Finding Meaning in the Meaningless

Democratic nominee for New York City Mayor de Blasio delivers remarks while making an appearance at the CityLab luncheon in New YorkIn the wake of the terrible assassination-style shooting of two NYPD officers over the weekend, a lot of commentators who have been opposed to the anti-police protests sought immediately to pin the blame for the deaths of the two officers on the protesters and on anti-cop sentiment that has been stirred up of late by the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. On the one hand, I am fine with hoisting liberals on their own petard, as Erick did here over the weekend. On the other hand, some conservatives who ought well to know better appear to be seriously making the case that is virtually identical to the preposterous case made by liberals almost every time a mentally ill person shoots someone – that those who make the public pronouncements that somehow caught the mentally ill person’s attention are responsible for the mentally ill person’s actions. We have fought against this patent nonsense for years, and while I appreciate seeing Bill de Blasio and some of the worst liberals in the country eating an uncomfortable helping of their own medicine, I hope we understand that this specific claim is not in fact true or helpful.


As Jonathan Tobin noted in Commentary:

Conservatives know very well that attempts to politicize violence on the part of the mentally ill is deeply unfair. They know that liberal claims that either the Tea Party or conservatives such as Sarah Palin were somehow responsible for the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was sheer slander. If some angry supporters of the police now try to say Obama, Holder, or de Blasio approved or countenanced the actions of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, they are just as wrong. Obama, Holder, and de Blasio have all rightly condemned the murder of the two officers.

However, Tobin’s subsequent point is equally wrong, because he seems to argue that the shooting of these two officers somehow shows that the larger complaint about police brutality has no merit, even though they are rather obviously unconnected events:

But once we acknowledge that, we cannot ignore the fact that the discussion about race and the police in this country has gotten out of control in recent months and that these same political leaders who should have been seeking to restrain the public from drawing extreme and general conclusions about two very extraordinary cases instead kept the pot boiling for political advantage.

The problem with this assertion is that it is completely devoid of factual support. Tobin cites no evidence, no studies, to show that the race/police problem in New York (and across the country) is either a) not as much of a problem as the protesters imagine or b) is not a problem at all. Tobin offers nothing but his own ipse dixit to defend the proposition that the discussion has “gotten out of control,” at least as long as we define “out of control” to mean “out of proportion to the actual facts.”


The reason for this is simple: due to police union lobbying, in many places it’s almost impossible to compile an accurate record of complaints of police misconduct, to investigate their merit, or for civilian oversight of police misconduct to even exist. For instance, last year Newsday ran an explosive expose of New York’s Civil Rights law 50-a, which incredibly “makes any record used to judge an officer’s performance confidential.” As a result, citizens must rely on local city councils members – who rely to an incredibly large degree on police union endorsement for their political lives – to provide oversight of police departments. Unsurprisingly, Newsday found that in many New York/Long Island communities the city council had not even discussed police oversight at public meetings in years. The predictable effect of this system in New York has been the creation of a culture where bad cops are not punished even to the point of losing their jobs, to say nothing of criminal indictments (keeping in mind that this is just the information that was voluntarily turned over by Long Island PDs):

  • More than 100 cops involved in serious misconduct cases either remain on the job or continued to work for years before retiring. They include Nassau Officer Anthony DiLeonardo, who was found in an internal affairs investigation to have shot and beat an unarmed cabdriver without justification while off-duty in 2011 after a night of drinking.
  • At least 47 officers faced administrative or criminal charges for lying to internal affairs or supervisors, committing perjury or falsifying police paperwork — offenses that lead to termination in some states. Of the 22 officers Newsday was able to identify by name, 15 remain on the job, five retired and one was terminated after committing other violations. Suffolk Officer Philip Branigan, was suspended without pay when he faced departmental charges of falsely reporting a crime. He retired a month later. Branigan later joined the Suffolk District Attorney’s Office as an assistant district attorney.
  • At least 33 officers have retired with serious misconduct charges against them pending, and Newsday was able to find only six officers who were officially terminated since 2003. Nassau Det. Sgt. William Kaul injured another driver and left the scene in a January 2010 car crash. The department suspended Kaul for 30 days without pay and then allowed him to return to administrative duties, but he retired two months after the accident with an $80,966 pension. He also faced criminal charges of official misconduct, obstructing governmental administration and leaving the scene of an accident. Kaul pleaded guilty to official misconduct in April 2012, and he received a conditional discharge and a $500 fine.
  • At least 49 Nassau and Suffolk cops have been sued more than once, most often for excessive force. Nassau Officer Karl Snelders has been sued three times, with each case settled. Suffolk Det. Tulio Serrata has been sued five times for excessive force, with juries ruling in his favor twice, one case dismissed, one settled and one pending.

In other words, while it may be true that certain hucksters are “keeping the pot boiling” with respect to police brutality for their own benefit, it is likewise true that certain people who have a vested interest in keeping police misconduct swept under the rug are likewise using the horrible murder of these two police officers to say that we ought to just stop talking about these issues altogether because they are causing people to kill police officers. To me, this entire line of argument seems to completely miss the somewhat relevant point that maybe these problems do actually exist and are not just invented out of whole cloth by Sharpton et al, and that failure to self-police and punish bad/abusive cops on the part of police departments is as much to “blame,” if we are wanting to assign blame for the actions of a mentally ill shooter, as the rhetoric of hucksters like Sharpton.

The problem with using actual stories is that they rarely fit so neatly into a larger or overarching narrative as we would like to believe. Obviously, the murder of these NYPD officers is a terrible tragedy, especially for their family, friends, and loved ones. But the murder of these two police officers is just that – the murder of two police officers by a single mentally ill individual. As tragic as it is, it does not change basic facts – one of those facts being that between 20-40 cops are killed in the line of duty each year as opposed to between 300-500 civilians who are killed every year by cops in the line of duty. The regrettable and tragic deaths over this weekend do not obviate our need to assess whether there are abuses endemic in the system and whether (in particular) fundamental reforms in police oversight need to occur. If the country of Iceland, which has extremely high per capita gun ownership, just last year had their first ever homicide of a civilian by a police officer, we ought to at least be able to ask some pointed questions about why it happens with such comparative regularity here in the United States.


Both sides of this debate have been guilty at times of using tragedies as political footballs and of being more interested in using gotcha techniques than in uncovering the facts and addressing potentially real problems. The extent to which the plural (or even singular) of anecdote is morphed into data is unworthy of our commitment to fairness in the criminal justice system, which ought to be a point of pride in the world, rather than something we avoid as an uncomfortable subject.


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