Friday, June 17, 2016

The Connection Between Police Brutality, the War on Drugs, and Gun Control

The War on Drugs has claimed another innocent family among its victims. Fortunately, no one died in this latest episode. But an 18-year-old teenager has been arrested and charged with attempted murder for actions that any reasonable person should view as self-defense. Here's what happened.

In April, a SWAT team from the Austin Police Department raided the house of teenager Tyler Harrell and his parents. The raid took place before 6 a.m. in the morning and proceeded in a typical shock-and-awe fashion. Police officers breached the door and threw flash-bang grenades into the house with the intent of disorienting the occupants. Meanwhile, a loudspeaker announced that the organization conducting the raid was the APD.

It's difficult to imagine the stream of thoughts that must go through one's head when they wake up to a series of loud noises, explosions, and screams of family members. In this case, Tyler Harrell claims, not unreasonably, that he believed his family's home was being invaded and that he and his parents were in danger. So he grabbed his (legally owned) rifle and shot at the intruders down a stairwell, hitting a police officer in the leg. Another officer unsuccessfully returned fire, and the SWAT team soon retreated from the house. Harrell came out and surrendered peacefully shortly thereafter, according to the write-up from the Austin American-Statesman.

Harrell claims to have heard the intruders shout that they were APD only after he had fired on the men. Meanwhile, the police are effectively claiming he must have known the officers were police, given that they were announcing it over a loudspeaker. Thus, they are accusing him of willfully trying to kill a police officer and have charged him with attempted capital murder.

The purpose for this raid was that police suspected Harrell of dealing drugs, specifically marijuana and possibly cocaine. During the raid, police found 34 grams of marijuana, which is not even enough to merit a felony in the state of Texas. But in order to root out this unspeakable crime against humanity--namely, the possession of a particular dried plant--the police conducted a violent and dangerous raid, which left one person to the hospital and now has the potential to ruin a young man's life.

The only real good news is that it appears the crime Harrell has been charged with will be almost impossible to prove. Based on my brief research, the crime of attempted capital murder would seem to require Harrell to know, at the time, that the person he shot at was a police officer conducting his lawful duties. Given the circumstances of this event, and the fact that Harrell surrendered himself peacefully a few minutes later after the SWAT team retreated, this is implausible. It would mean that Harrell knowingly made the decision to try to fight off the APD SWAT team by himself, but then decided to surrender a few minutes later, after they had retreated. Clearly, this narrative makes no sense. And one hopes, for his sake, that jurors won't believe that preposterous story is true beyond a reasonable doubt.

Stepping back from the specifics, there are a few broader issues to unpack here.

Media Deference to Authority
The first issue is how absurdly deferential local media can be towards the police when covering stories like this. For example, this article from KXAN, the local NBC affiliate, cites exactly no information from the perspective of the accused or his lawyer, and then wraps up with this gem from the police chief and president of the local police association (emphasis added).
"Although people have tried to take two lives of our officers, our folks still come to work day in and day out in the mission of keeping Austin one of the safest big cities in the country,” said [Police Chief] Acevedo. “I hope the public takes some time to help me help lift them up in these challenging weeks.” 
The president of the Austin Police Association also made a point to mention, all officers are on high alert as they deal with a culture that seems to be bold enough to shoot officers.
Yeah, maybe it's the culture. Or, maybe it's the fact that you storm people's houses while they're asleep and lead with explosives--explosives whose whole purpose is to disorient the target. Nah, probably the culture thing. Video games corrupting the youth and what not.

This is unhelpful. When police do stupid things, like needlessly escalating a situation before trying any alternatives, they should be called on it. Maybe that will discourage them from doing it again in the future. Maybe it could also influence jurors or the prosecution not to destroy Harrell's life over this.

(Note one of the "two lives" mentioned in the quote above relates to an unrelated incident that had occurred shortly before the raid.)

The War on Drugs is Awful
The intensity of the raid conducted in this case seems disproportionate for almost any suspect. Perhaps if someone was known to be a dangerous murderer / terrorist / rapist, an argument could be made. The fact that it was actually about a little over an ounce of pot makes this story even worse.

And yet, this is what happens in the War on Drugs all the time. It's not clear that Harrell even was a drug dealer, as the authorities initially suspected. But even if he was, would that justify launching a military-style raid on his parent's house?

Which leads us to another issue. To a far greater degree than other law enforcement matters, the War on Drugs has to deal with a lot of ambiguity. This is the nature of victimless crimes. In a consensual sale of drugs, neither the seller nor the buyer has any interest in reporting the crime; indeed, since they're both breaking the law, they have a clear incentive to be as quiet as possible about it. In turn, this makes the police's job considerably harder. They can't get leads from a victim or a crime scene, because neither of those exist. Instead, they have to set up sting operations and take more action based on less evidence. That's not a formula that's likely to turn out well. In this case, the APD may have thought they were conducting a raid on Austin's equivalent of Scarface, a person dealing narcotics and armed with automatic weapons. Instead, they probably just found a teenager who likes to smoke pot. That's a serious margin of error.

Stigmatizing Legal Gun Ownership
We mentioned earlier that Harrell's gun was legally owned. This seems like a small detail in the context of this story, but it's actually critical.

You see, the reason the APD made (and now defends) the decision to use a paramilitary SWAT approach stems from their initial investigative work. They sifted through the personal garbage of the Harrells and allegedly found three items of note: a plastic bag with marijuana residue, a substance that tested positive for cocaine, and empty ammunition boxes. This last item is what justified the SWAT team.

But why should that be the case? If Harrell owned the weapon legally, why is it reasonable to assume he's any more prone to violence and criminality than anyone else? I confess I don't know much about guns myself, but it seems to me the police probably should. And given that the gun was legal, it follows that the ammunition they found was compatible with legal weapons. Surely, people who deal with weapons and gun laws on a daily basis would know something like this. In spite of this, however, Reason notes that the police have continued to inaccurately refer to the weapon as an AK-47, in an effort to vilify Harrell.

This same issue is seen at play in the broader story of police brutality in the US. Of the stories that broke into become national news stories, most involved individuals that were unarmed--Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, etc. In cases where the victim had a gun or another weapon, authorities use it to imply criminality and avoid accountability.

This general pattern is also evident in the statistics that are used to track police brutality incidents, as compiled by The Guardian. Here, events can be filtered based on the type of weapon owned by the victim, if any. But it doesn't attempt to draw any distinctions between whether the weapon was legal or not, or whether it was pulled out. The Guardian's tool is a fantastic resource, but this is a major limitation. The question of whether a police shooting was justified shouldn't hinge on whether the victim happened to possess a weapon. It should depend on whether the victim was actually a threat to anyone around them. Those are not at all the same.

In the discussion that ensued following our earlier post this week on the Orlando Shooting, I suggested one possible reason to oppose gun control is that it can create a stigma around legal gun owners. In turn, this can be used as a justification for disproportionate force to be used against otherwise peaceful people. This is not just a theoretical argument. It's the reason Tyler Harrell and his family woke up to a violent assault on their house one April morning instead of a knock on the door.

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