NYPD whistle-blowers testify at stop-frisk trial
Whistle-blowers took the stand in a civil rights case challenging some of the 5 million streets stops made by police in the last decade
By Tom Hays and Colleen Long
NEW YORK — After Officer Pedro Serrano decided to testify in federal court about what he sees as wrongdoing within the New York Police Department, a rat sticker appeared on his locker.
That was the least of his problems.
Serrano claims he's been harassed, micromanaged and eventually transferred to a different precinct and put on the overnight shift.
"It hasn't been a picnic," he said in an interview this week. "They have their methods of dealing with someone like me."
Serrano and other whistle-blowers took the stand in a civil rights case challenging some of the 5 million streets stops made by police in the past decade using a tactic known as stop and frisk. They believe illegal quotas are behind some wrongful stops of black and Hispanic men.
"A lot of people told me not to come forward because of what would happen — they said the department would come after me," Serrano said. "But I've been thinking about it since 2007. I felt I couldn't keep quiet."
Several other officers and police brass testified to the opposite: They say there are no quotas. Most officers follow the letter of the law, and low-performing cops like Serrano are lazy malcontents who make the city less safe.
Under NYPD policy, officers are required to report corruption without fear of retribution to the internal affairs bureau, which investigates the claims.
But starting with legendary whistle-blower Frank Serpico in the 1970s, corruption scandals large and small have exposed a clannish culture that critics say encourages police officers to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing and never question authority — or else face harassment by peers and punishment by superiors.
As a plainclothes officer, Serpico was labeled a traitor for refusing payoffs and reporting corruption. On Feb. 3, 1971, he was shot in the face during a drug raid; he says other officers purposely failed to back him up. He recovered and testified before the Knapp Commission — a story etched in popular culture by a hit movie starring Al Pacino.
In the early 1990s, an internal affairs investigator who pursued drug-dealing officers was blackballed by his commanders before an independent investigation by the Mollen Commission proved him right. And the 1997 police assault of Abner Louima resulted in charges against officers who kept quiet because of a so-called blue wall of silence — an unspoken code among the rank-and-file to never "rat" on each other.
"Nothing's changed," the 76-year-old Serpico said in a recent phone interview when asked about the current crop of whistle-blowers. "It's the same old crap — kill the messenger."
In the ongoing federal trial over stop and frisk, lawyers for men who have sued police are seeking to show a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men are being wrongly stopped in part because officers are under too much pressure to keep enforcement numbers up.
Serrano, along with Officers Adhyl Polanco and Adrian Schoolcraft secretly recorded hours of patrol briefings, meetings with bosses and encounters on the streets that they say show they were being targeted by overzealous officials bent on making their precincts look good. The recordings were played at trial.
Both Serrano and Polanco said they made stops they didn't think were right as a result.
"I was extremely bothered with what I was seeing out there," Polanco testified. "The racial profiling, the arresting people for no reason, being called to scenes that I did not observe a violation and being forced to write a summons that I didn't observe."
Polanco said he agonized over the decision to come forward.
"I was afraid," he said. "It's not that easy to report corruption. ... Look at what happened to Schoolcraft."
Schoolcraft, who didn't appear in court because he has filed his own federal suit, was taken to a psychiatric ward in 2009 by his superiors, he says against his will. He remains suspended.
Polanco was suspended with pay for years after internal affairs officers brought charges of filing false arrest paperwork; he says the charges came because he detailed a list of complaints to internal affairs.
Serrano testified that he received poor evaluations, was denied vacation days and was forced to work overtime as punishment because he tallied too few arrests and stop-and-frisk reports.
"There's a whole bunch of things they do, but they're minor," Serrano said. "But when you put it all together, it becomes a hostile work environment."
For example, he says, he never saw his commanding officer until word got out about his quota allegations — then the official was personally checking Serrano's shift paperwork. He says he was forced to drive around with a sergeant and issue summonses and stop people until he brought up his numbers. Even after his numbers improved, his evaluations didn't. And he claimed he was forced to come in during a massive snowstorm even though he was nearly in a car accident.
When asked whether Serrano's complaints were considered punishment, several other officers who testified said no — it's just part of the job.
Most officers "leave their house every day to go to work to protect the city. They have the best intentions all the time, and they do it," Joseph Esposito, the former chief of the department, testified. "There is a small percentage ... we're talking about in any profession, there is a group that will try to do the least amount and get paid the most."
After Serrano appeared in court last month, he was transferred from the Bronx to a Manhattan precinct where he now works the midnight shift.
Serpico, who adopted a pet rat after he was accused of being one, says he holds the bosses responsible.
"Their message is `Do you want to write a summons or do you want to be delivering pizza? As a police officer, you're duty-bound to refuse an illegal order. ... But where do you go? The police department doesn't want to hear it."
Serpico, who now lives in upstate New York, still feels like an outsider to the police. He says he's there to listen when fellow whistle-blowers reach out.
"I've become their grandfather," he said. "They don't want nothing. They just want somebody who knows what they're going through. I give them moral support."
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