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Thursday, August 21, 2014
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ... Technology ...

I’m going to weigh in with some comments on the Ferguson, MO situation and the difficult national issues that it touches upon. Before I offer my own thoughts, I would like to summarize a few articles by a few pundits who I feel offered some very cogent observations about the tragic events that have transpired over the past 2 weeks.

Charles Blow in the NY Times states that

discussion about issues in the black community too often revolves around a false choice: systemic racial bias or poor personal choices. In fact, these factors are interwoven like the fingers of clasped hands. People make choices within the context of their circumstances and those circumstances are affected — sometimes severely — by bias . . . These biases do material damage as well as help breed a sense of disenfranchisement and despair, which in turn can have a depressive effect on aspiration and motivation. This all feeds back on itself . . . If we want to truly address the root of the unrest in Ferguson, we have to ask ourselves how we can break this cycle.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar says that the ultimate problem is more a matter of bias and class presumptions against those living in poverty.

This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor. And that’s how the status quo wants it.

In an article that was printed before important facts about the shooting became available, Professor John McWhorter weighed in against intentional racial bias and brutality on the part of the police. But Prof. McWhorter tempered his premature criticisms by observing that black communities need to focus more on the problems of violence and criminal behavior:

Looking inward. There’s something else, harder to discuss but, like so many such things, urgent nonetheless. Deep breath: The black community cannot pretend that the stereotype of black men as violent comes out of nowhere . . . Young black men commit about 50 percent of the murders in this country, 14 times more than young white men. Or, where do murder rates among young white men go up each summer the way they do among black ones in cities like Chicago? “Flash robs” happen when large groups of teens beset a store and steal from it, and I’m sorry, but these are rarely white affairs.

Megan McArdle pointed out that Ferguson has been undergoing relatively rapid demographic change: it had a white majority in 1990, an almost even split in 2000, and a black majority in 2010. However, its political leaders and police remain mostly white. Whose fault is that? Did the white-dominated political organizations in Ferguson intentionally refrain from recruiting black candidates and government employees? Or has the new black majority failed to politically organize and provide a base for potential black candidates? Probably both.

This is comparable in some ways to how Newark, NJ had a white mayor until 1970 with a largely white police department until the mid to late 70s, even though Newark has had a black majority population since 1965. And thus there were civic disturbances/riots in Newark in the late 60s. Perhaps Ferguson is now going thru a similar process, unfortunately.

And last but not least, Mark Steyn decries the lack of camera recording systems for local police, despite all the aid provided by the federal government for military-style weaponry.

The most basic problem is that we will never know for certain what happened. Why? Because the Ferguson cruiser did not have a camera recording the incident. That’s simply not credible. “Law enforcement” in Ferguson apparently has at its disposal tear gas, riot gear, armored vehicles and machine guns …but not a dashcam. That’s ridiculous. I remember a few years ago when my one-man police department in New Hampshire purchased a camera for its cruiser. It’s about as cheap and basic a police expense as there is. And, if we have to have federal subsidy programs for municipal police departments, we should scrap the one that gives them the second-hand military hardware from Tikrit and Kandahar and replace it with one that ensures every patrol car has a camera.

Now, my own comments on the matter.

First, I’m not going to add anything but general agreement to the many valid criticisms against the initial response to community protests by the Ferguson and Saint Louis County police. Two days after Michael Brown was killed, the Los Angeles PD killed a young mentally ill black man in questionable circumstances. There have been community tensions in L.A., but no looting or tear gas yet; the LAPD seems more proactive in engaging the community in an informative and respectful fashion.

And while I’m not adding anything, let me also not add anything to the valid criticisms against the national media figures who rush to judgement in every white-against-black incident, regardless of the particulars. They obviously arrived early and are staying late in Ferguson. As commentator LZ Granderson said, “the black community does a disservice to itself when it allows charlatans to come into these situations, make a name for themselves and then evacuate the situation. Now, I could drop names but I think we all know who I’m talking about.”

As to the shooting incident itself, here’s what I will add:

1.) The basic facts are starting to become clearer; but a dramatic fault line remains between how the police and how the black community (a very vocal portion of it, anyway) interpret those facts. In a nutshell, who started it? Who was the aggressor and who the victim?

2.) Some black voices (and liberal white voices) cast Officer Darren Wilson as the aggressor, claiming that he used unnecessary deadly force in a situation that did not call for the use of a gun, thus evidencing an anti-black racial intent, an intent allegedly typical of many white police officers. Under this interpretation, victim Michael Brown was physically assaulted during the officer’s stop of the victim. When the victim attempted to run away from this assault, the officer pulled his weapon and verbally threatened to shoot him, perhaps even firing an initial shot that missed.

Brown thus stopped, turned around and attempted to surrender; he attempted to convey to the officer that he would comply with the officer’s orders. However, the officer went ahead and used his weapon on the victim, killing him with 2 shots to the head along with various shots to the body (one interpretation is that the shots to the eye and forehead were the final shots, received as the victim was falling down after taking the body shots).

3.) By comparison, those friendly to the police, including many conservative commentators, say that the victim was acting aggressively and irrationally, as evidenced by the store robbery video taken 15 minutes before the incident. Officer Wilson was doing his duty; he stopped to order Brown and his companion to not walk in the middle of the street, as to avoid an incident with a moving vehicle. The officer pulled away from the scene, but then stopped his vehicle and backed up to where the young men were because, in the moment after leaving, he became aware via radio of a recent nearby robbery by two young African American men. It was thus legitimate for the officer to stop and question the men, given that report.

The victim allegedly then attacked the officer as he attempted to get out of his vehicle, evidenced by the reports of the officer sustaining facial injuries. The officer then attempted to pull his gun; the victim may have attempted to physically interfere with the officer’s drawing of the gun, and in the struggle the officer may have discharged an initial shot that did not hit anyone. The victim then decided to run away, but after retreating some distance he stopped and turned to face the officer, who by then had his weapon pointed at the victim, ordering him to desist. Then the victim started running towards the officer in a threatening fashion.

The record for a 40 yard dash is about 4.3 seconds; lets say that Brown was around 20 yards away from Officer Wilson (one estimate is 35 feet), and not being a professional sprinter, could cover 20 yards in about 6 seconds. The officer arguably could not have retreated to the safety of his vehicle during this interval; human recognition time is perhaps ¼ second, but it takes the rest of that second to decide how to respond, then another half second or so to get one’s muscles in motion. So the officer arguably would have had about 4.5 seconds to get back in his vehicle, close and lock the doors and roll up the windows as to achieve safety. That would arguably be cutting it close. Wilson conceivably could have ran away, but perhaps we don’t want our police officers running from threatening situations; that would convey a bad message, promoting disrespect from potential bad guys in the future.

Thus, per what I believe to be legitimate social policy regarding the maintenance of police control and dominance in threatening situations, Officer Wilson stood and fought what purportedly was an intentional threat from Brown, i.e. to run into Wilson and tackle him, NFL style. The officer decided to use deadly force from his gun in response to this threat.

That’s the police / conservative interpretation, as I read it.

4.) Because there was no camera on the police vehicle, the community can never know for sure which interpretation is correct. There allegedly are witnesses; the victim’s companion (Dorian Johnson) has already presented his interpretation, favoring the aggressive cop scenario. Supposedly there are other eyewitness reports supporting both the aggressive victim and aggressive cop viewpoint. Given the heat of passion triggered by such an incident, it will be near impossible to satisfy everyone. If only a video with corresponding audio were available. That MIGHT have resolved this incident before it boiled over into violent protests and ongoing confrontations with the police, or at least could have minimized them.

5.) Even if the police narrative is entirely correct, one needs to ask if gunfire was needed to stop Michael Brown’s alleged “bum rush”. Really now, in the high tech era of 2014, is the good old lead-slinging gun still the only option when a police officer is physically threatened? Aren’t there other ways of stopping an aggressor who is not otherwise using a gun or similar deadly weapon?

6.) On reflection, perhaps there there does not exist a good option for what might have happened to Officer Wilson in Ferguson . . a hand-held taser may not be effective against a large person attempting to tackle a smaller person . . . rubber bullets might not stop a large body in motion at close proximity . . . ditto for mace . . . and perhaps not every police officer could reasonably be expected to ju-jitsu a 290 pound teenager running at him. Still, questions remains regarding police training and police tactical policy in such situations.

If an attacking party does not brandish a deadly weapon, does the defending officer need to shoot to kill? Officer Wilson obviously applied a “shoot until he completely stops” tactic. That may be fully justifiable if the attacking party has a weapon or is an immediate life threat to someone else (e.g. a hostage situation or sexual assault). However, if the situation involves a strong-arm, close-range assault by a lone individual, could police possibly use a lower-level shooting tactic, i.e. attempt to hit non-lethal areas of the body core (as Wilson did with 4 of his 6 shots), then retreat and reassess before fully incapacitating the attacker?

I’m not a cop, and I don’t know what it would be like to be in the situation Officer Wilson allegedly faced. Actually, I’m not a cop for good reason – I’m sure that I would panic. I would either freeze or use irrational judgement and apply too much deadly force, no matter what color a 290 pound attacker might be. I might shoot first, think later. We train and pay cops to keep on thinking, no matter how bad the circumstances.

7.) With that caveat, I believe that it is legitimate for me, as a member of the public, to question what tactical policies are used by the police in such situations. Assuming that the situation justifies use of a gun, i.e. that no less dangerous options reasonably exist, should threatened police officers always respond with maximum discharge, without regard for the life of the attacker, without balancing the overall circumstances? I.e., even if a physically small, old white guy like me started trotting (quite irrationally) towards a police officer after he told me to stop, would the officer would be justified in firing shots until I was completely on the ground, even though that level of firepower may well kill me?

Perhaps this needs to be discussed, once cooler heads prevail. Was Officer Wilson using accepted and widely agreed-to police tactical policy in the [admittedly harrowing] situation that he allegedly faced on Canfield Drive? If no, then there is a problem with Officer Wilson and with the Ferguson Police. Steps then must be taken to enforce whatever the better tactical policy is.

8.) If what Officer Wilson did turns out to have been in keeping with accepted police tactical guidelines (thus relieving him of any criminal or administrative sanction for what happened on August 9), then perhaps those guidelines need to be publicly reconsidered for future purposes. Admittedly, we are asking a lot from our police; we require them to develop and use almost super-human, computer-like mental abilities so as to make cool and complex snap judgements in terrible situations like this. Being a policeman or woman is definitely NOT for everyone (certainly it was not for me, given my tendency to panic too quickly).

9.) Perhaps we also need to turn to neuroscience and the burgeoning field of brain-mind research as to help our local governments to better identify people who CAN stay cool long enough in terrible situations, and then train them to make the best possible judgements quickly in situations when serious public threats and lethal force are in play. Perhaps all the things we now are learning about how the brain and mind work can help to better train our police to fully develop and constantly maintain such abilities.

I know that technology and police policy discussions are not the answer to the underlying conflicts being faced in Ferguson. But still, it seems to me that a better understanding of police tactics and the expanded use of certain technology (mandatory use of video / audio recording systems in all police vehicles, direct use of neuroscientific research and field studies to better select and train police officers) could help to promote public understanding, reduce the confusion that has helped to inflame the Ferguson situation over the past 2 weeks, and minimize the use of deadly force while achieving public protection.

But I also realize that better technology and reformed police tactics can’t change the underlying bias and prejudicial attitudes / stereotypes within our country that increasingly box the poor into their unfortunate circumstances (including negative attitudes within the law enforcement sector). This is what our nation needs to “have a conversation” about, as Kareem Abdul Jabbar implies. This is where the notion of “reparations” gains credibility within the context of social morality. But sorry, TaNesi Coates, no reparation check for you, as you seem to be doing just fine writing articles about racial reparations for The Atlantic.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:49 am      

  1. Jim, You have a thorough and good summary of the situation in Ferguson. A couple of points come to mind, tho. I know that what I have to say will not be as well organized as yours; more likely, what I have to say will be much more disorganized. So be it . . . .

    Basically, what strikes me in almost all such situations is that nobody in the situation is “right” in every regard and everybody is “wrong” in some part of the situation. It seems to me that the reason for this “nobody right and everybody wrong” aspect of these kinds of things is that little of the intellect is working at the time.

    Reading your point “6)”: I remember back in the early 1970s the boiler in our building had some problem; something in it exploded; a massive noise was the result. It sounded as if the building had been hit by something life threatening. My husband and I were in the laundry room together — and the boiler was in a room adjacent to the laundry. (We were not the only ones thinking “danger!!”, as all the occupants of the same building were equally frightened.)

    My reaction to the situation was to stand there and consider exactly what way out of the room was the best; should I go this way? If I did I would end up “over there”; was that the best place to be? However, if I went the other way, etc., etc. I stood there rapidly, intellectually, considering what to do.

    Meanwhile, my husband, trained in the army for WWII combat situations, literally pushed me (left my slippers on the floor) out the door and to safety. He was trained to “react”; not stop and/to think which was the better way to move in this situation. His reaction was *get out of there*; do not stop to think, just *go*.

    As I was reading your point labeled “6)” (as I mentioned), I noted that it was an excellent intellectual explanation of the possibilities in such a situation – quite the same as I did when the boiler exploded: intellectually consider which action was the best. Meanwhile, I could have been seriously hurt or even be dead as a result of such consideration.

    I tho’t of that boiler situation and found myself wondering if the two individuals in Ferguson (the young man who was killed and the officer who shot him) would consider the intellectual approach you so very well describe in “6)”. *Or* were they both “reacting” immediately with no intellectual consideration of what was the best mode of action? The officer was likely trained to react, not do a lot of thinking in a confrontational situation; the young man, while likely not *trained* specifically for such situations, having lived in the environment he may have been used to used reaction as a his “normal” mode of response to situations rather than intellectual consideration. He himself may have simply “reacted”, no “thinking” involved.

    Add to that what I’ve heard recently that the officer himself had some serious facial injuries as a result of the initial confrontation with the young man. Perhaps the officer has a reason to emotionally respond to this young man.

    (And here I must say I can’t help but think: I wish someone would post a picture of the young man which does not show him looking like a thug. [Or is it just me?] Is there not one picture of this young man smiling, being happy in some way?)

    What is the answer to this situation? Does anybody really know?

    There is another situation that occurred in my area this last year: An old man in a nursing home (my memory says he was in his late 80s, but I’m not 100% on that) was causing a ruckus in his room. Newspaper articles say he had been placed on medications for some rather serious medical problem that caused him to hallucinate. He was sick, old, and incapacitated in some other physical respects (in addition to the mental ones); yet, also, he was a “danger” in some respects to others.

    Called by the staff of the nursing home, the police came, shot bean bag rounds at him from across the room (nursing home rooms are not very large), while the old man waved a shoe horn (one of those used for people who need help putting on their shoes) at the police; the police did not know what the old man was waving at them. The man died as a result of his injuries from the bean bag rounds, which normally would not have been life-threatening, except for the fact that the police were too close to use the bean bag rounds and the man was so old and ill.

    The police claimed the man was a “threatening” them, and they had no other choice but to use the bean bag rounds. In this situation, perhaps a little more of the intellectual approach might have told the police that closing the door to the room and letting the medication wear off until the man fell asleep might have been a better course of action than the one they took.

    The fact is that in the heat of confrontation most people (well, I guess except you and me) react instead of intellectually considering the situation.

    Which is right? In one situation “reaction” is the right one; in another the “intellectual” approach might be better. *But* this conclusion is clear only in retrospect; in the heat of the moment generally the emotions are used to react (except as I say, for people like you and me, it seems).

    I *will* say that those in Ferguson, MO, who “reacted” in later days, the rioters, looters, violent protestors would certainly have had a chance to use their intellect rather than simply acting on emotions. Protestors who use non-violent methods seem to me to be making excellent choices should they consider such protests important.

    Another thing that has caught my attention in all this is that the news reporters (who are supposed to be objective and simply give us cold, hard facts) are just the ones who can so easily start inflaming people’s emotions. “News flashes” come on, are sent via all forms of social media, when only the bare bones of what has happened is known. It amazes me that news producers will have their reporters go on for hours when about all they can say is, “We know there was some kind of problem in Ferguson, MO, but that’s about all we know at this point. We’ll have to get back to you on this when we know more.” Yet, they do not do that. Their long reports filled with speculation (often wrong) do not help anything in any of these situations.

    Then too, looking at things from a totally different point of view, long ago I remember someone (forget who, it’s been so long since I heard this) that it’s the people with “small power” who can really make one’s life miserable. Thus: It is the cop on the beat who can call someone over, question him (her), inconvenience that individual’s life, and there are no consequences for that person. Equally, the young man, at his age and strength of his body, more than it ever will at another time, can make another person’s life miserable too. He can be threatening and scary if he so chooses, even if he does not intend to carry thru on what he may seem to be showing to be threats.

    What is the answer in this situation? I don’t know. It is clear that a young man is dead who should not be dead, except for responses on the part of one or both (or more?) of the individuals involved; but can it be said with 100% certainty that the officer was wrong? More likely both individuals were wrong in some way.

    I *do* think that when it comes to the looters, rioters, violent protestors; it may be much easier to assign blame in their cases; they certainly have had time to intellectually consider the situation. Responding emotionally is inappropriate for them. I have found myself thinking: Martin Luther King, we need you here and now. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 21, 2014 @ 2:50 pm

  2. Jim, I should have added above: In memory of my dear husband, the “boiler incident” was not the only time in our life together he was “my hero”. I’ll probably never have another chance to honor him on the Internet; so I simply *must* add this. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 21, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

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