Troy Davis: Justice is blind, deaf and really really dumb

In light of this morning’s post, I’d like to say a few words (not too many, I promise) about the execution of Troy Davis. For those of you unfamiliar with the case, Mr. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer in 1989 in Savannah, Georgia. The case against Mr. Davis was built on the eyewitness testimony of people who claimed to be there to see the shooting. In the intervening 12 years, 9 of those witnesses have recanted their statements, with some alleging coercion by police. New forensic evidence has been brought forward suggesting that Mr. Davis is not, in fact the shooter. None of that has swayed the appellate courts, who allowed Mr. Davis’ execution to go forward yesterday.

This is a dramatically different situation than the one highlighted this morning, since there are evidently legitimate questions regarding Mr. Davis’ innocence:

A U.S. parole board has denied clemency to Troy Davis, clearing the way for his execution Wednesday in a case that has become an international cause celebre for death penalty opponents. Davis was convicted of shooting dead an off-duty police officer who intervened in a brawl in a parking lot in Savannah, Georgia in 1989, but there was no physical evidence and several witnesses later recanted their testimony.

The thread connecting these two cases, however, is race. Mr. Davis, like Mr. Buck, is a black man. Now, in this case race was not so overtly a factor in the decision to convict or recommend the death penalty. That being said, my point in this morning’s piece is that it doesn’t have to be overt to exert influence. Mr. Davis’ race was a factor in his arrest, in his treatment following his arrest, his prosecution, and his sentencing. While I do not have the resources to demonstrate it, there is often a position of presupposed guilt when a defendant is black, while white defendants enjoy more of the benefit of the doubt.

Greg Laden over at The X Blog illustrates this aptly:

It is especially poignant to see that two young white middle class Americans will be release from an Iranian jail about the same time Troy will take the needle. Not that Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal should not be release or that they have anything to do with it. It is poignant for another reason. If you were an Iranian government official looking at the Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal case, the assumption that these to guys are spies would be natural. As a person who has traveled a fair amount in or near bellicose regions, and actually met spies along the way (I even spent a bit of time in prison with a spy in the Eastern Congo) I was never closed to the idea, while in the mean time virtually every American hearing of their fate simply knew that the were innocent of these charges. Young American men hiking on the border of a hostile state could not possibly be spies! Meanwhile, in downtown Savannah Georgia, if the police pick up a young black male for some crime or another, there are a lot of people who will assume he is guilty. Or, worse, not care if he is guilty. It’s the inner city. Young black males are the criminals. A crime was committed. Close enough.

But even with the race question left on its own, there seems to be more than enough reasonable doubt in this case to justify staying execution indefinitely. Troy Davis was convicted without any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and police bullied and intimidated their way into securing a quick conviction. When police wring their hands about how people who live in high-crime areas don’t co-operate with law enforcement, they need to understand that this is why. Police are not there unless they are looking to arrest someone, and are happy (dare I say eager) to run roughshod over the civil and human rights of the people in those communities to make as many charges stick as they can. Never mind justice, never mind professional diligence, and never mind protect and serve.

More bizarrely, the justice system, which is ostensibly supposed to correct for the grotesqueries of police overreaching, seems to be playing right along:

A Georgia appeals panel refused to let Troy Davis take a lie detector test to prove his innocence Wednesday, as the American convicted of killing a policeman nears exhaustion of his legal options hours before his execution. “He requested an opportunity to take a polygraph test yesterday from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which had previously denied clemency,” Davis’s attorney Brian Kammer told AFP. “Mr Davis’s attorneys had a polygrapher at the prison this morning in the event the request was granted. However, earlier this morning, the Department of Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Paroles flatly denied the request,” Kammer said.

The courts seem to be saying “you’re guilty, Mr. Davis, and we will not let any facts get in the way of that story.” Such is the reality for many people convicted by our courts.

This is why my eyes glaze over and my fists clench whenever people talk about the liberal ‘hug a thug’ mentality (a phrase so mind-numbingly stupid, and a position that obviously had so little thought go into it, that it makes me wonder whether the speaker has difficulty not choking on her own tongue). Justice should be difficult. Justice should be fought for and won only after a campaign of diligence and careful weighing of evidence. The decision to imprison someone, much less execute her, is one that deserves more care and deliberation, not snaps to judgment made for the sake of convenience.

Stories like this make me tired. I’m going to need an otter:

Not enough. Gonna need a double shot:

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Racism: it ain’t yesterday’s problem

Yesterday I mentioned that I don’t have a specific goal for these writings. Mostly they are a signpost for me to be able to look back and see how my thought process is evolving over time, much like writing one’s self a letter to be read in the future. That being said, people are reading this stuff (and thank you for that, by the way). This means that my ideas must stand up to third-party scrutiny in a way they wouldn’t have to if they were just my random, private thoughts. One of the more contentious ideas I have is my operational definition of racism. I fully recognize that the way I use the word – to describe the attribution of ethnic group characteristics to individuals – is subtly different from what most people think when they use the word. My position remains that my definition is superior because it adequately encompasses the ‘classic’ definition, whilst also describing the reality of contemporary ‘polite’ racism.

However, there are occasions where I can go beyond simple rhetorical demonstration and actually bring evidence to bear on why we must shift our understanding of what racism is:

A Texas inmate sentenced to death—in a racially charged case that now-Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said was inappropriately decided—has petitioned Gov. Rick Perry and his state parole board for clemency, giving the GOP presidential candidate two days to decide whether to commute the sentence or grant a temporary stay of execution. Last week, one of the Harris County prosecutors who helped secure Buck’s conviction wrote a letter to Perry urging him to grant a retrial.

Some quick housecleaning here:

  • I am not calling Rick Perry racist. I don’t know anything about the man’s personal beliefs when it comes to issues of race, or his track record of treatment of visible minorities. Even if Perry were an open and notorious member of the KKK, it would be completely irrelevant to my argument.
  • I am also not interested in debating capital punishment at this time. I am personally against it, and have found all arguments in favour of executing convicts to be lacking in validity. That being said, my personal stance on the ethics or pragmatics of capital punishment are entirely tangential to the issue at hand.
  • I am also not trying to make the argument that Duane Buck, the inmate in question, is innocent and should be freed. By all accounts, he’s guilty and his conviction is a good one. Again, this has nothing to do with the point I wish to make here.

The point I wish to make lives in these lines:

The issue at hand isn’t Buck’s innocence, but the means by which his death sentence was obtained. Prosecutors firmly established Buck’s guilt, but to secure a capital punishment conviction in Texas they needed to prove “future dangerousness”—that is, provide compelling evidence that Buck posed a serious threat to society if he were ever to walk free. They did so in part with the testimony of a psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck’s race (he’s African American) made him more likely to commit crimes in the future.

This is about as stark an example of racism as one could ask for. If Duane Buck had been white, he would have received a sentence of life in prison rather than execution. The psychologist testifying against him made it a matter of science (or at least clinical opinion) that black people are inherently more dangerous, and more likely to reoffend. This declaration pushed the jury to decide against him when deciding sentencing. One can certainly fault Dr. Quijano for abdicating his ethical responsibilities both as a medical practitioner and as a human being by offering racist claptrap as sworn testimony – there’s your classical racism. However, and this is significant – the jury believed him.

Imagine sitting in a juror’s box and having to decide on a land dispute between two neighbours. A shaman is called to testify, and offers his expert testimony that when he consulted the entrails of sacred chickens, they clearly indicated that the border between the two properties should be redrawn so that Mr. Ortiz can expand his garage as planned. When considering the evidence, would you include the shaman’s remarks, or rightly dismiss them as complete nonsense? Because you’re a reasonable person who knows that one cannot derive municipal zoning law from the gastrointestinal tract of domesticated animals, you’d probably ignore the insane ‘evidence’ offered in the courtroom.

That’s not the case in Texas. In Texas, the idea that black people are simply more dangerous – that black skin and heritage is meaningful when trying to predict someone’s behaviour – is something that carries enough traction to carry the force of law. The fact that the jurors weren’t able to immediately dismiss Dr. Quijano’s arguments as meritless means that somewhere in their minds, the predictive power of race on behaviour is a real possibility. This doesn’t mean that they were necessary maliciously racist people, or that they were even consciously aware of the effect that their own nascent racism had on their decision-making processes. What it does mean, however, is that without a fuller understanding of what racism is and how it operates, legal decisions such as the one Mr. Buck is facing are a reality, and will continue to be in the future.

Luckily, for Mr. Buck anyway, the controversy surrounding the sentencing has led to a temporary stay of execution:

The U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution Thursday of a black man convicted of a double murder in Texas 16 years ago after his lawyers contended his sentence was unfair because of a question asked about race during his trial. Duane Buck, 48, was spared from lethal injection when the justices, without extensive comment, said they would review an appeal in his case. Two appeals, both related to a psychologist’s testimony that black people were more likely to commit violence, were before the court. One was granted; the other was denied.

But this brings to light a whole new series of questions. Suppose that, under Texas law, Duane Buck should be executed. Suppose that, without Dr. Quijano’s testimony, the decision would have gone the same way. It is entirely possible that a guilty person is being excused because of complication surrounding the way the justice system handled his race. It’s happened before. Justice has not been served, and it is because of our preoccupation with race, coupled with our seeming inability to chart the way forward when it comes to resolving what is evidently still an open and relevant question.

Racism is not a problem that our parents or grandparents had to contend with, and that we can consign to the annals of history. Racism is very much alive, and failing to understand it will continue to be a millstone around our collective necks for as long as it takes us to get serious in our discussion of it.

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A study in contrasts

A few weeks ago I opined on the riots in London, and contrasted the police reaction there to the one here in Vancouver following our own riots. That story is continuing:

Prime Minister David Cameron has defended courts for handing out “tough” sentences for those involved in the riots across England. The barrister told the BBC “ringleaders should receive very long sentences” but warned “there was an issue of proportionality” over the way people already before the courts had been treated. The PM said it was good that the courts were sending a “tough message”. Speaking in Warrington, he said: “It’s up to the courts to make decisions about sentencing, but they’ve decided to send a tough message and it’s very good that the courts feel able to do that.”

Meanwhile, in Vancouver:

Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu is defending the pace of criminal investigations into Vancouver rioters, saying investigators are moving slowly because authorities want to make sure they can secure convictions. “Even though we acknowledge the frustration of those who wish these suspects were already in jail, and we hear and share your frustration, there are many reasons why we must proceed at this pace,” Chu told reporters Wednesday at a news conference. His comments came as critics point to swift sentencing seen in Britain in the wake of a sweeping series of riots in recent weeks.

First of all, it’s important to state unequivocally that the Vancouver riots are not comparable to the London riots. The issues that underlie the widespread reckless smash and grab in the UK are not represented in the 5-hour orgy of violence that happened here following the Stanley Cup final. Looking for a common thread between what sparked the two separate occasions is probably a waste of time. My intention here is to contrast the response by law enforcement in the two situations that, from a surface perspective, appear similar (people rioting).

I was critical of David Cameron’s response to the riots – right-wing chest thumping might be psychologically satisfying, but it is not the kind of evidence-based response we need to see that justice is done and further riots do not happen. While I am still critical of his approach, he is not really the focus of this story. It is now the judicial system that is engaging in a dick-measuring contest to show how “tough” they can be. As I’ve opined before, being “tough” on crime doesn’t do anything but appease the masses thirsty for blood. It’s a short-sighted response that finds its origin in our lizard brains – they hurt us so let’s hurt them back. While understandable, it leads us to react disproportionately and emotionally, when reason and logic are at their most crucial:

BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said the sentences being handed out across the country for offences of dishonesty such as theft, burglary and receiving stolen goods, suggested there were disparities between courts. What the public was seeing may just be a “distorted version of the normal system”, our correspondent said. In another case, David Beswick, 31 from Salford was sentenced to 18 months in prison for handling stolen goods. Max Hill QC, vice-chairman of the Criminal Bar Association said it was not the job of judges “to deliver a political message on behalf of the government” when passing sentence but part of their role was to identify “serious aggravating features that elevate the crime beyond the ordinary”.

When the lawyers, intimately involved in the criminal justice system, are criticizing your policy, it might be a rebuke you want to take seriously. I said as much this morning.

In matters of criminal justice, it is far too easy to get swept up in the bloodlust of the crowd. Britain is certainly modeling such a reaction for the whole world to see. Vancouver’s response has been far more measured. They are concerned with making cases based on solid evidence, rather than appealing to cries for swift punishment. Why Jim Chu is choosing this route, and whether he will survive the next election cycle for his job, are open questions. I am happy and proud to live in a society where deliberate care is taken to avoid locking up the wrong people, or letting the right people get away on technicalities due to improper evidence.

Now if only we’d apply that same work ethic to charging the financiers that did far more damage to the economy than all the looters in the world could hope to accomplish. Then we’d really be getting something done.

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Fighting fire with gasoline

Sometimes the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. Oftentimes things that seem like good ideas completely fail to improve the situation. In some cases, because we are fallible human creatures with flawed brains, we often devise solutions to problems that actually make those problems worse. Our politicians, in theory, should be less prone to making these types of mistakes than we lowly civilians – after all, they are selected because of their superior leadership and merit, right? It seems to be the cynical case that this is not a reasonable expectation of our leaders:

The country’s foremost legal organization has delivered a grim assessment of the Harper government’s get-tough-on-crime agenda, attacking mandatory minimum sentences and questioning Ottawa’s eagerness to put offenders behind bars. With a series of blunt statements and policy resolutions, the Canadian Bar Association’s annual conference bristled at inaccessible courts, inappropriate jailing of mentally ill offenders and costly measures that threaten to pack prisons.

The Canadian Bar Association likely knows a thing or two about crime. After all, they are far more intimately familiar with the issues than the average Canadian. They see the way that people move through the justice system – both its successes and failures are the stuff of their professional lives. It is therefore a resounding condemnation of the upcoming omnibus crime bill to have such a sharp and public criticism from this sector.

“There are too many people who are mentally ill and should be dealt with in the health system as opposed to the criminal justice system,” [Nove Scotia prosecutor Dan] McRury said. “We need more sentencing options. One size does not fit all. “Being tough on the most vulnerable in our society is not humane,” Mr. McRury added. “Unfortunately, deinstitutionalizing our mental hospitals has meant that we have exchanged prison cells for hospital beds – but without having enough supports in the community.”

Another resolution passed by the 37,000-member organization called for governments to stop toughening laws without regard to the historic plight of aboriginal people and the over-representation of aboriginal offenders in prison.

If I had a magic policy wand and one item to use it on, it would definitely be to find better solutions for mental health care. So many broad social problems – crime, homelessness, health care spending, workplace productivity – all of these have strong links with undiagnosed and undertreated mental health issues. The CBA seems to recognize that fact. And yet, the new bill would have no provisions for providing mental health services to those in need, and would in fact mandate that they be put in jail instead of in hospitals where they could actually get some help. Even though it seems like creating harsher sentencing rules seems like it should result in less crime, the evidence suggests otherwise. Even purposeful rational thought (rather than appeals to ‘common sense’) reveals that factors besides legislation are responsible for crime, and can be manipulated to achieve the desired effect of reduction in crime rates.

Of course, that presumes that our political leaders are interested in either evidence or purposeful rational thought. There may be some hope for the system here in British Columbia:

The traditional risk factors for joining gangs — poverty, family dysfunction, a sense of alienation and lack of social supports — don’t appear to hold true for Vancouver gangs, a gang-prevention researcher says. As anti-gang experts work to head off retaliatory attacks for Sunday’s gang shooting in Kelowna that killed Red Scorpion Jonathan Bacon and wounded Hells Angel Larry Amero and three others, researcher Gira Bhatt is looking at ways to prevent kids from joining gangs in the first place.

Bhatt, a psychology professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says the gang demographics in B.C. are unique. “[For example,] if you look at the Bacon brothers, they come from a good family — a rich family — where the parents are very supportive of their kids,” Bhatt said. “We can’t borrow solutions from Toronto or Los Angeles and apply them here.”

Many people may not be familiar with the significant gang problem facing British Columbia. Because of how lucrative the drug trade is, gangs command a great deal of resources and influence. As Dr. Bhatt notes, there are factors unique to the region that make B.C. gangs different from gangs in other areas of the world. The proposed solutions must reflect this uniqueness:

“Police are asking for more resources, and yes, they need more resources. But if that’s all we do, the need for more and more police will simply grow over time,” Bhatt said.

[MLA, former solicitor-general and former West Vancouver police chief Kash] Heed called for a “comprehensive strategy” to combat gangs, including a universal anti-bullying program in schools, early-intervention programs for families and meaningful opportunities for kids to get involved in their community. “You are not going to arrest your way out of this gang situation that we have,” Heed said. “We’re just reacting to the problem. We’ve reacted to this problem since 1994 here in Vancouver. We still have this absolutely astounding display of public violence on our streets.”

Critics on both sides of the political divide (although primarily on the right) tend to decry ‘one size fits all’ solutions to social problems. I think there is merit to this position – each region must have some leeway to solve its own problems in its own way. However, despite being aligned with the right, the Republican North Party has taken the decidedly non-conservative step of giving the federal government the authority to take decision-making power out of the hands of the justice system. If it were a left-wing government proposing this kind of program, that would at least be consistent with the idea of government intervention in individual lives. Coming from a government that at least pretends to be conservative, it is a stark revelation of their own hypocrisy.

What’s my proposal? I say we decide policy on a case-by-case basis and look at what the evidence says. If the evidence says mandatory minimums work, then let’s do that. If the evidence says that coddling criminals works, then we do that. No matter how uncomfortable it might make us. Failing to make our policy responsive to observable reality, rather than a slave to our ideological prejudices, will only serve to exacerbate problems to the detriment of everyone.

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London burns: what it is and what it ain’t

So this will be a fairly ambitious endeavour for me. All of you are no doubt aware of the rioting that has plagued London for the past week. I am going to try and summarize what I think is an incredibly complex issue in the span of a single blog post. Unlike other Monday think pieces, this one is going to have a lot of links to other articles, because they’re relevant.

The riots were supposedly touched off by protest over the apparent murder of a young black father by police officers. The police claimed that the man had an illegal weapon and fired on them. Forensic investigation subsequently revealed that no gunfire was exchanged – the man had been shot twice by bullets from a police-issue weapon and the gun that supposedly belonged to the deceased, while illegal, had not been fired. In an attitude typical of police, the first instinct was to protect the officers instead of upholding the law. Outraged citizens, mostly black, took to the streets to protest, and that protest turned into a riot.

Many are trying to make this riot into a racial issue:

Operation Trident which was set up in 1998 to specifically deal with gun crime related to drug activity within London’s black community — is itself controversial among some sections of the black community. Even though Trident was set up by black activists to tackle so-called black-on-black killings, few of the police officers within the unit are black, and some see Trident as being just another way in which the police can oppress young black men who are already disproportionately targeted for criminal behavior.

Mark Duggan’s death seemed to touch a raw nerve, coming just months after another controversial police-related death of yet another black man, a British reggae artist known as Smiley Culture. A peaceful protest about Duggan’s death turned violent. From then on, the violence has escalated.

It is tempting to compare this outrage to what happened in Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King trial. There are certainly many parallels between that situation and London: a marginalized and brutalized minority population who are distrusted and underserved by their government; an attitude by police of extreme racism; lack of representation in the halls of power. However, the rioting quickly grew far past anything that can be attributed to a disgruntled minority group:

The uncomfortable question since the beginning of the disturbances on Saturday night, however, has been the degree to which tensions between different ethnic communities, and wider issues of race and cultural alienation, have played a part in some local areas. The answer, observers warn, is a complex and multifaceted one, in an area where simplistic judgments can be dangerous. “Where communities are already divided along ethnic lines, there is of course a tendency to hunker down,” says Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust, which researches issues of race and equality. “But what I’m struggling with is that there is so much that we don’t know. I don’t know if what goes on in West Bromwich is anything to do with what happens in Birmingham, or if the Woolwich riots were organised but the Croydon ones were not.

Most frightening to me is that there are people using the racial tension as an excuse to expand their own small-minded agendas:

Far-right groups have sought to exploit the tensions. The BNP says it will hold its “biggest ever day of action” this weekend and has published a leaflet titled: Looter beware: British defenders protect this area. The EDL claims its supporters are organising across the country and will provide “a strong physical presence, and discourage troublemakers from gathering in our town and city centres”.

While the outrage may have germinated around a seed of racial resentment, it spread so quickly and violently that this is not a satisfactory explanation. A better explanation is needed; certainly one that is better than the line of stupidity coming from Downing street, with Prime Minister David Cameron bemoaning the lack of active parenting and seeking to explain the crime by attributing it to ‘criminals’. The problem, of course, with this line of reasoning is that many of these people probably weren’t criminals before they committed these crimes. Labeling them post hoc as ‘criminals’ is circular, and therefore useless as an explanation. It doesn’t appear to be particularly accurate either:

“Some of the parents were there. For some parents it was no big surprise their kids were there. They’ve gone through this all their lives,” said an Afro-Caribbean man of 22 who gave his name as “L”, voicing the frustration and anger felt by youth and parents over yawning inequalities in wealth and opportunity. “I was on the train today in my work clothes and shoes. All different types took part in the riot. The man next to me was saying everyone who rioted should be gassed. He would never have guessed that I was there, that I took part,” he said.

Many have tried to attribute much of the anger at police to the way they treat minority group members, while others have pointed to the social system, to the power of the welfare state, to raw criminality, bad parenting… many explanations have been thrown out.

So too, it seems, has any pretense at maintaining the liberal democratic tradition:

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street following an emergency security meeting Wednesday, the prime minister noted that the addition of 10,000 police, for a total of 16,000, on the streets of London on Tuesday night and into the morning had helped curtail the violence. “Whatever resources the police need, they will get. Whatever tactics the police feel they need to employ, they’ll have legal backing to do so,” he told reporters.

Anyone who isn’t immediately terrified by the prospect of police having unchecked powers to punish crimes is clearly living in a world of unchallenged assumptions about the credibility of law enforcement.While Vancouver police have been facing heightening criticism for failing to charge more people after the riots here, I applaud them for not rushing to judgment and waiting to have solid evidence before seeking convictions. The UK police seem to be under no constraint of legal due process, and have already arrested and charged hundreds of people:

“Picture by picture these criminals are being identified and arrested and we will not let any phoney concerns about human rights get in the way of the publication of the pictures and the arrest of these individuals,” Cameron said.

The emphasis on that quote is mine. The horror should be all of ours to share.

So if it isn’t race, or criminal minds, or just the thrill of smash and grab, what happened in London to make this happen? We may never know what the one cause that set off the ripple of rioting, and it’s unlikely that there is one cause. Likely, like any other mass spontaneous uprising (like what’s happening in the middle east), there are a variety of overlapping factors that came to a head at one point, causing a tectonic-like reaction. It seems, however, that the most fruitful avenue of explanation is to ask people on the ground what they think. From outside it is easy to attempt to explain, and you can probably find a sympathetic ear for just about any crazy theory. Until the people from the streets start speaking and telling their stories, all we can do is make a handful of guesses and wait for the flames to die down.

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Evidently ecstatic

There was once a time when I could have been accurately described as ‘pro-police’. I recognized that in order for a society to progress, we needed to have some way of enforcing law. A society without laws quickly degenerates into violence, and it was thanks to the tireless efforts of police officers and other members of the justice system that we were such a peaceful place to live. I would openly and unashamedly take the police’s side when debates came up in our high school (we had a pair of police officers on constant patrol on our campus). However, as I’ve become a bit more aware of the world and the nuances of the argument, my knee-jerk support for the police has diminished quite dramatically. While I have not yet gone quite to the extent of labeling police indiscriminately as a gang of threatening thugs, events like the travesty that was the G20 summit are moving me in that direction.

I still believe in the principle of rule of law, and I doubt that will ever change. However, I no longer see police as being reliable arbitrators of law. Again and again, we see examples not only of police abusing their power to circumvent justice for themselves, but of such abuse actually undermining justice for others:

The Richmond trial of five men accused of running a multi-million dollar ecstasy lab has been thrown out of court because of what a provincial court judge says were repeated Charter of Rights violations. In January 2007, Mounties uncovered nearly 100 kilograms of ecstasy and nine pill presses in two Richmond homes following a year-long investigation. Tin Lik Ho, Qing Hou, Shao Wei Huang, Yi Feng Kevin Li and Kai Lai Kyle Zhou were all charged with producing ecstasy and possessing ecstasy for the purpose of trafficking. But in a 30-page provincial court judgment, Judge Paul Meyers issued a scathing indictment of the RCMP’s handling of the case. “The police officers who were in charge of this investigation, from start to finish, violated so many Charter rights of the accused persons, that one might have thought that the investigation took place before the Charter of Rights had been enacted,” Meyers wrote.

Asking a conservative what this story represents will yield a very different response than if you ask someone who actually understands what she/he is talking about. A conservative commentator will point out that this is a prime example of the “hug a thug” mentality that liberals have – prioritizing the rights of criminals over the rights of decent, hard-working Canadians. This judge is clearly a liberal activist that doesn’t care about seeing criminals punished for their crimes, or of drugs spreading through communities where they destroy the lives of the young and innocent.

Someone with a slightly more realistic understanding of the legal process will recognize that this is the sign of a healthy legal system (the abuses of the police notwithstanding). Undoubtedly, these men are dead to rights – the drugs were found in their homes along with the method of manufacture. This was not the case of a handful of pills trying to make a quick score, or some guys who just really really like to get high – these guys were mid-level traffickers of a restricted substance. They absolutely belong in jail. However, in their handling of the case, the RCMP decided that their apparent guilt justified shredding the charter. While judges regularly look the other way for slight abrogations of legal rights in clear cases of guilt, Judge Meyers’s report details the extent to which these particular officers decided that they were above the law.

BC's RCMP reveal their new recruitment mascot

The reason why this ruling is good is because there are countries in the world in which those accused of crimes are treated as already-guilty. We don’t like those countries – they tend to use that justice system to lock up political dissidents. Neither the presumption of innocence nor the presumption of guilt will result in a perfect system; however, one will ensure that fewer innocent people are imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. We can always produce evidence of guilt – evidence of innocence is almost impossible by definition.

More interestingly, it seems as though the slipshod method of being “tough on crime” actually creates more crime than it prevents:

What’s more interesting than the finding that drug prohibition causes gang-on-gang violence is our inability – or is it unwillingness? – to learn from repeated demonstrations of this connection. For some reason, we seem to think that what’s happening in northern Mexico – where drug-trafficking gangs are at war with each other and with the Mexican army – is somehow different from what’s happening in Winnipeg, where drug-trafficking gangs are at war with each other and with the Winnipeg Police Service. There is a difference in scale, to be sure, but not in kind. Drug prohibition enriches organized crime, and police crackdowns on drug suppliers provoke gang-on-gang violence over market share.

We know from abundant evidence in other counties that the kind of drug enforcement strategy we use in Canada is not particularly effective at actually reducing crime. This analysis from The Mark suggests that, to the contrary, it actually increases the rate of violent crime as market forces inexorably drive up demand whenever supply is interrupted. If we were trying to reduce crime, we’d change our strategy – we’d do what it took to actually protect the populace against its dangerous elements. However, it is clear that we are not interested in reducing crime, which raises the question of what it is we are trying to do.

It is when we betray the liberal principles of crime prevention and harm reduction that we begin to see the corporatization of law enforcement. For-profit law enforcement strategies only serve those who make profit from crime. If our interest is in doing whatever it takes to ‘punish’ criminals by locking them up, we’ll see more examples like the Richmond case where the rights of the people become a secondary interest to serving and upholding law enforcement’s sworn duty to protect and serve the people.

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Anything goes when it comes to ‘hos, ’cause…

Pimpin’ ain’t easy:

Charges against a man accused of being a pimp have been thrown out after an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled that a police officer involved in the case fabricated evidence and lied on the stand. The problem involving Const. George Wang only came to light after Courtney Salmon’s lawyer finally found contradictory information in the notes of other officers involved in the case. Salmon had faced pimping charges before, but they didn’t stick.

But it is made infinitely easier when you are being prosecuted by incompetent and crooked police officers. I lived in Peel region for several years, and I have nothing but negative things to say about them. Contrasted against the professionalism that I associate (in most circumstances, with a few egregious exceptions) with the Vancouver Police Department, I found Peel to be staffed almost exclusively by bullies and mindless thugs who were more interested in pushing around and terrorizing young people than with living up to their oath.

And while the title (a reference to a classic track from Big Daddy Kane *trigger warning for sexism and homophobia*) is meant to be amusing, there is nothing particularly funny about pimping. Despite the fact that it has taken on some kind of positive connotation in common language, it’s an occupation that essentially relies on the exploitation and physical/psychological abuse of young women. It’s a detestable thing, and anyone caught doing it should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

However, what the police chose to do instead was to ignore due process and fabricate evidence. As a result, the case against Mr. Salmon (who is probably guilty) has to be thrown out, at the cost of not only the time and efforts of those involved in the prosecution but the Peel Police themselves. As I pointed out in his morning’s post, when police abuse their powers they undermine their own credibility, which is their most effective law enforcement tool.

“Our whole system of justice is based on faith in police investigating, and presenting their case fairly and truthfully … the community should have grave concerns that the police are not only fabricating evidence, but coming to court and lying about it.” Penman wants the officers involved investigated and punished, but they remain on the job. A spokesperson for the Peel Police Service said they have not been disciplined, despite the judge’s findings.

The tools that run Peel law enforcement are not effective at all, and people are starting to notice:

Defence lawyers who regularly try cases in the area call it the latest example of a troubling and cozy relationship between the police service and the local prosecutor’s office, which has yet to wipe away the decades-old stain of a high-profile wrongful conviction.

With 1,855 officers, the Peel force ranks behind only those of Toronto, Montreal and Calgary. It watches over a sprawling melting pot of new immigrants. “Peel is a petri dish of massive growth and bad planning,” said defence counsel Robert Rotenberg. “They are playing catch up, going from being a small town to being a big city.” In the latest ruling, a judge found that Peel Regional police officers stripped a suspect naked to show him who was boss, and provided false testimony to conceal their misconduct.

Boy am I glad I don’t live there anymore.

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Law and Disorder

Occasionally, events conspire to force me to subtly shift the focus of this blog. What started as a forum specifically for issues relating to race, free speech and religion has since expanded to include feminism, LGBT, law, politics, psychology, and secularism. To this litany of overlapping topics I am about to add a new one: crime.

As you may know if you pay attention to those sorts of things, Vancouver recently had a riot that followed a hockey game. Windows were smashed, people were stabbed, cars were lit on fire – it was a real shit show. It is inaccurate to label them as ‘hockey riots’ though, because they had nothing to do with the result of the hockey game. People came to the downtown area from surrounding municipalities with the sole purpose of causing damage – they brought rocks, gasoline, and masks to hide their identities from cameras.

Of course, such an event necessarily included response by law enforcement, who have been taking quite a bit of criticism for failing to react faster, or more thoroughly, or taking whatever steps were necessary to prevent widespread violence:

Vancouver police are defending the number of officers on the street during last week’s riot, saying it was about the same during the gold-medal hockey game in the 2010 Olympics. “It is true that about 5,000 officers were brought in from other jurisdictions for the Olympic Games, but those officers were for deployment by the Integrated Security Unit inside venues from Richmond to Whistler.

The Vancouver Police Department policed the streets of Vancouver, with some assistance from the ISU in the final days,” said a statement issued by police on Thursday. The force is continuing to refuse to release its tally of feet on the street, saying even if it did, it wouldn’t matter anyway because there will always be debate over how many officers would have been enough.

This more or less agrees with my take on the situation. When you have a crowd of 30,000 people involved in a massive orgy of destruction, there’s very little that having more police there can do. This particular paragraph resonated strongly with me:

“The fact still remains that the number of police on the street the night of June 15, correct or not, quelled a violent crowd of 30,000 people in three hours without major injuries or a single complaint of excessive force or unlawful arrest. Our goal once the riot began was to protect lives, end it as quickly as possible.”

This is the role that police are supposed to perform: protect lives and property (in that order of priority), and to respect the constitutional rights of even those that are committing crimes. The response from the VPD was measured and lawful, and as a result they are enjoying a great deal of public support (the criticisms and questions notwithstanding).

Either police chief Jim Chu is particularly forward-thinking and enlightened, or his policy just happens to coincide with those kinds of principles. At any rate, the VPD’s behaviour seems to reflect an understanding of the fact that the most powerful tool that the police wield is the respect and trust of the people  they are sworn to serve and protect. Respect for the law and those that uphold it is not something that can be legislated or purchased at the point of a gun.

When police behave well, they reap the benefit of not having to work as hard. The immediate response of the people of Vancouver following the riots was to submit photographs and videos to the police department, in the hopes that the police would be able to ferret out those that attacked the city. That is what respect and trust buys you. The other side of this is what happens when people don’t trust you:

Newly released G8/G20 summit documents reveal the RCMP and various Ontario police forces spent several months infiltrating anti-war, anti-globalization and anarchist groups with the use of undercover officers ahead of last June’s summits in Huntsville and Toronto.


“A large number of the people charged with conspiracy were arrested prior to anything happening on that Saturday demonstration,” [Laurentian sociology and history professor Gary] Kinsman told CBC News, saying he himself was among the peaceful demonstrators at last year’s Toronto summit. “So the evidence collected from the people who infiltrated the activist groups was basically used to criminalize the organizers, prior to anything actually taking place.”

Using police power to criminalize dissent itself, rather than actual breaking of the law, increases scrutiny and suspicion of police officers. The RCMP and Ontario police’s borderline-illegal (of course, if the police do it, it’s not illegal) behaviour during the G20 summit in Toronto is a prime example of when police overreaching undermines their own credibility. People lose trust in the institution, and begin to demand answers. And, as sure as night follows day, incidents of police corruption are never isolated.

I disagree with anarchist groups, I disagree with anticapitalist groups, I disagree with antiglobalization groups. However, provided they are not breaking laws or conspiring to break laws (which is itself against the law, so maybe that phrase is redundant), I think they have the right to exist. After all, if the measuring stick against which we decide which groups are allowed to exist is whether or not I personally agree with them, then we can just go ahead and disband the Republican North Party right now.

When we allow police officers to infiltrate groups because they don’t like them and arrest people with no evidence of a committed crime, we open the door to criminalizing any political dissent. We have absolutist states in the world where political dissent is illegal – trust me, you don’t want to live in them.