Another Magic Bullet Misses Its Mark

From Radley “The Agitator” Balko, this Washington Post story of police from Prince George’s County, Maryland who stopped and ordered a TV reporter, Andrea McCarren, out of her car at gun point.  She was award $5,000 for her troubles, .


In her lawsuit, McCarren alleged that police manhandled her in an attempt to intimidate her into dropping a probe into the possible misuse of county government resources. McCarren and her attorneys said she suffered tendon damage to a shoulder when an officer grabbed her right wrist and yanked it behind her back.


Aside from the absurd award, the really interesting aspect of this story can be found in the last paragraph:


In all, nine police cars from Prince George’s and Cheverly responded. Although most of the squad cars were equipped with video cameras, police said none of them were working that day, Pavsner said.


No need for the apologists to provide “reasons” why this could happen, or the conspiracy theorists to offer the obvious reasons why the police concealed the evidence of their wrongdoing.  As much as I enjoy baseless speculation as much as the next blawger, this isn’t about the cameras per se.  This is about how another magic bullet solution, cameras in cruisers, somehow manages to fulfill its promise.  It doesn’t matter if the cops deep-sixed the tapes, or the cameras all failed for lack of simple maintenance under rough conditions.  It matters that another of the brilliant solutions to “all our problems” never seems to work out quite the way we hope.

Hope.  Whether it’s because we are idealists, optimists or just refuse to give up, we continue to have hope that we can improve our systems to the point where human error, hatred, prejudice and rage will no longer trump right and wrong.  No matter how many times our hope is dashed, it is renewed with the next great idea.  We never learn.

Whether it’s videotaped confessions, or double-blind sequential line-ups, we insist that this will “fix” the system.  They may well improve things, at least until law enforcement figures out a way to use it against us.  But our expectations in magic bullets has no better chance of being the fix than did those 9 squad car cameras have of showing the reporter being subjected to excess force.

It’s not the procedures or the equipment that makes things go terribly wrong.  It’s the people, the judges, prosecutors and police.  It’s the criminal defense lawyers as well, who lack the nerve to fight the good fight.  No one has come up with a magic bullet that will change the people.

As much as I hate to be the wet blanket of the criminal defense bar, when everyone else is jumping on the bandwagon of these new procedures and technologies, someone has to harp on the fact that none of this will ever overcome the law and order culture of the courts, the us against them culture of the police, the self-righteousness of the young prosecutors and the gutlessness and greed of the criminal defense bar.  The rest is bells and whistles.

10 thoughts on “Another Magic Bullet Misses Its Mark

  1. Jdog

    Well, sure: if the standard is magic bullet that solves anything completely pretty much everything — including, for that matter, an actual bullet, even when appropriately applied — fails.

    But I think the standard is — or ought to be — are the benefits worth the costs? When it comes to the videos in terms of punishing and/or deterring Bad Cop Stuff, I think the jury’s still out, barely, but it’s probably going to come back as worth the trouble.


    That said, as this incident demonstrates, a key to making it work at all is that the perps don’t get control of the evidence of their perpitude; and, as the Patrick Pogan incident suggests, uncertainty is likely to be the best deterrent.

  2. SHG

    The problem, as I see it, is that these magic bullets are sold as such, rather than stop gap measures or partial fixes.  Plus, because they are sold as magic bullets, no one considers their downsides, the unintended consequences, the potential harm they could cause.

    There is also a tendency when “reform” finally happens to rest on its laurels, meaning that the cost/benefit analysis becomes old news and we’re stuck with it for the next generation or two.  We would do far better to think (and think HARD) first.  After we win a reform, it’s too late to start considering the cost side of the equation.

  3. Windypundit

    It’s not the procedures or the equipment that makes things go terribly wrong. It’s the people, the judges, prosecutors and police.

    Which is why it’s a good idea to take the people out of the system with things like video recordings and DNA evidence. It’s like locking your door when you leave for work. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever be ripped off, but it keeps out the lazy burglars.

  4. SHG

    The people are never taken out of the system, as demonstrated by the 9 failed squad car cameras.  Or the videotaped confession that omits the small part that happened in the back seat of the cruiser. Or the DNA evidence that gets planted/spoiled in the collection/preservation process, etc.  Yet each appears to ultimately provide conclusive evidence, but for the fact that it’s a lie.

    The problem with magic bullets is that they have the magical power to boomerang back and shoot us in the head.  If the best we can do is keep the lazy burglars out, then door locks only provide a false sense of security and likely aren’t worth the money.

  5. Gritsforbreakfast

    I can’t agree with you here, Scott, mostly because you provide no alternative but despair. To hear you tell it, because of “the law and order culture of the courts, the us against them culture of the police, the self-righteousness of the young prosecutors and the gutlessness and greed of the criminal defense bar,” no reform can ever make things better and therefore we shouldn’t even try.

    That’s waaaay too cynical for my tastes. Also, when you say, “There is … a tendency when ‘reform’ finally happens to rest on its laurels,” nothing makes that inevitable, either. In my experience working in criminal justice politics in Texas for the last 15 years, each achieved reform becomes the basis for the next stage of the progression, I’ve never just passed a bill then thought, “great, now that’s done and we can all live happily ever after.”

    E.g., I worked for ACLU in 2001 on a successful bill that got video put into most Texas squad cars and required agencies to gather data about racial profiling and searches at traffic stops. Far from sitting on our laurels, upon implementation advocacy groups annually began crunching local data to hold individual departments accountable.

    Data from that statute actually convinced the Texas Legislature in 2005 to pass another law requiring written consent for non-probable cause searches at traffic stops, though the Governor vetoed that one. Even so, during that process dozens of agencies were pressured into changing local policies to require written consent, even though it’s not required in the law. So-called “consent searches” by the Austin PD, for example, declined 60% after they changed their policy.

    But the more important point is that nobody stopped working for change after passing the 2001 law. Indeed, today in Texas we’re pushing for recording interrogations, and the reason it has legs is, in part, police objections to cameras in cars in 2001 turned out to be overblown and the practice actually worked pretty well – not perfectly, but most of the time.

    So nobody rested on their laurels, but episodic movement is fundamental to the nature of incremental change. Given the sweeping, systemic problems that you accurately describe, I see no other political options to incrementalism short of taking up arms.

    You can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. The system is too flawed to wait for a true “magic bullet,” and instead the only option is to continue firing mundane and imperfect ones.

  6. SHG

    Perhaps the difference is in the nuance that you don’t see because of your dedication to the reforms.  The use of “consent to search” forms is one that I’ve supported.  It’s different than videotaping confessions, a reform that has yet to be proven to do anything other than guarantee convictions. 

    I appreciate that you’re a strong believer in “incremental” reform.  I prefer not to jump on whatever reform bandwagon is popular at the moment because I’ve seen it backfire too many times and cause devastating unintended problems.  We each approach it from our own experience, mine from defending people in the trenches. 

    Similarly, your understanding of my views are somewhat simplistic.  That I don’t believe in the magic bullets doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to improve the system.  For you, every reform is a miracle, because you aren’t there to hold the hand of the man who goes to prison for life because of the unintended consequences.  You believe in committees to perform oversight.  I’m not a committee type person. You believe the cops will tell the truth, accurately fill out the forms, and publicly admit that they ignore the law.  I am not as sanguine about cops doing the right thing on their own.  I’m not a do-gooder.  I deal with the detritus of do-gooders, that somehow never gets onto the committees’ agendas.  I fix lives one at a time after someone else has fired another magic bullet at them.

  7. Gritsforbreakfast

    “For you, every reform is a miracle, because you aren’t there to hold the hand of the man who goes to prison for life because of the unintended consequences.”

    Maybe I’m not there to “hold his hand,” but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about unintended consequences or have people hold me accountable when they backfire. Nor do I portray this or that reform, ever, as a “miracle,” but more typically as small, imperfect steps toward grander goals.

    E.g., I don’t think improving eyewitness ID procedures will eliminate false IDs. But I’ve no doubt it would reduce their frequency, and for those who avoid being falsely accused as a result, that’s a big deal.

    One also notices that all the unintended consequences you decry (e.g., pressure in the back of a squad car, etc.) happen NOW. They’re simply not a function of the reforms you’re criticizing.

    As for the comment, “You believe in committees to perform oversight,” I have no idea where that comes from. I’m usually the one insisting we put teeth in oversight bills or they’re not worth pursuing.

    And finally, this is the most absurd charge of the lot: “You believe the cops will tell the truth, accurately fill out the forms, and publicly admit that they ignore the law.” That’s just silly, and I’ll guarantee Texas’ police union bosses would all disagree with that description of my personal views. Again, I’m usually the one out there digging to PROVE they ignore the law in the face of police denials.

    I don’t jump on every bandwagon and could name several reforms promoted by “progressives” that I’ve refused to embrace. But it’s just not helpful to assume nothing can be done so no one should ever try. That seems to be the upshot of this column.

    You say you support written consent for searches, but that proposal in Texas would never have had a chance to even be filed, much less pass, without the other bill that you think was a waste of time because police are untrustworthy.

    It’s fine to say, “That I don’t believe in the magic bullets doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to improve the system.” But that caveat rings hollow when you identify not a single improvement you think is possible while issuing sweeping denunciations of the most commonly discussed reforms.

    You seems to be saying: “Nothing reform advocates propose can work. Some other, different things might work, but I’m not going to tell you what they are, I’m just going to criticize those who are trying to make things better.”

    I just don’t see where that approach gets us very far.

  8. SHG

    I don’t suggest you aren’t well intended.  I know you are, and I know want to end the same problems that I do.  But you refuse to accept that we are not all aboard with whatever reforms you agree to.  This post was about one particular issue, dash cameras, which failed miserably in this instance.  My point was that this is a cautionary lesson.  You concede that reforms may be imperfect, but still think it’s better to move forward with imperfect reforms than not.  I would reply that we should get them right before moving ahead.  You see that as a rejection of all reforms.  Many reformers becomes too beloved of their reforms to see the flaws. 

    You called me cynical.  Skepitcal would be a better word.  But even as a skeptic, I’ve seen too many beloved reforms fail miserably, and as with Miranda, we live with half a century of misery until the next reformer comes along with the next magic bullet.  I would rather get it right than get it done.  That is where we differ.

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