Officer secretly recorded conversation with his supervisor in which he is apparently told to target 'male blacks 14 to 21'

The New York police department's controversial stop-and-frisk program is being driven by a high-pressure quota system imposed upon lower-ranking officers by their supervisors, two NYPD officers testified in court this week.

The claims were made as part of a landmark class action lawsuit that began Monday. The suit seeks to prove that the nation's largest police department has demonstrated a widespread and systemic pattern of unconstitutional stops that disproportionately target minorities.

Lawyers for the city have dismissed allegations of quotas and scrutinized the credibility of the suit's plaintiffs, including their allegations of racial bias on the part of the department.

"The quota allegations are a sideshow," city attorney Heidi Grossman said in opening statements Monday. "Crime drives where police officers go," she added. "Not race."

The trial represents a historic challenge to the legacies of NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly and mayor Michael Bloomberg, who have both vocally supported stop-and-frisk.

The NYPD has stopped approximately 5 million people over the last decade. According to department data, the vast of majority of those stopped are African American or Latino, many of them young men. In recent years nearly nine out of 10 of those stopped by police have walked away from the stops without a summons or arrest.

Darius Charney, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in opening statements that the trial is about more than numbers. "It's about people," he said. The NYPD has "laid siege to black and Latino communities" through "arbitrary, unnecessary and unconstitutional harassment", Charney added.

Supporters of stop-and-frisk, including Bloomberg and Kelly, maintain that it is an essential tool that save lives and removes guns from the streets. Without stop-and-frisk, New York City would descend into violence not seen in decades, they argue. Young men of color – the group most frequently cited as victims of the program – would bear the brunt of violent crime, they say.

Both the mayor and the commissioner – as well as the city itself and several named and unnamed officers – are the defendants in the suit.

By law, the NYPD is permitted to stop a person if it has a reasonable suspicion to believe the person is about to commit a crime, is in the process of committing a crime, or has just finished committing a crime. An officer can frisk a person – patting them outside the clothing – if they have reason to believe the person is an armed threat. An officer can search someone – reach inside clothing – if they have encountered an object they have reason to believe is a weapon.

These conditions regularly go unmet, stop-and-frisk critics argue. They say the program has produced a sense of second-class citizenship in minority communities in which individuals – particularly young men – are routinely subjected to illegal and degrading stops.

'We were handcuffing kids for no reason'

The trial began Monday with two packed courtrooms; one where the actual proceedings are taking place and one for the overflow of spectators, activists and politicians. The first four witness were each African American men who described stops they had experienced. City attorneys worked to expose inconsistencies between the witnesses testimonies and depositions, prove bias against the police department and discredit their claims of racial profiling.

By mid-week lawyers for the plaintiffs shifted focus from the experience of street stops to the internal NYPD incentive structure that allegedly motivates them.

Officer Adhyl Polanco began his testimony Tuesday by saying "there's a difference between" the department's policies on paper and "what goes on out there", on the city's streets.

Polanco testified that in 2009, officers in his Bronx precinct were expected to issue 20 summons and make one arrest per month. If they did not they would risk denied vacation, being separated from longtime partners, undesirable assignments and other consequences.

Polcano claimed it was not uncommon for patrol officers who were not making quotas to be forced to "drive the sergeant" or "drive the supervisor", which meant driving around with a senior officer who would find individuals for the patrol officer to arrest or issue a summons to, at times for infractions the junior officer did not observe.

"We were handcuffing kids for no reason," Polanco said. Claiming he was increasingly disturbed by what he was witnessing in his precinct, Polcanco began secretly recording his roll call meetings.

In one recording played for the court, a man Polanco claimed was a NYPD captain told officers: "the summons is a money–generating machine for the city."

Bronx police officer Pedro Serrano also secretly recorded comments made by supervisors at the same Bronx precinct. His recordings were also played for the court this week.

On a track played Thursday, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack was heard telling Serrano he needed to stop "the right people, the right time, the right location". When asked what he believed McCormack meant Serrano told the court: "he meant blacks and Hispanics."

Later in the tape McCormack says: "I have no problem telling you this … male blacks. And I told you at roll call, and I have no problem [to] tell you this, male blacks 14 to 21."

Serrano claims his attempts to raise concerns about stop and frisk and the existence of quotas have been met with retaliation, including fellow officers vandalizing his locker with stickers of rats.

He choked up on the witness stand Thursday, as he described his reason for joining the suit.

"As a Hispanic living in the Bronx, I have been stopped many times," Serrano said. "I just want to do the right thing."

© 2013 Guardian News and Media

[NYPD photo via AFP]