Well, actually, we really don’t know.
D.Brian Burghart is the editor of the Reno News & Review, the city’s alt-weekly. Driving home one day, he came across the aftermath of a police shooting, and became curious about it. So he started to look for the figures on how often officer-involved shootings happen. And he couldn’t find them. Anywhere.
Nowhere could I find out how many people died during interactions with police in the United States. Try as I might, I just couldn’t wrap my head around that idea. How was it that, in the 21st century, this data wasn’t being tracked, compiled, and made available to the public? How could journalists know if police were killing too many people in their town if they didn’t have a way to compare to other cities? Hell, how could citizens or police? How could cops possibly know “best practices” for dealing with any fluid situation? They couldn’t.
So, he decided to create one. He’s spent the last two years building a crowd-sourced database of officer-involved shootings at Fatal Encounters. And it hasn’t been easy, as he explains:
The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this project is something I’ll never be able to prove, but I’m convinced to my core: The lack of such a database is intentional. No government—not the federal government, and not the thousands of municipalities that give their police forces license to use deadly force—wants you to know how many people it kills and why.
It’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence. What evidence? In attempting to collect this information, I was lied to and delayed by the FBI, even when I was only trying to find out the addresses of police departments to make public records requests. The government collects millions of bits of data annually about law enforcement in its Uniform Crime Report, but it doesn’t collect information about the most consequential act a law enforcer can do.
I’ve been lied to and delayed by state, county and local law enforcement agencies—almost every time. They’ve blatantly broken public records laws, and then thumbed their authoritarian noses at the temerity of a citizen asking for information that might embarrass the agency. And these are the people in charge of enforcing the law.
Frankly, I find this all too easy to believe. After all, a database of officer-involved shootings would be an enormously useful thing to have for the police, in order to draw lessons about best practices. But, an even more important use is for the public to use the data to provide better visibility and accountability for police operations. And the latter reason, I strongly suspect, is precisely why the police don’t want such a database. The police interest in coming up with best practices is far outweighed by their interest in preventing increased transparency.
The attitude of the police seems to be that of Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men”:
I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it.
But, here’s the thing: The very essence of a free society is the open ability to question the manner of how those we entrust to defend us provide that defense. It’s what prevents us from becoming a police state. I would argue that we’re already on the cusp of becoming one.
This is the story of 20 year-old Tiawanda Moore. It seems she was dissatisfied with a contact she’d had with a Chicago police officer.
Moore, of Hammond, Ind., was being interviewed at police headquarters about her complaint that a patrol officer had grabbed her breast and given her his phone number when he came to her boyfriend’s South Side apartment on a domestic disturbance call.
No doubt the officer, having Moore’s best interests in mind, thought he would be a much better boyfriend. Sadly, Moore took this concern for her well-being amiss, and decided to file a complaint against the officer. At police headquarters, the investigating officers—who similarly appeared to have only Moore’s best interests at heart—suggested an alternate method of dispute resolution, that is to say, to drop her complaint entirely, as they preferred not to conduct a formal investigation, which would, really, just be an inconvenience to everyone involved. At that time, Moore decided to record the remainder of the conversation.
On the muffled recording, which was played for the jury Tuesday, Internal Affairs Officer Luis Alejo can be heard explaining to Moore that if she dropped the complaint, they could “almost guarantee” that the harassment would not happen again. He also suggested that going that route might save her the time and aggravation of a full investigation.
Ah. You see, if she decided not to demand a formal investigation, the IA investigators could "almost guarantee" that the breast-grabbing officer would get the word to cool his jets. And, isn’t an "almost guarantee" good enough? Not for Moore, apparently, who decided to use her Blackberry to record the conversation, because she felt, for some incomprehensible reason, that the Chicago Police Department might be downplaying her complaint.
And that’s why this case is being heard by a jury, as the quote above indicates.
The officers, of course, are not being tried for corruption or dereliction of duty, of course. Tiawanda Moore is the defendant, on two counts of—I kid you not—eavesdropping on a public official. In response to questioning by Assistant State’s Attorney Mary Jo Murtaugh, Moore said:
“I was sure about what I wanted to do –I wanted him (the officer) to be at least fired from his job,” Moore testified. “I wanted justice, I wanted to be protected.”
But this is not the Chicago Way. The Chicago Way is to slap down hard any civilian peasant who presumes to record their politically-protected betters in a possible wrongdoing.
On the one hand, of course, we all know what the eventual result of an internal affairs investigation would be. The police would carefully investigate the police, and after due course would conclude that the police had done nothing wrong. And recording public officials without their knowledge when they are engaged in corrupt behavior might actually endanger their ability to engage in corruption.
On the other hand, all this could have been avoided by dropping her complaint in return for almost a guarantee that she won’t be bothered in the future.
But in Chicago, public officials, engaged in public duties on the public’s dime, have an expectation of privacy, and cannot be recorded without their consent. You, as a member of the public, can be recorded by the police at any time, with or without your consent, but you can never record them unless they graciously allow it.
The only possible reason for such a law, as far as I’m concerned, is to protect corrupt officials, and to prevent the public from exposing it.
We don’t drag public officials naked and screaming out of their offices to tar and feather them any more. Indeed, we can barely muster up the will to toss out incumbents who vote for such laws. But in a just world, , the Illinos Legislature, Internal Affairs Officer Luis Alejo and Assistant State’s Attorney Mary Jo Murtaugh would, even now, be sporting the sleek plumage of an Albatross from the Exxon Valdez.
UPDATE: A commenter informs me the jury appears to have done the right thing and acquitted Moore. Still, none of the other players are sporting a heavy layer of fine down, so the glass is only half full.
Some of you would no doubt love to be accosted by a bunch of girl scouts plying their wares (you know who you are), but you won’t be subject to such a harrowing experience in Seattle:
Tim Burgess’s move to outlaw “aggressive panhandling” may be an unconstitutional, attention-seeking bully tactic, but at least the Councilmember appears willing to apply the law equally to anyone asking for money on the streets. Even if they just want to sell you a box of thin mints.
The issue, such as it is, arose from a (possibly facetious) email exchange between a Seattle Councilmember and an alleged citizen complaining about what can only described as a channeling of a Mike Myers mock-horror scene:
I was strongly opposed to your panhandling proposal until my experience on the streets of downtown West Seattle yesterday. Now I totally understand where you’re coming from.
Here’s what happened: on the way to the West Seattle Farmer’s Market, I encountered a band of Girl Scouts aggressively promoting cookie sales within spitting distance of a KeyBank ATM where I was withdrawing money. The situation was so extreme that I could actually hear their aggressive, repeated, high-pitched solicitations at the very moment I was entering my PIN. Then as my cash was dispensed and I nervously removed my receipt — trying to stay calm despite this invasion of my constitutional right to not be confronted by my relative class status — I saw two adult women. They were the ringleaders, I assume. They didn’t seem to be doing anything but watching over the whole scene and talking discreetly to each other about god knows what. All in all, a nerve-racking experience.
So there they were, asking for money, repeatedly, despite my lack of interest in what was on offer, all happening well within 15 feet of an ATM. Would this be banned by the your ordinance? I certainly hope so, because there’s a long history of applying laws like this inequitably, almost as an excuse to push poor people out of desirable areas instead of addressing the actual problem.
Thanks for any information you can offer.
My best guess is that this email comes from a rather disgruntled, yet somewhat clever, panhandler. The Councilmember’s response is both appropriate and obviously skeptical, but it does raise an interesting question: if the state is going to exercise it’s police powers judiciously, doesn’t that ensure that we miss out on opportunities that are neither a threat nor an offer of something we don’t really want? After all, what sort of hair-shirted aesthete do you have to be to not want girl scout cookies?
When it comes to local rules and regulations, I’m not one to quibble too much unless such restrictions impinge on fundamental rights. Setting up shop in a public way certainly deserves some treatment of police power since the sidewalks belong to the public. At the same time, if you are just standing around hawking your legal goods, I really don’t understand what it is we need to be protected from. Can it be annoying to walk through a gauntlet of capitalism? Sure. Maybe worse for some than others. But we don’t have any right to be free from annoyance, do we?
I mean, if that were the case, then why should I be bothered by ACORN morons marching up and down the street where I work? Nothing has ever been done about that. Once, I nearly came to blows with some idiot preaching about how we needed a new New Deal while I was trying to enjoy a leisurely stroll in downtown Alexandria, VA. Do I have the right to be free from that annoyance? Not bloody likely.
And the fact of the matter is that I shouldn’t be “free” from those annoyances, anymore than I should expect to be “free” from girl scouts selling cookies on a street corner, or a hippie selling dew rags in a city square. If one of them genuinely threatens my peace, then the appropriate authorities should be able to step in, but how often is that truly the case? That some panhandler was able to point out this hypocrisy in the enforcement of Seattle’s anti-public-space-economy laws (to coin a terrible phrase) only underscores how ridiculous the application of police power (local or otherwise) has become.
The bottom line is that, whether one is selling girl scout cookies or dew rags, why do I need the state’s protection? Keep the public ways clear for the public sure, but let’s not forget that commerce is what truly makes the world go ’round. Without it, that police protection doesn’t get paid for.
[HT: Tom Scott]