Vice Squad
Friday, April 25, 2008
Another Cost of Criminalising Vice

The officers responsible for killing Sean Bell following his bachelor party at a strip club have been acquitted of all charges by a New York judge. I have not followed the case or the testimony so for the sake of this post I will accept that the verdict is reasonable. Other cases of police shootings of unarmed people -- most notably the Diallo killing -- also have resulted in exoneration for the police. (There might be an argument that those shot in the Bell case used their car as a weapon, but even if true, that only occurred because they were suddenly cut-off and boxed in by unmarked police cars. Here's a New York magazine article with many of the details.)

Sean Bell is dead, and there is no criminal responsibility for the police. It isn't hard to understand the latter part. Police have to make split-second decisions in highly uncertain and stressful situations. Lethal force, which can be applied at a distance, is widely available. A police officer who guesses that a suspect is holding a cell phone could easily be killed, if that guess is wrong and the object turns out to be a gun. (The first police officer to shoot in the Bell case believed from overheard conversations inside the club that a gun might be present.) I think that this is one of the main reasons that courts are extremely reluctant to convict police after the shooting of an unarmed citizen.

But what is the lesson? Well, it is a general point in public policy: the less effective are after-the-fact sanctions, the stronger the case for imposing before-the-fact controls. It is very difficult, and perhaps even undesirable in most circumstances, to hold police accountable for errors in judgment that result in the death of innocent (or even guilty!) civilians. Therefore, one should only initiate police/citizen encounters when the stakes are high. The police who killed Sean Bell were at the strip club as part of an anti-prostitution sting operation.

The criminalisation of prostitution puts prostitutes, clients, and police at great risk. The toll in the US is small relative to the deaths brought on by the criminalisation of drugs, but it is significant nonetheless. The criminalisation of prostitution isn't necessary -- many places get by just fine with legal, regulated prostitution. Even if prostitution policing were perfect and costless, and even if prostitutes were not put at great risk from clients in a prohibition regime, I would not favor the criminalisation of prostitution. But the violence suffered -- by prostitutes, johns, and police -- as a result of criminalisation makes a strong case for a legal, regulated adult sex market. One of the enduring mysteries of vice policy is why this steady violence has had so little impact on improving public policy towards prostitution.

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