26 November 2014

Fallout. New Tactics.

So. That was fun. A few buildings burned. A couple of cop cars. And not much was resolved or changed.

Here's what I think we know in the Brown-Wilson case.

There was some form of altercation. This resulted in Brown's death (eventually).
Wilson's story has some corroboration here there there was a form of disturbance.

Stuff that remains undetermined:
I think the causes of that disturbance are less clear. It's possible Wilson's account is accurate. I remain dubious largely because Wilson's account relies heavily on his subjective interpretations rather than other witnesses. Some of the details are not as clearly corroborated or seem outright wrong (for instance, how and why Brown turned around, the "reaching for his waistband", and the distances involved from Wilson's car). Some of those are fishy narratives that are often used by police in describing a violent episode involving deadly force. Whether they actually happened in all cases they are used to me is an unfounded assumption. To me this narrative is mostly superfluous. The crucial question isn't so much whether there was a scuffle and a shot or two fired at Brown, possibly hitting him. But whether Wilson's second batch of shots at Brown was justified after Brown retreated. Wilson uses a rather dehumanizing and scary account of dealing with an impending assault and firing at an onrushing attacker, and it is certainly possible that many elements of that account are true to the best of his knowledge. There appeared to be more conflicting accounts however over that set of details. I think it very likely that such conflicting accounts would make it virtually impossible for him to be convicted of anything. But I do think that there may be some open questions over the justification for those shots, in particular the fatal shots to the head. Or to the training involved that lead to it if nothing else.

Things that don't make sense in his narrative:

The tie-ins to the robbery suspect story feel like they were tacked in to make a revision to his story and add some form of justification. But. If an officer felt he was approaching or saw someone who might be a suspect in a robbery/assault, it seems strange that he might merely ask such a person to get out of the street and walk on the sidewalk. That entire set of facts he presented centering around a package of cigarillos feels tacked on as a result. That there was some kind of disturbance and scuffle ought to be enough that there might be a justification for force. If Brown's assaulting someone (and an officer of the law at that), that should be plenty without adding in anything else (like "this man was a wanted criminal, for basically petty theft, maybe assault). And indeed, whether or not he was involved in such an incident still does not justify being shot at by police. The justification for that turns on whether or not the scuffle provoked a considerable fear.

Things that also happened as a result of the grand jury.

Lots of people (mostly white people) complain about rioting. I agree it does not help the cause of justice here, or reform. I agree it isn't justified. I don't see why it was a surprise. Most people expected both the lack of an indictment and the possibility of riots as a result. Police spent most of the time leading up to the result talking up the level of preparations. And then didn't seem all that prepared when violence broke out, like they were surprised in particular where violence broke out (nearby where Brown was shot and where there was some violence before during the summer) rather than where people and many police were assembled (near the courthouse and police station).

Prosecutor spends a lot of his air time complaining about the media and social media narratives. I'd say that given that a lot of both of their use of narratives haven't done much to establish something about this particular case, and have done a great deal (but not nearly as much as they could have) to show the lack of merits in militarized police forces putting down protests with disproportionate force to the level of threat, or to cover the methods of police oppression used on a daily basis in communities like and including Ferguson, Missouri (largely through the collection of petty fines and warrants, asset forfeiture seizures, occasional violence against citizens, etc), that complaining about those things would be perhaps something he feels compelled to do, but has little ground on which to stand. As it is his office that helps run through the system of abuse through fines and criminal justice which isn't properly adjudicated (eg, with appropriate defense counsel), and is likely deliberate.

Complaining about media narratives framing and prejudging the case, perhaps is a more sensible complaint. I paid much less attention to details about the actual shooting because I was aware that was more like a matchstick than the kindling on which things might burn and that details would be scarce. Also it was pretty clear from the prosecutor's demeanor, history, and close ties to the police that there would be any prosecution anyway, and what leaks of information came out ahead of time only suggested it would remain unlikely and would almost certainly fail to provide a guilty verdict even if the case proceeded to trial.

The crucial elements were that there are deep-seated reasons why these communities do not trust the authorities to handle cases of police shootings fairly, believe those shootings to be unjustified, or otherwise are more skeptical than are the people observing from the safe confines of American suburbia (where encounters with police are rare outside of speeding tickets for teens and college students, or the occasional break-in being investigated). Policing is experienced very differently based on skin colour alone, much less the cultural and socio-economic gaps between poorer communities and upper middle class neighbourhoods. This is evident when looking at polling suggesting many are seeing these events as isolated and the apparent mystery experienced by the general public in associating why there might still be riots or protests months later. When the problems are systemic to the way the community is policed and how both police and the community see one another.

Police seem to have made a hobby of developing excuses for deaths that do not require them to examine their training and use of force methods. This is one of the reasons these kinds of stories continue to persist. Some police forces have dealt with very questionable shootings by officers by dismissing officers, or pressing charges (in one bizarre case in Connecticut, officers wanted to press charges against another officer for a beating in a "resisting arrest" case, but the DA refused. The officer was at least fired).

There was a lot of attention paid to whether there were drugs in Brown's blood stream. (Well after the John Crawford shooting in Ohio, this also came up there). Marijuana on its own from observing people who use it does not strike me as heavily correlated with erratic and aggressive behavior of the sort police or 911 callers, etc, are claiming in these cases. Maybe poor judgment. But it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that this was drug addled crazy behavior when the drug in question doesn't tend to cause such behavior. If they were claiming these men were stone cold drunk, yes. I could see that. Stoned, not so much.

So where do we try to go from here. I would propose several things

1) For the St Louis area in particular (and there are other metropolitan areas with similar problems, Atlanta, Detroit, or even San Francisco/Oakland would be examples), we may want to look at consolidating some of the tiny legal jurisdictions that have cropped up as city populations have expanded and sprawled outward. These are often carved out deliberately for race related reasons and result in a lack of a sustainable tax base to support the level of civic government required (because too many people are poor and jobs are scarce). Instead, the town's government will levy considerable fines and minor legal fees upon an impoverished community. It may even account for planned increases in those fines in year-to-year budgeting. Suggesting that the fines are arbitrary rather than necessary quality of life and safety legal structures. We may not be able to abolish this variety of policing entirely, but avoiding the problem of unsustainable local governance by eliminating or at least reducing the level of civic separations in an area may be of use.

2) Continue to work to abolish the war on drugs. At this point the number one thing that can be done to improve civic relations between minorities and the police is to reduce the amount of contact and the amount of invasive police tactics that are being used. A huge portion of that comes back to the penalties (arrests, felony convictions, loss of economic and legal rights making re-integration difficult) and incentives for police (asset seizures, frequent arrests for stat games) involved in the war on drugs. The flow of militarized equipment into local police departments, of the sort used in putting down demonstrations, is also closely tied to this ridiculous project of trying to use the law and police to deal with medical problems (for some, addiction or overdose) or to avoid dealing with medical problems for others (mental health ailments being self-medicated with drugs or alcohol in a non-addictive way). A violent crime, such as assault or murder or arson or rape, should attract a significant bulk of our police attention and resources. Followed by varieties of property crime (theft, fraud, etc). We are expending inordinate amounts of attention and resources for policing what are effectively consensual acts (vice crimes, like the trade and use of narcotics). If people are getting high and going off to commit acts of violence, that is still worthy of our time and attention. But far more people are getting drunk and doing so. We do not or should not say that this is not worth our time and attention simply because the drug of choice was legally sanctioned.

3) Continue to reduce or reform the penalties for many non-violent crimes. If we can't get rid of the laws, we should at least reduce the amount of harm that punishment for a petty crime does.

4) Try to channel public anger in these directions. Talk about the harm that is done when police become an oppositional and occupational force in a community, and try to have more communities actually deploy community policing, where cops walk beats (getting out of the squad car), know the communities in which they work and are known in them, talk with leaders and representatives, and respond to complaints rather than feel like an invading army. With the appropriate funding for that rather than the funding for "community policing", where police departments have gathered large amounts of military hardware (without much training but plenty of intent to use it) and have strong incentives to make arrests rather than investigate crimes. There are communities and police departments that behave in this way. Even in areas with violence, poverty, or minority populations. The outcome of friction between police and the community should not simply be angry and violent demonstrations or police deploying in SWAT gear and firing off tear gas or pepper spraying peaceful demonstrators. Both sides have reasonable demands (both want crime to go down in a community for example and by association, their lives to be easier and safer). What we're mostly arguing over is what works to actually accommodate those demands. It is not, generally speaking, what police are doing.

To take a separate example. In Utah over the past half-decade the largest cause of homicide is the police. They're technically in a rough tie with a domestic dispute leading to death, but the ordinary things driving crime elsewhere like gangs are almost non-existent as a cause of violence by comparison. There are two ways to approach that fact of life. One might be that this might mean that the public is quite safe and there are few murders, which may indicate the police are doing an effective job helping do so. In the entire state there were just over 300 in a 5 year period. There were at least that many every year in Chicago alone in that same time frame. But another way to look at is that the public could be even more safe if the police weren't busy killing some of them. Police shooting of citizens caused 45 of those deaths. There's a middle point in there somewhere where there are perhaps some cases where police have to kill someone to protect the community, but that the use of force is a last resort and rarely if ever used and rarely if ever needed versus other methods of policing (de-escalation for instance).
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