Posts Tagged ‘criminal justice’

Reading List about Police Reform

Friday, September 11th, 2020

Williamson Evers offers an extensive reading list about police reform.

Federal Kidnappings in Oregon

Monday, July 20th, 2020

Federal agents have arrested people for no good reason in Portland.

The Police Killing of Muhammad Muhaymin Jr.

Saturday, July 11th, 2020

In 2017, Phoenix police officers arrested Muhammad Muhaymin Jr. over a “failure to appear in court over a charge stemming from misdemeanor possession of a marijuana pipe.” Officers killed the man during the course of the arrest. This is your War on Drugs.

Stone on Police Violence

Thursday, June 25th, 2020

Economist Lyman Stone has out a new article on police violence. The main finding is that police in the U.S. kill a lot of people, some 1,700 people per year: “Police violence in America is extraordinary in its intensity. It is disproportionate to the actual threats facing police officers, and it has risen significantly in recent years without apparent justification.”

What’s the problem? Stone: “Police unions . . . cause higher rates of police killings by shielding bad cops from discipline. . . . [P]olice unions have military-grade equipment they can use to violently crush protests against their abuses, and they are legally immune from most consequences.”

Is there a racial component to this? Other reports suggest not. Stone, citing a recent study by Mark Hoekstra and CarlyWill Sloan, says yes: “Using the unpredictable and somewhat random patterns of 911 calls and what police happen to be dispatched in response as an approximation of a more formal randomized study, a team of economists recently demonstrated that white officers in particular are much more likely to use potentially lethal force against black citizens. When randomly dispatched into more heavily black neighborhoods, white officers’ odds of shooting someone quadrupled, while there was virtually no change for black officers. This study controlled for crime patterns at the time of day and in the neighborhood to which the officer was dispatched, and was able to observe black and white officers dispatched into the same neighborhoods, and the same officers dispatched into multiple different neighborhoods. It is by far the most robust study of racial bias in policing yet conducted, and found an enormous effect that can best be described as racial bias leading to excessive use of force, especially lethal force. Racial bias in police killings is real.”

Elijah McClain

Wednesday, June 24th, 2020

Elijah McClain was a young Black man who was killed by police officers in Aurora, Colorado. Reading the in-depth portrait of McClain by Grant Stringer, it’s very difficult to imagine that McClain, a massage therapist who literally would not hurt a fly, presented any threat, whatsoever, to the police. McClain was, by all accounts, an unusual young man. He routinely wore his running mask out in public, perhaps (a friend of his speculated) to ease his social anxiety, perhaps to ward off the chills. He went to the store to buy some items for his cousin and was walking home, wearing his mask and “flailing his arms,” i.e., (probably) dancing. For that someone called the cops on him. The police who confronted him had no indication he may have committed any crime. Police say McClain ignored their commands, which, so far as I can tell, they had no authority to give. Police said McClain was in an “agitated mental state”—it’s “funny” how people tend to get “agitated” when police screw with them for no good reason. The police called the fire department, and fire paramedics gave McClain ketamine. Police also put McClain in a choke hold. The lawyer of McClain’s family described the officer’s treatment of McClain as torture (this all from Stringer’s account). At one point “an officer threatened to sick a dog on” McClain, Stringer writes. Amazingly, the officers’ cameras became “dislodged.” McClain’s heart stopped on the way to the hospital, and he died several days later.

Subsequent reports indicate that the officers claim that McClain tried to grab one of the officer’s guns. That doesn’t add up to me. Anyway, the officers had no legitimate business hassling the man to begin with. The officers are now back on the job.

Colorado’s Police Reform Legislation

Monday, June 22nd, 2020

The speed at which Colorado government passed significant police reforms is remarkable. This certainly would not have happened but for the intense protests in Denver and around the country over the death of George Floyd.

Among those to write about the legislation are Nick Sibilla and Jesse Paul and Jennifer Brown.

Governor Jared Polis signed the measure, SB20-217, on June 19. Here’s (some of) what the bill does:

  • Requires police to wear body cameras in most interactions with the public. There’s a lot of detail here in terms of requirements, exceptions, and penalties.
  • Expands reporting requirements of police interactions with the public.
  • Revokes peace officer certification if an officer is convicted of (or pleads guilty to) a crime involving the use physical force, or is found civilly liable for misuse of force. This applies to failure to intervene if another officer misuses force.
  • Limits police use of force in response to protests with respect to “impact projectiles” and chemical agents.
  • Enables citizens to sue officers in state courts for violating their rights, notwithstanding “qualified immunity.” In some cases, an officer can be personally liable for the first $25,000 of a settlement, depending on the officer’s employer’s determination of “good faith.”
  • Limits the use of force by police officers. “Peace officers . . . shall apply nonviolent means, when possible, before resorting to the use of physical force. A peace officer may use physical force only if nonviolent means would be ineffective in effecting an arrest, preventing an escape, or preventing an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death to the peace officer or another person.” An officer may not “use deadly physical force to apprehend a person who is suspected of only a minor or nonviolent offense.”
  • Prohibits the use of chokeholds.
  • Requires “a peace officer [to] intervene to prevent or stop another peace officer from using physical force that exceeds the degree of force permitted.” Failure to so intervene is a misdemeanor.
  • Limits profiling by requiring a “legal basis for making contact.” (I’m not sure this will do much good, as officers often use minor offenses as a pretext to profile.

In all, this is a profoundly important piece of legislation and a huge win for liberty.

Restorative Justice in Colorado

Sunday, June 21st, 2020

Free the People has out a 43-minute documentary that it describes as follows: “A city in Colorado tries a different kind of justice system, powerful enough to transform a broken system of mass incarceration in the United States. Instead of locking up non-violent offenders, these advocates focus on the challenging but rewarding process of individual responsibility, forgiveness, and redemption that radically shifts our idea of justice and our part in it.”

Non-Police Should Not Take Sniper Positions

Thursday, June 18th, 2020

Heidi Beedle reports that a Colorado Springs “group set up a sniper position, complete with a spotting scope and rifles with suppressors and bipod legs, overlooking the crowd” of protesters. This is definitely not okay.

Balko on Criminal Justice

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

Radley Balko, one of the most important writers on abusive policing, participated in a great interview with Nick Gillespie on criminal justice reform. Balko has embraced the idea (as have I) that there really is such a thing as systemic racism particularly in the policing and criminal justice systems. Balko pushes back on the idea that capitalism is the root problem; to him (as to me) capitalism means voluntary exchange where at root you control (“own”) your own body and property. In that sense, he says, slavery is the opposite of capitalism.

Criminal Justice Updates for June 16

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

San Francisco: “District Attorney Boudin Announces New Policy Directive Not to Charge Cases That Rely on Officers with Serious Prior Misconduct.”

Samuel Sinyangwe reports, “DC Council has now passed legislation to remove all limits on police discipline that were imposed by their police union contract. This is one of the first cities to do this, a major shift to limit the power of police unions.”

Policing over Vigilantism

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

Hopefully we can all agree now that professional policing is better than vigilantism, following a shooting at a New Mexico protest involving a paramilitary group.

Abusive Cop Criminally Charged

Monday, June 15th, 2020

Prosecutors need to hold police officers to the same standards as everyone else. I was pleased to see, then, that a South Jersey police officer who pepper-sprayed a teen for no good reason was “charged with two counts of simple assault.”

Patrick Sharkey on Police and Violence

Monday, June 15th, 2020

Patrick Sharkey has some insightful things to say about policing and violence. He notes that violence is devastating to a community, that more policing can reduce violence, but that alternatives to traditional policing also can reduce violence. He writes, “Every shooting in a neighborhood affects children’s sleep and their ability to focus and learn. When a neighborhood becomes violent, it begins to fall apart. . . . One of the most robust, most uncomfortable findings in criminology is that putting more officers on the street leads to less violent crime.” Yet: “Decades of criminological theory and growing evidence demonstrate that residents and local organizations can indeed ‘police’ their own neighborhoods and control violence — in a way that builds stronger communities.” He’s not talking about vigilantism, but things like after-school programs, summer jobs programs, and community gardens. He envisions government funding community groups to hire “conflict mediators, violence interrupters, youth outreach teams, case workers, mental health counselors, crisis response teams, maintenance and beautification crews, data analysts, liaisons to public agencies.”

Armed Does Not Mean Dangerous

Monday, June 15th, 2020

Adam Bates makes an excellent point: Just because police kill someone who is armed, hardly means the killing was justified. And even if an armed person is (unjustifiably) dangerous, police should make every reasonable effort to take the person safely into custody.

Bystanders Plead with Cops Not to Kill George Floyd

Monday, June 15th, 2020

This video is very painful to watch.

Lawful but Awful

Monday, June 15th, 2020

Jacob Sullum has a nuanced discussion of the police killing of Rayshard Brooks. “Officers are trained that they have the right to escalate their use of force if they believe someone is threatening to incapacitate them,” notes the New York Times (as Sullum quotes).

This to me is the saddest line: “Brooks suggests that the officers allow him to lock up his car and walk to his sister’s house, which is nearby. ‘I can just go home,’ he says.” But do we want police officers to enforce drunk-driving laws, or not? If we do, that means police have to arrest drunk drivers.

This to me is the crux of the issue: Another “opportunity for de-escalation came when Brooks ran away from the cops. Instead of giving chase, [Kalfani] Turè suggests, [the officers] could have tracked him down later based on his car registration, or they could have called for more officers to help subdue him without using deadly force.”

My take: The officers involved certainly should not be criminally charged. But officers certainly should be trained on how and when to deescalate.

June 18 Update: From what I can tell, the officer who killed Rayshard Brooks was charged not for shooting Brooks, but for failing to administer timely medical attention (and various other alleged offenses).

Justice Thomas Dissects Qualified Immunity

Monday, June 15th, 2020

Eugene Volokh summarizes, “He views the doctrine as likely not authorized by the text of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, or the legal principles that it may have implicitly absorbed; instead, he argues, it was created it just ‘because of a “balancing of competing values” about litigation costs and efficiency.'”

The Institute for Justice is disappointed: “Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Cases Challenging Qualified Immunity.”

Jay Schweikert’s take: “The Supreme Court’s Dereliction of Duty on Qualified Immunity.”

Reform Plea Bargains

Monday, June 15th, 2020

Yesterday I watched the documentary The Vanishing Trial, about America’s abusive plea bargain and sentencing system. Today a panel interested in reform further discussed the relevant issues. See also the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawers document, “The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It.” The University of California Press collects a variety of articles on the subject. Here is the essential problem: By threatening people with absurd and unconstitutional overpunishment if they go to trial and lose, prosecutors often coerce plea deals, even for people who are innocent.

Scapegoating Is Not Justice

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

CNN has the headline, “Atlanta protester explains why only the Wendy’s was burned during protests.” Joseth Jett “explained,” “I do feel bad about people who have lost their job, but at the same time, we burned this building and not any other building around here. We burned this one specifically because of what happened here. . . . This goes back to what our mission is, making sure that there is justice served for the person that died over here at this Wendy’s.” That is totally insane. Burning down a restaurant that is incidentally where police fatally shot a man (a man who violently attacked the police) is not achieving justice for anyone. This is straight-up scapegoating. And it is exactly the mentality by which white mobs used to riot in black neighborhoods. And we’re supposed to somehow think well of these domestic terrorists because they didn’t burn down even more buildings? (Note: I have no idea whether Jett actually was involved in burning down the restaurant; I refer to anyone who was involved.)

I don’t know who called 911. “A 911 caller had alerted police that a man had fallen asleep in the restaurant’s drive-thru lane,” reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Maybe the caller worked at the restaurant, maybe not. Regardless, it was a perfectly reasonable call to make.

Those interested can watch the bodycam footage of the event. The suspect admits to driving after drinking alcohol, and he violently attacks the police as they attempt to arrest him. I am willing to entertain that officers could have handled the situation differently at that point, but to pretend that this is fundamentally an event about racism is insane.

Incidentally, one video (the authenticity of which I have not independently confirmed) purports to show video of a black protester saying, “Look at the white girl trying to set s**t on fire. Look at the white girl trying to burn down a Wendy’s. This wasn’t us. This wasn’t us.”

San Francisco Police Alternatives

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

This sounds great to me: “San Francisco police officers will be replaced with trained, unarmed professionals to respond to calls for help on noncriminal matters involving mental health, the homeless, school discipline and neighbor disputes.”

Lowery on Institutional Corruption

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

Wesley Lowery writes a powerful piece on policing in America. He describes the scene shortly after the death of George Floyd: “Parts of many American cities were on fire and police officers in dozens of places were committing indiscriminate acts of violence—unleashing tear gas, rubber bullets, and worse—against the citizenry they had sworn an oath to serve and protect.”

Here is the key issue: “For years, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to demand a wholesale reimagining of the criminal-justice system.” He anticipates, “for the first time in our nation’s history, a reality in which black people aren’t routinely robbed of their livelihoods and lives by armed government agents.” So far, he’s not saying anything that any of my libertarian friends wouldn’t say. I have long thought that America’s criminal justice system is in many ways horrifically unjust.

Lowery asks, “What if the activists are right, and the solution is to dismantle American criminal justice and build something better? What might that look like?” He writes about “defunding and dismantling police departments, and ultimately abolishing American policing as it is currently constructed.” It’s entirely unclear to me what this actually means. It sounds like empty utopianism. Nor is it consistent with the meaningful reforms we know are needed: end qualified immunity, end police union contracts that protect bad cops, reform the plea bargain system and the sentencing system, end the death penalty, and so on.

Lowery writes (nominally attributing the view to others) that “the entire American experiment was from its inception designed to perpetuate racial inequality.” Andrew Sullivan addresses this, as I discuss.

Police and Race

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

Here I want to look at several sources on police and racism.

John McWhorter wrote a piece in 2016, “Police Kill Too Many People—White and Black.” He begins by pointing out that police killing white people typically doesn’t get the same media attention as police killing black people. He concludes, “We can all agree that the police kill too many innocent people, but at this point, we can disagree—as eminently reasonable minds—that the cops kill out of bigotry.”

Here is the abstract of Roland Fryer’s 2016 paper: “This paper explores racial differences in police use of force. On non-lethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than fifty percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police. Adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities. On the most extreme use of force—officer-involved shootings—we find no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of which have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.” A New York Times article reviews this study.

David J. Johnson leads a more recent (2019) study. From the abstract: “We report three main findings: 1) As the proportion of Black or Hispanic officers in a FOIS increases, a person shot is more likely to be Black or Hispanic than White, a disparity explained by county demographics; 2) race-specific county-level violent crime strongly predicts the race of the civilian shot; and 3) although we find no overall evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities in fatal shootings, when focusing on different subtypes of shootings (e.g., unarmed shootings or “suicide by cop”), data are too uncertain to draw firm conclusions.” The authors amend a sentence of the original report as follows: “As the proportion of White officers in a fatal officer-involved shooting increased, a person fatally shot was not more likely to be of a racial minority.”

Update: Lyman Stone, looking at a more-recent study, concludes, “Racial bias in police killings is real.”

July 6 Update: The authors of the 2019 study requested that it be retracted. However, they stand by their original findings, only worry about people’s incorrect inferences from the article.

Education Levels of Police

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

Christine Gardiner writes (2017), “About one third (30.2 percent) of police officers in the United States have a four-year college degree. A little more than half (51.8 percent) have a two-year degree, while 5.4 percent have a graduate degree.”

I think Bryan Caplan is probably right that much of higher education is about signalling, not actual learning, but I suspect it’s the case that the sort of person who can complete a four-year degree also tends to be a better cop. So I suspect that education level correlates with quality of policing. At a common-sense level, the sort of person with the foresight and patience to jump through four years’ worth of hoops probably also has the demeanor to be a good cop.

But probably better than requiring a four-year degree would simply be to psychologically profile prospective cops. Does this person have patience, emotional control, common sense, and empathy? If the answer is no, the person almost certainly will not make a good cop. We should bear in mind that it’s a good idea to get good cops who grew up under difficult conditions that may have made a college education harder.

Let’s not forget this crazy 2000 story: “A man whose bid to become a police officer was rejected after he scored too high on an intelligence test has lost an appeal in his federal lawsuit against the city.” That’s absurd on its face.

Huemer on Police Brutality Versus Police Racism

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

Philosopher Michael Huemer argues, “The main problem with the police is not racism. The main problem is brutality.” He points out that racism is not “the main explanation for police shootings,” and he offers the usual sort of evidence for this.

Huemer warns: “Why are we constantly on about racism? Because hard core ideologues can’t talk about or care about any problem that isn’t ideologically slanted. They can’t just protest some non-ideological, non-partisan injustice.” I get what he’s saying here, but I would say that a concern with injustice per se is a manifestation of some ideology; I would distinguish having an ideology from being an ideologue.

Huemer also warns against media bias: “The media gives drastically disproportionate attention to police abuse of black people, as compared to police abuse of white people. One reason for this is that the media is full of left-wing people. Another reason, maybe the main reason, is the media bias toward click-bait. ‘Racism’ pushes people’s buttons. It stimulates outrage, it makes people click, and it makes people share. Just telling a story about how an innocent person was murdered doesn’t do those things. Telling a story that feeds into someone’s preferred narrative about what’s wrong with America — that gets people to click and share. That is what the media cares about. They are not in the business of trying to provide an accurate picture of our society. They’re in the business of capturing attention so they can sell it. Sowing outrage and division is just a side effect of that.” I think that’s an overly cynical view. Media often works that way, but it’s also true that many individual journalists try hard to properly contextualize their stories and to avoid sensationalism.

Huemer also has a great discussion about confirmation bias.

Finally, Huemer warns against keeping racism alive under the banner of “anti-racism.” Huemer explains, “Races are just arbitrary groupings, no more morally meaningful than groupings by what day of the week one was born on. ‘The white race’ isn’t a person and cannot owe anyone anything or be blameworthy or praiseworthy for anything. Every person is a separate individual, every one has to be evaluated based on that individual’s own actions and no one else’s. The problem with traditional racism was not that it misidentified which races are good and which are bad. The problem was the whole bullshit of treating individuals as representatives of a ‘race.'”

Like Huemer (and like Sam Harris and like Martin Luther King Jr. and like many others), I look forward to a post-racial world. As Harris says, the color of your skin should matter no more than the color of your hair. It should be something that we simply do not pay any attention to. But there is a “here-to-there” problem. Today, many “white” people clearly are still racist against “black” people—observe the alt-right or the president of the United States. Many American laws really are racist in origin and racist in effect, and this really does have a large downstream “racial” impact. So I think there is a way in which we need to be cognizant of “race” today as we work toward a future in which people no longer are cognizant of it.

This is What Media Bias Looks Like

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

This is currently the top headline at the New York Times (online): “Atlanta Police Chief Resigns After Officer Shoots and Kills Black Man.” And at CNN: “Officer fatally shoots black man, then protests turn fiery in Atlanta.” Is there any evidence, whatsoever, that race had anything, whatsoever, to do with this case? Not that I’ve seen. These headlines obviously are intended to inflame current tensions. The Times does add in a subhead: “Video appeared to show [Rayshard] Brooks firing a Taser at an officer.” Think about this, for just a second, from the police officers’ point of view. As a police officer, you carry a loaded firearm on your hip. Can you maintain control of your firearm if you are tased? No responsible cop will risk putting a gun in the hands of an obviously violent and out-of-control individual. Now, is there some alternate way that we can, in hindsight and from the safety of our couches, imagine that the cops in question could have handled this particular case, that would not have resulted in the death of the suspect or putting other people in the community at risk? Sure.