The Long, Robotic Arm of the Law

Courtesy NPR - See this excellet story here:
Courtesy NPR – See this excellent piece on weapons and blame here

ON Friday evening, Dallas police cornered and executed a man.

The man had, we are told, admitted to shooting police. The man, we are also told, said he was angry at the recent deaths of black men at the hands of the police in Louisiana and Minnesota, and wanted to kill white people and especially white police officers.

After hours of negotiations failed, we are told, the police sent in a remote control robot carrying an explosive device, and detonated it, killing the man.

Job done, I have heard people say. One less “terrorist.” He would have gotten the death penalty anyway. We just saved some money and time.

And what about due process? What about justice?

Our society expects its good citizens to live by certain rules, such as not killing people. When people break those rules, the police are the law enforcers trusted to apprehend them and bring them to a place where they can then face the process of justice. In Texas, the judicial system reserves the right to sentence someone to death, and to order the execution.

So what’s the deal? The man was guilty. He would have been sentenced to death. He shot cops so the cops killed him.

I don’t know if that sits easily with you, but it certainly doesn’t with me. Just as we expect the rules to apply to individuals, we must also expect the rules to apply to the institutions we put in place to uphold them.

If someone shoots at a cop and the resulting exchange of fire he is killed, then yes, I can accept it if there was no choice. But we are told that negotiations had failed, and that’s when the robot carrying an explosive device was sent in. They had no choice.

Maybe. But I’d like to know a bit more before we let this slide by.

It takes time to arm and dispatch a robot. This isn’t a reactive decision. This is an action requiring calculation and planning. If we can send in a lethal explosive, we can send in a non-lethal device that would temporarily disable him and allow the cops a closer look at the situation.

We have already been told the man did not kill himself. The robot-delivered explosive device killed him.

But what if he was loaded up with a suicide jacket and it was impossible to disarm him without risking lives?

Then why not tell us this? Because without this information it a subversion of due process to allow the cops to assume the role of judge, jury, and robotic executioner. We have been told some of what allegedly happened, and I am more than willing to believe the events as the police have described them, but it is not enough.

If what we are told is true, there are still several problems with this.

Firstly, we know that the police are not exactly as trustworthy as we would like. We’ve seen that this week, and on so many occasions before, captured on video. That’s not to say all cops are not to be trusted. Clearly this is not true and there are many, many good ones out there who are tarnished by the actions of the bad ones. We’ve seen it in the USA. We’ve seen it in the UK. We know from Hillsborough that the police are capable and willing to conduct a massive cover-up if the truth is not going to benefit them.

Secondly, this execution can never be justified as decision borne of efficiency. To be fair, the police have not said this, but I have seen it argued with the maelstrom of hyper-emotive social media responses to these terrible events. It must be emphasized, however, that justice deserves to cost money. I am not talking about the cost of lawyers. I am talking about the cost of ensuring that justice is fair, impartial, speedy, compassionate and humane, to both the victims of crime, and the criminals. We expect lawyers and judges to be well-educated, sober-minded people, knowledgeable of the law and skilled in its application. We don’t expect lawyers and judges to be police officers, so why we should we allow the police to deliver justice? Justice is much too precious for that. Or it should be.

Justice is the process by which we all agree to set aside personal grievances and allow a process of analytical impartiality to decide guilt and assess punishment. By shortcutting the process of justice we subvert the foundations of a just society, and it is this foundation that stops us from descending into the spiral of perpetual blood feuds; from becoming the Hatfields and McCoys.

But then, when we have a for-profit prison system, and the highest per-capita prison population in the world, perhaps we don’t have a just society after all. The USA has 4.4% of the world population, and yet we have 22% of the world prison population. Is this because US citizens are more criminally minded than anyone else in the world? Or maybe we’re more efficient at capturing criminals and putting them in jail? Or, and I have no data to support this, perhaps it is the fact we have a criminal justice system that allows profit as a motive for building prisons that distorts our application of the law.

Finally, I cannot end this without once again remarking on the weapons question that the US Congress refuses to even contemplate. When we militarize society, or allow it to militarize itself, in return we must militarize our law enforcement officers.

And because there is a whole cost/income issue, and we don’t like paying taxes, it is only ourselves that we hurt when we militarize society. And heaven forbid that we add even more to the cost, like training police officers in conflict resolution and mediation. Police forces, on average, spend 110 hours on firearms training, and 8 hours on conflict resolution. That’s a thirteen-fold disparity. Remember that maxim about Maslow’s hammer?

When the only tool you have is a gun, every problem resembles a shoot-out.

Finally, let’s make this clear: Cops die at a much higher rate in states with looser gun laws. It is a clear and direct correlation. The reports are freely available. Here’s one from Harvard. And here’s a story from the Washington Post that examines data from the FBI and CDC. Let’s also be clear that the states with the loosest weapons laws have the highest gun-deaths. It’s not rocket science, but it seems beyond our politicians’ ability to hear the argument. Maybe they have stuffed their ears with NRA dollars. I don’t know.

But when you hear a politician say Blue Lives Matter (and they do, but let’s look at that whole issue separately), the next question must be: What are you going to do about it?

So, what are you going to do about it?