It's from a few weeks back but just came to my attention this week, and alas the story it tells is timeless: a lengthy New York magazine profile of disgrunted NYPD office Pedro Serrano.
Here's some of what it's like for a cop on the beat in NYC:
"Every now and then, we would have to be put in a van and hunt, basically. Drive around, and the sergeant or whoever would say: 'That guy there—write him.' 'That guy—write him.'?"
Cops wrote summonses for all sorts of minor offenses: "unreasonable noise," "bicycle on sidewalk," "unlawfully in park after hours." And when they saw someone they suspected of criminal activity—if they spied a bulge in somebody's pocket where a gun might be and saw that person touching that spot—they stopped and frisked him. This blitz of activity was part of the NYPD's "hot spots" strategy: By flooding crime hot spots with cops—and ordering them to give out summonses and perform stop-and-frisks—the NYPD could prevent more serious crimes.
….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."
This next point is very key to those who say, hey, big deal, just getting a ticket, huh? But getting a ticket for those unable to promptly pay it–for whatever reason–is serious indeed:
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…..
It's a makework job, NYPD policing:
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.
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 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…."
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.
Serrano went on to begin taping his bosses giving orders he thought were illegitimate, and then became a witness agaisnt NYPD in a Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit against NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices.
Jacob Sullum from Reason's July issue on New York's stop-and-frisk policies.