Officer Serrano’s Hidden Camera
The stop-and-frisk trials of Pedro Serrano: NYPD rat, NYPD hero.
New York | May 19, 2013
OFFICER PEDRO SERRANO walked through the heavy wooden doors of the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx and headed upstairs to the locker room. For eight years he’d been working out of this 89-year-old station house, with its broken fax machines and crummy computers. “We work in a shithole,” the cops there would say, “but it’s our shithole.” Serrano, 43, had the day off—he’d stopped by only to pick up some papers—but when he got close to his locker, he noticed something strange. Someone had placed a dozen rat stickers on the door.
There was a blue rat baring sharp teeth; a red rat curled up tight; another rat posing next to the word DIRTY. And dangling from his combination lock was a spring-loaded rat trap. A minute or two passed before his initial shock subsided. “Now it begins,” he said to himself. “The little game that’s going to start—it’s real now.”
Serrano snapped off the trap so he could open his locker, but he decided the stickers should stay. “I don’t want to let these people think that they won,” he told himself. If this display had been intended to scare Serrano into silence, it had the opposite effect: The sight of all those rats made him even more determined to testify in federal court against the NYPD.
THE 4-0—AS IT OFFICERS CALL IT—is one of New York City’s busiest police precincts. Not at all like the 5-0 in the North Bronx, which the 4-0 cops like to deride as the “5-Slow.” Here, there’s nothing unusual about an officer on the day shift getting multiple calls before 9 a.m., including a family dispute that ends with one relative stabbing another. The 4-0 includes Mott Haven, with its thirteen public-housing developments, which means that though the precinct is small in size, it’s packed with people. The cops patrolling the streets here don’t get a lot of passersby saying “Hello” or “Hey, Officer, how are you?” And when responding to a call in the projects, 4-0 cops know to always look up. It’s the only way to avoid getting hit with “airmail”: beer bottles, eggs, ice cubes, canned foods.
Before signing up with the NYPD, Serrano had spent a decade working at the meat market in Hunts Point, doing everything from loading trucks to bookkeeping to management. “Then I got to a certain age and I looked at my life and I was like, I got to do something with it,” he says. “I was making decent money. It was just dead-end.” He also had two young sons to support.
Serrano applied to the NYPD, FDNY, and the Department of Correction—places where he thought he’d find more opportunity. In the end, it came down to a choice between being a cop or a jail guard. He polled everyone he knew, and a Correction employee he met at the gym was the most persuasive. “He said, ‘There are plenty of blacks and Hispanics in Corrections,’ ” Serrano recalls. “ ‘You need to go into the Police Department.’ ”
Serrano enrolled in the NYPD academy in the summer of 2004. He was old for a rookie—at 34, he’d just made the age cutoff—and in January 2005, he got his first assignment: the 40th Precinct. He had lived in the Bronx since arriving from Puerto Rico when he was a year old. Just two miles separated the 4-0’s station house from the apartment on Fox Street where he’d lived as a child. And it helped that he spoke Spanish; almost three-quarters of the 4-0’s residents are Latino.
No matter how well he knew the Bronx, leaving the police academy and joining a precinct felt disorienting. “The minute you got out of training—different world,” he says. “Ninety percent of the stuff they taught you did not exist.” At the academy, for example, he’d been told never to target anyone solely because of his skin color. The message seemed unambiguous: “If you racial-profile, you’re going to get fired.”
Once he joined the 4-0, nothing seemed clear-cut. “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.
This was the theory, at least. But 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.”
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.
Every time Serrano handed out a summons to someone he believed didn’t deserve it, he thought, I can’t do this. I got to do twenty years of this? “It made me feel like crap.”
WHEN HE WAS IN JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL, Pedro Serrano moved into the Bronx’s Little Italy with his mother and three siblings. He formed a tight clique with several neighborhood kids, including Little Man Ivan, Freckle-Faced Ivan, and Karate Pete. The shouts of “You spic!”; the kids chasing him on his way to school; the unwritten rule that they couldn’t step inside Ciccarone Park—it was all part of growing up Puerto Rican in this Italian neighborhood. “We needed a group of people to count on just to survive,” he says. “We didn’t belong in the neighborhood, and they made it known.” Looking back on those years, Serrano describes having lived through a “racial war.” And it was a war that Serrano felt he was fighting on two fronts, against the neighborhood kids and the cops.
“The police would stop, come out of the car, frisk us whenever they felt like it,” he says. “You were Hispanic or black in a high-crime location—it happened every day, and you just got used to it. You don’t question it. At first you get upset. But after they hit you or arrest you or summons you, you get to know real quick: Just let them search you and they’ll go away.”
Serrano has lost count of the number of times he was stopped and frisked, but he estimates somewhere between 25 and 50. It happened often enough that the mere sight of an NYPD car pulling up to the curb triggered an almost Pavlovian response: Before the officers had even exited their vehicle, Serrano and his friends would have their hands on the wall. “Back then, it was a way of life,” he says. “It was like waking up and eating breakfast.”
The encounters were brief, maybe only two or three minutes, but their impact was more permanent. “I actually hated the police,” Serrano says, “because of what they did to me.”
THE TRICK TO SURVIVING in the NYPD, Serrano decided, was to get assigned to a unit where he could use his discretion. For a while, he thought he’d found that place in a unit known as “Summons Auto,” where he was supposed to stop drivers for offenses like disobeying a no-turn sign or not wearing a seat belt. As he recalls, he was told to give out ten summonses a day, a number he found easy to meet.
“There were so many people doing stuff; I would stop 30 people a day and only give ten summonses,” he says. “The guy who had the cell phone, looked at me, and kept going—I’d pull him over and make sure he gets one … The woman who parked her car, had to drop the baby off at day care, and ran in there and ran out. Why should I give her a summons? I give her a little lecture.”
The more time Serrano had on the job, the more outspoken he became; his fellow officers started calling him a “boss fighter.” And he wasn’t the only one unhappy with how things were changing. Many of the older guys in the 4-0 thought the rookies were being trained wrong. 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 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, CCR filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the stop-and-frisk tactics used by the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit. 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).
By this time, Serrano knew he wasn’t the only cop secretly taping his superiors. Officer Adrian Schoolcraft had recorded a year and a half of roll calls in Brooklyn’s 81st Precinct; excerpts appeared in The Village Voice in the spring of 2010. That same year, a cop named Adhyl Polanco in the precinct next to Serrano’s, the 41st, went public with recordings he’d made, including one of a roll call in which cops were told to do “one and twenty”—one arrest and twenty summonses—a month.
Serrano followed the officers’ stories in the media and knew how both men had been treated by their bosses after they fought back. Schoolcraft was suspended from his job, but not before officers had gone to his apartment, cuffed him, and hauled him off to the psych ward at Jamaica Hospital, where he was confined for six days. Polanco was transferred to the VIPER Unit in Brooklyn and spent his shifts watching video monitors of housing projects. No longer allowed to do real police work, he’d become, in NYPD parlance, “a broken toy.”
Serrano didn’t know what he was going to do with his audio files, but the more conversations he recorded, the more hours he spent on his bed at home, headphones pressed to his ears, trying to parse exactly what had been said. He took notes, writing down the timing of anything that seemed especially revealing, and sometimes he’d play a snippet for his wife: “Listen to this! Did you hear what he just said?”
She never seemed too interested. “She’d say, ‘Yeah, I know, I know,’ and just pacify me.” The way he saw it: “My wife doesn’t understand because, for the most part, females are not the ones who get 250-ed.”
When he wanted to talk to someone who he thought would be more supportive, he called his two brothers, both of whom had left the Bronx at a young age to join the Army. “They’ve been through it. They’ve also been 250-ed. They know exactly what the police department does to civilians.”
HOW DO YOU MEASURE the performance of a cop? It was a question that arose at the end of every year, when it was time for annual evaluations.
Serrano now worked as a patrol officer, driving around on the four-to-midnight shift (known as the 4-12), answering radio calls, responding to ten or more jobs a night. The 4-0 was so busy that he regularly started his shift with jobs already “stacked up”—911 calls that had come in earlier and were still waiting for a response. Depending on the night, he might be cracking down on a drag race on East 132nd Street; trying to break up a fight between inebriated men outside the strip club Sin City; or responding to a call from Lincoln Hospital about a guy who arrived at the ER, bleeding from a bullet wound. Being a patrol officer carried less status than working in a specialized unit, but Serrano liked the job, partly because he was so busy that nobody seemed overly concerned with how many summonses or stop-and-frisks he did.
That changed in late September 2011 when the 4-0 got a new commanding officer, 38-year-old deputy inspector Christopher J. McCormack. His nickname was “Red Rage”—his face would turn crimson when he started hollering—and within the department he was considered to be a rising star. His officers described him as being on the path to making chief one day.
At the end of 2011, Serrano received a three out of five on his annual evaluation, down from a four the prior year. He wasn’t sure why his score dropped, since all the written comments (albeit sprinkled with typos) were positive:
PO Serrano adheres to the ethics of the department and guidelines.
PO Serrano handles sensitive situation with a care and empathy.
PO Serrano is competent police officer that has the abitity to be leader.
When Serrano appealed his score, he met with the 4-0’s executive officer, Captain Martine Materasso. The meeting lasted no more than five minutes. What was said is a matter of dispute. Serrano says she told him half his score was based on his “enforcement activity”—his number of arrests, 250s, and summonses. For all of 2011, he’d done only five arrests, two summonses, and three 250 forms, fewer than he’d done the year before. Materasso denies talking about specific numbers, later saying, “Did I believe that he was every day out there serving the people of the 4-0 like he should be? I don’t believe he was.”
Serrano disagreed. He answered more than 1,000 radio calls in a typical year. Like the time he responded to a call about an “EDP”—emotionally disturbed person—at an apartment on Trinity Avenue. As he pulled up in front of the building, he saw five children huddled on the second-floor fire escape, screaming about a stranger in their apartment.
Serrano told the oldest girl to drop the ladder, and then he climbed up, squeezed in through the window, and pulled out his Smith & Wesson. He found three more children inside, barricaded in a room, armed with baseball bats. At the front of the apartment, a deranged man screamed and slammed his fists against the locked front door so hard that his knuckles were bleeding.
He reminded Serrano of the Rock—about five-eight, enormous muscles, no neck—and he appeared to be high on PCP. When he heard the crackle of Serrano’s police radio, he spun around. Seeing that he wasn’t armed, Serrano put away his gun and, with three other officers, tackled the man to the floor.
Later, he learned the backstory: The children’s families had been preparing for a party; the adults had gone out to get the food; this guy had stumbled into the wrong apartment and couldn’t figure out how to get out. Minus a few details, it was the sort of crazy incident that could happen any night of the week, would never make the newspapers, and would do nothing to help his numbers.
SERRANO AND A HANDFUL of other officers from the 4-0 began meeting to talk about their jobs, always in restaurants where they could be sure their supervisors wouldn’t walk in. In early 2012, four of them filed affidavits with their union protesting quotas. When their efforts led nowhere, Serrano started searching for an attorney. He estimates he spoke to about ten before the day last December when he walked into the Center for Constitutional Rights.
He met with Darius Charney, a lawyer for the CCR, and Jonathan C. Moore, a partner at Beldock Levine & Hoffman, who was working with him. They told Serrano about their lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk and Moore asked if he would be willing to testify. Serrano wasn’t sure. He hadn’t come here looking to be a witness in someone else’s lawsuit. But unlike many of his fellow officers, he knew the issue from all sides. He remembered how it felt to be that guy sprawled against the side of a building, and he knew the toll it took on officers to perform so many of these stops. “A piece of you dies when you violate people—your humanity,” he says. Right before the end-of-the-year deadline, the lawyers added his name to the witness list.
On February 22, Serrano showed up at work to discover that somebody had tipped over his locker, tossing the contents all over. It was a standard NYPD retaliation move. Another time, somebody had flipped the locker of an officer—also with the last name Serrano—by mistake and written RAT next to his name on his door, prompting somebody else to scribble next to it: WRONG SERRANO.
Serrano didn’t know who was targeting him, and that was the hardest part. “It could be the friend who’s talking to you, the [union] rep who’s supposed to be representing you,” he says.
So he stayed quiet, talking to no one, waiting for others to approach him, trying to figure out which co-workers were still his friends. There were several cops who seemed to be acting different, no longer looking him in the eye, but they said nothing. As he later testified, “I felt like I was in a shark tank and had multiple stab wounds and I was bleeding and they were circling me.”
After someone left those rat stickers and rat trap on his locker, Serrano decided to retaliate in his own way: He pulled out a marker and drew mustaches on a few of the stickers.
Recently, his supervisors had assigned him to keep watch at the school-bus drivers’ strike, a job usually reserved for less-senior officers. To Serrano, it felt like punishment. He called the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau for help, but that didn’t seem to accomplish anything. The only thing that gave him comfort was knowing that there was another officer one precinct over who understood exactly how he felt.
ON MARCH 20, Officer Adhyl Polanco sat on the witness stand in Courtroom 15C at the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Manhattan. It was day three of the trial of Floyd v. City of New York, and Serrano listened from the audience. “I grew up in Washington Heights; I know what it’s like to grow up in the hood. Basically, that not everybody who lives in a high-crime area is a criminal.” Polanco’s words sounded very familiar.
Despite Serrano’s initial worries about testifying, when he got his turn on the stand later that day, he was surprisingly calm; it felt good to share his experiences in a courtroom packed with lawyers and reporters and spectators. Before, he’d been just another anonymous cop with a stash of secret recordings and piles of typed notes. Now everyone was listening to him.
His testimony stretched over two days. Serrano explained to Judge Shira A. Scheindlin how, in his view, around 2007, the 4-0’s bosses had ratcheted up the pressure, shifting from what he called a “soft quota” to a hard quota, from a suggestion of how many summonses or stop-and-frisks the cops should do—to a number that they had to hit, or else be punished.
“It’s not good to tell cops: ‘Make sure you find it,’ ” he said. “Because if they don’t find it, what’s left? If the bad guy is not there, who is left? The good people. And you got to hammer them.”
The only time he became emotional was when his lawyer asked him why he’d come to testify. “Well, Judge, it’s very simple,” he said. “I have children. I try to be a decent person. You have got to excuse me. Whenever I talk about my kids …” He paused for a moment, trying to blink back tears. “As a Hispanic, walking in the Bronx, I have been stopped many times. It’s not a good feeling. I promised as an officer I would respect everyone to the best of my abilities. I just want to do the right thing. That’s all.”
TO BOLSTER THEIR CASE, the plaintiffs’ lawyers presented evidence Serrano had collected. They played the tape of Lieutenant Barrett telling the cops she was “looking for five” summonses and/or 250s. They flashed on a screen a text message Serrano had received from his sergeant a few months earlier: “U need to do more 250.” And they played a recording Serrano had made of a meeting he’d had with Deputy Inspector McCormack on February 14, 2013.
As precinct commander, McCormack oversaw some 235 officers. Though he’d been at the 4-0 for seventeen months, he’d never met Serrano before this meeting; he recognized the name, but couldn’t remember ever having a conversation with him. The meeting had been set up so Serrano could appeal his latest job evaluation. The conversation, however, focused largely on stop-and-frisk.
The prior year, Serrano recalled stopping five or six people, but the NYPD’s records showed only two 250s. “To stop two people, you know, to only see two things going on, that’s almost like you’re purposely not doing your job at all,” McCormack said.
Serrano tried to defend himself, but McCormack continued, “For the 4-12s in the 4-0, you know, I could see in Central Park maybe that would be fine, but this ain’t Central Park.”
The longer the conversation continued, the more heated both men became.
Serrano: “Mott Haven, full of blacks and Hispanics. Okay … So what am I supposed to do? Is it stop every black and Hispanic?” He repeated the question several times.
McCormack: “This is about stopping the right people, the right place, the right location … Take Mott Haven, where we had the most problems. And the most problems we had there were robberies and grand larcenies.”
Serrano: “And who are those people robbing?”
McCormack: “The problem was, what, male blacks. And I told you at roll call, and I have no problem telling you this: male blacks, 14 to 20, 21.”
In the courtroom, the plaintiffs’ lawyers pointed to McCormack’s line about stopping “male blacks, 14 to 20, 21” as evidence that the NYPD was racial-profiling. The next day, a story appeared on the front page of the New York Times, presenting Serrano’s tape as something of a smoking gun: “BRONX INSPECTOR, SECRETLY TAPED, SUGGESTS RACE IS A FACTOR IN STOPS.”
The story sparked a skirmish between the Times and the NYPD. One week later, the Times’ public editor wrote a column in which she criticized the paper’s story, saying that it had lacked sufficient context. The NYPD’s spokesman insisted McCormack had been referring to suspects in a specific pattern of crimes—not racial profiling—and referred to Serrano as a “disgruntled, race-baiting cop.”
In the courtroom, when he’d heard the tape of his conversation with McCormack, Serrano became enraged all over again. “You can ask me whatever you want, but the one thing you can’t ask me is to go after a specific race,” he said later. “Coming from a white man, it pissed me off. It brought me back to being in Little Italy and this racist pressure you can’t control … When he mentioned race, it felt like someone was suffocating me.”
THE TRIAL OF FLOYD v. City of New York continued through the rest of March, all of April, and into May. To refute Serrano’s testimony, the city’s lawyers put six supervisors on the witness stand. Sergeant Stephen Monroe described him as a “mediocre” cop. Sergeant Eduardo Silva said he was your “basic average officer.” Lieutenant Barrett, whom he’d recorded at roll call telling officers she was “looking for five,” insisted this was not a quota but a “performance goal.”
Deputy Inspector McCormack got his turn on the stand on May 13. He disputed Serrano’s claim that he had been punished for not doing enough summonses or stop-and-frisks. When asked whether he set quotas for his officers, McCormack said, “Absolutely, positively not.” Asked why he told Serrano to stop “male blacks 14 to 20, 21,” he explained there had been a rash of robberies in and around the Mott Haven and Patterson housing projects, and that he was referring to “the victims’ statements of who the perpetrators were.”
Considering that the 4-0 is an “extremely violent location”—10,000 crimes reported a year, 123 shootings in the past two years—he said Serrano needed to be much more proactive. “I was very worried that, with his actions, that he was not handling his conditions, and it was not fair to the community.” Though Serrano had increased his numbers of arrests from five to eight between 2011 and 2012, McCormack said that in such a violent precinct, “it’s by far not enough.” He also insisted he only wanted “quality” summonses that address the right “conditions.” “I don’t need numbers for numbers,” McCormack said. “I don’t need old men stopped in parks for minor park violations.”
On the website Thee Rant—formerly known as NYPD Rant—commenters, mostly officers past and present, feasted on Serrano’s testimony.
“You wear a wire, you are a rat. That’s its. [sic] Men that disagree with their boss don’t record them. Fu-cking coward!”
“This guy needs to find his locker in the East River.”
“The Cop is a fat slob do nothing … I hope other Cops avoid him like the plague.”
A few who said they worked with McCormack weighed in, too: “Chris is extremely gung ho, they don’t call him Red Rage for nothing … He genuinely believes he is doing God’s work out there. When I was a crime sergeant he would go out with us at least three times a week and would always be the first one to jump out of the car to toss someone. He hates perps. The other thing he hates is laziness. He will do anything for people who work. He will also f*ck with people who refuse to work. And that’s what this is all about.”
There were also those commenters who agreed with Serrano. One wrote: “99 percent of 250s are utterly useless … Stopping the wrong people just leads to hostility between the PD and the people.” Another commenter wrote: “Sadly many cops don’t understand what a legit legal SQF [stop, question, and frisk] is and think what they are doing is legal police work. Bosses like McCormack want to keep it that way so cops keep writing … McCormack could have explained during the recording after being asked a half a dozen different ways who the ‘right people’ were. He could have simply said, ‘people that you have reasonable suspicion that they committed a crime or are about to commit one.’ Of course he didn’t say that because if his cops actually followed that legal standard his SQF numbers would take a nose dive.”
The trial’s closing arguments are scheduled for May 20, but both sides will have to wait for Judge Scheindlin’s decision, and no date has been set for when she’ll hand it down. Depending on what she decides, the NYPD could find itself answering to an independent court-appointed monitor charged with overseeing the reform of stop-and-frisk—an outcome both the police commissioner and mayor have been aggressively fighting.
Back at work at the 40th Precinct, Serrano felt as if his head were on a swivel; he was hyperaware of everything, watching everybody closely, trying to read everyone’s expressions. After he finished testifying, he had traveled straight from the courthouse back to the station house to sign out for the day. The moment McCormack saw him, he recalls, he started hollering: “Make sure you sign out! Yesterday you didn’t sign out!” When Serrano tried to explain that he actually had signed out the day before, he says, McCormack just walked away.
As for his fellow cops at the 4-0, Serrano discovered that they fell into three camps. One third supported him (“They were like: ‘We get it, no problem’ ”); another third were furious (“They think what I did is wrong”); and the rest were neutral (“They were like, ‘We don’t care either way; we just don’t like the bad stuff that’s coming because he’s pissed off now’ ”).
Serrano had expected the anger and hostility. What surprised him was how many cops went out of their way to speak to him. Not just friends but even officers he didn’t get along with, and a few supervisors, too. “Every time I was by myself, people would approach me and tell me the same thing: ‘Listen, I can’t shake your hand, man, but good job.’ ”
After he testified and his name appeared in the press, he began receiving calls from cops in other precincts asking for advice. They told him they also had recordings of their bosses, and they wanted help figuring out how to step forward with their own allegations. Serrano began meeting with these cops in out-of-the-way diners. “I told them what to do, how to do it,” he says. “We support each other. Any time they want they call me. We text. We vent.”
ON APRIL 14, 24 days after his testimony ended, Serrano learned that he’d been transferred. He was assigned to a precinct in Manhattan North and put on the midnight shift. He knew he should not have been surprised, but he was. He also knew this was a better outcome than many others; at least they hadn’t sent him to Far Rockaway or Staten Island, where his commute would be two hours. And there didn’t seem to be nearly as much pressure to summons or stop and frisk people in his new precinct. “It’s just a different world,” he said.
One morning not too long ago, Serrano drove through the streets of the 4-0 on his day off, wearing jeans and sunglasses, a deodorant tree hanging from his rearview mirror, baby car seat in the back. (Fifteen months earlier, his wife had had a baby girl.) On a sidewalk ahead, Serrano spotted two former co-workers standing watch.
“What’s up gentlemen?” he shouted. “Working hard?”
The officers went over to his window. “Coming back to work?” one asked.
“I miss you guys,” Serrano said.
Nobody mentioned the trial or Serrano’s testimony. Instead, the two officers told Serrano how McCormack had just come by and screamed at them. They even sounded slightly envious talking to Serrano about his transfer.
Serrano understood, but he had already discovered a downside to his new precinct: The officers there didn’t seem nearly as tight-knit as the cops at the 4-0, maybe because their jobs weren’t as tough.
“My family is gone, man,” Serrano said. “I don’t know anybody.”
“You get to be home all day and see your kids,” one officer said.
“I’m good with that,” Serrano said. “But I miss my family.”
His former co-workers guffawed, then bid him good-bye, everyone slapping palms. But as Serrano began to drive away, he turned back one last time. “C’mon!” he shouted, leaning out the window. “I still love y’all!”