Propensity to violate others – taking checks and balances seriously

April 28, 2015

Polls have found that more than 3 American men in 10 would rape or coerce a woman into sexual intercourse if they could get away with it.[i] Those findings have mostly been discussed only in conjunction with the issue of rape. But I think it has a broader meaning. I think it means that there is a proportion of people who will take advantage of defenseless others for their own benefit when they think that they can.

That creates problems in lots of areas. Like soldiers of countries that we think are less civilized then we, some proportion of American soldiers have resorted to forms of torture like waterboarding. Some go berserk, others are mean, but the misbehavior is predictable, if not who will do what. And like police of countries that we think are less civilized then we, some proportion of American police have also victimized demonstrators, people down on their luck, the homeless and racial minorities. That’s certainly not democratic policing. And it’s made worse by codes of silence in some police departments that are almost as sinister and sometimes worse than the codes among thieves.

I don’t think that most police are bad guys. But when we set things up so that people can get away with bad stuff, it is predictable that a significant proportion will. When we hand people guns and then make excuses for whatever they do because it’s a stressful job, we should expect that a significant proportion of them will do very bad things with the freedom we give them. A system of impunity encourages bad behavior. So one question is how we can set up our police forces so that policemen have the right incentives, incentives appropriate to a free and democratic country? Transparency and accountability matter.

The same is true of business, both international and local. When we take all the tools out of the hands of consumers and courts, we should expect a significant proportion of businesses to misbehave and take people for a ride, often for very dangerous rides. And in business the market mechanism can sometimes make things worse because it punishes those businesses which can’t bring their costs as low and their profits as high even when the mechanism is to take advantage of people, take their money, injure, and leave their lives in shambles. Responsible businesses need responsible regulation to keep the competition in line.

The same of course is true in politics. That’s why we value free speech so highly. But as my colleague, Timothy Lytton pointed out in a book called Kosher,[ii] a study of private marketplaces that do and don’t work, accountability depends on a sufficient number of people with intense interest in the subject, people the rest of us trust to check on what is happening, and a way to get the information out. It’s not automatic – there’s too much to know, too much work to find out.

So transparency is only the beginning. We have to have a culture in which we expect to hold people and organizations to account – without fear or favor for any of the groups and institutions that can hurt us. But in law, the Roberts Court seems to be developing the opposite – a legal culture of defenses and protections buried in contracts and doctrine. And in popular culture, stereotypes, ideology and polarization now substitute for facts. Heaven help us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 28, 2015.

[i] See Sarah R. Edwards,  Kathryn A. Bradshaw, and Verlin B. Hinsz, Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders, 1 VIOLENCE AND GENDER 188, 190 (2014) available at http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/vio.2014.0022. Though the survey size was small and localized, similar results have been reported before. See Only Psychos Think Rape is OK…Right? in Web Info on Sexual Assault and Abuse (University of Illinois at Chicago, Office of Women’s Affairs, Campus Advocacy Network), https://www.uic.edu/depts/owa/sa_rape_support.html collecting some of the studies.

[ii] Timothy D. Lytton, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (Harvard Univ. Press 2013).

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NYPD – What Now?

January 29, 2015

Two weeks ago I described my concerns about the New York City Police Department. It’s actually a much bigger problem – police all over the country have been using their power and their guns instead of their heads. Many people in our communities have been paying the price for years. Big problem, all over the place, persistent, rooted in the system, so are we stuck with it?

So let me offer some suggestions.

First, police brass can act. They can look at the records to see which policemen frequently charge people with the kind of minor crimes police use to cover up their own abusive behavior – charges like resisting arrest.[1] The brass could demand that police make good relations with people on the street a priority. Unfortunately, however, that won’t work without buy-in by a large portion of the department. Otherwise it will disappear – resisted, pushed out, forgotten.

By comparison, Vietnam taught the generals the importance of race relations – you can’t have a multi-racial military with an internal race war. Soldiers who’d be happier if the next guy in the foxhole took it for Old Glory are not “with the program.” That’s an internal problem rather than community relations but it’s instructive. The military didn’t get all ideological about how to do it and they didn’t run up the old race pride. They just asked what works.

So they made race relations a part of the responsibility of every officer. You want a promotion? You’re going to have to see to it that all the soldiers in your unit work together, that all the talent gets recognized, and promoted, regardless of color. And they got buy-in because people throughout the military understood the need.

Often when I run into people in the service I ask them about it. Blacks tell me life is much more civilized in military than in civilian life. They know that their accomplishments will be respected, that it’s worth their effort and cooperation.

For the police, responsibility would have to include relations with the communities served, and all the people in them. Imagine police having to think about community relations when they decide to stop and frisk someone because he’s Black or isn’t dressed nice, or before they pull a gun on or kill someone who is unarmed.

Unfortunately, I’m not confident we could get buy-in for such a good top to bottom renovation of the Force. Let me offer a wake-up call. New York City created community school boards, decentralizing the school system, a few years back. They put the communities in charge of the schools. That had problems but it had one big advantage – it broke up pre-existing power centers. It meant that people had to pay attention to the community. Imagine if the police had to make nice to the communities they serve. That’s an interesting suggestion, isn’t it? And the responses would highlight the problems. First the prejudices would show – “they,” meaning minority communities of course, can’t handle that. Some officers would have to bury those attitudes. That alone might do a lot of good. And police would respond that their perks are at stake. Well that is the problem – one of their perks has been the ability to abuse people without consequences.

Whatever you do in your community, apologies don’t solve the problem – get police attention with a significant proposal that puts the community in charge and let the police try to fight that with guns ablaze!

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 27, 2015.

[1] See “NYPD Disciplinary Problems Linked To A ‘Failure Of Accountability’” with Robert Lewis and guests Darvel Elliot, Samuel Walker, Candace McCoy, Richard Emery and William Bratton, on Morning Edition, January 16, 2015, 10:00 AM EST (National Public Radio).


Police Accountability

January 6, 2015

I’ve been reading a case decided in the European Court of Human Rights. It involved opposing libel suits arising out of claims of police brutality in Bergen, Norway.[1] The opinion of four judges, whose names I will not try to pronounce, struck me. The judges pointed out that the purpose of the libel suits brought by the police officers “was to suppress the debate on this issue….” But they pointed out that the government has “a monopoly over force” and that monopoly “also entails the danger of force being abused to the detriment of the very values it is meant to uphold.” Therefore “abuse of force by officials is not just one of many issues of broad general interest.” Instead, “it is … a matter of primary concern in any society.” Keeping authorities in check is particularly important for a democracy. And the ability to hold the states’ use of force in check requires protecting those who raise the alarm.

The European Commission for Democracy Through Law observed that “In numerous states … [there is a] general ban on the creation of para‑military formations.”[2] That’s because they are armed and dangerous.

So the judges in the Bergen case emphasized the “vital need for every society to exercise strict supervision over all use of force in the name of society.” Critics of official abuse need to be protected. The 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment specifically protects the right to complain.

But not about the New York City police.

It’s time we learn that there are wonderful police, and there are terrible police. But the culture of silence by which they protect each other against any and all criticism makes the wonderful police into allies of the terrible police. They’re unaccountable to each other and they’re unaccountable to the rest of us.

You and I can’t go walk down the street saying that guy down there could be armed, so if he puts his hands in his pocket I’m going to kill him. That’s not self-defense; that’s murder. But the police, who have sworn to defend us, insist they have that right to kill on the mere possibility that someone could be armed with evil intent. They insist they do not even have to account for it or defend themselves – it is disloyalty even to criticize or call for an investigation as Mayor de Blasio has done.

What the police are doing is showing that they are a special interest, not public servants. Everyone else is accountable, from the President down to the janitor, everyone is subject to investigation and criticism, everyone’s methods are open for revision. Heads of government departments and heads of corporations are accountability to us, to the public. But not the guys that claim the right to kill us. That has a clear meaning for me – I don’t trust them. They have a code of silence and self-protection and they just dare us even to question them. That means they should not be trusted. Just one more special interest trying to bilk the public. New York City’s Police have LOST my respect.

Soldiers in the military, regardless of politics, do not turn their backs on the Commander-in-Chief. That’s unacceptable. But it’s typical of the NYPD – they’re spoiled, dangerous and out of control.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 6, 2015.

[1] Opinion of Judges Kūris, Türmen, Strážnická and Greve, dissenting in Nilsen and Johnsen v. Norway, [1999] ECHR 23118/93[GC] (25 NOVEMBER 1999).

[2] Explanatory Report, incorporated as part III of Guidelines On Prohibition And Dissolution Of Political Parties, note 361 above, at ¶11, available at http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2000/CDL-INF(2000)001-e.pdf.


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