Should we retain the category of “hate crimes”?

January 19, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’ve recently read several books on free speech, all of which emphasize a fairly strict construal of the First Amendment. That means that expressions that offend people, including “hate speech”, bigotry, and so on, while they may be offensive, are legal.

But while the verbal expression of bigotry is legal, the physical expression is not—not when it’s the motivation for a hate crime. And that got me thinking about the justifications for giving extra-harsh punishments for hate crimes. When I mention “hate crime”, I’m not referring to crimes that wouldn’t be crimes at all without the bigotry, so I’m not including Holocaust denialism or blasphemy (neither crimes in the U.S. but both in many other lands). I’m using the definition of hate crime given on the FBI website:

A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.

And here’s the FBI’s explanation of what’s considered a hate crime:

Hate crimes are the highest priority of the FBI’s civil rights program because of the devastating impact they have on families and communities. The Bureau investigates hundreds of these cases every year, and we work to detect and prevent incidents through law enforcement training, public outreach, and partnerships with community groups.

Traditionally, FBI investigations of hate crimes were limited to crimes in which the perpetrators acted based on a bias against the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin. In addition, investigations were restricted to those wherein the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity. With the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the Bureau became authorized to also investigate crimes committed against those based on biases of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender.

We see here that the high priority for investigating hate crimes rests not on the motivation alone, that is, it’s not an explicit attempt to eliminate feelings and expressions of bigotry, which are protected by the First Amendment, but because of the higher impact such crimes are said to have on communities. They are seen as more serious crimes.

The American Psychological Association asserts that hate crimes have a disproportionately large effect on the victims themselves:

People victimized by violent hate crimes are more likely to experience more psychological distress than victims of other violent crimes. Specifically, victims of crimes that are bias-motivated are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress, safety concerns, depression, anxiety and anger than victims of crimes that are not motivated by bias.

Hate crimes send messages to members of the victim’s group that they are unwelcome and unsafe in the community, victimizing the entire group and decreasing feelings of safety and security. Furthermore, witnessing discrimination against one’s own group can lead to psychological distress and lower self-esteem.

But when thinking about hate crimes just in terms of the three valid rationales that I, as a determinist, see for punishing someone (deterrence, sequestering someone from society, and reformation), I see no obvious justification for punishing someone differently whether they, say, kill someone because he’s a Jew or kill someone because they don’t like him for non-religious reasons. Does a higher punishment for the same crime, but one motivated in part by bias, deter an offender? I doubt it, but I’m not sure we have good data on that.

In terms of sequestering someone from society, a higher punishment for hate crimes assumes that those who commit the are more dangerous than those who commit the same crime but with a non-“hate” motivation, and thus more likely to do damage if paroled at the same time. Again, I’m not aware of data on this, which this bears on the third rationale: reformation.

Is it easier to reform someone who commits a murder based on bigotry than someone who kills, say, simply for the thrill of killing? Who knows? Perhaps through treatment you can wean someone from bigotry more easily than a sociopath who simply hates people in general. Again, I’m sure we lack data.

The other issue is that for some “hate crimes” you must judge the motivations of the criminal, and ascertain that they play a significant role in the crime. Sometimes that might be easy, as in the case of a person who hates Muslims burning down a mosque (especially if you have a documented history of bias). In others that’s no so easy, but clearly we need to use a “beyond reasonable doubt” criterion for ascertaining motivation.

That might not always be easy. For example, all 20 of Ted Bundy’s victims were women. He sometimes had sex with the corpses. Other serial murderers rape women before they kill them. Is this because they are biased against women, or because part of their motivation is sex, or because they find it easier to overcome women, who are usually less powerful than men? In other words, did Bundy commit “hate crimes”? Well, in his case it hardly matters, for he was electrocuted. But for other crimes it may be hard to suss out a motivation, and we all know of criminals whose motivations are unclear.

It becomes even more difficult when bias is part of a pathology—as Bundy’s may have been. Mental illness, which can manifest itself as bigotry, is a mitigating factor for punishment, mandating psychiatric treatment instead of straight incarceration. Do you use the concept of “hate crimes” with criminals who have mental problems?

When thinking about whether an offender should be punished more strongly because he or she is motivated by bigotry, I don’t see a clear justification based on rehabilitation, sequestration, or deterrence. But that’s irrelevant to how many people think about hate crimes. In effect, they are saying that hate crimes are more serious crimes than the identical offense committed without obvious bigotry. In other words, burning a synagogue because you hate Jews is seen as a different crime from doing the same amount of damage by burning a building because you don’t like landlords. Behind the “hate crime” rationale, then, is the psychological damage that is said to be attendant on both victims and society.

I’m prepared to believe that this is the case, and understand that there are data supporting the excess damage, at least in terms of victims. But of course there’s more psychological damage caused to a person and a community when you insult their race, religion, or gender than when you simply call them a jerk. Offense is the price we pay for free speech. In light of that, is “excess fear” or “trauma” in victims a reason to increase the punishment for a crime, or create a new class of crime?

On balance, I think it is, but my mind isn’t fully made up on this issue. The same “harm” that attends legal free speech (and let’s face it—some people’s feelings are hurt by free speech) is also the same kind of harm that attends individuals and communities victimized by hate crimes. If someone calls you a “dirty Jew” rather than a “jerk”, you may be much more offended, even though no crime is committed. But if someone punches you because you’re a Jew as opposed to punching you because you’re a Republican, does the former crime, even if it causes more offense and trauma, warrant more punishment?

Weigh in below: do you think the concept of “hate crimes”, with the attendant higher punishment attached to them, a good one?

Who will get pardons from Trump?

January 18, 2021 • 6:14 pm

In only two days Trump will be gone, to a massive sigh of relief across America as well as to the groans of Deplorables.

There are reports that Trump may issue up to 100 pardons tomorrow, though the recipients are said not to include himself. But the list will surely include many who don’t deserve this leniency.

Whom do you think he’ll pardon?  Although this isn’t a contest, I’ll give a prize of my choosing to the first person all of whose guesses are all correct, so long as they are four or more. Any wrong guesses disqualify you, and if you guess fewer than four but they’re all correct, you also don’t get a prize. There’s only one way to win, and if nobody wins, no prize. But guess away if you don’t care about prizes, and of course you can give fewer or more than four names.

I’m not qualified to guess, but I know that many readers are. Who do you think will be the recipient of Trump’s largesse?

Remember, Trump can pardon people convicted of or who will be accused of federal crimes, not state ones.

Why “defunding the police” won’t work

November 19, 2020 • 10:45 am

Since the summer, there have been increasing efforts to “defund the police” (DTP), both in cities like Seattle and Minneapolis, and on many college campuses. This mantra can mean different things: reducing the money given to police departments, paring the size of the force, diverting some police funds to social workers who could do some police-related tasks, or getting rid of police completely, replacing them with either a brigade of mental-health specialists or “citizen patrols” (i.e., vigilantes and posses). The latter has been suggested in several places, including for the campus police at my school. (The Provost has already declared that this is a no-go.)

The DTP movement came from the poor treatment, including possible murder, of some black suspects like George Floyd by white policemen. It’s clear that black people are, overall, treated more poorly by police than are whites (more per capita traffic stops, etc), but there are no convincing data that the rate of murder of black suspects by cops is higher than that of whites when one controls for encounter rates.

But I have no objection to examining police departments for the behavior of their officers and, if there’s more than one or two bad apples, to mandate some kind of reeducation or remediation program.  And I favor including social workers or mental-health professionals being involved in policing, but they should always be riding along with officers—as in the case where these programs are already in place.

Defunding is another matter. Clearly, those who favor elimination of entire police departments, whether in cities or on campuses like the University of Chicago, are uninformed chowderheads. Without cops, crime would skyrocket. One bit of evidence, often cited by Steve Pinker, is the Montreal Police Strike of 1969, which is also known as the Murray-Hill Riot. Because of poor working conditions, the cops went on strike for just one day. The results were chaos. Wikipedia quotes Steve from The Blank Slate:

“As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 a.m. on October 7, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 am, the first bank was robbed. By noon, most of the downtown stores were closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).”

It’s the recurrent calls from “progressive” leftists to “defund the police” (and its ancillary mantra ACAB: “all cops are bastards”) that, I think, turned many voters against Democrats in general, turning the vaunted “blue wave” into a “blue trickle.” No American wants to feel unsafe, or have nobody to call if there’s a crime or home invasion. You may not want Trump around, but you do want the cops.

After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, according to the article below in the Washington Post, the city council voted to “defund and dismantle the department and replace it with a new agency focused on a mix of public safety and violence prevention—a move that could go before voters in 2021.”

In the meantime, we have a taste of de-policing in Minneapolis already, as the police are bleeding officers (they’ve lost 100 because of the situation there), with the expected surge in crime.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Some quotes (George Spann is a community activist):

The police are not as much a presence as they used to be, Spann said, noting that sometimes when neighbors call 911, officers are delayed in responding or don’t come at all.

“If you want to talk about pandemics, we’re dealing with a pandemic of violence,” Spann said on a recent afternoon, just as word came of two more nearby shootings. “We’re under siege. You wake up and go to bed in fear because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. . . . And our city has failed to protect us.”

. . .Homicides in Minneapolis are up 50 percent, with nearly 75 people killed across the city so far this year. More than 500 people have been shot, the highest number in more than a decade and twice as many as in 2019. And there have been more than 4,600 violent crimes — including hundreds of carjackings and robberies — a five-year high.

Most of the violence has happened since Floyd’s killing on Memorial Day, and some experts attribute it in part to the lingering anger over the slaying and the effects of the coronavirus, including job losses and the closure of community centers and other public spaces.

. . . Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said over 100 officers have left the force — more than double the number in a typical year — including retirements and officers who have filed disability claims, some citing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder linked to the protests over Floyd’s killing.

Well, you can attribute it to whatever, but the same violence happened in Montreal, and there was no pandemic or police murder there. It’s simply common sense to surmise that if the police force is cut way down—to the point that police don’t even respond to 911 calls—then crime will go up.

More police are planning on leaving, and last week the city council allocated half a million dollars for “temporary hiring of police officers.”  But the situation may get worse. The article quotes a personal-injury attorney who is representing 175 officers who have left the force or are firing disability claims:

Meuser said his firm recently met with an additional 100 officers who are considering leaving the force, some citing mental exhaustion and fears of further unrest, including protests linked to the trial of the four former police officers charged in Floyd’s killing, which is scheduled for March. The officers have expressed a fear that the city will suffer “Portland-style riots during the entire trial,” he said, referring to extended unrest in the Oregon city.

Low morale is rampant, Meuser said, and he expects the exodus could extend to hundreds more officers by summer, perhaps as many as a third of the department’s positions. “You have a lot of officers come in and say, ‘Why am I doing this?’ They sit there with their spouses and say, ‘Is this worth it?’ ”

The reasonable solution was voiced by a black resident of Minneapolis, Spann:

Among some Black residents, she said, there have been conflicted feelings about the push to abolish the police. Many have been harassed by officers, but they also live in a neighborhood that on some nights feels like a war zone.

“Why can’t I have police reform? Why can’t I have law and order? Why do I have to pick and choose? I should be able to have both,” Spann said.

Indeed. Another resident described the surge in Minneapolis crime as “a sociology experiment that obviously doesn’t work.” So now we have TWO inadvertent experiments in reducing policing: Montreal an Minneapolis. Both suggest that police inactivity or attrition will lead to more crime.

The solution is training police, not firing them. (I’d of course like more stringent gun laws for citizens as well.) In view of this, and the common sense view that less policing means more crime, or more unsolved crime, I’m led to respond to “defund the cops” calls with Hitchens’s razor:

“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

Or maybe the cop-defunders care more about getting rid of the cops than about boosting the crime rate.


h/t: Enrico

The humane prisons of Finland

November 11, 2020 • 2:00 pm

I’ve maintained that becoming a determinist leads many people to promote criminal-justice and prison reform. This comes from realizing that people have no choice in their actions—including committing crimes—and so criminals should be treated as if they were broken machines to be fixed (if possible) rather than as “people who made the wrong choice.” Readers have responded that promoting prison reform can also come from non-deterministic world views, and that’s true. But I believe that “hard” determinism, not sullied by the semantic taints of compatibilism, leads more automatically and naturally to criminal justice reform.

Well, you might disagree, but that’s not important for today’s post. I think most of us will agree that American prisons are cruel, inhumane, and do a lousy job of rehabilitating prisoners. That’s largely, I suspect,  because American prisons are directed more toward punishment than rehabilitation, and what you learn in prison is how to commit more crimes.

But here’s a country where prisoners are treated much more humanely: Finland. And here’s the story of one Finnish murderer who’s serving a long sentence but appears to be on the path of reformation. As the video claims, the recidivism rate in Finland (re-imprisonment within two years after release) is half of what it is in America. If you see the environment experienced by Finnish prisoners, and the efforts made to treat them humanely and reform them, that makes sense.

If someone can really be turned into a good and useful citizen, very unlikely to do any more crime, why should they be kept in jail under horrible conditions? You may say—and some will—that “the U.S. is not Finland.” But why can’t it be in the ways shown below?

Steve Bannon among four people indicted in New York for fraud

August 20, 2020 • 9:45 am

Athough Steve Bannon was scheduled to speak here a while back, that never took place, though the University refused to ban him. Now it looks as if he won’t be here for a long while.

Hot off the press (click on screenshot for details):

Bannon, of course, was Trump’s former campaign manager. He and three others face one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each count carries a maximum of 20 years in prison!

A few details from the report:

Bannon is among four people indicted for allegedly defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors to the online “We Build the Wall” campaign.

Manhattan federal prosecutors allege that Bannon, campaign leader Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea “received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donor funds from We Build the Wall, which they each used in a manner inconsistent with the organization’s public representations.”

“We Build the Wall” began as a GoFundMe campaign in late 2018, designed to raise money directly from the public to build a border wall in the face of Congressional opposition.

While Kolfage publicly guaranteed that he would not take salary or compensation, and that 100 percent of funds raised would go toward the wall, the indictment alleges he actually took more than $350,000 for personal use and took steps to conceal it.

It’s both ironic and horrific that a campaign designed to keep poor immigrants out was actually used to enrich the promoters.

h/t: Ken

The insanity defense: is it sane? Thoughts from the Leopold and Loeb case.

August 17, 2020 • 10:30 am

I’m reading the book below, which I found in a free book box, about the famous Leopold and Loeb murders of 1924.  The murders took place in Hyde Park/Kenwood, just a few blocks from where I sit. Nathan Leopold (left on the cover below) and Richard Loeb, once University of Chicago students, 19 and 18 respectively, decided to commit the perfect crime—a murder. There was no obvious reason for it except for for their hubris, especially Leopold’s, for he was a fan of Nietzsche and thought he was exempt from ordinary moral strictures. That gave rise to the book’s title. (Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site, and I do recommend the book as a historical page-turner.) They planned the murder for six months, confident that they could kill someone (they planned to abduct a random child from a nearby school) and never get caught.

In May of that year, the pair abducted and brutally murdered 14 year old Bobby Franks, Leopold’s second cousin. They drove his body to Indiana and sequestered it in a railroad culvert. The pair then sent a ransom note to Franks’s family, though the child was already dead.  They probably would have pulled off the crime, too, except that Leopold dropped his glasses near the body, and they had a special frame that had been sold to only three people in Chicago. The cops quickly traced the glasses and zeroed in on the pair, who promptly confessed everything in great detail. And they confessed without ever having talked to a lawyer, which of course is a serious mistake.

Leopold and Loeb’s families were wealthy, and engaged three lawyers to defend them, including Clarence Darrow, the most famous lawyer in America. (The next year he was the major defense attorney in the Scopes “Monkey Trial”.) Darrow, who also lived near me in Hyde Park, is a hero of mine: dedicated to fighting for the underdog, fiercely smart and eloquent, and an outspoken determinist and atheist.

Left to right: Loeb, Darrow, and Leopold. Source.

The boys changed their plea from “not guilty” to “guilty”, therefore giving up a jury trial as well as the possibility of a verdict of “not guilty by reason of insanity”. The only courtroom proceedings, then, were the lawyers’ arguments before the judge to determine what sentence the boys got (hanging, life without parole, or 14 years or more in prison).

Even Darrow admitted that the boys should be in jail until they died, but argued fiercely before the judge that the boys had no choice but to commit the crime—they were conditioned by their genes and environment to murder Bobby Franks. Darrow considered this mitigation, and was arguing for a prison sentence rather than hanging. Much of the book is devoted to the testimony of neurologists and psychologists who argued whether or not the boys were mentally ill, even though they couldn’t plead insanity. Darrow argued that both had mental disorders, and these played a major role in the crime.

In his summation and plea that the judge impose prison rather than the noose, Darrow made a famous twelve-hour argument, some of which you can read here. It was heavily deterministic, to wit:

This terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor … Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche’s philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? … It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.

. . . Why did they kill little Bobby Franks? Not for money, not for spite; not for hate. They killed him as they might kill a spider or a fly, for the experience. They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of the boy or the man something slipped, and those unfortunate lads sit here hated, despised, outcasts, with the community shouting for their blood. Mr. Savage, with the immaturity of youth and inexperience, says that if we hang them there will be no more killing. This world has been one long slaughterhouse from the beginning until today, and killing goes on and on and on, and will forever. Why not read something, why not study something, why not think instead of blindly shouting for death?

Darrow won. To everyone’s surprise, the judge gave them both life sentences. In 1936, Loeb was murdered in prison with a razor by a fellow inmate who claimed that Loeb made homosexual advances (Leopold and Loeb had a homosexual relationship). Leopold was actually paroled in 1958, moved to Puerto Rico, and died in 1971 at the age of 66.

I’ve digressed, but the story is a fascinating one, seen at the time as the crime of the century, with worldwide interest and publicity. Thousands of onlookers tried to rush the Chicago courtroom to hear Darrow’s summation, and finally had to be beaten back by the police.

When reading the book, I discovered that the standard for “insanity” at the time, which if proven by the defense would get you a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict (and likely a shortish stint in an asylum) was that the defendant did not understand that his conduct was criminal. That is, he didn’t know the difference between right and wrong (in the law).

That is in fact still the law in Illinois: here’s from the criminal code of our state in 2012:

Darrow argued that although Leopold and Loeb were not “insane” by these standards (he knew that such a plea wouldn’t fly), they were nevertheless suffering from mental illness, and it is on this issue that his speech centered.

While thinking it over, I realized, as I’ve said here before, that understanding that your crime was against the law is a lousy criterion for “insanity” mitigation in these cases. That’s because, as a determinist, I think that to some extent everyone who commits a crime is “insane” in the sense that they could not help themselves. As for Illinois’s insanity defense,  there may be those, including some serial killers, who know that their deeds are criminal and illegal, but are under such delusions or compulsions that they cannot help themselves, even though they know about conventional and legal morality.

Is “a knowledge of criminality”, then, to be the line that divides a gentler, more rehabilitative punishment from one that throws you into jail with other criminals, a dreadful fate if you’ve committed a capital offense? I can’t see why.  Why is “mental illness that blinds you to criminality” so different from “mental illness that compels you to do murder, even though you know it’s wrong?”  In fact, as a determinist, I don’t think that the criminal, at the moment of the crime (and oftentimes before, as with Leopold and Loeb) could have chosen to behave differently. Regardless of your views on punishment, if you agree with me—and I think all science-minded people must)—then you have to take determinism into account when weighing punishments.

My own view, which I’ve expounded here over and over again, is that even “hard” determinism mandates punishment for three reasons: to keep a dangerous person out of society (sequestration), to rehabilitate them if possible (so that sequestration can end), and to deter others (deterrence). But none of this justifies any punishment, like the prosecutor in the Leopold/Loeb case argued repeatedly, based on the fact that the criminal made the wrong choice. (The State’s Attorney repeatedly argued for the death penalty because Leopold and Loeb, not being insane, could have realized the criminality of their act and refrained from it.)

And although both Darrow and I are determinists, he went even further than I, arguing that prisons were superfluous. But perhaps we do agree on this: “prison” shouldn’t be an exercise in horror, but a removal from society (which is punishment itself and a deterrent), combined with whatever therapy necessary to ensure that the criminal can be returned to society. If there is no such therapy, then sequestration for life is mandated. In Norway, you’re examined for rehabilitation every five years, and if you’re judged un-rehabilitated, you stay in jail for another five years. But Norwegian prisons are far less brutal than American ones.

In other words, I don’t like the insanity defense, which offers true rehabilitation only to those deemed “insane”.  My view of criminal trials is that there should be two phases:

A. Was the criminal “responsible” for the deed? That is, did he do the act, period? That can be decided by a jury.

B. What is the best way to treat a convicted criminal in light of the three rationales for punishment given above? What sequestration is an appropriate deterrent? (That is something that can be decided empirically.) Is there a form or rehabilitation that will allow the criminal to return to society and pose no more danger than that of an ordinary citizen? If there is, that therapy should be given. The sentence, then, should be imposed not by judges or juries, but by a panel of experts, legal, medical and psychiatric.

I know that this mandates an extensive reform of the American penal system, and will be costly and will involve trial and error for a long time to come. And many people who are libertarian free-willers, and who think that criminals could have decided otherwise, will oppose reforms that take determinism into account.  But I can’t see any good argument for keeping the present system, which is cruel, retributive, and yields a high rate of recidivism.



Here are Leopold and Loeb’s mugshots taken when they entered prison (Leopold is at the top


The complications of assessing racism in police departments

June 26, 2020 • 9:45 am

In a few previous posts (e.g., here and here), prompted by claims of African-American linguist John McWhorter, I examined the various biases and difficulties that plague attempts to see if police kill black suspects at a higher rate than whites. This new article in FiveThirtyEight, though not providing an answer to the problem, shows further complications in the attempt to get answers, so that at present we have no idea if there are racial disparities in who becomes the object of police violence.

Click on the screenshot to read:

There are three ways to compare racial disparities:

1.) Proportion of racial populations who are victims of police violence.  As is well known, about 0.096% of black men and boys will be killed by the cops during their lifetime. That compares to 0.039%  among whites: a 2.5-fold difference. But this doesn’t mean that blacks are more likely to be killed in police encounters, because they may encounter police more often, even if the “kill rate” is the same among races. Which brings us to the second calculation.:

2.) Proportion of racial populations who are victims of police violence, normalized by the proportion of encounters with police. As McWhorter pointed out, blacks encounter police more than whites, so even if both races experience violence at the same rate per encounter, there could still be a differential mortality of blacks at the hands of the cops, but one that wouldn’t necessarily denote racism. There are some data on this, as the article notes:

One example of an encounter denominator approach is a 2019 study by Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard. He found that police shoot white, Black and Hispanic Americans whom they’ve stopped at equal rates.3 At first blush, that would seem like evidence that the police are not racially biased — every demographic is being treated equally, after all.

As I pointed out, though, this statistic is not perfect because the types of encounters and their dynamics may differ among races, and you need to control for that, which hasn’t been done But the FiveThirtyEight article adds another complication:

3.) Members of racial groups might be stopped at different rates because of racial bias itself. This is called “collider bias.” There  are in fact data suggesting that although the frequency deaths per encounter may not differ among races, blacks and whites may be stopped at different rates. And that, in fact, seems to be the case, as we knew from traffic tickets, a disparity (blacks stopped more often) that disappears after dark when race becomes less evident. And, as the article says, it seems as if blacks are stopped when there is less evidence for stopping them than there is for whites, a difference that would reflect racism:

But we know that police officers are more likely to stop Black and Hispanic people than white ones — and that more of those stops are unfounded. Researchers measure this with something called the “hit rate,” or the rate at which contraband is actually found on the people who were stopped. A lower hit rate implies bias because it means that the decision to search someone was made with less evidence. White people stopped in New York City, for example, were more likely to be carrying a weapon than Black and Hispanic people who were stopped. White drivers stopped by the police were more likely to have contraband than Black and Hispanic drivers nationally.

As political scientists Knox, Will Lowe and Jonathan Mummolo, among others, have pointed out, that complicates Fryer’s findings. All of a sudden, what at first appeared to be equal treatment actually suggests unequal treatment. Because of the initial discrimination in who gets stopped, the sample of stopped people isn’t the same across races. The different hit rate indicates that stopped white people are actually more likely to have contraband, on average, than stopped Black people. In other words, in a world without discrimination in who was stopped — if the Black and white people who were stopped were equally likely to be engaged in criminal activity — you’d see an even bigger disparity in outcomes.

In other words, black people stopped by cops may be less likely to be engaged in criminal activity. To control for this, we need the data about the proportion of blacks versus whites who were observed and stopped or not stopped by police. To get this data seems impossible (you can be stopped for acting suspiciously, or just because you’re black), but the differential “hit rate” suggests that cops are targeting blacks at a higher rate than whites without good reason. And that suggests racial bias.  Curiously, I think this is pretty evident when explained in words, but FiveThirtyEight presents the same results graphically—to my mind, not clarifying matters much.

And even if bias doesn’t emerge in the rate of killings, it does come out in other aspects of the justice system, for an encounter with a cop is only the first step in a long chain of events that might culminate in jail. The article gives evidence of bias in the subsequent steps of the process:

Across the U.S., demonstrators have spent the past few weeks protesting against racial disparities in the country’s criminal justice system. There’s plenty of data to back them up: Black and Hispanic people are stopped more frequentlyincluding traffic stops, and are more likely to be arrested. Once stopped, police are more likely to use force against, shoot and kill Black citizens. And then once in jail, Black defendants are more likely to be denied bail, which in turn makes conviction more likely. And when convicted, sentencing is also biased against Black defendants, with Black defendants more likely to be incarcerated.

I haven’t read the links in the previous paragraph, which of course could be themselves biased (for example, is race the only reason why black defendants are more likely to be denied bail, or are there other factors like criminal records or the nature of the crime?). But I think there are enough data to conclude one thing: there is evidence for racism in police practices and in the judicial system, and this must be remedied.

On the main issue of whether black deaths at the hands of police reflect racism, at least in part, we don’t yet know the answer. To rephrase Hitchens’s Razor, what can be asserted without evidence must be buttressed with evidence before it can be accepted.

h/t: Ken

Calls to literally abolish the police

June 13, 2020 • 11:00 am

There’s been some discussion about what the demand for “defunding the police” really means. To some it means cutting police budgets in ways to minimize their brutality, and the example often used is their acquisition of discarded equipment from the U.S. military, or more training in social work by cops. To others it means deeply slashing police budgets, although where the cuts are to go isn’t often specified. Often the slashed funds are to be diverted to social programs whose existence, they claim, will severely reduce crime.

And to others in the “disband the police” camp, it means, as adherent Mariame Kaba says in the New York Times op-ed below, the literal abolition of police departments. And that’s what she argues (click screenshot to read). There was a lot of criticism about what Tom Cotton said in his NYT editorial, because his call for putting the military in U.S. cities to police demonstrations was just dumb. Well, Mariame Kaba’s op-ed seems just as dumb to me, but it meets with no criticism because it’s woke.

Kaba is a writer, organizer, and activist advocating for abolition of the police and the prison-industrial complex.  Here are her arguments for disbanding the police:

1.) Most cops don’t spend their time going after bad guys, but writing traffic tickets, fielding noise complaints, ad other issues. She quotes someone saying “The vast majority of police officers make one felony arrest a year. If they make two, they’re cop of the month.”  This, of course, overlooks the deterrent effect of simply having a police presence. If there weren’t cops on the street, people would be running red lights and stop signs willy-nilly, and traffic accidents would increase. Likewise with crime in general, as the Montreal police strike of 1969 showed.

2.) The tendency of cops to “keep black and other marginalized people in check through threats of arrest, incarceration, violence, and death” does not create a safer society. To the extent that this is true (and tomorrow we’ll see a dissent by John McWhorter), this needs to be stopped. Police should not be treating people differently based on their race. But before we make this assertion, we need evidence that it’s the case. I suspect it is for many interactions between police and citizens, but it’s not so clear for things like cops killing people.  The solution is not to abolish the police, but to train them better, and to ruthlessly weed out the bad apples. Bodycams must be turned on at all times, and so on.

3.) “Police officers break rules all the time.” Kaba mentions slashing tires, shoving people unnecessarily, arresting journalists, and so on. Again, the solution is to instill police officers with a respect for the rules, which includes the threat of firing and, if they break the law, of arrest.

Kaba’s error here is to propose complete abolition of police departments in a naive faith that people who aren’t policed will act well, eliminating the need for cops. But if you live on planet Earth, this is palpably ridiculous. Alternatives to cops, she says, are more social work, health care, better housing, and so on. And yes, these are things we must do to eliminate the inequalities created by history, and surely will help eliminate crime, a lot of which stems from poverty. But not all of it!  We will still have crimes not motivated by poverty (this is assuming we can get rid of it, which is a long way off): murders, rapes, white-collar crime, terrorism, and so on. And of course many of these crimes have nothing to do with social inequality.

But here: read what Kaba wants:

But don’t get me wrong. We are not abandoning our communities to violence. We don’t want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete.

We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.

We can build other ways of responding to harms in our society. Trained “community care workers” could do mental-health checks if someone needs help. Towns could use restorative-justice models instead of throwing people in prison.

What, no sequestration of dangerous people, sequestration that not only keeps the baddies out of society, but could also act as a deterrent and, in an ideal world (not the U.S.!) help reform people?  Restorative justice, in which offenders meet with those they’ve harmed and work out resolutions, can work in some cases of nonviolent crimes, but will it work with armed robbers, rapists, or people like the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, or other sociopaths? What would Kaba do with a serial killer, or someone who murders a bank clerk while committing a robbery? And even with restorative justice, how do you catch the offender in the first place without police? Are they just going to come forward and confess?

And what about rape or sexual assault, crimes not clearly connected with poverty? Kaba’s solution to this seems heartless; she simply claims “but cops rape, too, and, anyway, most rapists are never caught.”:

What about rape? The current approach hasn’t ended it. In fact most rapists never see the inside of a courtroom. Two-thirds of people who experience sexual violence never report it to anyone. Those who file police reports are often dissatisfied with the response. Additionally, police officers themselves commit sexual assault alarmingly often. A study in 2010 found that sexual misconduct was the second most frequently reported form of police misconduct.  In 2015, The Buffalo News found that an officer was caught for sexual misconduct every five days.

Got it? Because there’s still rape, police are useless against the crime.  True, it’s hard to catch and successfully prosecute rape, but, according to the Department of Justice, “About 234,000 convicted sex offenders are under the care, custody, or control of corrections agencies on an average day.” 5% of the U.S. prison population consists of sexual offenders. What would Kaba do about this? She has no solution.

Instead, she counts on people’s goodwill to ensure that a world without cops would largely be a world without crime. I think she’s sorely mistaken. And her palaver about “restorative justice”, and the feel-good sentiments below, don’t make a good case for abolishing the police. By all means reform police departments, and by all means ensure that more money flows to the root causes of crime, including inequality, poverty, and lack of opportunity. But seriously, abolish the police? Who would you call if you were raped, or if someone is trying to break into your house? A social worker?

When people, especially white people, consider a world without the police, they envision a society as violent as our current one, merely without law enforcement — and they shudder. As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.

People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.

Holy Kropotkin, Batman! A vision entirely without police? Does any country in the world lack police? I don’t think so—even the most progressive ones, and even countries far more racially homogeneous than the U.S. Until I see a convincing case for why a country without police would be better than one with police, and some concrete plans for how we replace the cops but ensure people’s safety, I’m not signing on.

By the way, this is also happening at the University of Chicago (and other schools as well), where some faculty and many students want the large University of Chicago police department to be disbanded. There was in fact a demonstration for this yesterday, and you can read their “demands” on the Facebook page below (click on screenshot).

This won’t work either, especially because they explicitly say that they’re not trying to replace the University of Chicago police with the City of Chicago’s police. No, they just want no cops on or around the campus (the U of C police patrol an area much larger than the campus, and although some of them have harassed black students, by and large they’re a potent force keeping our campus safe. Without them, we’d suffer an attrition of faculty, staff, and students, who depend on campus police to help keep the area safe.  Sometimes I wonder if people who make demands like this are thinking clearly. No, let me be a bit stronger: I think people who make demands like this are not thinking clearly, or perhaps are involved in some kind of performative virtue-flaunting. I will have no truck with them.

But no worries: our University is not stupid enough to get rid of its police department.

All officers in George Floyd murder now to face charges, with Derek Chauvin’s charge raised to second-degree murder

June 3, 2020 • 2:08 pm

Senator Amy Klobuchar tweeted this out:

And the Minnesota Star-Tribune article says this:

Attorney General Keith Ellison plans to elevate charges against the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck while adding charges of aiding and abetting murder against the other three officers at the scene, according to multiple law enforcement sources familiar with the case.

Ellison is expected to provide an update this afternoon on the state’s investigation into Floyd’s death. According to sources, former officer Derek Chauvin, recorded on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he begged for air on May 25, will now be charged with second-degree murder.

The other three officers at the scene — Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane — will also be charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder, according to the sources, who spoke on conditions of anonymity. Chauvin was arrested last Friday and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

Thao was recorded watching as Chauvin continued to press on Floyd’s neck with his knee. Kueng was one of the first officers on the scene and helped pin Floyd down. Lane was detailed in earlier charges as pointing a gun at Floyd before handcuffing, and later asked whether officers should roll Floyd on his side as he was restrained.

I was keen on all the cops being charged from the outset, and now it’s happened. So far, at least with respect to Floyd’s death, justice has been done.  We can speculate that justice may be sidetracked if the officers get off, for the video itself pretty much tells the tale.

The defense, of course, has to make the prosecution prove its case, and in the case of second-degree murder in Minnesota they have to prove one of these violations beyond a reasonable doubt for Derek Chauvin:

I suspect that Subdivision 1, point (1) is the relevant statute here, though they’d have to prove that Chauvin intended to cause the death of Floyd. As for the other three officers, charged with “aiding and abetting” Chauvin, I wasn’t able to find the statue (the server was down, probably busy), but they certainly stood by and heard Floyd cry “I can’t breathe”, and also stood by while Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck after the man became unresponsive.

A badge should not provide immunity against criminal acts. We’ll see what the defense has to say, but so far there’s no reason to assert that justice isn’t being done for Floyd. Whether it’s being done by police forces across the U.S. is another matter.

Independent autopsy: George Floyd died of asphyxiation

June 1, 2020 • 3:23 pm

Well, this isn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was the exculpation of the cops by the state’s medical examiner, especially in view of that video showing a man repeatedly saying he couldn’t breathe. CNN reports the results of an independent autopsy (click on screenshot):

An excerpt:

An independent autopsy found that George Floyd’s death was a homicide and the unarmed black man died of “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.”

The autopsy says compression to Floyd’s neck and back led to a lack of blood flow to his brain.

Floyd was essentially “dead on the scene” in Minneapolis on May 25, said Ben Crump, attorney for the Floyd family. Multiple videos of Floyd’s death show former police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck, along with other officers kneeling on his back.

Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in total and two minutes and 53 seconds after Floyd was unresponsive, according to a criminal complaint released by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.

“The ambulance was his hearse,” Crump told reporters Monday. “George died because he needed a breath. He needed a breath of air.”

“There is no other health issue that could cause or contribute to the death,” said Dr. Michael Baden, one of the independent medical examiners. “Police have this false impression that if you can talk, you can breathe. That’s not true.”

The state’s coroner, of course, had a different result:

The independent autopsy’s findings come after the Hennepin County Medical Examiner found “no physical findings” to “support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation,” according to the criminal complaint.

Preliminary autopsy results cited in the complaint said combined effects of being restrained, any potential intoxicants in Floyd’s system and his underlying health issues, including heart disease, probably contributed to his death. Toxicology results can take weeks.

You know what? I don’t even care if the state’s autopsy results are correct (I doubt they are), as they still show murder.  If Floyd would have lived had the cop not had a knee on his neck, I don’t care much about other “contributory factors”. The knee made him die when he wouldn’t have died otherwise, and that’s all there is, folks. The charges might be less, but I don’t trust the state’s results.

I am also wondering whether, if the cop gets convicted, he’ll get a more severe punishment than if Floyd was murdered by a civilian. Pondering this, I think he should, for the cops have the authority to detain people, and nobody can stop them if they choose to put a knee on someone’s neck, even if it’s uncalled for. This means that for reasons of deterrence alone, cops need to learn the consequences of such behavior. With the power they have, they need a strong incentive to use it responsibly and humanely.

Of course if the perp, Officer Derek Chauvin, goes to jail, he’s going to have a very rough time of it.

And these autopsy results will energize the protests. So long as they’re not violent, that’s fine with me.

It’s beyond belief that that cop would kneel on a protesting man for over eight minutes and then not let up when the man became unresponsive. What kind of monster would do that?