Friday, April 17, 2015

Big Shots, Bigger Statistics

We live in a gun-obsessed culture, with pervasive availability of weapons of every size and description and a proclivity to use them to take human life. One of our other obsessions: sharing pictures and videos taken on pervasive smart phones shared on even more pervasive social media. Perhaps it was inevitable that these two pervasive forces would collide, but who would have predicted the violence of that impact? Particularly when some proximate amateur videographers recorded scenes that were once, in times gone by, both sacrosanct and profoundly secret rituals, moments recorded only on biased police reports, written by the men and women uniformed in blue, brown, gray or black who pulled the triggers. Most were justified, but exactly how many were not?
Who wants to think that a significant number of those sworn to protect public safety are vastly deeper threats to that desired security? Why do we believe that such sworn deputies of law enforcement uniformly place their own biases and emotional problems in a jar by the door to their lockers when they don their police specials and climb behind the wheels of their intimidating cruisers?
Yet without these mostly esteemed officers of the law, especially in crowded and seething urban environments, how quickly would our lives devolve into violent chaos? We all know the names of the victims, mostly African American, the cities and towns where riots ensued, the media moments, the officers exonerated and those convicted (not many), but this is not the story of individuals; it is an examination of who we really are, what we really think and how we really behave when the cameras are not rolling.
Is this a question of racial and ethnic bias? A heavy focus on black lives? Hispanic and the lives of other “people of color”? Is it the product of under-training, understaffing and less-than-ideal supervision or a genuine and pervasiveethos of “us vs. them,” which infests police officers of every color and ethnicity? Has this been the hidden story of America for decades, perhaps even centuries, that has politely littered our society in those shadows of life where questions are/were never asked?  Has this behavior accelerated along with the bigger polarization that has infected our body politic, hastened more by increasing urbanization and growing percentages of minorities rising and falling in the new America during impaired and often desperate economic times? And without these pernicious and pervasivevideos, would these murderous events have continued, perhaps grown, far from any viable public scrutiny?
Over the past decade, according to a Washington Post/Bowling Green State University report, 54 police officers have been charged with crimes for shooting alleged perpetrators while on official duty. 54 charges among thousands of police shootings over that same period. Only 54 wrong-doings out of that total? Is that even a statistical possibility? These experts tell us that numbers so small tell us something is wrong, very, very wrong, with our system of justice, with any statistically valid accountability for police shootings that seem to surface only where there is some strong and undeniable evidence, frequently these days a video recording, of police misfeasance.
When prosecutors pressed charges, The Post analysis found, there were typically other factors that made the case exceptional, including: a victim shot in the back, a video recording of the incident, incriminating testimony from other officers or allegations of a coverup… Forty-three cases involved at least one of these four factors. Nineteen cases involved at least two…
“Among the officers charged since 2005 for fatal shootings, more than three-quarters were white. Two-thirds of their victims were minorities, all but two of them black… Nearly all other cases­ involved black officers who killed black victims. In one other instance, a Latino officer fatally shot a white person and in another an Asian officer killed a black person. There were a total of 49 victims.
“Identifying the exact role of race in fatal shootings and prosecutions is difficult. Often, prosecutors pursued charges against a backdrop of protests accusing police of racism. Race was also a factor in court when federal prosecutors stepped in and filed charges­ against officers for allegedly violating the victims’ civil rights. Six officers, all white, faced federal civil rights charges for killing blacks…
“In interviews with more than 20 prosecutors across the country, they said that race did not factor into their decisions to bring charges against officers. The prosecutors said they pursued cases­ based on the legal merits.
“But defense lawyer Doug Friesen, who represented a white officer convicted in 2013 for fatally shooting an unarmed black man, said that “it would be naive” for prosecutors to say race isn’t a consideration… ‘Anytime you have politicians that have to make charging decisions, realistically that is part of their decision-making process,’ Friesen said. ‘They are asking themselves, ‘Is there going to be rioting out in the streets?’ ’ ” Washington Post, April 11th.
Statistics tell us that racism may be one of the most pervasive factors in the decision to pull the trigger, a belief that being black increases the probability of guilt, shared even with many African American cops, creating a “justifiable judge, jury and executioner” in the field. And thus, it seems, black and other minority lives are just not as valuable as white lives when it comes to snap decisions in the mostly urban environments where these killings seem to occur with the greatest frequency. Within the foreseeable future, 30% of all African American males will have seen a criminal conviction, almost accompanied by incarceration. How many whites simply “get away with it”? And how much reactive anger, a feeling of inevitability, just makes the situation that much worse?
The United States has developed into a money-based plutocracy – at least as most Americans have been impacted – but if you are a person of color, there is even a completely different system of criminal justice, one that has a damned good chance of ensnaring you, sooner or later. Who are we? Human rights hypocrites? Bitching about China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia when we allow such inhumanity to continue in our own country without correction? We have an African American president and an African American attorney general, and this condition still persists?!
Yes, we are seeing an increase in the demand that police officers were body cameras to record these events. But obscured angles, “camera malfunctions,” and a general resistance to being monitored at virtually even significant moment on the job (wouldn’t you feel weird in your own work if you had to record those “big” moments of your job?) push back against this growing requirement. Look at the military vehicles, the automatic weapons and military tactics employed by cops even in small towns. Feel the rippling power, the omnipotent exhilaration of total control and invulnerability. And look at how often we actually deploy that overkill.
But the problem is a bigger issue of how Americans really feel about race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation and religion. Do we actually hate Muslims, fear blacks, look down on gays and abhor Latino immigrants, no matter how much lip service we pay to “equality” and “equal protection under the law”? Listen to the political debates all around us. Hear our elected officials pick issues that are surrogates for prolonging these “human rights violating” practices by creating possible “acceptable alternative interpretations” to allow these wrongs to perpetuate. What do our schools teach? Why are public school budgets being cut? What are the little signals we pass on to our children that teach the wrong message? We have identified the cause, and the cause is in each and every one of us.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we can make a difference, but it starts in your own mind, your own perceptions, your own acquiescence of wrongdoings, and your own messaging and communications.

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