The SJW who cried “police brutality.” The LEO who cried “self-defense.”

Asking for evidence of police brutality doesn’t make you blindly pro-cop. Being skeptical of the officer’s POV doesn’t make you blindly anti-cop.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf by paperlait
The Boy Who Cried Wolf by paperlait

I’ve seen people defend Officer Sean Groubert shooting Levar Jones even after Groubert was fired and charged with a felony count of assault and battery (he has since plead guilty). I’ve had arguments with people who claim the video of Officer Michael Slager repeatedly shooting Walter Scott in the back was deceptively edited, even though Slager has since been fired and charged with murder and obstruction of justice. There are people for whom no amount of evidence is enough.

So when someone says “We weren’t there. We don’t know what happened. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels weary and angry. I get frustrated because so many times those statements are insincere; so many times, when it comes down to it, the person patiently calling for objectivity and evidence doesn’t actually care about evidence at all. He says “Give the investigation time,” but he means “no matter what surfaces, I’ll assume the officer was in the right. No matter the injustice, I’ll believe the dead deserved it.”

But I need to be careful about my assumptions. On the surface there’s no way to tell the difference between the person who is really just going to side with the LEO no matter what and the person who genuinely cares about clear thinking and due process. It’s unfair to assume anyone calling for more information falls into the former category.

It’s also unhelpful. I want more people to consider the possibility that serious systemic problems are at play here; accusing people of bigotry just for asking for evidence isn’t likely to start a thoughtful conversation.

The principles of (1) innocent until proven guilty and (2) proof beyond a reasonable doubt inevitably mean truly guilty people will go free. Our justice system is (supposed to be) designed to err on the side of freeing the guilty rather than imprisoning the innocent. In fact, jurors are given explicit instructions to this end: if they’re presented with multiple theories about how a crime happened, they are supposed to pick whichever is most reasonable. But if there is more than one reasonable theory, they are supposed to pick the reasonable theory that finds the defendant innocent.

In the case of an officer-involved shooting, that means if there’s a reasonable chance the officer acted in self-defense and there’s a reasonable chance he did not, the jury is supposed to assume it was self-defense. Given how often LEOs do have to fear for their lives–and given that the dead can’t talk–this means an officer can claim self-defense and, absent extremely explicit evidence to the contrary, the jury will assume that’s the truth.

I would think that’s what we’d all want for ourselves if we were accused of a crime. We’d want the evidence to have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that we did the deed before we could be found guilty. Of course we would.

I would also expect we’d all want the right to defend ourselves in dangerous situations. That’s why I think it really undermines the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies when people fail to distinguish between LEO self-defense vs LEO abuse of power. For example, I’ve seen a few posts along these lines:

mic article

This article references a database put together by The Washington Post to track officer-involved shooting deaths. But the stat is for everyone shot and killed by police, whether those citizens were a danger to the officers’ lives or not. While I think it’s important to track that kind of information, I also think it’s misleading to use it in the context of police brutality.

Police brutality is unwarranted LEO aggression and violence, but not all LEO aggression is unwarranted. Good cops acting in self-defense shouldn’t be lumped in with corrupt cops abusing their power or even with incompetent cops dangerously overreacting. And victims of police brutality shouldn’t be lumped in with people killed attempting to commit violence against others. Equivocations like these are part of the reason so many hesitate to condemn a given shooting, instead asking for more information. It’s “the Social Justice Warrior who cried ‘police brutality,'” and many people aren’t interested in more accusations until all the facts are in.

The problem with that, though, is that there are a lot of cases in which the facts are never all in.

The Walter Scott case is a great example of what so many people now fear and expect: Officer Slager is being charged not just with murder but also with obstruction of justice because, after repeatedly shooting Scott in the back, Slager told investigators that Scott had been advancing toward Slager with a taser. It was only when a citizen turned over a cell phone video that it became clear Scott had actually been running away from Slager. If the citizen hadn’t come forward with the video, what are the odds Slager would’ve been charged with anything?

Similarly, when multiple deputies beat Derrick Price, two of them later submitted falsified reports claiming Price had resisted arrest. According to court documents, security footage later revealed that “Price was compliant and immobilized during the entire time of the beating.” The two deputies subsequently plead guilty to deprivation of rights, but if there had been no security footage it’s unlikely their false reports would’ve been discovered.

These are examples of officers being willfully deceptive, but I expect there are plenty of situations where an officer recounts events sincerely and still gets them wrong. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable; I see no reason this would apply less to officers than anyone else.

For example, Officer Groubert suggested he shot Levar Jones because he perceived Jones to be a threat, claiming Jones “dove” into his van. Groubert may very well have believed that, but his own dash cam footage shows Jones simply reach into the van directly after Groubert asked for Jones’ license and registration. That footage contributed to Groubert being fired and charged, but if there had been no dash cam footage, would citizen safety still depend on Officer Groubert’s judgement?

Officer Timothy Runnels tased teen Bryce Masters until Masters went into cardiac arrest. Police later claimed Masters had been uncooperative during the stop, but dash cam footage shows Masters only asking whether he was under arrest before Runnels tased him and dropped him face down on the pavement. Runnels has since been fired and plead guilty to civil rights violations, but if there had been no dash cam footage?

Some people say these cases show our system does work because–given sufficient evidence–officers are charged with crimes. But I hope you can see how problematic this is. These cases are rare in that there was clear-cut video footage. How often do officers overreact, like Goubert did, or willfully try to deceive, like Slager did, with no video evidence to catch them? Perhaps it almost never occurs, and the exceedlingly rare times when it does occur happen to be disproportionately caught on video.

But I doubt it. A lot of people doubt it. Each time an LEO is caught not only unlawfully hurting citizens but also trying to cover it up, it greatly erodes public trust. And each time seemingly damning evidence proves insufficient to even indict an officer, it greatly erodes public trust. Each time there’s no major repercussion for anyone from the LEO himself to his superiors for, at best, grave errors in judgement, it greatly erodes public trust.

And once the public no longer trusts the system, cautioning people to reserve judgement until all the facts are in starts to sound a little too much like telling people to never judge an officer-involved death at all. In most cases all we can do is wait for one side of the story, and we already know what that side will say. It’s “the LEO who cried ‘self-defense.'”

So, while I understand people calling for calm and for evidence–a good approach not just here but in general–I also understand a lot of people feeling completely disillusioned and distrusting of the evidence-gathering process. I understand why having a jury decide an officer shouldn’t be indicted or isn’t guilty doesn’t necessarily convince the public the officer actually isn’t guilty.

People seem to believe this level of suspicion can only stem from a general anti-cop sentiment, but I don’t agree. Given the known cases of officers abusing power and then lying about it, it’s reasonable for people who respect the profession in general to still have major concerns about this issue specifically. I don’t agree with Jon Stewart on everything but I thought he was spot on here:

jon stewart quote

I don’t pretend to have a simple solution to all of this. I want to live in a society where people of color and LEOs are safe. I want us to respect the principles of “innocent until proven guilty” and “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” I want law enforcement agencies to responsibly police their own ranks. It doesn’t seem like any of that is happening right now.

I’m not sure what to do, but I am sure that assigning the worst motivations to the other side doesn’t help anything. We may not be able to fix everything quickly, but we can at least try to understand where people are coming from.


U.S. Death Penalty Support Lowest in More Than 40 Years

death penalty nooses

I love Gallup.

Sixty percent of Americans say they favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, the lowest level of support Gallup has measured since November 1972, when 57% were in favor. Death penalty support peaked at 80% in 1994, but it has gradually declined since then.

Key points:

  • Support for the death penalty has exceeded opposition since 1936 in all but one survey (May 1966).
  • Since 2000, several states have enacted moratoriums or outlawed the death penalty entirely, partially due to several death-row inmates proven innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.
  • 81% of Republicans currently favor the death penalty, compared to 60% of Independents and 47% of Democrats.
  • 52% of Americans believe the death penalty is applied fairly, compared to 40% who believe it is applied unfairly.
  • 44% of Americans believe the death penalty is not imposed often enough, compared to 26% who believe it is imposed the right amount of time and 22% who believe it is imposed too often.
  • 18 states do not allow the death penalty; 6 of those bans have occurred since 2006.

In my experience, most arguments around the morality of the death penalty focus on whether the government should have the right to execute people guilty of certain particularly heinous crimes. I believe the work of organizations like the Innocence Project has drawn attention to a different category of death penalty opposition: a person can believe it is morally acceptable to execute the guilty, yet still oppose the death penalty because they believe the system is too error-prone to implement (i.e. there’s too high of a risk of executing innocent people).

Of course we will never have a perfect system, but there are certain reforms that can lower the error rate. Still the questions remain: when risking innocent lives, what error rate is low enough? What do we gain in return for that cost?

I do believe some people deserve to be executed. I’m just weary of entrusting such an awesome responsibility to our government.

Free-Market Justice

private vs PD

In this 2007 Op-Ed, Judge Morris Hoffman explains the study he and two economists conducted to compare the quality of defense put forth by public defenders versus private attorneys. The study found the clients of public defenders were given significantly longer sentences than the clients of private attorneys. However, the study’s authors suggest this difference is due to guilty defendants self-selecting a public defense. The study’s abstract:

An econometric study of all felony cases filed in Denver, Colorado, in 2002, shows that public defenders achieved poorer outcomes than their privately retained counterparts, measured by the actual sentences defendants received. But this study suggests that the traditional explanation for this difference – underfunding resulting in overburdened public defenders – may not tell the whole story. The authors discovered a large segment of what they call “marginally indigent” defendants, who appear capable of hiring private counsel if the charges against them are sufficiently serious. These results suggest that at least one explanation for poor public defender outcomes may be that public defender clients, by self-selection, tend to have less defensible cases. If marginally indigent defendants can find the money to hire private counsel when the charges are sufficiently serious, perhaps they can also find the money when they are innocent, or think they have a strong case.

If the truly guilty are more likely to pick a public defender rather than consume their own resources on a private attorney, we would expect public defenders’ clients to have longer average life-sentences.

It’s an interesting point, but it’s hard to verify. There would have to be a way to measure the proportion of guilty clients outside of tallying guilty verdicts and plea bargains. There’d also have to be a way to isolate the variable of guilt, which may be tricky since income is also an important variable and certain criminal activity is correlated with certain socioeconomic levels. There’s also the variable of how overworked different attorneys become–how would researchers quantify “overworked” and how would they compare public vs. private attorneys accordingly?

I’d also be interested to read studies about the demographics of people who choose to become defense attorneys compared to prosecutors. Are there measurable psychological and personality differences? Do those differences affect work performance?

Anyone have any info on this?

When do children learn right from wrong?

Inspired by the recent arrests of two teens for bullying a girl until she committed suicide and remembering that I have read articles describing a shift in the brain at 8 years old that allows for moral judgement as well as different learning abilities (of course I can not find those now!), I stumbled across this article about moral development in children.


There’s lots of interesting things in here that present a very complicated picture of kids who do terrible things but who have not matured. What do you do with them? How do you hold them responsible? How do you get them to mature?  What do we do about a cycle of immature children having children?

I particularly thought this was interesting (forgive the 90s rhetoric):

Drug abuse delays development, Farrow says, because, “If kids are high all the time . . . they’re not very future oriented; they tend to stay concrete, and not see the consequences of their actions.”

Dropping out of school and hanging out with “deadheads going nowhere,” he says, means children don’t get any intellectual challenge. That means that, although their brains are ready to develop the capacity for critical thinking, they don’t get trained to do so.

Child custody rights for rapists?

rapists custody rights

I’ve seen the claim that most states allow rapists custody rights to children they fathered through rape. In this context I wasn’t sure whether “rapists” meant men found guilty of rape or men accused of rape. Apparently it is the former. According to the recently introduced Rape Survivor Child Custody Act:

Currently only 6 States have statutes allowing rape survivors to petition for the termination of parental rights of the rapist based on clear and convincing evidence that the child was conceived through rape.

This CNN article discusses the estimated tens of thousands of pregnancies that result from rape each year in the US. The article claims about two thirds of these pregnancies are terminated, which still means thousands of rape victims choosing to carry to term each year.

These women should not have to fear being tethered to their attackers for the first 18 years of their children’s lives.Removing a rapist’s parental rights seems to be the obvious choice for women’s rights advocates, as well as people on both sides of the abortion debate; neither pro-lifers nor pro-choicers want women to feel coerced into getting abortions.

If we were talking about taking away parental rights from men accused of but not found guilty of rape, I think there would be a significant concern that such legislation could take away parental rights from innocent men. However, if the legislation only applies to cases involving “clear and convincing evidence” of rape, what could be the arguments against such legislation?

Court employee fired for helping innocent inmate access DNA testing.

According to the Associated Press:

“A Kansas City man freed from prison three decades after being wrongfully convicted of rape considers Sharon Snyder his ‘angel’ for giving him a public document that showed him how to properly seek DNA tests. A Jackson County Circuit judge considers the 34-year court employee an insubordinate for offering legal advice and being too chatty about courthouse matters.”

The timeline of events is as follows:

  • 1984: Robert Nelson is convicted of rape, forcible sodomy, and first-degree robbery.
  • 2009: Nelson seeks DNA testing that wasn’t available during his original trial. Judge David Byrn denies the request.
  • August 2011: Nelson asks Byrn to reconsider; Byrn rejects Nelson’s motion because it falls short of statute requirements.
  • October 2011: Sharon Snyder give’s Nelson’s sister a copy of a successful (public) motion for DNA testing filed in a different case.
  • February 2012: Nelson uses this document as a basis for his new motion for DNA testing.
  • August 2012: Byrn sustains the motion allowing for DNA testing.
  • June 2013: The Kansas City crime lab concludes Nelson is not the source of the DNA evidence; Nelson is freed. Five days later Snyder is suspended without pay for her involvement in the case.
  • June 27, 2013: Byrn fires Snyder, saying Snyder “violated several court rules by providing assistance to Nelson and talking about aspects of the case, even while under seal, to attorneys not involved in the matter.”

Byrn, Nelson’s attorney, and other court officials declined to comment on the story. Snyder, however, explained, “I lent an ear to his sister, and maybe I did wrong, but if it was my brother, I would go to every resource I could possibly find.”

On the one hand, if court employees broke the rules every time they heard an emotionally compelling story, our system would not run smoothly at all. On the other hand, it seems like a failure of the system that an innocent prisoner did not otherwise have the resources (that is, did not have the knowledge or assistance) to make his case. What do you think? Should Snyder have done what she did?