Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Rational Response to Ferguson?

In the wake of the recent grand jury decisions and subsequent outcry, many of my real life and internet friends are outraged.  Inflamed perhaps.  I agree that the grand jury isn't the best way to decide about charges against cops.  Only the prosecutor states the case, and the prosecutor and cops are on the same side.

I get that.  I agree that change is needed there.

But I am not nearly as passionate about this as my friends expect me to be.  In my view, each interaction between two people is more complex than race, including interactions between cops and teens.  I've lived and worked in diverse places.  I've had to break up fights between black teens.  I've been the victim of street crime committed by black teens.  One of my coworkers had to retire from a security job after being punched in the eye by a homeless guy.  He could no longer pass a firearms test to carry his weapon.  None of the people who did these things brandished a handgun, but none of them was innocent, either.  Cops know first-hand what harm people are capable of doing without a gun.  That's why they may respond with force to "unarmed" but not harmless people.

So here's rational reminder #1:  You can hurt someone badly without having a firearm.

Fortunately for me, I was the victim of grab-and-run rather than point-a-gun crime.  When I reported these crimes to the cops, they didn't ask if the people had a weapon.  They knew from my description of what happened that I would have no idea.  Unlike some media commentators, cops know that nobody has X-Ray vision when it comes to weapons.

One of the memes in outrage news stories is that the shooting victim was "unarmed."  Well, yes, you know that after they're laying dead on the street.  What about when they're resisting arrest?  Or even resisting talking to a cop?  "It is virtually impossible to know if an individual is carrying a concealed firearm."  That's a quote from Police Magazine, which goes on to advise complete control over the individual being confronted.  They add: "Write this in bold block letters somewhere across your mind: You cannot assume that someone is unarmed."  This article begins with the example of a cop who was killed by a jay-walker.  Sound familiar?

Rational Reminder #2:  You can't tell if someone has a weapon (until it's too late)

Cops have bulls-eyes on them all day long.  We worry about "driving while black" (or Hispanic), which is indeed a concern, but cops are hated by the worst of the worst.  And to make matters worse, tightly-wound people are triggered by the arrival of a cop.  Sometimes a cop will know ahead of time that emotions are running high.  Other times they have a right to expect a low-tension encounter but get killed.  Cops know when another cop has been killed.  The word goes out.  I bet they think about what they'd do in the same situation.  Did Officer Wilson know about the cop who was killed by a jay-walker when Brown resisted his instructions to move to the sidewalk?

Rational Reminder #3:  Cops can get killed in the most routine situations, and all cops know this.

The fact is that black teens do kill people, but usually other black teens.  If a cop who deals with trouble-making black teens all day long for weeks on end and only sees the thugs, drug users and punks, he's going to be biased.  In terms of classic fallacies, he has been the victim of "selection bias," in which he believes that his experiences represent the whole.   But it's his job to deal with just that segment of society.  If he's a "beat" cop, and he's working in a segregated community, he's not singling out any one person.  In my previous jobs I had people take offense when I didn't give them the answer they wanted to hear, and I've been accused of racism.  Seriously.  I was a white person from the suburbs making a choice to work in the "hood" when I could have taken a job almost anywhere else.  The person complaining to me certainly wasn't the only black person I dealt with during a typical day, but I might have been the only white person they dealt with.  The accusation of racism had three fingers pointing backward.  This is why I don't jump to conclusions in Ferguson and other cases.   My question is "Why wasn't he using excessive force every other day he went to work if he was such a racist bully?"  If there is evidence he was a racist, then show it.  If not, don't just make stuff up from innuendo.

In some cities there are programs that involve cops in the lives of the good kids, having them attend nerdy good-kid events to round out their "selection."   I think this is a great idea.

Rational Reminder #4:  Racial Profiling is wrong, but not unexpected.

Part of a cop's job is to protect kids from each other.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the prime age group to be either a victim or perpetrator is 18-24.   From 1980-2008, blacks were six times more likely than whites to be the victim of a homicide and slightly more likely to be the perpetrator of a homicide.

Additionally, the peak age for both victims and perpetrators of gang homicides is 18-24, and blacks and hispanics are more likely than white teens to join gangs.  (National Gang Center)

So... statistically, it is true that black men between the ages of 18-24 really are more likely to be murderers.    It may not be a wide margin, but when you consider the segregation of American cities, a cop in a black neighborhood is far more likely to be dealing with black criminals, and the highest percentage would be in the 18-24 male demographic.  So is Ferguson due to racism or the cop's personal experiences?  Did the cop have PTSD?  Was something else going on?  The media won't delve into that because it's not an easy story to tell.  But... if there were really an epidemic, none of the recent events would be newsworthy.  We'd be living in the 1960s and before, when only black newspapers reported on excessive force against blacks, including lynching.  Remember lynching?  Whites didn't pay attention to black victims until the civil rights movement.  Remember water cannons?  Remember the bridge to Selma?  No?  Look them up!  You have internet service!

Rational Reminder #5:  Yes, things have gotten better.  Excessive force even one time is too many, but it's not like the bad old days.

So settle down, America.  We're on this.  We aren't perfect but we're doing a damn good job compared to a few generations ago.

But but but.... there are still racists!

Well, yes, America there are, but there's no law that everybody has to like everybody else.  We can only legislate behavior.  Cops have to treat everyone with the same professional standards no matter how they feel about them.  Cops who give a break to a criminal outrage me just as much as cops who get a break.  A former coworker had a devastating spinal injury because of a 19-year-old college student who rear-ended her car with his pick-up truck while she idled at a red light.  The cop gave the kid a warning because "he's just a kid" and "he was scared."   (I have no idea what race either the kid or cop were)  My coworker needed multiple surgeries and couldn't work for months.  This isn't newsworthy but it's an injustice and it outrages me.

In my opinion, we need to make some changes but race is only one part:

  1. Cops need to be trained to handle quickly-changing situations without necessarily using their guns.  Because guns are so deadly, they have to pass regular firearms tests, but do they practice non-lethal tactics with as much dedication?  Depends on the place.  Ferguson isn't Everywhere, U.S.A., despite what the media says.  Some cities do indeed cross-train their cops in multiple methods.  We don't hear about those cities for obvious reasons.
  2. American cops need to develop better behavioral profiling.  It won't help people who rush a cop or refuse to drop something that looks like a gun, but it will help cops keep their heads in minor scuffles.
  3. People need to respect that cop's job is tough and they never know which day might be their last.  I made a cop jumpy in a store with wood floors one day when my cowboy boots hit a hollow section right behind him.  One part of his brain was picking out a yogurt for his lunch.  Another part of his brain was on alert in case someone wanted to grab his gun.  Yes, they do fear this.  And they should.
  4. Realistic toy guns should be banned.  Period.  There is no reason for these.   We do have school shootings, street shootings, accidental shootings, and playground shootings by kids, including young teens.  If a cop shows up to a report of a kid with a gun and the kid refuses to put down the gun,  the kid is going to get shot.... unless it's obvious that the gun is a toy.  We want our cops to be able to act quickly to save lives.  It's up to us not to give them a false impression.  Toy guns should be yellow or purple or green, and real guns should not be any of those colors.
  5. Any time a cop kills someone, it should be investigated by an independent body aside from the prosecutor's office.  I think this change will come, but we'll see.
  6. All officers and dead suspects' blood should be analyzed for substances and the results publicized.  Not that drunks and druggies deserve to die, but people on some drugs just do not behave like normal people, and they all have mothers who think their kid was an angel.  The kid the cop met may not have been the kid who kissed his mum that morning.  (Ditto for the cop)
And finally, we have to stop making our own fallacious assumptions based on sensational headlines.  We need to settle the fuck down!  We need to stop falling for the spotlight fallacy, in which media coverage substitutes for rational thought and research.  We need to stop taking the side that comports with our prejudices.  We need to withhold judgment until all the facts are in.  You know, be skeptical.

In the case of the guy who died from asphyxia, there's video and it's clear that cops didn't ease their hold when he said he couldn't breathe.  The Feds are on it.  It's probably going to turn out that the cops thought the guy was not being truthful and would have gotten away if they'd let go.  A full exploration of the experiences of each cop might find that they've been fooled before.   I hope training officers will use this to develop better tactics.

As with other things, it's very hard to let go of old experiences and react to each one as if it's the first time.  This is something cops (and everybody, really) should gain some practice in.  We are pattern-seeking creatures.  It's in our DNA, literally.  It's why we are racist, why we take our umbrella to work on a cloudy day, and why the scientific method has changed our lives - we took ourselves out of observations.

I'm just amazed at the reaction of my atheistic friends.   People who otherwise believe themselves to be "rational""skeptical" "free-thinkers" are overreacting, in my opinion.  The data on police shootings and excessive force is incomplete, but Wikipedia keeps a list of news reports of killings both of and by officers so we can check for patterns ourselves rather than trust "news" outlets. Likewise, the grand jury deliberations are sealed so we can't say whether the results were fair or not.  We don't know everything about everything, so we need to learn more to have better judgement with this as with everything else.  I hope they will release more data, but until they do I'm not jumping to conclusions.

Don't let the media yank your chain.  Think for yourself.  Look for facts, statistics, you know... the truth.  Make up your own mind, and embrace nuance.  Be a skeptic.


Bruce Lindman said...

I haven't followed any of these recent cases too closely, but from what I have heard all the tragedies could have been avoided if the suspects had simply cooperated with police. By not doing so they knowingly escalated the situation.

Contrast this with Abner Louima, who was clearly victimized by Police.

LadyAtheist said...

Yes, I think the common denominator has been resistance, and cops expect compliance. The little kid with the realistic-looking gun couldn't be faulted for not knowing how to behave, but a cop can't face a gun and just take a bullet rather than defend himself.

Cops should know how to de-escalate, and most probably do. It's why we don't have more incidents than we do. The spotlight fallacy makes it seem like it happens all the time.

Infidel753 said...

You make some solid and necessary points here, and I admire you for having the guts to make them. Be prepared for some name-calling from people who should know better.

That being said, it seems clear to me that there's a serious problem with some of the police in our country. In the Tamir Rice case, for example, the first cop out of the car shot a twelve-year-old immediately on arrival, literally not waiting even a second or making any effort to resolve the situation in any other way. Rice was never given any chance to cooperate. This is on video (which can be seen here). Yes, he had a realistic-looking toy gun, but the cop didn't even pause for a moment to try to deal with the issue in a non-lethal way? With a twelve-year-old? The police also did not provide any first aid after the kid had been shot. That's unforgivable.

It's true that any person might be armed and might take advantage of time a cop spends on a non-lethal response to draw and fire first, but if that justifies an immediate lethal response, the police would logically shoot every person they have any kind of encounter with. For that matter, one could argue that with the recent spate of shootings, any black male approached by a white police officer is similarly justified in feeling himself to be in mortal danger and shooting pre-emptively. We can't have this.

Finally, there have been recent cases of people who were clearly armed and dangerous who were not shot by the police but dealt with in a much more cautious and non-violent way. It's noticeable that in those cases the dangerous persons were white.

It's certainly true that racism has been much reduced in virulence since the days of the lynchings. I think a lot of people saw this and got a bit complacent about the issue, especially with the election of a black President in 2008 -- and then were shocked at the vomitous outpouring of racism from the troglodyte slime pits where, apparently, it had been festering all this time until Obama's election brought it to the surface. I know it shocked me. I've also had the experience, years ago, of getting to know a black co-worker well enough that he opened up to me about his experiences with police, and it was an eye-opener. He had been repeatedly pulled over by police while driving in circumstances where I never had been, for example. There really is different treatment, and it must be maddening to be on the receiving end of that. He was an ex-cop himself, so he had seen things from both sides.

But it's true that a lot of liberal bloggers are too fixated on race and too determined to find evidence of racism everywhere, whether it's there or not. Yes, there are a lot of issues where racism is a big factor, but there are also a lot of issues where it isn't.

Again, thank you for this post. You said some things that needed to be said and that not enough people on our side, in good faith, are saying.

Ipecac said...

Knowingly escalated? Are you kidding?

Did you actually watch the video of the 12 year old being shot? The cops drove up and shot him twice in the stomach within 2 seconds of their arrival. There was no "kid didn't know how to behave". He was gunned down without hesitation.

Sure, cops have a rough job. But risk is part of the job. They're supposed to be here to serve and protect. Not just their own lives, but our lives. If they're so fearful for their lives that they'll gun down a 12 year old rather than take the risk that they might get shot, they shouldn't be police.

As far as the Garner choking, four cops jump on an unarmed guy who was NOT resisting and choked him to death and it's his fault for "resisting"?

How many people will be killed in cold blood before it will be too many for you?

LadyAtheist said...

My point is that every instance has its own story and each cop comes to every situation with prior experiences, training, bad moods, whatever. In some places the cops have the good training to de-escalate safely when a person resists.

As a skeptic, I'm loathe to jump to conclusions in any situation, no matter how much I may sympathize with one side.

Individual racism is different from institutional racism, and if one department (or a few or even many) can be considered racist that doesn't prove that they all are.

Excessive force has been used in many situations against many individuals. Focusing just on white-vs-black interactions denigrates the experience that people have had in other situations.

The schizophrenic boy who was restrained when a cop said "I don't have time for this" and then shot him dead is no less dead than a person who was shot in another circumstance.

I started this post by saying that I think the grand jury is not the right venue for assessing whether there's a criminal case. I should also have added that I don't believe the media is the best venue, either. They can bring something to light but they don't have a role beyond that.

LadyAtheist said...

" there have been recent cases of people who were clearly armed and dangerous who were not shot by the police but dealt with in a much more cautious and non-violent way"

There have always been these cases. They are only news now because the media has focused so much attention on excessive force cases. (There have been excessive force cases and racial profiling before 2014 too)

Power corrupts, and good police departments do the kind of training that helps cops overcome a rather natural tendency to find patterns where they may not be valid. They also need to weed out true racists.

When I lived in big cities I took cabs quite often and a few black cab drivers came right out and said they will turn out their "available" light when they see a black man trying to hail a cab. They don't run them down, but they don't give them a ride, either. They consider it too risky.

In the summer of 2001 CNN was obsessed with the case of Chandra Levy, a congressional intern who disappeared in DC. She had been having an affair with a congressman, which of course is something of a big deal. There was almost 24/7 coverage of this and I was really tired of it so I stopped watching TV news.

Then 9/11 happened and we learned what was going on in the world while CNN had decided that only one story deserved our attention. Every time they become obsessed with one story it ticks me off. We need a wider perspective, not blinders. And when they do obsess on one topic they should examine more sides rather than just repeating key soundbites ad nauseum.

Bud said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bud said...

My policy is as follows:

1. Be a skeptic. Don't believe everything you hear/read.
2. Nothing has only one cause, and there are always shades of grey.

That said, I am convinced that the system is broken. Racism still corrupts the machine. This isn't about any individual.

This isn't about any particular dead person or individual gun-wielding cop. There are plenty of good cops. There are genuine bad guys out there of every color. This is about a culture that is slanted against certain types of people.

There needs to be an overhaul, a reboot. Drastic changes need to be made. If I am to err, I prefer to err on the side of overreacting rather than the side of saying "calm down" while another person is killed unnecessarily.

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