Of the many images created by the Occupy Wall Street protests over the past month, one of the most recurrent is a photograph of a New York City police officer arresting a protester who seemed to not be doing anything illegal; perhaps sitting on the ground, or walking in a group, or closing their bank accounts, or refusing to leave a public area. Why do the police go through the effort of arresting peaceful protestors, usually wrongfully?
Police officers often want to take the easiest road out of a situation. Lengthening any confrontation can lead to a larger confrontation, and the quickest way for the police to get rid of someone who is loudly protesting is to simply tie their arms behind their back with plastic and stick them in the back of a van. The police believe that wrongfully arresting someone is a quicker resolution to any sort of crowd-control situation than allowing it to simply run its course.
But don't the police get in trouble for arresting people for no reason? The answer is “Not really.” Police like to arrest people and let the charges get thrown out in court because they don't have any incentive not to do this. They rarely are reprimanded by their commanders for this behavior. If someone who was wrongfully arrested sues, as the 700 people arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge during a protest two weeks ago are joining a class-action suit to do, the money payed out in the settlement is taxpayer dollars. The officers will probably not be investigated for misuse of their authority and they will feel no harsh consequence. They believe wrongfully arresting people to be part of their job and that it helps to maintain “peace”.
The NYPD is an especially bad culprit. In 2010 they paid out over $135 million to settle claims brought against them by the public. Since 2001, claims against the NYPD have risen 71%. For reference, this amount of money would save the jobs of almost 2,000 city teachers. Usually, medical malpractice in public hospitals amount to the highest payouts of taxpayer money in lawsuits, but not in NYC, where we have so many wrongful actions by the NYPD that they don't even bother to insure the agency against lawsuits.
8,104 claims were filed against the NYPD in 2010 – a record amount. Since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street there have been almost 1,000 arrests for peaceful protest behavior, and the Lawyers Guild is offering free legal representation to anyone that was arrested. If most of these people decide to file complaints, the NYPD will break their lawsuit records once again.
There are other reasons we could theorize about: the instilled sense of overarching infallibility instilled in police officers in the academy, or maybe the fact that JP Morgan is one of the biggest donors to the police union's non-profit, giving $4.6 million on October 4th. But that doesn't do anything to change the fact that the police are relatively protected from punishment when they violate a citizen's First Amendment rights, and when they eventually get sued for it, they pay for their misconduct with taxpayer dollars. Might as well pile this in with the reasons to Occupy Wall Street.
All photos in this post by Joe Perez, taken Saturday October 15th during Occupy Times Square.