Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On Police Brutality

A long-ish quote, but I thought this summary of the broad issues of police brutality from Taki's Magazine was interesting:
Dark decades of direct experience with human beings have given us reason to operate from an ecumenical distrust of human nature. ...
Since there’s literally no “government” beyond the humans authorized to run it, our distrust of human nature leads us to a special wariness of those who possess the legally sanctioned power to harm and extort others. Without ways to keep government power in check, the whole world would devolve into the Stanford Prison Experiment within a week. Then again, since the “governed” are also human beings, we also greet their every word and deed with suspicion—if not outright disdain.
So when someone complains about police brutality, our default presumption is that both sides are at least guilty of something and that we’d need clear evidence of innocence to exonerate anyone. Yes, sure, some police officers are sadistic rageballs who take out their castration fears on the skulls of hapless citizens they’d stopped for minor moving violations. But flipping the flapjack over, many citizens are irredeemably unhinged drunken lunatics who endanger everything in their path and aren’t above lying to score a huge civil-rights judgment that the taxpayers, not the “state,” are obliged to pay. Faced with such a dismal choice, why should we even pick sides?
Sadly, not everyone is so evenhanded. Opinions about police mostly fall into two rigid camps: “Shoot the scum pigs” or “Shoot the scum criminals.
It's a good point - it's rare to find any kind of nuance in reporting about allegations of police brutality.

Then again, I'm not sure that this leads to an equal presumption against both parties. The level of relative disdain will vary a lot with the facts of the case, something which the Taki editorial recognises. My general feeling is not that police are insufficiently punished for incorrect judgment calls, but more that they're insufficiently punished for egregious bad behaviour, when it's clear they're in the wrong. The city gets a civil lawsuit, the cop gets a slap on the wrist.

Sometimes you are faced with cases where things do seem strongly leaning one way rather than the other. Radley Balko describes how the NYPD recently shot dead an unarmed man who was in the process of trying to flush marijuana down the toilet.

The question is, of course, how reasonable were the police actions ex-ante, rather than ex-post? How often do suspected armed drug dealers have guns? How often do they shoot at police? How frequently do the cops get this wrong, and what are the consequences? You can't know the answers to all these things just by looking at the cases where they get it wrong.

Balko's remarks I think focus correctly on what's worst about this whole event, and they are searingly bitter:
But let’s not lose sight of what’s important, here. Thanks to the good work of these undercover narcotics cops, the pot Ramarley Graham allegedly flushed down the toilet just before he was killed is no longer on the streets of New York. No children will get high on that pot. And that’s really all that matters.
The whole damn raid shouldn't have happened in the first place. If the cops had been assigned to some task that was actually improving welfare ex-ante, we'd be much more willing to tolerate mistakes in judgment.

Brutal actions in furtherance of astonishingly bad policy - that's what really stings.

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