In For A Dollar

When Professor Jeffrey Fagan concluded that the sun shines during the day, people like the taste of chocolate and New York City cops stop and frisk blacks and Hispanics for no particular reason, there was a collective yawn.  It’s not like everybody didn’t already know this.  Bob Herbert takes up arms over the obvious in his column in the New York Times.

The police in New York City are not just permitted, they are encouraged to trample on the rights of black and Hispanic New Yorkers by relentlessly enforcing the city’s degrading, unlawful and outright racist stop-and-frisk policy. Hundreds of thousands of wholly innocent individuals, most of them young, are routinely humiliated by the police, day in and day out, year after shameful year.

The rate of gun seizures is near zero — 0.15 guns seized for every 100 stops. “The N.Y.P.D. stop-and-frisk tactics,” wrote Professor Fagan, “produce rates of seizures of guns or other contraband that are no greater than would be produced simply by chance.”

More important, after studying six years’ worth of data, the professor concluded that many of the millions of stops are violations of the Constitution. One of a number of constitutional problems, according to Professor Fagan, is that the police frequently use race or national origin rather than reasonable suspicion as the basis for the stops.

Got it.  Check.  We’re all shocked.  So what?

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed the class-action suit, wants the Police Department barred from engaging in what the center describes as race-based and “suspicionless stops and frisks.”

Now I like the Center for Constitutional Rights as much as the next guy.  No, I really do.  But what exactly is the relief they seek from this class-action?  An order telling the cops not to do what they are already prohibited from doing?  Wow, then they’ll really feel bad.  “You should be ashamed of yourselves, you coppers.  Don’t do anything unlawful again!”

Yeah, that’ll fix ’em good.

This is a problem of massive proportions.  We’re talking about millions, MILLIONS, of stop and frisks over a period of six years of completely, totally, 110% innocent people.

From 2004 through 2009, city police officers stopped people on the street and checked them out nearly three million times. Many were patted down, frisked, made to sprawl face down on the ground, or spread-eagle themselves against a wall or over the hood of a car. Nearly 90 percent of the people stopped were completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

While the remedy for an unconstitutional stop and frisk that results in an arrest may (or may not) be suppression, the 90% ordered to kiss pavement and get some boot-love while wandering hands touch private parts get nothing.  Zero, zippo, nada.  There’s no incentive for the police not to stop and frisk at will because there’s no price to be paid for it.  Find something and get an arrest.  Find nothing and move on to the next black man (and by that, I do not mean white men in black robes, in which case the problem would be fixed lickety-split).

The well-intended, angry but naive reader at this point wants to scream, they should sue those nasty cops for every penny they’ve got.  Well that’s not going to happen, for  laundry list of reason, so let’s just get past it as it’s been explained ad nauseam why it’s not feasible.

Struggling with this question, however, I’ve come up with a solution.  Every time a cop frisks someone and comes up empty, he should have to pay the person $10.  Not so much as to strike fear in the wallet of a police officer, but enough to make a cop think twice before hassling someone for nothing.  After, ten dollars here and ten dollars there, and pretty soon you’re talking about a day without donuts.

Okay, it’s not a foolproof plan.  It’s got some flaws, like the cop who refuses to pay over the $10 and leaves the friskee without recourse.  Or the addicts begging for a frisk so they can get their next fix.

But no class-action decision is going to change anything on the streets, any more than another column by Bob Herbert about a policy that everyone knows stinks, and yet continues unabated, is going to make the police feel really badly about humiliating blacks and Hispanics.

We need recourse.  We need redress.  We need a way to stop this rampant refusal to honor a person’s constitutional right to walk the streets of New York City without being subject to one’s constitutional rights being violated at will.  The courts won’t do it.  The cops won’t do it.  The politicians won’t do it.  Heck, they all encourage it, though they would never exactly say so.

So anybody have a viable answer?  We could certainly use one.

8 thoughts on “In For A Dollar

  1. John David Galt

    Here’s my suggestion:
    1) Allow the “stop-ee” to sue for statutory damages, say $20/stop or $100/arrest to make it worthwhile. The “stop-ee” should automatically win unless he is convicted of something as a result of the stop (much as is true now for false arrest suits against a civilian).
    2) If a cop runs up a large number of these (say, 20 in a year), fire him as below.
    3) For more extreme cases (SWAT team tears someone’s house apart in the middle of the night for a trivial alleged offense where they had no reason to expect a fight), give the victim a right to prosecute and/or sue the cops as individuals (no immunity), just as if they’d done the same as private citizens — including punitive damages — plus an enhancement for breaking the public’s trust, and fire him and ban him from being a police officer (or any job with arrest authority) anywhere for life. (The law making employment actions confidential needs an exception to allow the victim to demand this.)
    4) For inadvertent wrongs (raiding the wrong house), pay the victim as in #1 and #3 (minus the punitive damages) but have it come out of the department’s budget.

  2. Nathan

    NYPD officers live, breathe and eat Overtime. If you were to magically change their various union rules so that they were ineligible for overtime for a period of 30 days after abusing civilian rights — and give the brass a mercenary incentive to look for such abuse — you might see a big effect.

    “Abuse” would have to be something more than the occasional mistake. And it would have to be a bright-line rule for it to be understood. Accepting the inherent imperfection of such rules, one could still come up with something like “more than two fruitless frisks in any thirty-day period” or some such. Have any such event require at a minimum an internal hearing by some board or other (cops HATE those).

    The brass already have an incentive to minimize overtime somewhat. (Some Lieutenants, actually, seem to feel like the money is coming out of their own pockets.) But they live/breathe/eat stats. They need to hit various numbers in order to keep the politicians happy. So make these kinds of hearings a stat they need to accumulate.

    The hardest part would be getting the various unions to go along with it. But the perception of most cops is that the unions roll over to the Mayor pretty much routinely. If there’s a grain of truth to that perception, and if Bloomberg & Kelly were to be on board, it’s not beyond the realm of plausibility.

  3. SHG

    A very interesting idea, particularly given the institutional incentives for both cops and administration. 

  4. JW

    To all the above who support Scott’s plan, I say “Cogratulations! You just found a way to ensure police keep a bag containing a minuscule amount of pot in their back pocket.”

  5. SHG

    What do you think that bulge is now?  But you’re wrong on the economic incentives.  If they blow a ten dollar bag to save a ten dollar fee, what will they smoke when they get home?

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