It takes determination to out-demagogue New York City’s anti-cop advocates, but the New York Times has done just that. A front-page article in Friday’s print edition announces: BRONX INSPECTOR, SECRETLY TAPED, SUGGESTS RACE IS A FACTOR IN STOPS. The story goes on to claim in its lead paragraph that a secretly taped recording “suggests that, in at least one precinct, a person’s skin color can be a deciding factor in who is stopped.” In fact, the exchange in the recording, between a police officer and his precinct commander, suggests something altogether different: that crime determines who is stopped by the police. But reporter Joseph Goldstein has twisted the taped conversation into a poisonous indictment of the police at a time when anti-cop passions, already enflamed by irresponsible city politicians, are running dangerously high.
Goldstein’s article reported on the proceedings from the fourth day of a federal trial against the New York Police Department over its stop, question, and frisk policy. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the elite law firm Covington & Burling allege that the police deliberately stop and question people simply because they’re black and Hispanic. The suit, Floyd v. New York, has the potential to shut down one of the NYPD’s most important crime-fighting techniques—proactive policing, whereby officers are expected to stop crime before it happens by questioning individuals engaged in suspicious behavior. This style of policing, along with the NYPD’s data-analysis and accountability programs, has driven crime down to record lows in New York City, a drop unmatched anywhere else in the country. The city’s poorest neighborhoods, where crime was previously so high, have benefited disproportionately from the crime drop.
A key part of the plaintiffs’ case is the charge that the NYPD pressures officers to meet draconian numerical quotas for stops, summons, and arrests, and punishes them when they fail to meet these quotas. The result, according to the suit, is rampant unconstitutional stops. On Thursday, to support their quota argument, the plaintiffs called to the stand Officer Pedro Serrano from the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx. Serrano works in one of the most gang- and violence-ridden precincts in the city, yet in all of 2012, he made only two stops of suspicious persons. Despite this virtual absence of proactive activity, Serrano’s performance evaluation in 2012 was squarely average: three on a scale of five. Serrano felt that this evaluation underappreciated his work (an odd feeling, considering his own self-evaluation during the trial: “I’m not a hero, I’m not a zero, I’m in the middle”) and that he was being punished for having secretly complained to the police department’s anti-corruption division about the alleged quotas. Last month, Serrano asked for a hearing with his precinct commander, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack, to contest his evaluation. Serrano secretly recorded the exchange. (Serrano, who sees bias as well as performance quotas everywhere, has also filed a complaint with New York State’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging that the department discriminates against him because he is Puerto Rican.)
McCormack’s remarks on the tape show a commander fiercely committed to protecting the almost exclusively black and Hispanic residents of his precinct. “The point here is that 99 percent of the people in this community are great, hardworking people who deserve to walk to the train stop, walk to their car, walk to the store [without fear of getting shot],” he tells Serrano. But Serrano’s work effort is not bringing them the safety that they deserve, McCormack admonishes: a 23 percent rise in robberies and a 12 percent rise in grand larcenies last year means that “to stop two people, you know, to see only two things going on, that’s almost like you’re purposely not doing your job at all. . . . You’re not going out there and being proactive in helping these people try to better their lives.” McCormack emphasizes the tragic toll of each shooting:
You know, [another precinct] had a little kid shot in the head in the playground last year, thank God we didn’t have that. . . . We had a couple of innocent people shot last year, but thank God, they weren’t little kids. We had a 66- or 68-year-old lady who got shot coming out of an elevator from the church at ten in the morning. [The precinct] is a very violent location and I just don’t see anything that you’re doing . . . to help prevent the shootings, the robberies and the grand larcenies. We need to do this [so] that we can hopefully establish this community into a better nonviolent place and hope that no kids will get shot, no 68-year-old going, you know, to church on a Sunday morning.
Goldstein included almost none of these statements in his Times story. But the real genius was the way he twisted McCormack’s words into an allegation that McCormack was telling Serrano to stop people on the basis of race. Serrano had seemed to suggest that he regularly moved whole groups of young people along if he saw them loitering. In response, an unidentified supervisor on the tape rebukes Serrano for overly broad enforcement actions. An officer needs to suspect that a crime is in progress before making a stop, he tells Serrano: “You just don’t randomly go up and tell people to move. In your mind, there’s an infraction there. They’re committing a crime . . . be clear on that . . . you are stopping these people and addressing them . . . because they are doing something wrong.” McCormack adds that the department only stops and summons “the right people at the right time, the right location.”
It is Serrano who then suggests that McCormack is telling him that because Mott Haven (a high shooting area) is, as Serrano puts it, “full of black and Hispanics,” he is supposed to “stop every black and Hispanic.” McCormack had said nothing about race and challenges him: “You’re telling me you’re going to stop everybody? You want to stop all black and Hispanic? . . . This is about stopping the right people, [at] the right place, [at] the right location.” McCormack goes on to describe how proactive policing targets actual crime: “Again, take Mott Haven where we had the most problems. And the most problems we had, they was robberies and grand larcenies. . . . 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.” At this point, Serrano is screaming at McCormack, who asks him to take it down a notch because “this is becoming insubordination.” Serrano claims that McCormack is telling him to stop every male black “wearing dark clothing.” McCormack responds: “The problem is that you don’t know who to stop and how to stop.”
Serrano’s union representative steps in and takes issue with McCormack’s observation that Serrano was becoming insubordinate. McCormack responds by complaining not about Serrano screaming at him, but about Serrano’s efforts to twist his meaning into a mandate to engage in broad-based racial stops: “He was adding on that I wanted him to stop every black and Hispanic. He’s adding on that we wanted him to stop everybody in the street and to summons everybody in the street. . . . That’s wrong.” (A few months before the exchange, Serrano had joined the Center for Constitutional Rights suit; it’s likely that he was trying to goad McCormack into saying something that could be used in the litigation.)
McCormack couldn’t have been clearer: The vast majority of residents in the precinct are decent, law-abiding people. But simply because he tells his officers at roll call the suspect descriptions in a recent robbery pattern—which descriptions come from witnesses and victims of those robberies—the Times implies that he is demanding that people be stopped virtually on the basis of their skin color alone in all stops. Writes Goldstein: “Now, a recording suggests that, in at least one precinct, a person’s skin color can be a deciding factor in who is stopped.”
That statement is deceptive in a number of ways. Goldstein underplays the fact that McCormack was talking about a specific robbery pattern with specific suspect descriptions from victims and witnesses; it is absurd to suggest that race be omitted from crime information given to officers about actual perpetrators. If whites had been committing the crimes, being white would have been in the suspect description that McCormack used at roll call. Further, when victims report the skin color of suspects, that’s just one factor in the determination of whom to stop for a reported crime pattern; suspicious behavior, location, and time of day are equally important, as McCormack made patently clear. Goldstein has no basis for alleging that McCormack is making it the “deciding factor.” He leans on the fact that McCormack did not spell out the behaviors that suggest that a suspect may be casing a robbery victim during his exchange with Serrano, but the inspector had already made it clear that stops were not to be indiscriminate. This was a hypothetical example, in any case, raised during the broader discussion of whether Serrano was putting enough effort into his job. The Times’s position comes down to this: If blacks are committing particular crimes, the police cannot even mention race in their suspect descriptions.
That argument means that if police target their enforcement activity at high-crime areas, they will necessarily be accused by the Times of racial profiling. The 40th Precinct is 26 percent black, but in 2011, blacks committed over 52 percent of all violent crime there, according to victims and witnesses of those crimes. Neither the Times nor the advocates have ever said what they think police stop ratios should look like in light of such crime figures. In fact, blacks made up 53 percent of all stops, 43 percent of which were made on suspicion of weapons possession. The Times’s front-page article went beyond even what the plaintiffs’ attorneys in Floyd asserted. Though attorney Jonathan Moore questioned Serrano on the stand about his heated exchange with McCormack, the focus of his questioning was to establish the existence of quotas; the race issue was at best a secondary concern.
Two weeks ago, I happened to attend a police-community meeting at the 40th Precinct, presided over by McCormack. I saw no evidence of a community reeling under the oppression of racial profiling. Three bubbly black girls in uniform from the 147th Street–Willis Avenue Pathfinders Club (the Seventh-Day Adventist version of the Scouts) excitedly presented a certificate to detective Angel Rodriguez, who was being honored for his success in getting guns off the street. A facilitator named Felix from Common Ground, a provider of housing for the homeless, told me that the police were doing an “amazing job.” Do his clients have interactions with the police? He laughed: “Yes, it’s widespread”—presumably because they so often break the law. Felix’s only complaints about the police were that there weren’t enough of them, and that detectives should teach victims and witnesses not to be afraid to testify in court, “so that actual criminals will be dealt with in the way they deserve.” What about allegedly illegal stop, question, and frisks? “It may happen from time to time. We’re not perfect; if we were, we wouldn’t need the police,” he said. “But usually the folks who give the officer a tough time have something to hide.” Felix, who is black, has himself been stopped because he has fit the description of a crime suspect, but he bears no ill will. “You answer the questions the way you’re supposed to and comply with the police,” and nothing happens. “I don’t believe the cops want to bet their pensions on a bad stop.”
People like Felix—minority New Yorkers who fervently support the police—are ubiquitous in the city’s high-crime areas, but the Times never seems to find them. They won’t be represented in Floyd v. New York, either. With reporting like Friday’s article on the Floyd trial, the Times brings the city one step closer to shutting down its record-breaking crime decline—if U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, presiding over Floyd, doesn’t get there first.