Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Altering Incentives to Combat Police Repression

Reports out of Minneapolis, combined with memories of New York during the 2004 Republican convention, make it clear that police across the country are adopting a new tactic to suppress demonstrations: they conduct mass arrests of as many demonstrators as they can, remove them from the action, then drop the charges. No doubt they are acting on studies that show that this is a cost-effective way of limiting protest activity, but it is also a clear violation of civil rights. A quick and dirty economic analysis suggests a possible solution.

False arrest has always been a problem, but an important countervailing factor has been the sheer cost of imprisonment and trial. The individual cop does not bear this cost, but the political jurisdiction does, and this gives them at least some incentive to reign in the most egregious miscreants on the police force. It would be far too optimistic to say that this incentive is strong enough to enforce a respect for civil liberties all on its own, but it probably leads to less infringement than we would otherwise have. The great Wobbly free speech fights of the pre-WWI era, in which an army of activists would descend on a town in order to get themselves arrested for the horrible crime of speaking freely in public places, were based on this cost. A town would find that granting freedom of speech, compared to the cost of confining and trying dozens or hundreds of IWW activists, was the “lesser evil”.

No such incentive operates against the tactic of mass arrest, followed by dismissal of charges. For the hundreds, including several journalists, herded onto a bridge in Minneapolis by riot police, handcuffed, led away, held and then released (too late for them to participate in the planned demonstration timed to coincide with McCain’s acceptance speech), the only incremental cost to the city was the plastic hand-ties. Next time they could go green and make them out of potato starch so they can be composted.

The point is that there needs to be a real cost. And in human terms, of course, there is a cost, the inconvenience and denial of rights experienced by those who are rounded up. Hence my proposal: those who care about this issue should promote a policy of financial compensation for any citizen who is arrested and then released without charges being filed. It is government’s way of saying, sorry for hassle—we made a mistake and will reimburse you for it. Suppose the amount were $100. This would have an insignificant effect on local budgets as long as the false arrests were occasional, honest mistakes. But if the police deliberately detain 500 citizens without cause they are exposing the taxpayers to an extra $50,000 payout. This might be enough to nip this tactic in the bud; if not there is always the possibility of giving the compensation an upward nudge.

This is an entirely feasible reform, as far as I can see. It has an obvious fairness value in situations where individuals are unfairly detained. And it would have minimal effect on local finances unless the tactic of mass false arrest is being contemplated.


Anonymous said...

I'm the guy who pointed out that Obama would get criticism from the right wing for having overseas rallies as "asking foreigners for approval before Americans". I think it's fair to say that I was right. [1], [2]

Offering police departments monetary disincentives to releasing people without charge is not just offering them incentives to never arrest those people, it's also offering them incentives to arrest and charge those people, then throw the case. If it's cheap to schedule a case and then take a dive, I don't think this will result in fewer arrests, but simply more charges of "resisting arrest". Furthermore, even a few hefty fines for bogus resisting charges could even out any financial penalty to this abuse.

jsalvati said...

Hmm, that's a pretty good idea, though I am not sure that $100/arrest would be enough. Would you have the arresting officer(s) share part of that expense? I suppose that might be politically difficult in any case.

There's also the problem that this might also give homeless people an incentive to get arrested (in the hopes of being released to get the payout). Perhaps the money should just be a tax rebate evenly distributed over the population.

Anonymous said...

It's been rumored--I have no idea if the rumors are true--that the GOP arranged to pay Minneapolis' legal costs and fines stemming from conducting political cleansing on the streets. If true, than a $100 false arrest fee would be a completely useless incentive given the size of the GOP's campaign warchest.

Further, it's not convincing that economic incentives are the most appropriate measure to prevent violation of what are supposed to be constitutionally protected political rights. Some behaviors are so damaging to society that they should be treated as criminal matters. Those who planned and conducted political cleansing during the 2000 and 2008 GOP conventions should be charged and tried with criminal conspiracy to assault and forcibly confine.

Anonymous said...

I don't think these false arrests are mistakes. They are intentional suppression. Our authorities mean to do it, so I don't see how they can be forced to pay, or why they would. Look, if they don't respect the law on dissent, how can they be legally compelled to pay?

I've been thinking of making a critical post on Chinese suppression of protests, as reported in American media, but for each link to the supposed news story for each incident, substitute a link to our own police suppression.

The major difference between police suppression of dissent in those awful undemocratic countries and our own in America the Exceptional, is that they imprison defense lawyers who take these cases. That's why Lynn Stewart's prosecution caused alarm.

Robert D Feinman said...

One of the tactics of a police state is to make people think that policing is more pervasive than it really is.

This intimidates people and makes them less politically active. So in East Germany people believed that STASI was monitoring everyone, because of a few well publicized cases. When the records were finally opened it was found that the degree was much less than had been believed.

Similarly rounding up people who are protesting, or thinking of protesting, or even walking past a protest sends a message to everyone else that they should think twice about getting involved, even to the extent of watching a protest.

You can't fix state sponsored repression of political activity financially. Only the people can fix it by refusing to stand silently by while their rights are curtailed.

As the "color" revolutions have shown in Eastern Europe all it takes is the determined will of the people to force change.

We lack this will in this country, and, in fact, many people support the creation of a neo-fascist state to suppress those they don't like. That's how Mussolini got his start.

At first it was just the syndicalism with big business to suppress the labor and communist movements, but then it moved into a full fledged police state.

We have both trends happening now in the US. We've just effectively nationalized a half dozen firms and are providing support to many others.


Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right, Peter. I like your solution, but show the the municipal council member willing to propose and vote for such a measure, and I'll show you a one-term council member. It would be portrayed in the media by police and prosecutors as an affront to them.

This pattern of "preemptive arrests" is extremely alarming. Hell, days before the protests even began, police were arresting videographers in their own houses and confiscating equipment.

Reports of journalists (including a photographer for the New York Post, for crying out loud) getting arrested is upsetting enough, but the confiscation of their press passes by unidentified authorities is even worse. Many were unable, after their release, to continue to cover the event.

Anonymous said...

i remember reading the same thing as Anonymous above -- the amount the RNC would contribute to lawsuit damages was $10 million. That's what 100,000 arrests at $100 per.