James Blake serving” by Kyle Tsui

June 20, 2017; New York Times

Retired professional tennis player James Blake and New York City have come to a resolution regarding his excessive force claim against the city. In 2015, a plainclothes NYPD officer slammed Blake to the ground after mistaking him for a suspect in a credit card fraud case. Rather than proceed with his threatened suit against the city for excessive use of force, the former tennis star has settled with New York in exchange for the creation of a legal fellowship with the agency that investigates police misconduct.

The fellowship will be funded by the city for six years and will pay a fellow at least $65,000 per year (over the two-year fellowship). In this position, the lawyer will serve as an outreach resource to neighborhoods with relatively high numbers of complaints against police, with the goal of more thoroughly investigating cases and navigating people through the process. The average investigation took 140 days in 2016. As Mayor de Blasio said, it will “deliver on the transparency and accountability civilians and police officers deserve.”

Police misconduct and excessive force is clearly a hot button issue right now, and many believe that justice is not being meted out fairly to civilians involved in excessive force cases. In 2016, 55 percent of cases were not completed because the agency could not reach the people involved or the complaint was withdrawn. That seems to indicate that, at least in some cases, the costs of following a complaint to its completed investigation are prohibitive or exceed the expected benefits of a substantiated complaint.

To be certain, not all of those cases would have resulted in substantiated allegations. According to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, in 2016, the substantiation rate was 23 percent, or 516 substantiated claims against officers. It is unclear whether that rate is of fully investigated complaints or all complaints filed. In the latter case, it suggests that there were 2,243 complaints in 2016, if the former is the case, there were almost 5,000 complaints in 2016. Blake’s new fellowship is a unique partial solution to the problem of incomplete cases.

As noted above, the process of filing a complaint and seeing its investigation through to completion is a costly endeavor, both for the city and for the aggrieved. The investigation process involves giving a statement, collecting evidence and witness testimony, and perhaps most importantly, time. Anything that can make understanding the process and seeing it through less costly is a win for those who have been victims of police misconduct. Those who have been wronged should not be dissuaded from seeking justice. This fellowship will lower the cost of access to a complete investigation.

In James Blake’s case, the officers did not report the mistaken arrest, which is against policy. Had he not the profile he has, it may not have been brought to the public, or even investigated. His stature and resources separate him from a victim from, say, an impoverished area of Manhattan. This fellowship will play a small part in making sure that separation is not a barrier to justice. It is disheartening to think that as many as 600 people might not see their cases substantiated because they cannot finish the process.

To its credit, New York City has made concerted efforts to improve its follow through on complaints. It is working to improve its response time, and collect evidence efficiently. The 140-day process in 2016 was 224 days in 2015.

An under-the-radar aspect of this case is Blake’s invisible philanthropy. He donated a chance at a large court award or settlement to victims of excessive police force. By settling, he also saved New York the cost of litigating or negotiating a full settlement. Blake can’t write this off. Opportunity cost is not tax deductible. However, seeing a complaint to its end will now be easier for those who wish to pursue it. Justice should be a public good.

It is possible that Blake felt his chances of winning in court were slim and so he settled for something more palatable to New York. That seems unlikely, given the very public nature of his grievance and the city’s quick action to apologize. And all of that is beside the point. There is now another tool helping in the fight against misconduct.

This fellowship won’t solve all of the problems in the criminal justice system, but it does solve one of them—for the next six years, at least.—Sean Watterson