How it Feels to be a Whistleblower

Four years after making secret recordings that proved racial profiling in the New York Police Department, Officer Adhyl Polanco is still paying the price.

By Carla Murphy Dec 12, 2013

In the fall of 2009, on the advice of a lawyer, a young police officer named Adhyl Polanco started wearing a recording device during roll call at his precinct in the South Bronx, one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. Among the contents captured over a couple of months of secret tapings was repeated instruction that officers complete "20 and 1." According to testimony from the union delegate whom Polanco had captured on tape, that meant officers were required to fulfill 20 summonses and make one arrest within 20 to 22 days of patrol–regardless of whether they reasonably suspected criminal activity was taking place. According to the federal judge who this August ruled the New York Police Department’s practice of stop-and-frisk unconstitutional, Polanco’s evidence helped provide "a rare window into how the NYPD’s policies are actually carried out." And thus, she continued, "I give great weight to the contents of these recordings." The price for Officer Polanco, 33, however was steep–and he’s still paying for it, today. After a decade on the force, the last three of which he has been in a kind of blue-walled purgatory, Polanco says he looks forward to ultimately leaving the force, fishing and spending time with his three young boys. Colorlines caught up with him at his new precinct, "five tolls and $22.50 one-way from my home," he says, in a Brooklyn neighborhood with eight storefront churches on the next block up. Polanco only had an hour so we talked in his parked car, outside the precinct in full view of officers gathering outside or walking by.

How do you feel being known as a whistleblower? 
I don’t like it. It’s not an encouraging word. It’s kinda deteriorating, derogatory to call somebody a whistleblower because it doesn’t fully describe what the person did. It’s like when you work in an office, you do work–but somebody calls you a paper pusher instead of a secretary. It’s not the right word to describe the courage it takes for a police officer to come out from under that much fear and tell the truth. But it is what is.

You’re still a police officer but you haven’t been in uniform for a few years now. What do you do now?
I’m in a box. I work in a little sub-station where my job is to look at video from cameras in the projects for eight hours and 23 minutes a day. I’m in a little tiny room, I have no gun, no shield. It’s punishment. I’m getting second looks from cops because they know whoever’s in that unit is not in good standing. Before this assignment, I was suspended with pay for two-and-a-half years. That happened a day after I was deposed [by plaintiffs’ lawyers] for the stop-and-frisk trial. 

What happened in 2009 to end you up here? 
I started the whole stop-and-frisk thing from the inside. I don’t want to brag about it, but no cop has ever done what I did. Before July or August 2009, [my precinct] wasn’t as obsessed with the numbers and repercussions were minimum if you didn’t hit the target. By Aug 2009 though they wanted "20 and 1"–and one of the commanding officers now said it was nonnegotiable. It was out of control. So I started to be vocal in roll call, asking my supervisor why we were doing this. I wrote to Internal Affairs expressing my concern about the racial profiling and [soon after] I was suspended for three days without pay. After being punished repeatedly, I put the recordings out to the news. Darius Charney at the Center for Constitutional Rights saw the story on Channel 7 and he called me. He told me at that time he had a lawsuit [and*] asked if I wanted to be part of it and I said, "Why not?"

You didn’t have to think about it? 
Oh. Hell no. And he was surprised, too. He said, Are you sure? I say, Yeah, let’s go. In April 2010 I give the deposition and a day later when I get back to work I get suspended, no reason given. They sent me to Internal Affairs every day to sign a piece of paper and go home. They didn’t give me a reason, they only tell me it came down from the commissioner’s office.

I knew the cost of speaking out was very high. It’s unheard of, going against the culture, the blue wall. At that time, [Officer Adrian] Schoolcraft had come out. [Officer Frank] Palestro had come out. We had the same stories and they all got buried.

Do you think NYPD is a racist organization?
There’s still a lot of racism in the police department. When they see somebody in the projects doing whatever, they call them savages. I been with white cops and I even hear, "Look at the fucking savage." That’s how they refer to black people: savages. It bothers me a lot.

To that point, outgoing mayor and police commissioner Bloomberg and Kelly point to the NYPD being a lot more diverse. For example, it’s 1/3 Latino now. Some people might ask, how can it be racist?
If I give you a job to look at that tree right there [Polanco points]–and you’re black, Chinese, whatever, you’re still gonna’ watch that tree. You can change the people in the department but until you change the nature and the culture, you’re still doing the same thing.

You grew up in Washington Heights, a Dominican immigrant enclave located just north of Harlem. Do people in the old neighborhood know you’re a part of this big case?
Not a lot of them know. They don’t care. Spanish people, they don’t want to deal with police. They don’t want to talk against police. They’re more focused on daily life. More focused on, "If I don’t get in to work today I’m not going to have money to eat tomorrow." It’s a different way of seeing things.

Sounds like you understand.
Yeah, I definitely do. But, somebody has to step up. Crime was off the bazoo when I was growing up. The day we don’t have a shooting, something was wrong. And yet where I lived I didn’t have any interaction with the police. Because they knew who the dealers were and they knew who was working people. They distinguished between drug dealers and people who were living their lives.

And that distinction’s been lost?
You have a lot of criminals in the South Bronx and they’re all black and Hispanic; I’m not going to argue that. But the problem is not whether you stop black or blue. The problem is whether you stop innocent black or criminal black–or [as a cop] you don’t even know the difference [between the two]. The NYPD says, the community is 90 percent black: How’re we not gonna stop black? That’s their argument.

I’ve heard some blacks and Latinos say the same thing, especially about young black men.
There’s [some] of black people that when slavery was over [were] opposed to the end of it, too. We’re not ready for freedom, they said. And everybody’s entitled to their opinion. But speak for your freedom, don’t speak for mine.

Are you against stop-and-frisk?
I’m not against stop-and-frisk. I’m a cop. And I’m Hispanic. But every person you touch that you’re not supposed to touch, that you violate, it’s a mistrust you’re leaving for the next cop coming behind you. Bloomberg and Kelly want us to trade our freedom for safer streets. There’s no connection between the two and numbers show they don’t match.

How did you feel when Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional, based in part on your testimony and secret recordings?
I felt good. But I didn’t want to overreact. [Outgoing mayor] Bloomberg’s a very powerful man in terms of money and he knows a lot of people..

There’re a lot of ways to protest. You could just leave the job.
Do you believe in independence?

What do you mean?
This country is independent right? If they quit we wouldn’t be sitting here today. Quitting is not the option. Quitting doesn’t make changes. Dr. King didn’t quit. Many people had to fight and stand up for what they believe for us to be sitting here. Quitting, that’s a very troubling word. If we quit, quit don’t bring changes. Leaving the job is something that I’m definitely [pauses] I’m strongly contemplating. But quitting, no. Quitting mean it’s OK what they did and I don’t have what it takes to bring it out. And they expected that. They expected for me not to fight. They expected for me to give up… and then they would’ve kept on doing what they doing.

It’s not easy. But I do have my kids. No matter what, my boys are there. But I’ve been through a lot. They’ve done everything possible to discourage me. But I’m not leaving. Bloomberg and Kelly are. But I’m not. I haven’t done anything wrong. 


* This post has been updated from the original.