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NYPD’s $4 million payoff to end NBA player’s lawsuit illustrates deeper injustice

One man’s leg bone has been deemed monetarily equal to another man’s life.

Thabo Sefolosha, center, during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks. CREDIT: AP Photo/Morry Gash
Thabo Sefolosha, center, during a game against the Milwaukee Bucks. CREDIT: AP Photo/Morry Gash

New York City will pay $4 million to resolve NBA journeyman Thabo Sefolosha’s $50 million lawsuit against the New York Police Department.

The settlement comes almost exactly two years after Sefolosha, a “3-and-D” specialist currently playing for the Atlanta Hawks, was tackled to the ground and struck with a nightstick by a group of NYPD officers in Manhattan.

Sefolosha — who says the officer who initiated his rough arrest told him “With or without a badge, I can fuck you up” — suffered a broken leg and missed the rest of that season.

Through no fault of his own, Sefolosha’s deal appears to reproduce a broader societal injustice: One man’s leg bone has been deemed monetarily equal to another man’s life.

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The $4 million the Hawks wing is getting? That’s the same amount the city paid to Akai Gurley’s family after young officer Peter Liang panicked and shot Gurley in the chest in a dark stairwell where Liang was not supposed to be patrolling, then called his union rep for advice before he called an ambulance for the dying man.

It’s roughly two-thirds as much as Eric Garner’s family received. It’s almost half of the per-person payouts to the so-called Central Park Five for their wrongful convictions and years of incarceration for a rape and murder they did not commit.

These notorious cases are outliers from a gigantic pool of money the city has spent to compensate people it has victimized. The average payout for all civil rights lawsuits against New York City from 2009 to 2014 — over 10,000 cases, not all of them targeting the NYPD itself — was $33,875 according to documents obtained by MuckRock.

But according to capitalism, Sefolosha’s leg really is worth more than some people’s lives. He is a high-efficiency worker in a business where skilled labor commands enormous paychecks. He sued the city for $50 million because for someone who expected to earn millions or even tens of millions of dollars a year with his legs, an injury that shortens his career or reduces his appeal to management is harder to make financially whole.

That economic reality and its attendant moral quandaries are even harder to swallow today than they might have been a year or two ago.

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“The city is actually trying to get more stingy when it comes to reaching for the checkbook to settle cop lawsuits,” Gothamist reported last fall.

They are not only squeezing plaintiffs in suits they feel they have to settle. The NYPD is proactively spending resources in new ways to reduce protesters’ chances of scoring a settlement. The department is dispatching its own lawyers — who are not prosecutors, not in the business of vindicating the state’s criminal complaints against its citizens — to assist in prosecuting Black Lives Matter protesters, the site noted, because “the outcome of their criminal cases, no matter how low-level, affects the viability of their lawsuits.”

That means the same police agency that can decide being rude to a cop is actually assault is now working hard to keep that absurd abuse of power from becoming the liability it should be. The same agency that broke Sefolosha’s leg for no good reason, strangled the life out of Garner for selling loosies, and put Gurley in an early grave because a cop panicked in the dark is innovating the art of accountability avoidance.

Sefolosha’s ability to win justice for the NYPD’s violent violations of his rights doesn’t just owe to his athletic prowess, then. He also had to get himself acquitted on three misdemeanor charges police and prosecutors decided to pursue in the April 2015 incident.

The same relative wealth that makes his lawsuit exceptional means he could more easily afford to fight those charges. Prosecutors offered him a plea deal that would have doomed his chances of winning a civil case.

How many of the other people who find themselves on the wrong end of a police officer’s anger have the resources to say no when the DA dangles a plea?