Driving while black

Is a lot worse than driving while white.  That is, if you don’t like being pulled over by police on minor pretense.  A new study based on data right here in NC from UNC professors:

The researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill analyzed more than 1.3 million traffic stops and searches by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers for a 12-year period beginning in 2002, when the state began requiring police to collect such statistics. In their analysis of the data, collected and made public by the state’s Department of Justice, the researchers found that black drivers, despite making up less than one-third of the city’s driving population, were twice as likely to be subject to traffic stops and searches as whites. Young black men in Charlotte were three times as likely to get pulled over and searched than the city-wide average….

Not only did the researchers identify these gaps: they showed that the gaps have been growing. [emphasis mine] Black drivers in Charlotte are more likely than whites to get pulled over and searched today than they were in 2002, the researchers found. They noted similar widening racial gaps among traffic stops and searches in Durham, Raleigh, and elsewhere in the state…

Black drivers in Charlotte were much more likely to get stopped for minor violations involving seat belts, vehicle registration, and equipment, where, as the Observer‘s Michael Gordon points out, “police have more discretion in pulling someone over.” (Scott was stopped in North Charleston due to a broken brake light.) White drivers, meanwhile, were stopped more often for obvious safety violations, such as speeding, running red lights and stop signs, and driving under the influence. Still, black drivers—except those suspected of intoxicated driving—were always more likely to get searched than whites, no matter the reason for the stop.

If more discretion for police means more racism, perhaps it is time to really think how much discretion police have in traffic stops for very low-level offenses.

Marijuana hearts and minds

Really interesting new survey from Pew looking at changing attitudes on marijuana legalization.  Most interesting to me, the growing support is much more than just generational replacement– at every age level people are getting more supportive.  Even old marijuana-hating geezers (I suspect that’s very much the medical marijuana argument):

Opinion on Legalizing Marijuana:  1969-2015

What’s also interesting to see is the number of people who admit to changing their mind on the issue.  And it is overwhelmingly in the direction in change of support for legalization:

Supporters of Legalization More Likely Than Opponents to Have Changed Minds

While I think there are genuine medicinal benefits, I’m far more persuaded by the fact that marijuana is clearly not as harmful as other drugs– especially alcohol.  Good to see that this fact is catching on with a decent portion of the population (though, the medical argument appears to be especially key):

Many Supporters of Legalization Cite Marijuana’s Health Benefits

So, the public is definitely moving in the right direction on this issue.  Just need more politicians (especially Republican ones) to catch up to public opinion and scientific reality.

Body cameras, privacy, and white males

David Brooks had an interesting column on the downside of police wearing body cameras.  I think he does make some good points:

Cop-cams will insult families. It’s worth pointing out that less than 20 percent of police calls involve felonies, and less than 1 percent of police-citizen contacts involve police use of force. Most of the time cops are mediating disputes, helping those in distress, dealing with the mentally ill or going into some home where someone is having a meltdown. When a police officer comes into your home wearing a camera, he’s trampling on the privacy that makes a home a home. He’s recording people on what could be the worst day of their lives, and inhibiting their ability to lean on the officer for care and support.

Cop-cams insult individual dignity because the embarrassing things recorded by them will inevitably get swapped around. The videos of the naked crime victim, the berserk drunk, the screaming maniac will inevitably get posted online — as they are already. With each leak, culture gets a little coarser. The rules designed to keep the videos out of public view will inevitably be eroded and bent.

And he does admit that these cameras are, on balance, a good idea, but it is all very much cheapened for me by this paragraph which I think only a privileged white male could actually write:

Cop-cams chip away at that. The cameras will undermine communal bonds. Putting a camera on someone is a sign that you don’t trust him, or he doesn’t trust you. When a police officer is wearing a camera, the contact between an officer and a civilian is less likely to be like intimate friendship and more likely to be oppositional and transactional. Putting a camera on an officer means she is less likely to cut you some slack, less likely to not write that ticket, or to bend the regulations a little as a sign of mutual care. [emphasis mine]

I think it’s safe to say that for your typical non-white person who has an encounter with the police, they were not exactly looking at the “intimate friendship” model in the first place.  Again, to Brooks credit, he admits that cameras are good on balance, but if this is his conception of police-civilian interactions, I think he needs to spend some time in poor, minority communities.

Security theater comes to baseball

hate security theater.  The idea that some guy with a metal detector does anything to actually keep an arena safe during a sporting event is preposterous on it’s face.  During my recent trip to the ACC tournament I went through security by holding my phone and keys high up in my hands while the rest of me got wanded.  I swear, if I had one of those big phablet phones, I probably could have hidden a 6″ knife behind it in my hand.  Or heck, maybe even a small gun.  But, that aside, there’s a million ways to actually get a weapon into a sports arena if you’ve got an IQ over 100.  Thus, all this security theater is so, so stupid.  I so love this essay by actual security expert Bruce Schneier on the occasion of MLB now requiring this nonsense for all games.  There’s just so much right in here:

As a security measure, the new devices are laughable. The ballpark metal detectors are much more lax than the ones at an airport checkpoint. They aren’t very sensitive — people with phones and keys in their pockets aresailing through — and there are no X-ray machines. Bags get the same cursory search they’ve gotten for years. And fans wanting to avoid the detectors can opt for a “light pat-down search” instead.

There’s no evidence that this new measure makes anyone safer. A halfway competent ticketholder would have no trouble sneaking a gun into the stadium. For that matter, a bomb exploded at a crowded checkpoint would be no less deadly than one exploded in the stands. These measures will, at best, be effective at stopping the random baseball fan who’s carrying a gun or knife into the stadium. That may be a good idea, but unless there’s been a recent spate of fan shootings and stabbings at baseball games — and there hasn’t — this is a whole lot of time and money being spent to combat an imaginary threat…

It’s an attitude I’ve seen before: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.” Never mind if the something makes any sense or not.

In reality, this is CYA security, and it’s pervasive in post-9/11 America. It no longer matters if a security measure makes sense, if it’s cost-effective or if it mitigates any actual threats. All that matters is that you took the threat seriously, so if something happens you won’t be blamed for inaction. It’s security, all right — security for the careers of those in charge…

I can hear the objections to this as I write. You don’t know these measures won’t be effective! What if something happens? Don’t we have to do everything possible to protect ourselves against terrorism?

That’s worst-case thinking, and it’s dangerous. It leads to bad decisions, bad design and bad security. A better approach is to realistically assess the threats, judge security measures on their effectiveness and take their costs into account. [emphases mine] And the result of that calm, rational look will be the realization that there will always be places where we pack ourselves densely together, and that we should spend less time trying to secure those places and more time finding terrorist plots before they can be carried out…

If it’s in the name of security, we’ll accept it. As long as our leaders are scared of the terrorists, they’re going to continue the security theater. And we’re similarly going to accept whatever measures are forced upon us in the name of security. We’re going to accept the National Security Agency’s surveillance of every American, airport security procedures that make no sense and metal detectors at baseball and football stadiums. We’re going to continue to waste money overreacting to irrational fears…

We no longer need the terrorists. We’re now so good at terrorizing ourselves.

Yes, yes, yes!  If only a few decision-makers had more courage and more commonsense not to subject us to this.

Mega quick hits (part II)

1) I find this case of the Indiana woman charged with feticide to pretty fascinating.

2) The inefficiency of smaller government through tax breaks.

3) Headlines says it well, “Republicans have new plan to cut taxes for top 0.2%”  Priorities!

4) The Blackpoll Warbler weighs only 4 ounces.  Scientists have now confirmed it nonetheless flies 1700 miles nonstop over ocean.  Amazing!

5) Alabama’s former top judge pens a scathing indictment of our system of judicial elections.  Of all the wrongness in American democracy, judicial elections are certainly near the top.

6) I love the THX audio logo.  Therefore I loved this history of it.

7) I was quite interested to learn that alcohol taxes have gone way down because they are not indexed to inflation.  That’s bad, as it means more people will die from alcohol:

From a public health perspective, alcohol taxes are important. “Quite simply, alcohol taxation and other measures that increase the price of ethanol are effective in promoting the public health and safety, ” writes Duke University’s Philip J. Cook in his 2007 book Paying the Tab. “Higher prices are conducive to lower rates of underage drinking, traffic fatalities, and sexually transmitted disease.”

The logic here is simple. Higher taxes make alcohol more expensive. More expensive alcohol makes people drink less of it. And when people are drinking less, they’re less likely to suffer costly health problems or do stupid things like drive drunk.

8) For all those predicting the utter failure and doom of Obamacare, it’s not easy to be so wrong.  Chait on their dilemma.

9) Never thought I’d be linking the American Conservative, but good for them for a nice summary on why police brutality is systemic, not anecdotal.

10) California is taking a more sane approach to sex offenders.  Alas, given how politically toxic this issue is, we should not expect much of a spread in the sanity.

11) How to hire like Google does.

12) Fred Kaplan on why the Iran nuclear deal is a very good deal.

13) Big New York magazine feature on Hillary’s 2016 run that totally brings the political science.  Going into my course readings next semester.

14) The North Carolina legislature’s efforts to take over local politics finds its way into the NYT.

15) Why paid sick leave is good policy and how it is actually making some progress in Washington.

16) Denmark’s policy reserves antibiotics for sick pigs, rather than giving them to whole herds.  Would be nice if we could do the same.  And, if you think this would make our pork cost too much, nope:

Researchers at Iowa State University ran numbers to determine what it would cost American pork producers to put a Danish-style control system in place. The total was only $4.50 per animal, less than three cents more for a pound of pork — a pittance if it means keeping antibiotics that save human lives effective.

17) Apparently my ears are somewhere between 40 and 50 years old.  Good, because so is the rest of me.

18) Why does college cost so much anyway?  Sorry, no simple answers.

19) Connor Friedersdorf on how Rolling Stone’s UVA rape article violated the most simple, basic standards of journalism in pursuit of a good story.

Said Rosen, “None of those schools felt quite right. What kind of ‘feel’ is this? It’s feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior—given—narrative.” What if, he argued, “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist? “Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start,” he wrote. “Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.” And I think he is correct that searching for confirmation of a preexisting narrative is a common problem in narrative journalism generally and a factor that led Rolling Stone astray here.

Still, there is one sense in which Erdely’s account of her process seems dubious to me. The story of a fraternity that used gang rape as an initiation ritual for pledges would obviously be worth exposing if it were true. But no one familiar with the reality of rape on college campuses should’ve construed such a story as emblematic of the problem. Gang rapes absolutely happen. As Robby Soavenotes, Rolling Stone could’ve easily written a story about one that happened at Vanderbilt.

19) Chait also draws some interesting conclusions on the matter:

One of the peculiar, unexamined assumptions is that fraternity members are capable not only of loutishness or even rape, which is undeniable, but the sort of routine, systematized torture we would normally associate with serial killers or especially brutal regimes. The story describes a gang rape as a fraternity initiation ritual, complete with members referring to their victim as “it,” the way Buffalo Bill dehumanized his captive in Silence of the Lambs.

You don’t need to feel much affinity for Greek culture — I certainly don’t — to question whether depravity on this scale is plausible. It’s the sort of error that could only be produced in an atmosphere of unquestioned loathing. Caitlin Flanagan, who has reported extensively on the pathology of fraternity culture, told Hanna Rosin that Rolling Stone’s gang rape scene beggared belief. But Flanagan and Rosin have both offended the left in different ways, so their skepticism merely served to convince Rolling Stone’s defenders that the story’s skeptics were motivated by anti-feminism:

Yep.  I remember finding this story somewhat incredible when first reading it, but didn’t actually want to say so for this very reason.

20) Needle exchange programs are great policy.  Too bad too many politicians are convinced that they are encouraging drug use, despite the evidence to the contrary.

North Charleston shooting

Lots of thoughts.  First, though, the Onion just nails it:

“The number of law enforcement officers who have shot unarmed civilians and gone free over the past year has been extremely discouraging, but the fact that this policeman was arrested so swiftly shows that therecan be justice for victims so long as a bystander is nearby, has a camera phone on them, captures the whole interaction, and several dozen other circumstances play out in the precise sequence,” said North Charleston, SC resident Jenine Williams, echoing the sentiments of millions of Americans who told reporters they have faith that, as long as a fair-minded eyewitness happens to be passing by at the exact right time; has the inclination to stop and film; an unobstructed view; enough battery life and memory on their phone; a steady hand; the forethought to start filming an interaction with the police before it escalates into violence; is close enough to get detailed footage, but far enough away to avoid being shot themselves or seen by the officer and potentially having their phone confiscated; and it is daytime, then justice would certainly be served.

Yes, yes, yes.  You know this would’ve been buried (as the departmental report had already done) if not for the video.  How many “justified” police shootings every year are out-and-out murders, but we never know because there’s no video.  Far too many, I fear.

Doesn’t help that American police forces shoot way more people.  From an Economist article last fall:

I loved a bunch of comments that said stuff like, “but it doesn’t take population size into account” as if that could somehow make up for this kind of disparity.

Charles Blow hits one of my favorite (i.e., most frustrating) points:

But I would argue that the issue we are facing in these cases is not one of equipment, or even policy, but culture.

I would submit that cameras would have an impact on policy and culture, but that a change in culture must be bigger than both. It must start with “good cops” no longer countenancing the behavior of “bad cops.” It will start with those good cops publicly and vociferously chastising and condemning their brethren when they are wrong. Their silence has never been — and is certainly no longer — suitable. We must hear from them, not necessarily from the rank-and-file but from those higher up the ladder.

One of the most disturbing features of the Department of Justice’s report on the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson was the number of witnesses who said that they were afraid to come forward because their version of events contradicted what they saw as community consensus.

But isn’t the unwillingness, or even fear, of “good cops” to more forcefully condemn bad behavior just the same glove turned inside out?

Lest we forget, the events leading to the shooting were over a broken taillight.  A man died over a broken taillight.  That these stops are standard operating procedure is appalling enough, as Jamelle Bouie wonderfully lays out:

There are racial disparities in police stops—blacks are stopped twice as often as whites—but they aren’t related to traffic safety offenses, in which cops exercise a little less discretion and violations are equal within groups. Where we see a difference—even after we adjust for driving time (on average, blacks drive more and longer than whites)—is in investigatory stops. In these, drivers are stopped for exceedingly minor violations—driving too slowly, malfunctioning lights, failure to signal—which are used as pretext for investigations of the driver and the vehicle. Sanctioned by courts and institutionalized in most police departments, investigatory stops are aimed at “suspicious” drivers and meant to stop crime, not traffic offenses. And as the authors note, “virtually all of the wide racial disparity in the likelihood of being stopped is concentrated in one category of stops: discretionary stops for minor violations of the law.”

What we can say, however, is that the shooting of Walter Scott happened in an institutional environment where police officers are encouraged to make intrusive stops against people they deem suspicious. Overwhelmingly, those people are black American men. And as we’ve seen with stop-and-frisk tactics in New York City and with the behavior of the Ferguson Police Department, these stops aren’t effective; they yield fewer suspects and less contraband than what you get from more targeted investigations. Instead, they poison the relationship between departments and communities, creating mistrust and entrenching the view—among the police, the policed, and everyone else—that blacks are lesser citizens than their peers. Whether Slager, who is white, was racially biased—there’s no evidence he was—is irrelevant. What matters is that this universal suspicion is baked into the culture of police departments across the country, such that all kinds of officers—black as well as white—engage in profiling.

So we need to ask: Is this worth it? Does what we gain in crime control from investigatory stops justify the costs to individuals, families, and civic cohesion? Is it worth the extent to which these stops erode trust in police, discourage political participation, and create feelings of racial subordination?

I’m just going to say, “no, it’s not worth it.”

Time for things to change.  Yes, it’s great that the officer in SC is being held accountable, but so long as we treat him as “one bad apple” and do nothing to change the underlying problems in our current culture of policing, plenty more innocent (mostly minority) citizens are going to die.

Handwriting and forensic “science”

So, I really enjoyed watching the Jinx, and I certainly think Robert Durst likely killed all those people, but I was not entirely persuaded by the handwriting analysis that proved to be so crucial to how events ultimately unfolded.  The handwriting expert was given a target item and an item known to come from Durst and looked for similarities and found them.  I get that this is how a lot of forensic “science” works, but the problem is that it’s not actually science.  Oh, I do think it is indicative and telling.  But that’s it; nothing more.  Certainly not “scientific” evidence that would prove something beyond a reasonable doubt (e.g., DNA).

Actual science (and good social science!) seeks to disconfirm hypotheses, not confirm them, as is the case in the handwriting analysis.  A genuinely scientific analysis would try and rule out everybody except Durst, leaving no conclusion but that he must be the writer.  That’s how DNA works, you are essentially ruling out billions of other people until the only reasonable conclusion is that you have the DNA of the actual subject.  And, that’s what science is about– ruling out other possible explanations until you are left with a sole reasonable one.  And, of course, why science is never truly done, because you can always find more explanations to rule out.

Anyway, I’ve written plenty about the lack of science in forensic science, but actually seeing that handwriting analysis seeking confirmation, rather than disproof, really struck me while watching the Jinx.  And this forum in the NYT about the matter and how we judge forensic science gave me a good excuse to write about it.  For me, this is the key contributor:

The National Commission on Forensic Science was formed in response to widespread concerns that forensic evidence that lacked any meaningful scientific basis was being regularly permitted in trials. The concerns were not just about the “expert” witnesses, but about the judges who, according to the National Academy of Sciences report that led to the commission’s creation, have been “utterly ineffective” in assessing the quality of research behind the evidence.

And, it wasn’t that long ago, but can never really link too often to Radley Balko’s terrific series on how much junk forensic science there is and how it gets way to much respect from judges.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 619 other followers

%d bloggers like this: