For years, the debate over the New York Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk tactics has centered on whether officers engage in racial profiling. Now, a recording suggests that, in at least one precinct, a person’s skin color can be a deciding factor in who is stopped.
The recording, played on Thursday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, was of a conversation between a patrol officer and his commanding officer in the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx, a violent command that recorded the highest number of police stops in the Bronx in 2011.
The commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack, urged the officer to be more active, emphasizing the need to conduct more street stops. “We go out there and we summons people,” Inspector McCormack said. The way to suppress violent crime, he said, was for officers to stop, question and, if necessary, frisk “the right people at the right time, the right location.”
The officer who surreptitiously recorded the conversation last month, Pedro Serrano, began pressing Inspector McCormack about who he meant by the “right people.” The conversation grew heated.
After an exchange about Mott Haven, a particularly crime-prone neighborhood, the inspector suggested that the police needed to conduct street stops of the people creating “the most problems” there.
“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.”
The conversation was played on the fourth day of a class-action lawsuit covering several million stop-and-frisk encounters in the city, a police tactic that the Bloomberg administration has embraced, citing its effectiveness in driving down gun violence. But the tactic has proved divisive in many parts of the city and has become a major issue in the mayoral race.
The authority of the police to use stop-and-frisk tactics is not at issue, but how the Police Department conducts these street interactions – and whether it stops blacks and Hispanics in violation of the Constitution – is the matter at hand before the judge in the case, Shira A. Scheindlin.
The question of what commanders mean by “the right people” is central to the trial.
Civil rights lawyers have long maintained that the term “right people” is police code for young black and Hispanic men, who make up an overwhelming share of those stopped. But the police, on the other hand, say that they use this phrase to describe habitual lawbreakers, and that by focusing on the “right people,” they are trying to avoid giving tickets to the construction worker drinking a beer on his way home or the couple strolling through a park that is closed for the night.
Officer Serrano, 43, testified on Thursday that he believed his supervisors used the expression to pressure officers to stop blacks and Hispanics without reasonable suspicion.
He testified that he once told a teenager he had been ordered to issue a ticket that “they should take my name down and if they sue, they could use me as a witness.”
Officer Serrano is the second Bronx police officer to take the witness stand in the trial and assert that police supervisors institute quotas that encourage officers to stop people unlawfully. He said he began taping interactions with supervisors in the station house because “they’re asking me to do something that’s illegal, I believe, and I was worried.”
Officer Serrano, who continues to work in the 40th Precinct, said that as a Hispanic man in the Bronx, he himself had been stopped many times. “It’s not a good feeling,” he testified.
When he went to Inspector McCormack’s office last month to complain about his work evaluation, he immediately came under criticism for having reported only a couple of street stops for all of 2012.
“It seems like you are purposely not doing anything to help prevent the shootings, the robberies and the grand larcenies,” Inspector McCormack said. To conduct so few stops in a year, amid so much crime, he said, was “not fair to the public.”
“I could see in Central Park maybe that would be fine, but this ain’t Central Park,” Inspector McCormack said.
Officer Serrano explained that his interactions with the public did not always rise to stops, as a matter of law, and so he rarely filled out the UF-250 form, which officers are supposed to fill out each time they conduct a stop.
At first, Inspector McCormack can be heard lecturing Officer Serrano about how “99 percent of these people in this community are great, hardworking people” who deserve to go about their days in peace. But the citizens, he said, were troubled by crime, and he went on to describe how a woman in her 60s was shot coming out of an elevator at 10 a.m.
The ambiguity in how the phrase “stopping the right people” is used by police commanders, and how it may be interpreted by patrol officers, was evident in the recordings played in court.
Pressed by the officer on what he meant, Inspector McCormack offered examples of people who should not be stopped, like an elderly person violating a parks rule by playing chess. He also cited the stop of a 48-year-old woman who was intercepted on her way to work as she took a shortcut through a park that was closed for the night.
“You think that’s the right people?” Inspector McCormack asked the officer skeptically.
But with Officer Serrano challenging him, the inspector never offered a clear answer.
“So what am I supposed to do?” Officer Serrano asked, after Inspector McCormack used that expression again. “Is it stop every black and Hispanic?”
The exchange continues until the inspector brings the conversation to a close, telling the officer, “You’re very close to having a problem here.”
The inspector continued, “The problem is that you don’t know who to stop and how to stop.”
In a later passage of the recording, which was not played in court, Inspector McCormack seemed to suggest to others there that Officer Serrano was trying to put words in his mouth. “He’s adding on that I wanted him to stop every black and Hispanic.”
Inspector McCormack is expected to be called as a witness in the coming weeks.