FINGER-POINTING

Posted in Rants on December 30th, 2009 by Ed

Bill Kristol wins the award for the first wingnut pundit to trot out the "I can't believe we're going to try the Northwest 253 suspect in a regular court" trope.

This is precisely the problem. This guy has been lawyered up. We don't know anything. One reason we don't know anything — he's not being treated like an enemy combatant. He's not being interrogated. We're not finding out everything we could know about Awlaki. This is an ongoing attack — enemy attempt to attack the United States, and we're treating it as a one-off law enforcement case.

In other words, if he isn't whisked off to a metal shipping container at Bagram AFB, sleep deprived, and repeatedly beaten for a couple of days we are somehow missing the point. Just think of what a valuable opportunity to get utterly useless "information" out of an abused captive we are ignoring. If you beat this asshole long enough he will tell you he's Osama bin Laden, but that's the kind of riveting intel that makes prosecuting a war on terror the AEI Way so fulfilling.

I've previously asked the question about why the right are so afraid to try these people in civil courts. Part of it has to do with this sense that we are coddling people by doing anything less than putting a bag over their heads and chaining them to a concrete floor for a few months. Part of it has to do with their Jack Bauer whack-off fantasies about ticking time-bombs and the value of making suspects talk. And part of it – neatly evidenced by Kristol's "lawyered up" comment – is the persistent fear that somehow the civil courts will find these people not guilty despite the mountains of evidence against them.

A portion of the American public operates under the belief that the justice system consists mostly of stone-cold guilty defendants being found not guilty on technicalities. With the help of the hated lawyers, criminal after criminal is released back onto the streets because some cop forgot to cross the T on a piece of paperwork. Does this happen? Yes, certainly it does. But how common is this outcome? And how common is it in a case such as this one in which the guilt of the accused is proven beyond any shadow of a doubt before the trial begins?

We are quite comfortable with a justice system that puts innocent (black) people behind bars or on death row but the prospect of a guilty person going free is so heinous that, in this example, whisking them off to the gulag to ensure an appropriately draconian level of punishment is preferable. It is infuriating on some level to think that there is a chance, however remote, that a suspect whose guilt is nearly certain can walk away from a courtroom unscathed. But from where do "technicalities" arise? Mostly from law enforcement. Nothing paves the road to acquittal with gold quite as well as shitty police work. Moral outrage is always directed at "the system" for letting criminals walk when if anything it should be directed at the people who decided to barge into a home without a search warrant or ignoring someone's request for counsel during an interrogation. No, cops are not machines and they can't be expected to be perfect but when they disregard the law and resort to end-justified means they offer the loopholes that we so greatly fear will be abused by the guilty.

What are the odds that this dipshit will be found not guilty by an American jury? I'd bet it's somewhere around a million to one, but I'd wager even more that if it does happen, the FBI and other agencies responsible for investigating the case and detaining the suspect will be to blame. Not that Bill Kristol and his ilk are interested in assigning blame to Our Heroes who wear the badge.

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AS LONG AS EVERYBODY'S VIDEOTAPING EVERYBODY ELSE…

Posted in Rants on January 15th, 2009 by Ed

You are all well aware how much I like to rail endlessly about police brutality. The temptation has been strong, but I held off on the New Year's Eve BART shooting until some sort of administrative decision was made regarding the offending officer. Well, now that he has been charged with murder shortly after his resignation I think that we have enough context to make a few conclusions.

Theoretically I should be pleased with the short-term outcome: prosecution on a murder charge rather than a lesser offense or, as often happens, no charges whatsoever. Unfortunately I have little faith in the verdicts returned by the inevitable all-white jury with very specific ideas about what cops are allowed to do to black males. Alternatively, they may choose to go with the "one minority juror" system which virtually guarantees a mistrial. Regardless of what happens next it's good to see that he was prosecuted, though.

But does the DA actually deserve applause for this? Was there any alternative to prosecution for murder or something similar? The entire world has seen video – from numerous angles – of a police officer standing up, fumbling with his holster (which he had plenty of time to do because the suspect was cuffed, not resisting, and being kneeled upon by another officer) and then shooting a kid in the back for absolutely no reason whatsoever. This is no Rodney King video with margins just big enough for the professional cop apologists to offer an alternative version of events. The video is what it is and not even the most imaginitive Fraternal Order of Police rep or AM Talk Radio host can concoct a plausible explanation for the shooting.

The truly sad part about this story isn't the pointlessness of the victim's death or the brazen manner in which police abuse their limited authority. No, the sad part is how the story would have unfolded without the timely intervention of camera phones. Imagine that the folks on the trains didn't notice the incident until after it happened or didn't think to record it. What would be the reaction in that case?

Well, first of all we wouldn't be talking about it. It would be just another one-paragraph story on page 18 of the Metro section – "Umpteenth young black male dies in police custody." Yawn. Second, the police would have been able to tell with impunity their boilerplate tale of violent, resisting suspects who left no option other than the application of lethal force. You are familiar with the story by now. A scrawny black kid goes berserk and has the strength of 20 stout longshoremen, flipping over cars and coming close to killing two officers simultaneously with his bare hands. When the officers were just inches from death at the hands of a madman, they were left with no alternative except to shoot him with heavy hearts and deep sadness. After a few days of "paid administrative leave" (i.e., vacation) the deeply shaken officers return to work praying that they will never again be forced to use their weapon in the line of duty.

How many times has this storyline played out? I can't give you a number, but it would have been +1 on New Year's Eve but for the intervention of bystanders with cameras. The truth is that many instances of people dying in police custody have more in common with this incident than we will ever know. Without a (living) witness to contradict the Official Version of Events, deaths in custody almost inevitably get chalked up to justifiable force against an Incredible Hulk of a suspect. It is a particularly pathetic commentary on the state of the post-War on Drugs, militarized police in the United States that guerilla video footage is our last best hope for enforcing some version of sanity in law enforcement.

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MISSOURI: WINNING THE WAR AGAINST BLACK PEOPLE

Posted in Rants on June 23rd, 2008 by Ed

I am overt about the fact that I have negative opinions about law enforcement in general and specifically regarding the War on Drugs, which is a very poorly disguised War on Dark People We Don't Want In Our Neighborhoods. Racial profiling, especially with respect to traffic stops and vehicle searches, is a politically contentious issue for a good reason. Like many Americans, I was raised to believe that there are lots of black people in jail because black people commit more crimes. That amounts to little more than a very convenient effort to explain away the staggering racial disparities at every step in the process from "License and registration, please" to incarceration.

The Missouri Attorney General has a statutory obligation (since 2000) to produce an annual report on potential racial profiling by the state's various law enforcement agencies. Missouri deserves some credit for being forthright enough to track, report, and publicly discuss this phenomenon, which is more than most states are willing to do. As a society we tend to look for any excuse to avoid confronting the 900-pound racial elephant in the room.

If Missouri is an indication, there is a very goddamn good reason that state and local governments prefer to avoid the subject. In these summary statistics, pay particular attention to the "Disparity Index" (% of total stops / % of total statewide population):

Hispanic drivers are stopped at approximately the "right" rate – that is, they are about 2.25% of the population and 2.25% of the stops. Black drivers, on the other hand, constitute about 11% of the population and nearly 17% of the stops, whereas white drivers are 84% of the population and just over 79% of the stops. While it is not logical to expect perfect correlation (i.e. the occurence of violations meriting a stop are distributed equally among all racial groups) other statistics do more to illustrate the problem.

White drivers are subject to vehicle searches in less than 8% of stops while black drivers are searched 12% of the time (hispanic drivers, at 15%, are almost twice as likely to be searched). That could make sense if the contraband hit rates were consistent, i.e. police search black drivers more but find contraband as often as other drivers. Unfortunately, the numbers show the "hit" rate is highest for white people, meaning that if statistics were to be used to support an argument for racial profiling, it would be that white drivers should be searched more often. Cops are less likely to search whitey but more likely to find evidence of a crime when they do. Funny, right?

There are simply too many factors involved to expect perfect correlation between law enforcement and population demographics. That blacks are 11% of the population does not mean that exactly 11% of traffic offenses will be committed by black drivers. There is a big difference, though, between expecting perfect correlation and finding lopsided statistical inequality. Much like Illinois was unable to explain why whites are significantly more likely to get written warnings while minorities get citations, Missouri's Attorney General concludes by offering no explanation for the disparities. The report is a very diplomatic effort to point out the obvious facts – Missouri cops pull over, search, and arrest black drivers at rates far in excess of white drivers – while simultaneously being pressured to avoid the obvious conclusion. Sure, I suppose it's possible that black and hispanic drivers just commit more crimes (suspend comprehension of the silly contraband hit rate for a second) but, just as it is "possible" that the moon landing was filmed on a sound stage, the available evidence favors much more plausible explanations.

(h/t Matthew)

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