NEW YORK — To Pedro Serrano, a New York City police officer, his low rate of stopping and frisking people while patrolling the South Bronx was a sign he was exercising restraint in using the controversial law enforcement technique.
His bosses saw it differently. To them, Serrano's 2012 record of just two stop-and-frisks suggested he was not doing enough to protect people in the crime-ridden 40th Precinct, whose residents are mostly black and Latino.
"We're still one of the most violent commands in the city," Serrano's commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack, said during a heated conversation in February, which Serrano secretly recorded. "And to stop two people.... That's almost like you're purposely not doing your job."
That encounter is at the heart of a federal court trial that is scrutinizing a tactic widely used by the nation's largest police department and those in other cities: stopping, questioning and frisking pedestrians.
Under the guidelines used in New York and elsewhere, police can employ the tactic if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that a person has committed a crime or is about to commit a crime.
The strategy evolved from the "broken windows" theory, which holds that aggressive enforcement of minor offenses can prevent the spread of serious crime. City and police officials in New York credit such stops, known variously as field interviews and field interrogations, with removing thousands of illegal weapons from the streets and for contributing to a decades-long drop in crime, much of it benefiting minority neighborhoods. Civil rights groups say the stops — overwhelmingly of blacks and Latinos — largely amount to racial profiling in the neighborhoods where distrust of the police is already high.
The New York trial is the latest in a series of legal skirmishes over pedestrian stops, and it is one of several cases being watched by police officials across the country.
William J. Bratton, the former Los Angeles Police Department chief who pushed the strategy in Los Angeles and in an earlier stint in New York, is now pressing for it to tackle crime in Oakland, where he has been working as a consultant. Officials there have balked at the tactic. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee last year dropped plans to introduce stop-and-frisks there amid public opposition.
In Philadelphia, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city over the practice in 2010, and last month it threatened new legal action after alleging that racial profiling continues. The ACLU sued the LAPD in 2003, when Bratton was chief, alleging police were using the stops to target the poor and homeless on Skid Row. A federal judged ruled the LAPD practices unconstitutional.
Under an agreement reached in 2008, LAPD officers working in Skid Row were assigned special training. Among more than a dozen prohibitions, they were no longer allowed to search people caught jaywalking or sleeping on the street, or those accused of minor infractions. Limits were placed on whether those stopped could be handcuffed and when checks for outstanding warrants could be done.
"We've been placed in an almost impossible position," said Milwaukee's police chief, Edward Flynn, a vocal advocate of pedestrian stops, who said that stopping the tactic could harm the low-income, high-crime neighborhoods that civil rights groups say they want to protect.
"That's what worries us about what is happening in New York," Flynn said. "It would just be a shame if some people decided to put us back in our cars just answering calls and ceding the streets to thugs. That would be a tragedy."
The plaintiffs in the New York federal class-action suit are not demanding a halt to stop-and-frisks, which when done properly are constitutional under a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision. But they want more oversight of the Police Department to ensure that "all stop-and-frisks be based on reasonable, articulable suspicion," Darius Charney of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the plaintiffs' lead attorney, said in his opening statement.
The plaintiffs include young black and Latino men and women stopped as they walked down the street. Their allegations have been backed by Serrano and another officer, Adhyl Polanco.
Both accuse their bosses of forcing cops to target blacks and Latinos and of retaliating against those who did not meet quotas for street stops. Both say they were prompted to come forward in part by their own experiences as Latinos living in areas with high numbers of stop-and-frisks.
"I just want to do the right thing," Serrano said, weeping on the stand.
"I don't want my kids to be harassed by anybody," Polanco testified.
Polanco was working in the 41st Precinct, in the Bronx, when he first alleged racial profiling in 2009 in a letter to the department's Internal Affairs Bureau.