28 January 2015

Being a Police Officer: The Safest Job Around?

Did you know that police officers have a safe job?

Apparently, a number of talking heads do. Or, at least it seems that way on some of the opinion shows I listen to. In the last month I have heard talk of how it is less dangerous to be a police officer than to be a random citizen of a major city and that more officers die from not wearing their seat belts than by the violent acts of a human.

It's always hard to tell where these memes come from. I think it's the last gasp of the Ferguson/NYC situations playing out. The last little bit of it concentrated on the demonstrators chanting for dead police and the whacko who killed the two NYC officers. If you speak to any officers you know that they also strongly suspect that this event triggered a number of other shootings around the nation. And finally we get the counter-argument that officers live safe lives.

It's also hard to lock down accurate statistics in this sort of thing because everyone is picking and choosing numbers which support their position or to make interesting headlines.  However, looking through various news articles, it appears violent police deaths at the hands of others in 2013 hit an anomalously low number somewhere around 30 and rose back to 50 in 2014 (1, 2, 3). Considering the number of people in police uniforms around the U.S., a country where everyone has the right to be armed, that's an amazingly low percentage. Still, the comparisons are fatuous and more than a little insulting.

The first time I heard this asserted was listening to Slate's Political Gabfest. I know. I know. I shouldn't be all that surprised that something like that would come from Slate. It even came from the person on the podcast who is the show's most unthinking proponent of liberal shibboleths.  Still, the assertion surprised me as being entirely unthinking. Then I blew it off as something which could only come from the leftiest of Slate's leftists.

And then I heard it again and again. Most recently I heard it on the Glenn Show on Blogging Heads.  As usual, Glenn Loury's discussion is more thoughtful, but his guest, who did not seem to have much connection with current events, made her point about how safe officers' lives are by pointedly stating that more officers die from not wearing their seat belts than from violent acts perpetrated upon them.

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation.

It's a basic lesson that everyone should have learned sometime back in school.  An example of this would be: firemen are present at 99.9% of house fires. Thus, there is a high statistical correlation between firemen and house fires. Looking at that statistic alone, you could conclude that firemen cause fires. The same sort of reasoning is going on here. Few officers die deaths at the hands of others ipso facto officers have a safe job.

Of course, the reality is different.  Anyone tasked with serving arrest warrants, responding to reports of domestic violence, and stopping drunk drivers, etc. is not living a safe life. They are facing significantly greater danger than the rest of us.

The difficulty is in quantifying that danger. This is because officers have at least three different interlocking (and sometimes conflicting) types of protection: personal, institutional, and clannish. Personal protections are the tools the officer has immediately at hand - his size and strength, his combat skills, his pistol, his tazer, etc.  Institutional protections are all the things which police agencies provide such as training, accumulated knowledge (shared via computer or radio), furnishing equipment shown most useful, etc.  Clannish protections are the least official, and can be the most problematic, but at a base level they probably provide the protection that your basic yahoo understands the best. If he shoots or beats up somebody wearing a uniform everyone else wearing that uniform, or a similar one, is coming after him with a vengeance.

So, if a yahoo were 60% likely to jump anyone who sticks their nose in his business, the likelihood that he jumps the 6'1" deputy responding to a domestic disturbance, who is informed by dispatch that the yahoo has convictions for prior violent crimes, and therefore has backup with him will usually drop a significant (but unmeasurable) amount. Let's say it goes down to 20%. The responding officer is still in a dangerous situation. And a street officer will be responding to dangerous situations like this several times a week - if not several times per day.  The fact that the officer is not injured does not equal the officer not being in danger.

Whatever other points one might wish to make - political, social, policy - claiming that officers don't live with the constant reality of danger is a weak pillar that leads to a weak argument on your part.

09 January 2015

Ambush in Bartlette: Chapter 36

Gil buried a smile as he watched the prosecutor arguing with the judge. Five minutes earlier, he started Monday morning by telling the judge that the defense was not going to present any evidence and that he was ready to begin closing arguments to the jury as to the appropriate sentence. Even if he wanted to, there was little evidence for Gil to present.  The man Gil was defending had lived a generic middle class, white, Protestant life. His parents had stayed married and provided a stable household. The man had a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement from some college in Tennessee and a masters from an online “university.”  He received an average number of commendations as a patrol deputy and after he was transferred into the Investigations Section he stayed there for years doing mediocre work until he eventually became the head of the section. Out of all that bland normality the only thing Gil’s psychiatrist had been able point to had been some minor conflicts with his mother and the possibility that the man was bottling up emotions while investigating violent crimes. It was weak and Gil knew it. Still, he had made do with less before - just not this time.

Not putting on any evidence was a gamble. If Gil was correct all the right thinking Christian jurors would came back with a sentence of life in prison so that their consciences would be clear on Christmas. Like most people in impoverished areas, these people took their religion seriously and you had to use any advantage the rubes gave you. If Gil was wrong and the jury returned a death sentence, he would face a habeas hearing in which another attorney would try to get the sentence thrown out by convincing a judge that Gil’s decision was a result of his incompetence as an attorney.  He would probably also face a bar complaint which could get his license to practice law suspended. All Gil had to do to avoid these threats was to put on a by-the-book, vanilla defense. He would lose, but it would protect his career.  But, that was not the way Gil was made.  You played to win or what was the point of the game? This was his best chance to fend off a death sentence and he was going for it.

Gil tuned back in as the judge agreed to put off closing arguments until ten thirty. As soon as the judge went back to his chambers, the prosecutor bolted for the exit to the courtroom. This time Gil let the smile show.


Brad was sitting at his desk scribbling a quick outline for a closing argument as his printer slowly chugged out the jury instructions he had written earlier, but not yet bothered to print out. After all, the defense should have been presenting evidence for at least a week. Who the hell doesn't present evidence when his client's life is on the line?

After Pinsky told the judge that the defense was presenting no evidence at all, Brad objected and argued to Judge Isom that it was an obvious ploy to throw the case on appeal.  If the defense attorney refused to present any evidence how could an appellate court not overturn the case? Every defendant - particularly in a death penalty case - is constitutionally entitled to effective representation from his attorney.  Judge Isom was surprisingly unconcerned by Pinsky's manipulation of the system. When Brad pushed the Judge had pointedly told Brad that neither the judge nor the prosecutor could dictate trial tactics to the defense and he was certain that his colleagues in the appellate courts would sort it all out.  In other words, sit down and shut up.

Then Brad tried to get the judge to delay closing arguments until Tuesday morning so that he could get jury instructions ready and prepare his closing arguments. He pointed out that he spent the weekend preparing to cross examine witnesses - not preparing for final arguments. The judge answered that the jury was already here and that he would not waste their time by sending them home. Then the judge gave Brad forty-five minutes to "go print out your jury instructions." At ten-thirty court was going to start and Brad would have to make his closing argument whether he was ready or not.


Jerome sat stunned. The defense attorney was refusing to defend Jeff Sanger's life and the judge was letting him. In a surreal twist, the only person who seemed to want the defense attorney to present the jury with evidence was the prosecutor and his argument to the judge lacked any moral concerns.  His only concern was that the case might be overturned on appeal.

Jerome knew that Pinsky prepared a defense. In fact, Jerome spent at least two hours talking with Pinsky's junior attorneys, Josh and Sal, about the contract the federal prosecutor signed and the Catholic Church's rejection of the death penalty.  In the course of that discussion they told him that they also had a psychiatrist who was going to testify about Sanger’s mental problems and that they had men from the Sheriff’s Department who were going to testify as to his mistreatment by superiors in the department. Maybe the jurors were bloodthirsty enough that presenting all of that would have made no difference, but Jerome had spent enough time in these mountains to know these were good people. Given a reason - given any reason - he was certain that they would not stain their souls by ordering a man to be killed.

Only, now they would have no reason.