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Officer Serrano’s Hidden Camera

A group of teenagers getting stop-and-frisked, on Seneca Avenue in the Bronx, on their way home from school in September 2012.   

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.”

Serrano has lost count of the number of times he was stopped and frisked, but he estimates somewhere between 25 and 50. It happened often enough that the mere sight of an NYPD car pulling up to the curb triggered an almost Pavlovian response: Before the officers had even exited their vehicle, Serrano and his friends would have their hands on the wall. “Back then, it was a way of life,” he says. “It was like waking up and eating breakfast.”

The encounters were brief, maybe only two or three minutes, but their impact was more permanent. “I actually hated the police,” Serrano says, “because of what they did to me.”

The trick to surviving in the NYPD, Serrano decided, was to get assigned to a unit where he could use his discretion. For a while, he thought he’d found that place in a unit known as “Summons Auto,” where he was supposed to stop drivers for offenses like disobeying a no-turn sign or not wearing a seat belt. As he recalls, he was told to give out ten summonses a day, a number he found easy to meet.

“There were so many people doing stuff; I would stop 30 people a day and only give ten summonses,” he says. “The guy who had the cell phone, looked at me, and kept going—I’d pull him over and make sure he gets one … The woman who parked her car, had to drop the baby off at day care, and ran in there and ran out. Why should I give her a summons? I give her a little lecture.”

The more time Serrano had on the job, the more outspoken he became; his fellow officers started calling him a “boss fighter.” And he wasn’t the only one unhappy with how things were changing. Many of the older guys in the 4-0 thought the rookies were being trained wrong. 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.”

Once, when Serrano’s supervisors didn’t think he’d written enough summonses or UF-250s (the form cops are supposed to fill out for every stop-and-frisk), a sergeant put him in a car and drove him around until he found two guys standing by a wall.