A Nation in Stagnation

There have been a bevy of depressing articles over the past few days that I haven’t seen tied together yet, but which I think do share a common theme. Here are the stories, which I’m just pulling from the top of my head.

1. The GOP’s moral authority is disintegrating.

The Republican Party is doing harm to every cause it purports to serve. If Republicans accept Roy Moore as a United States senator, they may, for a couple years, have one more vote for a justice or a tax cut, but they will have made their party loathsome for an entire generation. The pro-life cause will be forever associated with moral hypocrisy on an epic scale. The word “evangelical” is already being discredited for an entire generation. Young people and people of color look at the Trump-Moore G.O.P. and they are repulsed, maybe forever…

The rot afflicting the G.O.P. is comprehensive — moral, intellectual, political and reputational. More and more former Republicans wake up every day and realize: “I’m homeless. I’m politically homeless.”

2. Police can gun down unarmed civilians literally begging for life on their hands and knees now.

Last week, in “A Police Killing Without a Hint of Racism,” I wrote about Daniel Shaver, an unarmed man killed in a hotel hallway while begging for his life. At the time, the man who shot him, former Officer Philip Brailsford, was on trial for second-degree murder, and body-cam footage of the killing had yet to be released.

Now, that chilling, deeply disturbing video is available. The relevant portion begins at the 12 minute 50 second mark. Be forewarned: An innocent human is killed.

The video is not easy to watch. I did, and I’m not posting it here. In the end, the police officer was found not guilty of either murder or manslaughter. During the trial, the officer testified that he had no regrets, and that ““If this situation happened exactly as it did that time, I would have done the same thing.”

3. The media has lost its mind and its integrity

FRIDAY WAS ONE of the most embarrassing days for the U.S. media in quite a long time. The humiliation orgy was kicked off by CNN, with MSNBC and CBS close behind, with countless pundits, commentators and operatives joining the party throughout the day. By the end of the day, it was clear that several of the nation’s largest and most influential news outlets had spread an explosive but completely false news story to millions of people, while refusing to provide any explanation of how it happened.

The common theme I see running through all these stories is this: the degradation of our national institutions.

In all our panicked rushing from one sensational story to another, what I’m really worried about is the longer-term effects on the institutions that make up our nation. I don’t know how long police forces that treat their citizens like enemy combatants expect to enjoy public support, but the answer is certainly not “forever.” I don’t know what short-term victory the GOP thinks is worth selling its soul. Probably not the presidency and certainly not Roy Moore’s senate seat. And the same goes for the mainstream media and the American left which–instead of allowing Trump’s vast repository of lamentable qualities and poor decisions–feels the need to squander their credibility on conspiracy theories.

The finer points of each of these three stories can be discussed at length, and should. None of them represents a seismic cataclysm alone. None are without precedent.

But that, I guess, is the saddest part. These are just examples in long-running trends.

I don’t think more hysteria or drama will help. But I do think it’s worth taking a moment to realize there are things at stake beyond the short-term consequences, and that at a certain point the tribal, partisan struggles begin to tear the social fabric itself asunder.

Racial Bias & Policing: A Rundown of the Data

With protests in Charlotte and the shooter of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa being charged with manslaughter, the question of systemic racism and #BlackLivesMatter has risen again. The following is meant to be a helpful list of relevant data regarding the current state of police force and racial bias:

  • The Rarity of Force: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it is “[k]nown with substantial confidence…that police use force infrequently. The data indicate that a small percentage of police-public encounters involve force. For example, about 1 percent of people who had face-to-face contacts with police said that officers used or threatened force, according to preliminary estimates based on the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 1996 pretest of its Police-Public Contact Survey…In 7,512 adult custody arrests, another study…notes that fewer than one out of five arrests involved police use of physical force (defined as use of any weapon, use of any weaponless tactic, or use of severe restraints). That can be considered a low rate in view of the study’s broad definition of force” (pg. vii). By highlighting this first, “the intention is neither to minimize the problem nor to suggest that the issue can be dismissed as unworthy of serious attention. Society’s ends are best achieved peaceably, and we should strive to minimize the use of force by police as much as possible. However, it is important to put police use of force in context in order to understand the potential magnitude of use-of-force problems. Although estimates may not completely reassure everyone that police are doing everything they can to minimize the use of force, the data do not support the notion that we have a national epidemic of police violence” (pg. 3). In summary, the vast majority of civilian/police interactions involve no violence whatsoever.
  • Increase in Police Shootings: However, the above study was done in 1999. Both private and federal data since then suggest that the use of lethal force by police is increasing (see the graph below). Nonetheless, even with upticks in killings by police, the use of lethal force would still be exceedingly rare.

  • Lack of Prosecution: Very few officers have been prosecuted for fatal shootings since 2005 according to a 2015 analysis by The Washington Post. This could very well be for good reasons, but the point is that it is rare for an officer to face prosecution.
  • Police Officers Are Safer: Murders, assaults, and shootings of police officers have thankfully declined over the last few decades (for example, see the graph on assaults and injuries below). We should want to keep it that way.

  • Unreliable Data: Unfortunately, the data on use of force by police aren’t very helpful. Reporting on a 2013 survey conducted by the Justice Department, The New York Times stated, “But when the data was issued…the figures turned out to be almost useless. Nearly all departments said they kept track of their shootings, but in accounting for all uses of force, the figures varied widely. Some cities included episodes in which officers punched suspects or threw them to the ground. Others did not. Some counted the use of less lethal weapons, such as beanbag guns. Others did not. And many departments, including large ones such as those in New York, Houston, Baltimore and Detroit, either said they did not know how many times their officers had used force or simply refused to say. That made any meaningful analysis of the data impossible.” USA Today found similar problems. For example, University of Nebraska criminologist Samuel Walker said that the uptick in police shootings could simply be due to more departments reporting. The Washington Post‘s Radley Balko summarizes, “The point is, it’s nearly impossible to know all the details behind all of these shootings. We have to rely on reports filed by the officers themselves. We know more details about these particular cases because an attorney or a journalist took the time to investigate, file open records requests, and look beyond the police reports and press accounts (which, less face it, too often are too reliant on the police reports).”
  • Individual Racism: Rhetoric from critics of police sometimes gives the impression that police shootings of blacks stem from individual racism. According to a 2015 survey, 12.2% of all U.S. local police officers are black. Interestingly enough, one study found that black officers are 3.3 times more likely to discharge their weapon than white officers on the scene of the same incident. A 2015 study of the Philadelphia Police Department by the U.S. Justice Department found that black officers had a threat perception failure (TPF) rate of 11.4% with black suspects, while white officers’ TPF rate was only 6.8% with black suspects (see pg. 32). A Washington State University study found that “[p]articipants were…more likely to shoot unarmed white suspects than black or Hispanic ones and more likely to fail to fire at armed black suspects. “In other words,” wrote [Lois] James and her co-authors, “there was significant bias favoring blacks where decisions to shoot were concerned.” When confronted by an armed white person, participants took an average of 1.37 seconds to fire back. Confronted by an armed black person, they took 1.61 seconds to fire and were less likely to fire in error. The 240-millisecond difference may seem small, but it’s enough to be fatal in a shooting.” The reason may be “rooted in people’s concerns about the social and legal consequences of shooting a member of a historically oppressed racial or ethnic group.” The case for individual racism in a general sense is hard to make.
  • Systemic Racism: However, criticism from groups like Black Lives Matter and others are not so much focused on individual racism as they are on systemic racism. The claim is not that cops are individually racist (“some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses“), but that the system in which they operate is biased against vulnerable black communities. For example, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander details how the War on Drugs disparately impacts black and poor communities more than white and prosperous ones. Blacks are far more likely to be charged with and convicted of drug crimes, yet blacks use drugs at roughly the same rates as whites while being less likely to sell. While this doesn’t address violent crimes–of which blacks commit a disproportionate amount–it’s worth noting that drug crimes “have been the predominant reason for new admissions into state and federal prisons in recent decades.” Nathaniel has an excellent review here, which covers the book’s claims regarding racially-disparate stops, arrests, convictions, and consequences that come with the scarlet-F of a felony conviction.
  • Black-on-Black Crime: This is a largely irrelevant talking point. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 93% of black murder victims were killed by other blacks between 1980 and 2008. Similarly, 84% of white murder victims were killed by other whites (pg. 13; see graph below). In other words, most violent crime is intraracial. Furthermore, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that–between 2008 and 2012–those “in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) (39.8 per 1,000) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households (16.9 per 1,000).” It turns out that “[p]oor urban blacks (51.3 per 1,000) had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites (56.4 per 1,000).” Between 2007 and 2011, the black poverty rate was 25.8 percent, while the white poverty rate was 11.6 percent. In short, poor whites and blacks commit violent crimes at about the same rate. There are just more poor blacks than poor whites. And considering that there is strong empirical support for poverty as a predictor of crime, lifting communities out of poverty may be one of the best crime prevention programs.

Image result for Homicides, by race of offender and victim, 1980–2008

  • Stops, Searches, Arrests: Numerous studies find that blacks are stopped and searched at far higher rates than whites. A July 2016 report on police practices in San Francisco found that statistics “suggest there are racial disparities regarding SFPD stops, searches, and arrests, particularly for Black people.” Black adults were 7 times more likely to be arrested than whites along with having higher rates of searches without consent after stops and lower hit rates (i.e., rate at which searches turn up contraband). The Justice Department’s 2015 investigation into Ferguson police behavior found that “African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers, suggesting officers are impermissibly considering race as a factor when determining whether to search” (pg. 4). A 2016 study of Chicago PD found that “black and Hispanic drivers were searched approximately four times as often as white drivers, yet CPD’s own data show that contraband was found on white drivers twice as often as black and Hispanic drivers” (pg. 9). A 2014 ACLU analysis of Illinois Department of Transportation data found that “African American and Latino drivers are nearly twice as likely as white drivers to be asked during a routine traffic stop for ‘consent’ to have their car searched. Yet white motorists are 49% more likely than African American motorists to have contraband discovered during a consent search by law enforcement, and 56% more likely when compared to Latinos.” A New York Times analysis found that officers in Greensboro, N.C. were “were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason. And they were more likely to use force if the driver was black, even when they did not encounter physical resistance.” A 2016 Justice Department investigation of Baltimore PD found that “BPD engages in a pattern or practice of making stops, searches, and arrests in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and Section 14141. BPD frequently makes investigative stops without reasonable suspicion of people who are lawfully present on Baltimore streets. During stops, officers commonly conduct weapons frisks—or more invasive searches— despite lacking reasonable suspicion that the subject of the search is armed. These practices escalate street encounters and contribute to officers making arrests without probable cause, 36 often for discretionary misdemeanor offenses like disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, loitering, trespassing, and failure to obey” (pg. 24). It also found that “BPD disproportionately stops African Americans standing, walking, or driving on Baltimore streets. The Department’s data on all pedestrian stops from January 2010 to June 2015 shows that African Americans account for 84 percent of stops55 despite comprising only 63 percent of the City’s population. Expressed differently, BPD officers made 520 stops for every 1,000 black residents in Baltimore, but only 180 stops for every 1,000 Caucasian residents. The high rate of stopping African Americans persists across the City, even in districts where African Americans make up a small share of the population. Indeed, the proportion of African-American stops exceeds the share of African-American population in each of BPD’s nine police districts, despite significant variation in the districts’ racial, socioeconomic, and geographic composition” (pg. 48-49). This was true for traffic stops as well: “BPD likewise stops African-American drivers at disproportionate rates. From 2010–2015, African Americans made up 82 percent of people stopped by BPD officers for traffic violations, compared to only 60 percent of the City’s driving age population. As with pedestrian stops, BPD stopped a higher rate of African American drivers in each of the City’s districts, despite large differences in those districts’ demographic profiles and traffic patterns. For example, African Americans accounted for 80 percent of vehicle stops in the Northern District despite making up only 41 percent of the district’s population, and made up 56 percent of stops in the Southeast District compared to only 23 percent of the population living there” (pg. 52). And yet, BPD hit rate data “suggests that officers’ search decisions are biased against African Americans. Indeed, BPD’s data on all stops from 2010–2015 shows that searches of African Americans have significantly lower hit rates than other searches. During vehicle stops, BPD officers reported finding some type of contraband less than half as often when searching African Americans—in only 3.9 percent of searches of African Americans, compared to 8.5 percent of other searches” (pg. 53). A 2011 Justice Department report found, in 2008, that whites, blacks, and Hispanics were stopped at about the same rate, yet blacks were searched about 3 times more than whites (pg. 10). A 2016 study of North Carolina’s database found “that black drivers (men and women) are 75% more likely to be searched than whites, 5% less likely to be ticketed, and 43% more likely to be arrested…In 2002, black men were 70% more likely to be searched than whites and this disparity has grown steadily over the period of study. Beginning in 2007, black men were twice as likely to be searched and by 2013 this difference had grown to over 140%. Black men are also more likely to be arrested; however, this disparity has remained stable at about a 60% increased likelihood. We also see that black men are marginally less likely to receive citations and there is almost no variance; NC police are highly consistent over time in their relative treatment of whites and black men when it comes to ticketing…Compared to white men, black men are more likely to be searched and arrested for every type of stop, with the exception of driving while impaired” (pg. 10). According to the database, “[i]n 2002, officers were almost 125% more likely to search black men than white men using a probable cause search. By 2013, officers were almost 250% more likely to use probable cause as a justification for searching blacks – essentially doubling the disparity in the use of probable cause searches. Tracking the contraband hit rate associated with this type of search reveals that officers’ suspicions of wrongdoing have always been less accurate when engaging with black motorists; officers consistently find contraband on black males at modestly lower rates than white males. So the increased reliance on probable cause to search blacks is not associated with more accurate assessments of the likelihood of blacks engaging in criminal behavior. And the increased racial disparities in probable cause searches over time appear to be unjustified in terms of any increased likelihood of finding contraband” (pg. 13).
  • Driving Patterns and Traffic Violations: Are there alternative reasons for these stops besides racial bias and is there any evidence for them? The National Institute of Justice finds three potential reasons that blacks are pulled over at higher rates based on various studies: (1) “The representation of minority drivers among those stopped could differ greatly from their representation in the residential census. Naturally those driving on the road, particularly major thoroughfares, could differ from those who live in the neighborhood”; (2) “If minority drivers tend to drive in communities where there are more police patrols then the police will be more likely to notice any infractions the black drivers commit”; (3) Seatbelt usage is chronically lower among black drivers. If a law enforcement agency aggressively enforces seatbelt violations, police will stop more black drivers.” As a Washington Post article concludes, “Ethics aside, this is where the research leaves us: Black drivers certainly get more face-time with traffic cops. But to what extent that reflects discrimination, and whether that discrimination is based in racial prejudice, is more of an open question.”
  • Unarmed Shootings: A 2015 study found “the median probability across counties of being {black, unarmed, and shot by police} is 3.49 (PCI95: 1.77, 6.04) times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police}.” However, some are hesitant to declare racial bias due to the amount of violent crimes in black communities. Blacks are more likely to be stopped and therefore more likely to end up in a violent conflict with police due to heavier policing of these crime-ridden areas. Yet, the evidence seems to be against this line of reasoning. The study found “no evidence of an association between black-specific crime rates (neither in assault-related arrests nor in weapons-related arrests) and racial bias in police shootings, irrespective of whether or not other controls were included in the model. As such, the results of this study provide no empirical support for the idea that racial bias in police shootings (in the time period, 2011–2014, described in this study) is driven by race-specific crime rates (at least as measured by the proxies of assault- and weapons-related arrest rates in 2012).” Similarly, another 2015 analysis found that the levels of violent crime in US cities had no correlation with that area’s police killing rates. However, just because one is unarmed does not make one a non-threat or the intended target. Some unarmed shooting victims attempt to wrestle the officer’s gun away from them, while others are unfortunate and unintended collateral damage (e.g., caught in crossfire). How threatening blacks are–armed or unarmed–is one variable controlled for in a new study analyzing The Washington Post‘s 2015 database. The study “used multivariate regression models to determine whether the findings were attributable to race or another factor and found that, among the 990 civilians fatally shot by the police last year, black civilians were more than twice as likely as white civilians to have been unarmed. This was true after controlling for threat level, the age and gender of the civilian, signs of mental illness, region of the United States, crime rate according to 2012 UCR data, size of the agency involved, and whether or not the agency operates its own basic training academy. In fact, the only other variable that was significant was, not surprisingly, threat level (meaning civilians in the “attack” category were far less likely to have been unarmed). In regards to the relationship between race and threat level, the data indicate that black civilians were not significantly more or less likely to have been attacking the police officer(s) or others than white civilians. However, Hispanic or Latino civilians and civilians from other minority groups were much less likely to have been attacking the police officers or others than white civilians. Again, these results held up after controlling for the influence of each of the other variables” (italics mine). However, it is paramount to note that the study found that the “majority of civilians shot and killed by the police in 2015 were male (96 percent), armed with a deadly weapon (82 percent), and attacking police officers or others (74 percent). Half of the civilians were white (50 percent). About one out of every four civilians fatally shot by police displayed signs of mental illness.” While bias in shootings is an extremely important issue and should be investigated, it is absolutely essential to remember that the majority of police shootings are due to legitimate threats. These are the kinds of incidents that provoke the #BlueLivesMatter counter. It is also worth acknowledging Harvard economist Roland Fryer’s recent study, which found no racial bias in police shootings across 10 major police departments in Texas, California, and Florida (check out The New York Times write-up and follow-up). However, there have been significant criticisms of Fryer’s study.
  • Non-Lethal Force: Yet, Fryer’s study also found that officers were far more likely to use non-lethal force on blacks than whites, including hands on civilians (e.g., slapping or grabbing), pushing into a wall, use of handcuffs, drawing weapons, pushing to the ground, pointing weapon, pepper spraying, and striking with a baton (see graph below). A July 2016 study found that the mean rate of use-of-force incidents “for Black residents was 273 per 100,000, which is 2.5 times as high as the overall rate and 3.6 times as high as the rate for White residents (76 per 100,000)” (pg. 15). It also concluded “that crime rates are an insufficient explanation for disparities in the application of police force” (pg. 18).

This material doesn’t even get into post-arrest injustices like harsher sentences for blacks or historical issues like redlining, but I think this list is a good starter. As you wade into the controversies and debates, try to be as accurate as possible. Know the numbers. Be rigorous. Be willing to admit it when the evidence doesn’t favor “your side.” Most of all, be charitable towards one another. These are people’s lives, both black and blue. We want a system that is just and serves all members of society fairly. And we want officers coming home safely to their families at the end of the day.

Facebook/Free Hugs Project

Does Dallas prove “good guys with guns” is a lie?

After the sniper in Dallas killed five police officers, I saw several posts like this:

GGWG pieces

The idea is that there were not only armed police officers present but also citizens with open carry licenses, and yet all these “good guys with guns” didn’t stop the bad guy with a gun from killing people. That much is true. The people pointing this out then often conclude that good guys with guns won’t protect us. That much is false.

Of course if you mean good guys with guns can’t prevent bad guys with guns from hurting anyone ever again, yes, I agree. But I doubt most gun rights advocates believe or have made such an extreme claim. It’s not that good guys with guns will always be able to keep everyone safe; it’s that good guys with guns will be able to protect people more often than good guys without guns.

I think most people on both sides of the gun control debate recognize this to some extent, because almost everyone agrees the police (“good guys with guns”) should be armed. In fact, using Dallas to claim good guys with guns don’t protect us is especially interesting because both civilians and LEOs with guns weren’t able to stop the sniper. Yet gun control advocates are pointing to Dallas as a reason to disarm civlians only, not the police.

And, I mean, I agree that we definitely shouldn’t disarm the police. It seems clear to me that (1) a military-trained sniper is not representative of the dangerous people police are more typically up against, and (2) everyone would have been worse off if the police hadn’t had guns.

It’s true that civilians and LEOs with guns were unable to stop the sniper before he hurt anyone, but it’s false to suggest the guns were irrelevant or of no benefit, and it’s nonsensical to suggest that if good guys can’t protect people from a military-trained sniper, they can’t protect people in more typical situations. For example, just yesterday (also in Dallas incidentally), a legal gun owner with a pistol stopped a robber with an AK-47.

HuffPo GGWG

There are snippet self-defense stories like that regularly, but they don’t make nearly the media ripples that shootings make. I think that’s understandable to some extent: stories about things going right generally don’t get as much attention as stories about things going wrong, especially when things go really wrong. And there’s a matter of degree here too: in terms of media exposure, a snippet about a civilian stopping a robber might be parallel to a snippet about a robber shooting and wounding a single person. They’re both relatively minor stories. But what would the “good guy” equivalent be to stories about horrific mass shootings? Because a story about preventing a mass shooting doesn’t have nearly the media impact mass shootings have. But I digress.

Gun control advocates point out that if the sniper hadn’t had a gun, he couldn’t have done the damage he did. And I think they’re right. I think it’s obvious. I don’t find compelling the gun rights arguments that imply people can be just as dangerous with knives or baseball bats or whatever as they are with guns.

But while I also wish the sniper hadn’t had a gun, it’s not clear to me what the solution is, for two main reasons. (1) Gun ownership is a Constitutional right, so, absent amending the Constitution, gun control measures can’t undermine that right. (2) The measures would have to effectively stop people from obtaining guns illegally, at least at a level that would make up for stopping “good guys with guns” from being able to protect themselves and others from “bad guys with guns.”

I’m open to the possibility that there are gun control measures that can accomplish both of these feats, it’s just not clear to me right now what those measures would be. I think I’ll save that topic for future posts.

“Black lives matter,” “All lives matter,” and telling people what they mean.

You should be able to describe your opposition’s stance in a way they would agree with. If you can’t do that, do you really understand what they’re saying?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has seen this argument ad nauseum.

“Black lives matter.”
“All lives matter.”
“Why do you refuse to acknowledge discrimination againt black people?”
“Why don’t you care when others are hurt? Why don’t you care about police officers’ lives?”

Etc.

As best I can tell, this infinite argument stems from two factors:

  1. Allowing the extremists to represent our opposition.
  2. Telling other people what they think and what they mean.

These are both mistakes. We make them often in all kinds of debates, probably more often the more heated the debate is. But guys, I wish we’d stop.

I don’t doubt that there are people who are indifferent to or even celebrate an LEO’s death or a black person’s death. But I don’t think either of those stances represents the majority of either side. And it would be helpful if, when someone says something you think has an ambiguous meaning, instead of assuming they’re using the most extreme, awful meaning, you maybe just asked them to clarify.

So when someone says “Black lives matter,” instead of assuming they mean “Only Black lives matter,” either give them the benefit of the doubt (they mean “Hey, black lives matter too”), or at least ask them what they mean.

let's be clear BLM

And when someone says “All lives matter,” instead of assuming they’re just trying really hard to ignore the problems people of color face, either give them the benefit of the doubt (they mean “I care about all the lives involved in this issue” and/or “I’ve misunderstood what you mean by ‘black lives matter’”), or at least ask them what they mean.

his her their lives matter

Please stop telling people what they mean when they use a phrase you don’t like. Stop telling them what they think and why they think it. On this topic and most others, assigning meaning usually means you’re getting it wrong and almost always means you’re probably not going to have a useful conversation.

Remember that the people we’re talking to—especially if we’re talking online with strangers or very casual FB friends—likely run in different social circles than us and are exposed to different ideas, news, blogs, talking points, etc. In particular they’re probably exposed more to the extreme voices from our side and less to the rational voices. I think that’s a pretty common phenomenon.

Sometimes it is really hard for me to stop and realize that the premises I find blindingly obvious are ideas the person I’m talking to may not have even heard before. It’s very easy to assume she’s starting from the same baseline assumptions I am and is just being difficult or mean. And hey, sometimes that is what’s happening.

But often–probably most of the time–it’s not. And man I’d love it if we could have more useful conversations about some very serious problems and less yelling at each other about what the other side thinks, feels, and wants. That would be a good start.

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.

 

We’re Here to Play Bad Cop / Worse Cop

934 - Hardline Art

In the late 1990s and early 2000’s, first person shooter video games focused thematically on World War II with major franchises like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Battlefield. Things started to change around 2005 when the Battlefield series released Battlefield 2: Modern Combat and the change in focus was cemented with the blockbuster release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007. That’s pretty much where the genre has lived for the last 10 years. Recently, however, the Battlefield franchise has decided to shift focus again with their newest title Battlefield: Hardline which release earlier this month. The disturbing twist in the newest game, which you can see in the trailer, is that instead of soldiers fighting on a battlefield we now get militarized cops.

Obviously, this is not the very first time a video game has been controversial. I’m a gamer, but there are some games that I refuse to play because the depiction of violence reaches levels that I think are a little sick. Just to give a very simple example of that: I have played just enough of the Grand Theft Auto franchise to know that it will never be allowed in my home. I also have all kinds of political issues with the Call of Duty franchise, and even though the most controversial level of that that series was made by a high school buddy of mine, I opted out. And these are, relatively speaking, the tame examples of controversial video games. The really nasty stuff I won’t even go into here.

So I’m not going to hyperventilate and argue that Battlefield: Hardline is the worst thing to have happened in video games. It’s not. It’s still pretty disturbing, however, and the video game press has taken notice. Chris Plante writes in Polygon:

You used to be able to tell the difference between a cop and a soldier by how they looked. Soldiers had fancy gear, camouflage and heavy weaponry. Cops had a badge with their name and officer number. Times have changed, and now cops at a peaceful protest can look like the soldiers saving Gotham from a nuclear weapon.

The creators of Battlefield Hardline, while researching the militarization of the nation’s police force, understandably began to view the devices used by Americans against Americans as novel and fun. After all, they look identical to those being used in their previous games against fictional terrorists.

Here’s the image he was linking to, btw:

936 - Warrior Cops

Now, there are some who have gone a little farther and suggested that video games like this in some way cause police militarization. I think that’s a little silly, in much the same way that I think blaming video games for causing general violence in society is pretty silly. Thus, I largely agree with Erik Kain’s take in Forbes:

Alan Jacobs, writing at his blog, makes the connection between the Ferguson police and Call of Duty:

“I want to suggest that there may be a strong connection between the visual style of video games and the visual style of American police forces — the “warrior cops” that Radley Balko has written (chillingly) about,” writes Jacobs. ”Note how in Ferguson, Missouri, cops’ dress, equipment, and behavior are often totally inappropriate to their circumstances — but visually a close match for many of the Call of Duty games.”

Jacobs is arguing that the culture of first-person shooters—and the aesthetic—is being imprinted on our police forces. It’s not a bad argument by any means… [but] I’m not so sure.

Kain goes on to argue that the reason for his skepticism is simply that “these problems are structural rather than cultural.” He goes on:

The War on Drugs and the War on Terror are essentially the same war when it comes to beefing up law enforcement at the expense of personal liberty. The War on Drugs already provided a good excuse for law enforcement to overstep its bounds; the War on Terror has led to much better armed police forces and the sprouting up of SWAT teams all across the country.

There are now over 100 SWAT team raids a day in the United States, mostly for non-violent offenses, and often leading to horrible things like police throwing flash bang grenades into a baby’s crib, or the killing of a seven-year old girl while a SWAT team raided the wrong apartment looking for a murder suspect (who was in the apartment above and gave himself up without violence) while A&E filmed the entire event for a reality TV show.

The problems are deep and they are profound, but they are not likely to be caused by video games. On the contrary, what creeps me out about this game is simply that it reflects a kind of social nonchalance and acceptance of some pretty horrific, unnecessary police violence not to mention the systematized discrimination that goes along with it. Consider what Scott Shackford had to say about gamer opinion in his piece for Reason:

The folks behind Battlefield Hardline might want to check out our Reason-Rupe analysis of poll responses by frequent gamers. We found they’re more likely to be concerned about the militarization of the police. From our survey, 70 percent of gamers think it’s too much for police forces to have access to military equipment and drones as tools for crime-fighting, compared to 57 percent of non-gamers. And nearly two-thirds of the gamers we polled believe that police officers aren’t held accountable for misconduct.

Shackford’s point appears to be something like: Hey, Battlefield, you’ve picked the wrong demographics here. Gamers are libertarian. They won’t go for this. But the logic is really kind of backwards. Gamers do tend to be left-libertarians, but that didn’t stop the game from becoming the #1 biggest selling 2015 launch (to date) in the UK. I’m not sure what the numbers look like in the US, but it’s clear millions of gamers are snatching up copies. If these guys–more suspicious of police militarization than the Average Joe–are untroubled by the game, what does that say?

So no: I don’t think violent video games lead directly to real-world violence and I doubt that a game glorifying police militarization is going to lead directly towards even more police militarization. But, even if Battlefield: Hardline is largely following a trend rather than setting one, it may still play a role in normalizing the police militarization we already have. For centuries we’ve had an American tradition of separating military and police forces, but that tradition doesn’t mean much anymore if the police and the military have become indistinguishable.
935 - Police Militarization

At this rate, I have to wonder if rising generations will even have a conceptual notion that there was ever a time when the police didn’t roll around in armored personnel carriers with fully-automatic weapons. And I think that just makes it a little bit harder to reverse the trajectory we’re currently on.

 

What’s Behind Rising Police Militarization and Violence?

Obviously one of the big discussions since Ferguson has been race relations. But another big discussion was prompted not by the initial shooting of Michael Brown, but by the heavy-handed response of the police to subsequent demonstrations. In particular, there were a lot of pics of the heavily-armed police with comments from Iraq and Afhganistan vets saying, basically, that the cops in Ferguson had heavier body armor and weapons then our front-line combat troops in an actual war zone.

2014-10-01 Ferguson Police Iraq Comparison

There’s a lot going on, including historical reasons why police departments in black neighborhoods tend to be staffed by white officers from other neighborhoods, but one of the biggest problems fueling the rising militarization of police forces is the message the the world is becoming a scary, threatening, hostile police for cops in some new and dangerous way. In a conversation with a friend on Facebook, I decided to do some really quick back-of-the-envelope calculations to determine if there was any evidence of the idea that cops today face new threats that make their jobs more dangerous in the past. I found some police mortality data here and stuck it in Excel. Then I did look backs for 10-, 20-, 30-, 40-, and 50-year periods with a simple linear trend. It was clearly negative in every single case. You want to get police death tolls as low as they have been in recent years? You have to go literally back to the 1950s. And that’s not adjusted for population, so it was actually probably safer back then, too.

Meanwhile, the list of botched, military-style police raids is growing. To give you an anecdote, Salon covered a story in June of a SWAT raid where the cops tossed a flashbang grenade into a two-year-old’s crib, blowing a hole in his chest and nearly killing him. No drugs were found in the house, and the target of the raid wasn’t even present. The good news is that the little boy survived. The bad news is that–after promising to pay for the nearly $1,000,000 in medical expenses required to save his life–the Georgia county changed their mind and is refusing to help at all. Lest you think that this is just one rare, isolated incident, the CATO Institute has an interactive map of hundreds of botched SWAT raids from across the country.

The most recent story is of a South Carolina state trooper panicking and shooting an unarmed man in the back when the man tried to get his wallet to show his ID as the trooper had requested. The state trooper has already been fired and faces criminal charges, and luckily the unarmed man survived. Radley Balko wrote an article about this (A (sort of) defense of South Carolina state trooper Sean Groubert) in which he made a lot of the same points I had already uncovered: police fatalities are trending downwards. Despite this, however, rhetoric about danger and violence is on the rise and police training is increasingly focused on aggressive violence instead of de-escalation. Balko writes:

Yesterday I wrote about another police shooting, the killing of John Crawford in a Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart. I suggested that the incident may have been due to the sensationalization of mass shooting incidents, and the misperception that such incidents are common. After my post went up, the Guardian reported that indeed, the officer who shot Crawford had recently attended an a “pep talk” for police about responding to calls that may involve an active shooter.

He goes on to describe the “pep talk” as a highly manipulative presentation in which police officers were encouraged to imagine that their own family members were at risk unless they acted with “speed, surprise and aggressiveness” to take out the threat. Even if, as the case happened to be, the threat was a man holding an empty BB gun.

So here’s one of the big problems: humans are really, really bad at dealing with risk in a rational way. Mass shootings are exceptionally rare events, but they are horrific and grab our attention the same way that, for example, shark attacks do. This isn’t to say no changes were needed, however. During the Columbine shootings, the police waited for hours while victims bled to death because doctrine at the time called for establishing a secure perimeter and waiting for overwhelming force. This was because the threat was assumed to be some kind of hostage situation, not a murder-suicide killing spree. Since that time, cops have adapted to new policies that call for first responders to engage immediately (even without backup) in the event of in-progress killing. That’s good, but Balko’s article suggests we’ve gone too far in that direction and are training cops to jump to the worst possible assumption and pull the trigger. Similarly, and this is my own hypothesis, but it seems as though necessary social reactions to ease the trauma of officers who have used deadly force may also have gone overboard:

In its damning report on the Albuquerque Police Department last April, for example, the Justice Department noted that the city’s police “too often use deadly force in an unconstitutional manner in their use of firearms,” “often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious body harm,” and that this was caused by serious deficiencies in training. In fact, the DOJ report found that officers who did use improper deadly force were often held up as heroes or examples within the department. [emphasis added]

But there’s another possibility that Balko doesn’t consider, and that is that the cops might be responding to a very real increase in violence despite the lack of an increase in fatalities. The problem here is a subtle one, but it’s one that’s been reported before. Essentially: we tend to measure violence in terms of fatalities, but as medical technology improves you can end up getting an apparent decrease in violence (fatalities) even as actual violence is increasing (number of gunshot victims, for example). This isn’t hypothetical. As the Wall Street Journal has reported:

The number of U.S. homicides has been falling for two decades, but America has become no less violent. Crime experts who attribute the drop in killings to better policing or an aging population fail to square the image of a more tranquil nation with this statistic: The reported number of people treated for gunshot attacks from 2001 to 2011 has grown by nearly half.

So the murder rate is going down, but the number of victims of gun violence are going up. And the driver for that is medical technology:

Emergency-room physicians who treat victims of gunshot and knife attacks say more people survive because of the spread of hospital trauma centers—which specialize in treating severe injuries—the increased use of helicopters to ferry patients, better training of first-responders and lessons gleaned from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Our experience is we are saving many more people we didn’t save even 10 years ago,” said C. William Schwab, director of the Firearm and Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the professor of surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

It’s possible–and this is just my speculation–that the same trend could be taking place to an even greater degree among police officers. The trend of greater survival after gunshot would be based primarily on two things: 1. superior equipment (e.g. ballistic vests) and 2. superior training. In other words, it’s possible that the wide perception among police officers that they face a more hostile and dangerous world may be true even if the raw statistics on fatality don’t bear it out because measuring just fatality is missing the underlying violence.

I don’t have the data to draw conclusions on this, but there’s definitely enough evidence that commentators like Balko might want to be more cautious in their dismissal of the concerns of LEOs and the easy conclusion that “By most any measure, the United States is less dangerous than it’s been since the 1950s.” The truth might not be so simple, and on an issue this important we’ve got to dig a little deeper and find out what is really going on.

Cop: If you don’t want to get shot, do what I tell you.

2014-08-21 Sunil_Dutta_Los_Angeles_Police_Department

A lot of people are pretty angry about an OpEd Sunil Dutta wrote for the Washington Post. A sampling of reactions:

– Veteran Cop: ‘If You Don’t Want To Get Shot,’ Shut Up — Even If We’re Violating Your Rights (Huffington Post)
– To the Cop Who Told Me Not to Resist: Go F— Yourself (some random politics site)
– ‘If you don’t want to get shot, just do what I tell you,’ cop with Colorado ties writes (Fox affiliate)
– Column defending cops in Ferguson sparks online fury (CNN)

Let me first point out that, although most articles just call him “cop” and that might leave you the impression that he’s a stereotypical white police officer, he’s actually an immigrant who was born and raised in Jaipur, India, a “scholar of Urdu mystical poetry and an Indian classical music form called Dhrupad,” and “a professor of homeland security at Colorado Tech University,” in addition to being a cop with the LAPD. For somebody with such an interesting background to show up in the midst of one of the most contentious episode of racial tension in the United States is worth noting. Life has a funny way of not fitting the narratives we expect it to.

The angry reactions to his post are also misguided. Dutta is actually making a reasonable case that doesn’t include limitless authority for cops. As he writes:

I know it is scary for people to be stopped by cops. I also understand the anger and frustration if people believe they have been stopped unjustly or without a reason. I am aware that corrupt and bully cops exist. When it comes to police misconduct, I side with the ACLU: Having worked as an internal affairs investigator, I know that some officers engage in unprofessional and arrogant behavior; sometimes they behave like criminals themselves. I also believe every cop should use a body camera to record interactions with the community at all times. Every police car should have a video recorder.

His point is simply that reacting aggressively to a cop is not a good response when the cop is issuing lawful orders and even, in almost all cases, when the cop has overstepped his or her bounds. There are checks and balances for holding individual cops accountable for individual abuse and also for holding entire units accountable for systematic abuse. Now, you could argue that those checks and balances are broken. That’s a serious consideration, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with Dutta’s argument. Even if the checks on police abuse are broken, responding by aggressively resisting police authority is illegal (in most cases) and stupid (in all cases).

Cops have wives and children they want to go home to, and they have to defend themselves in life-threatening situations. This includes situations where they are dealing with an unarmed person.

There are no national statistics on how many times officers’ guns are taken away. But the FBI says that of the 616 law enforcement officers killed on duty by criminals from 1994 through 2003, 52 were killed with their own weapon, amounting to 8 percent. (PoliceOne.com)

So the mere fact that you don’t have a gun doesn’t mean that a cop doesn’t see you as a threat. You are a threat, and cops know that because they know nearly one in 10 of their fallen brothers and sisters was brought down with their own weapon. One of the problems here is that cops understand violent encounters. Bystanders and arm-chair lawyers don’t. Civilian reactions of “couldn’t the cop have used a taser?” or “couldn’t they have shot him in the leg?” or “why did they have to shoot him so many times?” are almost invariably founded in ignorance.

The deeper reality is that government is defined by the exclusive right to exercise force. We can go back almost 100 years to the political theorist Max Weber. He defined the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” A state is defined as the group with the monopoly on violence. In practice, individual people are invested with the monopoly on violence. We call them law enforcement officers. It’s not fair and it’s not supposed to be fair. It’s a monopoly. They have broad legal rights to use force on you. You don’t, except in very narrow and practically useless situations, have a right to use force on them.

Unless you reject all government, this is a state of affairs you will have to learn to live with. That doesn’t mean that we can’t change anything about our current system. Arguments about how the police use their authority to boss people around are reasonable. Arguments about whether the police can boss people around are not. Rejecting the authority of cops wholesale–which is what a lot of the anger seems to boil down to–is like getting upset that in a democracy sometimes the majority does the wrong thing. It’s s defect, but there’s no better alternative.

If there’s one criticism I have of Dutta’s piece, it’s that he acknowledges individual acts of police corruption but not the possibility of systemic injustice. That is the real issue here. It still doesn’t change his central point, however, and no amount of anger will.

Ferguson: Rushing to Rush to Judgment

2014-08-21 Ferguson_Day_6,_Picture_12

I wanted to share a couple more thoughts on this topic. First, I was listening to Rush Limbaugh today and he was arguing that the idea that white cops are killing black kids is a myth. To back up his claim, he asked what people were using as the most recent example of police brutality prior to Ferguson. He answered his question: Rodney King. Nothing of note relating to cops assaulting or killing black men had happened, according to Rush, since 1992.

Say what?

I don’t think I’ve heard Rodney King’s name mentioned a single time, for one thing, and even I can think of multiple controversial shootings that are much more recent. OK, we’ll set Trayvon Martin aside on a technicality if you want (because George Zimmerman wasn’t a copy), but that still leaves (and these are just off the top of my head): the BART police killing of Oscar Grant (2009), the Danziger Bridge shooting (2005), and the shooting of Amadou Diallo (1999). All of those made national headlines, but the Root has a list of several more that weren’t as familiar to me (although they include security guards and tazers).

Meanwhile, on the other side of crazy, some of the critiques I’m reading from surprisingly legitimate sources are disturbing in their rush to judge everyone who hasn’t already made up their mind that Michael Brown was gunned down in cold blood. Case in point, this article featured at Quartz (which is operated by Atlantic Media Company, who run The Atlantic): 12 things white people can do now because Ferguson. In it, Janee Woods can’t figure out why white people aren’t spreading the word about the evil that was done in Ferguson, writing:

But an unarmed black teenager minding his own business walking down the street in broad daylight gets harassed and murdered by a white police officer and those same people seem to have nothing urgent to say about pervasive, systemic, deadly racism in America?

2014-08-21 PolicesignInstead of a bunch of white Americans failing to be bothered by the harassment and murder of a black kid by a white cop, might I suggest that many Americans simply aren’t sure if that’s the correct version of the events? Sometimes the cops do shoot and kill in horrific, illegal, and immoral ways. But sometimes cops also do shoot and kill because it’s what they have to do, even against unarmed assailants. In this case, Darren Wilson (the police officer) claims that Michael Brown attacked him and tried to take his gun, and that Brown was charging him when Wilson fired to protect his life. I am not rushing to judge that this story is true, but it might be. Right-wing news outlets are all saying that the officer suffered severe physical injures when Brown assaulted him, including a fractured orbital lobe, but I haven’t seen that picked up by the main stream press yet other than FoxNews.

I think it’s also worth noting that plenty of white Americans did protest early and loudly that the crowd control measures were inept and immoral. The first wave of criticisms involved a whole bunch of combat vets joking that the Ferguson cops were outfitted in more body armor than they had had in Iraq or Afghanistan. A lot of those vets were white. Meanwhile, libertarians have been attacking the militarization of the police since way before Ferguson, and (as I noted in my last piece on this topic) there were even early rumblings that this would be an issue where left and right could unite.

I don’t think it’s too early to conclude that the crowd control was wrong, and also that the rioting and looting was wrong. That’s safe. But it is too early to assume that Michael Brown’s death was a murder. It’s irresponsible and dangerous to make that assumption, let alone to accuse anyone who doesn’t go along of moral cowardice or racial prejudice.

Ferguson and Common Ground

2014-08-18 Ferguson

I was on vacation all last week, and so I’ve been catching up on the events from Ferguson, MO over the past couple of days. CBSNews has a pretty good rundown. I’ve seen one particular article that grabbed my attention, however: What I Did After Police Killed My Son.

Yes, there is good reason to think that many of these unjustifiable homicides by police across the country are racially motivated. But there is a lot more than that going on here. Our country is simply not paying enough attention to the terrible lack of accountability of police departments and the way it affects all of us—regardless of race or ethnicity. Because if a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy — that was my son, Michael — can be shot in the head under a street light with his hands cuffed behind his back, in front of five eyewitnesses (including his mother and sister), and his father was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew in three wars for his country — that’s me — and I still couldn’t get anything done about it, then Joe the plumber and Javier the roofer aren’t going to be able to do anything about it either.

Michael Bell (who wrote this piece) is absolutely correct. I hope that issues of police accountability and police militarization can provide some much needed common ground. Based on articles like this one from the New Yorker, I think that hope might not be misplaced:

But over the past two days — as the police in Ferguson have responded to very angry protests with an alarmingly heavy hand, looking and reacting as if they were not the community’s own peace officers but an invading army — something remarkable has happened. The longstanding liberal concerns about police racial hostility has seemed to merge with the longstanding libertarian concerns over police militarization. It isn’t just that no one is defending the cops. It’s that many of the criticisms from the left and the right sound very similar.

The only thing I’d add to that is that initiatives like badge cameras and independent review of lethal shootings are not about attacking the police. They are about making a better police force, and improving trust between law enforcement and the communities they seek to serve.