Mar 23

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

Today, we’ve got five smaller thoughts on police shootings that weren’t large enough for a post, or made another post too long. (Ir)regardless, we wanted to share them with you. Consider this a “Director’s cut”, if you will, for our “Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2015”.

1. We were wrong about the Michael Brown shooting. And so are most liberals.

I should clarify: in a way, we were wrong, since many people interpreted the closing lines of our Slate piece, “The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech” for (possibly) abdicating Michael Brown of any responsibility for what happened. Since we wrote that article, the Department of Justice released two reports. The first cleared Darren Wilson, saying Michael Brown, according to forensic evidence and reliable eyewitnesses, probably did go for Wilson’s gun. (The New Yorker has probably the best article on the whole thing.) And as many people pointed out, Michael Brown had just shoplifted.

Still, like Michael C wrote about the Tamir Rice shooting, it doesn’t mean the law enforcement community did the right thing. Darren Wilson was clearly over-aggressive in his handling of the entire incident. And as we wrote about in our second COIN post during this series, and as the second DoJ report made clear, the Ferguson police department engaged in systematic racism against the African-Americans in Ferguson.

And it remains an unjustified tragedy that a young man died for the crime of stealing less than five dollars worth of cigarillos.

That said, we spend a lot of time on this blog pointing out illogical or untrue things conservatives believe. In fairness, the Michael Brown shooting is a blind spot for liberals. I’ve tried to have this conversation with fellow liberals in Los Angeles about what actually happened; most don’t want to hear it.

2. Gun rights are racist.

Ironically, really. The Black Panthers inspired the gun control movement with their open-carry demonstrations in the 1960s. In response to gun control measures aimed at African-American protesters, the NRA transformed into its modern, far right, pro-guns incarnation.

But really, I’m talking about open carry gun rights.

Many modern gun rights activists have started openly carrying rifles and pistols, as an overt, in-your-face demonstration of their (believed) Constitutional rights. But frankly, if you’re black, you’d have to be insane to openly carry a gun in this country. You’re basically signing a death warrant. Think of Tamir Rice. Or John Crawford III. Or countless others. Police saw them and opened fire in seconds. If you’re black in America, carrying a gun is a license to, at best, get hassled by the police and, at worst, get shot by them.

3. A thought on crime and poverty.

Michael C and I were good kids growing up. From elementary to high school, we caused our parents little to no trouble. I got a detention, once, for being too loud. That’s about it. No drinking, smoking or premarital sex. That, of course, didn’t apply to everyone in our high school. There were kids who drank, got pregnant, died of overdoses, got bad grades, and so on. Some kids--with their church’s youth group--even stole a water truck at a construction site. But kids will be kids, and who can really blame teenagers for their actions, right? At some point, forgiveness kicks in, and you let kids grow up, which they do, becoming normal, law-abiding adults.

But a weird thing happened when those kids grew up: a bunch of them became police officers.

I remember, a few years after college, having this realization that, at least in Orange County, CA, cops spent a lot of their time chasing and patrolling themselves when they were teenagers. The difference is that most kids in Orange County still got a chance to grow up and “turn their lives around”, if that phrase even makes sense. This doesn’t apply to poor, minority communities in this country.

4. Did a sheepdog shoot a sheepdog?

Look at the Walter Scott shooting. If you buy into the analogy we’ve debunked before, you would interpret the shooting as a sheepdog (Michael Slager, a police officer) shooting a wolf (Walter Scott, who had a warrant out for his arrest) when the wolf tried to go for his taser. Then the video came out, showing Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back. Clearly a wolf (disguised as a sheepdog) shot a sheep (whose crime was not paying alimony, which shouldn’t be a death sentence). Oh, and both men were Coast Guards veterans, meaning a sheepdog-turned-wolf shot a former sheepdog.

Or maybe the analogy doesn’t make sense.

5. Remember, it’s always been this way.

Listening to music while writing up posts, I heard this:

“A young n**** got it bad cause I'm brown

And not the other color so police think

They have the authority to kill a minority

F*** that shit, cause I ain't the one

For a punk motherf***er with a badge and a gun

To be beating on, and thrown in jail

We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell

Fucking with me cause I'm a teenager...

That, of course, comes from one of the most important hip hop albums of all time, Straight Outta Compton on one of the most important songs of all time, “F*** tha Police”. I think we--white Americans--forget

that this issue is not new, despite the recent surge in news coverage. It’s always been this way. (And the response from conservatives is to rally around the police, just like they did in the 1980s when this song came out and just like they do today at Donald Trump’s rallies.)

Thank God (and cell phone technology) we’re finally seeing and (hopefully) addressing it.

Mar 21

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

I solved (well, mostly solved) the problem of police officer’s excessive use of force and power after rewatching an episode of Law and Order, specifically, the episode where Detective Green leaves the series to make Rent (the movie). After finding out that Detective Green had shot someone, Lieutenant Van Buren lays down the law to the Internal Affairs detectives, telling them point blank, “Detective Green isn’t talking to you until he has had a chance to consult his union lawyer.”

Wait, what?

See, Detective Green, in dozens of episodes, gets (tricks?) suspects into talking to him without a lawyer, or dissuades those few who do know their rights, saying things like, “You really want to get them involved?” “We can help you out if you don’t have a lawyer.” Lieutenant Van Buren often helped him, or begrudgingly relents when the suspect lawyers up in the interrogation room.

So what gives? Well, the police know that consulting with a lawyer makes it less likely that suspects will confess to something they did (or, in many cases, didn’t do). What struck me about the scene was that Lieutenant Van Buren treats the citizens of New York differently than she treats her own police officers.

It led me to a simple theory that I think would solve police shootings:

Police officers need to follow the Golden Rule.

That’s it. A huge amount of law enforcement wrongs violate this central tenet that runs through Christianity, Buddhism and countless other religions and philosophies. But the golden rule could still lend itself to interpretation. So let’s be clear on what the “Golden Rule for Policing” would mean:

Police officers must treat citizens as they would want themselves and fellow police officers to be treated.

This would have two major effects:

First, police would treat citizens better.

Think of the Laquan McDonald shooting in Chicago. From the first moment of the shooting, the police officers did everything they could to keep their fellow officers from going to jail and keep the shooting a secret. Compare that to how quickly police release mug shots for suspects for any other type of shooting or leak the suspect’s name to the media.

Instead we could craft policies and recraft our criminal justice system to take advantage of the Golden Rule. In short, the way police officers handle a police shooting is how every criminal prosecution should happen in America. A careful analysis of facts, caution in drawing conclusions, the overriding concern for the rights of the accused, the kid gloves treatment of suspects including ensuring they have legal representation and the chance to consult an attorney before they make a statement; these are the way police officers want to be treated in a criminal investigation.

In a way this is saying, “Hey, police officers, if you give your own brethren every benefit of the doubt, then you need to do the same for the citizens you serve.”

So police departments would ensure that every citizen gets the same treatment that any police officer suspected of a crime gets. That means lawyers would have to be present at every interview. No coerced interrogations. An impartial presentation of evidence to grand juries. Every suspect would get bail. The risk is fewer criminal prosecutions, but that is a risk that police officers willingly accept with their brethren on the force, so it is a risk all society should take with civilians.

Second, police would treat themselves harsher.

Ever been in a car with a police officer who gets pulled over for speeding? You know what they do? They pull out their badge. Most of the time, the cop who pulled them over will give them a pass. If they don’t, they think the cop who gave a speeding ticket to a fellow officer is a jerk. Compare that with the higher rate at which African-Americans get pulled over, stopped, searched, frisked and, in general, treated as a piggy bank by far too many communities.

Under a “Golden Rule for Policing”, officers would take much tougher stands against police misconduct. And there are much more serious issues than speeding.

Like domestic violence, which is much higher in police families than the civilian population. If the woman being abused isn’t related to a police officer, the abuser will most certainly spending the night in jail. And will probably face charges. If the suspected abuser is a police officer? Then likely nothing will happen. Police officers tend to give fellow officers the complete benefit of the doubt and don’t investigate allegations. It allows the issue to fester.

But it goes further than just domestic violence. Police officers have lied on witness statements in police shootings to protect fellow officers or themselves. Or when the official narrative is immediately overturned by camera footage, as Eric C wrote about recently. Under the “Golden Rule of Policing”, those actions are the worst betrayals of the badge.

My solution is, on its face, unrealistic. Or just very, very difficult to implement. Or too vague. But often when organizations have lost their way, focusing on their core values can be the solution. If police officers made this tenet their touchstone--as opposed to fierce loyalty to the badge--they could drastically improve the lives of all citizens in America.

A final note: this post should be a warning to every Christian police officer in America. Most police officers I would wager are conservative and religious. The Golden Rule absolutely applies to every action they take as police officers. The fact that some police officers treat citizens differently than their fellow citizens flies in the face of Jesus’ overriding maxim. Especially in a religious tradition that is based on the Golden Rule. It is literally one of two rules that Jesus said would replace all others. I hope more police officers take this to heart, especially when it comes to their fellow officers and citizens of this country.

Mar 17

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

Almost a year ago, I knew that police shootings would be our “Most Thought-Provoking Event of 2015”. Why?

Because of the shooting of Walter Scott.

Walter Scott’s shooting definitely wasn’t the first (and probably wasn’t the worst) police shooting of an unarmed man, but it was the only one I followed in real time, right when the video leaked, following new information as it came out. Unlike other police shootings, there was no grey area. This video was a perfectly clear example of police misconduct, unequivocal in its ugliness, of a man literally getting shot in the back. For the first time, I (Eric C) spent two days researching, writing and collecting my thoughts on police shootings. This one was the turning point for me personally. Why?

Because I was so, so angry.

The lies infuriated me the most. Michael Slager, both during and immediately after shooting Walter Scott, lied about what actually happened, claiming that Scott went for his taser. The North Charleston Police then released similar statements, which were then repeated by the media. At the time, this was just one of many police shootings that I, and the rest of the country, ignored.

Then the cell phone video showing what actually happened was released, proving Slager’s account was false. For me, and the rest of the country, the release of this video changed everything.

This isn't the only example. Police officers misled investigators and the public (or lied) about Freddie Gray. And Aubrey Williams. And Nijza Lamar Hagans. Or Laquan McDonald. Or Derrick Price, in which the police also fabricated video evidence so they could beat a suspect. Or all the examples in our post here. I’m sure we could find more.

After all these tragedies, the simple takeaway is this: the public should no longer trust the police narrative in civilian shootings. At least, they shouldn’t take the officer’s word over that of the civilian’s. We’ve seen too many instances proving that, in a violent altercation, each side has their own reasons to lie. But I think I have a solution to make officers more wary about lying in the future:

Civilians need to keep the videos of police misconduct hidden from police for much longer.

If you film a police shooting, don’t release the video immediately. Or even a few days later. Wait, for a few weeks or months. Wait until the officer has lied, publicly. Wait until he has lied under oath. Wait until the media has repeated those lies. Wait until the department “finishes” their investigation. Then release the video. The public tends to believe what police officers have to say about shooting incidents. This happened in the Walter Scott shooting. At first, the public believed Slager, but within four days a video revealed his lies (and consequently the department’s lies).

Imagine if it had been held longer.

Right now, the video merely debunked Slager. But the entire process--from police investigating the crimes to district attorneys prosecuting the offenders--is culpable in defending police misconduct. If the video is held longer, more people can say and do things obstructing justice, and then get called out for it. Or worse.

Also, holding the videos will let the fear dangle longer. It would make district attorneys and police chiefs afraid that a video might be out there, and might drop at any time. It might make them actually investigate shootings with a critical eye, like they would for civilians. Or one could specifically leak the video to activists and lawyers so they can get officers to lie under oath. Tie them up in multiple knots. This would make police officers and police chiefs more wary about lying in the future.

I don’t want to keep writing about this topic. It is dark, ugly and divisive. But watching videos like the one of Walter Scott’s shooting, I know we have to.

Mar 09

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

“[Bill] O’Reilly asked Trump if he meant it when he said that he would “take out” the family members of terrorists. He didn’t believe that Trump would “put out hits on women and children” if he were elected. Trump replied, “I would do pretty severe stuff.” The Mesa crowd erupted in applause. “Yeah, baby!” a man near me yelled. I had never previously been to a political event at which people cheered for the murder of women and children.”

    - Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker

As we wrote on Monday, when politicians say they want to loosen ROE, they really mean killing civilians. The most egregious example during this campaign is Ted Cruz repeatedly threatening to carpet bomb civilians. Next most egregious is Donald Trump emphasizing he would kill terrorists’ families (really, force our soldiers to kill them) as vengeful punishment, even if it violates the military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Obviously, this is morally and ethically abhorrent. We’re not the only ones to condemn this talk. In fact, a ton of people (rightfully) condemned it. Most persuasively, the top general in Iraq condemned the idea of carpet bombing.

So we want to add our voices to the chorus. As a society, when history looks back on this moment, we want them to see that some people did adamantly oppose killing civilians. And we oppose it for a simple reason:

It is morally wrong.

Every moral philosophy utterly condemns killing civilians. The “Golden Rule”--treat others as you wish to be treated--is present in almost every major world religion. So if you are a Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Confucian or Buddhist, you shouldn’t think your country should kill civilians in warfare. Of course, followers of every religion have broken this policy at some point, but they still hold to it.

For the Republican candidates, though, the only moral philosophy that really matters is Christianity. Ted Cruz is part of a “National Prayer Team”. Marco Rubio has advised that faith, “influences every aspect of your life.” Donald Trump has also flouted his own religious bonafides, but also got into a scrum with the Pope.

So let’s summarize the Christian position on war crimes: it forbids them. Virtually every Christian thinker who studies the words of Jesus Christ finds it impossible to advocate killing civilians. (As Eric C reminds me, a textual/originalist interpretation of the Bible forbids wars in general, but that’s for a later discussion.)

Christian philosophy forbids war crimes but does allow for wars, through the dominant philosophy of “Just War” theory. This theory--which is literally thousands of years old, created and developed by Christianity's greatest thinkers--demands strict limits on when you can go to war (as a Christian), and if you go to war, who you can kill (as a Christian). Obviously, there are a ton of nuances here, but suffice to say that to justify war crimes primarily means ignoring one’s Christian faith altogether.   

This widespread moral condemnation of war crimes extends to America’s political philosophy. The Founding Fathers believed in strict limits on the ability of America to make war, and even limited the size of the military in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers of America abhorred war and feared what it would do to the soul of our country. If one of our political parties embraces the legal position of “originalism”--and Republicans do--it should listen to the Founders on war. Like James Madison:

“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other...No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

In the current Republican primary fights, Just War theory and limited military intervention have fallen out of favor. Instead, a “real politick” view of the world that basically says, “What happens in foreign affairs isn’t covered by morality” has dominated the debates. Basically, a state should do whatever it takes to win...including killing civilians. The Wiki article on Just War theory has a fairly good summation that viewpoint--even if some academics would quibble with its accuracy--perfectly captures the layman’s perspective on realism:

“Realism is a skepticism as to whether moral concepts such as justice can be applied to the conduct of international affairs. Proponents of realism believe that moral concepts should never prescribe, nor circumscribe, a state's behaviour. Instead, a state should place an emphasis on state security and self-interest.”

This is what Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are providing their third of the electorate. It is an “us against them” view of the world. And in that view, if you aren’t us, you are eligible to die, even if you’re a civilian.

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz won’t have to pull the trigger on their own actions. They won’t have to live with the moral consequences of their calls to kill civilians. The US Army does and, as a result, has embraced Just War theory to maintain its moral compass. As General MacFarland said in response to Trump and Cruz, “At the end of the day, it doesn't only matter if you win, it matters how you win...Right now we have the moral high ground and I think that's where we need to stay.”


Mar 07

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

Obviously Republican candidates want to get the support of soldiers. They want to be loved by our heroes sooooo bad. One of the easiest ways to pander, er, support, this demographic is to lambast our military’s rules of engagement (ROE):

Marco Rubio: “I think the United States military is operating under rules of engagement that are too strict and that do not allow us to pursue victory. When I'm president, that will change.”

Jeb Bush: “Get the lawyers off the damn backs of the military once and for all.”

Ted Cruz: "We need to define the enemy. And we need to be focused and lift the rules of engagement so we're not sending our fighting men and women into combat with their arms tied behind their backs.”

As Slate summed it up, “'Rubio, Bush, and Cruz all said they’d loosen the rules of engagement that supposedly constrain U.S. forces...But they didn’t specify how they would do this...or what effect the loosening might have."

Well that “effect” is what we are talking about today. (And have touched on in the past.)

The rules of engagement are restrictions on when soldiers, sailors, and airmen can open fire. At its most basic, it means clearly identifying a target as your intended target before you fire your weapon, call for artillery, launch a torpedo, or drop a bomb.

ROE has two purposes. In high-intensity warfare, ROE is vital to ensure you don’t kill your fellow soldiers. That’s right: the biggest reason ROE exists is to protect your fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from being killed. If you don’t clearly know your target, in maneuver warfare it is all too easy to kill a fellow soldier. (Which is probably not the effect politicians want when they say we need to loosen ROE.)

Second, rules of engagement coordinate the fire of your soldiers in accordance with the commander’s intent. In a simple example, think of soldiers lying in an ambush. In that situation, the ROE says, “Don’t shoot until the commander fires.” In a historical example, think of Joshua Chamberlain at the Battle of Gettysburg. He had his soldiers both hold their fire--so that a single volley devastated the Confederates--and later had them fix bayonets--which made it impossible to fire their weapons. In both cases, they had to wait for his command to fire on the enemy, risking their own lives as they did.

Critics of ROE broadly would, in some sense, forbid officers from being able to make such orders. If the Civil War had today’s media and politicians, would they be criticizing Chamberlain’s decision to, literally, prevent his soldiers from shooting, sacrificing many lives in the short term, to win the war in the long term?

Our current wars aren’t high-intensity, but the need for ROE is just as important. In a counterinsurgency, the rules of engagement ensure that amped-up, trained-for-high-intensity-warfare soldiers and marines only kill military targets. In layman’s terms, non-military targets are “civilians”. That’s right, innocent people. Losing them loses the war. Having ROE isn’t just a legal requirement, it helps commanders on the ground win the war.

Republican candidates--led by some milblogs in the conservative web-o-sphere--disagree that stringent ROE wins the war. Their theory is more along the lines of “the more bad guys you kill, the better, even if you take some innocent people with them”. So the biggest effect of loosening ROE is that you kill more non-military targets (and remember, potentially fellow soldiers in coalition forces, like our Afghan and Iraqi partners).

Some Republicans think this keeps “the troops” safe because they can defend themselves easier. Like the Civil War example above, the troops are probably safer in the short term, though the civilians around them are dramatically less safe. Killing some innocent civilians turns a lot more against you. Once you lose the population, you lose the war. The longer the war goes on, the longer all soldiers are in more danger.   

A cynic would take it a step further. Far from just hoping that the number of military target exceed the civilians killed, one could argue that, in fact, Republicans don’t care if they kill innocent civilians. Yes, there are some Republican politicians who want dead women and children in foreign countries. And to get that honest assessment, you have to turn to Donald Trump:

“'We’re fighting a very politically correct war,' he said in response to a question about avoiding civilian casualties. “And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. They, they care about their lives. Don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.”

And that is such a big nugget, such an immoral argument, we’ll have to debunk it in future posts.