Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Importance of Cameras to Policing

Yesterday was a good day for new law enforcement videos. In addition to the superb John Oliver video on civil asset forfeiture that that went viral on Monday, Vox.com put out a great video on the importance of video recordings to civil rights and policing.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am engaged to the narrator of this video, Ms. Dara Lind, but I would share it even if she had nothing to do with it. (Or, for that matter, that my employer was not cited briefly in the video as it is now.)

WARNING: Video contains footage of people being shot.


Police misconduct, as anyone familiar with my work probably knows, is a subject I've been interested in for several years now. I can talk about incentives and systemic structures and a bunch of other wonkish terms that explain what is happening and why, but videos like this really explain the human-impact of police abuse and how video evidence is often the only way for victims to prove their innocence.

After the fact video evidence won't bring back John Crawford, but wider use of dashcams and personal cameras my prevent more John Crawfords from dying in the future.

There are other issues that need to be addressed to save future John Crawfords...and Mike Browns...and Eric Garners....

But in the meantime, the more video evidence of police interactions, the better.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Monday, October 6, 2014

John Oliver [Ultra-Violent Verb]s Civil Asset Forfeiture

NB: My employer is a 501c3 and therefore does not endorse legislation. As always, I write here in my personal capacity and not as an employee. Thx, Mgmt.

If you haven't seen it already, I highly recommend watching John Oliver's latest video on civil asset forfeiture.


Hopefully, this high-profile treatment will get the ball rolling in Congress on federal forfeiture reform. States will have to independently reform their own laws, but a healthy debate about the practice could see reform moving in the right direction.

Two such bills happen to have been introduced this Congress:

HR 5212 is the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act in the House by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI).

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act (Aka: the FAIR Act--well done, acronym team!)

Bills like this always face stiff resistance from law enforcement--both at the federal and state levels. Equitable sharing agreements that split proceeds from federal asset forfeiture typically sends 80% back to the state and local agencies that "cooperate" with federal authorities in these raids. As the Institute for Justice's 2010 paper pointed out, many law enforcement agencies feel that these proceeds are "necessary" to run their budgets.

If you care about this issue, this would probably be a good time for you to contact your senator or representative about supporting these bills.

P.S.--Headline reference here.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Relationship between Criminal Justice and Joblessness

I have a post up today at the Washington Post's Post Everything that looks at some of the many ways the criminal justice system helps drive poverty, joblessness, and further incarceration, particularly through collateral consequences:
In some jurisdictions, ex-offenders can never hold certain jobs. According to a 2007 article in Criminology and Public Policy, there could be as many as 800 occupations nationwide that automatically disqualify people with felony convictions for life.

Some of these restrictions make sense. Bank teller is probably not the best first job for someone who got out of prison on a bank robbery conviction. Likewise, a serial arsonist probably shouldn’t be a fireman.

Others make no sense at all. In some jurisdictions, a criminal conviction may prevent someone from obtaining a license to cut hair or be a beautician. Sweeney Todd aside, it’s hard to fathom how public safety is enhanced by prohibiting someone from earning a living at a job unrelated to someone’s past crime.

It’s not that certain crimes shouldn’t carry extra burdens, at least for a short time. But any restrictions should be tied directly to public safety or have some clear, offense-related justification.
You can read the whole thing here

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Rethinking Civil Rights as Property Rights

My latest over at Rare is an attempt to couch the importance of race-conscious policing within a libertarian framework:
As we’ve seen over the years, property rights, even more than tax rates, are more important to the development of markets and growing economies. Simply, if a nation-state wants investment—of both capital and effort—people who make those investments must have a reasonable belief that a return on that investment is possible in a successful venture. A state with shaky property rights—whether expropriated by the state, such as Venezuela, or seized and distributed to the kleptocratic oligarchy, like Russia—is much less likely to draw foreign capital because property can be seized at the whim of the elites. Places where investments are protected by the rule of law, on the other hand, attract capital because investments are protected from state-sanctioned theft.

Civil rights are really no different.

If civil rights protections are widely denied, particularly to one group of people, because they are routinely ignored and capriciously violated by police officers, those rights lose all tangible meaning to that population. Mistreatment by authorities—whether official policies like Stop and Frisk, or tolerance of police brutality, corruption, or homicide—corrodes the integrity of a community. The government loses credibility by effectively nullifying its own authority by arbitrary enforcement of laws (government powers) and the protections for citizens (civil rights).
Read the whole thing here.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

Monday, September 29, 2014

Lessons from Ferguson

The quote that has been the subhed of this blog for years is Robert Nozick's "Only the refusal to listen guarantees one against being ensnared by the truth." In a world in which people of color feel mistreated because of their race, supported by mounting evidence supporting those claims, ignoring or simply waving away those problems is just that sort of deliberate ignorance. Someone who comes to public policy from this perspective needlessly undermines their own message because their worldview doesn't comport with the realities faced by many people.

That is why I was so excited about a recent event at Cato, and was even more pleased with how the event went.  The event was called "Lessons from Ferguson," and it featured a number of voices across the spectrum dealing with race and American policing.

Moderated by my colleague Tim Lynch, the panelists included Professor Alice Goffman, author of On the Run, a sociological narrative about her observations in a black Philadelphia neighborhood; Ethan Brown, author of Snitch, a history of the infamous and widely misunderstood "Stop Snitchin'" movement; Neill Franklin, retired Baltimore police officer and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and Lauren Victoria Burke, journalist and creator of the blog Crewof42.

I highly recommend you watch the event in full. I enjoy many Cato events, but it is rare when we have a collection like this. I'm not sure anyone on the dais (besides Tim, of course) would self-ID as libertarian, but these are problems everyone should recognize regardless of party or ideology.


Of particular note, I found Neill's comment about his run-ins with the police as a black child in Baltimore, as well as his admission that, even as a black police officer, you just become accustomed to treating black kids differently. That is what institutional racism is all about. 

It's all worth watching as I thoroughly enjoyed each presentation. I cannot say enough about how glad I am that Cato hosted it.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

DISCLOSURE: As most people who read this know, I work at Cato, but this is my personal blog. I wasn't asked to promote this event, it's just a topic that is near and dear to me and I'm so happy we're bringing in people--scholars, practitioners, and writers, including people of color--who can talk about what is going on in America. Also, I make a brief cameo near the end.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

No, RBG Is Not Embracing Eugenics


[NB: like all my posts here, but particularly on this topic, this is a personal opinion and should in no way reflect upon my employer or any other organization with which I may be affiliated. Thx, JPB]

I so very rarely delve into abortion politics because my personal views are just that, personal, and entirely separate from my thoughts of Roe, Casey, or the broader abortion case jurisprudence as it stands today.* But this hullabaloo over Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent comments about not wanting more impoverished kids is absurd. Separate from the context, the statement is perfectly reasonable.

The quote:

It makes no sense as a national policy to promote birth only among poor people.

Uh, yeah. For a party that embraces a smaller (if not non-existent) welfare state, this should be common sense. If abstinence were the context, this would be perfectly acceptable to the right.

The problem is one of philosophical priors, not a lurking embrace of Sangerian ethnic cleansing.

This isn’t a small semantic difference. Progressives and other pro-choice folks don’t see abortion as murder. They just don’t. You can believe it is, that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t. If you want to say that being actively pro-abortion is effectively supporting mass murder, it’s an opinion and it’s consistent. 

Suggesting, however, that RBG and other pro-choicers actively want to wipe-out the people who are poor, not the symptoms of poverty—you know, like teenage motherhood and all its trappings like dropping out of high school, working at a low-skill job that can’t pay for food, shelter and daycare, etc.—is just nonsense. 

They don't see the fetuses as people, so the underlying problem with the statement is that she does not believe abortion is killing children, not the destruction of a class or race of persons. Your problem, if you have one, is her view of abortion, not of poor people, let alone poor people of color.

Regardless of your opinion of abortion’s morality, just because a woman has an abortion at 17 because having a child would financially ruin her doesn’t mean she’ll never have kids when it’s a better time for her. Ergo, it’s not  supporting eugenics to say that, as a matter of public policy, we shouldn’t encourage unwed teenage motherhood. 

The left sees this as an abortion issue, the right sees this as a family/personal responsibility issue—both would agree, in a vacuum, unwed teen mothers are not ideal. The difference comes in what to do after a woman gets pregnant, but I’m not here to say what that should or should not be.

If you want to say abortion is murder, that’s your business. But don’t equate being pro-choice with supporting genocide through attrition. Yes, pro-choicers have a racist, horrific past—but that’s because America has a racist, horrific past. It’s no more racist to be pro-choice than it is to be in favor of small government. 

Both have roots in racism, because they both have roots in America. 

bellum medicamenti delenda est

*Indeed, RBG herself has misgivings about the rationale supporting current abortion jurisprudence.

PS—I’m not going to argue about this on Twitter, so don’t try.

Friday, September 12, 2014

How Did We Get Here?

Today, Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute takes exception to my response (and that of Vice writer Lucy Steigerwald) to Franklin Foer's piece about runaway local law enforcement and the abuse of civil asset forfeiture.

As I explained to Konczal in a longish Twitter exchange last week, I'm not arguing with Foer's point that local law enforcement needs oversight, namely by the federal government. I believe strongly in equal protection and I have argued many times on this blog and other places that local law enforcement can be and is often a pernicious influence on the well-being of a community.The federal government, specifically the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, serves a vital role in the protection of American citizens from the abuses of their own police forces.

But the argument Foer and Konczal make is that because most civil asset forfeiture--Foer's exemplar of local government run amok--is run by and for state and local governments, the remedy for this should be federal. The point of my argument in Rare last week was that civil asset forfeiture is also the policy of the federal government and doesn't look to be abating any time in the near future.

Lost in Konczal's response today is how much of local police policy is driven by federal intervention. COPS grants, Byrne Grants, the War on Drugs, the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill all had and continue to have direct influence on where and for what purpose policing happens.

Take these highlights of the 1994 Crime Bill, courtesy of Mariame Kaba:

1. $10.8 billion in federal matching funds to local governments to hire 100,000 new police officers over 5 years.
2. $10 billion for the construction of new federal prisons.
3. An expansion of the number of federal crimes to which the death penalty applied from two to fifty-eight (the bill also eliminated an existing statute that prohibited the execution of mentally incapacitated defendants).
4. A three strikes proposal that mandated life sentences for anyone convicted of three “violent” felonies.
5. A section that allowed children as young as thirteen to be tried as adults.
6. The creation of special courts able to deport noncitizens alleged to be “engaged in terrorist activity” on the basis of secret evidence.
7. Established guidelines for states to track sex offenders. Required states to track sex offenders by confirming their place of residence annually for ten years after their release into the community or quarterly for the rest of their lives if the sex offender was convicted of a violent sex crime.

I think Foer, Konczal and everyone else with passing knowledge of criminal justice policy agree that the War on Drugs undergirds these and other rampant abuses by local police. The War on Drugs IS federal policy. The War on Terror which further augmented the already creeping militarization of local police departments, IS federal policy. DHS and DoD grants are federal government incentives--some of which are "use it or lose it" grants that influence local police to buy more than they need or risk losing federal assistance.

Therefore, it is PATENTLY ABSURD to believe that the federal government neither has had nor  continues to have an active role in influencing and driving the policies of local police. Without the federal War on Drugs, it's hard to imagine civil asset forfeiture becoming the cash cow for local authorities it is today. Without federal direction and incentives, due to the War on Terror, it's hard to see how police became surplus dumps for the DoD and beneficiaries of DHS largesse. Without federal influence, it's hard to see how marijuana and other drug arrests for simple possession become the number one reason for being arrested in the United States. (I think it is no coincidence that driving under the influence, a crime that also drew federal incentives before it became a cash cow in itself, is the second leading cause of arrest in the United States.)

In short, yes, the states and localities are running rampant with the law enforcement tools they use. I never argued they didn't. But it is nothing short of fantasy to think that past and current federal policies didn't get us to this point. Looking to them as the beneficent saviors to the policies they created--beyond removing the incentives they did and continue to provide--seems a bit daft.

As I ended my Rare piece, criminal justice reform need not start at the federal government level. But if we want to look at the source for many of these problems we face in localities today, you cannot responsibly ignore the federal government's heavy hand in most of them.

bellum medicamenti delenda est