According to Serrano, the sergeant said, “250 them.” When Serrano resisted the order, the sergeant said, “Summons them.”
“For what?” Serrano asked.
“Blocking pedestrian traffic.”
Serrano did as he was told, but as he took the men’s I.D.’s and wrote their tickets, he told them: “I’m violating your rights, and you should take my name down. If you ever want to sue, you can use me as a witness.”
Serrano and his fellow officers understood why their bosses pressured them to write so many summonses and 250s. As one cop put it, “The more 250s, the better it makes the commanding officer look.” They knew the stress their bosses were under when they went to CompStat meetings, the way they got screamed at by their own superiors when they didn’t have a good answer to the question: “What steps have you taken to address your conditions?” (That’s NYPD-speak for “crime conditions.”)
Once a commander returned to the station house, of course, he passed down that pressure to everyone else: to the lieutenants, the sergeants, down to the officers. For every crime hot spot, the precinct commander had to show that he was on top of the situation, that his cops were taking action. He had no way of counting exactly how many crimes he’d prevented—how do you count robberies and shootings before they happen?—but he could offer up the next best thing: high numbers of 250s and summonses.
Long before NYPD officers talked about 250s, the act of an officer stopping a civilian on the street and patting him down was known as a “Terry stop.” In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in Terry v. Ohio that a police officer could stop and frisk someone on the street even if he had no probable cause to arrest him; all cops needed was “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. In New York City, controversy over this police tactic erupted in 1999 after four officers trying to stop a man in the Bronx wound up firing at him 41 times. The killing of 23-year-old Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, transformed stop-and-frisk into a political issue.
In the years that followed, the number of street stops made by NYPD officers grew at an astonishing rate from 97,296 stops a year to 685,724 between 2002 and 2011. (The number dropped last year to 533,042.) Most stops happen in high-crime neighborhoods, places like East New York or Brownsville or Mott Haven. In 2011, 87 percent of the people stopped were African-American or Latino. And in the overwhelming majority of stops—nearly 90 percent of them—police officers didn’t make an arrest or hand out a summons.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have insisted the policy is part of the reason the NYPD has been able to keep down the crime rate. Kelly recently told The Wall Street Journal, “If you don’t run the risk of being stopped, you start carrying your gun, and you do things that people do with guns.” Critics of the policy insist these street stops amount to racial profiling. Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia law professor who has studied the NYPD’s numbers for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), criticizes stop-and-frisk’s low “hit rate”—for finding guns or making arrests—pointing to a Supreme Court case in which cops at a checkpoint who stopped motorists at random actually had a higher arrest rate.
Meanwhile, several mayoral candidates have seized on the issue, promising reforms. Christine Quinn, the only Democratic candidate to say she’d continue Kelly’s tenure as police commissioner, has attacked the steep number of stops. “I just don’t believe stops at 700,000 are happening in a constitutionally sound way,” she told Capital New York. “That is a number that has torn police and communities apart.”
In the wake of Diallo’s death, the CCR filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the stop-and-frisk tactics used by the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit. The CCR settled that case in 2003. The NYPD agreed to adopt a written policy banning racial profiling and to audit officers to ensure that they stopped people only if they had “reasonable suspicion” and that they documented every stop. In 2008, as the number of stops continued climbing, the same legal organization filed another class-action case: Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al. This time, the lead plaintiff was David Floyd, a 34-year-old medical student, who was twice stopped and searched in the Bronx, once in front of his apartment building while trying to help a neighbor who was locked out.
One day in 2009, Officer Serrano clipped a video pen to the front pocket of his uniform. An officer had given it to him, suggesting it would protect Serrano on the job if he ever ran into serious trouble with his bosses (he later began using an iPhone). At an overtime roll call on June 30, 2010, he recorded Lieutenant Stacy Barrett telling officers she was “looking for five”—five summonses and/or UF-250s. “St. Mary’s Park, go crazy in there,” Barrett said. The NYPD has long contended that it does not have quotas for how many summonses or 250s a cop is supposed to write, but Serrano believed his recording proved otherwise. One month later, he taped another lieutenant at roll call talking about “five-five-five”—shorthand for five summonses, five 250s, and five “verticals” (sweeps of apartment buildings).