Reconciling Calls in D.C. For Vice Squads With Black Lives Matter

Last week, the president of the D.C. Logan Circle area Area Neighborhood Council (‘ANC’), in response to an increase in murders, called for the reinstitution of vice squads. I had some doubts:

This works, until an innocent yet somehow suspicious young black man is shot while minding his own business. This might lower crime, but it also can lead to some real abuses. When you tell the police to look for trouble, they usually find it, sometimes even if it’s not really there….

This plan… will lead to confrontations between police and citizens (that’s the point). Unless the D.C. police department is unlike any other department, some of these stops and arrests will escalate over something trivial. I could easily see someone losing his cool after being stopped for public urination or some other minor infraction (not that I approve), and things then spiraling out of control.

…the proposed zero tolerance approach tends to lead to confrontation, which inevitably will lead to improper arrests (at best). It also might delegitimze the police, since these stops will often be discretionary–which is to say arbitrary.

We can’t claim Black lives matter, and then call for strict policing proposals that suggest maybe they don’t matter so much

Given that, not that long ago, there was concern about police ‘jump outs’ in D.C., it seems popular opinion might have swung the other way, so we are willing to target young black men. Of course, the intersection of “we” and “young black men” might not be that large (and it’s worth noting that, as best as I can tell, the entire Logan Circle ANC is white, all eight of them).

Council Member Brianne Nadeau seems to share some of the same concerns:

I have recently been asked to weigh in on proposals to temporarily bring back the MPD Vice Squad, also known as “jump out squads.” The practices employed by them, which involves officers pulling up to a location and arresting a group of people, have been retired by MPD, and have been widely criticized. I cannot support these proposals, and I do not think they help us achieve the long term, sustained outcome we truly want for the District. When violence and drug activity were at their worst, what made the biggest difference was residents partnering with MPD, taking back their blocks and being part of the solution.

As D.C. becomes more white and less black, I fear that stricter policing–which will lead to increased arrests, justified and unjustified–will become more popular. At the same time, I’m sure some of the people proposing this insist they are nothing like those other communities with problematic policing.

Fear knows no boundaries apparently.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Racism | Leave a comment

The Smartest Thing I’ve Read About the Microbiome In a Long Time

Several years ago, I was part of the Human Microbiome Project, so I’m not someone who’s disgruntled that the microbiomes are getting all the money. On the other hand, that has also led me to have a very skeptical opinion on most of the ‘your microbiome governs X’ stories. To say some of the work is a bit oversold would be an understatement. So this article by Sarah Zhang who had the microbiome of her apartment sequenced, to me, is pitch-perfect* (boldface mine):

Three years ago, the human microbiome was just bursting into the mainstream, and scientists were just refining new tools to study bacteria out in the world. Mysterious bugs to be found in my apartment? Sign me up!

When the bacterial data was first released to participants several months ago, I spoke with Rob Dunn, a North Carolina State biologist who heads up Wild Life of Our Homes. Dunn walked me through some of the thousand-plus kinds of bacteria found on my door frame, including Sphingomonadaceae, a soil microbe, and Corynebacteriaceae, common in armpits. There was also, of course, also fecal-associated bacteria, just as my roommate probably feared. This all seemed nice to know, but I could already tell you there was soil and skin in my apartment.

As I paged through the study published today aggregating data from 1,200 homes, I felt what has since become common reading microbiome papers: disappointment. Not because the science was bad but because the findings seemed underwhelming. This study found that bacteria in household dust varies depending on the people and pets living in the house, while the fungi varies depending on the outdoor environment. Not exactly groundbreaking, right?

That doesn’t mean these kinds of studies aren’t important:

The tools for sequencing microbes in the environment are so new that scientists are only beginning to know what they don’t know….

But metagenomics still has its limits. Those algorithms usually rely on reference libraries of known genomes; if a particular bacteria completely unknown to science shows up, the algorithms don’t really know to look for it. That’s a false negative, but metagenomics is also prone to false positives—like when plague supposedly showed up on the New York City subway.

Put another way, microbiology is still in its cataloguing phase, akin to 18th century botanists pressing flowers into their notebooks.

This does make it exciting, but most of the ‘we’ll change your microbiome (very soon) and make your life vastly better’ claims need to be scaled back. The science is cool enough–and in applied settings, important enough–as is.

*Though I’ll quibble about the claim that 90+% of microorganisms can’t be cultured; most can be, but most people are either too lazy or don’t know how.

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Links 8/26/15

Links for you. Science:

Without humans, the whole world could look like Serengeti
A Beginner’s Guide to Eigenvectors, PCA, Covariance and Entropy
Totally Transparent Solar Cells Could Turn Our Windows Into Solar Panels
White, Black, and Red All Over: What Blood Segregation Says About Science and Race
Microbial genome assembly made fast and easy (would like to see: 1) how it does on a more difficult bacterial genome, such as CRE; 2) the annotation error rate)


The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover
The Right-Wing Hate Machine: Twitchy is not just a popular conservative website. It’s also a harassment tool used to target liberal writers
Children and Immigration in the 19th Century
Donald Trump’s campaign of terror: How a billionaire channeled his authoritarian rage — and soared to the top of the polls
Classification Follies
The Trucks Are Killing Us (good, but no mention of using trains to pick up some of the cargo load as well)
How The Right Thinks Google Is Gonna Rig The Election For Hillary (maybe it’s a case of self-projection?)
Testing, Testing: An escape from the standardized testing regime
RG3 got hurt and it’s Jay Gruden’s fault (I’m going with 4-12 this season)
N.Y. schools commissioner: It’s ‘unethical’ for educators to support testing opt-out movement
The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies (seems to miss that most middle-managers are utterly interchangeable)
North Korea Instagram Pictures Provide Colourful Insight Into State Trapped In A 20th Century Dystopia

Posted in Lotsa Links | 2 Comments

The Tragedy Behind the Trump-Related Beating

By now, you might have heard about the two South Boston men, inspired by Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric, who beat a homeless Mexican immigrant. Here’s the heart-breaking part (boldface mine):

The 58-year-old victim, who has requested privacy, suffered a broken nose and bruises and was taken early Wednesday to Boston Medical Center. By Friday afternoon, he had improved enough to be released to a recuperation facility, a hospital spokeswoman said.

“His spirit is good. He’s a man with a huge heart,” Daniel Hernández Joseph, the consul general of Mexico in Boston, said after he met with the man in the hospital shortly before his release. “And he doesn’t seem to hold any anger or grudge. He simply expressed concern that it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

Hernández Joseph said the man came to the United States in the 1980s, possibly earlier, seeking a better life. He speaks English, has paid taxes, and has his own Social Security number.

He is single and has no children, but his siblings and parents live in Central Mexico. He asked the consulate not to contact them because he did not want them to worry, Hernández Joseph said.

The man came to Boston about a decade ago after working as a janitor in a veterinary facility in Chicago. He still works in Boston, but cannot afford housing. Before the attack the man slept on the street and worked odd jobs, such as collecting discarded aluminum cans for the deposit money, which he sent to his elderly mother.

“He has worked for many, many years,” Hernandez Joseph said.

The man’s immigration status was unclear. Consular officials said they would ensure that he has shelter and legal assistance as the criminal case against his alleged assailants moves forward.

You shouldn’t work and still be homeless. That should be a basic human right. And rather than using what money he had, he slept on the street so he could help his mother.

But family values or something.

Posted in Basic Human Decency, Boston, Housing | Leave a comment

The One Radical Proposal of Campaign Zero/BLM

I’ve discussed previously how many policing decisions are not made through democratic processes, but are made by ‘police fiat.’ In other words, police departments are making unilateral policy decisions about whom to arrest and for which crimes without any meaningful input by citizens. Consider the debate in New York City to decriminalize public urination (yes, you can be arrested for this; boldface added):

…another, often neglected, factor is that law enforcement officials can, with little or no citizen and civilian official input, make serious policy decisions. Give someone a badge and a gun, throw in a lack of oversight, and you have an unelected policy maker.

Police routinely make decisions about whom to stop or arrest. Even when those decisions are based on some sort of policy (e.g., don’t waste time hassling quiet, non-violent homeless people, or don’t ticket ‘moderate speeders’ who appear to have control of their cars), this often isn’t a policy that has been approved directly by citizens or indirectly by elected officials

There are actual costs to treating this as a violation–as the article notes, this can make it difficult for people to get jobs. While I think people should be discouraged from public urination, giving someone a criminal record for this ‘crime’ is absurd.

Importantly, this should be decided by the citizens of New York City and their elected officials, not the Police Chief.

I think this ‘police governance creep’ is one reason why marijuana legalization efforts in cities are so popular: people are tired of seeing young men turned into ‘pre-criminals‘ for simply having some weed.

While jaywalking tickets aren’t a life-or-death matter, this too is a sign of the transfer of power from elected officials to unelected police departments (boldface added):

What I do not understand is who exactly decided this would be policy. Essentially, the LAPD is making a policy decision: they are attempting to retard the shift towards walking. It does have an effect–if Boston, D.C., or New York police officers ever decided to enforce a similar policy, that would probably be the one thing that could get every single elected official voted out of office. Cities require walking.

Yet the LAPD has decided that Los Angeles doesn’t. Is this a Ferguson-style attempt to raise revenue? Is this an attempt to fill monthly quotas (if they truly exist)? Probably not. Instead, it seems like the Police Department has decided, unilaterally, to try to limit pedestrian fatalities–a good thing to do. However, they clearly didn’t ask any elected officials, as shown by Councilmen Bonin’s and Huizar’s reactions.

While jaywalking obviously isn’t an issue of life and death, this is one example of how a police department, when there is no oversight, can de facto enact urban planning policy; this is all the more disturbing when most police officers and officials are not residents of the communities in which they are making these policies.

The murder of Samuel Dubose in Cincinnati by University of Cincinnati police, who weren’t bound by agreements the city police had made, is a tragic case of the breakdown of democratic oversight.

Campaign Zero, a policy initiative put together by Black Lives Matter activists, is an excellent series of proposals. Most of them have been adopted (usually piecemeal) by police departments around the country. But, as Radley Balko notes, there is one element that is radical–and as you probably guessed given the prelude–absolutely necessary (boldface mine):

Here, BLM is calling for citizen police commissions to set policies for police agencies. BLM wants any current or former cops and their relatives to be barred from serving on these commissions, and for the commissions to have the power to discipline and fire cops (including police chiefs) and to have a say in the hiring of police chiefs. In addition, BLM is calling for separate civilian review boards to not only review complaints, but also to issue broader, data-driven reports on police stops, arrests, use of force and so on.

This is probably the most radical part of the BLM plan, but only because it’s so foreign to what happens today. In theory, the idea that in a democracy the police should be accountable and answerable to the people they serve doesn’t seem all that radical at all. But in the past, this has mostly happened by way of the political process. That is, the people elect the politicians who are supposed to hold the police leadership accountable, and the leadership is then entrusted to hold individual officers accountable. This hasn’t worked out so well, mostly because there’s very little incentive for politicians to remain a check on cops. A politician needs only a majority of votes to stay in office. The number of people abused by police is naturally going to be pretty small when compared with the number of people who vote to elect someone to office. And the communities disproportionately affected by police misconduct will be a small percentage of the overall population. Most people want to feel safe and believe that empowering the police is the way to do that. There’s very little electoral incentive, then, for politicians to demand more accountability from law enforcement.

In practice, this section of the BLM agenda would take police agencies from being answerable to no one but themselves to making them answerable to everyone but themselves. That’s a huge and substantial change. No profession will give up that kind of arrangement easily. But we’re talking about law enforcement here, a profession that can be politically powerful, is great at winning public sympathy and has a long tradition of looking out for itself. Given all that, the fact that these proposals are inherently more democratic — and just make a hell of a lot of sense — may end up being beside the point.

Despite all the BOOGA BOOGA we hear from the right about government taking their guns and from all quarters about the NSA, for many Americans, the single most tangible threat to their liberty is an unaccountable police department. Campaign Zero/BLM is absolutely right about this–and this should be–and must be–the centerpiece of reform. Sadly, I think what will happen is that some of the other pieces will be incorporated, but the restoration of democratic control over the power to detain and arrest essentially will not happen.

I hope I’m wrong though.

Posted in Civil Liberties | Leave a comment

Links 8/25/15

Links for you. Science:

The forests of the world are in major trouble, scientists report
Source of Deadly NYC Legionnaires’ Outbreak Identified
Rock of ages
A Visual Introduction to Machine Learning (in a few years, the pseudostatical technobrats will be talking about this, so you might as well get in the ground floor; of course, they’re already talking about it, but many of them don’t realize that data mining often uses these techniques)
Most animals and plants can’t cope with built-up areas. But from foxes to pigeons and Oxford ragwort, some species love city living


The Men Who Left Were White
As Killings Spike, D.C. Officials Blame Influx of Illegal Guns From South
We can end police violence in America
Opposition to housing in HBO’s “Show Me a Hero” sounds eerily familiar
Are academics very well-educated journalists who write badly but will work for free? (it’s poorly, which sort of proves the point…)
Debt Is Good
Can Our Transit System Get Any Worse?
How False Narratives of Margaret Sanger Are Being Used to Shame Black Women
A review of MOVE: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead by Rosabeth Moss Kanter (“ turns out that “Rosabeth Moss Kanter” is an anagram of “Thanks, Robert Moses.’ That may be really all you need to know about this book.”)
The Defense of Hillary Clinton’s Email Server That She Dare Not Utter
Why Buses Are the Saviors of Our Most Car-Crazy Cities
The GOP’s Education Problem
Why Ending Birthright Citizenship Would Create A Nightmare For Everyone
How Smarter School Architecture Can Help Kids Eat Healthier Food
NJ admits police killed Jerame Reid with his hands up, but he moved a bit, so, you know, no charges
The Cinematic Lost Cause

Posted in Lotsa Links | 1 Comment

Um, No Thanks?

Observed on 18th Street, between P and Q, Dupont Circle, D.C.:


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