July 29, 2008

NYPD Security Theater

Nothing new here, but I ran into it personally. When I arrived at the 14th St. A/C/E/L subway station on the way home from work, I joined a sparse crowd of folks heading down into the station. As I reached the bottom of the stairs and moved towards the turnstiles, however, an NYPD officer approached me and said "Excuse me sir, random bag check." He gestured towards a card table set up with three other officers standing at it (all were in uniform).

I stopped and said "No. I'm going to walk to another station." (Because, you see, I have cleverly been following this whole debacle online).

The officer who stopped me looked at me in puzzlement and said "It's just a random bag search." (Note that 'check' has become 'search.' Oh the lies our subconscious weaves.)

I responded, "I don't like the idea of random bag searches. I'm leaving and going to another entrance." With that, I turned and walked back up the stairs to 14th St.

I then walked uptown two blocks and descended into the uptown end of the same station concourse, past a turnstile area with no bag check, down to the platforms and hence onto an uptown A train.

This is a point that others have made wonderfully well before I, but what precisely was the point of that? If the NYPD is allowing me to decline searches and then simply walk to the next station entrance where I can enter the subway unmolested, then how does this protect anyone against anything? If I had a dangerous device in my man-purse shoulder bag, well, it still got on the train.

I'm perfectly willing to believe that I was selected randomly (I've been past that station when the search table was up dozens of times, and this is the first time I've been fingered) but to what purpose? If they were performing behavioral profiling (good on them if so) then I'm even more confused. Either they should have stopped me from leaving, or (if their profiling is based on my response to the search announcement) there should be provision in the regulation that I can be prevented from leaving and then arrested or otherwise examined against my will.

There might be such a provision, I don't know, but these officers were quite happy to let me toodle off to the next uptown entrance (not even station).

All I can think of is that wonderful series of videos of a law professor and a cop explaining why you should never, ever talk to the police without your lawyer present (they both agree on this, by the way). Why? Because essentially the police have one job - and that's to find suspects, and then produce evidence for the DA to make a case that those suspects are guilty. The system is set up such that once it starts to examine you, any information it collects is usable against you (and they're supposed to warn you of that). But there's no corollary right for you to use any of that information in your defense. In fact, the very fact that it's been collected by the prosecution or their agents means you can't use it in your defense.

Don't believe me? Watch the video.

Anyway, the only thing I can think of that bag search being good for is to get unwary and otherwise complacent citizens to open their bags so that any illicit materials therein can be located and used as evidence. Why would they do this? Well, the bag check is carefully presented as a 'safety measure.' So if you know you're not a terrorist, and the police are 'looking for terrorists,' why wouldn't you open your bag?

Know what you just did? You just waived your Fifth Amendment rights. If there's anything in there incriminating, too bad; you voluntarily showed it to them and gave consent by not walking away. Know what else you just did? You just waived your right to privacy. They're going to paw over the contents of your bag, and whatever we 'agree' on in terms of policies, they're going to read the book titles. They're going to look at your emergency underwear. They're going to wonder about the little things, because they're human. While it might be possible to set up procedures and rules by which such intrusions do not legally incriminate, our human nature means that there's no way to set up procedures such that they do not violate our privacy. And you let them.

Well, now they know what you're reading. They know who you are. If you have any marijuana in your bag, you've just voluntarily shown it to them (by not walking out of the station, remember? You consented to the search). And guess what? If you think they're not going to use that information against you, you're wrong. Probably dead wrong.

In other words, the 'random bag check' has absolutely nothing to do with safety. It's like the state trooper who comes up to your car and asks 'do you know how fast you were going?' Warning: never answer 'yes.' Never give a number. As the cop in the videos notes, the usual response of the driver who knows that they were speeding but isn't a habitual speeder to to try to admit to a 'lesser speed,' still illegal so they don't think you were lying.

Guess what? You just confessed to speeding. End of story. No way out. Doesn't matter if you confessed to 57 in a 55 when you were going 68; you confessed to speeding. They'll happily give you a 57 in a 55 citation if you're willing to give them a confession. Their job is easier.

So yeah. Random bag check. For your safety.

Posted by jbz at July 29, 2008 8:28 PM | TrackBack

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