NEW YORK – Justin Serrano was 13 the first time he was stopped by police. He says he was walking his 7-year-old brother home from school when police forced him against a wall, patted him down and kept him in the back of a patrol car for more than an hour while both boys cried. Then they let Serrano go, telling him it was a case of mistaken identity.
It was a pivotal moment in Serrano's life. Five years later, he sat with other Hispanic and black teenagers with similar stories at Make the Road, a community organization in a Brooklyn neighborhood of taco trucks, coconut ice cream vendors, and Puerto Rican flags peeking from grimy windows. Guided by two university professors, the teenagers were contributing questions for a survey on the New York City Police Department's "stop-and-frisk" tactic.
The NYPD's policy of detaining and sometimes searching anyone officers deemed suspicious has prompted an emotional debate and a federal lawsuit. Opponents argue the strategy is unconstitutional and encourages racial profiling, while the city and its supporters say the stops have contributed to a dramatic drop in violent crime.
The NYPD stopped close to 700,000 people on the street last year, up from more than 90,000 a decade ago. Nearly 87 percent were black or Hispanic. About half were frisked. About 10 percent were arrested.
A federal judge in May granted class-action status to the lawsuit, meaning thousands of people who have been stopped over the years could potentially join the complaint introduced by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of four black men. In June, the New York Civil Liberties Union rolled out a "Stop and Frisk Watch" smartphone app that allows bystanders to record police stops and instantly alert others to where it is taking place.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said there was "overwhelming evidence" police have conducted thousands of unlawful stops based on flimsy justification such as "furtive movement." She berated the NYPD for displaying "a deeply troubling apathy toward New Yorkers' most fundamental constitutional rights."
The next day, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced changes to officer training and supervision, and the number of stops has since declined dramatically.
But the commissioner and Mayor Michael Bloomberg fiercely defend aggressive policing they credit for transforming New York into one of the safest big cities in the U.S. They say the stop-and-frisk program has helped prevent thousands of deaths by taking guns off the street and deny allegations of racial profiling, saying more blacks and Hispanics are stopped because many minority neighborhoods have the highest crime rates.
"Nobody should ask Ray Kelly to apologize -- he's not going to and neither am I," Bloomberg said on the day of the ruling. "And I think it's fair to say that stop, question and frisk has been an essential part of the NYPD's work."
The city government and the NYPD did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Other cities have adopted policies systems similar to New York's, provoking the same debate. Last year, officials in Philadelphia placed its "stop and frisk" program under court supervision to settle a federal lawsuit alleging racial profiling. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee faced a backlash when he raised the possibility of adopting "stop and frisk" to get guns off the streets. Lee announced Tuesday that he was no longer considering it.
In New York, the police department, whose officers were hailed as heroes in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, has seen its approval ratings soar as homicides rates plummet, from a high of 2,245 killings in 1990 to 515 last year. A Quinnipiac University poll in March found that 63 percent of New York City voters approve of how the country's largest police force is doing its job.
But New Yorkers are nearly evenly divided about "stop and frisk." The poll found that 49 percent of voters disapproved, while 46 percent approved. The poll, which had a margin of error of 3.2 percent, found deep splits along racial lines. While nearly 60 percent of white voters were in favor of the tactic, 68 percent of blacks were opposed.
Last year, the number of stops of young black males between the ages of 14 and 24 -- 168,126 -- exceeded the city's entire population of black males in that group -- 158,406 -- according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"The cops, they come around the corner. They see a young Latino kid. I was walking with my shorts below my butt. I guess that's the way they see kids, like, in gangs," said Serrano. "I couldn't even hold my little brother on the way home. He was terrified of me."
The teenagers at Make the Road have stories to fuel both sides of the debate. Some have been stopped multiple times and have never committed a crime. But not all have stayed out of trouble. Although Serrano says he wasn't doing anything wrong when he was first detained, he acknowledged that he was recently arrested on charges related to robbery.
The "stop-and-frisk" policy dates back to the 1990s when Mayor Rudy Giuliani adopted a "zero tolerance" approach to policing based on the theory that cracking down on minor offenses would help reduce serious crime. A cornerstone was a database known as CompStat, a real-time mapping system that tracks crime figures and allows police to target trouble zones before they get out of control.
Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research institution, acknowledged in a recent New York Times column that "being stopped when you are innocent is an infuriating, humiliating experience." But she said that because of NYPD's assertive policing, "New York's most vulnerable residents enjoy a freedom from assault unknown in any other big city."
Pressure has been building in the city against the practice. Two days after the judge's ruling, thousands of New Yorkers marched silently to protest the stops. A New York Times editorial called on the Bloomberg administration to stop fighting the lawsuit and "reform its abusive stop-and-frisk" policy. Artists have painted murals urging citizens to form "cop watch" groups.
Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the NYPD should be given credit for concentrating on once-neglected neighborhoods. But he also believes the CompStat system has led to an unreasonable number of stops, sparking tensions between the NYPD and the communities it is trying to protect.
He said that reducing "something as hard as police work down to numbers is not just unwise. It can be dangerous to take policing, which is more of an art than a science, and turn it into bean counting."
In a letter to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Kelly said he hoped the changes to officer training would boost public confidence in the tactic. Last week, he said police stopped 133,934 people in April, May and June, down from 203,500 for the first quarter of this year. He said better training and supervision contributed to the 34 percent decline.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the decline was encouraging but that it remains unclear what percentage of those stopped during that period were not linked to any crime.
She said at least 10,000 people have downloaded the group's app. The NYCLU is wading through more than 2,000 videos in the hopes of using footage to bolster legal action.
At the meeting in Brooklyn, some teenagers were eagerly downloading the app. The professors showed them statistics indicating that most people stopped were not arrested and probably doing nothing wrong. The teens weren't surprised.
"Oh, so that's common knowledge?" asked Brett Stoudt, a psychology professor at John Jay College.
"Yeah," the teenagers chorused, fiddling with notebooks or swiveling in their chairs.
The nonchalant response worries Stoudt.
"I think there is sometimes the assumption, that `Well, you are just getting stopped, what's the big deal?"' he said. "But these are huge moments in a young person's life that can have lasting effects not just on themselves but for their mothers, brothers and friends."
"There is a sense of dignity that is lost."