Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for July 7th, 2021

When Cops Commit Property Damage

leave a comment »

It seems appropriate to rethink police responsibilities and the range of immunity they are granted. Right now — especially as in this incident — police seem to play the role of an invading army in a war conducted on hostile territory, in which damaging and dangerous behavior is excused as necessary under the circumstances. Zak Cheney-Rice writes in New York:

Last Wednesday, as people were loading up on sparklers and hot dogs for the Fourth of July weekend, an explosion ripped through a South Los Angeles neighborhood. The blast shattered windows and flipped cars as far as two blocks away, injuring 17 people and forcing residents of at least 12 homes to move into a temporary shelter set up by the Red Cross. The elementary school on East 28th Street, about a block away from ground zero, was unaffected, but several people in neighboring buildings were hospitalized because flying glass shards had cut their faces.

The police have said they will “investigate” what happened. But their investigation won’t include the typical search for a suspect, because the party responsible for the explosion is the Los Angeles Police Department itself. Law-enforcement officials were executing what was supposed to be a “controlled detonation.” A week later, some local residents are still displaced, and the department is still trying to figure out what went wrong.

The police are sure of two things so far, and the first is how it all started. Cops searched a home on the 700 block of East 27th Street and seized about 5,000 pounds of fireworks, including what one LAPD detective described as “a small amount of unstable, improvised explosive-type fireworks.” Most of these materials were slated to be transported to a storage facility, but some of them were deemed too volatile, so the bomb squad decided to blow them up right there in the middle of the neighborhood. To accomplish this, they brought in a special truck with armored walls and tried to detonate about 10 pounds of fireworks inside of it.

Then there was a “total catastrophic failure of that containment vehicle,” said LAPD Chief Michael Moore. Part of the container’s lid was sent flying into the air, smashing part of someone’s roof several blocks down before landing in their backyard, reports CBS LA.

The second thing the cops are sure of is that they don’t want to pay for the damage. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Marta Elba, 61 … [asked] police how she could be reimbursed for a broken window caused by the blast. Elba said police told her she needed to call her insurance company.”

These two things are related. And they illustrate how police impunity extends beyond the destruction of people’s bodies to the destruction of almost everything else in their vicinity, including people’s homes.

The police’s license to kill has animated hundreds of protests and riots in the past year, involving up to 26 million people, the largest movement of its kind in U.S. history. These demonstrations have focused mostly on police killings of civilians, which in the last seven years have risen in prominence, if not necessarily in number, to the level of a nationally recognized emergency. Cops and their backers have tried to deflect the dissident energy in other directions, often toward the demonstrators’ own behavior and how it supposedly undermines the goals they claim to be pursuing.

A frequent object of this misdirection has been property. Whenever buildings get harmed, a familiar chorus arises casting the damaged structures as evidence of how irresponsible the dissidents are. “If you loot, riot, and destroy you lose all moral credibility, in my eyes, to protest injustice,” tweeted Charlie Kirk, then a surrogate for President Trump, at the start of last year’s uprising in Minneapolis, expressing a commonly held opinion.

When property destruction is not being weaponized as an emblem of demonstrators’ unworthiness, it is invoked to guilt them and to claim that they’re failing as good-faith partners in communities they share with other people, including cops. When Daunte Wright was killed by police in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, in April, then-Chief Tim Gannon appealed to “our community, a community that I’ve been a part of for 27 years” to forestall damage to property during the ensuing protests. Never mind that his officers had spent years broadcasting how uninterested they were in sharing a community with the people they patrolled, epitomized by the fact that none of them actually lived in the city.

But this irony is secondary to the material fact of police fecklessness. In the course of their official duties, the cops’ sense of responsibility toward people’s living spaces and belongings is often as negligible as anything they accuse protesters of, and usually the police are far less accountable.

When LAPD officers told Elba she should contact her insurance company last week, they did so with a confidence instilled by years of legal precedent. According to the Times, a 1995 California Supreme Court ruling confirmed that “the government should not be held liable for damage that occurs as a consequence of lawful and reasonable actions by the police.” This isn’t a guarantee that cops or the city won’t compensate the victims of last week’s blast. But it makes accountability for law enforcement a piecemeal affair, at best, and contingent in large part on whether the cops own up to what they did wrong.

This doesn’t happen with any consistency. In past instances where law-enforcement entities have damaged property, they’ve sometimes deployed a civil-litigation unit to help the affected people. Other victims have been hung out to dry. In 2011, police in Schenectady, New York, coaxed a landlord into giving them keys to one of her tenants’ units. The next morning, they plowed through the man’s door with a battering ram, wrecking the doorframe and dislodging the wall between the apartment and the hall. The landlord was encouraged to file an insurance claim for compensation from the city. It was promptly denied because “the police had a search warrant.”

Some victims are trying to push the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2015, a SWAT team tore every window out of Leo Lech’s home in Greenwood Village, Colorado, and pulverized most of the interior while looking for a guy they suspected of shoplifting. A federal appeals court ruled they didn’t owe him anything. He’s still trying to get SCOTUS to hear the case.

The suffering and inconvenience experienced by property owners with insurance — and the time and wherewithal needed to file claims, compile thorough documentation, and follow up over weeks, months, and even years — is one thing. But in many cases, the destruction caused by police affects people with fewer means to recoup their losses. Residents of the area where cops detonated the fireworks last week have pointed out that law-enforcement recklessness in neighborhoods like theirs is no accident, precisely because they are more vulnerable.

“Bombings of communities of color are not a mistake,” said one resident at a news conference. “[The police] called the press … [They] didn’t let no neighborhood council leader know” before they set off the explosion. The cops warned some residents by going door to door — a dubious method in a neighborhood long marked by police abuse, and where many people are accustomed to distrusting law enforcement. (The LAPD is renowned for a drug-raid innovation it developed in the 1980s that literally entailed driving through people’s homes with a tank.)

Several residents were in their homes when last week’s detonation happened. Some are raising money on GoFundMe to cover their new living costs and medical expenses. This fallout is normal, and it is widely understood as elemental. “It’s just like if your home was in an area where there was a landslide and we shut you down for safety issues,” an officer from the LA County Sheriff’s Department told the Times in 2005. “The government entity is not responsible for that.”

Debates over whether police are a force for safety in American communities would be more comprehensive if they accounted not only for the death and bodily injury officers cause, but for the destruction and displacement they impose on people’s everyday living environments. This is not an unavoidable result of nature’s laws, as the “landslide” metaphor suggests, but a consequence of discrete decisions made by the cops and of the norms that shield them from being held responsible. The extent to which  . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

7 July 2021 at 2:52 pm

Ode to a world-saving idea: attribution error

leave a comment »

One book in the list of books I find myself repeatedly recommending is The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright: erudite but readable, humorous and insightful, and altogether enlightening. Of course, it is the idea of God that evolves, but what is God but an idea — a meme in the multitudinous fabric of human culture — and the evolution to which the title refers is memetic evolution, not the kind of evolution that resulted in, say, the octopus and the platypus. He writes the Nonzero Newsletter (a name related to Donald Trump and John Bolton), and one of his books is Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

A recent issue of his newsletter had this article:

Five weeks ago the psychologist Lee Ross died, and five days ago the New York Times published his obituary. Better late than never. But, even with all that time for research, the obituary doesn’t do justice to its subject.

By “its subject” I don’t mean Ross; he comes off very well. I mean the idea he is most closely associated with, an idea that occupies much of the obituary and is no doubt the reason Ross was finally deemed to have Times obit status. The idea is called “attribution error.”

Actually, Ross called it “the fundamental attribution error,” and that’s the term the Times uses. But as the idea evolved in keeping with new research, the word “fundamental” became less apt. And, oddly, this evolution made the concept itself more fundamental. In fact, if I had to pick only one scientific finding about how the human mind works and promulgate it in hopes of saving the world, I’d probably go with attribution error.

Ross coined the term “the fundamental attribution error” in 1977, in a paper that became a landmark in social psychology. The basic idea was pretty simple: When we’re explaining the behavior of other people, we tend to put too much emphasis on “disposition”—on their character, their personality, their essential nature. And we tend to put too little emphasis on “situation”—on the circumstances they find themselves in. The Times gives an illustration:

A 2014 article in Psychology Today titled ‘Why We Don’t Give Each Other a Break’ used the example of someone who cuts into a line in front of you. You might think, “What a jerk,” when in reality this person has never skipped ahead in a line before and is doing so now only because he would otherwise miss a flight to see a dying relative.

Right after this paragraph, Alex Traub, author of the obituary, writes: “Delivering folk wisdom in multisyllabic packaging, ‘the fundamental attribution error’ became one of those academic phrases that add a whiff of sophistication to any argument they adorn.”

I can see why Traub treats the idea a bit sardonically. The original formulation of it can be rendered in ways that make it seem borderline obvious, and Traub may not be aware that it evolved into something subtler. (He’s a newspaper reporter who has to write about all kinds of stuff every week, not a psych grad student.) But, before we move on to the subtler version of the idea, it’s important to understand that even the original version has potentially radical implications.

For example: Ross and Richard Nisbett, another eminent figure in modern psychology, argued that due appreciation of the power of situation in shaping behavior should lead us to revise the way we think about categories of people. If you see a picture of a minister and then a picture of a prison inmate, you’ll probably assume they have very different characters. But, Ross and Nisbett wrote:

Clerics and criminals rarely face an identical or equivalent set of situational challenges. Rather, they place themselves, and are placed by others, in situations that differ precisely in ways that induce clergy to look, act, feel, and think rather consistently like clergy and that induce criminals to look, act, feel, and think like criminals.

It’s possible to take the point Ross and Nisbett are making too far, but I think a more common mistake is not taking it far enough. In any event, that’s the basic idea behind the fundamental attribution error: most people don’t take the power of circumstance seriously enough. Now for the subtler version of the concept:

It turns out that our tendency to attribute people’s behavior to disposition rather than situation isn’t as general as Ross and other psychologists originally thought. There are two notable exceptions to it:

(1) If an enemy or rival does something good, we’re inclined to attribute the behavior to situation. (Granted, my rival for the affections of the woman I love did give money to a homeless man, but that was just to impress the woman I love, not because he’s actually a nice guy!) (2) If a friend or ally does something bad, we’re inclined to attribute the behavior to situation. (Yes, my golf buddy embezzled millions of dollars, but his wife was ill, and health care is expensive—plus, there was the mistress to support!)

These exceptions are the reason I say there is no single “fundamental” attribution error. We’re not as generally biased toward disposition in our attributions as was originally thought; under certain circumstances, we lean more toward situation. Attribution error, you might say, is itself situational.

Among the consequences of this fact is that attribution error reinforces allegiances within tribes and reinforces antagonisms between tribes. Sure, the people in your tribe may do bad things, but only in response to extraordinary circumstances. And, sure, the people in the other tribe may do good things, but only in response to extraordinary circumstances. So the fact remains that the people in your tribe are essentially good and the people in the other tribe are essentially bad.

So attribution error is one reason that, once a nation’s politics get polarized, they can be hard to de-polarize.

Attribution error can also have a big impact on international politics. It means that, once you’ve defined another nation as the enemy, that label will be hard to change. As the social scientist Herbert Kelman has put it:

Attribution mechanisms… promote confirmation of the original enemy image. Hostile actions by the enemy are attributed dispositionally, and thus provide further evidence of the enemy’s inherently aggressive, implacable character. Conciliatory actions are explained away as reactions to situational forces—as tactical maneuvers, responses to external pressure, or temporary adjustments to a position of weakness—and therefore require no revision of the original image.

This helps explain why Americans who argue for invading a country spend so much time emphasizing how nefarious the country’s leaders are. Once we’re convinced that a foreign government is bad, it’s hard to imagine how to fix the problem with anything short of regime change. After all, if the existing regime changes its behavior for the better, evil will still lurk within.

I hope you’re starting to see why . . .

Continue reading. It’s good, and there’s much more, including an interesting idea: cognitive (not emotional) empathy — understanding how the situation is understood by another.

I find it interesting that when someone acts in a way that is incongruous to our view of them (their doing something good when we view them as bad, or their doing something bad when we view them as good), we do not use that to modify our view of them (similar to how Bayesian methods uses new outcomes to adjust perceived probabilities), but rather take that as information about the situation, not the person. The tendency to avoid changing our view of a person but instead looking to a situational reason for behavior inconsistent with our view might be viewed as a way of protecting our ego — no one likes to have been wrong.

Written by Leisureguy

7 July 2021 at 1:15 pm

Coffee + Honey = Planet Java Hive

with 6 comments

After yesterday’s shave, today’s combo is a natural. This CK-6 soap from Phoenix Artisan has a great fragrance — easily identifiable for those with any sense of smell at all — and of course a great lather — it’s CK-6. The Edwin Jagger synthetic has a character that I like, and it’s not at all like a Plissoft brush.

Three passes with the Fine Marvel left my face perfectly smooth, and a splash of Planet Java Hive aftershave splash sealed the deal. Now I’m off to have breakfast out.

Written by Leisureguy

7 July 2021 at 7:51 am

Posted in Shaving

%d bloggers like this: