Plainclothes Cops Are a Problem

By Joel Wertheimer

My friend from law school Scott Hechinger published a tweet thread today detailing an assault by a group of plainclothes officers on a restaurant worker. 

Of the many outrageous things that happen in this thread, I am struck by the presence of the plainclothes officers. The young man who was assaulted had initially thought the officers were stealing his bike, as they were not uniformed, and were looking at his bike (what justification they had for looking at the bike is unclear as well). The officers then assaulted him and charged him with resisting arrest. This happens constantly, and indeed, frequently leads to officers being shot and killed because they are identified as civilian attackers rather than police officers.

In our work, we’ve noticed that a disproportionate number of our excessive force civil suits seem to come from plainclothes officers. It turns out, we are not alone. According to The Intercept, plainclothes officers make up just six percent of the officers on the streets of New York City, but over thirty percent of fatal shootings and 49% of firearms discharges. 

Plainclothes officers also make up over half of unlawful searches in Brooklyn, bursting into people’s homes without identification and lead, according to a City report, citizens to feel scared, as though they’re being robbed:

CCRB report on plainclothes officers

The justification for plainclothes officers is typically that they can blend in and spot crime before it happens. The evidence on that utility, particularly when at least uniformed police officers provide some deterrent threat, seems entirely lacking. Police already have too many interactions with citizens and those interactions already have too large a chance of leading to police violence. 

Needlessly increasing the tension of the situation for minimal benefit is destined to lead to more violence. Police reformers and police commissioners, for the good of civilians and their own officers, should greatly increase the regulations on the use of plainclothes officers.