The media and Ferguson and what it tells us

First, it is just extraordinarly stupid that the police in Ferguson have repeatedly gone after members of the media.  If they think that is somehow going to work in their favor, they are just morons.  Maybe in Russia; not in America.  More importantly, though, this tells us a lot about the mindset of police forces in Ferguson.  And it’s not good.  Vox’s Max Fisher:

That police in Ferguson are targeting journalists so openly and aggressively is an appalling affront to basic media freedoms, but it is far scarier for what it suggests about how the police treat everyone else — and should tell us much about why Ferguson’s residents are so fed up. When police in Ferguson are willing to rough up and arbitrarily arrest a Washington Post reporter just for being in a McDonald’s, you have to wonder how those police treat the local citizens, who don’t have the shield of a press pass…

The police crackdown on journalists in Ferguson has become so severe that President Obama, in public comments, had to remind police that media freedom is protected in the United States.

“Here in the United States of America, police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their job and report to the American people what they see on the ground,” he said. This would be banal statement if uttered about China or Russia; that the American president had to say it about his own country is a staggering sign of how badly the situation has turned.

Meanwhile, conservatives are complaining that the media have “taken the side” of the protesters.  Hey, wouldn’t you if you were getting gassed and arrested to?  But it’s far more than that.  Great post from Slate’s Josh Vorhees:

But missing from such handwringing about the reporters’ ostensible loss of objectivity is the fact that the media had left the sidelines long before Lowery and Reilly were handcuffed. The very reason that national reporters—including Slate’s Jamelle Bouie—packed their bags for Ferguson was to get answers. Answers to why a member of the Ferguson Police Department opened fire on an unarmed black teen in broad daylight. Answers to why city officials originally refused to identify the cop involved in the shooting or even say how many bullets he had fired. Answers to why police were responding to what originally were largely peaceful protests with military-grade riot gear.

In short, the media descended on Ferguson looking for the same thing that had led protesters to take to the streets: the truth. That’s the real reason the media is siding with the protestors: What the people in the streets of Ferguson want is the same thing the journalists were sent there to find.  

Meanwhile, love this post from Yglesias on the lack of police accountability in all this:

Reasonable people can disagree about when, exactly, it’s appropriate for cops to fire tear gas into crowds. But there’s really no room for disagreement about when it’s reasonable for officers of the law to take off their badges and start policing anonymously.

There’s only one reason to do this: to evade accountability for your actions…

And what’s particularly shocking about this form of evasion is how shallow it is. I can’t identify the officers in that photograph. But the faces are clearly visible. The brass at the Ferguson Police Department, Saint Louis County Police Department, and Missouri Highway Patrol should be able to easily identify the two officers who are out improperly arresting photographers. By the same token, video taken at the Lowery and Reilly arrests should allow for the same to be done in that case.

Policing without a nametag can help you avoid accountability from the press or from citizens, but it can’t possibly help you avoid accountability from the bosses.

For that you have to count on an atmosphere of utter impunity. It’s a bet many cops operating in Ferguson are making, and it seems to be a winning bet…

But on another level, it would almost be nicer to hear that nobody in charge thinks there’s been any misconduct. After all, a lack of police misconduct would be an excellent reason for a lack of any disciplinary action. What we have is something much scarier. Impunity. The sense that misconduct will occur and even be acknowledged without punishment. Of course there are some limits to impunity. Shoot an unarmed teenager in broad daylight in front of witnesses, and there’ll be an investigation. But rough up a reporter in a McDonalds for no reason? Tear-gas an 8 year-old? Parade in front of the cameras with no badges on? No problem.

Again, it would be nice if people across the political spectrum could admit these are genuine problems.  (They are!) If  only the right-wing support of the police wasn’t so damn reflexive (hooray for libertarians, though, I am particularly loving Mike Munger’s FB feed).   These are real problems that simply should not be existing in a healthy democracy, or at minimum should be seriously addressed rather than largely ignored.  American can and absolutely should do better.

 

Photo of the day

From an In Focus gallery of Ferguson:

Demonstrators raise their arms and chant, “Hands up, Don’t Shoot”, as police clear them from the street as they protest the shooting death of Michael Brown on August 17, 2014. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Over-zealous policing: it’s the incentives

I’m pretty sure I’ve written before on the scourge of democracy that is civil forfeiture– apparently not enough– (police have huge incentives to make drug arrests and legally seize the property of the alleged offenders).  Here’s a great post from Jordan Weissman on how police, like those in Ferguson, are given incentives to harass and nickel-and-dime their citizens to death to pay for their budget.  Bad incentives= bad outcomes:

When you split a metro area into dozens of tiny local governments (St. Louis County, to be clear, doesn’t include the actual city of St. Louis, which spun off from it in the 19th century), they tend to duplicate each others’ services, which is of course extremely expensive. But raising taxes so that each tiny borough can afford its own police and fire department is a nonstarter, since wealthy residents can always just move one town over. End result: You have police departments that self-fund by handing out tickets. And thanks to the delightful racial dynamics of U.S. law enforcement, black residents are disproportionately stopped and accosted, even though police in Ferguson are less likely to find contraband when they search black drivers than when they search whites.

Michael Brown wasn’t being pulled over for speeding when he was shot. But we’re talking about the broader issues that poison the relationship between a community and the cops who are, theoretically, paid to protect them.

In a way, you can think of it as a small-bore version of the problem with civil forfeiture laws, which allow state and federal governments to confiscate property allegedly involved in crimes and which are often accused of encouraging “for-profit policing.” The same way the Justice Department puts the heat on its lawyers to increase forfeiture claims in drug cases—because that’s where they can skim money—local police have every incentive to crank up their traffic stops.

If you want good policing, you need to give the police incentive to be good.  All too often the incentives for police are not to protect and to serve, but to arrest and make cash.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Parenting habits from around the world that have not caught on in the US.  I love the non paranoia parenting of the Danish and Japanese.

2)  I truly believe the horrible-ness (especially the fundraising) keeps many very good people from running for political office (all the more reason I’m impressed my friend Sarah Crawford is doing it anyway).

3) FIFA is planning on having the women’s World Cup played on artificial turf.  So wrong.  And such an insult to women athletes.

4) Loved this Slate piece on the evolution of the SEC logo (and the bigger story of letters in circle logos).

5) From what I’ve read so far, I find the indictment of Rick Perry utterly ridiculous.  I suspect most of the liberals happy about this have their liberal blinders one.  Within a very wide latitude, politics should not be criminalized.

6) Loved this story on African Wild Dogs (apparently, they are almost the honeybees of the mammal world in terms of their level of social evolution).

7) Among all the wrongness of the Ferguson police, directly attacking the media is about as bad as it gets.

8) Don’t ask your kids what to do.  Tell them what to do.  (Of course, I need to make sure they actually do what I tell them).

9) No, arming the Syrian rebels would not have stopped ISIS.

10) Great Krugman column on the libertarian fantasy.  (Think “Toledo water).;

11) There’s a pretty easy technological solution to dramatically reduce police brutality.  And false charges of police brutality.  Police should wear video cameras.  It has worked great in once city.

12) The Upshot on the rise of pizza.  Hooray– certainly has made my life better.

13) Emily Bazelon on the police and race.

Quick hits (part I)

Another multi quick-hits weekend.  Enjoy.

1) Pope Francis’ list of tips for becoming a happier person.  Not bad.

2) Five myths about the border crisis.  Myth #1:

1. U.S. immigration policy is to blame for the surge of unaccompanied minors.

3) Hit the reset button on your brain?

Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.

If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. Your social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day.

Nope, don’t see this happening for me.

4) Speaking of which… fascinating experiment of what happens when a reporter literally “likes” every single post on FB.

5) A happy marriage without children.  Well, of course.  But you damn sure better really like your spouse.

6) Of course, if you do have kids, don’t go to prison.  Our inhumane system will make it absurdly expensive and difficult to stay in touch with them.

7) Also, careful with getting yourself on the sex offender registry.  Even the parent who helped initially push it says it is way over-used now.

8) Was a decrease in testosterone among early human males responsible for eventually leading to civilization?  Makes sense to me.  And some science to support the idea.

9) States with stand your ground laws have more homicides.  I’m shocked.  Shocked.

10) I’m often amazed at how my students’ typos just seem to jump off the page at me whereas my own remain virtually invisible.  Here’s the science behind why this is.  I strongly encourage my students to have a friend read their paper for this reason.  Quite clearly, few actually do (or they have lame friends).  While I’m at… many of them really need to be a lot more careful with their use of the thesaurus.  I don’t have any examples quite this extreme, but my students are using words they don’t actually understand all the time.

11) Great TNR piece from Jason Zengerle about how Civil Rights are going backwards in Alabama.

12)  Veal farmers are adopting more human methods.  On the downside for veal lovers (I never eat it), this apparently means it tastes less like veal and more like regular beef.

13) The Post has a piece on NC Senator Kay Hagan looking to benefit from the backlash against the Republican-led legislature.  I’ve already seen several ads on this theme.

14) Cool study shows that reading about discrimination against “Mudbloods” in Harry Potter can help make kids more tolerant.  Awesome.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Al Qaeda has taken to funding its activities by kidnapping Westerners and holding them for ransom rather than just killing them.  It’s quite lucrative.  The US and British governments do not pay ransom.  That does actually seem to lead to less kidnappings, but if you are kidnapped– not pretty.  Excellent NYT story and excellent Fresh Air interview.

2) The idea that the NFL comes down so heavily on marijuana use is just absurd and stupid.  Some good questions from the recent case of Josh Gordon:

But once you look at the details of the case, the questions get bigger than whether a wide receiver smoked weed. For instance: Why does this sport need to test people using a standard along the same lines as the U.S. military’s? Why is Josh Gordon treated like a paroled criminal for his entire career after testing positive twice? Do they really test him 10 times a month? Does it make sense to treat marijuana users the same way we treat PED users? Is there anyone at the NFL who saw the positive test and thought it might be too inconclusive to publicly ban a star player for an entire year? Does it make sense for the NFL to be testing players for marijuana at all? What does the league gain from prosecuting people like this?

3) Speaking of the devil weed, USA today tries to make it look much scarier than heroin.  As you know, it’s not.  Great example of how to lie with statistics.  Good catch in Vox.

4) Fish are way smarter than we give them credit for and they certainly feel pain.  Surely some of the beliefs to the contrary help us deal with the barbaric ways in which we treat ocean creatures.

5) The economics of surfing are good for Africa.  Time for a surfin’ safari, DJC and JCD.

6) My friend Leah Friedman used to write for the N&O.  Budget cuts cost her her job, but now she’s kicking butt as an organizer.  And offering helpful tips.

7) Nice editorial from the Charlotte Observer on all the craziness the Republicans in Raleigh brought us this term.

8) South Korea gets good results from its students on international comparison tests, but absolutely crushes their souls to get there.  It’s horrible.  Nice piece in the NYT magazine (my best player on the Blasters is here because his MD/PhD parents left Korea to give their sons the decent childhood that they were denied).

9) Making choices is tough.

10) The NYT is finally calling all the post 9/11 torture conducted by the US government, “torture.”  Bout time, to say the least.

11) Love this Vox video on the movement of the US population as visualized through the changing population center of the US.

12) This Foot Locker ad is pretty awesome.  (and clearly shows evidence of benign violation).

Stop snitchin’

I’ve written about Cameron Todd Willingham– the man Texas executed in 2004 despite evidence that emerged before the execution that the arson “science” that formed the basis for his conviction was complete bunk.  When it comes to false convictions, there’s an unholy trinity of junk science, bad eyewitness identification, and jailhouse “snitches” who make incredible claims that the accused made a jailhouse confession to them and nobody else, thereby buying themself a reduced sentence.  Turns out, the Willingham case had not only the bad forensic science, but a jailhouse informant who was quite clearly coerced into providing testimony against Willingham.  From a rather impressive article (i.e., you should really take a look at it) in the Post:

But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line…

Along with Webb’s account, the letters and documents expose a determined, years-long effort by the prosecutor to alter Webb’s conviction, speed his parole, get him clemency and move him from a tough state prison back to his hometown jail. Had such favorable treatment been revealed prior to his execution, Willingham might have had grounds to seek a new trial…

“He says, ‘Your story doesn’t have to match exactly’,” Webb continued. “He says, ‘I want you to just say he put fires in the corners. I need you to be able to say that so we can convict him, otherwise we’re going to have a murderer running our streets.’ ”

Webb told Jackson he hoped to turn his life around and become an underwater welder. That could be arranged, Jackson assured him, according to Webb. In the taped interviews, Webb recalled, “He says, ‘Look, we can get Chuck [Pearce] to help you with anything you need. He’s already there to help you.’ ”

“He [Jackson] had me believing 100 percent this dude was guilty — that’s why I testified,” Webb said. “The perks — they was willing to do anything to help me. No one has ever done that, so why wouldn’t I help them?”

In fact, Webb said, Willingham “never told me nothing.”

Damning, and sadly, not at all surprising.  How many others are languishing in prison (or heck, buried under ground) on the basis of such “justice”?

Depressing and (sadly) unsurprising criminal justice news

Via the Post:

Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said.

The findings troubled the bureau, and it stopped the review of convictions last August. Case reviews resumed this month at the order of the Justice Department, the officials said.

U.S. officials began the inquiry after The Washington Post reported two years ago that flawed forensic evidence involving microscopic hair matches might have led to the convictions of hundreds of potentially innocent people. Most of those defendants never were told of the problems in their cases.

The inquiry includes 2,600 convictions and 45 death-row cases from the 1980s and 1990s in which the FBI’s hair and fiber unit reported a match to a crime-scene sample before DNA testing of hair became common. The FBI had reviewed about 160 cases before it stopped, officials said.

The investigation resumed after the Justice Department’s inspector generalexcoriated the department and the FBI for unacceptable delays and inadequate investigation in a separate inquiry from the mid-1990s. The inspector general found in that probe that three defendants were executed and a fourth died on death row in the five years it took officials to reexamine 60 death-row convictions that were potentially tainted by agent misconduct, mostly involving the same FBI hair and fiber analysis unit now under scrutiny.

The number of innocent people in this country who surely have been convicted due to sloppy and misguided and forensic “science” is just mind-boggling.

Quick hits (part II)

1) Very nice Vox animated short explaining the political uniqueness of North Korea.  Some really interesting historical perspective I was totally unaware of.

2) Eminent health care expert Victor Fuchs on why the US spends so much more on health care than other nations.

3) New York Times on why Americans are not so great at math.

4) It’s really just pathetic and amusing to see conservatives try and explain politics with regards to race by pretending that today’s Democratic party is of a piece with the virulently racist Democratic Party of the pre-Civil Rights era South.  Nice takedown from Jamelle Bouie.

5) Speaking of race, I’m feeling pretty confident these pre-school boys would not have been suspended so much if they were white (and so is their mom).

6) Say what you will about Texas justice (and I’ll say a lot), but give them credit for doing a lot more than many other states to remedy their history of gross injustice.  Here’s an interesting case of a man who was exonerated via DNA and didn’t even know about it until after the fact (he had already finished his prison sentence).

7) Nice essay from national security reporter extraordinaire, Tom Ricks, on why he has found himself moving leftward in recent years.

8) Really interesting analysis of “kidspeak.”  Let’s just say “like” means so much more than you may realize.

9) I talked to the NYT reporter who wrote this story for a good 30 minutes, but not even a single quote.  That said, it was a really interesting conversation and hopefully it will lead to some NYT quotes in the future.  Oh, and it’s a good story on NC politics.

10) This is wild.  Apparently we harvest the blood of horseshoe crabs to create a basic and widely-used test for the presence of bacteria.

11) Really enjoyed this Amy Davidson comment on Republicans and immigration policy:

It is one thing for Republicans to decide that they will not be the party of immigration reform, but it is another to decide that they will be the anti-immigration party. If they do, they will define themselves in opposition to America’s future and, incidentally, to its past—one built by newcomers like the gold prospector from Canada who, in 1876, sailed on a ship around South America and staked a claim that became the town of Oracle. In the short term, there may be benefits, in the form of an energized base, but enjoying them requires a distinct lack of shame. If Adam Kwasman was abashed by his Y.M.C.A. mixup, many of his allies don’t think that chasing down a busload of kids was a mistake at all. No children had been brought to Oracle since then, and that was enough for some to call the episode a victory. For the Republican Party as a whole, it might be better described as a dangerous temptation.

12) There does seem to be a place for “broken windows” policing.  But it seems clear that place is not always and everywhere.  Circumstances matter– who would’ve guessed.  Nice NYT editorial:

Mr. Bratton is a pioneer of broken windows policing and Mr. de Blasio is a stout defender. The tactic was embraced in the crime-plagued New York of 20 years ago. But while violence has ebbed, siege-based tactics have not. The Times reported on Friday that the Police Department made 394,539 arrests last year, near historical highs.

The mayor and the commissioner should acknowledge the heavy price paid for heavy enforcement. Broken windows and its variants — “zero-tolerance,” “quality-of-life,” “stop-and-frisk” practices — have pointlessly burdened thousands of young people, most of them black and Hispanic, with criminal records. These policies have filled courts to bursting with first-time, minor offenders whose cases are often thrown out, though not before their lives are severely disrupted and their reputations blemished. They have caused thousands to lose their jobs, to be suspended from school, to be barred from housing or the military. They have ensnared immigrants who end up, through a federal fingerprinting program, being deported and losing everything.

13) And lastly, the NYT is beginning a series on how we need to end our prohibition on marijuana.  Let me reiterate– I’ve never smoked dope, never will, and will strongly discourage my kids, but our current policy is an utter failure on so many levels and needs to be changed.  Here’s the first of the NYT series on state-by-state policy.

How the FBI manufactures terrorists

Last night I watched a terrific HBO documentary, “The Newburgh Sting.”  It is basically the story of how the FBI completely manufactured a terrorism case.  The FBI offered four ex-cons $250,000 dollars to blow up a synagogue and parked military planes.  The “terrorists” were quite clear they didn’t want to hurt anybody, but they would gladly take a quarter million dollars and pretend to actually be serious Muslims (they were all nominally Muslim at best) for the money.  Guess what, if the criteria for being a terrorist is a willingness to engage in serious property destruction for $250,000 than there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of terrorists in this country.  Were these guys stupid?  Absolutely.  Amoral?  Sure.  Terrorists?  Not on your life.  Deserving of 25 year prison sentences for a crime the FBI created out of whole cloth to entice them?  No way.  Damn, damn, damn, I hate that our government behaves this way.

And let’s not forget the opportunity cost.  The FBI certainly does not have unlimited resources.  All those resources turning poor, greedy, ex-cons into terrorists would surely be better off trying to catch real terrorists.  Also, as the film points out, how much better off would we be if the FBI would work with mosques, rather than alienating them by having them wonder if every new member isn’t an FBI informant seeking to create “terrorists” from among their members.  Naturally, this is not a one-off case.  First time I heard about the FBI manufacturing terrorism was this excellent This American Life episode.

If you have HBO, watch this.  If not, here’s some good articles I came across.

Race and criminal injustice

So, I listened to this slightly old Gist podcast this morning.  Sure, I know about the role of race and social class in our criminal justice system, but it still remains bracing and distressing to hear first-hand accounts of the institutional racism.  Then I watched this (again, terrific) John Oliver segment on our prison system.  Such an indictment.  Middle-class white people doing drugs?  No problem.  Black people?  Prison for you.  And so much more.  If you care about criminal justice in America, you really owe it to yourself to watch:

Then I (finally) read from a conservative taking our criminal justice system to task.  Nice to see from somebody who writes for the National Review, rather than just a libertarian, like Balko:

Imagine if I were to tell you there is a large group of government employees, with generous salaries and ridiculously cushy retirement pensions covered by the taxpayer, who enjoy incredible job security and are rarely held accountable even for activities that would almost certainly earn the rest of us prison time. When there is proven misconduct, these government employees are merely reassigned and are rarely dismissed. The bill for any legal settlements concerning their errors? It, too, is covered by the taxpayers. Their unions are among the strongest in the country.

No, I’m not talking about public-school teachers.

I’m talking about the police.

We conservatives recoil at the former; yet routinely defend the latter — even though, unlike teachers, police officers enjoy an utter monopoly on force and can ruin — or end — one’s life in a millisecond.

Yep.  And again a litany of horrible police misconduct that all too often is barely punished.  I am ashamed to admit I had not heard of the case of Eric Garner in New York City.  The police killed him by choking him and sitting on him while he cried out “I can’t breathe.”   The above piece links to the horribly disturbing video.  His offense?  Allegedly selling cigarettes on the street.  More here from the NYT Editorial:

Mr. de Blasio and the police commissioner, William Bratton, say there will be a thorough investigation into Mr. Garner’s death. The undercover officer, Daniel Pantaleo, had to surrender his badge and gun; another officer was put on desk duty. Two paramedics and two emergency medical technicians were placed on modified duty. The Civilian Complaint Review Board, meanwhile,has promised to re-examine the last five years of chokehold complaints. The board received 1,022 such complaints since 2009 and substantiated nine of them, recommending administrative trials for the credibly accused officers. But, in all but one of those cases, they received the lightest sanctions or no punishment at all. This is not reassuring.

It should go without saying that neighborhoods should feel protected by law enforcement, and that officers should be expert at defusing conflicts and avoiding lethal violence.

And lastly, you should really take some time and read this fabulous Sarah Stillman piece on the criminal justice system’s war on poor people.  Truly disgusting and depressing.

Let ‘em out

Okay, let’s start by saying that I think most violent felons need to be serving substantial prison sentences.  That said, we incarcerate far too many people for far too long in this country.  That might be worthwhile if it actually kept us safer.  But there’s not a lot of evidence that it does.  Nice Wonkblog post on how recent prison reductions in NY and NJ have not done anything to increase crime rates, as you might expect if all this incarceration was actually reducing crime:

The Sentencing Project

The sentencing Project

We certainly can’t take these three charts and conclude that reducing prison populations reduces crime. But these trends do make it harder to argue the opposite — particularly in the most heavily incarcerated country in the world. As the Sentencing Project puts it, “in the era of mass incarceration, there is a growing consensus that current levels of incarceration place the nation well past the point of diminishing returns in crime control.”

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