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by Peter Moskos

February 27, 2010

New Orleans Police after the flood

Dan Baum wrote an excellent, award winning, best selling book about New Orleans, Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans. He first spent time there as a reporter and writer for the New Yorker in the days after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent devastating flood.

A few years ago I cold-called (or email) Dan after my wife realized that we were going to be in New Orleans with them and, more impressively, Dan and his wife just happen to be our doppelgangers. Dan and I shared a love for 1) writing books about ending the drug war, 2) food, 3) bicycles, and 4) literate women who edit extremely well. (Our mutual fondness for hats and hat stores is just, as they say down there, lagniappe.)

Dan is no dummy (though I'd never say that to his face). At our very first dinner, while discussion corporal punished in schools, Dan coined the title for my upcoming book, In Defense of Flogging.

Dan is also a very good writer. (He also loves guns and I look forward to his next book about America and guns.)

In the days after we met, Dan and his wife were kind enough to waste some time with us, so we [queue montage music] biked around, got a food tour of the city, danced in a second line, ate too much, drank just right, and heard some great music.

So naturally I'm very curious about Dan's thoughts on the famously f*cked New Orleans Police Department. But honestly, except for the police officers in his book, I had no idea what we thought about any of the many issues plaguing the NOPD. The officer who left? The officers who staying? The behavior during the flood? I couldn't get a straight answer! And it wasn't for lack of trying.

My queries were generally returned with what can only be described as minor apoplectic fits. There was this one: "didn't I ask you not to get me started about the NOPD during katrina? didn't I?" And then this one, "This is total, unreconstructed bullshit, and the kind of toxic rumor that made the disaster immeasurably worse when it was going on. Christ almighty."

But stubborn I am. So I sent him the latest on the police killing and cover-up of unarmed civilians on the Danziger bridge and politely wrote, "If you could be so kind to help me out, would you mind calmly and briefly (15 sentences or less) telling me your thoughts on police behavior during and after the flood, and the criminal proceedings that have followed." Perhaps Dan is a sucker for uncharacteristic formality, but it worked. And that he did not stick to the length limit is but our gain.
I decided early in my Katrina reporting to believe nothing I didn't see with my own eyes. New Orleans, as I constantly told the New Yorker's fact-checkers, is not a fact-rich environment, and the bullshit that flies around that city is beyond belief.

What I saw of the police during the storm were heroic officers operating with no leadership or resources whatsoever. The cops I was with were protecting and serving under incredibly trying conditions, and doing so with professionalism and compassion. That they were cut adrift from any command or support was obvious; Eddie Compass (and Ray Nagin) were not only criminally incompetent, they made everything immeasurably worse by all their talk about babies being raped in the Superdome and roving bands of marauders.

I also saw no violence or predation whatsoever. Everyplace I was, people were taking care of each other with unbelievable tenderness. Even the gold-toothed young men in the Convention Center were bringing water to the old folks, protecting a play area for the toddlers, and so on. I never once saw a black man with a gun who was not in uniform. My editor kept asking me about the violence -- because he was listening to the reporters who were repeating the wild-ass assertions of the city's so-called leadership -- and I kept saying, "there is none." I saw looting, but what I saw was people going into supermarkets and drug stores to take what they needed. Invariably, the liquor shelves were completely intact. The French Quarter is full of stores full of valuable art and antiques and no burglar cages over the windows. They were untouched. (Yes, smash-and-grab artists tend to go after electronics, but still, a lot of very valuable stuff was left unmolested.)

I say all this because for the NOPD to say, "we had to do what we did because the city was in chaos" is patent bullshit and disgraces the majority of officers, who did their jobs without any support at all. There was no chaos. The structure of government disappeared, and the people behaved themselves admirably. The police abuses are prime examples of what Rebecca Solnit, in her excellent book, "A Paradise Built in Hell," calls "elite panic." Officials, cops especially, are terrified of mass chaos and therefore react to it whether it exists or not. On some level, it creeps them out that the people really don't need them at all. Left alone, they behave just fine.

We now are learning about some of the things bad cops did. And it's certainly true that a small number of civilians did bad things during Katrina. But the vast majority, cop and civilian alike, behaved exactly as we would hope they would.

February 22, 2010

Officers Acquitted in Mineo "Abuse" Trial

"We the jury weighed all the evidence and found reasonable doubt." I'll say.

I Like Art

I'm not a "quote of the day" kind of guy. But I just came across this one from Art Buchwald. I always like his moxie:
We seem to be going through a period of nostalgia, and everyone seems to think yesterday was better than today. I don’t think it was, and I would advise you not to wait ten years before admitting today was great. If you’re hung up on nostalgia, pretend today is yesterday and just go out and have one hell of a time.

February 19, 2010

A felony just ain't what it used to be!

Lost in all the talk about the NYPD juking the stats is the simple fact that each and every year, the value of felony theft ("grand larceny" in NY State) goes down with inflation.

New York State defines felony grand larceny (§155.30) as over $1,000. And this is where it's been for the past 25 years.

This makes the 64% reduction in grand larceny over the past 20 years all the more impressive since inflation alone has stripped almost 40% of a felony's value.

By lowering the value of a felony, we're cheapening its meaning and labeling more and more people as felons. And is harmful and costly for all of us.

$1,000 today is closer to the $275 a felony larceny was raised from in 1986 (and where it was from 1965 to 1986). To keep the value of a felony consistent, it's time to raise the dollar amount to $1,600 - $1,900. But since this figures stick with us for 20 or 30 years, why not jack it up to an even two-grand?

Last time we did this, serious felony crime in New York City decreased 11% overnight. And this despite rising crime!

Here's to a $2,000 felony! Let the movement start here.

[Thanks to a police officer for raising this question and to a John Jay librarian who dug up this hard-to-find information on a moment's notice! Ain't librarians grand?!]

p.s. While we're at it, maybe it's time to adjust that "$20" figure in the 9th Amendment, too.

February 17, 2010

Juking the Stats

A recent report of retired New York City police officers warns that the NYPD is playing fast and loose with the numbers. Knowing when and where crimes occur is essential to good policing and Compstat, a system of crime-data analysis created in 1994, played a large role in bringing down crime in New York City. But ever since, numbers have ruled the NYPD’s roost. If crime numbers are not down, precinct commanding officers need numbers to show they’re doing something—something quantifiable.

In the police world, two statistical categories are important: Part I felony crimes reported to the FBI's Uniform Crime Statistics and internal measures of “productivity,” namely arrests, citations, and summonses. There are ways to play with both. But perhaps surprisingly, the police department’s emphasis on the latter, the so-called productivity stats, is a much greater cause for concern.

Sergeants, lieutenants, captains and inspectors feel intense pressure to produce ever better stats. To some extent this can be good. Police are paid to work. But the pressure to produce more with less is as overwhelming as it is unrealistic. Mind you, the orders never come from above to just make numbers up, but when commanding officers talk about “productivity,” the rank-and-file hear “quotas.”

“I’d love it if I always had enough good C’s [criminal citations], but I need numbers,” one officer told me, “And if I don’t have enough stats and Compstat is coming up, I don’t care if they’re bullshit. I’ll take whatever the f— I can get!” In a world where “better stats” and “more stats” are synonymous, the tail is wagging the dog. And police are nothing if not creative in finding ways to please their bosses.

Officers know what they see on the streets. Any desk sergeant who reclassifies or “corrects” a report sends a terrible and destructive message. And these pressures have grown substantially in the past decade.

When a $2,000 stolen laptop model can be found on EBay for less than $1,000, a felony larceny might be reclassified as a misdemeanor and all but disappear from the stats. Or say a tourist reports a robbery but the police, knowing she’s on the next flight back to Germany, record her loss as lost property.

Of course statistical errors can run both ways. There's a lot more false reporting of crime than the public realize, and police are certainly not fools. That German tourist may have simply wanted a police report to scam insurance money. Real life is not easily quantifiable, and trying to determine which bubble on a report best reflects reality leaves lots of room for honest interpretation.

For statistical errors, data are supposed to be small and random. But for crime data, we’ll generally settle for errors as long as they’re consistent. Given that the distinction between felony and misdemeanor is basically arbitrary anyway, it doesn’t really matter if ten percent of felonies are reclassified as misdemeanors as long as it’s done every year. After all, far more than ten percent of crimes are never even reported.

The problem with fudging crime numbers for political gain is that you can’t stop. You have to do it every year just to stay even. Eventually you’ll get promoted and transferred, if you’re lucky, leaving your more honest and na├»ve replacement to deal with surprisingly bad crime numbers.

Certainly some stats, like murders and car thefts, are more reliable than others. The former are hard to fudge and the latter are generally reported for insurance reasons. And by these measures, the drop in violent crime is impressively clear. Murders alone are down 70 percent from their 1994 peak and 11 percent in the last year alone. This is real. These numbers matter.

But too many measure of police “production” do little but produce internal stats and pad officers’ overtime pay. Take low-level marijuana possession arrests. In 1994 there were 3,141 of these in New York City. In 2008 they had exploded to 40,383! This 1,285 percent increase was not the result of a epidemic of marijuana possession but a simple change in police tactics.

To say these arrests caused the crime drop is absurd, akin to claiming that a parking-ticket blitz prevents traffic deaths. These arrests—at great taxpayer expense and motivated only by internal police pressure to produce “stats”—simply pad officers’ overtime pay while sending tens of thousands of mostly poor minority men through the criminal-justice system.

Messy as they may be, it’s hard to image a police world were numbers didn’t matter. What’s important is that these numbers aren’t produced for their own sake. Statistics need to stay focused on crime and not internal, malleable, and ultimately destructive measures of “productivity.” The hard-working men and women of the NYPD deserve as much.

February 16, 2010

Sean Bell officers won't face federal charges

Nor should they.

The story from the New York Times.

You can read everything I've written about Sean Bell. This post is probably the best, if you just want one.

Also, on principle, I'm against recharging people at the federal level. Smacks of double jeopardy to me. The Fifth Amendment is pretty explicit: "[No person shall] be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb." That's what trying somebody at the federal level is. One crime. One trial. Here's to the Bill of Rights!

Too bad the Supreme Court begs to differ.

February 11, 2010

Baltimore Police Doing Their Job

Like they do every day. But this time there was more snow.

Historical Memory

National Public Radio just announced the death of some guy who was known for helping fund, "freedom fighters in Afghanistan fight the Soviet Union." And then, without any further talk, segued right into a story about the dangers of the Taliban's links to Al Qaeda.

Oh, the irony!

[For those who don't get it, those guys that Reagan called "freedom fighters" were the Taliban.]

Maybe we'd be safer if we could actually understand the language that some terrorists speak.

[Update: The guy is Charlie Wilson, Texas Congressman.]

February 10, 2010

No Sh*t

"A doctor testifying for the defense in the NYPD sodomy trial told jurors on Wednesday that the alleged victim's injuries couldn't have come from a police baton.
'Do I have an opinion on it? I don't believe it happened.'"

Both these quotes are from this Daily News article on Mineo.

February 8, 2010

The Baltimore Colts

I'm not a football fan. Baseball is my game. But I enjoyed watching the game last night and rooting for the Saints (and my wife won $140 in the betting pool--of which I made off with $50 since I paid for her squares).

I was rooting for the Saints because if I don't have a personal stake: 1) I root for the better city, 2) I just like rooting for New Orleans in general, and 3) the Colts left Baltimore! And they didn't just leave but they snuck out of town in the middle of a night during a snow storm! At least that's how I remember it. I was only 12 and had no personal stake. I had never been to Baltimore. Still, it didn't seem fair.

What surprises me about Baltimore's relations with the Colts is how, at least in 2000, so many people seemed to wish them well. By comparison, I think you'd have a damn tough time finding any kind words in Brooklyn about the Dodgers. Is Baltimore more forgiving or did I just not understand the dynamics?

I suppose it helped that the Ravens won the Super Bowl that year (probably the only three hours in history there were no calls for service). But still, is it true that Baltimore does not hate the Colts? And if not, why not? Maybe it can be summed up in just two words: Johnny Unitas.

February 7, 2010

The Real-Life Omar Little

From Vice magazine.

Less is Less

I didn't post for over a month and guess what? I kind of liked it.

So here's my plan: less posting. Maybe once or twice a week. We'll see how it goes.

If you need daily fixes of police news (and granted I still do), I urge you to look at all the links on the right side of this page. There's some good stuff out there. And that's where I get half my shit anyway.

I love all my readers (well... all but one or two). But still, blogging is kind of a one-way relationship.

Writing is hard work. Now no doubt blog writing is less hard work that "real" writing. But still, it's work. And it's not like I get paid for this. Just think... instead of writing stuff here I could be prepping for classes, or dating my wife, or cooking, or watching baseball, or playing pinball, or thinking about trains. Hell, instead of writing here, I could be doing basically anything!

But mostly I've got another book to write: In Defense of Flogging. While it's related to crime and justice, it's actually not about policing at all. And writing this book is something I actually get paid for.

So in case I don't post much and you wonder what I'm thinking, here are my beliefs to cover 90% of police issues:

1) Police: Good (but there's always room for improvement).
2) War on Drugs: Bad.
3) Prison: We've got too many people in them.
4) Tasers: Vastly overused.
5) Democrats: Better than Republicans.
6) Always do the right thing.

What else can I say?

Undoubtedly the most demoralizing force in the country today

It's official:
Responsibility of the Moving Picture Show for Crime

The demoralizing character of some of the moving picture shows, says the New Jersey Law Journal, continues to be exemplified by proceedings from time to time in our local and county criminal courts. One of the latest instances was a case which came before Judge Case, of the Somerset County courts, where a bright little fellow of nine years of age was arraigned before the judge for truancy and for incorrigibility. The prosecutor informed the court that the root of the boy's misconduct was the moving picture show, and the counsel for the boy stated that the offender had been a good child at home and obedient until he developed the passion for attending moving picture shows. The account of the case then goes on to say: "When the boy was commanded to stand up before Judge Case he burst into tears. Judge Case called him to his seat behind the bar and talked to him kindly, after which he announced that he would place him in charge of Probation Officer Osbourn for three years. In closing his remarks Judge Case said that the moving picture shows were undoubtedly the most demoralizing force in the country to-day. The pictures had a great fascination for even adults, and the graphic portrayals of holdups, robberies, and of immoral scenes and characters, made a lasting impression on the minds of children that were demoralizing in the extreme. Judge Case said that the court would expect the law relating to moving picture shows to be strictly obeyed in the county."

From the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology.Vol. 1(5) January, 1911. p. 788.

February 6, 2010

Notes on the Balinese Cockfight

My wife and I were in Kalibukbuk, Bali, visiting a few friends from Amsterdam, one of whom kind of lives in Bali now. He asked if we wanted to go see a cockfight. Well, in the name of Clifford Geertz and “thick description,” yes! (Hell, and this slightly worries me, I’ve enjoyed every bit of blood sport I’ve ever seen from bullfights to Thai Muay Thai kickboxing.)

Every student of sociology and anthropology knows Clifford Geertz’s classic, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” It’s based on his 1958 fieldwork. It’s a qualitative classic. Not until Geertz and his wife ran from a police raid of a cockfight were they accepted in the village.

Well I didn't have to any running but it turns out that 50-years later, cockfighting is still illegal and not at all underground. Some places are shut down. But just because they don't have enough money to pay off the police.

So one night at dinner we're introduced to a slightly hardcore character who will take us (but only the men, he says) to a cockfight the next day.

So my buddy and I meet him and follow his mopen to the town of Singaraja. First we stop by his house where he judged the feistiness of a few of his cocks (and yes, the puns are same in the Balinese language) before placing one in a bag. They're kept throughout Asia in these wicker cages.

We continued and got to the venue (we never would have found it on our own). I love the parking lot. I resisted the urge to push a bike over, starting the domino effect and certain bar fight.

In some ways all sports venues are the same. There are parking lot attendants, tickets, seats, fans, food vendors, and games. But nothing I’ve seen is quite like a Balinese cockfight. I wish I had internet access and could have reread Geertz’s piece. There was a lot going on I didn’t get. I respect a man with the skills to tie a razor to the foot of the rooster. The betting, $10 was normal, is high stakes for a poor country.

Some side betting games.

And one of the food vendors. We ate nuts and drank warm beer.

I guess pairing up the birds.

Tying on the razor.

Our man told us which bird to bet on.

Here's some of the pre-fight scene:

Then, right before the fight start, there's this brief silence and then this wave of sound, unlike anything I've ever heard. You can hear the sound (I didn't start the recording early enough to get the "wave") at the very start of this video. Fair Warning: this a video of a Balinese cockfight. These are birds with razors strapped to their leg killing each other. Don't watch it if you don't like it.

That was our man's two-year old bird that died first. It was sold as food to somebody for $5. But the fight was a draw. I was happy with a draw because I may not know all the nuances of cockfighting, but I know a dead bird when I see one! If somebody won, it sure wasn't us. But part of the rules is that the “winning” bird has be standing after or for a ten count.

Also worth a few pictures is the following day's “pig roast in the hood” (my friend's words, not mine). This involved killing a pig, cleaning it in the river, and roasting it over an open fire.

Here's some of the scene, worth a few pictures:

Everybody loves cracklin!
The pig was delicious. The people, friendly. A good time was had by all. We have the feeling they party a bit like this everyday, this day they just had a pig.

It would be remiss to not mention that in the river were, among other things, one woman bathing and brushing her teeth upstream and another doing laundry. On the opposite bank people were gutting and cleaning a dog to eat. We were told they only eat the "bad dogs." Why not? Hell, on our side we were eating a dish made with raw pig's blood (mixed with grated coconut, spices, and grilled pigs innards). If it all sounds hardcore, well, I suppose it kind of is. I think it's only the second time bougie old me has eaten at a home without running water.

I also got a kick out of the fact that I was corrected for eating with my finger wrong. You can't take me anywhere! I didn’t even know you could eat with your fingers wrong. (Take note: after you grab your food, don’t put your fingers in your mouth but place the food on the ends of your first two fingers and then kind of shovel/push the food with your thumb into your mouth.)

The majority of trip was spend in Thailand and Bangkok. The food in Bangkok is incredible. I love Thai food and the Thais are truly more into food than any country I have ever seen. And their sheer obsession with food, the amount of prepared food for sale--delicious, clean, spicy food--is hard to imagine. But those stories are for another time.

Leaving Thailand, we saw perhaps the secret to their success: a sign keeping out all those with “‘hippy’ characteristics.”

And the police station sign on the Malaysian side of the border train station. We really did not want to leave Thailand, but damn it was nice to be a place again where you could sound out the alphabet!

And I've been to Maryland. I know Maryland. And this, my friends, is no deep fried fish Maryland (as seen in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia).

Stat Production

The New York Times reports that, "Intense pressure to produce annual crime reductions led some supervisors and precinct commanders to manipulate crime statistics."

I'm shocked. Shocked.

Reclassifying a $1,100 theft as a $950 theft isn't the end of the world. But a police culture where it's OK to play a bit fast and loose with the numbers is in nobody's best interests.

Plus, if you play with the numbers this year, you have to play with the numbers next year just to keep even.

Does this mean the crime drop is a lie? No. Of course not.

But it does mean that hard-working and well intentioned officers are under too much pressure to produce better and better "stats."

Good Cop

I think Michael Mineo is a liar. I've said it before here and here and I'll say it again. The latest is this, "[A police baton] could not have possibly made the hole in this underwear," said [a defense witness], "This is a square hole."

Seems like pretty damning evidence. At the end of an expandable baton is a round little metal ball (which hurts like hell if you get hit by it). It can't punch out a square hole. (I'd accept a rip, by the way.)

I suppose your opinion comes down to this: which do you think is more likely? That a cop would stick his own baton up a guy's ass or that a two-bit idiot would make up a story to win big in a lawsuit against the police. To me, it's no contest.

Seemed to me it was a good day in court for these officers. It'll feel better when the officers get off.

Drink This

LEO beer.