The Zebra of Worst-First Thinking

I got a call the other morning from Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids fame.  Among the things we chatted about was her concept of “worst-first thinking,” which she saw in Colorado District Court  Judge R. Brooke Jackson’s decision to deny summary judgment to the Cinemark Theater that failed to have armed guards in place just in case a madman with guns happened to drop by to shoot up the place.

The judge there held within the realm of foreseeable the one-in-a-million act of a crazy, because the worst, most bizarre, least foreseeable possibility was, in his view, foreseeable.  Lenore saw worst-first thinking at work.  Notably, Ken White at Popehat thought the judge was correct.

Lenore’s concept is a variation on the physician’s zebra rule: when you hear the sound of hoofbeats, don’t assume it’s a zebra.  Expect the normal, unless there are reasons to think otherwise.  Don’t look to the outlier, the one-in-a-million shot, simply because it’s within the realm of possibility.  Don’t leap to the worst-case scenario when every probability suggests otherwise. It will make your head do crazy things, have terrible thoughts, and react to a relatively benign world in strange ways.

Lenore offers an example: Continue reading

PSA: Stop Helping The Bad Guys, You Twitterers

The Associated Press reported that all you social media addicts are enabling the bad guys.

SEATTLE (AP) — Police in Washington state are asking the public to stop tweeting during shootings and manhunts to avoid accidentally telling the bad guys what officers are doing.

The “TweetSmart” campaign began in late July by a coalition of nine agencies, including the Washington state patrol and the Seattle police, and aims to raise awareness about social media’s potential impact on law enforcement.

This explains why so many chases are interrupted so the criminals can check twitter on their smartphones to figure out what their next move should be. Continue reading

Because The Government Blew It

In what may be one of the most bizarre gaps of logic offered as if it makes any sense at all, Amanda Marcotte at Slate’s XX Factor contends that the statute of limitations for rape should be eliminated.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor who rose to national fame last year by spearheading a fight against a draconian abortion bill, held a press conference Wednesday to highlight her ideas on how to fight sexual assault. Talking about her legislative efforts to process the estimated backlog of 16,000 untested rape kits in the state, Davis said she wanted to take the solution a step further. She proposed lifting the statute of limitations for sexual assault entirely, in no small part to make sure that rapists don’t escape justice just because a rape kit lingered untested for so long that the window for prosecution closed.

Texas has a ten-year statute of limitations for rape, already substantially longer than most states, but that’s not good enough.  After all, they have a backlog of untested rape kits, and can’t possibly get to them within ten years.

One solution, of course, would be for the state to test the friggin kits timely.  You know, do the job right?  But no, that would cost money. That would be hard on the state. Doing things right is not a solution that brings a smile to politicians faces, as it suggests they are doing things wrong, which suggests they suck at running government. That would never do. Continue reading

What’s Worse Than Anonymous Trolls?

The New York Times Room for Debate raised the question, again, of whether online anonymity, what it called “The War on Trolls,” must be stopped:

The Internet may be losing the war against trolls, a broad term for destructive agitators who torment and heckle others online.

Robin William’s daughter, attacked by Twitter followers, quit the service, and the writers and editors of the feminist website Jezebel published an open letter, pleading for a technical solution to graphic images that were anonymously posted in droves in the comments section.

Does anonymity on the web give people too much license to heckle and torment others?

There is no doubt that people can be complete assholes on the internet, protected by anonymity (or pseudonymity, if you need to nitpick), more so than they tend to be IRL.  It can be unpleasant, and can devolve into conduct that’s criminal.  So what’s worse than these awful anonymous trolls?

How about intellectually dishonest law professors who pander to the butthurt and ignorant?  Danielle Citron, of Cyber Civil Rights ignominy, is tapped by the Times to protect the internet’s delicate flowers from mean words. Continue reading

It’s A Poor Mechanic Who Blames The Terry Stop

After the monumentally disturbing op-ed in the Washington Post by “homeland security” professor Sunil Dutta,  I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me, Judge Richard Kopf posed an interesting question:

I wonder whether Terry v. Ohio, improperly understood and mistakenly taught in police academies to give virtually unlimited power to stop (and frisk) citizens as they go about their business, emboldened generations of cops to be overly aggressive when they encounter citizens who simply don’t look right? If I am right that Terry is at least partially responsible for the Robo Cop mentality that you decry, then maybe someone ought to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider. In my view, unless Terry goes away, “stand and deliver” is the sensible mantra for citizens accosted by overzealous cops.

As commenters noted, Justice William O. Douglas in dissent on Terry thought this was a really bad decision:

To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path. Perhaps such a step is desirable to cope with modern forms of lawlessness. But if it is taken, it should be the deliberate choice of the people through a constitutional amendment.

What they’re talking about is the dreaded Terry Stop, where police can stop and question a person based upon a “reasonable suspicion,” meaning “articulable facts” that a person has, is or will be committing a crime. If there is a reasonable basis to believe the person poses a threat, they can pat down clothing for weapons. Continue reading

A Test of Sorts: Kajieme Powell

A question was posed about what could have been going through Kajieme Powell as he waited for St. Louis police to arrive.  Lacking that magical power to read the minds of others, to project my thoughts into his and assume they were valid, I demurred.  Of course, Powell can’t explain because he’s dead.

The background was unsatisfying.

Authorities said Kajieme Powell stole donuts and energy drinks from a store yesterday afternoon, which prompted the owner to call police, according to KSDK. When two officers arrived shortly before 1 p.m., they said they observed Powell acting erratically. He refused to put down a knife when commanded to do so, police said.

Witnesses said the suspect yelled, “Shoot me now. Kill me now,” before approaching officers. Some people who saw the shooting described it as “suicide by cop,” according to USA Today.

Maybe.  Or maybe Powell, a few miles away from Ferguson, decided to test the police, to challenge them to kill another young black man. Maybe he thought he would be a martyr to the cause. Or maybe he suffered from mental illness and lacked the ability to recognize that what he was doing was not merely wrong, but fatally dangerous.  Maybe Powell could explain, but he can’t. He’s dead. Continue reading

Being Right Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry

To a UC Santa Barbara professor of feminist studies, there are small wrongs and big wrongs.  Mireille Miller-Young committed a small wrong, for which she offered a small apology in anticipation of sentence:

“As much as the images they displayed were offensive and distressing to my students, and to me, I had no right to take their poster or destroy it,” she writes.

The poster refers to the anti-abortion poster used by Thrin and Joan Short.  Miller-Young saw it, lost it, seized it and, in the process, committed battery on Thrin.  But all this, from the suppression of ideas Miller-Young found wrong to the physical harm of Short, was secondary to the big wrong.  The big wrong was that the Shorts were WRONG, WRONG, WRONG about abortion, meaning that they must be silenced and their ideas must be eradicated by any means necessary.

Not surprisingly, there was strong, perhaps even overwhelming support, for the feminist prof.  Those who agreed with her backed her up, because the Shorts were WRONG.   The inability to distinguish between the process of allowing people to express their thoughts even when they differ from your own is apparently too much to bear when they are WRONG,  Thankfully, Miller-Young possessed no weapons at the time.

Others who shared Miller-Young’s certainty that any ideas inconsistent with her own were wrong stood up for her at sentence to explain her behavior. Continue reading

The Limits of Cameras

One question that keeps poking its ugly head through the mist of obfuscation in Ferguson, Missouri, is why the police have the full panoply of weapons for an invasion of Fallujah, but there was no camera to be had when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown down in the street.  So many questions might have been answered, quickly and cleanly, if only a neutral record existed.

But it didn’t. No body cam. No dash cam. No cameras to be had.

Cameras are the answer, many have said.  And they may well have been, in this instance. Unless, of course, something went “wrong.”  Our reliance on extrinsic solutions, particularly those tech tools that, in theory, would facilitate the desired clarity, is well-placed only to the extent two things occur: the tech works, and humans don’t get in the way.

Via Jonathan Turley,

In New Orleans, Armand Bennet, 26, was shot in the forehead during a traffic stop by New Orleans police officer Lisa Lewis. However, the police department did not reveal until much later that Lewis turned off her body camera just before shooting Bennett. Bennett survived and has now been charged under prior warrants for his arrest. It also reviewed that Lewis had had a prior run in with Bennet who escaped about a week earlier.

Continue reading

Cooperate Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

Via Reason’s Matt Welch, the Washington Post provides the insight of 17-year LAPD veteran turned “homeland security” professor at Colorado Tech University, Sunil Dutta, as to the mindset of the police officer on the mean streets of Ferguson. Lest there be any doubt as to where this is heading, it’s entitled, I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.

Don’t start spitting yet. Wait for the deeper insight into how terribly wrong we are to misunderstand everything coming out of Ferguson, from the killing of Michael Brown to the management of the community.  There is a very real problem, according to Dutta. We don’t get it.

It is also a terrible calumny; cops are not murderers. No officer goes out in the field wishing to shoot anyone, armed or unarmed. And while they’re unlikely to defend it quite as loudly during a time of national angst like this one, people who work in law enforcement know they are legally vested with the authority to detain suspects — an authority that must sometimes be enforced. Regardless of what happened with Mike Brown, in the overwhelming majority of cases it is not the cops, but the people they stop, who can prevent detentions from turning into tragedies.

Continue reading

Getting The News Out of Ferguson

“This is what they do on national TV. Imagine what they do when you aren’t watching.”

–Don Lemon, CNN

Within the framework of how happily one surrenders constitutional rights whenever someone in a uniform issues a command, the “dynamic” situation in Ferguson, Missouri presents an image of information asymmetry that raises huge concerns.  The organized “media” (let’s not fight over what that means for now) is being corralled, restrained and even arrested, almost as if they were citizens of lesser value.

Via the Guardian, Getty photographer Scott Olson was led away in plastic cuffs.  Ryan Reilly of HuffPo and Wesley Lowery of WaPo were arrested in McDonalds.  They just wouldn’t do as they were told. Or at least not fast enough. Continue reading

The View From Black, White and Blue

When the story of Michael Brown’s killing broke, my first post began with these words:

There may be a good explanation for why Ferguson, Missouri, a mostly black working-class suburb of St. Louis, had a white mayor and police force. There might be a good explanation for why an unarmed, 18-year-old high school graduate, Michael Brown, was shot down in the street.  But if so, nobody has said so yet.  The only thing for which there is a good explanation is why Brown won’t be starting technical school today. That’s because he’s dead.

The two-thirds of Ferguson who protested the killing have been subject to substantial scrutiny, far more than the shooting of Brown at the time.  That’s because there was a deafening silence from the police.  There was a half-baked press release, replete with the usual ambiguous jargon that gives rise to more questions than answers, to justify the killing.  On the other side, witnesses came forward, subjected themselves to questioning, or not.

On Sunday, the one-third of Ferguson came out, protesting that Police Officer Darren Wilson has been “victimized” for doing his job.  They were peaceful and well-behaved, without fear of being dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets. There were about a dozen police officers monitoring the protest, five on bicycles instead of armored personnel carriers. Their purpose was to defend the police: Continue reading