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October 25, 2002

I’m far from the only weblog writer to be struck by this observation in this morning’s Washington Post. But struck by it I am:
In the end, it was television reports of information that was not released by the police — the type of car and license plate of the sniper suspects — that helped crack the case.
After weeks of the police chiding the media and withholding information from the public, these guys were finally caught because the public got hold of information the police didn’t want to release.

As Jim Henley has remarked, one wonders why, in urgent cases like this, the authorities don’t help us be — not a herd, but a pack.

The answer, of course, is that doing so goes against the institutional DNA of most law-enforcement operations and “security” professionals. Success, to their way of thinking, comes from having information that other people don’t. Of course, in the real world, success also often comes from adding your information to other people’s information. But when the chips are down, this idea doesn’t stick in the minds of law enforcemeent types, unless repeatedly administered with a very large bat.

In other words, if the choice is between catching the sniper by empowering the populace, or grasping at secrecy even while the sniper continues to kill people, your basic cop impulse is to run headlong in the direction of secrecy. Are you kidding? Let people have the information they need to protect themselves? What kind of cockamamie idea is that?

Here’s something libertarians know and liberals and conservatives often don’t: The number-one task of most organizations is to preserve itself and its perquisites. Fulfilling their ostensible charter is number two at best. Liberals are clear on this principle when it comes to the military or the cops. The hyper-statists who, these days, pretend to the label “conservative,” tend to discover this same principle when what’s at issue is the behavior of the EPA or the Civil Rights Commission. This is one of many reasons that, despite strong libertarian tendencies, in the context of modern American politics I’m a liberal. [10:45 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on I'm far from the only:

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 11:24 AM:

The number-one task of most organizations is to preserve itself and its perquisites. Fulfilling their ostensible charter is number two at best.

Yep. And, as you've also pointed out before (in another context), this rule applies with demoralizing effect in religious institutions, i.e. the Catholic Church in the current scandal.

Glen Engel-Cox ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 11:46 AM:

I agree, Patrick, and yet I also am reminded how many people were on the lookout for a white box truck/van, even though the blue caprice had also been seen during the first shootings. Or the problem during the shooting at the home depot where the police couldn't use any of the eyewitness testimony because they had already "shared" their information with each other and thus already influenced the impressions of the others as to what exactly they had seen (not to mention the disinformation from the one fellow who is now being charged for his lying).

And I thought the police had been the ones to release the car/license plate? Did they do that only after it had already been reported? I must have missed that chain of events while I was sleeping.

Thomas Nephew ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 12:03 PM:

1. the Henley link should be http://highclearing.com/

2. Not so sure I agree here; at one point it was totally unclear whether these people had help or multiple cars at their disposal. In that case, switching to a 2d car would have been simplicity itself, if news media alert had been put out on the 1st car's license plate.

What seems clear, though, is that there was a lot of "right hand not knowing left" *within* the task force. Thus the Caprice was stopped by various policemen for unrelated reasons, without the tag setting off any alarms. Also, I saw a local policeman busily noting a white van parked on my street (I live in Montgomery County) the evening of the announcement about Muhammad/Williams.

Thomas Nephew ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 12:08 PM:

The first time I learned the license plate tags was at Moose's press conference. But he may have been making the best of a situation he didn't want.

I *don't* disagree with your point in general, Patrick. I'm not sure this particular event was an example of "institutional turf" over public good. But I may be overly forgiving of the local police. I'm mainly just extremely relieved and grateful they caught the guys.

Thomas Nephew ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 12:55 PM:

D'oh! I'm wrong about Moose giving out the plate tags, I just rechecked the text of his announcement (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/metro/daily/oct02/1024moose.htm) that night.

I am now performing Level 6 diagnostics on my memory circuits, and will shut down all non-critical communications until the problem has been solved or I have forgotten about it.

Jon Hendry ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 01:23 PM:

The hazard of treating the public as a "pack" is amply demonstrated by the fiasco in Britain which erupted when a tabloid set out on a campaign to 'name and shame' pedophiles.

It was really ugly, and some innocent people were set up on account of old grudges. In one infamous incident, a woman was harrassed because she was a pediatrician, and some morons didn't know the difference between a pediatrician and a pedophile.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 02:27 PM:

Of course, by contrast, the British police have always beeen models of nuanced good sense when it came to issues of suspected pedophilia or other child abuse.

To stuff back my own sarcasm and speak bluntly: The problem with anything involving pedophilia, or accusations thereof, is that our entire culture is currently so jittery about the subject that almost nobody's sane. I might agree that you've illustrated a "moral hazard" if, in fact, law-enforcement personnel were routinely sensible and fairminded on these subjects. In fact, by and large, they're off the rails along with everyone else.

I'm familiar with the dangers of vigilante justice. I also think there's a broad middle ground between encouraging vigilantism and keeping the public needlessly ignorant.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: October 25, 2002, 03:11 PM:

Besides the instinct towards secrecy, there is a genuine good motive for the police concealing the license plate number: The snipers didn't know that the police knew the license plate number, so the snipers kept using the same car. The police were trusting that the police would be able to find the car on their own, given that they had the description and plate. Publically announcing the plate number would have risked throwing away the one solid lead they had in the hope that the public would make use of the info before the info stopped being useful.

Was it the right call? I honestly don't know whether I think it was; right now, I'm inclining towards "not", but I have the advantage of having seen how it all came out.

Teddy Carroll ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2002, 04:51 PM:

Kevin, the point is that the snipers did indeed keep using the chevy, and in so doing kept killing. Patrick raises the question of whether or not they could have continued using the car if it weren't for all the Secret Squirrel crap.

As with anything else, a well informed public is of the highest necessity. And, no, a well informed public does not include someone who would confuse pediatrician and pedophile.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: October 29, 2002, 08:54 PM:

Teddy: I think you've misread me, or perhaps I have written unclearly.

As soon as the license plate was released, the clock started running on the question: How quickly would the snipers abandon the car, now that they knew the police knew their license plate number? As it turns out, the answer was "Not quickly enough to evade capture". (The fact that the number turned up in the press overnight was a big help.) The other answer, "Soon enough to evade capture", would have left the police with a much harder task.

As I said, I think that it's a good thing that the number was leaked. I can see why a reasonable person might decide not to release it.

Jim Henley ::: (view all by) ::: October 31, 2002, 11:00 PM:

Kevin, I take your point. I would argue that for most of us not named Elvis, we don't have infinite cars at our disposal. The snipers could have abandoned their car, but then they're forced to buy one or steal one. Buying one involves leaving at least a witness trail and probably a paper one. Stealing one forces them to take risks that can generate new leads - the stolen car report. In any case, you seize the initiative from them. You're no longer playing their game; they're playing yours.

On a more general level, I see two problems with the "pack, not a herd" concept myself, though I'm not convinced they're fatal to it. One is the question of vigilantism. I'm not sure how I feel about that. The first thing that comes to mind is lynchings in the Jim Crow south. But was vigilantism itself the problem, or was the real problem the virulent racism behind it. After all, its not like the approved criminal justice bureaucracy was so great for blacks in that place at that time. (This analogy is along the lines of Patrick's discussion of sex offender law.)

The other is the question of conscription. I'm a libertarian because I think conscription is generally bad. It's a good thing if people accept their responsibility to ensure the safety of themselves and their peaceful fellows. It's a bad thing if they are essentially drafted into a law enforcement role. I consider it a Very Bad Thing that California law essentially deputizes teachers by forcing them to report their students/families to the police for anything that even raises suspicions of child abuse, however construed.

It's a conundrum.