Videos of the “knock out game” spread last week across the media, from the internet to television. That it existed, which it obviously did, was a terrible thing, but whether it was worthy of so much attention remained an open question. My hope was that it would end quickly and that no other person would be harmed.
But as with anything that goes viral today, there is someone out there who will try to capitalize on it. Before the week was out, a New York legislator was preening for the cameras.
A New York lawmaker is proposing legislation that would require that youths charged with assault or gang assault in connection with the violent knockout contest will be treated as adults in the criminal-justice system.
“This is not a video game. When they incapacitate people, they don’t get up and start over again. Many of their lives are destroyed,” James Tedisco, an upstate Republican assemblyman who is sponsoring the measure, told Law Blog. “They’re punks, they’re thugs, they’re cowards.”
It’s not that the conduct wasn’t otherwise unlawful. It was. But what legislator in need of some face time for re-election could resist so tempting an opportunity to put himself on a pedestal?
The proposed changes to the state’s criminal code would also increase criminal penalties against “knockout” perpetrators in situations not involving manslaughter, treating the attack as assault in the first degree — a felony punishable by five to 25 years in prison. Currently such attacks are treated as a lesser crime carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years, according to the lawmaker’s office.
The bill would also impose tougher punishments on accomplices who video-record the assault and encourage the attack.
If only New York had a death penalty, then he could really make a splash.
In the meantime, a sudden and inexplicable burst of reason overcame New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who went the opposite direction of Tedisco.
But after the latest attack on Friday, the NYPD and other law enforcement agencies who offered comment to the New York Times said they were not convinced the attacks were all part of a viral game. “We’re trying to determine whether or not this is a real phenomenon,” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said.
From the New York Times:
“We’re trying to determine whether or not this is a real phenomenon,” Police
Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said on Friday. “I mean, yes, something like this
can happen. But we would like to have people come forward and give us any
information they have.”
But police officials cautioned that they had yet to see evidence of an organized game spreading among teenagers online, though they have been reluctant to rule out the possibility.
There is particular concern within the department that widespread coverage could create the atmosphere where such a “game” could take hold in New York.
And yet, Tedisco’s office announced that he would have a new law ready by Monday at the latest, for a “thing” that may be nothing more than a transitory act of absurd violence perpetrated by a few that went viral. As the media spread the fear of the knock out game, places were reported as having incidents where none occurred.
Bob McHugh, a police spokesman in Jersey City, said there had not been a single reported knockout incident there.
“If there ever was an urban myth, this was it,” he said. Still community concerns spurred by the video prompted a member of the City Council there, Candice Osborne, to post on her Facebook page, “there have been NO reported instances of this type of assault.”
The knee-jerk reaction by Tedisco, and the potential of the legislature actually acting upon his madness by creating a new crime (or amending an old one to include this conduct) reflects the cynical use of legislation to play upon public fear and ignorance.
When I posted about the knock out game, Nigel Declan wisely reminded of the Central Park Five and their “wilding,” another “game” supposedly being played to wreak havoc upon nice folk minding their own business by child predators. Except the Central Park Five were innocent and wilding was another urban myth.
Has anyone collected any data as to how prevalent this sort of behavior is? While I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment, Scott, I am reminded of the furor and alarm raised over “wilding” and its role in the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five. I am hesitant to draw any conclusions without knowing whether this sort of behavior is pervasive, or whether it is something done only by a very small, isolated group which has been amplified through the feedback loop that results from widespread media coverage and speculation (i.e. the more attention something gets in the media, the more likely it is to be seen as an epidemic by other media sources observing the coverage).
And yet, some yahoo upstate nobody assemblyman wants a new law to stop something that may exist mostly in the media and the fear it’s caused to those who believe it.
If this turns out to be more than transitory conduct by a few despicable people, and it may as a result of the media attention, the existing law is more than sufficient to adequately address it. The notion that 15 years in prison provides an inadequate deterrent or insufficient retribution is utterly absurd. And yet, there is invariably some lawmaker who sees an opportunity to capitalize on it for his own self-aggrandizement.
So what makes this special? Tedisco jumped on this one before the video was done playing.
A spokesman for Mr. Tedisco’s office said the bill being drafted would be introduced on Friday or Monday.
By Monday, of course, this may all be ancient history and there will be some new viral scary thing for some legislator to jump on, and the knock out game will be long forgotten. Of course, if that happens, Tedisco can just change the name of the crime and announce it before the five o’clock news is over.