Tag Archives: criminal justice

Radley Balko’s 2014 Oppression Retrospective

Radley Balko, the Washington Post’s resident libertarian and criminal justice critic, has compiled a list of criminal justice horrors at his WaPo blog. It’s presented as predictions for the coming year, but all of his predictions refer to events from this year.

Here are a few of the more horrifying criminal justice follies from 2014, with links:

• The indiscriminate police raids will continue, with aggressive, door-kicking raids on people suspected of increasingly petty crimes, such as credit card fraud and underage drinking. In a rare moment of sanity, at least one federal appeals court will decide that maybe SWAT raids are an unconstitutionally excessive way to conductregulatory inspections. But such raids will continue elsewhere.

• Some U.S. cities will pay out tens of millions of dollars in police brutality claims. In all but a handful of instances, the individual officers involved will not be held accountable.

• We’ll learn about more cases in which police have subjected innocent people to anal penetration and forced colonoscopies in order to search for drugs.

We’ll start arresting working parents for the “crime” of letting their kids play in public places without supervision. Some of these parents will face felony charges and the possibility of losing custody of their children.

In the latest panic over teen “sexting,” local law enforcement officials somewhere will hit a new low, arguing that a court should allow them to forcibly induce an erection in a teenage boy in order to prove that the boy’s penis is the one depicted in a photo sent to a teenage girl.

• Some drug cops will blow a hole in a toddler’s chest in order to nab a guy suspected of selling $50 worth of meth.

We’ll also start Tasering children.

• Some dumb city officials will order a police raid, arrests and criminal charges because a parody Twitter account hurt the mayor’s feelings.

• In some places, it will become a crime for a pregnant woman to have a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Radley Balko maintains a blog at the Washington Post called “The Watch”, and is the author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.

Abolish the Police!

Ferguson, MO
Ferguson, MO

BREAKING: The grand jury investigating Darren Wilson’s shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson has decided not to indict the police officer who killed an unarmed teenager. Wilson claimed that his response was justified because he was in fear for his life. This is the common response in the case of police shootings, and such shootings rarely go to trial. In the aftermath, Ferguson police have fired upon protesters. Protests have erupted all over the nation.

It is the position of Democracy in Principle that the criminal justice system, especially the police, in the United States is utterly broken and requires root and branch reform.

While grand juries almost always indict on the recommendation of the prosecution, they almost never indict police officers. Jurors tend to defer to authority, and prosecutors, who work closely with police, don’t want to try police officers anyway. Prosecutors have complete control of the evidence gathered, including witnesses called. There is no opposing party in a grand jury investigation that can act as a critical voice. The grand jury system needs to be reformed to act as an effective, impartial, and informed check on prosecutors. In England, and in most states, grand juries have been abolished. However, juries in general could be once again a powerful democratic tool for criminal justice.

The police in the United States have become a significant danger to the lives of its citizens. As Radley Balko has abundantly reported, SWAT teams have become an overused instrument, used to serve code violations as well as in cases of actual danger, and often murdering innocents in their homes. The deadly results of SWAT teams include the complete disfigurement of a 19-month-old baby in Cornelia, Georgia. No SWAT officer was indicted for this barbarism. Besides the human victims of SWAT teams, dogs are also the frequent victims of SWAT violence.

Yet SWAT teams are not the only source of police violence, as Americans can no longer deny. Ordinary police patrols are threats to the lives of Americans, especially of young African-Americans. Police officers have cited every possible source of harm as a threat to their life: dogs large and small, unarmed men, and children with toy guns. In Utah, police officers are the 2nd most common cause of homicides, killing more people than gang members, drug dealers, or child abusers. Police use of force has increased, despite the crime rate being lower than ever and police being safer than ever. Whether the cause of this is police cowardice or misinformation is irrelevant. What is clear is that the police themselves are now a threat to public safety.

Tweaks and cameras and reforms are not going to solve the problem of out-of-control police. We need to abolish the police as we know them. To this end, we need to:

  • Disarm, not just demilitarize, police forces, as is the case in the United Kingdom;
  • Purge police forces of its Darren Wilsons, and those “who stand with Darren Wilson”;
  • Abolish the legal protections and immunities that the police enjoy for legal deception, the use of force, and other legal protections;
  • Raise the standards for the education of criminal investigators, as better educated police officers are less likely to be racist and more likely to be professional;
  • Begin establishing the alternative public safety service, employing persuasion and scientific community-oriented crime prevention policies instead of panic-fueled violence;
  • The general decriminalization of non-violent offenses.

The police are an historically recent invention whose main effects have been to enforce public order crimes instead of actually protect people from violence. People generally refrain from violence because it is costly to hurt others. People obey the law because they believe the law is legitimate. If these facts were not true, no number of police officers would ensure our safety. We do not need to fear one another. But abolishing the police does not mean abolishing public safety patrols, or crime prevention, or public servants to help us when we need them. Abolishing the police means an end to armed men with no oversight or control, roving our neighborhoods and killing innocent citizens.

Update: edited to say that “police use of force has increased”, where before it had said that it had decreased.

Race and Justice: I Guess You Can Kill Children…

…if he’s a black teenager.

We all know the story now.  Trayvon Martin went to the store to get iced tea and Skittles.  Local neighborhood watch buffoon George Zimmerman stalked Martin and then approached him with hostility and a gun.  Martin understandably used his greater size to “stand his ground” in the parlance of Florida law.  That is, Trayvon Martin violently defended his right to be where he was against an aggressor.  Zimmerman shot him through the chest.  Unbelievably but predictably, Zimmerman was allowed to walk out of a Florida courtroom a free man.  Somehow, the guy with the gun was found to really be “in fear for his life”.  I guess he must be just a huge, pants-wetting coward.

Baffingly, Martin, minding his own business and unarmed, was a threat to George Zimmerman, the fatass who was probably a joke to the police and the neighborhood.  The case focused on whether George Zimmerman had the right to self-defense, but no one seemed interested in whether Martin had a right and a reason to defend himself.  The tiny, six-person jury decided, without irony, that Zimmerman had acted appropriately.  This seems to result from the fact of what type of music Trayvon Martin liked, or that he filmed himself acting tough, or that he might have been high.  Yes, the “reefer madness” accusation was actually used in 2013, seventy years after the eponymous movie made your great-grandparents believe that “the marijuana” made people crazy and violent.  (I’m also going to assume that the phrase “the rap music” was used, with air-quotes.)

All that said, the problem is not the racial demons lurking in the malformed brain of fat coward George Zimmerman.  The problem is really that the system of institutions failed to punish him at all.  The Zimmerman case is only one among the uncounted number of ways in which non-whites, most notably African-Americans, are disadvantaged by the system of institutions that are supposed to serve them, and all other participants equitably.

Race: A Lie with Power

They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.

                                      James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt”

Race is an idea that is deeply embedded in American institutions.  It was built into colonial institutions with the first settlement of Europeans in the Americas, and is composed of two vile principles.

First, Americans widely believe that there is a natural, biological division among human beings called race, much like there are breeds of dogs, and you can identify race by skin color.  If you look at the DNA of an individual, you might find that they are “part-white” or “part-black”, as in some popular television shows about celebrity ancestry.

This is ridiculuous nonsense of course.  On the one hand, the common-sense idea of race is logically inconsistent.  Skin color is supposed to be the determinant of race, but not all people sharing the same skin color are said to be of the same race, and vice versa.  For example, the darkest skinned people from India are not said to be “black”, while such widely divergent peoples as Africans and aboriginal Australians are.

On the other hand, nothing in nature corresponds to the common-sense idea of race.   DNA varies by geography, not by skin color.  If we were to sort people by comparing and contrasting their DNA, we would get groupings of people that are very unlike the manner by which we organize races.  The common conception of race is simply false.  

The reason for the illusion of race is not hard to discern, however, which brings us to our second vile principle.  Human beings, like all primates, develop hierarchies of status.  Because these hierarchies cause widespread unhappiness in the low-status and cruelty in the high-status, human beings perform mental contortions to justify these hierarchies in terms of some greater good: those of higher status deserve their esteem, while those of lower status deserve their misfortune.  So far, all such attempts to justify unequal societies by reference to a greater good, whether the will of God, just desert, or greater efficiency, have all been utter nonsense.  Status by race is no exception.

The ‘height’ of the human social pyramid varies by the material conditions of its society, and the institutional means by which that society organizes itself.  European colonialists devised the existence of race to divide its forced labor into a hierarchy.  The white workforce are paid with what W.E.B DuBois called a “psychological wage”.  Basically, the race-consciousness of the white worker provides him with an imaginary elevation in status over the non-white worker.  In exchange for the pretense of respect, the race-conscious white working class gives up any hope for freedom, dignity, and the satisfaction of basic needs.  

This illusion is behind the disproportionate incarceration of non-whites; the perennial cuts in welfare benefits on which mostly white people depend; the animus towards affirmative action to improve the position of non-whites; and the denial of justice to Trayvon Martin.  Status is a zero-sum game – any gain by the lesser is a loss by the greater.  Thus the illusion of race has hindered every great social advance in the United States, as well as other places rent by these vile principles.  There are simply enough white people who would rather be white and poor than enjoy justice and well-being with non-whites.

The Criminal Justice System Must Be Transformed

The Zimmerman case points to a broken system of government and criminal justice, in every branch: 

  •  “Stand Your Ground” legislation, like a great deal of the legislative code, is ambiguously worded, and, like far too much criminal law, depends on the subjective state of individuals.  After all, it could have been that Zimmerman “reasonably believe[d] [deadly force was] necessary to… prevent death or great bodily harm to himself”, just because he’s a fat coward.  
  • The police did not even take Zimmerman into custody after finding him holding a smoking gun over the body of a dead teenager, and Florida’s prosecutors had to be forced, by popular outrage, to bring criminal charges against Zimmerman.  Then they were completely incompetent in arguing the case.

  • The decision was made by a jury of six people.  That’s not very many people, and no matter the composition of the jury, it could not have been remotely representative of Seminole County.  If the purpose of a jury is to represent the community from which it is drawn, then a six-person jury fails its county with an astronomical margin of error of ±40% (that is, the discrepancy between the verdict determined by the jury and what would be determined by the population).

So our social institutions fail to satisfy the requirements of justice because they deliver outcomes that differ by race.  This is obviously unjust, but more than that, race is not real even as we experience it.  It’s as if our institutions are hallucinating, still feeling the pain of a limb long ago amputated.  Moreover, our criminal justice institutions suffer from a dementia of old age, cobbled together from medieval English law (some salutary, some not) and contemporary corruption.  “Justice for Trayvon” means a society that actually aims at justice in general, not one that stands on broken legs.