Monday, December 15, 2014

Enhanced Policing
Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post has written several powerful columns recently about police violence targeted at young black men.  Below is most my favorite and full text at the link above as well.

“I can’t breathe….  Those were Eric Garner’s last words, and today they apply to me. The decision by a Staten Island grand jury to not indict the police officer who killed him takes my breath away.

In the depressing reality series that should be called “No Country for Black Men,” this sick plot twist was shocking beyond belief. There should have been an indictment in the Ferguson case, in my view, but at least the events that led to Michael Brown’s killing were in dispute. Garner’s homicide was captured on video. We saw him being choked, heard him plead of his distress, watched as no attempt was made to revive him and his life slipped away.

This time, there were literally millions of eyewitnesses. Somebody tell me, just theoretically, how many does it take? Is there any number that would suffice? Or is this whole “equal justice before the law” thing just a cruel joke?

African American men are being taught a lesson about how this society values, or devalues, our lives. I’ve always said the notion that racism is a thing of the past was absurd — and that those who espoused the “post-racial” myth were either naive or disingenuous. Now, tragically, you see why.

Garner, 43, was an African American man. On July 17, he allegedly committed the heinous crime of selling individual cigarettes on the street. A group of New York City police officers approached and surrounded him. As seen in cellphone video footage recorded by an onlooker, Garner was puzzled that the officers seemed to be taking him into custody for such a piddling offense. He was a big man, but at no point did he strike out at the officers or show them disrespect….

The coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide….

There are two big issues here. One involves the excessive license we now give to police — permission, essentially, to do whatever they must to guarantee safe streets. The pendulum has clearly swung too far in the law-and-order direction, at the expense of liberty and justice.

As I wrote Tuesday, we are so inured to fatal shootings by police officers that we do not even make a serious effort to count them; the Brown case illustrated this numbness to the use of deadly force. Garner’s death is part of a different trend: The “broken windows” theory of policing, which holds that cracking down on minor, nuisance offenses — such as selling loose cigarettes — is key to reducing serious crime.

Police officers, whose brave work I honor and respect, are supposed to serve communities, not rule them.

The other big issue, inescapably, is race. The greatest injury of the Brown and Garner cases is that grand juries examined the evidence and decided there was no probable cause — a very low standard — to believe the officers did anything wrong. I find it impossible to believe this would be the result if the victims were white.

Garner didn’t even fit into the “young black male” category that defines this nation’s most feared and loathed citizens. He was an overweight, middle-age, asthmatic man. Now we’re told that the man who killed him did nothing wrong.

Eric Garner was engaged in an activity that warranted no more than a warning to move along. But I recognize that he also committed a capital offense: He was the wrong color.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Seize the Eric Garner Moment
Is George Will offering to meet us half way?  When conservative commentators, like George Will and Glenn Beck and others, express outrage at the failure to indict the officer who choked Eric Garner to death we need to pause and take stock:  this could be a time to try to get something done.  This particular conflict might be presenting an opportunity to lead.

Washington Post columnist George Will argues that Eric Garner’s death is an ‘affront’ to our national ‘sense of decency.’  He calls the grand jury’s failure to indict the officer ‘inexplicable and probably inexcusable.’  On this point, perhaps, there appears to be widespread agreement across the country.  

Will points his finger at our criminal justice system as the source of the problem. Again, a surprisingly candid and non-ideological position for a conservative to stake out, suggesting the possibility of common ground.  And Will goes one step further on his journey to meet opponents half way:  a criminal justice system hooked on mass incarceration that is more about politics than crime control is what best accounts for Eric Garner’s death.  In his own words…
“He [Eric Garner] lived and died in a country with 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. In 2012, one of every 108 adults was behind bars, many in federal prisons containing about 40 percent more inmates than they were designed to hold. 

Most of today’s 2.2 million prisoners will be coming back to their neighborhoods and few of them will have been improved by the experience of incarceration. This will be true even if they did not experience the often deranging use of prolonged solitary confinement, which violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments” and is, to put things plainly, torture. 

The scandal of mass incarceration is partly produced by the frivolity of the political class, which uses the multiplication of criminal offenses as a form of moral exhibitionism. This, like Eric Garner’s death, is a pebble in the mountain of evidence that American government is increasingly characterized by an ugly and sometimes lethal irresponsibility.”

Well said, Mr. Will.  But here is where Will begins to go off the rail.  While rightfully pointing to the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration he then uses this as just bait so he can then switch to a focus on the need to reduce government regulation.  Here is how he does it.  He claims addressing mass incarceration requires us to “reach beyond matters of crime and punishment, to basic truths about governance.”  

And from here, it is smooth sailing for him to ignore the policy choices driving mass incarceration—zero tolerance policing in particular—to redirect our attention to taxes.  He claims to be analyzing ‘overcriminalization,’ but he does so by ignoring the types of minor, non-violent, offenses that have long been the bread and butter of our failed War on Drugs, choosing instead to focus on a New York State law criminalizing the sale of single cigarettes.

We know why he does this, of course.  First, like Rand Paul he is always eager to find a soapbox for his anti-government-regulation gospel. Second, he wants to use the Garner killing to advance his attacks on regulation, while also protecting his much-loved zero tolerance approach to policing.  And he does both by providing a folksy metaphor that, upon examination, does not fit—by design.

Will suggests we can help future Eric Garners by rolling back the government regulatory over-reach exemplified by the cigarette tax and preserving his cherished ‘broken windows’ metaphor as a guide for police work. Unfortunately, the folksy metaphor about the importance of tending to broken windows or street lighting is at odds with the police practice that occurs under its banner—by design.

Will and his allies consistently oppose policy and spending that would fix actual broken windows, street lights, or other signs of urban blight and decay.  Instead, he supports policy and spending priorities that move these funds into policing—and there are no police officers I am aware of who are paid to repair the physical deterioration in inner city neighborhoods.  Instead, they ‘tend’ to metaphorical broken windows by arresting (or, in the case of Eric Garner, killing) people in the neighborhood.  In his own words…

“Garner died at the dangerous intersection of something wise, known as “broken windows” policing, and something worse than foolish: decades of overcriminalization. The policing applies the wisdom that when signs of disorder, such as broken windows, proliferate and persist, there is a general diminution of restraint and good comportment. So, because minor infractions are, cumulatively, not minor, police should not be lackadaisical about offenses such as jumping over subway turnstiles. 

Overcriminalization has become a national plague. And when more and more behaviors are criminalized, there are more and more occasions for police, who embody the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, and who fully participate in humanity’s flaws, to make mistakes.”

Will is correct to note that overcriminalization has long been a national plague.  But not because we over-regulate cigarette sales.  Overcriminalization and the mass incarceration that results from it, as Will points out, is rooted in the criminalization (and aggressive zero tolerance policing) of the minor infractions Will insists we must continue to criminalize.  Our prisons are bursting at the seams with the non-violent drug offenders caught in this broken metaphor for police work, not with those arrested for selling cigarettes. 

On a related point, Will reminds us that we ignore the plight of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and others at our own risk.  He tells us that “Professor Douglas Husak of Rutgers University says that approximately 70 percent of American adults have, usually unwittingly, committed a crime for which they could be imprisoned.”  Since it is very common to be reminded by conservatives like Will that ignorance of the law is no excuse, 70% of us could easily have been in Eric Garner’s shoes, if criminality was the driving force behind zero tolerance policing.

So, George Will might want to meet us half way, but his understanding of half way is strategically designed to be a trap.  We should applaud his recognition of the national plague that is mass incarceration due to overcriminalization.  But we should insist on an actual response, rather than his metaphorical suggestion, that focuses on not criminalizing those minor infractions our police aggressively enforce under the banner of broken windows policing.  And combine this with an effort to provide funding for policy designed to fix the actual broken windows of urban blight.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I Can't Breathe
Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune provides a thoughtful analysis of how to talk about race and crime.  He points out that the typical black response to Trayvon, Ferguson and Eric Garner and more focuses on a pattern of treatment at the hands of law enforcement that varies on the basis of the color of our skin.  And the typical white (conservative) response is to ask why blacks do not do more to reduce black-on-black crime.

Chapman’s argument would be improved if it were more informed by New Jim Crow and included the ways race accounts for the differential crime statistics themselves, but his piece is worth reading, as far as it goes.

“The Giuliani view omits some vital facts. The epidemic of unarmed blacks being killed by police comes not when black crime is high but when it is low. Homicides committed by African Americans declined by half between 1991 and 2008.

Since the early 1990s, arrests of black juveniles have plunged by more than half. In New York City, where Eric Garner was killed by police, the rate of homicides by blacks is down by 80 percent. In Chicago, where most murders are committed by African Americans, the number last year was the lowest since 1965 — and this year’s could be lower yet.

What is also easy to forget in the denunciation of black crime is that the vast majority of blacks are not criminals. In any given year, less than 5 percent of African Americans are involved in violent crime as perpetrators or victims. The fact that blacks make up a large share of the violent criminal population gives many whites the impression that violent criminals make up a large share of the black population. They don’t.

Why don’t more blacks living in bad neighborhoods learn to behave like sober middle-class suburbanites? One reason is the shortage of stable families, steady incomes, good schools and safe streets.”

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post helps us see the opportunity here.  The president’s call for body cameras is a good move, but the opportunity is larger, because many conservative voices are now also outraged after the Eric Garner grand jury did not indict.

“There are any number of bigger things Obama could do, including alternatives to grand juries. This year, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker — no liberal — signed first-in-the-nation legislation requiring an outside investigation whenever anybody dies in police custody and a public report if charges are not filed. The president could use his pulpit to push for similar laws in the other states. He could at least demand a national count of police killings, which, scandalously, we still don’t have. Or he could take a broader approach to racial matters and revive a rewrite of elements of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court; there is already bipartisan support for such action.”

While Milbank sees opportunities to problem solve and build national unity at the same time…ESPN framed LeBron and others wearing “I can’t breathe” t-shirts as ‘polarizing athletes’ weighing in on a ‘polarizing issue.’ 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Twitter Challenges 'Just Police Work' Response
#crimingwhilewhite on twitter is generating an astonishing list of crimes committed by white folks that resulted in a police officer escorting them home, buying them groceries, or doing just about anything other than shooting them.

The Line Between Law-abiding and Law-breaking is thin and blurry
Everyone, even the most law-abiding among us, has probably broken the law, likely multiple times.  Here is a simple list of 67 common violations.
1.    driving faster than the posted speed limit

2.    driving faster than 20 MPH in a school zone

3.    seriously speeding on a highway

4.    minor shop lifting (including office supplies from work)

5.    cheating on taxes (for those old enough to understand)

6.    parking illegally

7.    consuming an illegal drug

8.    transporting (knowingly or not) someone in possession of an illegal drug

9.    living in a home where someone is growing pot

10. living in a home where someone is selling pot

11. driving after drinking alcohol

12. driving while drunk

13. driving with a child who is not in an approved car seat

14. consuming a prescription drug recreationally

15. taking a prescription drug from someone else

16. taking your parents’ liquor

17. jaywalking

18. getting into a fist fight

19. threatening to hurt someone

20. sex before your age of consent

21. underage drinking

22. failure to report a crime against a minor

23. trespassing

24. doing a donut on someone’s lawn

25. vandalism

26. smuggling cigarettes and wine in from Mexico w/out paying the duty

27. hiring an illegal maid

28. Using mother nature as your restroom

29. ripping the tags off of pillows and mattresses

30. movie hopping...paying for one but watching more than one

31. jumping the turnstiles on the subway

32. littering

33. illegal downloading

34. keeping a library book

35. seeing a crime and failing to report it

36. not stopping at a stop sign

37. bringing your own snacks into the movies

38. public intoxication

39. sex acts in public spaces

40. some sex acts in your own home with your legal spouse

41. loitering

42. pulling over on side of highway/road

43. doing u-turn in a prohibited zone

44. slander

45. too many occupants in car

46. not wearing seat belts

47. providing false identification…using a fake ID

48. inaccurately filling out a form for the government, or school, or a job app

49. workplace theft of time…personal calls, etc all while being paid for that time

50. fireworks (in some states)

51. backyard fires (in urban areas)

52. TPing someone's property

53. texting/talking on cell while driving (some states)

54. parking too far from curb (parallel parking)

55. improper passing

56. driving with a tail light out

57. driving with expired plates

58. driving without a valid license

59. opening someone else's mail

60. smuggling chocolate into the USA

61. violating Fire Code by exceeding maximum number of occupants in a space

62. making moonshine

63. riding a bicycle on the sidewalk

64. not wearing a seatbelt

65. staying after hours in a public park

66. running a red light

67. not cleaning up a pet's droppings when not dropped on your own property

Of course, we can all identify one or two items on this list that we might challenge as not technically illegal or whatever, but that is not the point.  Step back and take in the list as a whole.  The message is not really controversial:  we are all law breakers. 
That does not mean we are not upstanding citizens (some of us anyway!) who contribute to our communities, love our families, and work hard.  It turns out that the meaning of being a law-abiding citizen is something of a paradox in the real world. 
This matters and it doesn’t.
It doesn't matter, when we are blithely pointing our fingers at other’s law-breaking to demand ever more extreme forms of punishment for minor crimes.
It matters when we hear the most common response to any discussion of racism in our CJS: ‘there are more blacks in prison, so they chose to commit more crimes, and deserve it.’ 

If we start from the premise that we all commit crimes, multiple crimes, but only some of us are stopped and arrested and charged and sentenced and then labeled a felon for the rest of our lives, or even shot on the spot...