Sam Harris on Policing

Sam Harris makes some eminently reasonable points about the current moment, which of course means that he probably will be pilloried. He argues (among other things) 1) various police reforms obviously are needed, 2) good policing is crucially important, 3) rioting and looting is immoral and politically dangerous (as it gives Trump a campaign issue). But I think Harris is overly worried about the breakdown of civil society. America has almost always had this sort of unrest. White mobs literally used to enforce a reign of terror against black people in this country; we’re nowhere near that level of chaos. I think (or hope) there’s a lot more consensus around these issues than what Harris presumes.

Harris points out that violent crime as well as police violence are down dramatically over the past quarter century. He also points out that by important measures police violence is not especially worse against minorities. But I think this largely misses the point. Much of the problem is not measured by easily accessed statistics, as many instances of racist and abusive policing aren’t even reported or recorded. And I think a big part of what’s driving the protests is the recognition is that policing often is bad across the board. It’s not like all black cops are angels or cops only abuse black people.

Harris also makes the point that many of the now-infamous videos and cases of police violence are not as clear-cut as many assume. Granted. And, granted, the police officers who killed George Floyd almost certainly did not intend to kill him. But they reasonably should have known that putting that sort of weight on him, including the knee to the neck, easily could have killed the man, as it did.

Harris makes the really important point that a police officer, who has a gun on the hip, cannot afford to be overpowered. We should interpret arrests with that in mind. At the same time, I add, we should also recognize that cops now reflexively repeat, over and over, “stop resisting,” regardless of the behavior of the person being arrested, to cover any misuse of force on the part of the officer.

Harris has a great line: “The problem is that these no-knock raids are an obscenely dangerous way of enforcing despicably stupid laws.”

Harris hopes for a future, the same future that Martin Luther King Jr. hoped for, in which “the color of a person’s skin really doesn’t matter.” A “post racial future.”

Harris closes with some powerful words. He worries about the person “who has rendered him or herself incapable of dialogue . . . who will not listen to reason, who has no interest in facts, who can’t join a conversation that converges on the truth, because he knows in advance what the truth must be.” He adds, “The only thing that makes conversation possible is an openness to evidence and arguments, a willingness to update one’s view of the world when better reasons are given.”

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