Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Reconciling The Micro and Macro Narratives on Police Reform

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Original article:

Statistically, New York police shoot more often at blacks than at whites–by about 700 percent. But, statistically blacks are armed and shoot at police more often than whites–by over 700 percent, according to national statistics and the NYPD’s annual firearms discharge report.

Recently, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani commented on the recent police shooting deaths in New York and referenced the statistic that, “Ninety-three percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We’re talking about the exception here.”

In the past 15 years, NYPD shootings have resulted in 179 deaths. In other words, 179 people were killed by police while on duty out of 75 million calls.

“Again statistically speaking this is not a significant number,” commented [John Jay Criminal Justice Professor Dr. Maria Maki] Haberfeld, “given the fact that many of these shootings were justified because the people who were shot were armed and dangerous.”

Statistically. the main killer of blacks when it comes to violent deaths is other blacks. US-wide, around 8,000 blacks were killed every year between 1976 and 2011, and 94 percent of those were killed by other blacks. Of those 8,000 around 2.8 percent were killed by police.

“The overwhelming majority of black victims are killed by black perpetrators and NOT the police,” noted Haberfeld.

Haberfeld stated that she did not feel that numbers would provide the whole picture, however.

“In general, I believe that police work cannot be simply understood by the analysis of sheer numbers.”

I think this is an instance of two sides shouting past each other, instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue. I cannot say I am surprised, not only is criminal justice reform is an emotional issue, talking past your opponent has become the norm in modern public discourse.

Most officers do the right thing–they are hard working, fair, and just. But those who are not tarnish the badge, undermine efforts to build trust between police and society, and ultimately make an inherently dangerous job even more dangerous–they must be held accountable.

When Dr. Haberfeld callously appeals to the “statistical insignificance” of NYPD shootings, she is missing her own point. “Police work cannot be simply understood by the analysis of sheer numbers”, and neither can police homicide rates–these numbers represent peoples lives.

If even one innocent person is killed by someone whose job description is “to serve and protect”, and that person walks away with impunity, this should be unacceptable to anybody who believes in the notions of justice and rule of law.

I believe most people simply want officers held to the same standards as the law abiding citizens they serve, particularly when it comes to violent crimes. When a police officer commits a violent crime, it would be in everyone’s best interest (except the officer who committed the crime) for that officer to be held accountable. As I said in my last post, officers should not be above or below the law, but equal to ordinary people.

However, by definition society holds all people to a higher standard than violent criminals, and police officers should be no exception. When Rudy Giuliani says something to the effect of “what about all the black on black crime?”, he is making a false equivalence. We do not have to choose between reducing minority crime rates and reforming the criminal justice system (in fact, these issues are often closely related)–it is not an either / or situation.

Yes most homicides of black men are “black on black”. It is not that NYC or America is not addressing the socioeconomic and cultural underpinnings of minority crime. It is that these issues are multifaceted, affected both by policies at different levels of government and by people who are often at odds about how to achieve progress (not to mention spoilers who purposefully undermine progressive policy in order to maintain the status-quo for personal benefit).

It is simply much easier to enact change in the criminal justice system than throughout society as a whole. The former is comprised of a number of small, organized institutions that must adhere to changes mandated by overseeing bodies, while the latter numbers in the hundreds of millions and is as variable as free will itself.

Two reforms, special prosecutors for grand jury proceedings police officers, and lapel cameras, could lead to meaningful improvements in the criminal justice system with marginal investments. Lapel cameras would vindicate the use of necessary force, while providing an important piece of evidence for holding “bad” cops accountable (just because the Eric Garner video did not lead to an indictment does not mean lapel cameras are not an important piece of the criminal justice reform puzzle).

Reconciliation begins with the extension of an olive branch. It is up to police departments to extend this olive branch by deliberating in good faith with community leaders about how to build trust between officers and the communities they serve. The first move falls on police departments, because they are more organized and disciplined than their opposition.

Once this branch (or branches, as it must happen around the country at the municipal level) is extended, it is up to community leaders to rise to the occasion, and take the risk of pursuing reasonable reform rather than making absurd demands / publicly demonizing police officers (and vice-versa).

There is enough blame to go around for the criminal justice reform movement to grind to a halt, resulting in a status-quo that is increasingly dangerous for both police officers and the minority communities they serve.

There is also a vast swath of middle ground between police departments and community leaders–if only we can learn to deliberate instead of shouting past one another. 

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RIP NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu

New York City lost two hero’s yesterday. Officers Ramos and Liu were murdered execution style by a mad gunman, whose name I care not to learn. Both of these men are survived by their families, who after mourning must try to pick up the pieces of their lives. I have no doubt that the city of New York will make sure these families are given all the support they need.

After these cold-blooded murders, the gunman took his own life; there will be no trial, no answers. Unsurprisingly, this coward took the cowards way out.

It is natural in times like these to look for scapegoats. I have heard people calling for Mayor De Blasio to step down. I have heard people placing blame on Al Sharpton (a man who I take little pleasure in defending). The “other side” of the argument could place blame on the Staten Island Grand jury which failed to indict Officer Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.

There should not be “sides” to this conflict. Nobody benefits when an innocent person, a police officer or civilian, dies. I often hear people speak of Officers or Army vets as if they should be above the law because of their contributions to society (I am thinking of an often shared video of an army vet saying “my right trumps your dead” in response to the passing of the NY SAFE Act). People volunteer for these jobs, they receive pay and benefits, and are revered as hero’s by the vast majority of society–these are the benefits.

Being considered above the law, or “better” than those you serve and protect, is not part of the job description. No one American’s rights are greater than another, regardless of your sacrifices. Anybody who believes otherwise has a fundamental misunderstanding of the principles which guide this great nation.

Having said that, all rights have limitations. The first amendment, which protects the rights of protestors, is no exception. Free speech cannot come at the expense of public safety–you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater, and you should not be able to march down the streets of NYC chanting “What do we want? Dead Cops“. I have no reservations in saying these chants galvanized the murderer of officers Ramos and Liu.

If any third party should shoulder some blame in these senseless murders, it is people who participated in this chant. That “protest” was a bastardization of both first amendment rights generally, and the peaceful social-justice based protest in response to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown specifically.

Back to my original point on scapegoating; all this finger pointing, while understandable, is destructive. It trivializes the role of the actual culprit–the man who pulled the trigger.

After senseless tragedies like this, the best way forward, in my opinion, is to figure out how we can prevent similar tragedies in the future. It has become quite clear that treating social media postings as serious threats could help achieve this goal.

While it is impossible to preemptively identify all killers, a certain pattern has emerged from some of the most infamous killings in recent American history: Sandy Hook, Ft. Hood, UC Santa Barbara and now the murders of NYPD Officers Ramos and Liu. Recognizing this pattern, and updating police procedures, could provide a blueprint for how to prevent future tragedies and get people the help they need.

Social media has become a window into people’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Adam Lanza’s social media posts showed a fascination with mass shootings, Lopez expressed a general disillusion with the world and sympathy for Adam Lanza prior to his massacre, and Mr. Rodger’s posted now infamous (and removed) videos detailing his personal issues on Youtube. The NYPD cop killer made instragram posts making his intentions publicly known.

We have to ask ourselves, at what point does protecting a persons freedom of expression infringe upon the ability to protect another persons right to life? As an economist, I am constantly looking for “perfect information” to make the best decisions. While we will never have “perfect information”, is it possible that we are overlooking a valuable and readily available source of information in social media posts?

Perhaps police departments could employ social media specialist to identify potential threats without compromising a departments ability to fulfill traditional police duties?

Would monitoring social media produce false positives? Yes. But even so, anybody who threatens to harm someone on social media–whether they intend to make good on that threat or not–is probably in need of mental healthcare (or at very least needs to be made aware how serious their threat was).

Furthermore, by setting the precedent that social media postings are serious threats that can lead to incarceration / institutionalization, we would increase the perceived “cost” of making such threats. This would deter people from making empty threats / “venting”, leaving (for the most part) only serious threats that actually need to be acted on.

The law often lags behind technological advance. Are we, as a country, ready to police social media? Perhaps not, but it is certainly a debate worth having.