From his car, Brooklyn resident Dick George sees a couple of cops exit an unmarked vehicle and perform a “stop and frisk” and three black youths. George takes pictures of this encounter. After the cops walk away, George tells youths that next time they should demand badge numbers.
Cops overhear this and one says “What did he just say to them, get our badge number? … Let’s go get him,” or words to that effect. The cops then accost George:
After stopping George’s car, the cops roughed him up, handcuffed him, and took him to the precinct house, where he was strip-searched, locked in a cell, and charged with disorderly conduct. When he got his cellphone back after being released with a desk appearance ticket, he found that the photos of the stop-and-frisk encounter had been deleted.
According to George’s complaint, the cops repeatedly told him he was getting what he deserved for “being an activist.” Ferber allegedly said something like: “Now we are going to give you what you deserve for meddling in our business and when we finish with you, you can sue the city for $5,000,000 and get rich. We don’t care.”
That estimate was off by a factor of 40. The New York Daily News reported on Monday that the city agreed to settle George’s lawsuit for $125,000. “After a thorough review of the case facts,” a lawyer for the city said, “it was in the best interest of all to resolve this matter without costly litigation and trial.”
The officers, of course, are not on the hook for any of that money, which will instead come out of taxpayers’ pockets. And judging from the comments reported by George, the prospect of litigation does not deter this sort of unlawful bullying. The problem was not that the cops didn’t realize they were violating George’s rights; it was that they did not care, because they did not expect to suffer any negative consequences as a result—for good reason, according to the lawsuit:
The supervisory staff of the NYPD has consistently failed to investigate allegations such as those contained herein and to discipline officers who have violated NYPD guidelines. The investigation of these incidents by central office and/or supervisory staff reflects a bias in favor of uniformed officers. Furthermore, officers and staff who are known to have violated an individual’s civil rights in one command are often transferred by NYPD to another command rather than be disciplined, demoted or fired by the NYPD.
The cost of settling lawsuits like George’s helps explain the recent NYPD memo. But reminding cops that they are supposed to respect people’s constitutional rights will not accomplish much unless they suffer personally for violating them. Since courts have ruled that cops do not receive qualified immunity in cases like this (because the right to record them is well established), officers can theoretically find themselves owing damages to the people they victimize. But the usual practice in settling cases is to drop claims against individual cops along with claims against the city and the police department. Maybe it is time to reconsider that practice. The threat of financial ruin would be harder to laugh off than the threat of taxpayer-funded damages.