Tag Archives: Police

Texas Clock Saga Still Not Quite Over

By now, you’ve probably heard of the story of Ahmed Mohamed, a high school student in Irving, Texas who was recently arrested on suspicion of brining a fake bomb to school when it was in fact just a homemade clock. This story has brought near universal mockery onto the town of Irving and the authorities involved, and it fortunately seems like there shouldn’t be any real negative consequences for the student. In fact, he’s been made into something of a celebrity. Barack Obama has even invited him to come visit the White House.

Of course, the story isn’t quite dead yet. The police are unbelievably continuing to defend their actions. Apparently, responding that the clock was, in fact, just a clock wasn’t considered to be forthcoming enough. Everyone seems to agree now that there was no intent to cause any problems, so the hoax bomb angle was a red herring all along. And, not surprisingly, Mohamed will be transferring to what is hopefully a more supportive school.

Obviously, as many point out, this whole case raises quite a few issues. There’s overly aggressive disciplinary procedures leading to law enforcement getting involved for fairly (in this case totally) innocuous behavior at school. There’s jumping to the conclusion that a student with the last name Mohamed must be up to no good if he has something with wires and a clock. There’s also an extreme lack of technical skills. Should anyone really think that even a fake bomb would have a big countdown clock like in a cartoon? Students often get in less trouble for far more dangerous things like putting dry ice in sealed containers. It should be apparent to basically anyone that the device was not a danger. Furthermore, schools should be encouraging students to work on projects outside class. It’s much more productive than playing video games all day.


NYPD Stop and Frisk Finally Disappearing

The New York Times reports that since 2012 the NYPD’s much-hated stop and frisk policy seems to have finally ended. Stops have declined by more than 90%. The stop and frisk policy, where the NYPD would (obviously) stop and search random people to look for contraband or evidence of criminal activity, was widely seen as a convenient way to harass marginalized communities. Only a small fraction of stops resulted in arrests while the poor communities where stops were most concentrated felt as if they were under siege from the police. Not only was stop and frisk not very effective, but it may have even been counterproductive by reducing trust in the authorities. Interestingly, while stop and frisk became famous under the Bloomberg administration, which strongly supported the tactic, the precipitous decline in stop and frisk occurred well before the election of de Blasio and also well before the policy was declared illegal by a judge in August 2013.

Police to Public: You Will Respect My Authoritah!

Another post related to the Ferguson controversy, since it’s still a big news story…


According to news reports, it looks like the unrest in Ferguson may finally be waning. News media are also reporting some demographic info on the people who have been arrested. An NPR report suggests that the vast majority of people arrested were not from the town, which really bolsters the case made by a number of people that the violence, looting, and vandalism was driven mainly by outside agitators.

What I really want to talk about is an opinion piece in the Washington Post by an LAPD officer who also teaches at a for-profit college called Colorado Technical University that has angered basically everyone. The criticism is so widespread that the story was featured on CNN.

The author’s basic argument is that people should do whatever police tell them to do and look like they enjoy it if they don’t want to get hurt. In other words, he is the real-life equivalent to Cartman in this episode of South Park. He also basically says that cops are on edge all the time and might hurt people at the slightest provocation. He at least admits that there are bad police officers and that people have rights but does not say how people can invoke their rights without being seen as “challenging” the police, which will of course invite a violent response. He also mentions that people should be empathetic toward officers and provide them with the same amount of respect that officers are supposed to – but often don’t – give the community. This portrayal of police, which is supposed to make us understand their plight, only makes them seem like the worst possible people to entrust with the duty of protecting the public. It’s also important to note that the LAPD, which employs the author, is one of the most notorious departments in the country for its problems with the surrounding community.

The problems with the author’s argument should be quite obvious and tons of people have attacked the piece. The idea that people should be automatically deferential toward police relegates non-police to a second-class status. The suggestion that people not complain or resist illegal police actions because courts can take care of problems gives police carte blanche to violate the Constitution until a more powerful police force comes to stop them. If people can’t directly confront blatantly illegal actions by law enforcement then they have no rights other than those the police allow them to have. If the author wants to position himself as an advocate for more reasonable police-community interactions, this is not the way to do it.

On Michelle Malkin, Or, How to Lie With Statistics

As I mentioned in a previous post, Michelle Malkin recently wrote an article tangentially related to the Ferguson, MO shooting that is an excellent example of how to mislead readers with statistics.

For some other background, Malkin is one of the most odious figures in the American political landscape. She literally wrote a book defending  the use of concentration camps and racial profiling against disfavored minorities, using the examples of Japanese Americans in the Second World War and Arab and Muslim Americans in the aftermath of the September 11th  attacks. Reason – another conservative-ish magazine which (along with many others) eviscerated this book, asking “Could it be that she actually supports the idea of detaining American Arabs and Muslims?” – has also responded to the article. I’ll reference that response later. I’m choosing this response because the two publications often find themselves on the same side in political arguments. Reason tends to lean toward anti-government activism, while the National Review still seems to be stuck in a Cold War anti-Communist mindset (with occasional, probably disingenuous, forays into libertarianism), seeing Stalinists hiding under every rock and behind every bush (and Obama too).

The gist of Malkin’s article is that we shouldn’t be concerned about overzealous and authoritarian police actions because being a police officer is a dangerous job. This central point is a fallacy. Being a police officer may be a dangerous job, and the vast majority of police officers may be doing their best to protect the average citizen, but this does not mean that the public should not concern itself with police misconduct or even the appearance of police misconduct. Public oversight of public institutions is a key part of democratic governance. If a significant part of the population does not feel that such an important institution as law enforcement is supporting their interests (regardless of whether this feeling is factually correct), that is a problem for everyone.  Institutions depend on the cooperation and support of the people.

Malkin’s logic doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but let’s now look at her statistics. First, she mentions that over a recent 10 year period, there were 1501 deaths of police officers. The title interprets this as saying that an officer is “killed” every “58 hours.” Reason has tracked down the source of this statistic. The article correctly summarizes the death statistic in the source. The title, however, is deeply misleading. “Killed” implies that the officers were murdered. The source splits up the deaths into a number of different classes and shows that many of these were due to things like illness and car crashes. Even the figure for shootings can be misleading: it may include accidents and suicides in addition to murders. The number of police officers murdered is likely to be much smaller than this figure. Any number of murders is bad, but Malkin is grossly exaggerating the danger of being an officer compared to the average job.

In her first “fact:” Again, the figure of 100 officers “killed” is suspect for the reasons above. The numbers of assaults and injuries are not sourced, so we have no idea what the context is. Are these police reports, criminal complaints, indictments, convictions, or something else like extrapolated polling data? Overuse of minor charges such as disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, etc. (i.e. “contempt of cop” in unjustified cases – see people arrested for assaulting an officer’s fist with their faces) is a widely known phenomenon so we don’t know how many of these are legitimate.

In the second “fact:” Again, these figures have no context. It is obvious that these numbers are from a different dataset than the earlier 10 year figures. I would guess that these are all-time figures. A few things: New York has been the largest city in the US nearly since the beginning of the country. It would not be surprising if the NYPD has seen the most deaths of any municipal police department when it is both larger and older than nearly every other major department. Likewise, Texas is now the second largest state and has been one of the largest states for decades. It, too, will be expected to have more deaths than most states simply because of size.

Total deaths is just not a very useful statistic. Number per capita per year is more better for comparing different numbers, whether the number of deaths per police population per year or number of deaths per total population per year. This removes many size and age effects, though there are many other reasons why a direct comparison may be difficult. This has no bearing on the article because the article does not compare the numbers to anything. We have no idea how the death rate compares to the general population, or to other traditionally dangerous jobs. Additionally, the article is talking about policing today but provides historical figures. Ten year figures are reasonable because it’s all in the recent past, but historical figures like the NY and TX ones are not. Crime rates have been dropping precipitously since the early 90s, so a historical average over a period of time greater than 10 years will not accurately represent the current environment. Trends over time are critical in understanding these statistics.

Malkin also provides a comparison of the number of police deaths during part of August 2014 to the same part of August in 2013. The rate for this year is 14% higher than last year, which sounds bad. But, the numbers are 72 in 2014 and 63 in 2013.  Now let’s assume that the rate of deaths was constant in 2013 and 2014. It’s not exactly true, but I’d like to see what happens if we make this assumption. Then, we can estimate that the average number of deaths in this part of August is (72+63)/2 = 67.5. We can probably safely assume that these are primarily single deaths (again, little context is provided, but multiple death incidents are almost certainly a small fraction of deaths). In this case, the number should be Poisson distributed. The standard deviation is then (67.5)1/2=8.2. You can see that both the 2013 and 2014 numbers are well within a single standard deviation of this estimated mean. The difference is simply not even close to statistically significant. This is because integrating the number over too short a period leads to numbers that are sensitive to statistical fluctuations. While this 14% increase may be true (I have no reason to doubt it), there is no way for us to tell that it represents a real increase in the murder rate and not statistical noise. The year-to-date totals (or even seasonal totals) will have much larger numbers allowing for a more precise comparison.

Malkin ends the piece with descriptions of several recent murders of police officers and then a gratuitous jab at Al Sharpton, a favorite bogeyman of right wing commentators who hasn’t been relevant in a long time. There aren’t any stats here but it’s clearly designed to elicit an emotional response against more liberal-minded people (represented by Sharpton) in the reader.

An important question, then, is why did Malkin include such suspect statistics and poor logic? In a Twitter response to the Reason author (linked in the Reason article), Malkin insinuates that it’s not due to ignorance. Rather, she wrote the piece to push an agenda – support police action no matter what, particularly when her political opponents oppose that action. She disclaims any responsibility for the statistics because it’s her source that’s biased, not her. Evaluating sources is an important part of persuasive writing, particularly if you have such a wide audience as Michelle Malkin. Knowingly using unreliable sources without comment is unethical while inadvertently doing so when one should know better is irresponsible. Malkin places her political agenda above her commitment to the truth. By acting as a purveyor of ignorance, she reveals herself to be a demagogue who has no place in debates on serious issues.

More on Media Reactions to Ferguson, MO

After waiting a few days, I decided to start looking at media reactions to what’s been going on in Ferguson, Missouri. A lot has happened too: The governor has announced a curfew and the Ferguson police released the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown. The police also, against the wishes of basically everyone involved, released a video clip they claim shows Brown stealing some cigars (or cigarettes – it’s not really clear) prior to the shooting. They admit that the confrontation between Brown and the officer was unrelated, so this is clearly just trying to defame the victim, who of course can’t defend himself. This is reminiscent of the attempts to ruin Trayvon Martin’s reputation prior to the Zimmerman trial – Trayvon Martin smoked weed sometimes and got into a few fights, therefore the shooting must have been reasonable. We have no evidence that this video is relevant (even assuming the video even shows what the police say it shows), and it will clearly serve to inflame the tension between the community and law enforcement. Given that the Ferguson PD is no longer in control, maybe that was the point of releasing the video.

Most of the major news media have continued to cover the story. I won’t link to most of the pages, but you can look for yourself in the opinion pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, online magazines like Slate and the Atlantic. Some of these articles are from before my initial post on the subject but I’m including them anyway. Most of the media is echoing sentiments similar to those I gave in this post. The militarization of law enforcement and the history of violence and oppression aimed against black communities throughout the United States have prominent places in most of the commentary.

Interestingly, while most of the media has come out strongly against the police, the conservative media is split over which side to support (the protesters or the police). Unsurprisingly, Reason (which is not strictly a right-wing magazine) is emphatically opposed to the police. Given the articles right now on the front page, it looks like Drudge is also on the side of the protesters. The Weekly Standard is doing its best to ignore the issue. The American Spectator is on the side of racism, denying the existence of any racial disparities in the justice system – as if historical context doesn’t matter – and blasting Rand Paul for even suggesting that racism could still exist. In a perfect example highlighting a point I made about President Obama, Ben Stein writes an incredible piece on that same website accusing Obama of hating America. While Stein’s piece doesn’t address Ferguson, it does provide a window into how the people at that magazine think. Stein writes that Obama is an “Angry Black Man” (yes, Stein really uses that term) whose hatred of America is evident in his inability to start enough wars to satisfy Stein’s bloodlust. I guess all Obama (Eric Holder too) has to do to be an “Angry Black Man” is to exist since he’s very carefully avoided giving strong public responses on many controversial issues.

The National Review actually shows some diversity of opinion on the topic of Ferguson. Ever-loathsome commentator Michelle Malkin decided that this was a good time to salute the nation’s police officers. She focuses on the fact that being a police officer is not the safest job in the world (though not the most dangerous either), with a number of officers killed every year. In the process, she uncritically lends support to the idea of American cities as “war zones” and police as a military occupation force. She also uses statistics in a highly misleading and unethical manner. It’s bad enough that I think I’ll write a separate post on lying with statistics. The clear implication of her article is that police should be free to murder citizens without restraint because their job can be dangerous. Jonah Goldberg writes an odd but mostly reasonable article calling to reserve judgment until an investigation into the initial shooting is done but also calls for police to be more sensitive and more responsive to the communities they’re supposed to protect. He also criticizes the attempts by some to blame Obama (why people are doing this, I have no idea) for what’s happening.

Kevin Williamson provides one of the laziest arguments possible: The unrest is (of course) the fault of the Democrats and their liberal policies like support for public schools and public transportation. Similarly to the many conservative figures who coincidentally just happened to discover the evils of Big Government on a certain Tuesday night in November, 2008, Williamson is clearly trying to attract libertarians to his decidedly non-libertarian cause (electing Republicans). To Williamson, redlining, white flight, and urban disinvestment are just natural responses to the excesses of Democratic control (many think that these cause many urban problems and lead to near-permanent Democratic control). Police are bad because they’re the government, and the government is axiomatically bad. Only local government policies matter, not state, federal, or non-governmental policies designed to impoverish certain communities (obviously and dangerously untrue). Giuliani saved New York from becoming a hellish dystopia (he didn’t). It’s almost unbelievable that these kinds of sentiments would come from a person writing in a magazine that once explicitly called for the subjugation of non-white people (conservative intellectual hero William F Buckley, at least during and before the Civil Rights era, was an unrepentant white supremacist). I would have at least hoped that the National Review would be more sensitive to the plight of those it fought so hard to keep in (figurative, if not literal) chains. There are many other articles that I won’t discuss here, but you can easily look for more.

A Few Thoughts on Ferguson, MO

Obviously, what’s been going on in Ferguson, Missouri (here’s a recent article if you haven’t been paying attention) has been one of the biggest news stories of the week.

In short, there was yet another case of an officer in a heavily white department shooting an unarmed young black man in a mostly black community. There are conflicting reports of what exactly happened, but no one disputes this point. (That the police department doesn’t seem to be too eager to release information suggests that the truth may not be on their side but we haven’t seen much evidence yet.) In the wake of the shooting, there was a lot of anger within the community, leading to protests and some rioting/looting/vandalism. The police responded in an absurdly heavy-handed manner, bringing in military surplus equipment, including weaponry, armored vehicles, and camouflage uniforms. The police’s attempts to gain control of the situation – including arresting journalists and even local officials – appear to involve a plethora of constitutional violations. I’ll leave the legal issues to the lawyers, but I think it’s probably safe to say that the lawsuits and investigations will continue for years to come.

Much of the commentary identifies two main issues leading to events like this.

The first is what’s been termed the “militarization” of the police. Many police departments appear to increasingly regard the general population as some kind of enemy force that must be contained. SWAT teams are sent to respond to protests and even to carry out arrests or searches when no violence is expected. Many have pointed to programs such as those where the Pentagon sells surplus or outdated military equipment to police departments as an important cause of this. The hypothesis is that once a department has fancy toys like armored vehicles and heavy (for police) weaponry it will feel compelled to use those toys in order to justify the purchases. I use the word “toys” intentionally because that is exactly what these things are. The vast majority of police departments have absolutely no need for something like an armored vehicle.

In this case, it appears that the police were more interested in playing soldier than actually doing their job. Putting on such a ridiculously militaristic display only serves to intimidate the protesters, who have a constitutional right to protest, as well as the general populace who will feel under siege regardless of whether or not they are involved in the protests. The police department’s response to the initial protests and rioting has clearly only served to inflame the community’s anger.

The proliferation of military hardware in the hands of police does not explain why the community is so enraged. I don’t know the exact situation of Ferguson, Missouri, but it has been reported that there’s been tension between the police and the community for some time. However, this is something that we’ve seen before. Too often we have seen seemingly trigger-happy police unnecessarily fire their weapons and injure or kill someone (innocent or otherwise). Far too often the victim is a young man from a minority group and, in particular, a young black man, as in this case.

While the hostile attitude shown toward the people by some police departments is seen as a symptom of the militarization of law enforcement, I would argue that this isn’t really true. In some sense law enforcement has always been militarized against marginalized communities. When the NYPD stops and frisks an average young black man at least once a year (and Hispanics don’t fare much better) even though that is a wildly inefficient policy, it certainly seems like the police are at war with minority communities. This feeling is only magnified when you consider the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the brutalization of Abner Louima, and the lack of any real consequences for the officers in many such cases. When the Albuquerque Police Department kills as many people as the NYPD (from a city over 10 times as large) or when the Maricopa County police spend their time harassing anyone who maybe isn’t a citizen and investigating the president’s birth certificate instead of prioritizing real crimes it seems like the police in those cities are at war with the people as well. When the LAPD can beat Rodney King half to death on video and get away with it, why would anyone in the black or Hispanic communities (the urban underclass) have any trust in law enforcement or the justice system? What about when the East Haven police sit outside Hispanic/Latino-owned businesses to harass and threaten their patrons? Or when a BART officer shoots a handcuffed Oscar Grant, tries to cover up what he did, and is then only found guilty of involuntary manslaughter? These aren’t incidents from the distant past. These happen all the time throughout the country. The fact is, almost no one from a marginalized group, particularly a marginalized ethnic minority, has any reason to place their trust in the police and the justice system. Too often justice clearly never happens.

Given this context, and given the apparently already simmering tensions between the community and the police in Ferguson, MO, the community has every reason to distrust the police in their handling and investigation of the shooting. Furthermore, the police have an obligation to allow peaceful protests expressing this anger while doing what they can to prevent rioting and vandalism. Imposing a type of quasi martial law on the town only confirms the community’s feelings about those who are supposed to “protect and serve” the people.

So far, this case seems somewhat different. The president has responded, though he can’t be too forceful lest his opponents use that to discredit the very real emotions of the community (and also due to needing to avoid the damaging stereotype of the “angry black man”). The federal government is investigating. The state has relieved the local police of control in an attempt to defuse tensions. People from across the political spectrum, including many that are normally expected to hold rabidly pro-“law-and-order” views, have called for finally rolling back the militarization of the police and for police to do more to earn the trust of those who rightfully question their actions and motives. Hopefully this righteous anger will last and lead to real reforms, but honestly, I expect that things will go back to normal quickly.