Has Justice Been Served?

For those of you that have been following the story, Amber Guyger was just found guilty of murder in her trial.  You can read about the incident here.  I’ve been trying to find out some hidden facts about this case, but unable to find anything that convinces me that the jury came to the wrong conclusion.  I guess witnesses get to speak today before the actual sentencing, but Ms. Guyger faces up to life in prison for the killing of Botham Jean.

If you didn’t read the article, the basics of the incident is that Ms. Guyger, for whatever reason went into what she thought was her apartment, but it belonged to Mr. Jean.  She thought there was an intruder, and feared for her life and ended up shooting Mr. Jean dead.  The prosecution rightly proved that Ms. Guyger had other choices available to her that she could have taken, including backing out and taking cover while she called for back up.  The prosecution also showed that she didn’t do enough in medical aid after the incident in trying to save the victim’s life.  She clearly wasn’t thinking very clearly when she walked into the wrong apartment or in the immediate aftermath of the incident.  All this I grant and she made a horrible mistake that cost an innocent person their life.

But is it murder?  There was no motive, and it’s clear that Ms. Guyger is feeling great remorse for what happened.  To the point where she wishes she had been the one killed and not the other way around.  I guess I’m just wondering how putting her away for life in prison is going to make any of this tragedy better?  From the evidence presented from the 911 call, she clearly believed that she was in her apartment, and while she didn’t act like a well-trained cop in the moment, as we’ve seen there are very few cops who might have been cool in that situation.  Ms. Guyger clearly feels a great deal of remorse and pain for the what she has done, is she a danger to society?  I don’t think so. Is she a racist?  Well there was evidence that she definitely saw black people differently.  If she didn’t have this implicit bias would things have gone differently?  Perhaps.  I don’t think she is the poster child for an exemplary police officer, but I also don’t see her as being so racist that she was simply looking for an opportunity to gun down a black person.  I don’t see how this terrible incident is made less terrible by putting her in jail for murder.  It seems clear that many people are only excited by the verdict because a cop is finally being sentenced to murder for killing an unarmed black person.  There have been many of those cases where I’ve been outraged at the police being acquitted by a grand jury.  I don’t think this is case to make up for all those other cases that should have been ruled differently?  I don’t think the law should work like that.  I feel like we aren’t setting a precedent for cops being charged with crimes for killing unarmed people, I feel like we are saying that the verdict for one person’s crime should make up for past injustices.

Ms. Guyger made some bad decisions, but I don’t feel she’s a murderer.  I hope that testimony today will convince the judge that she doesn’t deserve life in prison.  In the end and innocent man was killed, and that is the greater tragedy, I’m just not convinced that the verdict render changes anything other than adding more tragedy.  Maybe Ms. Guyger could do more good to make up for what she’s done instead of just sitting in a cell.

I am also willing to be talked out of this position with some good arguments.  Perhaps my thinking is narrow here.  I am interested in hearing your thoughts.

Listening to the Blues

The current election has shifted a lot of attention away from the issue of police violence, but in searching through some of Sam Harris’ podcasts I found an episode that I found to be very very engaging.  If you want to get the perspective from a well-educated, well-trained police officer (Scott Reitz). I highly recommend listening to this podcast (Episode 25 of Waking up with Sam Harris). I felt it was important to hear this side of things.  I am a big supporter of the black lives matter movement as well, and my goal here isn’t to delegitimatize what is a very legitimate movement, but if we are also in the business of solving problems we need to hear from police officers, and we need to understand what problems they see.

Most people I know are even-minded about the issue.  They know most cops are good people.  They recognize that police are an important part of our society, and they don’t want to see police die.  They also know that there are bad cops, and there are systematic problems with the justice system that need to be addressed.

He raised a number of I think important issues about cops that I found very information.  For instance he said that the difference between the minimum proficiency requirement that cops need to have, and what a good cop needs to have are far apart.  But there is no training you can take for better shooting skills, or better hand to hand combat skills, unless you do it on your own time and own money.  He talked about why cops often fire so many shots at a target.  It’s simply because the hit rate is only at like 13%.  They are trained to take many shots at a subject.  There have been also many changes on how police do their job that have made it harder.  The choke hold for instance which killed Eric Garner, was outlawed, and perhaps for good reason given how it might have impacted somebody with certain health issues.  Garner being no exception.  However, what Mr. Reitz said was that the removal of a cops ability to use this method, took away a main method of incapacitation often used previously.  He also talked about how often tasers and other incapacitation method’s fail.  It was mentioned how recruitment standards have fallen greatly in who they accept.  When he first became an officer in the 70’s he said it was typical for police officers to have university degrees.  This is no longer the case, so standards are being lowered in terms of who they accept.   He was also agreeable to the idea that there are just a lot of cops who shouldn’t be cops.

There were a couple of places I disagreed with Mr. Reitz in the podcast and I wanted to discuss in a little more detail.  At around the 50 minute mark they discuss the topic of “back talk to officers, disrespect, how you should deal with illegal actions by a police officer”.  Mr. Reitz’s advice is that you don’t know the kind of day or week an officer has had.  They see the darker side of society, they often work long hours, and starting off your conversation with a police officer in a combative way, even verbally is a recipe for escalating the situation.  I am not sure that I necessarily disagree with this advice.  But what I started thinking was the following:

  • Nobody likes being treated like a criminal if they’ve done nothing wrong.  Nobody likes having their rights violated even if they have.  Nobody deserves to be shot just for a traffic violation.  I guess in the end, it’s not a reasonable excuse to me that the cop is overworked, or that he’s had a bad week or day that I am somehow asking for abuse by not being as passive and compliant as possible.  That’s victim blaming, and I can agree that to some degree cops are also victims of a system that isn’t giving them the training or the workload to reduce their stress levels.
  • Following from that, why is it not on the cop to think that maybe this person is also having a bad day or week? We are usually not going to be in the best of moods when we are pulled over, but if this is just a small bad incident in a line of bigger ones our attitude may not be great either.  Isn’t possible that a black person might just have felt racially profiled one too many times in his or her life, that they are in a bad mood?  When two people who are having a bad day meet. Right and wrong still matter.  The cop has as much responsibility to act right as the person does.  I think that, and Mr. Reitz seems to argue this at times, is that we are probably better off recognizing the reality that cops face, and that most of them aren’t particularly well-trained, and don’t necessarily have a lot of experience.  Sometimes you do have to be smart over being right.
  • Finally and most importantly, the idea that an officers wrong actions can be rectified after the fact, is not necessarily a guarantee. This is a big part of the frustration expressed by the Black Lives Matters movement.  The wrong actions of the cop, are supported by other cops, and are supported by judges.  In many criminal cases people can’t afford lawyers and they are often bullied into accepting a plea bargain by an overworked public defender and prosecution.  So there is frustration here by many.  They’ve seen what has happened to people they know, especially those with less financial means, and for many, even though they may be putting their very lives in danger by standing up to a cop, don’t have faith in the rest of the system to protect them.  I think we have to recognize this reality as well.

Another area they talked about was gun control.  Sam Harris I think tried to get him out of the practical side of things and just look more at ethics, but I suspect Mr. Reitz is extremely pragmatic, because I think you have to be in his line of work.  As I’ve argued before I think that the love of guns here is something that you have to accept to be in the U.S., but that we can try to fight for a society where we don’t them as much.  Anyway, Mr. Reitz supports the ownership of guns for home protection, but is less than enthusiastic about open carry or conceal carry.  I would expect most cops feel the same way.  In regards to personal protection, I can’t argue in some ways with the idea that a gun is an equalizer.  There are very bad people out there, and they are far meaner and stronger, and having that gun, just in case, is a practical solution to the problem.  Mr. Reitz seemed to take it as a given, however, that those of us in positions where we might be worried about the worst, would still see owning a gun as the only solution.  I know many people who have been victims of crimes, but not all of them seek guns after.  When you come from a place with very few guns, or where it’s more difficult to get one, even when bad situations do happen, guns aren’t the first thing we think of to be safe.  I think that it’s a very American attitude to think that a gun is the only solution.  And the type of violent crime of a complete stranger coming into your home to do unspeakable things to you and your family, while possible, is rare compared to people being victims of homicide or rape by people they know.  I guess it raises the ethical question of: How far do we go to let people feel safe, knowing that a very small percentage of those people would actually be victims in a situation they could have stopped with gun and knowing that the large amount of guns it keeps in society makes more gun violence possible?

I found Mr. Reitz to be quite reasonable and well-informed overall.  He believes that guns should be in lockers and only for hunting or home protection.  Because he also accepts the reality that few people are likely to get the training they need to be able to use a firearm well, and to have practiced shooting targets, and to store and care for it properly.

In the end it was nice to listen to a conversation that was substantive in which the right things were being discussed.  So often on this very important issue we don’t get to have this conversation, because it immediately turns into things like “Cops are heroes!” or “Banning all guns is against the second amendment!”  Imagine if we could always have such thoughtful conversations, we might be able to solve problems that might meet the concerns of both Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.

In the end I really appreciated Mr. Reitz’ perspective.  I imagine it is generally impossible not to be impacted when your entire career has been dealing with hard cases and the worst of people, even if it’s just a small percentage of the population.  It’s great that he has remained even-minded and thoughtful about his own job.  I really can’t imagine how stressful it is.  In a way we have perhaps made strides in more sensible policing from a policy point of view, but I think when you want to put more public safety and compassion into policing (which is the right thing) that does impact its structure, and what type of resources we have to put in.  To make it work we have to support better training, better mental health support, higher qualifications.  An acquaintance of mine here, when I talked about the attack on public education, said it’s not much better for the police either.  Nobody wants to pay taxes, nobody wants to support the institutions that make for a better society.  Mr. Reitz summed up his thoughts on policing today by the following quote:

“Most police officers out there feel overwhelmed with the demands on them…[we’re saying to them] ‘I want you to hazard your life, but I want you to be really careful in defending yourself’….it’s hard”.

If you have time give the whole thing a listen.  If not, keep trying to have good conversations about this, because it is important.

Suburban Excitement

Last Thursday night, close to midnight we had more adventure than we would want in our neighborhood.  Basically about 6 police officers, wearing Kevlar and holding rifles descended on our neighbors.  I am not sure exactly everything that was happening but basically what happened was that the neighbor (whose wife and 2 children were thankfully not at home) was quite drunk and for some unknown reason took his rifle and just laid it down on the sidewalk in front of the house.  Two doors over a mother saw the gun lying there and rightly called the police.  It’s not clear whether she told the guy that she called the police or not, but when the police arrived the gun was no longer on the sidewalk.  One police officer began yelling very loudly telling the guy to come out of the house with his hands up, when the guy came out, he apparently wasn’t listening right away.  Again in as loud and deep a voice as man can shout he was told that he did not do what he was asked right away, he would be shot.  It appears that guy had moved the gun so that it was hiding behind the banister on his front porch.  So I am not sure if he picked up the gun at some point, but there was a lot of yelling, there were officers at different points on the street pointing their guns.  I saw the guy walk down his steps to the sidewalk with his hands up and then 3 officer tackled him immediately (and roughly) and while on top of him yelled at him to get his hands out from underneath his body.  I get the reason why, but could be a little difficult when 3 guys just tackled you.

There is a lot about this situation that seemed just wrong to me.  I feel that it was the right thing to do to call the police, and it gives me no sense of peace to know that I have a neighbor, who when extremely drunk will place his firearm in odd places around his house.  He has a 9 year old boy and 2 year old girl.  It seems to me that this gun should be locked away, at all times.  And if drinking makes you unlock it, you probably shouldn’t be drinking.  However, what struck me is how the situation seemed to escalate as a result of the police action.

The neighbor wasn’t threatening anybody with the gun, so the police had no reason to believe that the guy was wanting to use the gun to enact violence on anybody.  And then there was the yelling.  To my knowledge I don’t have any anxiety issues.  I was sober, but when that cop was shouting, I felt very tense.  I felt my heart rate increase.  I was so sure that somebody was going to get shot, because it seemed very imminent.  I’ll admit that I don’t know how police are trained, and maybe this shouting is effective, but it’s hard to believe that it’s the case.  Even though I wasn’t being yelled at I found myself getting upset…wishing he would calm down…I felt adversarial, I felt threatened.  And when you feel threatened, when your scared, when your panic and someone is screaming at you, it just seems so easy to make a mistake, or make a move that might be defensive but is not calmly putting your hands up, exposing yourself even more clearly to a person (let alone 6 people) with a gun aimed at you.  Maybe I’ve been impacted by the media about police shootings, I don’t know, but it just doesn’t seem like what the cops were doing wasn’t the best way to diffuse the situation.    If you’ve ever just had someone scream angrily at you before, you will know that calmly surrendering isn’t most obvious choice on your mind at that point.  Add in some drugs, alcohol, anxiety issues, mental illness, etc, and it just seems like you have a dangerous situation that maybe didn’t have to become dangerous.

I am not trying to minimize the stress and danger of a cops job, and I am certainly not trying to defend a drunken neighbor with a shotgun either.  I didn’t see what the neighbor was doing, I only saw and heard the cops on the street from my line of sight, so maybe the neighbor was being very threatening.  It’s just that the whole situation just didn’t seem right from start to finish.  From why a neighbor would need to bring his hunting rifle out when he wasn’t hunting, to the swarm of cops with rifles and the amount of shouting.  I am thankful that no shots were fired, but it just seems clear to me how even when there are a bunch of good guys with guns and a whole lot of tension, somebody can easily be hurt.

Life on the Line

In a recent Facebook discussion, we talked about the value of occupations where people put their life on the line.  This of course arose out of a conversation about the currently chaotic situation involving the police and the Black Lives Matter movement.  A friend of mind said he leaned towards siding with police because they lay their lives on the line every day.  Many people feel this way and it is oft used to not only build respect towards police officers, but also people in the military.

On one hand there is certainly courage getting up each day, knowing this could be a day you die…or rather a higher than normal percentage for the average citizen.  Of course the average cop may have as good of odds as the average person who grows up in inner city areas that have a high crime and murder rate.  That aside I agree that it still takes courage, but the stress of such a situation is likely not healthy without a good deal of treatment to deal with the stress.  That kind of stress is likely to make you more likely to take less chances in any given interaction with the citizenry to protect your own life.  Particularly in areas where there is a lot of crime, and for a job which doesn’t pay that well given the cost of your life.

On the other hand, one wonders what compels someone to choose that line of work?  Do people say…”I really want to put my life on the line every day and be a cop or join the military, protecting people?”  I am sure some of them do.  Such nobility does exist.  But I am sure there are plenty of reasons that come into play as well.  Some may join because they can’t afford or don’t want to go to college.  For the military, some may join for the opportunity to go to college, or the job opportunities that will be more plentiful upon graduation.  Many join the military simply as a way to get out of poverty.  Other factors may come into play, like trying to escape an abusive or dysfunctional household, doing it because your father and/or brother(s) did it.  Other less noble reasons could also exist like just wanting the respect that comes with the uniform, picturing yourself as some action hero not even thinking about the consequences of you doing or wanting that instant authority over people.  This has always been the trouble I have had with simply thinking of all cops or military personnel as noble heroes for being willing to lay down their life for others, because it’s unclear to me how much of this courage really factors into their decision to do the job.

wash-ham_memeBut they do, do the job.  At the end of the day isn’t that all that matters?  Perhaps, but if laying down your life, whatever your initial intentions were make you a person with courage then such courage should also be bestowed on all people who have dangerous jobs.  And there are such jobs even though they in no way are protecting other people.  People who are loggers, fishers, and roofers come in the top 3.  Here is a list of the top 20 most dangerous professions per capita (Police come in at 15).  We also must then laud all those who lay their life down for a cause.  This then includes your rebels, your gangs, your suicide bombers.  This people also risk their life, sometimes end their lives for a cause they believe in.  I think we can agree that this is not the type of person we want to elevate to nobility.  Of course it is the values they hold, the values they fight for, the goodness that they protect.  So if we can’t guarantee the motivations of all people who don the uniform, if there are more dangerous professions, and if what makes someone is a hero is the values they represent, it seems to me like “laying down one’s life” isn’t an overly relevant reason to elevate one to a position of automatic respect.

But you may say, “Big talk person with blog, but would you be willing to do the same?”.  And I think it’s a fair question to ask and it’s also an important question I think to ask one’s self.  “Is there a cause for which I’m willing to die for?”  I certainly think I have the courage for it, but I know for me the death part isn’t what would hold me back.  If there was truly no other way besides carrying a gun to solve the problem, then it is my passion that would override my fear of death, at least initially.  It would simply feel like the right thing to do regardless of the consequences.  What I will say is that I am definitely capable of making a mistake, and possibly a deadly one.  Dying to me is quite honestly less scary than taking the life of someone who did feel I deserve it.  Had I shot Tamir Rice.  I would be wishing myself dead, and if they didn’t lock me up, I’d quickly turn in my badge.  Because, how are you going to live with that?

Cop buys mother he caught stealing, $200 dollars in groceries for her kids.  Values to die and live for.
Cop buys mother he caught stealing, $200 dollars in groceries for her kids. Values to die and live for.

When it comes the situation between cops and blacks in the U.S., all I can say is that there is definitely racism in the justice system, and most cops are simply doing their best.  They see the worst of society and the see it every day.  There is no question this wears on them, and there is no question in changes the brain.  But so does poverty and racism.  The key is I think is to reach out to all those who need help.  You don’t have to lay down your life to support the police and black people.  Things have to change or a lot more people are going to die and those are the lives we all need to work together to save.

Standing on Higher Ground

 

I was having a discussion the other day with Victoria over at VictoriaNeuronotes about heroes. And how we idolize people and then seem almost shocked when they turn out to be human and with flaws. Sometimes they are deep and serious ones (i.e. Bill Cosby). Maybe it’s not too surprising that we do this since most of us grow up thinking our parents are heroes and only over time become aware of the fact that they too have flaws and so maybe it’s a natural tendency in humans. I’ve wrote about hero worship before, so that’s not what this post is about. But I started to think about what a hero actually is and how odd of a concept it really is.

When we think of heroes we tend to think of someone standing alone, overcoming all odds, a man or woman against the world that is solely focused on tearing them down. But isn’t it odd that we should idolize such a figure, given that it never, ever happens that way. Okay maybe not “never”, certainly every once in awhile you have someone walking along who sees someone calling for help from a burning building and is saved, but these heroes are heroes of circumstance. In the right place and the right time, and maybe not heroes at all, just doing what every creature of conscience would do in the same circumstance. For most people we idolize they never really stand alone. Whether it be military, firefighter or police who benefits from the experience of those who trained them, and the coordination and cooperation of their fellow soldiers, fighters, or cops. Maybe it’s Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, or Gandhi? Such men while perhaps great could not have accomplished any of the things they did alone. Maybe we could argue that heroes inspire, but when it comes to actually accomplishing what they wanted in life they needed support. And certainly their ability to inspire may also have been because of those who inspired them.

Liam Neesons!!

I then began to think about our fascination with heroes in movies and in television. Whether it is superheroes with unique powers saving the world, a cop singlehandedly defeating scores of bad guys, shooting the down one bullet a time, or a vigilante seeking revenge on those that wronged him many are drawn to the lone figure who stands above it all. Is it our fascination that has driven the stories, or the stories that drive us? Probably the former, but either way it is a positive feedback which may not be overall all that healthy. Pop culture here in the U.S. idolizes the individual to a very high level.  As I’ve argued before while there is value in individuality, but ultimately we don’t get a sense of self without looking at ourselves in relation to others.   We are also an evolved species who survive best when we cooperate and practice reciprocal altruism.  We are a social species, and one that has depended on others for our survival and roamed this Earth in groups.  The lone person defeating foe after foe is an illusion. Real victories are at the cost and hard work of many, whether they be through physical battle, social change, or intellectual progress. One person may start an avalanche, but it is the avalanche that does that damage.

I wonder where this fascination comes from?  Is it deeply psychological, is it only cultural?  Most of us face adversity in which it seems there is nothing that can be done, so perhaps the lone hero satisfies our own desire to overcome the obstacles in our own life.  Is it a function of an over populated world in which we struggle to stand out from the multitudes?  So we love our heroes because of how they stand out from the rest?  And yet this is still an illusion and more often than not, when we raise up a hero we tend to cast other people down.  Such heroes in movies and TV are usually facing less than complex bad guys, and throngs of incompetent henchmen who are nameless and faceless and easily defeated.  Does loving the hero oversimplify their character and cause us to judge people by unrealistic standards, which over time we come to realize that even the hero we’ve elevated cannot meet them?  Does our love of that lone hero breed the Dylann Roofs and James Holmes who believe they alone must triumph over the demons in their lives?

I don’t want to imply that there are no heroes at all in this world.  I am quite certain that there are, but we can certainly change our attitude on how we view them.  Heroes are not perfection.  Nobody is.  I am also quite certain there are those who face incredible adversity on their own without help from anybody.  A single mother who works long hours every day to provide for her children is perhaps just as much a hero as Martin Luther King Jr,, Superman, or any military or police officer.  What seems clear is that in reality none of us do everything completely on our own.  There is no successful company that doesn’t depend on the hard work of all the employees.  There is no rich person who has got to where he or she is all on their own.  While I think it’s perfectly healthy to admire and appreciate the virtues of others when we idealize those people we do them a disservice and ourselves.  The great people of past and present are likely just as flawed as the rest of us.  Maybe all we should be worried about is striving to make the world a better place and maybe that’s all a hero really is.

I’d be interested in hearing others people’s thoughts about heroes.