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.
There was a blue rat baring sharp teeth; a red rat curled up tight; another rat posing next to the word dirty. And dangling from his combination lock was a spring-loaded rat trap. A minute or two passed before his initial shock subsided. “Now it begins,” he said to himself. “The little game that’s going to start—it’s real now.”
Serrano snapped off the trap so he could open his locker, but he decided the stickers should stay. “I don’t want to let these people think that they won,” he told himself. If this display had been intended to scare Serrano into silence, it had the opposite effect: The sight of all those rats made him even more determined to testify in federal court against the NYPD.
The 4-0—as its officers call it—is one of New York City’s busiest police precincts. Not at all like the 5-0 in the North Bronx, which the 4-0 cops like to deride as the “5-Slow.” Here, there’s nothing unusual about an officer on the day shift getting multiple calls before 9 a.m., including a family dispute that ends with one relative stabbing another. The 4-0 includes Mott Haven, with its thirteen public-housing developments, which means that though the precinct is small in size, it’s packed with people. The cops patrolling the streets here don’t get a lot of passersby saying “Hello” or “Hey, Officer, how are you?” And when responding to a call in the projects, 4-0 cops know to always look up. It’s the only way to avoid getting hit with “airmail”: beer bottles, eggs, ice cubes, canned foods.
Before signing up with the NYPD, Serrano had spent a decade working at the meat market in Hunts Point, doing everything from loading trucks to bookkeeping to management. “Then I got to a certain age and I looked at my life and I was like, I got to do something with it,” he says. “I was making decent money. It was just dead-end.” He also had two young sons to support.
Serrano applied to the NYPD, FDNY, and the Department of Correction—places where he thought he’d find more opportunity. In the end, it came down to a choice between being a cop or a jail guard. He polled everyone he knew, and a Correction employee he met at the gym was the most persuasive. “He said, ‘There are plenty of blacks and Hispanics in Corrections,’ ” Serrano recalls. “ ‘You need to go into the Police Department.’ ”
Serrano enrolled in the NYPD academy in the summer of 2004. He was old for a rookie—at 34, he’d just made the age cutoff—and in January 2005, he got his first assignment: the 40th Precinct. He had lived in the Bronx since arriving from Puerto Rico when he was a year old. Just two miles separated the 4-0’s station house from the apartment on Fox Street where he’d lived as a child. And it helped that he spoke Spanish; almost three-quarters of the 4-0’s residents are Latino.
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.”
Once he joined the 4-0, nothing seemed clear-cut. “Every now and then, we would have to be put in a van and hunt, basically. Drive around, and the sergeant or whoever would say: ‘That guy there—write him.’ ‘That guy—write him.’ ”
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.