Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Lack of leadership on Ferguson

Rudy Giuliani had it right. The reason that we have heavier police presence in some (not all) areas with high concentrations of African Americans is some (not all) of these areas have a lot of crime. The purpose is not to protect white people from black people (most, but not all, violent crime is intraracial, although the matter may not be that simple) but to protect the African American residents of these communities.

That's not only a good thing; it is essential to the development of these communities. If you do not have public safety, you will have nothing else. No amount of social spending can make up for its absence. Complain, if you wish, about overpolicing but without a greater level of police protection in communities that need such protection, life would indeed be nasty, brutish and short.

But the need for heightened police protection is not without its costs. It means that there will be more contact between police and, in particular, young African American men. Sometimes these contacts will result in the use of force and sometimes  things will go wrong, whether by innocent mistake, negligence or even malevolence. Cops are human beings and, therefore, as flawed as the rest of us.

It is not clear to me that use of force is disproportionately directed toward black persons who come in contact with the police. What evidence I have seen suggests that it is not. It is clear to me that there is nothing resembling "open season" on African American males.

But that doesn't mean that each such incident need not be taken seriously. Just as the improvement of underdeveloped communities require safety, it also requires public confidence in the rule of law. I also appreciate that these incidents are going to be viewed through the lens of our racial history. We live in a country that, while it has made great racial progress, still struggles with racial mistrust.

But mistrust - and misunderstanding - run in both directions. It is simply not the case that any of us have special knowledge of racial truth. None of us have special knowledge of what happened in Ferguson because, in the insidious phrase,  we "look like" Michael Brown or Darren Wilson.

But even if that's so - or even if the opposite (police disproportionately target black men) is true, the frequency of police misconduct in all cases does not tell me what happened in any particular case. Even if was "open season" on young black males, knowing that would not help me decide what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.

The only way I can understand what happened is to carefully assess the testimony of witnesses and the physical evidence.

But that isn't what happens in our public discourse about the case. When, for example, someone writes an article and says only that Michael Brown was shot multiple times and was unarmed, he or she is leaving out almost every fact that is relevant in assessing Officer Wilson's conduct. Being "unarmed" will keep you safe only if you do not attack someone who is. Last night, I actually heard Lawrence O'Donnell argue on MSNBC that, even if Brown charged Wilson, the latter could have "sidestepped" him. That's not a serious argument. It's the kind of thing that you say when you have nothing better.

When someone writes an article and says only that Brown had just robbed a convenience store, he or she is leaving out almost every fact that is relevant in assessing Officer Wilson's conduct. Lots of people rob stores and don't attack the officers who arrest them.

It does no good to say that prosecutors have "disparaged" Brown by suggesting that the evidence does not establish that Wilson acted improperly. It is not "out of the norm," as Al Sharpton says, for a prosecutor to explain that the physical evidence does not support an indictment. It is, in fact, a prosecutor's job.

Based on what I have seen, however, it is not surprising that the grand jury could not return a true bill. The initial narrative about this case fell apart in the face of the physical evidence. There will always be questions and conflicts about what happened but I have yet to see anyone make a persuasive argument - based on the facts that exist rather than the ones they presume - that there is much chance to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

That's where leadership comes in. It is simply not responsible to say, in response to rioting, only that one "understands" the anger but believes that violence is nevertheless unwarranted. It is unwarranted but more is required. True leadership would point out that this was not an inexplicable outcome. It is also "understandable. "That's why most observers expected it.

Here in Milwaukee, we await a decision on the Dontre Hamilton case. I do not know what should be done. I haven't reviewed the evidence. It does appear that the District Attorney's office does not believe charges are warranted, but is reluctant to say so. The normal crowd of racialists that pass for "leaders" in Milwaukee won't lead. They'll follow the crowd.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.

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