Thursday, March 08, 2007

NYPD Entrapment du Jour

So you are walking along the subway platform. It's unpleasant. It's a regular day: the smell of urine and site of filth, unwashed trains, broken benches, defaced walls, trash filling the tracks. Maybe there's a homeless person asleep under a stairwell. Maybe he smells, maybe he doesn't. Then you see it: the dreaded unattended parcel.

For decades, Europeans have been educated to report unattended luggage and parcels, because they could very well contain explosives ready to kill and maim at any random moment. It has been only five years that Americans have been warned to watch for unattended parcels. we are not yet trained what to do.

I am guilty of simply ignoring an unattended parcel by moving away from it -- preferably far away from it. I can't be bothered informing the police, because I fear they will want me to answer a lot of questions as one then another subway train heads towards my home without me. Maybe worse, maybe they will force me to "come to the station" to answer some questions about the parcel. Then I will be delayed by hours and hours and possibly arrested. I truly believe this could happen. So, I ignore the parcel and hope it doesn't explode until after my train leaves the subway station.

In the months that followed the 9/11 crimes in Lower Manhattan, I was part of the wonderful frenzy of civic duty. I was nice to strangers on the street and offered my seat to strangers on the subway, and helped tourists who were coming to my city to support us in our time of need. I saw other New Yorkers do this, too. It was nice. We all pulled together! One evening I found a wallet on a bench in the Union Square subway station. I opened it and there was a small amount of paper money and an ID. It was the wallet of a person who did not have a lot. It was a poor person's purse. I felt compelled to bring it to the Transit Police Office in the Union Square subway concourse and turn it in as lost. I hoped that the poor New Yorker who lost the modest clutch would come asking about it and be reunited with her few dollars and other small items. The cop behind the desk treated me like I was crazy; I smiled. I left knowing I had done the right thing.

Fast forward a few years. As the federal government waged a war of fear against us, I became less hospitable and more weary and leery. I resent the random bag searches on the subway. I don't hate them because I am inconvenienced. I have never been randomized. I am white and well-dressed and when I am carrying a briefcase I look like a gay male secretary, not a soldier of Islam. The people who have been randomized for bag searches are usually brown or crazy-looking or acting-out.

So, when I see a package on a subway platform I ignore it.

I don't trust the law enforcement agencies motives around terrorism and fear.

I don't trust the NYPD to take proper action if I report a suspicious package on the subway.

And now I learn about this from the New York Times:
March 6, 2007
Manufacturing Misdemeanors
The New York Police Department has been going fishing. Not content to nab criminals when they break the law on their own, the department has been planting unattended bags in subway stations to see who might take them, at which point waiting officers pounce.

As NY1 News reported last week, 220 people were arrested last year in the sting, known as Operation Lucky Bag. In dismissing one of these cases, a Brooklyn judge said the police "do not need to manipulate a situation where temptation may overcome even people who would normally never think of committing a crime." This program bothers us for that and many other reasons and should be discontinued immediately.

Civil libertarians have argued that the program is entrapment. That is a legal distinction for the courts to decide, but it certainly looks like that to a layperson. It is clearly a poor use of resources. People wandering off with lost property ranks far down the list of law enforcement priorities.

There is also the question of whether the sting does actual harm. In an era of terrorism, where the police have to rely on the help of average people to notice anything suspicious — including apparently abandoned bags — the last thing New York needs are cynical operations that encourage mistrust between the police and subway riders.

And of course, there is the effect on neighborliness. It is remarkable how many people in this city are willing to track down the owners of lost cellphones, wallets or bags. Arresting good Samaritans is bad enough, but encouraging them not to help in the future through this kind of overly aggressive policing is a downright shame. The best thing to do with this misbegotten program would be to end it.

Do you trust the government to protect us from terrorism?

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