NEW YORK (AP) — The right people at the right time in the right location.
That phrase — repeated over and over in a secret recording of a police supervisor — is at the crux of a civil rights challenge to the New York Police Department’s contentions tactic known as stop, question and frisk.
“So, who are the right people?” asks officer Pedro Serrano, during an argument with his supervisor about how to make a legal stop.
“Depends where you are,” replies Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack.
The recording was played during Serrano’s testimony last week at a federal trial that’s providing a window into the workings of the nation’s largest police force, the instincts officers rely on to do their jobs and the difficulty police supervisors have in translating written policies into practice on the street.
Serrano works patrol in the 40th Precinct in the Bronx, among the more crime-ridden in the city. Robberies there rose from 397 in 2011 to 478 in 2012, and grand larcenies rose from 412 to 469.
Serrano said his supervisors believed he tallied too few arrests, summonses and stop, question and frisk reports, known as “250s.” When he appealed his annual evaluation earlier this year, Serrano decided to use his phone to record his boss.
“So you’re saying what? Summons everybody for whatever reason?” the patrolman asks.
“No, see, listen to me. Understand this. All right? I don’t summons people for any reason, all right,” McCormack responds. “We go out there and we summons people and we ‘250’ people, the right people, at the right time, the right location.”
Lawyers for four men who have sued police say McCormack’s phrase should be interpreted as a thinly-veiled mandate to stop blacks and Hispanics to inflate numbers so the department looks proactive. Police officials and city lawyers said the inspector is trying to explain that to help stifle a specific crime, for example, the right people may be black or Hispanic males — those who are most often stopped by police.
“Again, take Mott Haven, where he had the most problems … robberies and grand larcenies. The problem was, what? Male blacks,” McCormack said. “And as I told you at roll call, and I have no problem telling you this, male blacks 14 to 20, 21.”
Serrano raises his voice: “So what am I supposed to do? Male blacks 14 to 20 wearing dark clothing? What do you want me to do specifically?”
The appeal of Serrano’s evaluation is then declared over, with his superiors suggesting he needs more training.
The ongoing trial is creating an uncomfortable spotlight for a department more accustomed to bragging about its crime-fighting prowess and a drop in crime to levels not seen since the 1960s. Several top brass are expected to testify in the coming weeks, including Chief of Department Joseph Esposito and Paul Browne, the deputy commissioner for public information and a close adviser to Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Kelly have hailed “stop and frisk” as a program that has deterred crime and saved lives by taking weapons off of would-be killers and by making crooks reconsider carrying weapons in the first place.
But the trial has exposed how in practice, the tactic creates often messy and difficult encounters between police and the public. So far, men have testified that they were stopped and frisked by officers as they went about their lives — getting milk at a store, walking home, going to a party. The men say they were doing nothing wrong and felt victimized by overzealous officers.
One man who testified, Nicholas Peart, described an encounter in which officers swarmed, pointed their weapons and told him and two relatives to get down on the ground late on the night of his 18th birthday. According to police radio calls, the officers were looking for robbery suspects who resembled the three men. But Peart was scared and felt harassed — and didn’t think police had enough reason to stop him. No one was arrested.
Most officers believe they are stopping someone for a purpose — namely because a crime has occurred, and most crime suspects in New York City are black and Hispanic.
The department has made about 5 million stops in the past decade, mostly young black and Hispanic men. Only about 10 percent were arrested and few weapons are actually recovered, leaving many let go feeling angry and humiliated. They include the four plaintiffs, who contend they were wrongly targeted because of their race.
The suit, now a class-action case, is seeking to reform the tactic, which is legal under a 1968 Supreme Court decision.
The nonjury trial is being heard by U.S. District Court Judge Shira Schiendlin, who has the power to order changes that may substantially alter the department’s methods. She has already expressed concern over the tactic in previous rulings.
McCormack is expected to testify later in the trial. But thanks to the tape, the judge already is familiar with his voice. She’s heard him tell the officer that his goal is to allow honest citizens to go about their business without fear of violence.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people in this community are great, hardworking people, who deserve to walk to the train, walk to their car, walk to the store,” he said.