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May 15, 2016

Serving and protecting
Posted by Patrick at 12:27 PM * 76 comments

Another day, another video of police beating and tasing civilians, in this case a 15-year-old Tacoma girl who cut across a mall parking lot while riding her bike home. The incident actually happened two years ago; the girl is suing, and good for her.

In other news, FBI director James Comey is worried that all these pesky videos are making it hard for cops to do their jobs. It’s not every day that a law-enforcement figure of Comey’s eminence admits so plainly that one of the actual jobs of the police is to regularly beat up randomly-chosen people in order to make sure the rest of us stay in line. But there you go.

(Yes, Not All Police, etc. But we really do need to stop talking about these events as if they represent failures of the system, or a “few bad apples.” This kind of police behavior is part of how our society is organized. It’s built into the spec.)

Comments on Serving and protecting:
#1 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 12:51 PM:

It's as if people don't understand that it only takes one bad apple to spoil the barrel.

#2 ::: Larry Sanderson ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 01:35 PM:

If only people would stop taking pictures of police behaving badly, all of this would go away!

#3 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 01:50 PM:

I have terrible trouble evaluating how common this kind of thing might be. On one hand, we see new video showing ridiculous levels of police brutality pretty much every day. Without going into rant mode - and believe me, I could definitely go into rant mode - I would really, really like to see far fewer videos showing police brutality. In fact, I would like to see no more videos showing police brutality.*

On the other hand, there are tens of thousands of encounters between police and civilians every day which don't produce a video showing brutality. Some of these encounters are filmed. Some are not. I have no idea what percentage of encounters are filmed, (or not filmed) and I have no idea what percentage of videos showing brutality are made to disappear.

So what percentage of encounters between civilians and police end in something ugly? Obviously we have a real problem, (particularly given the percentage of videos showing the police brutalizing people who aren't white) but just how big and pervasive is that problem? Are there really a "few bad apples" or are there simply officers who haven't yet been caught brutalizing civilians? I hear a lot of shouting from both sides, but I don't think anybody understands the real scale and scope of the problem.

What I would say is that we know that the problem exists and we know that it is very ugly. But beyond that we don't know the very first thing about the problem, starting with how prevalent this issue might be, and until we have real data, we don't have a prayer of solving the issue. Just to put this lack of knowledge in perspective, while we have some estimates, we don't even know how many people the police kill every year not even to the nearest hundred!

So what are the real numbers? Does anyone have the foggiest clue?

I should also note, just in passing, that James Comey is an ass! A serious case of "please resign in shame and never open your mouth again in public, not even when getting your mail" jerkdom from the nethermost pits of Dickhead Hell.

*Obviously I want a very serious drop in the real level of police brutality here, not a drop in the number of videos, so don't. Just don't.

#4 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 01:55 PM:

Alex, #3: There's a well-known metric in business that for every customer complaint you get, there are probably 10 more who will never say anything to you but will disrecommend you to everyone they know. That seems to be as good a starting point as any other.

#5 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 02:08 PM:

The Chicago police union is trying really hard to get all records of police misconduct older than two years DESTROYED. There's a lawsuit ongoing.

Apparently they're worried that looking into the deep archives for patterns of misconduct by particular officers might "negatively affect their careers". I fucking hope it would ...

#6 ::: Eric B ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 02:24 PM:

Alex R at 3: Please bear in mind Laquan McDonald and Freddie Gray. In both cases multiple cops (8 and 6 respectively) conspired to cover up murder. In the Laquan McDonald case, the cop whose dash-camera recorded the thing has testified that she did not see the shooting because she was putting her car in park. Any driver knows that that rapidly becomes muscle memory, taking maybe a glance down for a split second. Laquan was shot 14 times, and I simply don't believe that that failed to draw her attention.

#7 ::: Brad Hicks ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 02:52 PM:

Alex R at #3: It could be as low as 5 cops out of every 100 (which would be in line with the Justice Department's best estimate) and it would be way too high. But the more interesting question, in my opinion, is, what percentage of cops know which cops those 5% are and protect them? I'm pretty sure that that number is pretty nearly all of them. Which is why, at this point, I don't understand how anybody can believe anything that a cop says under oath, knowing that it's standard practice to lie in order to protect yourself or other cops, yes, even under oath.

#8 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 02:54 PM:

Alex R @3

I'm not really sure why you think we need to have some idea how prevalent the problem is in order to be able to make a start on solving it. I'd have thought that what we need to know is how prevalent we'd like the problem to be - ie, not at all - and then we'll know that each case that come up needs to be dealt with.

While this obviously isn't your intent (given everything else you say), I can easily see 'we need to know how prevalent the problem is before we can do anything about it' turning into an excuse for studying the problem rather than actually addressing it.

(That said, I bet the CDC could probably tell you something interesting about this; but I suspect they aren't allowed even to think about it.)

#9 ::: Brad Hicks ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 02:57 PM:

At the 55 second mark, while the cop is trying to write something down (her personal information? it doesn't say), she tries to peddle off, and that's what gets her beat up.

The jury's going to side with the cop. Count on it.

#10 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 03:13 PM:

@ Eric B

Eric, I hadn't heard that particular story, but have read many similar stories... the question I have is more statistical than anything else and it has to do with the issue of how/where to deploy resources.

For example, we know that about 7500 people die every year due to taking the wrong over-the-counter pain reliever. We also know that about 140 people (including 9/11 as part of the average) die every year due to Islamic Terrorism. Which of these two problems is demonstrably worse? Which problem receives greater funding and more allocation of resources?

Learning about the actual number of deaths due to terror and comparing them to other forms of death (like allergies to OTC pain meds) led to a major re-evaluation in how I look at the news and how I conceptualize society's problems. This means that anecdotal data isn't very interesting to me, however horrific it might be. (That being said, the police brutality I have read about and watched on video is really, really disturbing.)

I'm not dismissing the problem. The problem is muh to ugly to dismiss. I just want to know how big it actually is.

#11 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 03:18 PM:

Apparently, recording criminal actions by police officers puts them in fear for their lives, or something. Or makes it harder for them to do their jobs. Or destroys their morale. Or something else that damages the ethos of the constabulary.

It seems that for the police to be effective we have to restore the legal doctrine of rex non peccare potest otherwise we'll be knee-deep in crime. In the meantime, criminals (particularly black ones) keep attacking the police with dangerous implements like their heads, their buttocks, their backs, and other instruments of terror. When will the madness cease?

#12 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 04:59 PM:

I've been thinking that the problem is that the bad cops are organized (presumably informally) and the good cops are stuck with a model of self-destructive individual heroism if they try to deal with the bad cops.

I have no idea how the good cops can protect each other well enough to deal with the problem of police misconduct.

#13 ::: Lydy Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2016, 07:49 PM:

@Alex R. The steadfast determination that has been demonstrated to _not_ collect such data suggests that the problem of police brutality is significant. The Obama administration has taken a tentative step towards collecting data about police shootings. Predictably, there has been push back.

Police brutality serves to intimidate, even if it is relatively uncommon. It doesn't have to be 10% of all interactions, or even 1%, if it is well enough known, it serves to terrify -- and it does. I'm scared, and I'm a middle-aged white woman who hasn't carried dope in her purse for more than two decades.

On the other hand, I think that actual data collection would do much more than provide an understanding the scope. In some ways, the scope isn't important. But data collection would help create accountability. It would reveal patterns of particular departments, or officers, or victims, or neighborhoods. And lordy, lordy do the cops not want those patterns revealed.

#14 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 03:26 AM:

As Kevin@1 suggests, we need to really work that metaphor. It's vital to quickly remove the bad apples from the barrel, before the only solution is to throw the whole barrel out.

Or maybe we're so deep into this that in fact the only solution is to throw the whole barrel out.

Recognizing that it will be hugely expensive, in unsolved crimes and in expensive learning behavior and so forth, maybe we should just fire everybody who now works in law enforcement, ban anybody who ever worked in LE from ever working in LE again, and start over from scratch? It'd be hugely unjust and/or expensive (I'd go for pensioning them all at full salary, say; recognizing that that includes the abusive ones and the ones who covered for them and the ones who remained silent), but can we make such a massive change in police culture any other way? The extended focus it would take to keep pressure on them for a generation or so is not something our society (or any other I know about) is much good at.

Perhaps this should include District Attorneys and prosecutors, as well.

#15 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 07:31 AM:

David Dyer-Bennet #14: The problem is, this isn't just "a problem with the cops". As many have noted, this is the system working as designed evolved, responding to political pressure to "keep those people down".

The police abuses would stop in a hurry if we got judges throwing cases out due to police misconduct, DAs prosecuting cops (also prison wardens) consistently, and lawmakers standing up to police unions/lobbyists -- but all of the above have their stakes in the status quo.

#16 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 11:44 AM:

Two words: Richmond, California.

The culture can be changed, and in a reasonably short period of time. What it takes is someone with authority who WANTS it to change.

The very first thing the Richmond chief did when he took over was to identify and fire the bad apples. Then he went on to make other changes, but he got rid of the known problems first. (I don't think that's mentioned in the article I've linked, but I've seen it elsewhere.)

Unfortunately, cop control is like gun control -- if you don't have it everywhere, people will just do end-runs around it. The officer who beat and tasered Sandra Bland for a minor traffic infraction had been fired from another police department for repeated use of excessive force. The one who was fired for savagely beating an unarmed college student was immediately hired one town over, and the chief there said that his department was "proud to have secured the services of such a fine officer". The rot starts at the top.

#17 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 05:09 PM:

I think it's very important to try to get some sense of the prevalence and distribution (is it mostly concentrated in a few places, or is it more widespread?) of this sort of abusive behavior on the part of the cops. Knowing how big the problem is helps us know how urgent it is to address, and what sorts of solutions might work.

For example, if the problem is mainly concentrated in a smallish number of really badly run police departments, you could try to fix that by putting those police departments under strict DOJ oversight until things got better. If the problem is dispersed everywhere, we need a completely different approach to the problem.

Here's a very minimal first cut: This link gives a total number of murders in the US in 2014 as 13,472. And this link gives the Guardian's count of the number of people killed by police in 2015 in the US[1], 1134.

Now, these two numbers don't tell us what fraction of those police killings were really justified, or were unavoidable, or were honest mistakes. But assuming the numbers for 2015 and 2014 are comparable (probably), they do make a pretty compelling case that police killings are a big issue, worthy of a lot of attention--something like 10% of the total number of people killed overall are being killed by the police, if this data is right.

By contrast, if the total number of police killings per year were, say, 100, then I'd think this wasn't such an important issue. I mean, each death is a tragedy, but the numbers really matter here.

More to the point, without data, it's too easy to just find a way to conclude what you started out believing in the first place. This works the same way whether we're talking about police brutality, the threat of terrorist attacks, or whether Mexicans are really unleashing a scourge of rape and murder across the country, as Trump suggested.

[1] The FBI's numbers on justifiable homicides by the police are about half the Guardian's--442 in 2014. I don't know what's behind that difference; I assume there's a difference in counting methodology or reporting or something. I don't know for sure whether the Guardian's numbers or the FBI's are more sound, either.

If the Guardian's numbers are right, police killings amount to about 8% of all homicides.

If the FBI's numbers are right, justified police killings amount to about 3% of all homicides.

#18 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 05:24 PM:

albatross, I'm in general agreement, but I'm adding that killing by the police is only part of the problem. There's also beatings and rape.

#19 ::: Raven on the Hill ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 05:58 PM:

There's a lot I would like to add here, but I have little time, so instead I will briefly suggest that smartphone videography has had an effect on policing comparable to turning on a light in a dark kitchen: suddenly we see the cockroaches scuttling for cover. I also offer my links blog post of a few months ago on officer-involved shootings.

#20 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 06:37 PM:

albatross, #17: I think what you're missing is that the FBI is only reporting justifiable killings by police, while the Guardian is reporting all of them, justifiable or not. And yes, there's always some asshole who's willing to claim that all police killings are justifiable, but saying it doesn't make it true.

Also, what Nancy said. It's not just actual killings that matter, it's also brutality that stops short of being lethal. Rape is a slightly separate issue, but that's important as well.

And it occurs very strongly to me, as I'm sure it does to you as well, that the amount of resistance against the gathering of this kind of data at all is significant. I suspect that what we're seeing is only the tip of the iceberg, and that by and large there is a major systematic problem that doesn't vary much from one location or police department to the next. Places like Richmond are the exception rather than the rule.

#21 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 08:40 PM:


Yeah, I agree that all police brutality is important. I suspect police killing citizens will be where we can get the best data, because even if various local police forces don't want it reported, there is a huge amount of infrastructure around accounting for dead bodies. That's one reason why murder rates are usually regarded as much more reliable than other crime rates--an aggravated assault or rape might not be reported depending on the police and whether the victims want to report it, but a dead body is really hard to ignore.

The thing I think would be really useful: in a jurisdiction where body cameras are in use, have someone review a real random sampling of the footage. That coukd give us actual numbers for things like how often the cops hit or mace or tase someone.

#22 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 08:47 PM:


I wonder what the possible categories are. I guess justifiable homicide, ordinary homicide, and then probably accidental death or suicide or natural causes. I think the FBI would put ordinary homicides in their stats, but not deaths that were classified as suicide, accident, or natural causes. But I don't know if there are other categories I'm missing, or who does the clsssifying.

#23 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 09:03 PM:

I don't know what's behind that difference; I assume there's a difference in counting methodology or reporting or something.

I'd assume reporting is a big part of the difference.
The police can almost always come up with a justification. It isn't necessarily true, and it can be obvious BS, like with Tamir Rice.

#24 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 03:06 PM:

Has anyone done polling of random citizens to see if they've had bad interactions with the police, particularly abusive interactions? The best I found with a quick search was:

This page links to a lot of polling data showing that blacks have much less trust in the police to be fair than whites, which is consistent with either having personally experienced some police mistreatment, or personally knowing people who have / seeing it happen to others.

This page describes a bunch of polling data on some police killings of people in the news. Interestingly, a majority of both blacks and whites agreed that charging the Baltimore cops for Freddie Gray's death was a good decision, whereas views about the decisions not to charge the police for killing Eric Garner and Michael Brown differ quite a bit between blacks and whites.

Now, there are several ways to read this difference. One way is to guess that blacks are starting with a very different model of how the police act than whites. If most whites have never seen any serious police misconduct, but most blacks have, then claims of police misconduct with some ambiguity about the evidence will look a lot more damning to blacks (who expect police brutality to be relatively common) than to whites (who expect it to be an extremely rare exception).

Another way to read it is that this has to do with tribal identification. Somehow whites see the white cops as being on their team, blacks see the black victims as being on their team, and people mostly assume facts that go with their team's interests. That's a possibility--it seems more plausible to me because of the disagreement on charging Garner's killers, since the video of that killing was so graphic and horrible[1]. On the other hand, a majority of everyone agreed that charging Freddie Gray's killers was a good choice--perhaps this was because some of the cops charged were black, so the tribal identification was less pronounced?

[1] It's always possible that there is additional evidence that made it a reasonable decision not to prosecute the cops in that case--video evidence isn't everything. But damn, that video was *horrible* and looked very convincingly like the police killing him.

#25 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 03:15 PM:

This Gallup poll report asked blacks whether they'd been treated unfairly by the police in the last 30 days because they were black. About 1/4 of black men from 18-34 said they had.

That doesn't mean getting beaten up, but it is probably the best data we have. I don't know if there are comparable polls asking whites if they've been treated unfairly by the police, but that would be worth looking for as a comparison.

#26 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 11:07 PM:

Just to provide a larger perspective, here are more numbers. Approximately 2,500,000 people die every year in the U.S., with the vast majority (plurality?) involving heart attacks and cancer, each of which account for about 450,000 deaths annually.

Beyond that we lose around 70-90 thousand people who became infected with someone else's disease while they were in the hospital. We lose about 50,000 annually due to automobile accidents, and about 30,000 annually due to gun-related deaths, (most of which are suicides, BTW.*)

If cops kill around 1100 people every year, we end up with "death by cop" being about 0.044 percent of all annual deaths.

Unfortunately, running the numbers can only take us so far - my sense of the criminal justice system is that it is extremely corrupt, heavily weighted towards denying people their rights, vastly prejudiced, and unconcerned with white-collar and corporate crime. The thing which makes it tolerable for me is that I am a white male who presents himself fairly intelligently. That doesn't make it tolerable for anyone else, unfortunately.

I suspect that the justice system is tolerable for about 85 percent of the population, unpleasant for 10 percent, and downright dreadful for the remaining five percent.

* This begs the question of which saves more lives; gun control or mental-health services, but maybe we can leave that for another post. Meanwhile, something to think about.

#27 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 11:56 PM:

Alex, #26: I submit that to some extent you're comparing apples and oranges. Heart attacks and cancer are natural deaths. Using them to compare against either accidental deaths or murders doesn't make a lot of sense.

A better metric would be to look at death-by-cop as a public health epidemic (something the CDC is trying to do with gun deaths in general, against enormous pushback). Think about what we do when there's a flu epidemic. We encourage people to get the flu vaccine, and to limit their contact with large crowds. That still doesn't completely eliminate deaths from the flu, but it does cut back on them a lot.

We know what to do about the death-by-cop epidemic; have there be real consequences for unjustified use of lethal force (or force in general, because this stuff escalates), and get repeat offenders out of the system altogether. We just refuse to do it. That still won't completely eliminate the problem, but it would cut back on it a lot. What we're doing right now is the equivalent of encouraging people to go out and party thru the flu epidemic even if they're sick.

#28 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 12:27 AM:

Lee, # 27

As I said in my own post, "Unfortunately, running the numbers can only take us so far..."

In short, I mostly agree with you, particularly when it comes to getting rid of the bad apples. One of the most intelligent things I've read about the whole problem went something like this: "Every prosecutor knows which cops cause the problems. They're the ones who frequently write 'Resisting Arrest' on their charge sheets as they bring in yet another bruised and battered prisoner."

Damn straight. Every. Prosecutor. Knows. Who. The. Bad. Apples. Are.

And that, all by itself, should be enough.

This being said, I still want to see the numbers. Even as I look with shock and horror at another video showing an insane, idiotic level of prejudice and brutality, the "Aspirin vs. Al Quaeda" question still bothers me.

#29 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 06:10 AM:

I remember an interview about sexual harassment in law firms a few years ago. An expert in the subject would take all of the attorneys into a conference room and say, quite plausibly (but falsely), "One of your staff has made a sexual harassment claim against on of your attorneys. I'm interested to know how much the firm knows about its culture. Please write down the name of the person you most suspect of being the party named in the claim and pass it to me. Completely anonymous."

And he said that most of the time, most or all of the attorneys would have the same name on their pieces of paper. Led to some interesting conversations with senior partners, apparently; if the suit is filed, that kind of knowledge is liability.

People in power know. It's just hard to get them to act.

#30 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 07:28 AM:

Alex R. #26: ... unconcerned with white-collar and corporate crime.

I think it a valid question as to whether cops should be chasing white-collar crime, or whether various regulatory agencies, DAs, and so forth should deal with that and just call them for arrests when appropriate. I'd also like to see distinct agencies to deal with computer crime on the same basis.

Basically, the application of various sorts of force, is the basic point of a police force. The current problem is that they are collectively bungling their job: By overusing and misusing physical and legal force, they've lost much of the ability they used to have to apply social force.

#31 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 07:57 AM:

I can see a case that murder by police is more serious than other sorts of murder because of the loss of trust (so police are less able to do their proper work) and the increased background fear.

#32 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 09:32 AM:

The real problem with police murder is that it makes people in the commonly-killed communities less willing to cooperate with police or call them in when there is a problem.

There have been four cases in Chicago in the past year of a black civilian calling the police because they are the victim of a crime and BEING SHOT by the officer who showed up.

Let me repeat that.

They shot the person WHO CALLED THEM.

In all cases, the police explanation was that they "felt threatened".

Most of these shootings were performed within the first minute of the policeman being on-scene, before he had bothered to ascertain anything about the situation besides "bunch of black people in a scuffle or argument".

This has a massive chilling effect.

And when the law-abiding, upstanding citizens of whole neighborhoods won't call the cops for ANY REASON, then the criminals are ruling the area with impunity.

There needs to be a commitment by departments AND UNIONS that bad cops -- repeatedly bad cops, bad cops who PREMEDITATE violence against civilians -- should be disciplined or expelled. Because as it is, the bad cops intimidate the good cops (pers. comm. to me from a friend who joined the force as a rookie and then was quickly horrified) out of reporting anything or saying anything, even in blatant situations of misconduct.

Whistleblower cops are routinely fired, or beaten up by off-duty compatriots.

This needs to stop.

This is criminal intimidation.

If anyone but cops were doing it on this scale, the FBI would have a taskforce.

#33 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 09:41 AM:

Because if we can't even enforce against the rottenest murderous cops, how can we ever get real education aimed at the ones that only kill black people at greater rates than whites because they've got implicit "black people are dangerous, black children are older and immune to pain" biases?

#34 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 10:20 AM:

It's an effect that spreads, too - in my area, you don't call the police for anything that doesn't involve actual shooting or attempted killing. Because for anything less, they might show up in three or four hours: it isn't important to them.

#35 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 10:38 AM:


I keep thinking one thing that would help is to have some intermediate step between clearing s cop of wrongdoing and charging him with a crime--something where the investigating authority stamps "not suitable for law enforcement work" on his personnel folder, and then he can't work as a policeman anymore.

#36 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 10:56 AM:

albatross: The problem with that is, to be effective, this information would have to be nationally available. I don't see that happening in my lifetime. Or any lifetime.

#37 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 11:38 AM:

albatross @35: cops fired for extreme misconduct often get hired as police in other jurisdictions. There is no way to distribute this information, and no real desire on the part of small-town law enforcement to do background checks on new applicants that look at anything besides felonies.

#38 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 01:46 PM:

albatross @35: Unfortunately, preventing them from ever working in a particular profession again without charging and convicting them of a crime would (rightly) be challenged as a violation of due process.

It's the same sort of problem with the "No-Fly" lists: the folks on the list are too bad to let fly, but there isn't enough evidence to arrest them.

#39 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 06:01 PM:

If there were a national professional organization, you could get them, as it were, disbarred.

#40 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 02:44 AM:

I've a sort of thought experiment: what if we just said "okay, anyone who has used lethal force in the line of duty is off the job."

Not, like, fired or up on charges (it'd be lovely if we could make that happen when it's deserved, of course). Just, you're done with law enforcement. If you're not suspected of wrongdoing, you'll keep collecting your salary for a year or two or until you find something else. You're not being punished, it's just time to do something different now.

There's downsides, of course: it'd be kind of expensive on the salary side, and you'd be pushing a few genuine heroes off the force, along with plenty of officers who made the right decision in a bad spot.

#41 ::: duckbunny ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 04:36 AM:

I'm distressed that "fired for extreme misconduct" is something that a police force looking to hire wouldn't pick up on. Perhaps I'm very naive, but I would expect getting fired for any reason to haunt and disadvantage me for at least the next three jobs, and I'm an admin. Do the cops not ask for references?

#42 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 09:03 AM:

Given that sometimes cops are "fired for extremely departmentally embarrassing extreme misconduct" and are then immediately hired by a neighboring force, I suspect that not asking for references is the problem.

#43 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 10:01 AM:


I read somewhere (I don't remember where) that most policemen never fire a shot except on the gun range, and that a lot of policemen who do shoot someone leave their job soon after, because it's apparently quite traumatic.

On the other hand, your idea seems a little too blunt. There are times when shooting someone is exactly what we want the cop to do, and it seems dumb to remove someone from the police force for doing exactly what we want them to do. And there is probably a lot of abusive use of nonlethal force, like that UC Davis cop who sprayed all the protesters with pepper spray, or the various abuses of tasers, which isn't addressed at all by your idea.

One thing I think would make a lot of sense: When there is a charge of police misconduct, any video evidence that is supposed to exist, but seems to somehow have been misplaced, accidentally erased, thrown away, or never made due to equipment malfunction should be assumed to support the charges of misconduct, at least in civil trials.

In general, if I'm a party to a dispute in which I have control over some of the evidence, then the disappearance of that evidence ought to weigh against me, since I'm in a position to review the evidence and decide what to do with it.

#44 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 10:11 AM:

42 ::: Buddha Buck

I'm cynical enough to think that in some cases, abusing a member of the public* is seen as a positive.

*I refuse to frame the discussion as police and civilians.

#45 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 10:45 AM:

Devin @ 40

I've thought of that one too, but also decided that it might be too extreme. How about something a little different. If an officer is involved in a lethal shooting (or inappropriate use of force) they get to pay 5-10% of any money paid out to the victim in the event that the city/county they work for either loses a lawsuit or settles with the victim's family. No insurance available, money to be removed from the officer's salary at some reasonable amount each month.

#46 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 11:53 AM:

#45 ::: Alex R.

Unfortunately, this adds further incentives to cover up bad behavior.

I've been amazed at how little effort police put into faking evidence.

#43 albatross

"One thing I think would make a lot of sense: When there is a charge of police misconduct, any video evidence that is supposed to exist, but seems to somehow have been misplaced, accidentally erased, thrown away, or never made due to equipment malfunction should be assumed to support the charges of misconduct, at least in civil trials."

I agree.

#47 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 11:55 AM:

The union also gets to pay. If they want to protect their members, then they also get penalized for protecting members who abuse power.

#48 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 12:57 PM:

Buddha Buck, #42: I can think of at least 2 cases in which statements from the police representative made it clear that they were perfectly well aware of the offender's background and didn't care. As Nancy says, there are times when this is seen as a positive thing, especially if the person who was abused is the "wrong kind" -- poor or PoC.

Nancy, #44: I refuse to frame the discussion as police and civilians.

That's nice. Too bad it doesn't stop them from doing so.

#49 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 02:34 PM:

Lee, there's a limit to what I can control. Yes, I know you know that.

What we've got is the option of gentle pressure by using preferred language, or using anger about "police and civilians".

Meanwhile, I think "police and the public" is a better than "police and civilians", but I'm not married to it. Can anyone think of a better phrasing?

#50 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 02:36 PM:

@26: I think numbers can take us a little farther than that.

Over time the mortality rate for everyone is 100%, but HOW and WHEN those deaths happen is relevant. (Assuming people live to about 100, about 1% of them die every year. It's a little weird that less than 1% of the US died last year. True, but weird. )

From this CDC report, figure 3 (p.7), the mortality rate for 15-25 and 25-35 are about 100 per 100,000 and 150 per 100,000 respectively. tells me that there are about 43 million people between 15 and 24, and 40 million between 25 and 34.

So that's about 93,000 deaths in that age group. This is all math in public; someone please check it.

If we assume that 80% of the people shot by police are males between 15 and 34 (a blatant guess on my part- feel free to research that) that is about 900 deaths. If 50% of total deaths in that age group are males, that is around 47000 total deaths.

So that would say about 2% of the deaths among 15-34 males are from police bullets.

I don't have numbers for deaths by race, but prison population by race overrepresents african-americans by a factor of roughly 3 (from .)

The result of all these approximations gives me "around 6% of all deaths among 15-34 African-American males are from getting shot by cops."

So ... yeah. It is a big problem.

#51 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 09:11 PM:

@ 50

I just woke up from a nap and don't have the brain cells right now to check the math, but the thinking is very intelligent. I wonder if there is a way to get the numbers by going backwards; that is, by interviewing family members of black men in the 15-34 age range.

#52 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: May 20, 2016, 09:55 PM:

Alex R. @50: That sounds very similar to the methodology used in the Lancet study of Iraq invasion mortality.

#53 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2016, 05:31 PM:

Buddha Buck@42: The prevalence of violent cops ending up in neighboring departments smacks, to me, not of failure to check references, but of care in checking references. And a strong desire to help their brothers in need.

#54 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2016, 05:52 PM:

Brad Hicks@9: she definitely does make a move to leave at the point you indicate.

That's certainly an ill-advised choice, in general, when dealing with the armed fist of the state. But the police behavior here seems badly out-of-bounds to me. It ought to result in fairly serious disciplinary action.

Cops don't socialize that much outside the tribe it seems like, with the result that I don't know any socially (and never have). From non-fiction sources (and maybe fiction that slipped by my filters; I mean the ideas got internalized as if they were real), I get the impression that while sometimes the cops know before an encounter that it's particularly dangerous, many of the situations where cops end up getting hurt do not seem particularly dangerous in advance, particularly simple traffic stops (oops, got a guy leaving a murder, got a guy with drugs, got a guy with outstanding warrants. oops.) (Also domestic disturbances -- but with those they do know in advance that they're going into a violent or near-violent situation with very strong emotions in play, which amount to "dangerous".)

Deaths of cops aren't going up particularly; in fact they look to be going down in the last decade or two.

Looks like training and cop culture (related but not identical) emphasize doing what you have to do to go home afterwards. They also have a policy of absolutely insisting on being in total control of the situation. This interacts very poorly with people who aren't what the cops expect; and the expectations are kind of old-fashioned and limited (in fact, actively bigoted). It also interacts poorly with people not used to dealing with cops I would think -- but the pattern of deaths by police action don't seem to show a concentration among such people.

One thing ubiquitous surveillance (at least of police activity) would give us, over time, is a way to understand what the police are really doing in some objective way, and to learn about the environment they operate in without filtering. Seems like this has to be good in the medium to long run, at least (the intermediate periods while we study the data, decide if the rules need changing, maybe change them, and if so get the cops to follow the new rules, or else at least get them to follow the old rules, will presumably have many "moments of unusual interest"* in them).

* I know the phrase from an early Modesty Blaise book; "We don't have problems at the Ritz; we simply have occasional moments of unusual interest." (Hotel manager explaining to senior intelligence executive that the guest he has lodged with them has not caused them problems.) It shows up on the web enough without context that it's unlikely that's the origin, but none of my quick searches show up any attribution, so I dunno.

#55 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2016, 06:52 PM:

DD-B, #53: Yes, you can spin that to sound like a good thing. This does not make it any less "officers who are fired from one department for excessive force are likely to end up in a nearby department doing the exact same thing". And until there are genuine consequences for unacceptable behavior, nothing about this is going to change.

#56 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2016, 07:15 PM:

Fascinating short blurb in the Seattle Times this morning, in their "News in Review" section. I'm retyping this, so beware of typos:

"Attorneys for the city of Chicago have told a federal judge that they're willing to admit to a jury that a code of silence exists within the police department in an attempt to keep Mayor Rahm Emanuel off the witness stand. But U. S. District Judge Gary Feinerman said Friday that he would still ask Emanuel to testify in the case of two whistle-blower police officers suing the city, explaining that his testimony could offer 'much more texture' on the issue. Legal experts said it was likely the city would settle rather than allow Emanuel to take the stand. The case is set to go to trial May 31."

There are amazing things hidden in that:

1. The city is willing to admit, on the record, that cops engage in a Code of Silence. Everyone knows it, but there's been a polite fiction about it not being true, or at least not proven, for decades. If they do this, there's no more plausible deniability around it.

2. There's a more compelling reason to keep the mayor off the witness stand than there is to keep this plausible deniability.

3. They don't lose the plausible deniability if they settle.

Unpacking those 4 sentences could take many pages of analysis. I'm still thinking about what all those actions actually mean.

#57 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: May 22, 2016, 10:33 PM:

@ #55 Lee, number 53 could be read in two different ways. I don't think he's saying it's a good thing.

#58 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2016, 09:47 AM:

Tom Whitmore @56: Even more interestingly, I LIVE in Chicago and am tapped into a lot of justice-oriented and race-oriented circles, and your post is the first I am hearing of this trial.

#59 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2016, 11:22 AM:

Elliott: I'm curious: had you heard about their "black site" before it hit the news?

#60 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2016, 12:24 PM:

Jacque @59: Depends. Not the address "Homan square" in particular, but similar practices have been routine since the 1800s. Most recently, about a decade ago there was a big dust-up because someone was trying to bring suit against then-mayor Richard M. Daley, because he was a prosecutor involved in the literal torture and wrongful conviction of a variety of suspects, over many years.

If you're a Chicagoan (and pay attention, or are at all plugged into not-white-and-rich circles), you just assume this is all happening, constantly.

Homan Square was mostly news because it made public the fact that they'd moved these activities out of ordinary stationhouses and into one central location. Well, several locations; Homan Square is the only one that made the international news.

#61 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2016, 01:32 PM:

Lee@55: My point was that it's not accident or incompetence, it's intention.

#62 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2016, 10:18 PM:

Pet peeve: "mortality rate" does not mean "the number of people who eventually die".

It is the number of deaths that occur in a specific population, divided by the total number of people in that population, over a specific interval (e.g. one year). Those CDC figures should be 'x per 100,000 PER YEAR'.

Everyone eventually dies; that does not mean the mortality rate is 100%. (Steps off cranky epidemiologist soapbox.)

More on topic, here's a partial snapshot of deaths by police and other authorities ("Deaths by legal intervention"): 16 states that separately report deaths in this category "...collected data on 127 legal-intervention incidents in 2009 resulting in 125 single-victim deaths, and five deaths in which the legal-intervention victim had recently committed a homicide. Of the 130 legal-intervention decedents, 56.9% were non-Hispanic whites and 29.2% were non-Hispanic blacks. With respect to location, 44.6% of legal-intervention deaths occurred in a house or apartment, 29.2% on a street or highway, and 7.7% in a motor vehicle (Table 35). The majority of decedents were aged 30–54 years (Table 36). Of the 92.3% of decedents from legal-intervention deaths who were tested for alcohol, 40.1% were positive for alcohol, and 79.6% of these decedents had a BAC of ≥0.08 g/dL (Table 37). The percentage of victims tested for other substances varied (range: 47.7%–80.0%). The presence of other drugs for which tests were positive also varied: 17.7% of those tested for marijuana, 15.5% of those tested for antidepressants, 10.8% of those tested for opiates, 10.6% of decedents tested for cocaine, and 4.0% of those tested for amphetamines were positive for these substances (Table 37)." (more at

#63 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2016, 10:02 AM:


*bows head in shame*

I am terribly sorry for misusing units.

#64 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2016, 04:02 PM:

Sandy B., since I knew no better until I was well into my MPH, I can't cast any stones!

#65 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2016, 10:26 PM:

Lila@62: "The death rate remains one per customer." Yeah.

#66 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2016, 04:54 AM:

On what I have seen, terms such as "mortality rate" often don't make the time period explicit. When there are seasonal factors, a monthly or quarterly rate might be appropriate, but you can't get those rates without using monthly or quarterly figures.

On the other hand, knowing the annual rate averages out at so many events per month gives you a baseline for spotting the pattern, and making a judgement whether a particular month is different enough to be significant.

#67 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2016, 10:59 AM:

Lila @ 62

That's an interesting set of statistics, and it's possible to draw certain (very tentative) conclusions from the report. First is that the most likely reason to be killed by law enforcement is because someone was drinking - not necessarily legally drunk, but "been drinkin'."

Next is that the second most likely reason to be killed by law enforcement is either to be legally drunk or to be African American. (What also stands out is that African Americans are killed at about twice the rate their percentage of the population would lead one to expect.) It looks like one is slightly more likely to be killed while drunk, but I'm classing these together for two reasons: First, because the difference in actual deaths is only one and this could easily change from one year to the next (or one state to the next,) and second because it is possible to be both African American and legally drunk, which means that determining the particular issue which caused law enforcement to open fire is difficult in these cases.

The number of people who had been killed and tested positive for anti-depressants really stood out; I wonder how many of those were "suicide by cop" vs "generally poor mental-health treatment in the U.S."

I'm not sure I buy "marijuana use" as a causative factor by itself as marijuana can stay in the bloodstream for several days after use. I think its more likely to track either people who are in some socio-economic group which regularly uses marijuana, or people who are self-medicating with marijuana and have been unable to resupply. (One young man said to me "When I use marijuana I don't believe that I'm a werewolf, and the black ghost who tells me that I'm disgusting and evil doesn't come to visit.") Does anyone know if it's possible for post-mortem testing to determine whether someone was "high" as opposed to "had residual marijuana in their system?"

Anyway, thank you very much for tracking this down.

#68 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2016, 12:31 PM:


Blacks are also arrested at a much higher rate than whites. One plausible model for the higher rate of police shootings is that each time someone is arrested, there's some low probability of things going badly enough that they end up dead, and since blacks get arrested a lot more per capita, they also get killed more per capita.

To the extent this model describes reality, we can attack the large number of people killed by police by trying to change training and incentives of police, but that probably won't decrease the ratio of black/white rates of being killed by police.

#69 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2016, 04:55 PM:

Somewhat related HLN:

Last weekend, my family and I went to a street/historical festival in the nearby small town with lots of money (median family income over $100,000).

The police were actually polite and helpful. I saw one offer to parallel park for someone who was struggling to get into a parking space. It was very strange. Somehow, in that town, "polcie who are part of the community" seems to be achievable.

#70 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: May 25, 2016, 11:22 PM:

albatross 68: Blacks are also arrested at a much higher rate than whites. One plausible model for the higher rate of police shootings is that each time someone is arrested, there's some low probability of things going badly enough that they end up dead, and since blacks get arrested a lot more per capita, they also get killed more per capita.

Except that blacks who are arrested are much more likely to be killed than whites who are arrested. The high arrest rate is a factor, but doesn't account for all the facts.

#71 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2016, 11:57 AM:

Albatross @ 68

How true is that within the same demographic? I suspect that once demographic information is accounted for there are still significant differences but they are not enormous. It's important to remember that there are some demographic issues in play in terms of how poor vs. middle class people are treated by police. (And those differences shouldn't exist either, BTW, but they do.) IMHO, it would be really nice if the police did two things:

1.) Stop persecuting poor people/people of color.

2.) Work harder to enforce laws against white-collar crime. (In particular, there is no excuse for a big-city police dept like the LAPD or the NYPD for not having a unit dedicated to enforcing state laws against things like mortgage fraud.)

I'll skip the obligatory Anatole France quote.

#72 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2016, 01:55 PM:

Alex R #71:

It seems like the issue of police abuse (like beating people up or taking them for rough rides) is very distinct from the issue of police not taking white-collar crime seriously enough. Most of the ways I can see to solve the one don't have anything to do with the other.

#73 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: May 26, 2016, 07:26 PM:

Police work, like other fields, gets specialized, and jurisdiction is definitely part of the mix. If one starts setting city police departments on the province of the SEC or the FBI, then you conceivably open it up to rounding up undocumented workers.

#74 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2016, 11:03 AM:

albatross @ 72

I think that the failure to prosecute white collar crime and the inappropriate persecution of POC are two sides of the same coin. Police frequently prosecute black people by starting with a misdemeanor (or even less than that) and inflating it up to a felony if they can, either by an inappropriate stop (as in the top post,) an inappropriate search, "resisting arrest," or simply lying... Most frequently in wrongful arrests of POC there wasn't a crime which hurt other people that needed to be stopped. "Loitering," or maybe "driving while black" or something very minor, like being female and walking out of a drug store with condoms in your purse.

Then the middle/upper class white people who are engaging in fraud, robosigning, forgery, etc., and in doing so are hurting thousands or even millions of people (the last recession wasn't necessary, was it?) don't even get investigated.

So we have too many arrests of POC and too few arrests of white people who are actually committing crimes that hurt people. These vicious and depraved Caucasians desperately need to be put in jail where they can't throw someone into foreclosure by wrongly shuffling pieces of paper. Note that in the last banking crisis a substantially greater percentage of POC lost their homes than POC are a percentage of the population. This was not a bug. This was a feature.

Two sides of the same coin. If you don't see it you're not getting the whole picture.

Steve C. @ 73

You're right, there are jurisdictional issues, but the local cops can investigate crimes which violate state law, such as forgery (robosigning) or other violations of state laws, such as fraud.

#75 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2016, 09:53 AM:

(Returning to the conversation late....)

Alex R:

I understand what you're saying. And I agree that the relative impunity of the rich and powerful is offensive as hell. I just don't see any way that addressing that problem will bear much fruit on reducing police brutality or impunity of corrupt policemen. It looks to me like the mechanisms involved are mostly pretty different.

For example, when I think of addressing police brutality and all the related nastiness, I imagine things like setting up truly independent investigative and prosecutorial agencies for police misconduct cases, civilian review boards with actual power, maybe revising the training and equipment of police to try to decrease the number of unnecessary shootings[1], body and dash cameras with strict rules on maintaining and disclosing the recordings, etc.

Going further to try to decrease the nasty interaction between people at the bottom (especially poor minorities) and the criminal justice system, I can imagine state or federal laws to get rid of civil forfeiture, make it impossible for police departments or cities to operate their police operations to raise revenue, get rid of all the fines and fees that get piled on people who go to jail so they don't end up permanently unable to feed themselves on any above-ground job, etc. Decriminalizing drug use and moving to some kind of treatment model for addiction (clean needles, methadone, whatever) would be on that list somewhere, too.

If we did that stuff (I think some of the BLM leaders have proposed a bunch of those things), I suspect we'd have a lot better-behaved police, fewer cases of police brutality or police shootings, and over time, maybe we'd repair some of the broken relationship between the people at the bottom and the police.

But I don't see that *any* of that stuff would cause the Justice Department to spend more resources prosecuting big financial companies when they break the law. I can imagine policies we could undertake to do that, too, but they would look completely different. Indeed, there would even be some tension between them, since we'd probably need to use the Justice Dept. to investigate and impose better behavior on the most corrupt local police departments, and that's resources that aren't being spent holding bankers to account. We could do both, but there's not an obvious overlap to the actions there.

[1] I know nothing of police work, so I am not sure this is a useful thing to do, but it seems likely, given the apparently large number of police killings of civilians per year.

#76 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: June 10, 2016, 12:59 PM:

albatross @ 75

I generally agree with your prescriptions above, and if one of them showed up on a local or state initiative I'd certainly vote for it.

But I also believe that the "two sides of the same coin" argument is a very valid one. What is the focus of your police department? If they say they're focused on "drugs, gangs, and prostitution" is that code for "we'll keep the n-words in line," or does it really mean there's a problem with drugs, gangs and prostitution? Maybe it means "we know about a dozen white-owned businesses in town who are breaking the law, but we don't plan to do anything about it."

IMHO the idea that we need to focus on "victimless crimes" is a fundamentally racist idea. (And BTW, have you noticed all the propaganda about "opioids" now that marijuana is looking to become legal?) My ideas about "victimless crimes" are pretty libertarian - getting the police involved with a case of addiction does not make things better!

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