Tag: Police Militarization

Alton Sterling and Philando Castile

Two days, two police killings caught on video. The first was of Alton Sterling, who was selling CDs outside a store. Based on a tip, the police showed up to arrest him. Sterling, who had a gun, was being held pinned down by two cops when one shouted, “He’s got a gun!” The other officer then shot him point blank in the chest, killing him. There is horrific video of the shooting which you can find at the links but I won’t embed.

The second shooting was yesterday of Philando Castile, a man who worked in a Montessori school, had no record and had a concealed carry permit. His girlfriend claims that they were pulled over for a broken tail light. He informed the officer that he had a weapon, then reached for his wallet when instructed, at which point he was shot and killed. The video starts after the shooting and you can hear the officer yelling that he was going for his gun while the girlfriend says he was going for his ID. Later, they cuffed both the girlfriend and the four-year-old who was in the back seat. It was eerily reminiscent of the South Carolina shooting of a man going for his license.

Naturally, we have to wait until more information comes out. But both of these incidents look very very bad. In both cases, we have cops who reacted to what they thought was a dangerous situation but probably wasn’t. In both cases, they had guns drawn in situations where it’s not clear that was necessary. Sterling did not appear to be going for his gun and we don’t have any information that Castile was either. But in both cases, the officers reacted to the presence of a gun — one in an open-carry state, one with a concealed carry permit — as if the presence of the gun was automatically a threat.

Balko, who thinks the Sterling shooting may have been the result of a miscommunication between the officers:

Was Sterling resisting? It’s difficult to say, as is often the case with these videos. He may have been. But what looks like resisting often isn’t conscious fighting back or an affirmative attempt to hurt or injure police officers so much as instinctual self-defense. If the cops bend your arm in a way that it doesn’t want to bend, you feel pain. Your body tells you to resist whatever or whoever is bending your arm in that manner. So you push back. That isn’t aggression; it’s a natural product of our aversion to pain. Similarly, a suspect flat on pavement with a knee in his back or with multiple officers putting their weight on him may try to lift his chest. That can look like the suspect is trying to get up, resisting orders, and possibly trying to attack the officers. But he may also simply be trying to create some space to breathe. Many people panic when trapped under a lot of weight. Panic isn’t also aggression. It’s an attempt to survive.

All of which is why training police in de-escalation is so important. Physical confrontation like the kind we see in this video immediately raises the stakes and narrows the margin for error for everyone involved. A misheard directive, a misinterpreted gesture, or any other miscommunication can quickly become fatal.

If we really want to reduce fatal police shootings instead of merely adjudicating them, we need to train officers in tactics that subdue threats, reward those who resolve threats without violence, and discourage actions that create unnecessary confrontation, violence, and escalation. And when these shootings are investigated — be it by the DOJ, internal affairs departments, local prosecutors or an outside agencies — it’s time to start looking beyond whether or not the shooting was justified under the black letter of the law. It’s time to start asking whether the shooting was preventable — and if it was, whether the failure to prevent it was due to poor training, bad policies, or police officers acting in contravention of policies or training.

Was it legal? is the question we ask when deciding whether or not to prosecute. Was it preventable? is the question we need to ask to save lives.

That’s the key point. We are constantly told the policing is the most dangerous job in America (it isn’t in the top ten), that there is a war on cops (policing is safer than it’s been in over a century) and that there is a constant danger of ambushes (literally less than one in a million chance). We give officers pseudo-military training and tell them to react before they think because the world is full of people who want to kill cops. We give them military weapons and send them on SWAT raids. And then we act all surprised when a thousand people get gunned down by cops every year.

If you watch the videos, listen to the officers’ voices. They are nearly hysterical. Their reaction is nothing so much as, “What the hell just happened?” They are trying to justify what they just did. That’s a key point that’s missing here — the emphasis on aggressive policing creates bad and dangerous situations for civilians and cops. When you are in an emergency situation, you react on instinct. If that instinct is to be aggressive, you will be aggressive because you don’t have time for thought to intervene. If policing tactics emphasized de-escalation, not only would we have less civilians on the ground, we’d have less cops holding a smoking gun wondering what the hell they just did. And maybe a few less getting shot by deranged or scared civilians.

There are other issues here, of course. We need to decrease the number of laws and the number of interactions between cops and civilians. We especially need to rid ourselves of laws governing non-violent behavior, like selling CDs or having busted tail lights. The issue of race will be at the heart of this. And all the Second Amendment advocates should be appalled by a conceal-carry holder being shot like this (modulo any other facts that come out).

But the main thing we need to do is stop treating our country like it’s a war zone. Twenty years ago, crime was out of control. It has fallen precipitously since then. Even if aggressive tactics were justified in the 90’s — and I would argue about that — they are no longer necessary. If we’re going to give cops guns and body armor and send them out to enforce the law, if we’re going to make sure that citizens can exercise their Second Amendment right, we have to emphasize ways that these two things can co-exist without a law-abiding man bleeding to death in front of a handcuffed four-year-old girl.

The DOJ and Darren Wilson

The DOJ released their report today on why they will not be prosecuting Darren Wilson. The report concludes that the shooting of Michael Brown was most likely justified, citing the favorable testimony of disinterested witnesses and the unreliability of the witnesses who said Michael Brown surrendered. They report includes a lot more testimony than the Grand Jury report and is pretty convincing.

Mataconis:

Given the available evidence, this seems like a proper decision by the Justice Department. Even leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not one believes the state Grand Jury made the right decision in declining to indict Wilson on any charges at all in this case, there was quite simply no evidence that Wilson acted in a manner that even came close to violating Federal civil rights laws. Instead, this seems to be a police encounter gone wrong. If Wilson acted improperly, it doesn’t appear to have been out of any racial motive, and the evidence that has been released both in connected with the Grand Jury investigation and this investigation seem to make clear that Wilson’s use of force was, in the end, appropriate under the circumstances. Indicting him on Federal charges would have likely just led to an acquittal, and would have been an unjust application of Federal law.

I didn’t believe Wilson’s story because the idea of Michael Brown charging at him from so far away made no sense to me. But that now appears very likely to be what happened. People do stupid things, especially young male people.

There is one thing to note, however, from Ken White, a former prosecutor:

I find it remarkable because most potential prosecutions don’t get this sort of analysis. Most investigations don’t involve rigorous examination of the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses. Most investigations don’t involve painstaking consideration of the defendant’s potential defenses. Often investigators don’t even talk to potential defense witnesses, and if they do, don’t follow up on leads they offer. Most investigations don’t carefully weigh potentially incriminating and potentially exculpatory scientific evidence. If an explanation of the flaws in a case requires footnotes, you shouldn’t expect it to deter prosecution.

Instead, I’m more used to the prosecution assuming their witnesses are truthful, even if they are proven liars. I’m more used to contrary evidence being cynically disregarded. I’m more used to participants in the system stubbornly presuming guilt to the bitter end. I’m more used to prosecutors disregarding potentially exculpatory evidence that they think isn’t “material.” I’m more used to the criminal justice system ignoring exculpatory science and clinging to inculpatory junk science like an anti-vaxxer.

Why is this case different? It’s different because Darren Wilson is a cop. Cops get special rights and privileges and breaks the rest of us don’t. Cops get an extremely generous and lenient benefit of the doubt from juries. Nearly every segment of the criminal justice system operates to treat cops more favorably than the rest of us.

I would make two points of minor disagreement here. First of all, the reason this case was investigated so thoroughly was because of the national pressure that was brought to bear. The government was forced to explain, in great detail, why they were not going to bring a case. Of course, most of the time they don’t even bother. They don’t bring charges and we’re just supposed to accept that.

And that brings me to a second minor disagreement: it’s not just cops. Everyone who is in the system is treated differently than the rest of us. Just this week, David Petraeus was allowed to plead out to a misdemeanor for leaking the kind of information that would land most of us in prison for a felony. Hillary Clinton was revealed to have violated protocols and State Department rules, something that would ruin most people’s careers (and Clinton has a long history of breaking the rules and getting away with it). Seven cops and prosecutors were revealed to have lied their asses off in an effort to put an innocent man in jail and may face no consequences. More pot convictions were handed down to people who probably touched less of the stuff than our last three Presidents. The problem is more noticeable with cops because they are authorized to use deadly force and because of reflexive “thin blue line” defensiveness whenever a cop is accused of wrong-doing (although, to be fair, no cop will ever kill as many people as the State Department does with their unaccountable bungling). But this problem is general and it is widespread.

Darren Wilson didn’t shoot Michael Brown in the back. He almost certainly didn’t shoot him after he surrendered. But it’s hard to blame people for distrusting the system when it so often concludes that the people within are incapable of wrong-doing, be they cop, bureaucrat or politician. It’s hard to blame people for distrusting the system when it gives us a hell of a lot less benefit of a doubt, whether we’ve shot someone or made a mistake on our taxes. It’s hard to blame people for distrusting the system when it throws non-violent pot offenders in prison for half a century while concluding, almost instantly, that the people who seared a toddler did nothing wrong because they were acting on behalf of the state.

(And, in this particular case, it’s hard to blame people for distrusting the system when the DOJ has also released a report showing massive systematic racism in the city.)

I’m glad that Wilson will not be prosecuted for what now appears to have been a justified shooting. It’s one of the few things Holder’s DOJ has done right. But I wish this kind of skepticism was applied a lot more often and to people who are not cops, politicians, prosecutors, bureaucrats or political hacks.

Thrill (actually, Thrill’s sister; smarts clearly run in that family) made a very good point when the Grand Jury verdict was handed down:

My sister said it perfectly: “This is the wrong case to ask the right questions about”.

It’s now pretty conclusive that this was the wrong case. But let’s keep asking the right questions.

Symbolism Over Substance

So this happened:

Four members of the Congressional Black Caucus did the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture during remarks Monday on the House Floor, to show solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Mo.

Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) and Al Green (D-Tex.), referred to the gesture that has come to symbolize the outrage over the death of Brown, the African American teen shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson in August..

“ ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ is a rallying cry of people all across America who are fed up with police violence in … communities all across America,” Jeffries said.

Let’s put aside whether or not Michael Brown put his hands up*. Let’s instead look at whether their money is where their mouth is:

All four voted AGAINST an amendment in June that would’ve limited the transfer of military equipment from the Department of Defense to local police agencies.

It’s just another reminder for protesters more interested in policy reforms than partisan agendas that elected leaders, by and large, are only interested in how they look vis a vis police issues and not what they can do to improve the situation.

President Obama’s announcement on police militarization, for example, included no roll backs, just more bureaucracy, which promises more inertia. Nevertheless, the move was hailed as some kind of progress on the state of policing, including by Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who represents Ferguson and also voted against limiting police militarization in June.

The Democrats like to talk through both sides of their mouth. They pretend that they care about people being shot by police. And maybe, on some level, the do. But, in the end, they do what the police unions want and the unions want more militarized weapons for cops. The only real opposition to the policies and procedures that result in at least 400 Americans (and possibly as many as a thousand) being gunned down by police every year are being pushed by conservatives like Rand Paul. Because conservatives are more interested in solving the problem than working the racial politics (some of them, at least).

(*He almost certainly didn’t. Only a few witnesses claim he did and they’re not very believable. Moreover, the forensic evidence indicates he was shot with his arms down. PBS made a chart claiming the majority of witnesses said his hands were up. PBS either didn’t read the witness statements or deliberately lied as the witnesses claimed no such thing.)

Ferguson is All About … Gun Control?

There are many issues that the ongoing situation in Ferguson has raised. Racism. Race-baiting. Media surpression. Militarization of police. But what it is really about, when you get down to it is … wait, what?

The current issue of The Economist contains a striking factoid: “Last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero.”1 By contrast, there are about 400 fatal shootings each year by local police in the United States.

When I tweeted out this stunning stat earlier this week, no shortage of people noted an obvious explanation for why British police were so much less likely to fire their guns: there were far fewer guns around them. The U.K. has some of the world’s strictest limitations on gun ownership—handguns are all but prohibited, while shotguns and rifles require a police certificate and special justification (self-defense does not qualify.) There are an estimated 14,000 handguns in civilian hands in the U.K. (population 63 million) and slightly more than 2 million shotguns and rifles. Estimates for the number of total firearms in civilian hands in the U.S. float north of 300 million. Simply put, if the police in the U.S. seem a lot more on edge than those across the pond, they have good reason to be.

As obvious as this explanation for the militarization and trigger-happiness of U.S. police may be, it has gotten relatively little attention amid the alarming spectacle that has played out in Ferguson, Missouri following the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old and, more recently, the fatal shooting just a few miles away of a mentally-ill man holding a knife.

Every comment thread on Ferguson and police militarization has devolved into liberals screaming that this is really about gun control. If only we got those nasty guns out of the hands of the law-abiding, they say, our police wouldn’t need to be so militarized. They’d be just like the British cops.

Never mind that Michael Brown was unarmed or that Kajieme Powell was armed with a steak knife. Never mind that the protesters were unarmed when police were pointing assault weapons and sniper rifles at them. Never mind that the tear gas and rubber bullet response was justified because of people throwing rocks and bottles (and supposedly, Molotov cocktails). Never mind that our inner cities actually have low rates of legal gun ownership (in DC, the rate of legal gun ownerships is a tenth of the rest of the country). Never mind that fewer officers were shot to death on the job last year than in any year since 1887 (PDF) and that violent assault on cops are down by an equal amount. Never mind that the vast majority of weapons in this country are handguns and rifles, not military-grade weapons. No, it’s really about guns!

In his book on police militarization, Radley Balko talks about the North Hollywood shootout, which was used to justify some police militarization. But the North Hollywood shootout was a rare event, not a harbinger of more violent attacks to come. And the militarization of police throws its roots down in the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Rarely has gun ownership been used to justify it. And we have certainly never been told this was happening because of the 300 million guns that are owned by law-abiding citizens and are never used to commit crimes.

If we banned guns today, would the police give up their sniper rifles, flash bang grenades, armored vehicles and assault weapons? Of course not. They would claim that we still face danger from terrorism and drug gangs. They would still claim that any raid faced a danger of illegal military-style weapons. They would still default to an armed stance. Compare how officers responded to Kajieme Powell, emerging close by with guns drawn, to how British police dealt with a maniac wielding a machete. These are different approaches to policing, not a response to the phantom menace of super-predators with machine guns.

But gun control is the Left’s religion. Everything, including the finish of teams in the NFC East last year, proves we need more of it. This attitude comes from desperation: gun control is simply a non-starter for most of the country.

Ferguson Erupts

Four days ago, Michael Brown was shot dead by police in the suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Accounts of what happened differ dramatically. The police officer claims that he told Brown and his friend to get off the street and onto the sidewalk. They confronted him, attacked him in his vehicle and tried to take his gun. Brown was shot in the ensuing fracas. Other witnesses, including Brown’s companion (who has yet to be interview by police), claim that the officer initiated the physical confrontation, then shot Brown as he fled. The most explosive allegation, corroborated by several witness, is that the fatal shots were delivered while Brown was standing still with his hands over his head, having already been wounded. Ferguson police do not have dash cams installed so it is unlikely we will get video (which has frequently contradicted officer reports).

Protests began to erupt almost immediately. On Sunday night, some thugs took advantage of the situation to engage in a bit of recreational looting and criminality. Since the beginning, however, Ferguson police have responded to both looting and non-violent protests in full military gear and there are allegations that they’ve blocked the press from entering the scene (including a ban on aircraft flying over the area) and fired tear gas at peaceful protesters in their own backyards. You can view images from the events here. Note that many of these confrontations between protesters and fully armored cops are taking place in broad daylight with no rioting going on.

The militarized response to the looting and protests is not surprising, as libertarians have been noting for years:

Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo. so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of Riverfront Times, the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards? (“‘This my property!’ he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.”) Why would someone identifying himself as an 82nd Airborne Army veteran, observing the Ferguson police scene, comment that “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone“?

In fact, little of this situation is surprising if you’ve been paying attention. Every week or so, we hear a story of law enforcement violence, from firing flash grenades into cribs in Georgia to using illegal choke holds in New York. Every week seems to bring yet another incident of this violence being excused or ignored by those in authority. Every protest brings out the full riot gear and MRAPs. And every week, we hear about new military hardware given to smaller and smaller towns to deal with … whatever.

Part of this is because we live in the era of social media. Everyone has a camera on them so incidents of police violence are almost immediately documented and disseminated all over the world. But part of it also the increasing militarization of law enforcement. Radley Balko gets into this in detail in his book Rise of the Warrior Cop. Interviews with police chiefs and officers indicate that the use of militarized gear gives cops a warrior mentality that can lead to violence. If we dress our cops up like soldiers, tell them our cities our war zones and the the public is the enemy, we can’t pretend to be surprised when bad things happen. Balko even notes that the use of military gear can provoke violence from protesters. One former chief talks about how he avoided violent protests by keeping his riot police around a corner — out of sight, but ready to be used if it became necessary.

I don’t know what happened in this case. The fact that Brown was killed a ways down to the street makes the officer’s story seem unlikely. Any local investigation would be pointless not only given the “thin blue line” tendency of such investigations to exonerate cops, but the heavy racial tensions that already exist in the area. The FBI has said they will investigate and I think that is entirely appropriate given what has happened.

I do think the people using this as an excuse for criminality and looting are despicable. Not only are they confounding an already difficult case, they are only further antagonizing the cops and their supporters. No matter what has happened — and this could be pretty bad — burning your own house down is never the answer.

I don’t see that this ends well for Ferguson, though. The situation remains tense and the mutual distrust between citizens and police is only going to get worse. Even if this particular situation eventually calms down, the long-term impact is going to be very bad.

Baby Bou-Bou and the War on Drugs

bouphonesavanh01

Last week, a horrifying incident occurred in Habersham county. Cops on a drug raid tossed a flash-bang grenade into a house they were raiding when they found something blocking the door. That thing was a crib and inside the crib was 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh. He’s now in critical condition after suffering severe chest and face wounds and burns when his crib caught fire. Doctors give him only a 50 percent chance of survival. One lung has failed. By the time I post these words, he may be dead. He has three older sisters who love him to pieces and have been basically crying non-stop for the last week.

In the immediate aftermath, the cops claimed that everything they did was justified. They said there was a dangerous meth dealer in the house, that they’d seen men armed with assault rifles, that an informant had tipped them off and they’d made an undercover buy. They blamed the family for putting the toddler in harm’s way by dealing drugs.

Almost all of that is now known to have been a lie:

Police surveillance should have revealed that children had been playing in front of the the house for two months and that a van with four car-child seats was parked in the driveway that officers crept by the night of the raid, said Mawuli Mel Davis.

The warrant contended that an undercover agent had purchased methamphetamine at the house the day before and officials justified the no-knock warrant on the grounds that the drug dealer was dangerous and possessed firearms.

Raiders found no drugs, gun or cash — nor the suspected drug dealer — at the house but did find the Phonesavanh family who was visiting from Wisconsin after their house had burned.
The suspected drug dealer, 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva, was arrested later and was in possession of about an ounce of methamphetamine, Terrell said.

Now some people will try to tell you this is an isolated unfortunate incident. I don’t think you can write off the possibly fatal charring of a toddler that way. But they are also lying. Radley Balko has a rundown of incident after incident where flash-bangs have been deployed in these kind of situations. These are instruments of war. People’s houses have been burned down, people have been killed, other children have been scorched.

Nor is this an isolated incident in Habersham County. A few years ago, the same jurisdiction (different task force) gunned down pastor Jonathan Ayers. They thought he had bought drugs and came roaring up in an SUV, brandishing guns. The officers were in plain clothes and had little badges dangling from their necks. Not realizing they were cops, he tried to drive away and was shot and killed. The investigation exonerated the cops and concluded Ayers might have been paying for sex. His wife, however, found out that the cop who killed Ayers hadn’t been trained in the use of lethal force and the task force and investigators were hip-deep in nepotism. The county settled the case for $2 million. They clearly didn’t learn anything, however.

The lack of drugs and guns makes this more horrifying, but it’s kind of a side point. Even if the Phonesavanh family had been dealing meth — which they fucking weren’t — this raid would not have been justified. Launching a no-knock violent raid without even a basic assessment of the situation is something we wouldn’t do in Afghanistan, let alone Habersham County. Launching a no-knock violent raid of any kind in the United States against American citizens is something that should be used only in extreme situations, not routinely. That’s true even if they are dealing drugs. When you routinely launch drug raids in the middle of the night with military gear and officers trained to throw flash-bangs into homes, something like this is inevitable. We’re lucky there haven’t been more babies burned by this callous bullshit. And all for the glorious end of keeping Americans from getting high.

The War on Drugs is not a metaphor; it is literally a war on our own people. Baby Bou-Bou just became the latest horrific casualty. We’ve ended the War in Iraq. We’re ending the War in Afghanistan. When are we going to end this one? How many burned children, traumatized families and dead bodies is it going to take before we say, “enough!” I’m not even talking about decriminalizing drugs, here. You can keep drugs illegal. But isn’t it about time we stopped treating our own country like a battlefield?

Update: Let’s count the ways this could have been prevented.

  • They could have surveilled the house for more than about ten seconds.
  • They could have talked to a neighbor.
  • They could have used more than one informant.
  • They could have arrested the drug dealer in broad daylight when he came out of the house (he was kicked out of the house that day).
  • They could have noticed that the van in the driveway had kiddy seats in it instead of using it as cover.
  • Finding one door blocked, they could have entered from a different door.
  • They could have been trained to not toss a flash-bang grenade into an uncertain situation.
  • None of those steps involve legalizing drugs or letting criminals run free. They involve not immediately escalating a situation to a violent confrontation. Patterico makes this point:

    Don’t treat this like the cops intended this. They didn’t. When the story says deputies are distraught over this, I believe it. Cops don’t go into law enforcement to hurt small children.

    But look: if you use stun grenades in the service of a no-knock warrant like this, tragedies like this are going to happen. The question that police (and members of the public who pay the police) have to ask themselves is this: is it worth this kind of risk to arrest people for the crime in question? If the crime is murder, you might have one answer. If the crime is selling drugs, you might have another.

    And if the answer to that question (should we use this tactic knowing the risk?) is “no” . . . then don’t do it.

    There’s no question in my mind what the answer is.

    Bambi Gets What Was Coming To Him

    What the hell?

    Two weeks ago, [Ray] Schulze was working in the barn at the Society of St. Francis on the Kenosha-Illinois border when a swarm of squad cars arrived and officers unloaded with a search warrant.

    “(There were) nine DNR agents and four deputy sheriffs, and they were all armed to the teeth,” Schulze said.

    The focus of their search was a baby fawn brought there by an Illinois family worried she had been abandoned by her mother.

    Schulze videotaped the fawn they named Giggles during the two weeks she was there. The Department of Natural Resources began investigating after two anonymous calls reporting a baby deer at the no-kill shelter.

    The warden drafted an affidavit for the search warrant, complete with aerial photos in which he described getting himself into a position where he was able to see the fawn going in and out of the barn.

    Agents told staff they came to seize the deer because Wisconsin law forbids the possession of wildlife.

    They killed the deer. A day before St. Francis was scheduled to send the fawn to a licensed wildlife shelter.

    The Department of Natural Resources has the law, if not common sense, on their side. It was illegal for St. Francis to have the fawn and the DNR are supposed to euthanize deer in those situations. But you would think a phone call or a conversation with the employees would …

    Oh.

    “If a sheriff’s department is going in to do a search warrant on a drug bust, they don’t call them and ask them to voluntarily surrender their marijuana or whatever drug that they have before they show up,” [DNR supervisor] Niemeyer said.

    You see that? Having an illegal deer on your property is now considered the equivalent of having a stash of drugs. They have to stake out the location, get aerial photos and send in 13 armed agents just in case you try to flush the deer down the toilet or something.

    This is what I was talking about last week in my review of Rise of the Warrior Cop. If you give agents these kinds of resources, they will use them. Even if it is to capture and kill a fawn from an animal shelter.