Law in Contemporary Society

The Justice Con

-- Originally by AndrewCase - 26 Feb 2009

I found the point to be elusive in the original piece and the style more fitting for a paper article rather than an essay. Most of the changes lie in the first roman numeral.

I. Find Something Wrong

A. New York City Police Misconduct

The New York City Police Department has traded a historical problem of mass corruption and overt brutality with an abuse of power less apparent to those not living in the target neighborhoods: stop and frisk. The problem is not just the practice of stopping and frisking per se but also the manner in which it is conducted and how the practice is encouraged within the police department. When complaints are made with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, it is often the case that nothing happens. For its implicit purpose has never been to take action, but only to provide catharsis with a city seal.

Every twenty years there is a big enough scandal in the New York City Police Department to support reform. Officers no longer buy promotions, thanks to the Lexow Commission in 1895; Lindsay did his best in the 1960s, and after Frank Serpico testified, the Knapp Commission blew the whistle on carrying the bag. But as recently as 1988, if you camped out in a park to protest curfew laws, officers were likely to stream in, electrical tape masking their badge numbers, and simply beat the hell out of everyone until the park was clear. Tompkins Square gave Broadway Rent and gave the city its Civilian Complaint Review Board.

B. The Problem Now

Now, the bribes have mostly stopped and those that get caught actually face consequences). Yet, they still stop hundreds of thousands of kids on the street, and when the kid turns his head around while he is spread-eagled on the wall and complains, they still smack him with the radio and watch the Motorola Shampoo stream down his ear.

From 2003-2007, although the NYPD was required by City Council ordinance to report quarterly stop and frisk data, it did not. When it finally released the data in January of 2007, it showed there had been a five-fold increase in stops conducted.

The reason this practice is so widespread lies beyond line officer sadism. Captains get chewed out at their monthly meetings if their officers’ “productivity” lags. So they tell the line officer that if he does not do at least twenty stops a month, he won’t make the SNEU team, or narcotics, or homicide, or whatever specialized unit the cop wants to make.

When someone files a complaint for having been stopped by officer for merely a hunch and the civilian agency finds that the stop was improper, the officer still isn’t going to be punished. So if a cop has her eighteen stops and it’s the end of the month, there is nothing to stop her from yanking the next kid ambling into the drug-prone location, whether her suspicion is reasonable or not. Let us not forget that the “drug building” the innocent kid is walking to is probably his home .

II. Do Something About It

A. The Civilian Complaint Review Board

You find the whole racket unjust, so you take a job investigating police brutality at the brand-new, fully legitimate Civilian Complaint Review Board, given subpoena power, civilianized investigators, and the stamp of municipal approval after two weeks of contentious hearings in 1993. You investigate, your investigation is submitted to an all-civilian board, and if they find that the officer was out of bounds, they recommend that the police commissioner discipline him.

B. The Con

So the kids who have been stopped come to talk to you, and you take their statements, and you subpoena records, and you interrogate cops, and when you find that stops were pretextual you say so, and even if the board agrees, the officer receives no discipline. The game is rigged – the city does not want to punish the cops, it only wants to give people a place to go and vent and feel that something will be done about it.

C. The Robespierre Effect

And this is all I meant when I brought it up before. The NYPD decides that the answer to the Sean Bell shooting is to hand out more Tasers. NYPD officers are not properly trained to deal with the mentally ill. So when a lieutenant confronts a mentally ill man on the awning of a Bodega, and orders his officers to Taser him before the ESU unit arrives, and the man falls to his death, you see injustice. You want to go after this guy who has clearly violated department regulations. Maybe you even whisper around about the cop’s less-than-stellar record. Then This Happens. Have you promoted justice? Or were you better off running the con?

D. The Con Reconsidered

The kids keep coming back. They know that the commissioner isn’t firing the cops who throw them against the wall. They know that the policy of the police department, stated or no, is to intimidate and search the population of East New York, Highbridge, and the Rockaways so that the people of Elmhurst, Bay Ridge, and the Upper West Side can feel secure. What they are really after is not the punishment that you want to mete out. They are looking for the relationship between two human beings. They want to sit down at a table in an office with the seal of the City of New York on the front door and tell someone that what happened to them was wrong, even if that person can do nothing about it.

So maybe it isn’t a con, because the kid doesn’t think that the brick you’re selling is made of anything but brass. Or maybe the con is on you, because you think that you’re there to change something, to effect justice, to make a difference, but your role is just to keep the backlog down and send the casefiles on.

Or maybe we need to reconsider how important that face-to-face you’re giving the kid really is. Maybe giving someone the power to tell their story, and to really listen to them when they do it, is the real justice. Maybe the only person who ever thought about punishment and vengeance was you. Maybe you should turn an ear to what people really want, and all people really want is a person who can turn an ear.

  • I agree that Andrew's original formulation to introduce the essay was a little elusive, but I don't think the idea you rendered in replacement was his. It would be difficult to substantiate the idea that we "traded" bribery, which is never official department policy, for the aggressive pursuit of stop-and-frisk policing, which is, or for turning a blind eye to the brutality of that policy, which verges on it. Andrew's reference to the recurrent reform agitations was not to explain how we got stop-and-frisk abuse, but rather to explain how we got the CCRB. In changing the language you grafted to the root stock an entirely new meaning, which editing should in general be chary of doing.


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:32:32 - IanSullivan
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