Citizen Incredulity And Law Enforcement Reality

When we hear a terrible story about abuses by law enforcement — like, say, a college student arrested for smoking marijuana, abandoned in a DEA holding cell for five days without food or water, and reduced to drinking his own urine and attempting suicide with a shard of glass — often our first instinct is to say "that can't be right" or "there must be more to that story" or "that guy is making it up" or, at least, "what a bizarre, freakish event." Our society encourages these reactions. Our society does not encourage the reaction "yep, that's the way our criminal justice system works."

It ought to.

The truth is, that is how our criminal justice system works. In part, it's a matter of sheer numbers. We arrest and incarcerate so many people, and yet begrudge the cost so bitterly, that abuses and horrific mistakes are bound to happen. In part, it's a matter of attitude — we continue, as a society, to tolerate a good guys/bad guys cops vs. robbers mentality more suitable to a preadolescent pointing his fingers like a gun than to a thinking people. In part, it's a matter of indifference — we allow ourselves to believe that abuse by police happens to them, not to us, and so we look the other way. In part, it's a matter of national politics. How many prominent political figures do you see talking about reigning in abusive law enforcement conduct?

So: college kids get get busted for pot and left to starve to death in a holding cell. Detainees are denied even minimal medical care until their penis has to be amputated and they die of cancer. Defendants arrested for marijuana possession are sentenced to certain death in jail facilities completely unable to address their medical needs. Cops shoot family dogs like small-time sociopathic villains in a Tarentino movie. Cops tase and pepper spray handicapped kids and grandmothers in their beds.

And we allow it all. We put up with it. We don't demand that politicians take it seriously. We continue, as a society, to welcome law-and-order pablum from our leaders, and from our insipid if-it-bleeds-it-leads fear-profiteering media.

What the fuck is is wrong with us?

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Truly Deeply says

    WTF is wrong with us is that we have an ingrained belief that the guys in the white hats can't be wrong (although, come to think of it, the klan wears white hats).

    How dare you question the police, or the government. Don't you know that they're the only ones standing between us and the bad people who want to kill/rape/steal from/eat us?

    I mean, take a look at the SEC. They know what's up! The problem isn't the system (prosecutorial misconduct), its all the defense lawyers vigorously defending their clients even when we already know they're guilty!

    But seriously, until we start holding people accountable for their actions–and by that I mean eliminating the qualified immunity for police officers, prosecutors, government regulators and their ilk–the system will not change. This is hard to do in an era where we fawn over "first responders," and where police unions and others like them have become such powerful constituencies that to oppose them is political suicide.

    But I believe it can be done.

  2. says

    > What the fuck is is wrong with us?

    My lawyer strongly advises against me giving a comprehensive essay on this topic.

  3. says

    > Looks like taxpayers footed the $2 million bill for the "system's" failures.

    As they always will. Public choice theory ( ) tells us that cops, cop unions, wardens, prison workers, dog catchers, etc.) will always succeed in getting qualified or absolute immunity ( , ) so that not only are they paid ridiculous sums of money for work that any monkey could do ( ) but they also can torture or execute dogs, children, men, women, and the handicapped with sadistic glee and get no more than a slap on the wrist for it.

    The system is corrupt from top to bottom and voting has not worked, does not work, and will not work to reform it.

  4. andyinsdca says

    I think that one of the fundamental problems is that the individual cops/agents in this case will not be held responsible in any real way. We've given our cops immunity in so many ways (civilly and criminally) that they don't care. They don't have to. When this guy sues (and wins), the cops won't pay, the taxpayers will, so again, the cops have no motivation to care. The DEA will do a cursory "investigation" and change its "procedures" to "ensure something like this never happens again" but the agents won't get fired; sure, they might get a token 5-day suspension or something. And in the off chance that they do get fired, they'll get hired by another agency.

  5. says

    During law school, I spent a summer clerking at the TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, which advocates on behalf of transgender people incarcerated in the California state prison system. I have heard stories from current and former prisoners that made me want to throw up. I am not shocked by any of these stories here, not in the least. (Horrified, of course. Shocked, no.)

  6. says

    "What the fuck is is wrong with us?"

    I've pondered that in nearly every column I've written for the past two years, and I still don't have an answer yet.

  7. deos son of eros says

    "What the fuck is is wrong
    with us?"

    our own morality won't allow us accept reality

  8. says

    You know Ken, this is my problem with the "money isn't speech" folk. No amount of money could stop us from starting to fix the problem this fall. Likewise, if you take that money out of the equation we won't suddenly start asking our politicians to act more responsibly. In the mean time, the money will find a way back in.

    I don't know how to fix it and it's been bothering me more and more lately. I will do what I can this fall (which is predominantly, if not entirely, vote challenger).

  9. JW says

    Group identity as a means to get lazy about issues.

    Instead of finding out about the issues and who knows what's what about it, most people abdicate that responsibility to a member of a class that almost totally relies on emotion and distraction as a matter of course.

    I think we collectively deserve what it coming. Brace yourselves…

  10. Game Kitten says

    What's even more creepy to me is just how common it is for people to actually say out loud that things such as "alley rides" and beating of "criminals" is good; to teach them a lesson and such.

  11. nlp says

    The moment anyone suggests controlling the police and forcing them to treat people with some shard of dignity the woodchucks come out of their hole ranting about being "soft on crime." They start listing horrible actions by a criminal, with the undertone of, "if you insist that people not be locked in holding cells for five days, or that they be given necessary medical treatment, then you are responsible for the crimes committed by criminals." And that always blunts the attack, because you have to explain that not wanting people to die in holding cells is not the same thing as wanting other people to die in a home invasion.

  12. En Passant says

    Ken wrote:

    What the fuck is is wrong with us?

    I think one major cause of the phenomenon is rational ignorance on the part of "the people".


    Another cause, I think, is a kind of synergism between rational ignorance and growth of government power to micromanage peoples' lives. For lack of a better term, I'll call it the "government power – culture war complex".

    As government assumes more power to micromanage peoples's lives, every person who is affected by some numbskull government mandate thinks:

    "I'm a good citizen. If I can't stop the government from doing this to me, then maybe I can at least get some satisfaction by turning government's guns on somebody I think is bad."

    "I think (gays, "hippies", drug users, prostitutes, gamblers, atheists, sexist men, or whoever) are bad. So, I'm going to raise hell to make government turn its guns on those bad people."

    These disgruntled people (and they are rightfully disgruntled) join together as (the religious right, citizens for decency, citizens for social justice, or whatever), and collectively lobby and raise money for politicians who will turn government's guns on their perceived bad people du jour.

    This reaction is approximately as prevalent on the political left as the right. The political parties go there because that's where the money is.

    Rational ignorance of the true effects that numbskull laws and mandates have on "other" peoples' lives makes it easy for any person upset about government's effect on their own lives to rationalize inflicting them on someone else.

    One longstanding old prototype of the phenomenon involves taxation. Everybody wants somebody else to pay taxes. "Don't tax him. Don't tax me. Tax that guy behind the tree."

    Add some moral, cultural or religious approbrium, and the result is that government becomes an equal opportunity tyranny.

  13. says

    Everybody wants somebody else to pay taxes? To quote Richard Q. Peavey: "Well, now, I wouldn't say that."

    Puckishness aside, there's no way to say that I don't mind paying taxes without sounding twee and disingenuous, but it's true. I like public services, and I like the accountability that comes — or, at least, *should* come — with the public fisk. The money for those nifty services I like so much has to come from somewhere, so I pay up.

    Another cause, I think, is a kind of synergism between rational ignorance and growth of government power to micromanage peoples' lives. For lack of a better term, I'll call it the "government power – culture war complex".

    I don't disagree with you, Ken, but I would argue that, at least in other contexts, that synergism is three-pronged, not two-pronged: rational ignorance, growth of government power in managing people's lives, and growth of market power in commodifying people's lives. I don't think the marketplace, swell as it is, should get a free pass for its worst excesses any more than the government should. But I understand that you're talking specifically about abuses of the criminal justice system, and our society's willingness to ignore them, and I don't want to derail the discussion any more than I have.

  14. Chris says

    There does not have to be anything wrong with us as ordinary citizens for this sort of thing to happen (not saying there isn't though). Policies are voted in behind our backs, and enforced by people with much bigger guns than us.

  15. John David Galt says

    It's a "who bells the cat" problem. I'd love to hear your suggestions for how to hold the police and other government functionaries who commit these atrocities answerable for their actions in a way that will actually deter them.

    About the only way I can think of (that wouldn't cause me to become the next victim) would be to start an initiative that strips officials of both their immunity to prosecution and their monopoly on the right to prosecute. But I have a hunch that these privileges are in federal law
    and thus immune to change by a state initiative process.

    Please prove me wrong. Point out something I can do that will help.

  16. Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk says

    I do not disagree that the reported facts of this case are appalling, but I don't see any evidence that sheer numbers/cost have much to do with this particular incident. I'm somewhat skeptical that raising taxes to spend more on law enforcement and incarceration would remedy these sorts of problems to a significant degree. Call me a pessimist about human nature, but I doubt what's wrong with us can be fixed with money.

  17. says

    "We continue, as a society, to tolerate a good guys/bad guys cops vs. robbers mentality more suitable to a preadolescent pointing his fingers like a gun than to a thinking people."

    This is apt but unfairly circumscribed. It appears that you are using "society" to represent middle class whites. Minority communities are far more suspicious of law enforcement. That may even be an understatement; hostile is likely the more accurate characterization.

    I'd also add a pet peeve of mine: it isn't only the news media that is involved in whitewashing reality. The primetime schedules of the legacy networks are full of police/prosecutorial procedural dramas. The old fogies who watch broadcast TV in the evenings can't seem to get enough of this sort of authority worship. If you looked at the demographics I'm sure you'd see an interesting correlation.

  18. says

    Progressives want their government handouts. Criticizing the politicians who provide them might endanger their handouts.

  19. says

    Progressives Lobbyists and the corporations they represent want their government handouts. Criticizing the politicians who provide them might endanger their handouts.


  20. Matt says

    "We arrest and incarcerate so many people, and yet begrudge the cost so bitterly, that abuses and horrific mistakes are bound to happen."

    Even you, in this post made _specifically_ to argue against the practice, commit the fundamental self-defeating error that allows this to go on…you assume it's a mistake.

  21. SarahW says

    Le police spokeswoman was so quick to point out that which would allow me to say "oh that could never happen to a nice girl like me, nor my kid"

    See, He was at a druggie house. Stay away from druggie houses and you won't even get stuck shackled in a holding cell for four days without food water or toilet facilites. Really he should have seen that coming.

    Really I don't think that's quite as clear as fraternity bro's, railless porches and bottle rockets, but I know it was meant to sooth me.
    Yet I am unsoothed.

  22. John David Galt says

    @Matt: If the fundamental error you were talking about is referring to the creepy government people who do these things as "we", then you're making it too.

    I'll accept responsibility for government actions if they're directly ordered by someone I voted for. (I have yet to vote for a candidate that won any major office.) Otherwise, reread Spooner's "No Treason".

  23. says

    There are only two possible solutions: revolution or emmigration to a new frontier. And since there is not currently an new frontier to emmigrate to, that just leaves revolution.