For 10 months between 1996 and 1997, about 63,000 people were strip-searched in New York after being arrested on misdemeanor charges. The ordeal of one of these victims–yep, victims –was explained in The New York Times : A woman arrested after an alleged domestic dispute and taken to a holding cell was ordered to take off her clothes, after which the folks in rubber gloves began their brutal examination. This was explained, generally, as all in a day’s work in the unending pursuit of contraband. It was, the victim said, “the lowest human emotion that anyone could possibly experience.”
Debra Ciraolo, the examinee, sued the city and won a judgment of $5 million. And, in what surely must rank as one of this year’s most unremarked-upon news stories, The Times tells us that City Hall is preparing to face a class-action suit on behalf of all the other victims of this egregious violation of civil rights and basic decency. Given the size of Ms. Ciraolo’s award and the number of similar cases, the Giuliani administration may no longer have to justify withholding the city’s surpluses from its work force because there won’t be much of a surplus left. The city’s corporation counsel, Michael Hess, noted that “the money can’t come from the sky. It would come from the taxpayers.”
This, it could be argued, is perhaps not the best way to secure a reputation as a fiscal conservative, a wise steward of the public treasury, a symbol of the city’s great turnaround from wasteful and unnecessary expenditure. It suggests a certain cavalier attitude that may not play well upstate.
No doubt we will soon hear the argument that New York’s criminal class is delighted with this development and will soon return to rampage and pillage as in the bad old days, when mushy-headed politicians refused to support tough police work. Why, if you start handing out money to perps too delicate to withstand an anal probe, a check of the old genital region or a little peek under the breast, well, you might as well prepare for an annual murder rate of 2,000 again. And besides, if miscreants didn’t commit misdemeanors in the first place, well, they wouldn’t have to worry about the rubber glove treatment, would they? Such arguments, of course, echo those made after the shooting of Amadou Diallo, when reports of fewer arrests were offered as proof that the police were now afraid to … what? Shoot unarmed citizens guilty of no crime? Frisk passers-by who fit a certain profile? Arrest people who, you know, looked, well, suspicious?
Police work is a difficult job that requires more judgment and bravery than most of us will ever have. And there can be little question that the real credit for New York’s cut in crime belongs not with City Hall but with the men and women who patrol the streets. But there can be no excusing away the abomination suffered by Ms. Ciraolo and tens of thousands of other New Yorkers. This is not police work. This is police-state work.
And this is what happens when the people who run a city divide its residents into two groups: Perps and non-perps, and there are times when it takes only a minor infraction to be included in the perp category–a broken signal light on a taxi, for example, or an illicit puff on a cigarette while standing on an outdoor subway platform in the Bronx at midnight. (The preceding two anecdotes are based on actual events that took place in the course of extensive field trips.) When Rudolph Giuliani defeated David Dinkins in 1993, there was great hand-wringing on the West Side and other such precincts about the idea of having a career prosecutor as a Mayor. It sounded, of course, like predictable left-wing, anti-cop nonsense. It turns out that these fears not only were justified, but in fact demonstrated a keen understanding of the inner workings of this particular career prosecutor. Yes, the world is divided into perps and non-perps. And perps will be treated accordingly. Strip ‘em, make ‘em squat, stick a finger in ‘em and teach ‘em a lesson. Why, they’ll never jaywalk again!
Luckily, this particular bit of humiliation no longer is part of the civic repertoire, and indeed hasn’t been since 1997. But 10 months of strip-searching is more than enough to conclude that as much as we like a safer city, some tactics are simply indefensible. Harassment, brutality, intimidation and humiliation are techniques associated with totalitarian regimes, not with New York municipal government.
There is no indication yet whether the strip-search policy, which very likely will cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars, has led to any resignations, transfers or any other sort of disciplinary action. No doubt some fall guy or gal will be found eventually. But surely the blame for such excesses ought to be placed at the highest levels of city government. Let’s find out who exactly approved a policy that a Federal appeals court already had forbidden in another case, that humiliated tens of thousands of New Yorkers, and that will cost the city millions.
But let’s not take “search me” for an answer.