Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Paying the Price for Police Misconduct

The interactions of police with blacks, other minorities, and poor people in general have long been contentious.  Police fear an act of violence from someone who might be a dangerous criminal; people who are stopped for any reason by police fear being arrested, perhaps forcibly, for minor or nonexistent violations.  Somehow this level of distrust must be scaled down.

A recent article in The Economist, Wanted: cops with people skills, pointed out that the nature of police work is much tamer than one would believe from reading newspapers and watching TV shows.  The use of force is rarely necessary and would be even less necessary if more time was spent training officers in social skills than in techniques for applying force to subdue an individual.  The article also suggests that police forces might be attracting the wrong sort of people by emphasizing the violent side of police work.

“To the sound of electric guitars, heavily armed police officers fire assault rifles, drive squad cars fast and pull their guns on fleeing crooks. ‘Are you qualified to join the thin blue line?’ asks a narrator, in the sort of breathless voice you might expect in a trailer for ‘Fast & Furious 7’. The advert’s aim is not to sell movie tickets, however, but to recruit police officers in Gainesville, a city of 127,000 in Florida.”

This sounds more like a recruiting video for mercenaries willing to kill for pay in far off lands.  Perhaps Gainesville would be better off avoiding people who might be excited by the prospect of firing guns at other humans.

In any event, interactions between police and citizens often produce violence.  What is of interest here is the fact that the violence determined in courts of law to be the fault of the police has become quite expensive.  One would think that police departments would spend more time winnowing out bad actors; bad actors are expensive to maintain.

The city of Baltimore has been in the news of late because of the case of Freddie Gray who managed to acquire a broken neck that proved fatal while in police custody.  An article produced by Fox News provided some background on the situation in that city.

“Thousands of people arrested by Baltimore police over the past three years have been turned away from the city's jail because their injuries are too severe, according to a new report.”

“The Baltimore Sun, citing records dating back to June 2012, reported Sunday that corrections officers refused to admit over 2,600 detainees to the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center. The records showed that 123 of the detainees who weren't admitted to jail had visible head injuries, the third-most common ailment cited by jail officials. Others had broken bones, facial trauma and high blood pressure.”

It seems the police in Baltimore spend a lot of time arresting people who are in need of medical care.  Or could it be that people who have been recently beaten have a strong motivation to go out and commit a crime?

The Baltimore Sun also produced an investigatory article, Undue Force, cataloguing the large number of complaints by citizens concerning violence committed by police in which a court ruled in favor of the victims.  Having police officers accused of crimes is bad enough, but the cost of arguing these cases in court and losing is downright painful.

“Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.”

“Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.”

“And in almost every case, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the victims — if charges were filed at all.”

And there are financial costs to add to the moral costs.

“Such beatings, in which the victims are most often African-Americans, carry a hefty cost. They can poison relationships between police and the community, limiting cooperation in the fight against crime, the mayor and police officials say. They also divert money in the city budget — the $5.7 million in taxpayer funds paid out since January 2011 would cover the price of a state-of-the-art rec center or renovations at more than 30 playgrounds. And that doesn’t count the $5.8 million spent by the city on legal fees to defend these claims brought against police.”

“The Sun’s findings include only lawsuits that have been settled or decided in court; dozens of similar cases are still pending. The city has faced 317 lawsuits over police conduct since 2011 — and recently budgeted an additional $4.2 million for legal fees, judgments and lawsuits, a $2.5 million increase from fiscal 2014.”

This behavior appears to be common in our cities.  Baltimore was actually lucky because a state law limits damage claims against a local government to $200,000.

“Taxpayers in other cities aren’t as lucky. Cleveland and Dallas have paid between $500,000 and more than $1 million to settle individual police misconduct cases.”

The unluckiest city of all must be Chicago.  Having the most notorious police force comes with a high price.  A related article in The Economist, Police brutality in Chicago:Dark days, provides an update on the state-of-affairs there.

“….Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor, on April 14th….announced a $5.5m reparations package for (mostly black) suspects who were tortured by police in the 1970s and 1980s.”

“The next day the city council revealed that it is paying the family of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager fatally shot by a cop last autumn, as much as $5m to dissuade them from suing. The police refuse to release a video of the shooting, saying the investigation is still going on.”

Part of the problem may be that the Chicago police have been quite aggressive in pursuing “stop and frisk” policies.

“In March the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a study of a four-month period last year in which black Chicagoans were subjected to 72% of all stop-and-frisk searches. The police stopped 93.6 per 1,000 residents, according to the ACLU, far more than the 22.9 per 1,000 stopped in New York when stop-and-frisk was at its peak in 2011.”

That is an incredible statistic: almost one in ten residents stopped and treated like a criminal—and that is every four months as well.  It means if your are black and growing up in Chicago you will be stopped by the police many, many times.  That cannot end well.

What is the price Chicago must pay for its aggressive police force?  This chart was provided:

“Chicago paid a whopping $500m in claims related to police misdeeds between 2004 and 2014, according to the Better Government Association, a watchdog….For a city in dire financial straits, which has closed mental-health clinics and public schools, all this adds up.”

Doesn’t anyone there know how to do psychological profiling?  Can’t the city find more people who think helping an old lady across the street makes for a good day, and fewer who like to carry guns and exercise power?

This disheartening summary was provided by The Economist.

“Sadly, as the Gainesville video shows….if you try to recruit cops by telling them they are social workers, fewer may apply. At least part of the glamour of the job is the promise that you get the chance to use violence against bad people in a way that ordinary civilians never can, except in video games.”

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