Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Not So Hard

Justin Peters addresses in Slate a largely ignored situation: police officers shooting children with fake guns, sometimes referred to as toy guns.  Peters believes police officers and departments should be held more accountable and argues "the 'shoot first, ask questions later” mentality is a problem, too. “Cops have no choice but to shoot' is an inadequate defense, one that discourages actual examination of these sorts of incidents and why they happen."

Along the way, though, Peters notes that when a 15-year-old boy (who survived) was shot in the back by a police officer,

Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck rested the blame neither on the teenage victim or his own officers, but on the toy-gun industry. The problem wasn’t that the officer shot too soon, but that the fake gun looked too real. The solution, Beck argued, is for manufacturers to take steps to make these guns look less real. “How about not configuring them to have the exact dimensions and machining as a real gun?” Beck told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday.

Beck believes that fake guns too closely resemble real ones, a safety hazard that imperils officers and civilians alike. Why? Well, a police officer approaching someone holding a gun can’t be expected to presume the gun is a replica. That’s why the officer may respond by firing.

Peters concedes

It’s worth acknowledging that Beck has a good point about toy weapons. Legislators have tried to address it by passing laws that make it easy to distinguish real guns from fake ones, but their solutions have been imperfect. Since 1989, federal law has required toy guns to have bright orange caps at the tips of their barrels. But the caps are easily removed. And even when the caps remain, they can be easy to miss: The orange cap was still affixed to the fake gun that precipitated the Nicholson shooting. In 2014, California passed a state law mandating that all fake guns sold in the state come in bright, nonmenacing colors. Sen. Barbara Boxer has introduced a similar bill into the U.S. Senate. But real guns can come in gaudy colors, too, and, anyway, you can paint over the fake guns.

FBI chief James Comey delivered a speech (from which this excerpt, below, is taken) on February 12 at Georgetown University embracing police officers while suggesting an unconscious racial bias in law enforcement.  He would be expected to be aware of the danger of toy guns but instead of addressing structural issues, he maintained

As a society, we can choose to live our everyday lives, raising our families and going to work, hoping that someone, somewhere, will do something to ease the tension—to smooth over the conflict. We can roll up our car windows, turn up the radio and drive around these problems, or we can choose to have an open and honest discussion about what our relationship is today—what it should be, what it could be, and what it needs to be—if we took more time to better understand one another.

Though decidedly avoiding labeling the American people- or police- as racist,  Comey remarked "Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us." He states "We simply must speak to each other honestly about all these hard truths."

These "hard truths," however, turn out to be that biases are "inescapable parts of the human condition," there are "shortcomings as (to) law enforcement," and "law enforcement is not the root cause of problems in our hardest-hit neighborhoods."

They are not hard, but easy, truths. FBI director Comey skirts deficiencies in law enforcement- with which he should be intimately aware- in favor of focusing on the prejudice "we all" harbor. He does us no favors.

A harder truth: there is plenty wrong with crime and punishment in this country- and very little of it has to do with black and white. The intersection of law enforcement with race is a complicated matter, and one that Comey takes on to the exclusion of more important factors.  In his recent post "Race and Justice: Much More Than You Wanted To Know,"  Scott Alexander (who apparently is in the medical field) recently reviewed studies as to encounter rate, arrest rates for violent crimes, arrest rates for minor crimes, police shootings, prosecution and conviction rates, and sentencing. Most applicable to James Comey's speech was the "encounter rate," from which Alexander summarizes

There is good data that police stop blacks more often, both on the road and in neighborhoods. Studies conflict over whether the extra stops are justifiable; likely this varies by jurisdiction. Extra neighborhood stops are most likely neighborhood-related effects rather than race-related per se, but the neighborhood effects do disproportionately target black people.

But Comey gives a nod to the importance of neighborhoods precisely to make a distinction among them on the basis of race, and race alone. He comments

A tragedy of American life—one that most citizens are able to drive around because it doesn’t touch them—is that young people in “those neighborhoods” too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison. And with that inheritance, they become part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer—whether white or black—sees the world. Changing that legacy is a challenge so enormous and so complicated that it is, unfortunately, easier to talk only about the cops. And that’s not fair.

No, but Comey is no psychologist, and "the cops" are presumably his area of expertise. Moreover, some of those neighborhoods are not black. And even in many of those black neighborhoods, there are impoverished, disadvantaged whites (and/or hispanics) who suffer some of the same problems as the blacks there do. And though blacks, to be sure, are disproportionately stopped and frisked, arrested, and incarcerated, most of the statistical discrepancy results less from race than from other factors, given that so many of the social ills afflicting America afflict ethnic minorities to a greater extent than whites.

If Comey understands this, he hides it well.  That might not be surprising, coming from a corporate attorney and executive, recently with defense contractor and a hedge fund, yet told his Georgetown audience "I come from a law enforcement family. My grandfather, William J. Comey, was a police officer. Pop Comey is one of my heroes. I have a picture of him on my wall in my office at the FBI, reminding me of the legacy I’ve inherited and that I must honor."

It would be unfair to label James Comey as a phony, notwithstanding an address offering soft truths while entitled "Hard Truths: Law Enforcement and Race." He does speak sensitively of the difficulties facing young black males while recognizing "a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color" and that the resultant cynicism is not limited to white police officers.

But Comey challenges neither established corporate power, the gun lobby, nor politicians who promote law enforcement by emphasizing military hardware at the expense of staffing in urban neighborhoods.  It should come as no surprise that the right has refrained from criticizing the FBI director; he challenges none of their sacred cows.  The afflicted are comforted, however minimally. The comfortable may rest easy.

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