A Philosopher's Blog

Police Body Cameras

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 8, 2017

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Intuitively, police body cameras should improve the conduct of both the police and the public. After all, if an officer knows that his actions are being filmed for later review, then they are less likely to engage in bad or illegal behavior. There can be, of course, some notable exceptions. In the case of the public, it would also make sense that people would behave somewhat better when interacting with the police if they know they are being filmed. Because of these reasons and others, I was in favor of the deployment of police body cameras. This was, I must admit, in the absence of actual evidence regarding their effectiveness. Fortunately, a large scale and rigorous study has been conducted on the use of such cameras.

Somewhat surprisingly, the study showed that the cameras had no significant effect on the use of force by the police or citizen complaints. The study was conducted from June 2015 to December 2016 in Washington, D.C. using the 2,600 officers of the force. Based on the description of the study, it seems to have been properly conducted and thus presumably avoided the usual suspects when it comes to poor studies and fallacious causal reasoning. As such, it is reasonable to accept its results (assuming no new information emerges).

While tiny HD cameras and storage are absurdly cheap these days, police body cameras tend to be relatively expensive. Part of the cost is certainly legitimate—camera and data storage integrity need to be assured. Part of the cost is, no doubt, made up of the usual dubious and sketchy additions whenever the state is buying anything. Whatever the reason for the cost, the fact that the study shows that the cameras do not impact use of force or citizen complaints should certainly cause police departments to reconsider spending budget money on this technology. After all, putting the money in hiring more officers or better training would seem to be preferable ways to improve law enforcement. There are also concerns that video could be misused by the police, such as when writing incident reports. That said, there are still reasons to use the body cameras.

One reason, as noted by the police in D.C., is that the video from the cameras can be important in addressing public concern. For example, public doubts about an incident can be addressed with video—such as this one in which it is clearly shown that the suspect was armed with a knife. If proper use of the cameras can help establish and maintain public trust, they can be worth using. This, of course, should be the subject of another study—if cameras do not have this effect, then this would obviously not justify the expense. A second reason is that the camera footage is, presumably, useful in court. While video evidence is not always decisive, it can be very valuable. This, of course, would also require a study to confirm.

While the study seems to have been conducted quite well, there is the obvious concern as to whether the D.C. Police differ in important ways from other police departments. As noted by NPR, there was about ten years of federal oversight aimed at improving the department. Since the department had been doing things right, it would hardly be surprising that adding cameras would not have a significant impact.

To use an analogy, suppose it was wondered whether making videos of a course available to students would improve their grades in that course. Imagine that the study was conducted using honors classes of the best students. It would not be surprising if the effect of videos was statistically insignificant. After all, top students are already doing very well and almost any change aimed at improving their already excellent performances will tend to not move the needle in any significant way. The same sort of analogy could be drawn using top athletes and a relatively minor change to their already very good workouts or already good diets.

While such a study would show that the use of videos would not really benefit top students, it does not prove that the use of videos would not provide a significant benefit to other students. For example, lower performing students who do poorly because they miss class could benefit significantly from such videos. The same would apply in the athletics example. While a small diet change (say some extra B vitamin rich foods) in an already good diet would not impact a top athlete, such a diet change for someone who has a poor diet could have a significant impact.

The same reasoning would seem to apply to the police body cameras—a department that is having significant problems with use of force and citizen complaints might benefit significantly from the use of body cameras. This, of course, should not something that should be just assumed. Rather, studies need to be conducted of the effect of body cameras on police forces that are currently having problems. If it turns out that they have no impact on addressing the woes they are supposed to address, then it would be reasonable to reconsider their deployment and focus more on alternative solutions.

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Police Militarization

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 28, 2017

After America’s various foreign adventures resulted in a significant surplus of military equipment, there was a need to get rid of this excess. While this had sometimes been done by simple disposal or mothballing in the past, this time it was decided that some of the equipment would be provided to local police forces. While this might have seemed to be a good idea at the time, it did lead to some infamous images that showed war ready police squaring off against unarmed civilians—an image one would expect in a dictatorship but not in a democracy.

While these images did fan emotional flames, they also helped start an important debate about the appropriateness of police equipment, methods and operations. The Obama regime responded by putting some restrictions on the military hardware that could be transferred to the police, although many of the restrictions were on gear that the police had, in general, never requested.

As might be expected, Trump has decided to lift the Obama ban and Jeff Sessions touted this as a rational response to crime and social ills. As Sessions sees it, “(W)e are fighting a multi-front battle: an increase in violent crime, a rise in vicious gangs, an opioid epidemic, threats from terrorism, combined with a culture in which family and discipline seem to be eroding further and a disturbing disrespect for the rule of law.” Perhaps Sessions believes that arming the police with tanks and grenade launchers will help improve family stability and shore up discipline.

While it might be tempting to dismiss Trump and Session as engaged in a mix of macho swagger and the seemingly deranged view that bigger guns are the solution to social ills, there is a very real issue here about what is appropriate equipment for the police.

Obviously enough, one key factor in determining the appropriate armaments for police is the role that the police are supposed to play in society. In a democratic state aimed at the good of the people (the classic Lockean state) the role of the police is to protect and serve the people. On this view, the police do need armaments suitable to combat domestic threats to life, liberty and property. In general, this would entail engaging untrained civilian opponents equipped with light arms (such as pistols and shotguns). As such, the appropriate weapons for the general police would also be light arms.

Naturally enough, the possibility of unusual circumstances must be kept in mind. Since the United States is awash in guns, the police might be called upon to face off against opponents armed with military grade light weapons. They might also be called upon to go up against experienced (or fanatical) opponents that have fortified themselves. They are also sometimes called upon to face off against large numbers of rioters.  In such cases, the police would justly require such things as riot gear and military grade equipment. However, these should be restricted to specially trained special units, such as SWAT.

It might be objected that police should be more generally equipped with this sort of equipment, just in case they need it. I certainly see the appeal to this—my view of combat preparation is that one should be ready for almost anything and meeting resistance with overwhelming force is an effective way to get the job done. But, that points to the problem: to the degree the police adopt the combat mindset, they are moving away from being police and towards being soldiers. Given the distinction between the missions, having police operating like soldiers is problematic. After all, defeating the enemy is rather different from protecting and serving.

There is also the problem that military grade equipment tends to be more damaging than the standard police issue weapons. While a pistol can obviously kill, automatic weapons can do considerably more damage in a short amount of time. The police, unlike soldiers, are presumed to be engaging fellow citizens and the objective is to use as little force as possible—they are, after all, supposed to be policing rather than subjugating or defeating.

Of course, the view that the police exist for the good of the people is not the only possible view of the police. As can be seen around the world, some states regard their police as tools of repression and control. Roughly put, the police operate as the military, only with their fellow citizens as enemies. If the police are regarded as tools of the rulers that exist to maintain their law and order and to preserve their privilege, then a militarized police force makes perfect sense. As just noted, these police function as an army against the civilian population of their own country, serving the will of the rulers. Militaries serve as an army against the people of other countries, serving the will of the rulers. Same basic role, but somewhat different targets.

It could be argued that while this is something practiced by repressive states, it is also suitable for a democratic state. Jeff Sessions characterizes policing as a battle and it could be contended that he is right—there are interior enemies that must be defeated in the war on crime. On this view, the police are to engage these enemies in a way analogous to the military engaging a foreign foe and thus it makes perfect sense that they would need military grade equipment. This does endorse the view that the police are an occupying army, but it is regarded as a feature rather than a flaw—that is the function of the police.

While I do think that the militarization of the police impacts their behavior (I know I would be very tempted to use a tank if I had one), my main concern is not with what weapons the police have access to, but the attitude and moral philosophy behind how they are armed. That is, my concern is not so much that the police have the weapons of an army, but that they are regarded more as an army to be used against citizens than as protectors of life, liberty and property.

 

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Policebot Profiling

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2016

In 2016 the Dallas police used a remotely operated robot to kill a suspect with a bomb. While this marked a new use for robots in the realm of domestic policing, the decision making process was entirely conventional. That is, humans decided to use the machine and then a human operator controlled it for the attack. As such a true policebot is still a thing of science fiction. That said, considering policebots provides an interesting way to discuss police profiling in a speculative setting. While it might be objected that the discussion should focus on real police profiling, there are advantages to discussing controversial matters within a speculative context. One important advantage is that such a setting can help dampen emotional responses and enable a more rational discussion. The speculative context helps make the discussion less threatening to some who might react with greater hostility to discussions focused on the actual world. Star Trek’s discussion of issues of race in the 1960s through the use of science fiction is an excellent example of this sort of approach. Now, to the matter of policebots.

The policebots under consideration are those that would be capable of a high degree of autonomous operation. At the low end of autonomy, they could be deployed to handle traffic laws on their own. On the higher end, they could operate autonomously to conduct arrests of suspects who might resist arrest violently. Near the highest end would be robotic police at least as capable as human beings.

While there are legitimate worries that policebots could be used as unquestioning servants of the state to oppress and control elements of the population (something we will certainly see), there are also good reasons for using suitably advanced policebots. One obvious advantage is that policebots would be more resilient and easier to repair than human officers. Policebots that are not people would also be far more expendable and thus could save human lives by taking on the dangerous tasks of policing (such as engaging armed suspects). Another advantage is that robots will probably not get tired or bored, thus allowing them to patrol around the clock with maximum efficiency. Robots are also unlikely to be subject to the corrupting factors that influence humans or suffer from personal issues. There is also the possibility that policebots could be far more objective than human officers—this is, in fact, the main concern of this essay.

Like a human office, policbots would need to identify criminal behavior. In some cases this would be fairly easy. For example, an autonomous police drone could easily spot and ticket most traffic violations. In other cases, this would be incredibly complicated. For example, a policebot patrolling a neighborhood would need to discern between children playing at cops & robbers and people engaged in actual violence. As another example, a policebot on patrol would need to be able to sort out the difference between a couple having a public argument and an assault in progress.

In addition to sorting out criminal behavior from non-criminal behavior, policebots would also need to decide on how to focus their attention. For example, a policebot would need to determine who gets special attention in a neighborhood because they are acting suspicious or seem to be out of place. Assuming that policebots would be programed, the decision making process would be explicitly laid out in the code. Such focusing decisions would seem to be, by definition, based in profiling and this gives rise to important moral concerns.

Profiling that is based on behavior would seem to be generally acceptable, provided that such behavior is clearly linked to criminal activities and not to, as an example, ethnicity. For example, it would seem perfectly reasonable to focus attention on a person who makes an effort to stick to the shadows around houses while paying undue attention to houses that seem to be unoccupied at the time. While such a person might be a shy fellow who likes staring at unlit houses as a pastime, there is a reasonable chance he is casing the area for a robbery. As such, the policebot would be warranted in focusing on him.

The most obviously controversial area would be using certain demographic data for profiles. Young men tend to commit more crimes than middle-aged women. On the one hand, this would seem to be relevant data for programing a policebot. On the other hand, it could be argued that this would give the policebot a gender and age bias that would be morally wrong despite being factually accurate. It becomes vastly more controversial when data about such things as ethnicity, economic class and religion are considered. If accurate and objective data links such factors to a person being more likely to engage in crime, then a rather important moral concern arises. Obviously enough, if such data were not accurate, then it should not be included.

Sorting out the accuracy of such data can be problematic and there are sometimes circular appeals. For example, someone might defend the higher arrest rate of blacks by claiming that blacks commit more crimes than whites. When it is objected that the higher arrest right could be partially due to bias in policing, the reply is often that blacks commit more crimes and the proof is that blacks are arrested more than whites. That is, the justification runs in a circle.

But suppose that objective and accurate data showed links between the controversial demographic categories and crime. In that case, leaving it out of the programing could make policebots less effective. This could have the consequence of allowing more crimes to occur. This harm would need to be weighed against the harm of having the policebots programmed to profile based on such factors. One area of concern is public perception of the policebots and their use of profiling. This could have negative consequences that could outweigh the harm of having less efficient policebots.

Another area of potential harm is that even if the policebots operated on accurate data, they would still end up arresting people disproportionally, thus potentially causing harm that would exceed the harm done by the loss of effectiveness. This also ties into higher level moral concerns about the reasons why specific groups might commit more crimes than others and these reasons often include social injustice and economic inequality. As such, even “properly” programmed policebots could actually be arresting the victims of social and economic crimes. This suggests an interesting idea for a science fiction story: policebots that decide to reduce crime by going after the social and economic causes of crime rather than arresting people to enforce an unjust social order.

 

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Fox & the War on Cops

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 14, 2015

After bringing the world live coverage of the War on Christmas from their own minds, the fine folks at Fox have added coverage of the War on Cops. The basic idea is that violence against cops has increased dramatically and that cops are being targeted. Blame is laid primarily on the Black Lives Matter movement and, this being Fox, President Obama.

Unlike the War on Christmas, Fox does have some real-world basis for the claims about violence against police officers. Police officers are, in fact, attacked and even killed in the line of duty. In some cases, officers are specifically targeted and murdered simply for being police. The harming of citizens, be they police or not, is clearly a matter of concern. The problem is that while police do face the threat of violence, Fox’s rhetoric and claims simply do not match reality. Unfortunately, Fox’s campaign has had an impact: there are polls that show a majority believe there is a war on police.

One challenge in sorting out this matter is the fact that “war” is not well-defined. If all it takes for there to be a war on a group is for there to be any violence against that group, then there is a war on cops. A problem with accepting this account of war would be that there would be a war against all or nearly all groups, thus making the notion all but useless.

Intuitively, if there is a war on a group, then what would be expected is high levels of violence against that group. If the war is something that started at a certain point, then there should be a clear and significant upswing in incidents in violence from that point. While working things out properly would require setting and arguing for clear standards (such as what counts as high levels of violence) the statistical data shows that violence against police has been steadily trending downward rather than upward.

Those claiming there is a war on cops tend to note that there was an increase in violence against police relative to 2013—but they seem to ignore the fact that 2013 is currently the lowest point of such violence and 2015 is, if the trend stays consistent, on track to be the second lowest year.  Ever. As such, the claim that violence against police has increased since 2013 is true, but this does not serve as evidence for a war on cops. To use an analogy, if a person was at his lowest adult weight in 2013 and his weight increased since then, this does not entail that he is obese or that he is trending towards obesity.

Given the fact that violence against police has been steadily trending downward and 2015 is on track to be the second lowest year, it seems evident that there is no war on cops—at least under any sensible and non-hyperbolic definition of “war.”

It could be countered that there is a special sort of war on cops, as evidenced by a few incidents involving intentional targeting of cops (as opposed to criminals engaging police trying to stop them). While such incidents are certainly of concern both to police and responsible citizens, they do not serve as adequate evidence for the claim that there is a war on cops. This is because a war is a matter of statistics, not terrifying individual incidents. To reject a claim supported by body of reasonable statistical evidence on the basis of a small number of examples that go against the claim is, in fact, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence. And, as noted above, the statistical evidence is that violence against police has been on a steady downward trend, with 2013 being the lowest level of violence against United States police in recorded history.

It could also be asserted that the war on cops is not a war of actual violence, but a war of unfair criticism: the cops are under attack by the liberal media and groups that are often critical of police actions, such as Black Lives Matter.

This is certainly a fair concern: pointing to dramatic incidents involving bad or brutal policing runs the risk of committing the fallacy of anecdotal evidence or the fallacy of misleading vividness (a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence). As with the war on police, the alleged war by the police must be subject to objective statistical analysis. That said, the sort of criticism of police misconduct and brutality that appears in the media does not seem to constitute a war—at least under a rational definition of “war.”

Since there is no war on cops, Fox and other folks should not be making this claim. One reason is that telling untruths is, at the very least, morally problematic—especially for people who claim to be journalists. Another, and more important reason, is that such a campaign can have serious negative consequences.

The first is that such a campaign can convince police that they are targets in a war. In addition to causing additional stress in what is already a stressful (and often thankless) job, the belief that they are in a war can impact how police officers perceive situations and how they react. If, for example, an officer believes that she is likely to be targeted for violence, she will operate on the defensive and consider fellow citizens as threats. This would, presumably, increase the chances that she will react with force during interactions with citizens.

A second consequence is that if citizens believe that there is a war on cops, they will be more likely to accept violence on the part of officers (who will be more likely to perceived as acting defensively) and more likely to regard those harmed by the police as deserving their fate. Citizens might be more inclined to support the continued militarization of police, which will lead to harms of its own. This view can also lead citizens to be unfairly critical of groups that are critical of brutal and poor policing, such as Black Lives Matter. People might also become more afraid of police because they think that they police are acting within a war and thus more likely to respond with force.

A third consequence is that if politicians accept there is a war on cops, they will support laws and policies that are based on a false premise. These are likely to have undesirable and unintended consequences.

While some might be tempted to say that Fox and others should be prevented from engaging in such campaigns that seem to be based on intentional deceptions aimed at ideological ends, I do not agree with this. Since I accept freedom of expression, I do accept that Fox and folks should have the freedom to engage in such activities—even when such expression is harmful.

My main justification for my view is based on concerns about the consequences. If a law or general policy were adopted to forbid such expression (as opposed to actual slander or defamation), then this would open the door to ideological censorship. That is, Fox might be silenced today, but I might be silenced tomorrow. As such, while Fox and folks should not push such untrue claims onto the public, they should not be prevented from doing so.

 

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Shoot or Don’t Shoot?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 29, 2015

The police shooting of unarmed black Americans has raised the question of why such shootings occurred. While some have rushed to claim that it is a blend of racism and brutality, the matter deserves careful consideration.

While there are various explanations, the most plausible involves a blend of factors. The first, which does have a connection to racism, is the existence of implicit bias. Studies involving simulators have found that officers are more likely to use force against a black suspect than a white suspect. This has generally been explained in terms of officers having a negative bias in regards to blacks. What is rather interesting is that these studies show that even black and Hispanic officers are more likely to use force against black suspects. Also interesting is that studies have shown that civilians are more likely than officers to use force in the simulators and also show more bias in regards to race.

One reason why an implicit bias can lead to a use of force is that it impacts how a person perceives another’s actions and the perception of objects. When a person knows she is in a potentially dangerous situation, she is hyper vigilant for threats and is anticipating the possibility of attack. As such, a person’s movements and any object he is wielding will be seen through that “threat filter.”  So, for example, a person reaching rapidly to grab his wallet can easily be seen as grabbing for a weapon. Perceptual errors, of course, occur quite often—think of how people who are afraid of snakes often see every vine or stick as a snake when walking in the woods. These perceptual errors also help explain shootings—a person can honestly think they saw the suspect reaching for a weapon.

Since the main difference between the officers and the civilians is most likely the training police receive, it seems reasonable to conclude that the training is having a positive effect. However, the existence of a race disparity in the use of force does show that there is still a problem to address. One point of concern is that the bias might be so embedded in American culture that training will not eliminate it. That is, as long as there is racial bias in the society, it will also infect the police. As such, eliminating the bias in police would require eliminating it in society as a whole—which goes far beyond policing.

A second often mentioned factor is what some call the “warrior culture.” Visually, this is exemplified by the use of military equipment, such as armored personal carriers, by the police. However, the warrior culture is not primarily a matter of equipment, but of attitude. While police training does include conflict resolution skill training, there is a significant evidence on combat skills, especially firearms. On the one hand, this makes sense—people who are going to be using weapons need to be properly trained in their use. On the other hand, there are grounds for being concerned with the fact that there is more focus on combat training relative to the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Since I have seen absurd and useless “training” in conflict resolution, I do get that there would be concerns about such training. I also understand that conflict resolution is often cast in terms of “holding hands and drinking chamomile tea together” and hence is not always appealing to people who are interested in police work. However, it does seem to be a critical skill. After all, in a crisis people fall back on habit and training—and if people are trained primarily for combat, they will fall back on that. Naturally, there is the worry that too much emphasis on conflict resolution could put officers in danger—so that they keep talking well past the point at which they should have started shooting. However, this is a practical matter of training that can be addressed. A critical part of conflict resolution training is also what Aristotle would regard as moral education: developing the character to know when and how to act correctly. As Aristotle said, it is easy to be angry but it is hard to be angry at the right time for the right reasons, towards the right people and to the right degree. As Aristotle also said, this is very hard and most people are rather bad at this sort of thing, including conflict resolution. This does present a challenge even for a well-trained officer—the person she is dealing with is probably horrible at conflict-resolution. One possible solution is training for citizens—not in terms of just rolling over for the police, but in interacting with the police (and each other). Expecting the full burden of conflict resolution to fall upon the police certainly seems unfair and also not a successful strategy.

The final factor I will consider is the principle of the primacy of officer survival. One of the primary goals of police training and practice is officer survival. It would, obviously, be absurd to claim that police should not be trained in survival or that police practices should not put an emphasis on the survival of officers.  However, there are legitimate concerns about ways of training officers, the practice of law enforcement and the attitude that training and practice create.

Part of the problem, as some see it, links to the warrior mentality. The police, it is claimed, are trained to regard their job as incredibly dangerous and policing as a form of combat mission. This, obviously enough, shapes the reaction of officers to situations they encounter, which ties into the matter of perceptual bias. If a person believes that she is going out into a combat zone, she will perceive people and actions through this “combat zone filter.” As such, people will be regarded as more threatening, actions will be more likely to be interpreted as hostile and objects will be more likely to be seen as weapons. As such, it certainly makes sense that approaching officer survival by regarding police work as a combat mission would result in more civilian causalities than would different approaches.

Naturally, it can be argued that officers do not, in general, have this sort of “combat zone” attitude and that academics are presenting the emphasis on survival in the wrong sort of light. It can also be argued that the “combat zone” attitude is real, but is also correct—people do, in fact, target police officers for attack and almost any situation could turn into a battle for survival.  As such, it would be morally irresponsible to not train officers for survival, to instill in them a proper sense of fear, and to engage in practices that focus primarily on officers making it home at the end of the shift—even if this approach results in more civilian deaths, including the deaths of unarmed civilians.

This leads to a rather important moral concern, namely the degree of risk a person is obligated to take in order to minimize the harm to another person. This matter is not just connected to the issue of the use of force by police, but also the broader issue of self-defense.

I do assume that there is a moral right to self-defense and that police officers do not lose this right when acting in their professional capacity. That is, a person has a right to harm another person when legitimately defending her life, liberty or property against an unwarranted attack. Even if such a right is accepted, there is still the question of the degree of force a person is justified in using and to what extent a person should limit her response in order to minimize harm to the attacker.

In terms of the degree of force, the easy and obvious answer is that the force should be proportional to the threat but should also suffice to end the threat. For example, when I was a boy I faced the usual attacks of other boys. Since these attacks just involved fists and grappling, a proportional response was to hit back hard enough to make the other boy stop. Grabbing a rock, a bat or pulling a knife would be disproportional. As another example, if someone is shooting at a police officer, then she would certainly be in the right to use her firearm since that would be a proportional response.

One practical and moral concern about the proportional response is that the attacker might escalate. For example, if Bob swings on Mary and she lands a solid punch to his face, he might pull out a knife and stab her. If Mary had simply shot Bob, she would have not been stabbed because Bob would be badly wounded or dead. As such, some would argue, the response to an attack should be disproportional. In terms of the moral justification, this would rest on the fact that the attacker is engaged in an unjust action and the person attacked has reason to think, as Locke argued, that the person might intend to kill her.

Another practical and moral concern is that if the victim “plays fair” by responding in a proportional manner, she risks losing the encounter. For example, if Bob swings on Sally and Sally sticks with her fists, Bob might be able to beat her. Since dealing with an attacker is not a sporting event, the idea of “fair play” seems absurd—hence the victim has the moral right to respond in a disproportional manner.

However, there is also the counter-concern that a disproportional response would be excessive in the sense of being unnecessary. For example, if Bob swings at Sally and Sally shoots him four times with a twelve gauge, Sally is now safe—but if Sally could have used a Taser to stop Bob, then the use of the shotgun would seem to be wrong—after all, she did not need to kill Bob in order to save herself. As such, it would seem reasonable to hold to the moral principle that the force should be sufficient for defense, but not excessive.

The obvious practical challenge is judging what would be sufficient and what would be excessive. Laws that address self-defense issues usually leave this very vague: a person can use deadly force when facing a “reasonable perceived threat.” That is, the person must have a reasonable belief that there is a threat—there is usually no requirement that the threat be real. To use the stock example, if a man points a realistic looking toy gun at an officer and says he is going to kill her, the officer would have a reasonable belief that there is a threat. Of course, there are problems with threat assessment—as noted above, implicit bias, warrior mentality and survival focus can cause a person to greatly overestimate a threat (or see one where it does not exist).

The challenge of judging sufficient force in response to a perceived threat is directly connected with the moral concern about the degree of risk a person is obligated to face in order to avoid (excessively) harming another person.  After all, a person could “best” ensure her safety by responding to every perceived threat with maximum lethal force. If she responds with less force or delays her response, then she is at ever increasing risk. If she accepts too little risk, she would be acting wrongly towards the person threatening her. If she accepts too much risk, she would be acting wrongly towards herself and anyone she is protecting.

A general and generic approach would be to model the obligation of risk on the proportional response approach. That is, the risk one is obligated to take is proportional to the situation at hand. This then leads to the problem of working out the details of the specific situation—which is to say that the degree of risk would seem to rest heavily on the circumstances.

However, there are general factors that would impact the degree of obligatory risk. One would be the relation between the people. For example, it seems reasonable to hold that people have greater obligations to accept risk to avoid harming people they love or care about. Another factor that seems relevant is the person’s profession. For example, soldiers are expected to take some risks to avoid killing civilians—even when doing so puts them in some danger. To use a specific example, soldiers on patrol could increase their chance of survival by killing any unidentified person (adult or child) that approaches them. However, being a soldier and not a killer requires the soldiers to accept some risk to avoid murdering innocents.

In the case of police officers it could be argued that their profession obligates them to take greater risks to avoid harming others. Since their professed duty is to serve and protect, it can be argued that the survival of those who they are supposed to protect should be given equal weight to that of the survival of the officer. That is, the focus should be on everyone going home. In terms of how this would be implemented, the usual practice would be training and changes to rules regarding use of force. Limiting officer use of force can be seen as generating greater risk for the officers, but the goal would be to reduce the harm done to civilians. Since the police are supposed to protect people, they are (it might be argued) under greater obligation to accept risk than civilians.

One obvious reply to this is that many officers already have this view—they take considerable risks to avoid harming people, even when they would be justified in using force. These officers save many lives—although sometimes at the cost of their own. Another reply is that this sort of view would get officers killed because they would be too concerned about not harming suspects and not concerned enough about their own survival. That is a reasonable concern—there is the challenge of balancing the safety of the public and the safety of officers.

 

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A Shooting in South Carolina

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 15, 2015

While the police are supposed to protect and serve, recent incidents have raised grave concerns about policing in America. I am, of course, referring to the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers. In the most recent incident Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager shot Walter Lamer Scott to death after what should have been a routine traffic stop. What makes this case unusual is that there is video of the shooting. While the video does not show what happened before Scott started to flee, it clearly shows that Scott is no threat to Slager: he is unarmed and running away. Police are not allowed to shoot a suspect merely for fleeing. The video also show Slager dropping an object by Scott’s body—it appears to be Slager’s Taser. When Slager called in the incident, he described it as a justifiable shooting: Scott grabbed his Taser and he had to use his service weapon. Obviously Slager was unaware that he was being recorded as he shot the fleeing Scott.

Since I am friends with people who are ex-law enforcement (retired or moved on to other careers) I have reason to believe that the majority of officers would not engage in such behavior. As such, I will not engage in a sweeping condemnation of police—this would be both unjust and unfounded. However, this incident does raise many concerns about policing in the United States.

As noted above, what makes this incident unusual is not that a situation involving a black man and white officer escalated. It is also not very unusual that a black man was shot by a police officer. What is unusual is that the incident was videotaped and this allowed the public to see what really happened—as opposed to what was claimed by the officer. If the incident had not been recorded, this most likely would have gone down as the all-too-common scenario of a suspect attacking a police officer and being shot in self-defense. The tape, however, has transformed it from the usual to the unusual: a police officer being charged with murder for shooting a suspect.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware that the story of one incident, however vivid, is but an anecdote. I am also well aware that to generalize broadly from one such incident is to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization. That said, the videotape does provide legitimate grounds for being suspicious of other incidents in which suspects have been shot while (allegedly) trying to attack an officer. Since we know that it has happened, we clearly know that it can happen. The obvious and rather important concern is the extent to which this sort of thing has happened. That is, what needs to be determined is the extent to which officers have engaged in legitimate self-defense and to what extent have officers engaged in murder.

This videotape shows, rather dramatically, that requiring police to use body cameras is a good idea—at least from the standpoint of those who believe in justice. People are, obviously enough somewhat less likely to act badly if they know they are being recorded. There is also the fact that there would be clear evidence of any misdeeds. The cameras would also benefit officers: such video evidence would also show when the use of force was legitimate, thus helping to reduce suspicions. As it stands, we know that at least one police officer shot down a fleeing suspect who presented no threat. This, naturally enough, motivates suspicion about all shootings (and rightly so). The regular use of body cameras could be one small contribution to addressing legitimate questions about use of force incidents.

What is also usual about this incident is that there has been a focus on the fact that Scott had a criminal record and legal troubles involving child support. This is presumably intended to show that Scott was no angel and perhaps to suggest that the shooting was, in some manner, justified. Or, at the very least, not as bad as one might think. After all, the person killed was a criminal, right? However, Scott’s background has no relevance in this incident: his having legal troubles in the past in no manner justifies the shooting.

What was also usual was the reaction of Bill O’Reilly and some of the other fine folks at Fox, which I learned about from Professor Don Hubin’s reaction and criticism. Rather than focusing on the awfulness of the killing and what it suggests about other similar incidents, O’Reilly’s main worry seems to be that some people might use the killing to “further inflame racial tensions” and he adds that “there doesn’t seem to be, as some would have you believe, that police are trying to hunt down black men and take their lives.” While this is not a claim that has been seriously put forth, O’Reilly endeavors to “prove” his claim by engaging in a clever misleading comparison. He notes that “In 2012, last stats available, 123 blacks were killed by police 326 whites were killed.” While this shows that police kill more whites than blacks, the comparison is misleading because O’Reilly leaves out a critical piece of information: the population is about 77% white and about 13% black. This, obviously enough, sheds a rather different light on O’Reilly’s statistics: they are accurate, yet misleading.

Naturally, it might be countered that blacks commit more crimes than whites and thus it is no surprise that they get shot more often (when adjusting for inflation) than whites. After all, one might point out, Scott did have a criminal record. This reply has a certain irony to it. After all, people who claim that blacks are arrested (and shot) at a disproportionate level claim that the police are more likely to arrest blacks than whites and focus more on policing blacks. As evidence that blacks commit more crimes, people point to the fact that blacks are more likely (adjusting for proportions) than whites to be arrested. While one would obviously expect more blacks to be arrested in they committed more crimes (proportionally), to assume what is in doubt (that policing is fair) as evidence that it should not be doubted seems to involve reasoning in a circle.

O’Reilly also raised a stock defense for when bad thing are done: “You can’t … you can’t be a perfect system. There are going to be bad police officers; they’re going to make mistakes; um .. and then the mistakes are going to be on national television.” O’Reilly engages in what seems to be a perfectionist fallacy: the system cannot be perfect (which is true), therefore (it seems) we should not overly concerned that this could be evidence of systematic problems. Or perhaps he just means that in an imperfect system one must expect mistakes such as an officer shooting a fleeing suspect to death. O’Reilly also seems rather concerned that the mistakes will be on television—perhaps his concern is, as I myself noted, that people will fall victim to a hasty generalization from the misleading vividness of the incident. That would be a fair point. However, the message O’Reilly seems to be conveying is that this incident is (as per the usual Fox line) an isolated one that does not indicate a systemic problem. Despite the fact that these “isolated” incidents happen with terrible regularity.

I will close by noting that my objective is not to attack the police. Rather, my concern is that the justice system is just—that is rather important to me. It should also be important to all Americans—after all, most of us pledged allegiance to a nation that offers liberty and justice to all.

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Police, Protests & Rights

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 25, 2014

The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked a series of protests in the town. Not surprisingly, these protests led to additional incidents involving conflicts between the citizens and the police. Initially, the local police met the protestors like an invading army: many of the officers were in military grade combat gear and backed up by armored vehicles. As noted in my previous essay, this sort of approach is based on a common philosophy of order held by authorities. This philosophy of order is that perceived threats to the existing order are to be met with physical force—even when the perceived threat consists of citizens acting within their rights. One reason for this is practical—the state generally has an advantage over the citizens in terms of force. As Thoreau notes, “…the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” Another reason for this is conceptual—authorities are often similar to bullies in that their view of how to address problems mainly involves coercion rather than persuasion and reason. There is also a philosophical element—those in authority often seem to have a philosophical view about the rights of citizens that rather differs from that of the founders they so often praise when running for re-election.

As this is being written, it is not yet know if Brown rights were violated. As noted in the previous essay, the officer might have used force legitimately. However, the response to the protests has been the systematic and repeated violation of rights.

To begin with the most obvious violations of constitutional rights, the rights of free speech and assemble have been routinely violated by the police. The curfew is the most obvious example of these violations. The harassment and arrests of journalists also seem to be clear violations of the freedom of the press.

Section 1 of the 14th amendment has also been relentlessly violated since citizens have been “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and citizens have been denied “the equal protection of the laws.” The violations of the 14th amendment are not limited just to the treatment of the protestors—the policing of Ferguson’s disproportionality clearly illustrates systematic violation of this amendment. Obviously, this is also a nationwide problem.

There are also clear violations of internationally established human rights: the protestors are being shot with rubber bullets (admittedly this is better than being shot with metal bullets) and tear gas has been used.

Those who accept natural rights, such as John Locke, would certainly agree that these rights are being violated in Ferguson. The most obvious being the right of liberty.  As such, the violations are not just a matter of violations of human law but also violations of natural rights (assuming there are such things). For those who prefer a more utilitarian approach to liberty, Mill’s utilitarian arguments would certainly support the claim that the state is violating the rights of the protestors in Ferguson.

The conflict in Ferguson can thus be seen as having a significant connection to past struggles for liberty and rights. The most obvious link is that the protests are a continuation of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. This struggle can, of course, be traced back to the development of the very notions of liberty and rights. As such, Ferguson is a recent battleground in the struggle for justice, rights and liberty.

One obvious counter to this view is the claim that the police are justified because of the nature of the situation. People are looting, shooting and destroying property and the police are acting to protect the rights of life, liberty and property. This, of course, does require the use of force and it might appear that some rights are being violated in the keeping of order.

This counter does have considerable underlying merit. The state does have an obligation to prevent protestors from violating the rights of other people. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in unwarranted violence or other misdeeds can be justly stopped or arrested.

There is also the obvious concern with people who use protests as an excuse to engage in or as cover for misdeeds such as looting. If the police arrest someone who has come to “protest” by stealing from local homes, they have not violated that person’s rights—he has no moral right to steal even if he claims that he is doing so as an act of protest.

The easy reply to this counter is that the legitimate need to prevent the violation of rights does not justify violating those same rights. So, while the police have an obligation to keep protestors from committing crimes against life, liberty and property the police also have an obligation to not violate the rights of the protestors. I will freely admit that this can be challenging in practice since opportunists and criminals often mix in with actual protestors. However, if our society is supposed to respect rights, effort must be taken to ensure that these rights are protected—even (and especially) in heated moments. After all, rights are not just for corporations.

 

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Ferguson, Police & Race

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 22, 2014

On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson. Repeating an all too common pattern, Brown was unarmed when he was killed. While some claim that Brown was murdered, others claim that the shooting was justified because Brown was attacking the officer. While this might strike some as implausible, unarmed people do attack police officers and, though this might seem odd to some, an officer can be morally justified in using lethal force against an unarmed attacker. As this is being written, the facts of the matter have not been established so I do not know whether Brown was shot down in cold blood or in a legitimate use of force. Obviously enough, if the officer used force legitimately (that is, in defense against an unprovoked attack), then he acted in a morally acceptable (though regrettable) manner. If Brown was not a threat or if Brown was a threat but could have been subdued without killing him, then the shooting would be immoral. This is, of course, a matter of the ethics of the incident taken in isolation. That is, was the officer morally justified in shooting Brown or not, regardless of the broader context? Settling this will require knowing the facts of the matter.

In discussing this matter, I have found that some people consider this aspect of the incident the most important one. That is, the critical issue is whether or not the officer was justified in shooting Brown or not. This view is clearly reasonable, but has an obvious defect: it does not consider the broader context. Roughly put, it could be the case that the officer was morally justified in shooting Brown in what could be regarded as the individual context of one person facing off against another. However, there is also the broader context that involves the social roles of the individuals, the social context, the history of race in America, the political context and so on. That is, the incident is not just a matter of two men who confronted each other. It is also a confrontation of class and race heavy with the weight of history. These considerations lead to the broader moral concerns regarding why Brown and the officer were in that situation.

One obvious part of the answer is the history of race in America, both recent and in the more distant past. This history, as it has done so many times before, has set the stage for death. To state a truism, being black in America is generally rather different from being white—despite the untrue claims that America is post-racial. Since I look very white, my experience has been the white experience. However, I have taught at an HCBU (Historically Black College and University) since 1993 and this has given me a perspective somewhat different from most other white folks. One rather obvious difference between whites and blacks in general is how they tend to be treated by the police. It is a considerable understatement to say that blacks tend to be treated rather worse by the police and young black men tend to be singled out for some of the worst treatment. It is, of course, important to note that many police officers are decent people—one should no more stereotype people by profession than by race. Not surprisingly, young black men tend to look at the police rather differently than white folks and the dynamic between young black men and police is often a rather bad one. I have had indirect experience with this dynamic: many years ago I was training for a marathon with a fellow grad student who happened to be African American. While running through a neighborhood we apparently did not belong in, we were stopped by a cop who inquired what we “boys” were doing. I have never been fond of being called “boy” and my friend clearly hated it. Not wishing to be arrested so close to the race, I reigned in my pride and engaged my diplomatic skills while my friend stood in silent anger. The cop let us go and we left the area at a good clip. I am not sure how things would have gone if my friend had been alone—but I suspect it would have not gone quite so well. I have been stopped by police while running one other time and also while biking—although I was not doing anything illegal on any occasion. From these incredibly limited experiences, I can only imagine what it would be like to be subject to such police attention on a regular basis. Once again, to be fair to the police, I have also had many positive experiences with the police and it would be unjust to sweepingly condemn all police because of the actions of some. However, there is clearly a serious moral problem in America in this regard.

Another obvious part of the answer is the philosophy of order held by many in power. While perhaps not familiar with Hobbes, they tend to operate in accord with his view of order and morality. The practical application of this view is that force is the primary (sometimes sole) tool in the toolbox of order.  The most visual manifestation of this is the militarization of the police: even small town police forces have combat gear and sometimes even armored vehicles. As Thoreau noted, “thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses.  It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength.” That this approach leads to violence is hardly surprising.

When the context of race is combined with a philosophy of force, it is hardly a surprise that violence and death are all too often the results. As such, even if the officer was justified in his individual actions, they were taken in a context that is fundamentally morally flawed.

 

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On Returning the Lost

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2014
A picture of a wallet.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My regular running routes take me over many miles and through areas that are heavily trafficked—most often by college students. Because of this, I often find lost phones, wallets, IDs and other items. Recently I came across a wallet fat with cash and credit cards. As always, I sought out the owner and returned it. Being a philosopher, I thought I’d write a bit about the ethics of this.

While using found credit card numbers would generally be a bad idea from the practical standpoint, found cash is quite another matter. After all, cash is cash and there is typically nothing to link cash to a specific person. Since money is rather useful, a person who finds a wallet fat with cash would have a good practical reason to simply keep the money and use it herself. One possible exception would be that the reward for returning the lost wallet would exceed the value of the cash in the wallet—but the person who finds it would most likely have no idea if this would be the case or not. So, from a purely practical standpoint, keeping the cash would be a smart choice. A person could even return the credit cards and other items in the wallet, claiming quite plausibly that it was otherwise empty when found. However, what might be a smart choice need not be the right choice.

One argument in favor of returning found items (such as the wallet and all the cash) can be built on the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. More formally, this is moral reasoning involving the method of reversing the situation. Since I would want my lost property returned, I should thus treat others in the same way. Unless, of course, I can justify treating others differently by finding relevant differences that would justify the difference. Alternatively, it could also be justified on utilitarian grounds.  For example, someone who is poor might contend that it would not be wrong to keep money she found in a rich person’s wallet on the grounds that the money would do her much more good than it would do for the rich person: such a small loss would not affect him, such a gain would benefit her significantly.

Since I am reasonably well off and find relatively modest sums of money (hundreds of dollars at most), I have the luxury of not being tempted to keep the money. However, even when I was not at all well off, I still returned whatever I found. Even when I honestly believed that I would put the money to better use than the original owner. This is not due to any fetishes about property, but a matter of ethics.

One of the reasons is my belief that I do have obligations to help others, especially when the cost to me is low relative to the aid rendered. In the case of finding someone’s wallet or phone, I know that the loss would be a significant inconvenience and worry for most people. In the case of a wallet, a person will probably need to replace a driver’s license, credit cards, insurance cards and worry about identity theft. It is easy for me to return the wallet—either by dropping it off with police or contacting the person after finding them via Facebook or some other means. That said, the obvious challenge is justifying my view that I am so obligated. However, I would contend that in such cases, the burden of proof lies on the selfish rather than the altruistic.

Another reason is that I believe that I should not steal. While keeping a lost item is not the same morally as active theft (this could be seen as being a bit analogous to the distinction between killing and letting die), it does seem to be a form of theft. After all, I would be acquiring what does not belong to me by choosing not to return it. Naturally, if I have no means of returning it to the rightful owner (such as finding a quarter in the road), then keeping it would not seem to be theft. Obviously enough, it could be contended that keeping lost property is not theft (even when it could be returned easily), perhaps on the ancient principle of finders keepers, losers weepers. It could also be contended that theft is acceptable—which would be challenging. However, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who claim that theft is acceptable or that keeping lost property when returning it would be quite possible is not theft.

I also return found items for two selfish reasons. The first is that I want to build the sort of world I want to live in—and in that world people return lost items. While my acting the way I want the world to be is a tiny thing, it is more than nothing. Second, I feel a psychological compulsion to return things I find—so I have to do it for peace of mind.

 

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DNA Gathering

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 13, 2013
Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In some states, the police are allowed to gather DNA samples upon making an arrest-even before the person is actually charged (let alone convicted). As might be guessed, this has raised concerns from those who are concerned about privacy issues. However, there are those who regard the collection of DNA as a good idea and one that can help ensure that the guilty are punished and the innocent are set free.

One argument in favor of allowing the police to take DNA samples upon arresting a person is that the DNA information can be used in whatever investigation that might follow. Of course, the obvious counter to this is that the sample need not be taken upon arrest to be used in the investigation or trial. That is, the police can wait until the person is actually charged with a crime that legitimately involves a need for DNA evidence.

Another argument in favor of allowing the police to take DNA samples upon arresting a person is that this adds to the database of DNA. Even if the person arrested is not charged or found to be innocent, the DNA information will remain and it might prove useful in a later investigation. Not surprisingly, this same argument is used to argue in favor of mandating that everyone be included in the DNA database. Such a national DNA registry would be a great boon to police. For example, a person picked up for a traffic violation could be checked against the database and it could be found that he is a wanted serial rapist. Without the DNA information, the serial rapist would have been free to continue his crimes.

As might be imagined, the arguments in favor of such DNA sampling and database creation are countered with arguments against them.

One of the main arguments against taking DNA samples from a person who has been merely arrested is based on the claim that the police need a proper warrant to obtain evidence. Just as an officer cannot go through my computer or house without a warrant, she cannot go through my DNA. The main counter to this is that the police do take fingerprints and this practice is on a solid legal foundation. The debate then becomes one of analogy: is DNA more like fingerprints or more like the content of a person’s house or computer? The answer to this depends a great deal on the sort of data gained from the DNA sample.

If the DNA sampling merely provided data comparable to that provided by fingerprints (that is, just identifying the person), then a fairly solid case can be made that DNA sampling of this sort would be just as legally solid as fingerprinting.  However, if the DNA sampling provides more data, then it would seem to be more analogous to going through a person’s home and thus simply grabbing a DNA sample upon an arrest would seem to be on par with going though a person’s house just because she had been arrested.

Obviously enough, a DNA sample does potentially provide a vast amount of information about a person. However, the amount of information revealed would depend on the sort of testing used on the DNA. Thus, a key part of the matter would focus on how the DNA was used (and what was done with the actual samples).

Another argument against DNA sampling is the potential for the misuse of the information gathered. Obviously, there is the concern that the information revealed by the DNA will be misused by the police. For example, DNA samples are now used to make family matches and innocent relatives of criminals can find themselves targeted by the police.   As as another example, DNA identifications are not as reliable as people generally believe. This raises the concern that too much reliance will be placed on such evidence. For folks who worry about the government having a registry of firearms, the idea of collecting such DNA information should be utterly terrifying. There is also the concern that the data will be misused by those outside of the police forces. That is, that the data will become available to other parts of the government and perhaps even those in the private sector. For example, the DNA data gathered by the police could become available to insurance companies.

The gathering of DNA evidence is now fairly common and it continues to grow more common. One reason for this is that the companies that profit from DNA testing have effective lobbies that work rather hard to ensure that there will be a large market for their products. This, like the for-profit prisons, also raises concerns. After all, when such profits are involved, the public good is often ignored.

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