deter more serious offenses. Its efficacy has been hotly debated, and refuted by academics who point to a variety of other factors that decreased crime when the NYPD began implementing the policy in the 1990s.
Pedro Serrano also testified that supervisors prefer certain summonses over others, noting that his bosses demand "hazardous" summonses that come with a fine rather than "correctable" summonses that allow the person to fix, for example, a busted headlight before they must pay a fine. In one recording, a lieutenant tells Serrano he is not making the correct summonses. The correct B summonses "are the ones that the city can make money on," Serrano explained, not the ones "You'll be able to correct it without financially coming out your pocket."
Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, the number of police stops has increased 600%, to well over half a million stops annually in recent years. Residents of low-income, black and Latino neighborhoods complain that they are stopped almost daily, and that the consequences of being targeted by police are severe interruptions to their lives.
Both Polanco and Serrano claimed supervisors retaliated against them for not meeting quotas, and again after blowing the whistle about their unlawful behavior. Serrano says that after he filed complaints about the NYPD's quotas and punishments for failing to meet them, his locker was shaken and stickered with rats. Other punishments for failing to meet quotas include low evaluations, denial of vacation days, separation from partners, and undesirable assignments like forced overtime shifts with additional quotas. One particularly disturbing punishment was to "drive the sergeant" or supervisor, which required the officer whose numbers were low to drive around with a higher-up until he or she found people for the patrol officer to stop, summons, or arrest, often for crimes the officers said they never observed.
The Human Impact
Plaintiffs in the suit testified that unwarranted police stops are embarrassing, degrading experiences that harm police relations with the community.
Community activist and Harlem resident Nicholas Peart, 24, testified that in April 2011, while he went to the deli to get milk, he was stopped, searched and temporarily detained by police officers. Peart has been the primary caretaker for his three siblings, one of whom is disabled, since his mother's death a year ago.
He described to the court his sense of unease while one officer walked toward his home with his keys, “mixed in with being handcuffed for the first time, and in the back of a police car for the first time.”
“I have kids in the house. I have kids in the house and there wasn't anybody there,” he said, explaining that he feared the police might enter his home.
During a separate August 2007 stop on 96th and Broadway, when he and friends were ordered to get on the ground by officers who drew their guns, Peart testified that he felt embarrassed and marginalized. “They patted over my basketball shorts and I was touched,” Peart said, breaking down in tears. In neighborhoods across the city, young people have complained that stop-and-frisks often become so invasive they involve an officer’s hand on the suspect’s genitals.
Peart testified, “I felt criminalized. My cousins, they had been visiting me from the suburbs in the Poconos, and they had never been through anything like that."
David Floyd, a plaintiff in the case, testified that in February 2008 he was stopped at his own building after retrieving a set of keys he was fumbling with to help a neighbor enter the building.
"Before we could go in, we were stopped...It was again the humiliation," Floyd said, adding that, this time, "it wasn't down the block, it wasn't in another neighborhood. It was on the property that I lived on."
"I felt that I was being told I shouldn't leave my home," he said, "I'm not a criminal."
Polanco testified that the issue with forcing illegal stops for quotas is targeting the wrong people. “I have no problem harassing criminals. I have no problem harassing those that are committing the crime or about to commit the crime,” he said.
“My understanding is that when somebody commits a crime, you don't bring the whole family to court. So why should we hold the whole culture accountable for what some of them are doing?” Polanco said.
Serrano echoed his sentiments, breaking down when he told the judge he was testifying, in part, on behalf of his children. It was an emotional moment that spoke to the severe psychological effect quotas can have on police officers, and also on the community being policed. Serrano told the court, “I don't need my kid to get shot by a cop who was chasing him to fill out a 250.”