More Experimentation, Less Reporting, More Dead People

After a high-profile botched execution, as well as numerous others nationwide, Oklahoma is finally doing something to change capital punishment, but what they are doing is the wrong thing.  Many of the problems are due to experimentation with various drugs and their dosages after access to traditional execution drugs has been cut off.  Unfortunately, instead of banning the death penalty, or even putting it on hold until a more humane method can be found (though I would argue that no execution can be humane), the experimentation will continue, but with more drugs and less transparency.

As The Oklahoman reports:

The April 29 execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett lasted 43 minutes and sparked an Oklahoma Public Safety Department investigation, which included recommended changes to protocol.

Lockett was killed with a three-drug cocktail never before used in the United States, and the new protocol allows the state to continue using the most controversial of the drugs, midazolam. It also allows the state to continue using a single IV in the femoral vein, a procedure the state Public Safety Department investigation found to be central to problems that occurred during the procedure. Media witnesses for executions have been cut by more than half, from 12 to five.

Midazolam also was used in two recent problematic executions, one in Ohio and another in Arizona. The new protocol increases the amount of the drug by five times. It also requires the medical professional inserting a single vein IV be trained to perform the procedure. Traditional lethal injections in Oklahoma utilize two IVs, one in each arm.

So, a drug that has been problematic in numerous cases will continue to be used, just in greater doses.  And, just in case things continue to go wrong, fewer than half as many journalists will be allowed to witness the procedure.

Both these developments are troubling.  The drug involved, midazolam, has not been proven to work properly.  So, increasing the dosage, even by five times, does not guarantee that it will now work the way they hope it will.  This means that the next person executed in Oklahoma by this method will be nothing more than a lab rat, as they tweak the procedure to try to find the best way to end a human life.

And, while I suspect no member of the media enjoys watching a person being executed, their role in the process is vital.  It is essential that the state be accountable for how they carry out the sentence they have imposed.  They must answer for mistakes they make, not try to cover them up.  Especially now, when scrutiny is high, they should be making efforts to be more transparent, not less.  Limiting media access shows they are trying to hide something.

The best possible solution to the difficulties in executing people would be to just stop executing people.  But, short of that, it must be done in the most humane way possible, with full transparency and accountability.  And, citizens must be sure their state knows what it is doing.  These new measures prove that they do not.

 

Taking Guns Away from Dangerous People is a Good Thing

There are many things about living in California that frustrate me terribly.  But, things like the gun legislation passed this week remind me that, for all its flaws, my adopted home state still has more common sense than much of the country.

As the AP reports:

California will become the first state that allows family members to ask a judge to remove firearms from a relative who appears to pose a threat, under legislation Gov. Jerry Brown said Tuesday he had signed.

This legislation comes as a response to the shootings near the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California earlier this year.  But, even without the tragedy that provoked it, this is a measure that should have passed long ago.  It is obvious that keeping guns away from people who pose a threat to others is an easy way to save lives.  However, it is unusual that such a common sense solution can become law.

Even pro-gun folks can see the good in this idea, though they of course find a reason to object to any legislation that keeps guns away from whoever wants to own them:

“Our concern is not so much what they intended to do; our concern is with the method they put in place to address people with mental or emotional issues,” said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California. “We think this just misses the mark and may create a situation where law-abiding gun owners are put in jeopardy.”

But, what Paredes fails to see is how this prevents situations where common citizens, both with and without guns, are kept out of jeopardy.  Isn’t that far more important?  And, even for those aiming to protect the right of gun ownership, it is easy to see that some people simply should not have access to weapons, and that guns in the wrong hands can do a great deal of harm.

There is no reason to believe that this law will do anything to keep guns out of the hands of so-called “responsible” gun owners.  Just like background checks, this is legislation that will affect only those who should not own guns.

And, it is not just mass shootings that could be prevented.  As Don Thompson at Talking Points Memo writes:

Advocates say its greatest use actually might come not in preventing headline-grabbing murderous sprees, but in helping families deal with loved ones who are in danger of taking their own lives or who might be so angry or distraught that they could turn a gun on family members.

When about two-thirds of gun-related deaths are suicides, and homicides involving family members are far too frequent, enabling family members to remove weapons from the home can save lives, both their own and that of a potential suicide victim.

Of course, the actual success of this measure cannot be judged yet.  But, as gun-control advocate Amanda Wilcox says, “It’s hard to know how much it will be used or how much it will prevent.  It only takes avoiding one loss for this to be worth it.”

The NFL is Driving Me Away

There are few things in this world that I love more than football.  I have been a fan and avid watcher of the sport for more than three decades.  Some of my fondest memories involve games watched with my father or with friends.  I have spent my hard-earned money on tickets and merchandise, and countless hours reading about my favorite team and even playing fantasy football.  I have been a loyal consumer of the product that the NFL has been selling, and it has brought me great joy.

So, why are they driving me away?

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I guess I always knew there was a dark side.  After all, this is a sport based on violence and brutality.  Sure, there is strategy involved, but that strategy still involves gigantic men destroying their bodies.  And, the ungodly amount of money involved cannot help but corrupt those who run the league.  But, somehow, I was always able to ignore all of that because I loved watching the game so much.  I have been a loyal fan, willing to turn a blind eye.

But, I cannot pretend to be blind anymore.

Today’s news about Ray Rice is the tipping point perhaps, but it is merely one of many illustrations of just how corrupt the NFL has become.  Like any big business, they are driven by profit, and as long as the money keeps rolling in, they are willing to condone just about any sort of behavior.

Let’s look at the Rice situation.  Here is a player who was seen as one of the league’s “good guys.”  He played well for a team that won the Super Bowl just a few years ago.  But, he committed the fatal error of doing something awful and getting caught.  To the league, the action does not matter nearly as much as the getting caught.  It would be foolish to believe that Rice is the first player to abuse his partner.  He just happened to do it on camera.  So, since the league could not ignore it, they did the least they could possibly do to quiet the critics.  They condemned his behavior and suspended him for 2 games.  They told us just how seriously they take the issue of domestic violence, then suspended Rice for just one-eighth of the season.  And, they were more than willing to sweep the entire incident under the rug.  But, the public, to their credit, would not let them.  After the uproar that followed what was seen as a far-too-lenient punishment, the league vowed to re-evaluate their policy on domestic violence.  They decided that a six-game suspension should apply to any future incidents.  And, again, they were willing to consider the matter settled.  But, today, after more video evidence was leaked, revealing just how brutally Rice attacked his then-fiancée, they were again pressured into action.  Ray Rice was released by his team and suspended indefinitely by the league.  There is a real possibility that he never plays football professionally again.  But, even after all that, Rice still lands on his feet.  He does not face any criminal punishment, and he has millions of dollars to cushion his fall.

And, the NFL comes out on top.  By allowing all the blame to fall on Ray Rice (and absurdly trying to blame his fiancée for being abused), the league gets to keep selling its product to a fan base that cannot get enough.  This is not to say that Rice should not be blamed.  Of course he should.  He should be blamed, he should be punished, and he should go to jail.  But, the NFL should be blamed, as well, not for the assault, but certainly for how they dealt with it.  They did as little as they could, trying to protect themselves and their product.  That is the game they play.  For the product is all that matters.

This single-minded focus on the game and the profits they reap is what allows them to stand behind a team owner in support of a racist team name.  It is what allows them to condemn the use of illegal (but harmless) drugs like marijuana while pumping their players full of dangerous prescription painkillers.  It is what allows them to ignore the countless brain injuries caused by years of players slamming themselves into each other as hard as they can.  It is what allows them to play their game in stadiums owned by billionaires and paid for by public funds taken away from education or infrastructure.  They address only what they are forced to, only those bits of the darkness that creep out into the light.

I love football, but I don’t like it anymore.  When I see a big hit, I don’t cheer.  I wonder whether the player is destroying his brain and his body.  When I see an owner in his luxury box, I think about fans who can’t afford tickets into the stadium they are paying for.  When I see a player doing charity work and photo-ops, I wonder whether he shows the same kind of compassion to his wife.  Yet, despite all this, I still watch, because I love football.

So, why is the NFL trying to drive me away?  How difficult would it be to actually do the right thing?  Why not condemn the owner of the team with the racist name rather than the woman who was beaten by a man who just so happens to be famous for playing football?  Why not embrace efforts to protect the players who make the league possible?  Why not reach out to the fans who spend the money that has made the league so profitable and address their concerns?  We don’t want much.  We just want to watch football without feeling like we’re supporting all the awful things that happen under the league’s watch.  Is that too much to ask?

Is this REALLY where we should be spending all that money?

News came out today that Bill and Melinda Gates have made a $1 million donation to support a Washington state bill that would require background checks on all gun purchases.  On its face, this is great news, as the Gateses join fellow super-rich folks like Michael Bloomberg, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, and Nick Hanauer in donating towards sensible gun control initiatives.  And, while I wholeheartedly support any attempts to mandate background checks and any other measures that would limit gun violence, I was also a bit saddened to realize just how much money is being spent on this nonsensical debate.

Many are celebrating the Gateses donation, including Cliff Schecter at the Daily Beast:

Gates’s fame brings more attention and further legitimizes the initiative in a way that almost nobody else could. Once the Gates Foundation made it a priority to combat malaria around the world in 2000, it brought down deaths due to the insect-borne disease by 20 percent in 11 years, saving the lives of 1 million African children in the process.

Gates has the ability to grab headlines and make an issue go viral with the constant media coverage he receives, and the financial ability, if he wins, to fund similar efforts around the country. His involvement could be the answer to the public health crisis that makes American children 93 percent of those murdered in the 26 high-income countries around the world.

But, in those paragraphs lies the most tragic part of the entire debate, namely that so much money is being spent on it that could better be spent on other things.  The Gates Foundation has already shown the good that can be done by philanthropic billionaires, and its malaria prevention effort has already saved more lives than any gun control effort ever could.  And, sure, the million dollars donated in Washington is dwarfed by the budget his Foundation spends fighting disease, but even that million dollars could do a world of good if spent elsewhere.

But, because of groups like the National Rifle Association, who spend absurd amounts of money fighting any and all efforts to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people, Gates, Bloomberg, and all the rest are now spending their money fighting against the NRA.  And, the Gateses’ million dollars, along with the $50 million donated by Bloomberg, are still dwarfed by the hundreds of millions spent by pro-gun groups.  The Washington Post details spending from 2010:

2010-expenditures-by-gunissue-nonprofits_50365ef8c7c2d_w587

 

Just imagine what all that NRA money could be used for if not for their obsession with guns.  They could fight hunger and homelessness in America, cure disease, or fund research.  But, instead they choose to spend it on making it easier to buy guns.  What a waste.

So, yes, Gates and his billionaire buddies should be applauded for entering the fight against the gun lobby.  Their efforts, and their money, could potentially save thousands of lives.  It’s just a shame that they have to.

This Man Should Not Have a Gun, and He Is Not the Only One

Georgia has gone all-in on gun rights recently, most notably with their “Guns Everywhere” law that allows guns in churches, bars, libraries, and even airports and schools.  But, even for such a pro-gun state, this is inexplicable.  A man convicted of sexual assault who attempted to rape a woman with his gun has had his right to carry a firearm restored.

Think Progress reports:

A Georgia appeals courts decision upholding the sexual assault conviction of a former cop named Dennis Krauss is difficult to read. According to the record in Krauss’ trial, the former officer was dispatched to the home of a woman who called 911 alleging that her husband had hit her. Rather than arresting the husband, however, Krauss asked the victim to ride with him in his police car. Once she was in his car, “Krauss told the victim that he could take her to jail if he wanted to” or, if she did not want to be arrested, she could have sex with him instead. Krauss’ words, according to the court opinion, were “[w]e can go to the motel or you can go to jail.”

At the motel, Krauss drew his service weapon and told the woman that he wanted to anally penetrate her with the gun. When she refused, and began to cry, “Krauss then pushed her back, pulled off her pants, and had sex with her.” And then he drove her home to the same husband that led her to call the police in the first place.

Krauss was convicted of sexual assault against a person in custody, and this one instance of sexual assault is far from the only allegation against him. According to theAtlanta Journal-Constitution, “[h]is record was filled with allegations of misconduct: that he beat a prisoner so severely the man’s brain bled; that he threatened to fabricate charges against a suspect so he could sleep with the man’s wife; that he pressured at least 10 women for sex to avoid arrest.” The former cop, for his part, is unrepentant. When asked about his sexual assault conviction, he claims that “[t]here wasn’t any crime,” and that “I was dealt a bad hand.”

And yet, in July of 2013, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles restored Krauss’ right to carry a firearm. According to a Journal-Constitution tally, he is one of 358 violent felons who regained these rights over a six year period. That includes 32 violent felons who killed someone, and 44 who committed sex crimes. One man regained his right to own a gun in 2012 after serving a 10 year sentence for child molestation and aggravated child molestation. Some offenders regained their gun rights after being convicted of crimes such as armed robbery, burglary or aggravated assault.

Surely, even the state of Georgia can see the dangers of letting a man like this carry a weapon. This is a man convicted of a violent crime and who allegedly committed numerous others.  He used his gun to coerce a woman into non-consensual sex, and then attempted to violate her with that very weapon.  But, apparently, the right for a manany manto carry a gun outweighs the right of women not to be sexually assaulted.  Rapist, robbers, murderers, and even child molesters are allowed to carry weapons, and that is completely ludicrous.  Each of those 358 violent felons has victimized people, and can now carry a weapon that will allow them to continue their abhorrent behavior.

Courts have ruled repeatedly that violent criminals can have their right to own a gun revoked.  Yet, somehow, women and children still get little protection.  There has been resistance to keeping guns from domestic abusers or people with violence-related restraining orders.  And, in Georgia at least, even serial rapists are free to carry weapons.  Or, is sexual assault not a violent crime?  Are women not people who should be protected?  How about children?

This issue goes far beyond the Second Amendment.  For all the gray area over what the founders may have intended, no one could argue that they thought violent criminals should have weapons.  This issue is just further proof that women, children, and other victims of violent crime don’t matter to GOP lawmakers, at least not as much as guns do.

Tragedy of Errors

The death of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, was a tragedy.  But, it is also the pivot point of a series of errors, both before and after the fatal shooting, that are tragic in their own right.

Long before Brown took that walk down the street where his body laid for hours after he was shot down, events in his town helped form a culture where an emboldened police force found itself at odds with the citizens it was tasked to protect.

These events began with the segregationist policies that resulted in a town where most of its populace is black and nearly all of its police force is white.  On its own, this may not seem problematic, but couple these demographics with the high unemployment, disproportionate targeting by law enforcement, and greater health risks among the African-American community, and the beginnings of unrest can be seen.

As Steven W Thrasher writes at the Guardian:

The symptoms of structural racism stain America everywhere, but its execution is particularly perverse in places like Ferguson. It’s not just that black drivers are stopped more often for alleged crimes than white drivers, despite the Missouri attorney general’s report that white people break the law more often. It’s not that Ferguson’s police force is 94% white in a town that’s two-thirds black. It’s not even, as Jeff Smith wrote in Monday’s New York Times, that black people – many unemployed – “do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites” by way of those stops and the subsequent fines.

The real perversion of justice by way of modern American racism is that black people in Ferguson – like black people in the greater St Louis metropolitan area and nationally – are marginalized economically and physically from day one. That is the real looting of Ferguson.

We are consistently twice as likely to be unemployed – and in and near St Louis, “47 percent of the metro area’s African-American men between ages 16 and 24 are unemployed”. Our men are more likely to be convicted and our women are more likely to be evicted. We are more likely to be victims of predatory loans. Our children are twice as likely to have asthma (even before you teargas them). Our babies are twice as likely to die before the age of one – and their mothers are three or four times more likely to die as a result of bearing them.

The people of Ferguson could have used some help, but none was coming for them.  Yet, at the same time, their police force was being showered with fancy new toys from the federal government.  This is how the cops found themselves armed with the same kind of weapons and armor the American military used in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And, like anyone with new toys, they were eager to use them.

The community in Ferguson has suffered.  Then, one of their own was gunned down in the street, unarmed and with his hands up in submission to a police officer who then shot him dead.  And, nothing was being done.  That was simply more than the community could bear.  So, they took to the streets.

It is unfortunate that some used the protests that followed as an excuse for looting and vandalism.  And, a police response to these actions would have been justified.  But, the police were largely occupied by the peaceful protests taking place across the town.  They drove out their armored vehicles and parked them in the street.  They pointed their military-style rifles at protesters.  They threw tear gas.  They arrested protesters and journalists.  And, they fired their weapons at the citizens of the town they served.  And, though the rounds they fired were “non-lethal,” they were certainly still capable of injuring and intimidating the people who wanted nothing more than to show their grief and frustration to the world.

This parade of tragic errors, from arming the police like the army, to the economic and legal oppression of a community, to the murder of a young black man, to looting, to violent suppression of peaceful protest, has brought the city of Ferguson to where it is today.  The question is, what now?

Errors just like these have taken place all across the country, and each of them can be learned from.  We should be motivated to examine policies that have led to segregated towns and the oppression of minorities.  We should examine how we have armed our police and empowered them to use tools of war against their own communities.  We should examine how we respond to peaceful protest.  We can listen to the people of Ferguson and we can change our ways.  Mistakes have been made and tragedies have resulted, but these mistakes do not have to be repeated.  We can learn from them and we can be better.

This is Why People Don’t Like Cops

I have been fortunate enough to have had very few encounters with the police in my life.  I don’t think that I am any more well-behaved than most people, but I do have the societal advantages of white skin and growing up in the suburbs.  Many other people do not, and therefore their interactions with the police are far more numerous, and far more potentially dangerous.  And, based on what they have seen and experienced they have grown distrustful of cops.  After reading things like this, and after what I keep seeing on the news, I can’t say that I blame them.

Sunil Dutta, a LAPD officer, believes that there is an easy solution to police violence: just do whatever they tell you to do.  He says:

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?

At least he concedes that most people don’t want to get tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground.  But, you know what else people don’t want?  They don’t want to get harassed by entitled police officers who abuse their power and disproportionately target minorities.

While it might be easy for Officer Dutta to suggest that the people he stop just do what he tells them, it is far more difficult for people to follow that suggestion when they are stopped repeatedly and for no reason.  If Dutta was stopped while walking down the street just because of the color of his skin, would he be so quick to comply?  How about the second time it happened, or the third?  How about if it happened all the time?  At what point is it okay to resist an unjust system?  At what point is it okay NOT to cooperate?  Even if a stop is “complete in minutes,” would he agree to be stripped of his dignity for that long?  Would he stand by and watch others suffer the same humiliation?

Dutta continues:

You don’t know what is in my mind when I stop you. Did I just get a radio call of a shooting moments ago? Am I looking for a murderer or an armed fugitive? For you, this might be a “simple” traffic stop, for me each traffic stop is a potentially dangerous encounter. Show some empathy for an officer’s safety concerns. Don’t make our job more difficult than it already is.

The officer would be wise to listen to his own advice.  He could stand to show some empathy himself.  He does not know what is in the mind of the person being stopped any more than they know what is in his.  Is this person a victim of a police force that abuses its power and targets certain segments of the community?  Is he marked as a suspect in that shooting or murder Dutta just got a call about simply because of his clothing or skin color?  Does he live in a world where no traffic stop is ever really “simple?”  Is he part of a community where the potential danger far too often is for the one who is stopped?  While Dutta’s job may truly be difficult, he is speaking to people whose entire lives are difficult, largely because of a society that wants them to just comply while it continues to abuse and humiliate them.

Dutta goes on:

Community members deserve courtesy, respect and professionalism from their officers. Every person stopped by a cop should feel safe instead of feeling that their wellbeing is in jeopardy. Shouldn’t the community members extend the same courtesy to their officers and project that the officer’s safety is not threatened by their actions?

What if the community members don’t receive the courtesy, respect and professionalism they deserve?  What if they don’t feel safe?  What if their well-being is in jeopardy?  Mike Brown’s certainly was.  And, I don’t think the bullets that killed him came with any courtesy or respect.

Communities have entrusted their police forces with certain powers.  But, regardless of what Officer Dutta seems to think, their responsibility is to the community.  They are public servants, trusted to protect the communities they work for.  And, yes, that sometimes means using force when necessary.  But, that does not mean they have license to use force whenever they want.  And, as citizens see their police forces behave like an occupying army, they get the urge to resist.  And, when the police are not held accountable for their misdeeds, that urge grows.  And, when they see one of their own shot down by the very people tasked with protecting them, they cry out.

Dutta addresses this use of force:

[C]ops are legally prohibited from using excessive force: The moment a suspect submits and stops resisting, the officers must cease use of force.

This is great, in theory, but reality shows that this is simply not true.  Mike Brown submitted.  He did not resist.  By all accounts, he had his hands raised in surrender.  He was shot and killed and left to lie in the street.  And, he is not alone.

Dutta says, “cops are not murderers.”  But, sometimes they are.  And, when nothing is done, it makes it that much easier for the next cop to shoot and kill the next unarmed black man walking down the street, and that much harder for people to just do what they are told.