Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson - Now What?

Like many, I watched the announcement of the Grand Jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson on charges for the death of Michael Brown.   The St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, rambled on regarding the process and facts presented to the Grand Jury for a good 8 minutes before finally announcing the no-bill.   Now, there were several things wrong with this whole event.  First and foremost, they made the announcement at around 9pm in the evening, after announcing the day before that the Grand Jury's decision  would be forthcoming.  So, what did this do?  It allowed the people waiting on the decision to build up an enormous amount of emotion on the issue.   Rather than announcing it in the morning, they wrongly waited until the evening.  I suppose they were attempting to plan for the aftermath of the announcement and get police prepared.  Then of course, what everyone expected to happen did indeed happen.  Despite pleas from Michael Brown's parents to protest without resorting to violence, violence occurred.  It was inevitable for many reasons.  First, there were people who regardless of the decision would act out.  Second, there are people genuinely upset with the police, the district attorney, the governor, the country at -large and acted out of despair and hopelessness.  Thankfully, the damage and injury was contained somewhat. It could have been much worse.  The sad thing is the whole situation never had to result in the outcome that occurred on Monday evening.

Mr. McCulloch, the prosecutor with responsibilities to present the facts of the case to the Grand Jury bungled this whole thing from the start.  First of all, they waited far too long to impanel the Grand Jury. Then, the process by which the Grand Jury reviewed the information seemed to be intentionally focused towards confusion.  In most cases, prosecuting attorneys present a recommended charge for the Grand Jury to consider in weighing the information presented.  The point is this: Does the information presented support a specific charge to the point that an indictment is warranted?   Mr. McCulloch did a "data dump" of thousands of pages of information regarding the case, had several different witnesses, including Officer Wilson testify in front of the Grand Jury, and presented a list of "possible charges" the Grand Jury could consider.  Now, this is unusual for many reasons. First, the lack of a recommended charge. Secondly, testimony from the Officer.  This rarely happens in a closed Grand Jury hearing.   The testimony given by Officer Wilson is an amazing account of the incident, and in my view it had an influence on the decision to indict or not.  The point here is, that a Grand Jury hearing is not a trial.  It is a hearing to determine whether there should be a trial.  Given the outcome and the history of Mr. McCulloch's tenure as prosecuting attorney, the result of this doesn't pass the sniff test of credibility in my view.   This decision to no-bill could have been the proper one. But, so much time had passed, and so much dysfunction from the prosecutor's office polluted the sense that this was a fair process that the decision is dubious whether proper or not.

We have an officer with a very suspicious story about the events of August 9th who will not be taken to trial.  Officer Wilson's account of the day in his testimony do not square up with witness accounts, or even his own initial reports of what happened.
That's not necessarily a surprise, as often witness accounts vary and sometimes change based on time.  But the fact of the matter are this:  Officer Darren Wilson fired 12 shots from his gun, seven of which entered Michael Brown's body.   Officer Wilson indicated that Mr. Brown attacked him while he was still sitting in his police cruiser, attempted to grab his gun, and then ran away, then ran back towards the officer.   Mr. Brown at one time was about 150 feet away from the officer, who continued to discharge his weapon.  Officer Wilson, up to this incident had never discharged his fire-arm in the line of duty.  This time, however, he fired twelve rounds at an 18 year old man.   He killed a man that was under suspicion for robbing a convenience store.   His account of the incident suggests a confrontation with a "demon" like figure who Officer Wilson was afraid would beat him to death.

Perhaps all of that was true.  Perhaps Mr. Brown was a superhuman
that could run through a series of bullets and get to Officer Wilson and hurt or kill him.  Perhaps the accounts of the incident came down exactly the way Officer Wilson describes it.  The first question I have and a lot of other people have is why did it have to happen?  Officer Wilson, in his own words describes Mr. Brown as being aggressive from the point of initial contact.  If this is true, and as Officer Wilson describes it, he called for back-up, why didn't he wait?  Why didn't he withdraw from the situation until more support could arrive?  Why, did he continue to involve himself into a situation that escalated to the point that an 18 year old was killed?  What was the hurry?  This was a confrontation that didn't have to be a life or death situation.  The circumstances could have been De-escalated and with additional support Mr. Brown could have been confronted, arrested and then dealt with in a proper manner.  Instead, we have a dead kid (yes, an 18 year old is a kid), an officer whose life is forever altered and a set of parents who had to put their kid into a casket and into the ground way too early.

Police violence has become an all too frequent affair.  Since August 9, 2014, there have been 14 teenagers shot and killed by police officers.  We are seeing more and more aggression from police that includes an severe increase in shootings and violent confrontations.  I believe there are many reasons for this and have some thoughts on how to attempt to resolve what seems to be an ever escalating level of violence.

First, some observations on the current state of affairs:

1. The "war on drugs" is responsible for much of the confrontation occurring between police and young people.  The aggressive policing, "no-knock" searches, stop and frisk policies, etc. establish an immediate and palpable level of suspicion for the police.
2. Disproportionate responses to incidents with militarized police procedures.   SWAT teams, riot gear, tear-gas, and a higher level of aggressive response is causing more and more violence.  SWAT teams used to be specialized tactical forces that were only called out in the most dire of circumstances. Now, in some jurisdictions, SWAT teams are delivering an executing search warrants.
3. Police that does not represent the community.  In Ferguson specifically, this is a major problem.  Ferguson is a suburb of St. Louis, and has a population of about 20 thousand people.  Two-thirds of the residents in Ferguson are black.  The police force in Ferguson has 53 officers, 3 of which are black.  The police actions are skewed disproportionately toward incidents with black citizens of the community.  In 2013, there were 5318 "police stops" (traffic tickets are a major source of city revenue in Ferguson. It is a notorious speed-trap).  Of the 5318 stops, 4632 were tops of black citizens and 686 were of white citizens.  That's a 87% to 13% or about a 6 to 1 ratio.  Now, I don't think the black people in Ferguson are that heavy footed, and even with the population being 66% black, it's still a highly inflated figure.   The data on arrests is no better. In 2013,  there were 521 arrests made by the Ferguson police department.  of the 521 arrests made, 483 were of black citizens and 36 were of white citizens. That's a 93%  to 7% or about 13 to 1 ratio.  Now considering that only 5% of the police officers in Ferguson are black, and 93% of the arrests in 2013 were of black people I wonder what the perspective of blacks toward the police might be? 

Now,  how to address:

1. Politicians have to get off their asses and do the hard work of diffusing the aggression and acrimony between police and the citizenry, particularly the lower income communities.   They can do this by focusing on engagement rather than estrangement.  Instead of running on a "tough on crime" stance with bellicose statements and policies that enforce things like mandatory minimum drug offenses they have other choices.  They can get into the community and work with the business leaders, clergy, educators, and others to increase community policing, alternative discipline strategies for first offenders and the like.  This approach is having success in some cities. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake in Baltimore and Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans are seeing some successful response from the communities with this approach.  Coupled with a change in approach, we must stop the insanity that is the manner by which we deal with drug offenders.  The amount of arrests and incarceration for drug offenses is idiotic and has proven to be an abject failure. Getting cops out of putting cuffs on a kid for holding a joint and back to  protecting that kid from a dealer will go along way to get some credibility back in the community.

2. Get the beat-cop back on the beat.  Rather than having fewer cops, we need more.  We need more that are engaged and known in the community and are not walking down the street looking like they are about to engage Al-Qaeda in Mosul or Fallujah.   During the Clinton administration, funding was delivered from the federal government that help put several thousand police back on the street, and in particular on the "beat", where they became known and familiar. Guess what, in those areas, crime rates dropped.

3. Get a police force, and for that matter a government that is representative of the community.  The Ferguson example is ridiculous.  There is little chance for a community that is overwhelmingly unrepresented in city government and in the police force to heal and trust each other particularly when the statistics about police behavior are so upside down.

4. Better technology and training for police.  It's clear the situation with Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown could have been avoided with better actions on the part of the Officer.  Training officers on alternative approaches to confrontation would be useful.   Body-Cams recording incidents between citizenry and the police would be immensely useful in situations like the one between Wilson and Brown.  Having a visual record of the events would allow for an objective view of the incident and could have quelled the violence and rioting that occurred last Monday regardless of what happened.  We should have mandatory body-cams on patrolling officers.  It will help them. It will help the citizenry.  It will help the good cops and will deter bad behavior.   Why this isn't standard police gear just like their weapon or handcuffs or radios are beyond me.

5. Do a much faster job of investigating police shootings or violence.  There is no reason why it has taken from August until now to come to resolution on the Wilson / Brown issue.  The amount of time taken, along with the leaks from various sources only inflame a situation like this.  Fast and aggressive investigation with transparency in the process can help.  Every facet of local and state government in this case failed.  The Governor should have appointed a special prosecutor to investigate this instead of Mr. McCulloch because of his close association with the Ferguson police department.  Now, whether or not that impacted his approach on this is immaterial. The perception it conveys to the public is what matters.  An independent investigator not associated with the police would have given the perception of objectivity and could have given the community a level of confidence that this wasn't rigged in Officer Wilson's favor from the beginning.

We have an opportunity to learn from this monumental fuck-up and do better.  We have to do better. It makes me sick to my stomach to see this happen over and over again.  We can be a better nation than this.  If we expect people to respect the rule of law, then the rule of law has to work effectively.  It certainly is not doing so now.

Tell me what you think.


Wednesday, November 05, 2014

So, That Happened

Well, what a night.  If you are like me, it wasn't a very good night.  The 2014 mid-terms swept Republicans into control of the Senate, boosted the majority in the House of Representatives and swept several Democratic governors out of office.  It was a massive victory for the GOP.  It remains to be seen if it is a massive victory for the country.  Certainly, there was a bow-wave of Republican energy in the election.   The overwhelming victories the party of Reagan racked up cannot be attributed to anything other than the people of this country want the GOP to govern.  At least the people who voted.   Now, it's very early to point to the exact reasons why the elections turned out the way they did.  There will be months of analysis of exit polls, discussions and debates on why things went the way they did. There will be accusations, there will be explanations, there will be whining from my side of the aisle, there will be gloating from the other side.  All of that has its time and place and will eventually be out there for us all to talk and debate about. But, in advance of all of the talk that will fill the radio and TV time in the near future, let me offer up some observations on what happened.

1. The country is sick of politics and government in general. The political machine in this country has become a never-ending cycle of attacks, cynicism and gamesmanship focused on nothing more than trying to convince one side is the devil and one side is the angel.  The money that has been poured into the process on both sides of the political spectrum is astounding, and it's become tiring to continually watch and hear the governing process in this country tear itself apart. People are rightly disgusted with the process and last night it was manifested in two ways:  The first is voter apathy.   It's still early to see the exact numbers, but turn-out seemed to be lower than usual for mid-terms.  Now, for older voters, it seemed like that turn-out was up, but for the below 30 year old crowd, it was pathetic.  This is a sign of apathy from the electorate and disconnection of the government to the people.  So, the party that openly despises government in general won in large numbers last night. Why?  Because they seized upon the anger, frustration, and general unhappiness that the people have with the government and did a brilliant job of focusing all of that energy on one specific person.   The President of the United States.

2. The country is massively dissatisfied with the President.  President Obama's job approval rating is sitting about 40% and has been this way for a long time.  Interestingly enough, the party that won big last night have a general job approval rating in Congress of something like 14%.  However, it's easy to focus on one person than a group of people, and it's apparent that the country has had it with the President.   Either by voting against him or not voting at all, the young man who offered "Hope and Change" in 2008 has taken another major loss in the mid-term elections.   It's not surprising that the party out of the White House loses ground in Congress in mid-terms.  This is especially true in the mid-terms during the 2nd term of a President, any President.  It's happened to every 2 term president since Reagan, but this thumping was massive.  The President's own party ran away from him in almost every race.  It's clear that the folks who were energized to support the President were far outdone by the folks who were energized to oppose him. 

3. The election seemed to be not about issues but anger.  Core conservative ballot measures, such as Personhood bills went down in defeat everywhere they were on the ballot.  Marijuana legalization referendums passed everywhere they were on the ballot except Florida.   So, on specific issues that were on the ballot, seemed be tilted towards more progressive attitudes.  However, this didn't hold true for the people on the ballot.  Candidates such as Joni Ernst in Iowa, a Tea Party favorite, took Tom Harkin's open Senate seat rather handily.  She and several others on the ballot last night voiced the anger at Washington and could pose big problems for presumed Majority Leader McConnell after the new Congresss comes in to office next January.  All over the country, expressions of distrust and dissatisfaction with Washington's lack of action were voiced with the candidates who won. 

4. Conservatives have made their case.  I'm totally surprised that Sam Brownback won reelection in Kansas.  Same with Pat Roberts in Kansas.  Both candidates were deeply flawed and in Brownback's case, his track record for the state has been horrible. Yet, he was reelected.  Rick Scott, the deeply unpopular governor in Florida won reelection over a former Republican Charlie Crist.    In Texas, Wendy Davis's campaign was obliterated by Gregg Abbott, a conservative candidate with the charisma of a snail.   As a liberal, atheist, gay-rights and tree-hugging, union loving voter, this of course saddens me deeply, but you have to acknowledge when you are on the wrong side of the country's perspective, and it's clear that I am. The conservative movement in the country is strong, and it is likely to make the 2016 presidential race very competitive. 

All in all, this was a blow-out.  There's no other way to describe what happened and one must congratulate the winners.  They did the work, pounded the pavement, convinced the voters they were on the right side of the issues and were successful.   I hope this energy translates into something good and useful for the country.  Even with our differences in political views, the people are much closer together than it seems. All of us want the country to have a good economy, security from harm, and an ability to leave a place better for our kids. So, we have once again an opportunity to do something useful.  I hope the GOP will leverage this massive victory into something positive. I hope the President will find a way to work with this new Congress and throw out the last 6 years of obstruction and grid-lock.  It remains to be seen what will come of this, but every two years we have a chance to reset, start fresh and do something good. We've not done that in a long time, and I think that is what the country emphatically told us last night.

Tell me what you think.