How a Pro Athlete’s Injury Illustrates the True Costs of Arrests

by Jay Cullen

On April 8th Thabo Sefolosha, a small forward for the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks, broke his leg. This was not, as one might imagine, during a game; it was in the course of being arrested by a New York City police officer.

Sefolosha happened to be at a crime scene at 3 A.M. following a game against the New York Knicks. He was asked to back away from the scene repeatedly and, when he was slow to do so, he had a verbal altercation with an officer. Sefolosha took too long to move away and was arrested for obstructing government administration, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. In the process of being handcuffed he was hit in the leg with a baton and taken to the ground, resulting in a broken fibula.

Surprisingly, there was little media attention from the sports world — while the greater media did at least note it. Aggressive police officers, a young black man, and playoff basketball all collided at once; this was clearly worthy of attention. ESPN ran countless stories about the legal details of the New England Patriots’ Deflategate controversy, yet news on this matter was slow to come from ESPN. Now, six months later, they’ve run their first major piece on the matter.

The silence from ESPN and others was a shame, not because Sefolosha needed it — he was proven not guilty of resisting arrest and is currently suing the NYPD for fifty million dollars. It was a shame because it might have provided the public an insight into the problems surrounding modern police force reliance on arrest procedures.

American police officers have unwittingly become obsessed with arrests. This is not necessarily because they want to or enjoy it. Law enforcement leaders recently gathered in Washington D.C. to propose new solutions to criminal justice issues, creating a group called LEAD. At the event Garry McCarthy, former Chicago Chief of Police, admitted that the policing system works the way it was set up to. Officers use the only tool they are given: arrests. According to the FBI, over 70 million people in the United States have arrest records and almost half of all men have been arrested at some point in their lives. Each arrest takes an officer off the street. Each arrest brings the chance of a dispute and violence against citizens and police. Each arrest has a cost. McCarthy went on to say that officers need more alternatives and said it has been his personal goal, along with other chiefs from around the country, to lower arrest totals.

So let’s give police officers choices and incentivize lower arrest totals. Remove policies thatgrant funding based on arrests and instead grant funding for lowering crime or recidivism. Allow more crimes to be enforced through tickets. Provide more de-escalation training to officers and refuse to continue spending money on high military level weapons for the police officers which demonstratively escalate situations.

Some have pushed back, asking why Sefolosha was out late or not quicker to listen to what the police asked of him. While the courts ruled Sefolosha did not break the law, he probably could have heeded the officer’s requests more quickly. But before we chastise him, let us also listen to law enforcement officers and get more alternatives to arrests. It won’t cost us a leg.