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.