New York Cop Explains How Quotas Encourage Unconstitutional Stops


Michael Fleshman / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

The trial in the main case challenging the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk practices, Floyd v. City of New York, began this week, and yesterday whisteblowing cop Adhyl Polanco testified about the quotas that encourage officers to stop people without the "reasonable suspicion" the Supreme Court has said the Fourth Amendment requires. Polanco, whose recordings of police roll calls caused a splash when excerpts from them were first aired by WABC-TV in 2010, said cops feel strong pressure from superiors and union representatives to issue at least 20 summonses and make at least one arrest a month. "I spoke to the C.O. [commanding officer] for about an hour and a half," says a Patrolmen's Benevolent Association delegate in a recording that Polanco made during a 2009 roll call in the Bronx. "Twenty and one. Twenty and one is what the union is backing up….They spoke to the [PBA] trustees. And that's what they want. They want 20 and one." That requirement, Polanco explained in court, was "non-negotiable," meaning "you're gonna do it, or you're gonna become a Pizza Hut delivery man."

Polanco and other critics argue that such expectations drive officers to make unconstitutional stops in the hope of finding something that will justify a summons or an arrest. According to the NYPD's numbers, that happens in one out of 10 stops—a track record that suggests cops' suspicions are not very reasonable. In this context, it is easy to understand why officers might trick people into revealing marijuana they are carrying, then illegally bust them for having it "in public view," a misdemeanor that justifies an arrest, as opposed to mere possession, which is only a citable offense. The pressure to make arrests helps explain the huge increase in minor pot busts New York has seen since the mid-1990s. It also helps explain why so many people, overwhelmingly black and Latino, get hassled by the cops with so little to show for it—nine times out of 10, not even a bogus pot bust or a trumped-up ticket for blocking traffic.

Radley Balko covered Polanco's revelations and similar recordings by another officer, Adrian Schoolcraft, in 2010.