Monday, January 5, 2009

Bart Tragedy A Tragedy For All

There's nothing worse than running across a story like the one from this past week, where a Bart police officer "shot and killed an unarmed rider" at the Fruitvale Bart station.

Any way you slice it, this situation is a tragedy. The last thing Oakland needs is more gun violence and death. And, the fact that a cop is the one who pulled the trigger makes the situation all the more concerning.

Naturally, I hope police conduct a thorough investigation of the situation, and I hope the DA files charges where appropriate. Our city cannot and should not tolerate summary justice at the hands of rogue police officers (if that is indeed what occurred).

Unfortunately, alongside this tragedy is another potential tragedy -- the family of the dead man in the case has already retained an attorney who has indicated he plans to file suit against Bart for $25 million.

Now I realize that there is an adage that says you can't put a value on a human life, and I'm not going to argue here whether this young man's life is or is not worth $25 million.

What I would like to point out, however, is that a judgment for this amount of money would cause pain for every single other rider on the Bart system --  probably for years to come. According to Bart, 100 million people rode Bart in 2007. That's 50 million round-trips. So, if a $25 million judgment were paid out in a single year, that would cost every rider $0.50 per round-trip ride, an increase of more than 10 percent in average fares.

This is not even to mention the fact that ridership would inevitably decrease if fares were to increase. That would increase the burden on the remaining riders, and it would cause other problems such as freeway congestion.

The basic problem here lies with the notion that civil lawsuits against the government can redress civil-rights violations. In a typical lawsuit which does not involve the government, the lawsuit serves as a disincentive to other potential defendants from engaging in future bad behavior.

Not so when someone sues the government.

Because the government's actions are mediated through an agent -- the police officer in this case -- it's impossible for the government to prevent the action which precipitated the lawsuit. This is evident in the fact that all police officers undergo extensive training to avoid bad shootings, and yet they still happen.

The right person to sue is the police officer individually. If the shooting was bad, that means that he was acting outside his role as an officer, so he should answer for his actions.

But the standard strategy here is to go after the "deep pockets," and that is always the government.

So, while I hope that justice is done by the police and DA investigating this case, I do not hope that the attorneys for the family manage to wrest $25 million from Bart.

Because what that really amounts to is taking the money from all of us. And we are not the ones who pulled the trigger.


  1. I'm guessing that sure you start out with an opening demand, but that will be negotiated down. This will take years to litigate so the money will not have to be paid out now, of course we'll have to pay attorney's & investigative fees on an ongoing basis. Sure I'm outraged if it is as it appears that a cop could shoot somebody who was apparently under control but I'm also even more concerned about the mob rule and that cops have no control on BART and that this is the type of citizens we are producing.

  2. In the In Re Nagle case, the U.S. Supreme Court rulled that cops can't be sued as individuals for damages done in the course of their duties. This was probably an accident... also probably a really stupid accident. BART doesn't run on fares... it runs on sales and property tax. $25 million is chump change! That, as of this moment, the shooter has not been interrogated by the powers that be... the Chief of BART Police and other heads should already be rolling.

  3. If all you can think about is how much money this is going to cost BART and not the see how killing an unarmed man is wrong then that says a lot about you. I am sure if it was a white man shot by a black officer we would not be having this discusion. BART is responsible for its officers and if he is found to have done wrong and killed an innocent man. Then they should pay plain and simple. I just wonder what other cases are out there. Cause this could have happen to anyone in the Bay Area.

  4. valarie - I spent much of the posting making very clear that the incident is a tragedy.

    Still, how will a massive payout help anything? It won't bring back the young man, and it won't serve "justice" on Bart. Bart is not a person. It's a governmental entity. Frankly, it doesn't care if it has to pay out $25 million to someone, and I doubt very much that a big payout will make this less likely to happen in the future. In fact, it will probably make it more likely, by decreasing funding for officer training.

  5. >BART is responsible for its officers >and if he is found to have done wrong >and killed an innocent man.

    No, Valarie, if the officer is found to have done wrong then he should go to jail. BART is responsible for providing adequate training for its officers, not for every mishap that can possibly occur under its auspices (how could it be?). Bad cops sometimes go undetected, good cops sometimes make honest mistakes - that's just part of life. Levying absurd penalties will do nothing to change that.

    >Cause this could have happen to anyone in the Bay Area.

    I dunno, I'm 35 and somehow have avoided *ever* getting arrested. I guess I'm just lucky.

  6. Valarie,

    I believe you are wrong when you say that "this could happen to anyone". While this is a tragedy for all concerned I think we do have to admit that if a fight had not erupted on BART then this would never have happened. I have been riding BART for 25 yrs and I have never even spoken to a BART cop. Although there have been many times when I have been very afraid for my safety on BART and wished for more BART cops. However, I do think you are right in saying that if it had been a white guy shot by an African American officer things would be very different. The first thing that would be different is that there wouldn't be much media coverage and certainly no riots in Oakland. Maybe the family of the white guy would sue, but we wouldn't hear about it since no Bay Area press would even take the time to report it. Oakland's attitude is always anti-cop and pro minorities. I know, I live in East Oakland, below 580.

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