Thursday, January 15, 2015

Police Using Force: We Need a Public Conversation

A series of events - mostly fatal shootings of unarmed black men and boys - have sparked protests and conversations about a lot of important things involving police and law enforcement: racial profiling, the use of lethal force, body cameras, and "blue wall" police culture. I don't know how much actual progress is being made on these issues, but at least they've been brought up in the open.

Since this is America, much of the public discussion has fallen along the usual Red/Blue political lines, with liberals (politically aligned with the black community) taking up the protest cause while conservatives (historically the more "law and order" party, although the libertarian wing is a little uncomfortable with this) have generally backed the police. The involvement of prominent public figures, including NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio (married to a black woman) and President Barack Obama (the nation's first black president), hasn't helped much, not because they haven't said useful things but because their very presence divides audiences (and in particular the chattering class of punditry) along political-tribal lines.

And while there has been some helpful movement on the issue of police wearing body cameras - nearly everybody from both sides agrees that more is better here - I suspect that most of the rest of these issues won't see much progress either nationally or (in many places) locally. Once the outcry from a particular incident dies down there's a tendency to go back to our default mode, which is to defer to the police on matters of policing.

This, in my view, is a mistake. Yes, police have training that the rest of us don't (though many of the objectionable behaviors are not necessarily a part of that training) and the best among them have years of experience and careful study on how to go about doing police work well. There needs to be a professional police voice in the conversation. But that voice cannot be the only voice, for two reasons. First, it is clear that some police forces have developed dangerous cultures of impunity that will find ways to hide or justify a lot of behavior that the rest of society wouldn't tolerate. But second and more importantly we live in a democratic society, which means that ultimately we determine for ourselves how we are governed. Which includes the rules by which police interact with the rest of us.

For an interesting (if somewhat disturbing) case in point, check out this article and watch the video embedded within it:
Arizona State U. Moves to Fire Officer Who Arrested English Professor
The video (less than a minute long, it features police dashboard camera footage along with a local newscaster reporting on the story) shows what appears to be a rather violent response to what, for most folks, barely qualifies as a crime: jaywalking. It's true that the video clip doesn't show the initial interaction between professor and officer, nor does it have audio. So there may be parts of the interaction here that we're not seeing.

That said, this seems a bizarre escalation for a jaywalking case. And those of us who study conflict know that escalation takes two active participants. Meaning that the escalation of this incident from simple jaywalking to violent unarmed combat is at least 50% the responsibility of the police officer. He had other options. He either chose not to use them, or was not trained in their use.

This is the conversation we need to be having: how do we expect our police to treat us? What are appropriate techniques for both escalation and deescalation, and when should they be used? In a great many of these cases, the police response is based on an "obey whatever I say or suffer the consequences" logic. Is that what we want as a society? If a police officer walks up and takes a swing at me, am I forbidden to defend myself just because he has a badge?

I don't think there are easy answers, because police do have to protect themselves and sometimes the people they interact with are dangerous criminals who are quite willing to do them harm. We want police to be effective in helping to keep the rest of us safe. But we don't want them beating us up in the process. What would be most helpful would be a dialogue between police and the communities they serve. Perhaps in some places this is happening - I certainly hope so. Because there's not nearly enough of that kind of conversation - and that, I think, is the responsibility of all of us.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

For-Profit vs. Non-Profit Universities: Mostly an Accounting Trick?


This news story caught my eye this morning:
Milwaukee for-profit Herzing U makes the jump to non-profit
There has been a wave of regulation aimed at the for-profit higher education sector, much of it in response to perceptions that those institutions are getting rich off the backs of their students (and the government) without delivering much of value. There is certainly plenty of data to back up that assertion, as John Oliver pointed out last fall:


Attempts at regulation at the state level, as in Wisconsin where Herzing is based, have been largely ineffective. The Federal department of education, on the other hand, has drafted and imposed some much more stringent requirements on these institutions to prove that they're doing something worthwhile.

Since many of these requirements are specifically aimed at for-profit institutions, it's not surprising that some of them would decide to abandon that ship and recast themselves as non-profit, tax-exempt institutions, as Herzing has apparently done. I've long said that the primary difference between a for-profit institution and a non-profit one is accounting, so this switch may be easier than it seems.

Certainly Herzing will now be barred from doing some things - like taking advantage of venture and investment capital - that for-profit institutions can do. But I doubt that very much will change otherwise, at least in the near term. Herzing will continue to teach the students it teaches, in the ways it teaches them, without a lot of short-term change in outcomes.

It will be interesting to see, over the longer run, if the removal of the profit motive changes the institution. Will it begin to make decisions differently? Will it behave more like a mission-driven non-profit than a bottom-line seeking for-profit? It may be difficult to tell, given that some non-profit institutions have become pretty bottom-line driven themselves, but there may be signs of change. Or the shift may be purely cosmetic, and Herzing may go on doing everything exactly as it has been - in which case, expect more for-profits to follow them.

This illustrates one of the challenges of trying to regulate: imposing a set of rules that solves a real problem without creating new ones. In this case, the real problem is the almost scandalous nature of some of the profit-seeking institutions that amounted to little more than scams that profited (as so many financial institutions did during the bubble last decade) from ignorance and the willingness to take on often poorly understood debt. In trying to solve that problem, you can create unintended new problems for institutions that really are trying to extend the benefits of education to a broader base of the population. I don't know if Herzing is one of these or not - but they certainly claim to be.

I think the Feds were hoping that the for-profit/non-profit distinction would be a way to save the baby from the bathwater. If Herzing's move is successful, that will pretty much eliminate that strategy and send regulators back to the drawing board. What they'll come up with next, I have no idea - but I hope that, whatever rules get promulgated, they do more good than harm.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Is a Thug Just a Thug? Or Is a Thug a Child of God?

It's been an eventful few months in communities around the country as we try to come to grips with issues of race, poverty, violence, and policing. Tragic deaths of both civilians and police have become touchpoints for national conversations, which is (kind of) a good thing. Not all communities have problems between police and population, but too many do.

As is typical, the "public" conversation - by which I mean the conversation carried in major media outlets among "the chattering classes" - has been largely polarized along political lines. While there was some hope that the choking death of Eric Garner might rally some conservatives/Republicans to the cause of tamping down excessive use of force by police, the shooting death of two cops in NYC on the heels of a Democratic mayor's participation in anti-violence protests largely destroyed that prospect. For the most part, what I see is self-identified conservatives lining up to defend the police while self-identified liberals to varying degrees call for police reform and justice for recent civilian victims (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford).

Media coverage, of course, doesn't help our broader understanding. Cameras pan tight on crowds of protesters, which makes them look large by removing any context around them. We see lots of politicians speaking at podiums, which is what politicians do when given the opportunity to get in front of cameras. We see plenty of insta-punditry to criticize politicians on the other side for saying the wrong thing, for saying anything, or for saying nothing at all. All of this, it seems to me, is 100% heat and 0% light.

In the last couple of days I have run across two items, completely disconnected from each other, that I think represent important but ignored ideas. They help pull back the cameras so we can think about the broader questions important to all of us: what kind of society do we want, and how do we get there?

The first is a blog post I had been meaning to read for some time, titled "In Defense of Violence". The blogger writes a variety of thoughts about the use of force and self-defense, topics near and dear to my heart (as readers of this blog will know). But most importantly, she makes a central observation that lies at the root of many of the problems in our current national conversation (paraphrasing here from her article):
We teach ourselves and our children that violence is always bad. As such, we don't teach ourselves and our children about violence - when it is appropriate and in what forms, and when it isn't.
This is true both for police violence as well as for civilian violence. We're actually badly divided within ourselves as a culture - we both deplore and worship violence. In the case of police, we take government use of force as a "professional" matter rather than what is should be in a democratic society: a universal concern for all of us. Police shouldn't write their own rules of engagement; they should hold to rules written by society at large. Certainly they should have input into those rules, and I've seen police with some extremely thoughtful ideas on the subject. But police forces themselves answer to us - they can't be the final word.

Likewise, we have a bizarre relationship with guns and violence in the hands of civilians. John Crawford is dead because he picked up a pellet gun from a Walmart store and carried it casually, which someone apparently found threatening enough to summon police and which the police apparently found threatening enough to shoot him for. Tamir Rice is dead because he was carrying a pellet pistol. In other parts of the country, gun owners take great pride in openly carrying weapons (real weapons!) in public places and stores, and they don't get shot. Yes, race matters here. So does class, and so does local culture. In a country as large and diverse as ours, we have to expect local differences. But the range of those differences shouldn't include innocent people being gunned down, by police or anyone else.

So we need to have a serious conversation about violence and its uses by civilians. I've blogged before about guns and self-defense (posts too many to mention; here and here are a couple to start with). But that conversation is stuck in a quagmire of memes and bumper-sticker slogans and a lot of shouting by the rabid few. If the "In Defense of Violence" post has a point, it is that we need to take that conversation back from the self-interested ideologues and talk seriously to each other as people - not as "liberals" or "conservatives" or anything else.

The second item that sparked my thinking was from one of the many ideological talking heads "contributing" to the ongoing "debate" about police violence and the protests in NYC, Ferguson, and elsewhere. In this case, an avowedly conservative show (The O'Reilly Factor) trotted out an avowedly conservative commentator (Ben Carson, who happens to be black) to defend the police against attacks (both physical and verbal). You can see a synopsis and a link to the interview here. But what really caught my eye was this particular snippet by Carson, which the Fox News site picked up in the summary and the headline:
"The community has to recognize that a thug is a thug. When people do bad things, there are consequences," Carson said.
This struck me because of something I've been wrestling with lately: a framework in which, rather than "picking a side" and dehumanizing the people on the other side, we can engage in conversations with people we disagree with, about serious and even tragic subjects, while continuing to recognize the humanity of each other. The phrase that keeps coming to mind: each of us is a Child of God.

By this I don't mean something primarily theological, or even theologically coherent. What I am looking for is a mental frame of reference in which I can continue to recognize the worth and humanity of every person, whether I agree or disagree with their thoughts or actions.

Carson's glib bumper-sticker statement, of course, runs in completely the opposite direction. He wants to put white hats and black hats on everybody so that he can defend the virtuous and punish the wicked. I guess it must be comforting to play God like that. But I think it's the wrong approach.

To be clear: there are people in the world who, despite their humanity and inherent value, will try to hurt others unjustly. Some of these people are civilians, and if they're lower class we call them "thugs". Some of them are wealthy and wear suits and they usually get treated pretty well, even when the damage they cause is far more widespread than any thug could dream of. And some of them carry badges and wear uniforms and are called police officers. None of this should be surprising - if you change clothes and circumstance, some people will still do bad things to other people.

But if we actually want to things to get better - if we want to work towards a society where fewer police are killed in the line of duty, and where fewer civilians are shot by police, and where fewer people are terrorized and assaulted by either strangers or those close to them - we need to stop pretending that we can draw neat boxes around people and label some of those boxes "good people" and others "bad people". We need to treat violence and the use of force seriously - not as some Hollywood fantasy exercise and not as something that can be contained to only a few. We need to acknowledge everybody's legitimate need to live in peace, and think about what we do when that is violated - by anybody. And above all, we need to listen to the collected wisdom of many centuries: treat others, and view others, as we ourselves would be treated and viewed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Both Right But Everything's Wrong: Darren Wilson, Michael Brown, Race, and Police Shootings

To the surprise of very few people, a grand jury failed to return any indictments against Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old black man, in Ferguson, MO. As has been widely reported, grand juries almost never indict police officers for shootings, for a host of reasons.

I am willing to believe the authorities that in this case, the grand jury carefully examined every piece of evidence available. I am also willing to believe that they were correctly instructed as to the law, and that a reasonable person would, given the law and the evidence available, determine that there is insufficient cause to believe that Officer Wilson committed a criminal act when he shot and killed Mr. Brown. In that sense, Officer Wilson's defenders and those who have lined up on his side (including a host of wealthy white conservative commentators) are right - within our system of criminal justice, no crime was committed here.

On the other hand, I also believe that both the shooting and the legal structures surrounding it represent a gross injustice not only for Mr. Brown and his family, but for a community of African-Americans living in Ferguson (and elsewhere). Mr. Brown was not armed, did not seek out a police officer for the purpose of attacking him, and had (so far as anyone knew at the time) committed no crime more serious than walking down the middle of a street. That anyone in such a situation should have to fear for his life gives lie to the boastful claim that America is a "free country", much less a land of equal opportunity. So while breaking windows is a terrible way to make a point, the protesters (most of whom have been peaceful) are right to voice their anger and their sense of injustice. They, too, are right.

So if both sides are right, why is everything wrong? Because we continue to ask the wrong questions. We build up a set of laws and practices and procedures for police that make it almost impossible for them to commit a crime, and then we continue to ask whether what they did was legal, as if "legal" is the highest standard. But laws are made by human beings, and can be flawed, skewed, stacked. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this well and spoke about it passionately. So did many before him. But today, we don't hear those voices much anymore.

We see the same debate taking place over immigration. The debate is about whether immigrants - 20 million, by some counts - are here in the US "legally" or not. TV pundits argue about whether President Obama had the legal justification to issue the executive orders he did. Nobody is talking about what is right.

I'm not arguing that laws are unimportant. Law that is truly fair and just and evenly applied is one of the greatest moral inventions of humankind. It holds out the promise of righting the wrongs that we have known about for as long as there has been civilization. Law promises to elevate the good over the powerful - something every civilization, in its highest moments, has sought for.

But we have made law an idol and enshrined whatever laws happen to be on the books at a given moment as the highest good. We forget that there were Jim Crow laws; that Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to camps in perfectly legal fashion; that only a generation or two ago, blacks and whites could not legally marry in many parts of this country. We look back on those laws now and wonder, how could we have done that? Wasn't the wrongness of those laws obvious? But apparently, it wasn't - not to the people who wrote them and lived under them and defended them at the time.

So arguing about whether something is or is not legal at a given moment in time misses the point. The overuse of force by police, while apparently legal by nearly all measures (vanishingly few cops are even tried, let alone convicted), is wrong. Racial profiling (setting aside whether that's what happened in Ferguson or not) is wrong. Looting and destroying shops because you're angry is also wrong.

As a culture we tend to turn to violence early and often as a solution to problems. Our public policies and our TV shows alike are full of attempts to force the outcome we want on the "bad guys". And we shape our laws to support the kinds of violence we want to use. On TV, this works great; in real life, much less so.

But violence itself is the problem, the question we should be asking. Why is it that the kinds of shootings we see here - police shooting unarmed, often minority, mostly poor citizens - almost never happen in other developed countries? Why do we permit our police not only to arm themselves with an array of weapons but to use them with impunity? What role should violence have in our society - when is it right to take the life of another, and when is it not? And when is violence not the answer? (hint: it very, very rarely is)

I doubt very much that any of these questions will be asked in the next few days or weeks. The protests will eventually die down and property will be put back together. Politicians and pundits will give empty speeches that accomplish nothing. Everyone will retreat back into their own corners, confident that they are right and ready for the next time when they can try to prove their rightness to others with shouting and threats and, yes, the use of force.

Is this what we would do if we actually wanted to change things? If we really wanted a society where people can walk the streets without feeling threatened? If we wanted to make sure that - "legal" or not - encounters like that between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown never happened again? Law cannot guarantee that - only we can. But that would involve setting aside our fetish of the law and our lust for force and trying something very different.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bullying and Self-Defense for Kids: The Schools Have It All Wrong

On my Facebook feed, I found the following (posted by a prominent internet persona):


Caveat: Like all things internet, this one hasn't been verified. I don't know whether this kid's story is true or false. It was posted by a source I have otherwise found to be reliable, so I think it's likelier true than not. But ultimately, I'm not as interested in this particular story as I am about a specific aspect of it.

There's a lot about this story that rings true. Kids that "look gay" are harassed and bullied all the time. Schools frequently don't do anything about it, either because of pressure from the other parents or because the bullies are very good at not getting caught. That's one of the survival traits of a bully - the ability to sense when adults are watching and switch behavior.

The particular aspect of the story that caught my eye is in the middle:
I got 2 days out of school suspension for overcoming the bully, defending myself.
Schools obviously want to discourage fighting among their students. This is more a function of cultural behavior than anything else - where my kids go to school there are virtually no fights, because physical violence just isn't in the local culture. I'm sure that there is bullying of other kinds, some of which can be horrific. But kids hitting other kids? Not so much.

But this kid's school may well be different. And here's where the schools get themselves in trouble and end up teaching the wrong lessons. What most of us want schools to do is punish the aggressor in any physical altercation. Someone who defends themselves, within reason, should be either lightly punished or not punished at all. Personally, I'd lean towards the latter, because we want to teach kids that it's OK to defend yourself if someone attacks you. Otherwise, we're raising potential victims.

But schools don't do this - not because they don't want to, but because it's hard. Usually by the time an adult gets involved, the altercation is well underway (if not over), and there's no way of knowing who started it. Schools used to try to sort that out by interviewing both the fighters and witnesses, but discovered that that's a tricky arena. It takes real skill and judgment to take a bunch of biased witness statements and figure out what really happened.

In today's world, judgment is not encouraged. Schools prefer rules that can be uniformly applied by anybody, so there won't be any charges of bias against a particular teacher or administrator. "Zero Tolerance" policies fit this mold exactly. It doesn't matter if you're carrying stolen oxycontin or a couple of aspirin - a drug is a drug, and off to detention you go.

So if you want a universally enforceable rule on who to punish in school fights, but you can't know who the aggressor is, what do you do? Here schools adopt a rule with terrible consequences: they pin guilt on the winner of the altercation. Teachers will assume that, if you're winning the fight, you must have started it.

This is, of course, patent nonsense. Kids start fights all the time that they then lose, often badly - just search YouTube for dozens of filmed examples. Sometimes, the innocent victim really does know how to defend themselves, and does. Sometimes, the bully gets a nasty surprise.

My guess is that teachers, like most adults, have little to no experience with interpersonal violence themselves and so don't realize how silly the assumption is. Unless they have training, the most likely exposure they would have had to fighting was being a victim of bullies - in which case, they may well have been on the losing end. They may also make the mistaken assumption that violence is rational - that a bully wouldn't start a fight he couldn't win. All of this, of course, is wrong.

Unfortunately, the results of this error are that schools teach kids to be victims. If the only way I can avoid punishment by the school is to lose the fight, I have an institutional incentive not to defend myself. The authority figures around me are telling me: if you want to be a "good kid", if you want to get good recommendation letters to college and good grades and the approval of your teachers, don't fight back. Let yourself get hit, pushed, kicked, picked on. Trust the adults to deal with it.

Except, of course, that the adults don't deal with it. The story in the picture above rings true because it happens all the time. Teachers are powerless to stop bullying, and they know it. So do the bullies.

I don't have an easy solution. Allowing free-for-all combat would shift the balance of power to the strong, not necessarily the virtuous. Right now, that balance lies in the hands of the sneaky and unethical, which is probably worse. But I certainly don't think that having all kids "fight it out" is the answer.

The best answer, unfortunately, is messy. There has to be room for judgment on the part of teachers and administrators. I have many teacher friends who have seen situations where they and their colleagues know who the troublemaker is. But because of the "universal rules", the kid gets away with it time and again. And all students learn the same lesson: the one who cheats best, wins.

Readers of this blog know that I'm an ardent self-defense pacifist and a passionate believer in the use of force to defend oneself. There are thousands upon thousands of teachers, dojos, workshops, and classes all over this country teaching people how to defend themselves when they're attacked. Much of that effort involves undoing the damage of the K-12 years, where kids are methodically taught not to engage in any self-defense at all. For the sake of the kids in our schools and the adults they will become, we need to find a better way.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Post-Election Musings: Was This Really the Seinfeld Election?

It's the day after Election Day, and lots of folks are poring over the results to find meaning. Most, of course, will see what they want to see. Republicans will see this is a mandate - that the majority of the US agrees with them (whatever that means) and hates the President. Democrats will dig deeper to find rays of hope - overwhelming support for raising minimum wage laws, for example. Republicans have to decide whether they want to govern for substance and work with the President, or govern for symbols and spend two years trashing him. And everyone is looking already to 2016.

I have friends who are disappointed in yesterday's results and friends who are pleased. Some of this really is rooting for the tribal team - if you don't live in Kansas, who the governor is there doesn't really matter to you. For me, the "national scorecard" isn't very interesting for much the same reason that fantasy football isn't interesting - it's a made-up scoring system for something that doesn't really exist.

We also put FAR too much faith in the ability of any of these politicians, or all of them together, to actually make things better for the country. Does what Congress does matter? Of course. But if you think that one-party control of both chambers is going to usher in the new Golden Age, you need a reality check. Congress' ability (with or without the President) to affect things right now is pretty minimal.

[And yes, I know some folks will offer counter-examples - the Federal Minimum Wage being one. But those are exceptions, and most of the time these days Congress doesn't act anyway.]

At their best, elections serve as a kind of national conversation - a big (if imperfect and messy) discussion about the stuff that matters. The fact that we have to conduct those conversations through politicians, PACs, and media outlets is frustrating, but it can also be helpful. Ross Perot's surprisingly good third-party run at the White House in 1992 helped put the budget deficit and the federal debt on the map as an issue. Reagan's 1980 campaign was about America's place in the world and general vision for its future. Obama's 2008 run was fueled by a broad sense of post-racial and even post-partisan optimism (both now dashed hopes, which helps explain his approval ratings).

Midterm elections are usually NOT these kinds of conversations, although they can be. In 1994 the Republicans ran on the Contract with America, which put forward a broad set of ideas about what government should or shouldn't do. But that was the exception - usually midterms are about jockeying for power.

In this sense, 2014 was not the Seinfeld election (an "election about nothing", for those who don't get the reference), but it was the latest in a series. There were few if any defining issues - mostly just the same motley set of divides that we've been fighting over for years.

More important to me than what the candidates and PACs did talk about was what they didn't. Minimum wage laws are important, but that's a small stand-in for a much larger issue: the fast-growing and massive inequality in both income and wealth among Americans. That's a serious issue that shouldn't be a partisan one; most thoughtful conservatives I know (and yes, for my liberal friends - there are such people) don't want to live in a Russian-style oligarchy any more than anybody else. But nobody wants to talk about it.

Global climate change has also been buried as a live issue. Here we've so tribalized the issue that we are failing to ask the questions that need to be asked: how do we adapt to a changing planet? On the local level, coastal communities are already doing so, often in broadly bipartisan ways. But nationally our collective head is stuck deep in the sand while otherwise-grown people scream at each other.

I'm sure we can think of a few more such issues - things that broadly affect everybody in significant, even life-altering ways. Ebola isn't one of them; neither are Benghazi, ISIS, or most of the other claptrap that dominates the daily headlines. This isn't just the media's fault; it's their job to cover day-to-day news, to focus on what's changed since yesterday. But somehow, somewhere, we need to talk about the big stuff. I have no faith in either political party's ability or desire to do so. Somehow, the rest of us will have to figure out how without them.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Administrative Growth: More Complicated Than It Appears

I've written before about "administrative bloat" - the ongoing complaint (often from faculty, sometimes from state legislators) that universities have added too many administrators in recent years and not enough faculty. There are numbers to support this contention, so the general trend is not in doubt. The real question is why this is happening.

Faculty of a certain bent are wont to attribute this to the general greed and tribal affiliation of administrators - that administration breeds more administration and that administrators don't care about the faculty. While good for whipping up the masses, this argument lacks much in the way of evidence. Yes, there are administrators here and there who see themselves as a breed apart from faculty and who take an adversarial position. But a great many don't, and many are more than happy to add more faculty lines when they can find the resources to do so.

My contention has been that there are forces outside of higher education entirely that help to drive the growth in administration. Today's Chronicle has an excellent example of just such a force:
Overseeing Sex-Assault Cases Is Now a Full-Time Job
Hiring people to take the lead on Title IX compliance and put together good, effective responses to sexual assault cases that protects both victims and accused is an important thing. In today's climate, with folks on both sides lawyering up, it's probably a necessary step to get out in front of the issue. But it also costs money. That's one more administrator on many campuses - money that could, under other circumstances, fund a faculty line.

So to my faculty colleagues - please, the next time you get the urge to complain about administrative bloat, look carefully at who's being hired to do what. Where there are positions your university really doesn't need, make that argument. But don't paint administrative motives too broadly. Sometimes, those new administrative positions can help make the world a better place.