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by Peter Moskos

October 28, 2015

Liberals eating themselves

In the Comey story, in which a seemingly liberal FBI director discusses crime, police, race, and history and get pilloried by the left, the New York Times takes the cake. In some Bizarro World I'm not part of, The Grey Lady deemed Comey's comments "incendiary" and playing "into the right-wing view that holding the police to constitutional standards endangers the public. ... His formulation implies that for the police to do their jobs, they need to have free rein to be abusive."

No, he doesn't say that or even imply it. Where do they get this from?! It seems like they first wrote an unfair headline about Comey, and then exploded in outrage over their own bad reporting. Classy.

From a liberal perspective, Comey shows an amazing understanding of the problem. Given what he is actually saying, Comey will have a much greater problem with maintaining credibility with the conservative right, ie: most cops.

Comey said so much. I know from personal experience that the Times might call someone, say, a "denier of reality" not because of anything actually said but because of a 2nd-hand out-of-context misquote they were pointed to in a conservative rag. So perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that because Comey said one thing -- something any cop will tell you -- because Comey veered ever so slightly from the Party Line by suggesting the possibility that viral videos might be [gasp] having some impact on policing, the Times concludes that Comey, "hasn’t begun to grasp the nature of the problem." Did they even listen to what he said? I kind of doubt it.


IrishPirate said...

Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune has some observations.


David Woycechowsky said...
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Alex Elkins said...

I agree with David that Comey should have seen this coming. I also agree that left/liberal talking points can be imprecise: we shouldn't deny that the public scrutiny *is* having an effect on cops, and right now, national crime rates are down, but in certain places they are up and cops in those places tell us it has to do with the current climate.

That said, cops and their allies have been pushing an anti-democratic narrative that rejects outside scrutiny (which can be read as a rejection of accountability). If Comey wants to distance himself from that line, he should have taken care to do so. Otherwise he comes off like any other (conservative/right) cop who treats Black Lives Matter like an ISIS-level threat.

In the balance of who's right and who's wrong, the left is right to distrust police talking points when it comes to claims that their unique expertise should shield them from public criticism, and that public criticism itself causes a breakdown in law and order. So when police say that BLM has triggered an uptick in violent crime, I think you can forgive skepticism and a demand for data. The left has good cause here, given the past 50 years of get-tough policies predicated on precisely the sort of claims police are making now.

I suppose this is more of a general comment than a rejection of your take, Peter, on the NYT's and the left's response to Comey. We absolutely should be discussing the huge increase in violent crime in certain cities (use of national crime rates is a little misleading here). But people are justifiably worried about and reluctant to give police even more power and resources to crack down. I think it's a good thing that the public appetite for get-tough appears to be waning.

Peter Moskos said...

But Comey said a lot, including that police could learn from Black Lives Matter and that police must "own" their racist history. He said a whole lot straight out of the Progressive playbook. And he said it well. But apparently none of that matters because he said one thing that, when misinterpreted (I don't think he ever said anything about police scrutiny being bad or that BLM triggered an uptick in violent crime), bucked the Party Line.

Why I care about this issue isn't so much the politics, being what they are. What I fear is that the Left really doesn't want to talk about the uptick in crime because it doesn't fit their narrative of evil police and social justice. But if we don't worry about rising crime, the result is more dead people.

So the Left will first deny till denial isn't possible that crime is up. And then, a year from now, when that is finally accepted, the Left will fall back on statistical limitations of the data and dismiss correlations because they can't be shown (with 19 times out of 20 certainly, being the arbitrary magic number, of course) that there is causation. The Left will also fall back on talk about crime being up because of decreased "legitimacy" vis-à-vis law enforcement. And of course the Left will talk, as they should, about the need to improve society. But what the Left won't talk is what police need to do to prevent crime and what police have to do in their on-the-street interactions with the those who might be predisposed to commit crimes and hurt other people.

Peter Moskos said...

Honestly, did you listen (or read) his whole speech? I really don't understand how any reasonable person could highlight that one point as the take-away point of what he said. Did you? I think he was perfectly clear. I think the only non-clear part came after bad reporting. I don't even understand how what the Times reported could be taken from what he said, even ignoring the context of everything else he said. Show me the quote that blames protests for violence? I may have missed it, but I don't think he ever said it. Show me the quote, even out of context, that says police scrutiny is bad?

Peter Moskos said...

Clarence Page, who I read and liked growing up and have loved ever since he called me a "rascal," will now be dismissed an an Uncle Tom.

Alex Elkins said...

That Times piece was terrible, written in the vein of stirring up controversy and redirecting attention away from vital issues. I like this line from a recent Comey speech:

“That wind is surely changing behavior. Part of that behavior change is to be welcomed, as we continue to have important discussions about police conduct and deescalation and the use of deadly force. Those are essential discussions, and law enforcement will get better as a result. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that there really are bad people standing on the street with guns. The young men dying on street corners all across this country are not committing suicide or being shot by the cops. They are being killed, police chiefs tell me, by other young men with guns.”

That's useful precision. But when the FBI director says that police can learn from BLM, well, sure, the police and the feds have been monitoring BLM for a while now to gather intelligence. In other words, the Left is inclined to think Comey's words are wishful thinking, i.e. bullshit, in a world in which a lot of police treat protesters with great suspicion.

Leaving all that aside, the core concern is violent crime. I agree, I think it's totally self-destructive that it's taboo or somehow reactionary to discuss violent crime in Left circles. Because, as you say, when the crime rise becomes irrefutable, we're left with a lot of hand-waving. Right now the best proposals we have, redistributive welfare policies and public investment in cities, are also the least useful in the short-term. They do not tell police officers what to do right now. Besides, the hardest-hit communities the Left wants to protect from police in fact *want* better, more humane police service. Those residents want the state to manage violent crime. They may not want lock 'em policies but they want to end the murders and public drug selling in their neighborhoods. That the Left continues to downplay or de-emphasize this situation is very bad indeed.

It should be said that it's incredibly difficult to talk about so-called black-on-black crime in the United States given our history. I also think the police can do a whole lot better demonstrating that they are trustworthy allies in protecting neighborhoods. I get that the top-down policies are out of their control, but I've seen very few leaders--like Comey--speak forthrightly about *police* responsibilities in restoring trust.

Peter Moskos said...


I always rebel against having to follow any Party Line. We need more voices, not fewer. And ideologues on both sides -- perhaps a bit more on the left but on both sides -- try to silence those who disagree by framing the narrative in a way that disagreement isn't just wrong, it's taboo.

In the same way I don't dismiss an entire protest movement because of some things that some say, it's crazy to dismiss Comey because of one thing he might have said (but I don't think he did). Not to mention Comey is probably the most thoughtful and liberal Director of the FBI we're ever going to have!

Also, there's a sizable part of the protest-left that *is* explicitly anti-police. Those of this ideology see police as the problem and advocate fewer police as the solution. https://www.thenation.com/article/we-dont-just-need-nicer-cops-we-need-fewer-cops/ I respectfully disagree. But to be against an anti-police movement doesn't mean I'm pro-bad policing. This shouldn't be a "whose side on your on?" kind of issue. (Especially because if I am forced to pick a side, I'm going with the Blue.)

john mosby said...

Prof, since you mentioned de-escalation, please permit me to share something that just struck me (pun intended), relating to the topic in general but also to the SC school extraction in particular:

De-escalation only works when there is some shared value between the cop and the subject. In the classic example, neither the subject nor the cop wants to spend the next 4 hours in lockup, court, etc. Some well-chosen words remind the subject of this, and everyone goes his separate way.

The working-class schmuck gets the message, because he can't afford to miss work or explain to the wife where he was all night. The career criminal gets the message because he also can't afford to miss 'work' and explain to his OG where his money at.

The urban high-school student doesn't get the message. For one thing, the hormonal stew in his brain probably physically interferes with reception of the message. For another, he's already someplace he doesn't want to be; being taken to another place he doesn't want to be isn't a huge difference. So the equation "do something I'm telling you before we both end up someplace we don't want to be" doesn't balance - it's weighted in the student's favor.

The other ingredient of de-escalation, of course, is the implied threat of force that you get with uniformed officer presence. This adds the possibility of pain and injury to the possibility of wasting one's evening. Plus, if it's a real donnybrook, there will be more charges piled on. The working schmuck and the career criminal both see the advantage in cutting their losses.

The urban high-school student, on the other hand, doesn't see it that way. First, there's that chemical stew in the brain, creating good old adolescent vulnerability. Also, there's a good chance that the urban student has been the victim of parental abuse and a participant in some real fights already. Third, there's the urban awareness that the police have to follow a use-of-force model, so, in spite of the myth of cops mowing down one unarmed child after another, the reality is that it will just be a rassling match. And finally, there's the knowledge that every fight with the police is a free urban-lottery ticket. And again, the student may see it as a better use of time than watching teacher find the X.

This was a long way of saying that some people just can't be de-escalated.

And oh by the way: along the same lines as the counter-argument to "women get paid less" (which is "then why doesn't every profit-making business hire nothing but women? They'd cut their payroll 25%! The streets would be full of men wandering around with 'WILL WORK FOR GROSSLY INFLATED SALARY' signs!"), if all cops had a magic de-escalating talent, why don't they use it all the time? Bank hostage standoff? "In downtown Podunk today, a heavily-armed bank robber surrendered to police after an officer told him a long folksy story about his dog." Terror incident? "Man, you don't want to slash that stewardess' throat with that box cutter. If you get back in your seat, this plane will land at LAX and you'll see the sun set one more time. Isn't that what you want?" Etc.


Concerned citizen said...

The inability of the NYTimes to appreciate the brilliance of Comey's speech is, for me, the last straw leading me to believe that we have to reduce the numbers of police in the hood, as well as the proactivity of the police that remain in the hood.

It makes me sick that law abiding residents will suffer. It makes me sick that motivated LEO's will become frustrated and disillusioned at playing a passive role. But, in the current climate, disengagement seems best.

Peter Moskos said...

Very interesting points on the "shared values" and mutually beneficial disengagement and how it doesn't apply to school kids.

Big fight today in a Baltimore high school, by the way.

Concerned, luckily that won't happy. And indeed cops will continue to take blame, both when justified and when not justified. That's part of the job. Also, because those with the loudest voices generally do not represent the majority of people who want more and better policing.

Adam said...

Concerned -- I reached that point a few months ago. A purely reactive police force would be a bad thing, but a MORE reactive police force might not be terrible. There is a lot of room (at least in cities like Baltimore) for cops investing more time in investigations and spending less time asking people what they're doing on the corner at 1am. The latter seems to alienate the public so much these days that maybe it's just not worth it.

Peter -- I hope you're right, but loud minorities do have a way of getting what they want in our political system. That's why the NRA always gets what it wants. Not because their views are shared by a majority of Americans (far from it), but because they will steer their votes based on one issue. I fear there's a growing crowd on the left that wants its unreasonable demands on criminal justice reform met -- or else.

john mosby said...

Adam - bit of a false dichotomy there between reactive investigations and proactive policing. The circles overlap on the Venn diagram.

Thought experiment: Citizen calls 911 - somebody shot, raped, robbed me. Coppers show up, take citizen's statement. Now what? Canvass the neighborhood for other witnesses? That's proactive policing. Suppose one of the witnesses actually talks to you and says it was Fred. Now you have to look for, then stop, search, and question dudes who look like Fred's description. That's proactive policing.

And if the strategy actually works, you'll initially get more calls for service, which means more talking to witnesses, stopping suspects, etc., which could mean more police/citizen encounters than you had when you were just stopping dudes for walking funny.

And some of those encounters will go pear-shaped, because some people just can't be de-escalated.


David Woycechowsky said...
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Alex Elkins said...

I don't know if you all have been following the controversy around political scientist Michael Fortner's book, on black law-and-orderism and mass incarceration, but this review covers the ground nicely and recapitulates the themes discussed up-thread: http://www.salon.com/2015/10/29/the_truth_about_mandatory_minimums_the_lefts_painful_but_necessary_conversation_about_crime_punishment/

Peter Moskos said...

I hadn't been. Thanks for the link.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

There's no question that the Left, esp. the farther Left, tends to handwave away crime. I think that's almost single-handedly responsible for the defeat of the Left in the 80s: the constant insistence that fear of rising crime was nothing but racism made them seem of no use to people who were rightly worried about violence.

But as was said above "the hardest-hit communities the Left wants to protect from police in fact *want* better, more humane police service."

That "better" is really important. Because when police departments refuse accountability, refuse to punish officers who use unnecessary violence (and yes, the community, not the officers, gets to decide what violence is unnecessary. The community is the officer's boss, not the other way around), and reward officers who subject the community to unfair treatment, the community learns that they cannot trust the police to police them.

When I lived in Bed-Stuy in the 90s, there was a crack house on the corner, always with a few people on the lawn who were too fucked up to find the door. Everyone hated it, and the people who'd been in the neighborhood the longest hated it the most. Everyone wanted it busted. So one day, the police show up, and start tossing people into vans. Great!

Then the cops just started grabbing people off the street. They grabbed a kid who was literally just riding past on his bike, and throw him in the van with a bunch of crackheads. That's when the crowd turned, and started demanding the cops get out. Because they wanted the crackheads gone, but not at the cost of having innocent kids punished. That's a pretty fundamental premise of American justice.

People want police to police, but they have no interest in supporting police who are there to play dominance games. If people are saying they want fewer police, that is because they are in despair that the police can improve. And that despair is entirely the fault of the police departments.