28 April 2015

Thoughts of the day

1) As before with the gay marriage cases before SCOTUS, I'm not interested in displaying a changed photo status on social media. I don't go in much for symbolism for one, and secondly, I think the case will be basically about the final score (whether it is 6-3 or 5-4) and not the outcome. I don't think any marginal lobbying on twitter or facebook is going to make a difference to the score. Where my (our) focus would need to be is on people who don't think this is an okay change, or at least think it happened too fast, and not on the justices, and finding ways to connect to these people and change their minds or at least understand their objections and help them find ways to live with it now as a disfavored minority. Gay marriage being equal is all but a done deal, if not now by court ruling then very soon by public mandate as demographics shift away from older conservative Christians to younger more progressive Christians (at least on this topic). Now supporters and opponents have to live together and deal with this new reality. This has become a more vital project as court rulings have greatly and rapidly expanded the equal recognition of homosexual couples at a more rapid pace than I would have thought likely. I regard that as a good thing that it has, and that it likely will continue. But the fact remains there is still bitter intolerance and hatred present among a subset of the population, and considerably larger population that is uncertain or uneasy about these changes and what they will mean either from prejudices or ignorance of the issues at hand, and all of that will continue to need to be moderated even with these changes in legal status as applied to marriage and marriage contract benefits coming swiftly.

The gay rights cause seems to be winning something in my lifetime and bully for that as it is a much needed change in social tolerance and respect for individuals and their liberties. I've written or spoken generally in support of such a change for years (with a detour into the fantastical realm of the government not recognizing marriages at all and letting people make private contracts as they see fit, but still not proclaiming that any government or government official should ignore or refuse those contracts when made between same-sex couples). It's also impacting a much smaller number of people ultimately than some other issues that often dominate my attention, so I don't have as much to say on it now that progress is being made. Like whether we as Americans are being policed or occupied in our own communities. A topic where progress is much more diffident and uncertain.

2) Baltimore.

On the one hand, I'm not a big fan of riots. They're generally destructive to the city involved, rarely raise the value of the underlying issues causing people to generate mayhem or to demonstrate angrily (but peacefully), and don't seem to change people's minds regarding the strangeness of seeing APCs and police decked out like they're invading Iraq wandering through American cities. Very little good comes of it. They are a point of protesting when people feel they are rendered voiceless and a means of relieving their need for aggression against this frustration. But that's not generally what people hear and it often drowns out the message as a result. Typically people not involved but necessary to act oversimplify the basis for protests and riots down to single, isolated, circumstantial incidents (bad apples) rather than the systematic problems which put thousands of people in a position to demonstrate angrily.

So. On the other hand. I regard the need for police reforms on militarization of equipment, aggression toward the public in the form of escalation and authoritarianism rather than de-escalation and public service, violence and brutality viewed as unacceptable and unfortunate outcomes rather than excused as "by the book" , methods of dismissal or penalty for brutality and mayhem by police, penalties for violations of civil rights and unwarranted arrests (for example, "resisting arrest" should be abolished as a possible charge), and so on as very high on my list of "things I want to see changed positively in my lifetime".

One of the major problems during previous riots in Missouri (Ferguson), was that there was a perception among many Americans that this was all stemming from a single incident of violence or brutality by police (in that case, Michael Brown being shot and killed, also Eric Garner being strangled to death by a chokehold in NYC). Such shootings or killings of citizens by police are fairly common, distressingly so in fact. There's a fairly reliable crowdsourcing effort putting the number over 1200 per year of people killed by police. Official government statistics, which have accountability and reporting/self-reporting problems, have been recently revised upward from around 400 to around 800. But even if it were only at 400, this should be regarded as a serious problem worthy of scrutiny and reform in our methods of policing, if not a serious failure of how we police and enforce laws more broadly or an indictment of our cultural preferences for violence. That's at least 1 person per day killed by a police officer somewhere in the country, and probably closer to 3 people per day.

Most other developed nations do not kill that many people in a year via their police forces. We do so every day. Even if that were the sole impetus behind the protests and riots, it should be a cause in which we should be concerned that this is the result of our choices and policies for police.

But it wasn't just about cops shooting or killing people and a perception that they will always get away with it. Baltimore is a large city, with thousands of police officers. Ferguson is a modest suburb, with a few dozen officers. Both however have been investigated by the Department of Justice. And both find similarly disturbing behavior on the part of police officers in their treatment of residents, particularly on racial divisions. Violence and brutality are far more common than should be tolerated as necessary. Police are often seen much more as an occupying army in many parts of these communities than a helpful and reliable ally in a fight against crime, with their purpose being to rack up fines in Ferguson, and to roust and harass residents for petty, seemingly arbitrary, infractions in both cities.

This is not just the fault of police. The public has demanded it as well. The public, certainly among the well-to-do middle class white Americans, believes crime is much higher than it actually is as a risk and danger, and often sees police responses as capable and justified. Their interactions with police are often limited to polite but unpleasant traffic tickets and fines, not flashbang grenades in the window and family dogs being shot, and your person detained and questioned without probable cause on a weekly basis (if not more often). So there's an understandable division in how the police are interpreted. There are communities where violence and crime are serious problems requiring a firm police intervention, but these are not resembling the types of criminal actions we commonly are seeing resulting in violent actions by police. Walter Scott was shot because he faced possible arrest for not paying child support payments and fled from police (shooting someone who merely runs away is, of course, not considered kosher under the law, and the officer involved is facing a murder charge, thanks mostly to a citizen cell phone recording the incident). Freddie Gray was killed in part because of a series of low-level arrests for drug enforcement laws and because he ran after looking at a cop (he was arrested, it seems, because he supposedly had a knife which he was not wielding aggressively at anyone at the time or likely visible at all to the public). Michael Brown as an incident seems to have started because he was walking in the street. Eric Garner was killed while being arrested for selling loose (untaxed) cigarettes. At best, none of these cases represents enormous threat to safety of other people and yet all apparently allowed us to deploy violence to enforce these laws.

A better, more torturous example of how this indicts the public though is available. Tamir Rice and John Crawford were killed basically for holding air guns in an unwise manner. What seems to have aggravated these last two was the public response to seeing a young black male holding what appeared to be a fire arm and doing so in what seemed like a strange way. Rice was pointing it at passerbys in the park he was in, but the only reported call suggests that they knew or suspected it was a prank and a toy gun. Crawford sounded like the caller greatly exaggerated the threat as there doesn't appear to be much evidence he was threatening or menacing anyone and in any case, police fired upon him while he was talking on a cell phone and not threatening anyone. In both cases, police response was aggressive, moderated for what we might think appropriate for a terrorist incident or a potential hostage crisis. This is typical training for aggressive uses of forces and the escalation of violence rather than the de-escalation allowing everyone to at least be arrested peacefully. Militarized high-risk raids on homes are typically undertaken rather than detaining someone by knocking on the door or at or coming to or from work, as a more widespread example of this type of thinking. These are the most adverse risks and consequences of what is demanded of police to enforce and against whom (mostly poorer minorities).

The most common risks however are just as poisonous in their effects upon a community. A person who is arrested risks losing a job that sustains them and risks difficulty obtaining a new one. They generate costs for themselves in the case should it proceed to court (many do not), and additional costs  in time and money if it should go to trial (most convictions are arbitrated without a jury). Most people who are being detained, arrested, and charged in Baltimore and Ferguson and hundreds of other cities cannot afford either the time or the money for their infractions, which makes it more difficult for them to properly defend themselves or moderate and navigate the penalties to something appropriate for their crime. If they go to jail or prison for any extended period of time, they then have a criminal record, which further makes it difficult to re-integrate into society. Many jobs now require occupational licenses or at least background checks, which frown upon criminal records. All of this makes it difficult to maintain a respectable job. If someone is being arrested for armed robbery, that's rather understandable that it should be punished with an inconvenience like this. But many arrests are trivial, for example drug possession charges or "disorderly conduct" or "resisting arrest" or easily chalked up to bias and misunderstanding and essentially are arbitrary crimes (most people in prison, less so). The cost of this is not inconsequential in the economic disruption it causes a community in the form of fines, bail money, loans, and lost time and productivity. In many communities, such penalties begin racking up with teenagers (if not earlier, Tamir Rice was not even that old), costing gains from education as well, or leading kids to abandon education entirely as too adversarial rather than beneficial. Crime imposes such costs as well, but fighting it should not.

Many states (and juries and public opinion) likewise frown upon someone who has a prior criminal record by perceiving violence against such people by police more likely justified, or should they be arrested again perceive that as justification for additional and much more severe penalties in any new infraction, or perceive it as more likely they are guilty of whatever they are accused of owing to their prior recklessness. All of this makes it more likely that people may repeat offenses, or end up back in prison, or out of work and willing to do shady or outright hazardous things to generate a living. If a community sees police as an enemy, not an ally, and yet demands a response to its problems with crime, that is the fault of the police and the communities that fund such forces and provide them with missions and arms through the force of law.

I propose to resolve this issue we should consider the following:
a) Whether all of the laws we want enforced are justifiable if they should result in the death or injury of fellow citizens who may be suspected of violating them by police. If they are not, we should reconsider whether the force of law is the appropriate vehicle for amending or coercing bad behavior as this is a risk of having laws on the books. Many things which are laws in my opinion should not be written into legal code for this reason. For example, there is evidence that a charge like "resisting arrest" is essentially code for "I beat someone up" when used by police as it is typically used by a very small cohort of police, and that that cohort in turn shows a higher likelihood of being accused of brutality or excessive force (in these or other cases).

b) Whether or when enforcing the law should permit violence in defence of a community as a minimum necessity of use of force rather than aggressive tactics and maximum force. Self-defence is typically regarded as an acceptable moral landscape, as is the defence of others against violence. A large number of these controversial cases appear to be based more around compliance to authority rather than aggression. Pepper spray or other non-lethal weapons (tasers especially) get used pretty casually under the logic that a use of force that doesn't kill someone is justified to get them to obey commands or to punish non-compliance. It sounds likely Gray's death may have been related to rough car rides in the back of a police van as a "disciplinary" practice, under a similar vein. Defending other people is an acceptable use of violence under the law. Meting out extra-judicial penalties for someone being an asshole or having a bad attitude toward a cop is not.

c) What level of armament is appropriate or necessary for police to carry out a minimum necessity of violence. This includes uses of "non-lethal" force. A baton or even a fist can still kill someone. So can a taser or a flashbang grenade or even pepper spray. A gun isn't necessary to kill a suspected criminal. This means we should think very carefully about use of force protocols as a society for the people we empower to enforce laws, but also think very carefully about what weapons they are given to do so, and how they will be used or trained for. An APC or submachine guns seem to serve very little purpose in this process. There's little evidence they're even that useful for riot control (the best available practices there should be to aim to prevent the riot from starting in the first place).
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