Serpico praises work of NYPD stop-and-frisk whistleblower

February 10, 2014
John Mason

COLUMBIA COUNTY — The changes in the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy announced last week took place in part because of three whistle-blowing officers: Pedro Serrano, Adrian Schoolcraft and Adhyl Polanco. All of them faced threats and intimidation. Polanco was suspended for several years with pay when he spoke out in the press against the stop-and-frisk practices, because of the racial profiling he said they allowed.

In taking an unpopular stand on their beliefs, in their willingness to blow the whistle, and in the attacks and disdain they faced from superiors and fellow officers, the three were following in the footsteps fellow NYPD officer and Columbia County resident Frank Serpico laid down half-a-century ago.

In the 1960s, Serpico blew the whistle on rife corruption in police enforcement of gambling and drug laws. When he went to his superiors, he was largely ignored, until he went to the press. The publicity he generated, leading to a best-selling book and hit movie based on his life, helped change the way the NYPD operated.

Serrano, Schoolcraft and Polanco were critical of the department’s quota policies, under which officers had to stop a certain number of people per month or face discipline.  

According to data from the New York Civil Liberties Union, over the last 12 years, nearly nine out of 10 persons stopped and frisked were innocent. Year by year, the percentage of black New Yorkers stopped and frisked was between 53 and 56 percent, the percentage of Latinos was between 29 and 34 percent and that of whites was between 9 and 12 percent. But whites make up 44.6 percent of the city’s population, compared to 27.5 percent Latinos or Hispanics and 25.1 percent blacks, according to the American Community Survey.

In a class-action lawsuit Judge Shira Scheindlin ordered the city to appoint a monitor for the stop-and-frisk procedure who would institute reforms; she was then removed from the case. Under Mayor Bloomberg, the city appealed the decision, but newly-elected Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced Jan. 30 that the reforms would go forward.   

Asked what he thought about DeBlasio’s decision, Serpico said the mayor had little choice.

“That’s what he campaigned on,” Serpico said. “Judge Scheindlin made a very clear judgment and what do they do? They take her out. But fortunately, they’ll continue to follow her suggestions.”

“Polanco has laid out exactly what the problem is,” he said. “Nobody is against stop-and-frisk. I’ve stopped and frisked; you’re supposed to do it, with probable cause. But it shouldn’t be profiling people of a certain age and color.”

“Now they’ll have supervision,” Serpico said. “If they’d only listened to what Polanco said. ‘Handcuff that guy!’ ‘What for?’ This is a police officer, then he gets suspended with pay and starts becoming the target.”

Polanco told the group Communities United for Police Reform that his turning point came when he was ordered to handcuff a 13-year-old Latino boy without cause.

“As (Polanco) said, ‘What if nothing’s happening that day?’ Then the officers get creative,” Serpico said. “Why does anyone pretend it’s something new? Profiling is old hat. They’re not going to stop some white guy in a suit who’s going to get a lawyer or say, ‘What’s your probable cause?’ You’re allowed to ask, ‘Why are you stopping me?’”

“We need better training, and psychological testing,” he said. “You don’t want a bully with a shield and a gun.”

He said he’s currently working with a Wisconsin person whose son, a veteran of three wars, was shot by police while handcuffed in front of his mother.

“This has been a problem ever since when,” Serpico said. “Police act with impunity. You’re given this authority and a gun. Here’s a guy who wasn’t doing anything, he’s handcuffed, one guy panics and shoots him in the head. When you put stress on officers to produce and you put people out on the street that don’t have the right training and experience, this is what’s going to happen.”

Asked Monday about DeBlasio’s decision on stop-and-frisk, Hudson Police Chief Edward Moore said the consensus is that stop-and-frisk was a good policy, but the NYPD was too aggressive in carrying it out.

“Retracting it will cause more violence and deaths in crime-intensive areas,” he said. But he stressed that the issue has no relevance to Hudson.

“It’s apples and oranges,” he said. “We don’t have that aggressive policy here. We wouldn’t fill up one precinct in Brooklyn. I don’t think that aggressive policy fits our small city.”