New York police officers testifying before a federal court this week said that racist quotas imposed by ranking officers are behind the police department's controversial stop-and-frisk program, confirming years of accusations made by civil rights and community advocates that the department's tactics disproportionately target minorities.
The class action suit, Floyd v. City of New York, is taking on New York police commissioner Ray Kelly and mayor Michael Bloomberg—both long champions of the tactic— as well as the city itself, in an attempt to prove that the NYPD has "demonstrated a widespread and systemic pattern of unconstitutional stops," the Guardian writes.
According to department data, the NYPD has made roughly 5 million street stops in the past decade, the vast majority of those stopped being young African American or Latino men.
Nearly nine out of 10 of those stopped by police have walked away without a summons or arrest.
"[The NYPD] has laid siege to black and Latino communities" through "arbitrary, unnecessary and unconstitutional harassment," said attorney Darius Charney in opening remarks.
"At the end of the day, it's about quotas," added Jonathan Moore, another lawyer for the plaintiffs. "That's why there is such an epidemic in these communities of people getting stopped and frisked—because the police are told to get numbers [...] They are interested in arrests, summons and 250s," he said, referring to the code for 'stop, question and frisk'.
By law, the NYPD is permitted to stop a person if they have reasonable suspicion to believe the person is about to commit a crime, is in the process of committing a crime, or have just finished committing a crime. The officer is allowed to frisk, or pat down, an individual "if they have reason to believe the person is an armed threat." And they can then reach inside the clothing, or search the individual, "if they have encountered an object they have reason to believe is a weapon."
According to critics, these defined parameters regularly go unmet and instead, the NYPD has instituted "a sense of second-class citizenship in minority communities in which individuals—particularly young men—are routinely subjected to illegal and degrading stops," the Guardian writes.
The first four witness to speak in the trial were African American men who described incidents of targeting and harassment while being stopped. Following those testimonies, lawyers shifted focus from the experience of street stops to the internal NYPD structure behind the institutionalized practice of racial profiling.
Eight-year NYPD veteran, Adhyl Polanco, said that in 2009 his Bronx precinct supervisors insisted on 20 summons, five street stops and one arrest per month. Those who didn't make the quota were penalized by poor evaluations and denial of overtime. He testified that his supervisors "did not think breaking up fights, ending domestic disputes and other police duties were as important as the numbers."
Occasionally, Polanco said, officers would be forced to "drive the sargeant" which meant driving around with a senior officer who would make them give out summons and make street stops, at times for infractions the junior officer did not observe.
A second officer from a different Bronx precinct, Pedro Serrano, played before the court a taped discussion with his commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack, during which he orders Serrano to perform more stop and frisks.
From the Village Voice:
"We need to do this," McCormack says. The inspector then instructs Serrano to stop "the right people, at the right time, at the right location."
Serrano is puzzled. "Mott Haven is full of black and Hispanic people, so who are the right people? [...] what am I supposed to do? Is it stop every black and Hispanic?" Serrano says. "I'm not going to do that. You want to do that. I'm not going to do that."
"No, no, no, this is very important to understand," the inspector says. "Because it's the right people, the right time, the right location."
"Mott Haven is full of black people, so who are the right people?" Serrano asks.
MacCormack: "The problem was male blacks, 14 to 20, 21."
Serrano: "So what am I supposed to do? Male blacks 14 to 20 wearing dark clothing? What do you want me to do specifically?"
MacCormack: "Hold on, hold on, would you just do me a favor on take it down? Because this is becoming insubordination."
Below is an audio recording, obtained by The Nation, which confirms that New York City's police union was complicit in setting arrest quotas for the department's officers. Patrolmen who spoke to The Nation explained that the pressure from superiors to meet quota goals caused some officers to seek out or even manufacture arrests to avoid department retaliation.