Thursday, August 13, 2015

Balancing pragmatism and utopianism

In The Hidden Bias of Cameras by Adam Benforado, the author uses a terrible example in a bad way to try and support a good point for bad purposes.

The good point is that police cameras, whether dashboard or body cameras, will not eliminates disputes about evidence though they might reduce the number of disputes. Benforado correctly observes that a single camera provides only a single perspective. While it is good to have that information, it is better to have more. Benforado recommends that there should be multiple cameras from different perspectives. I agree within the constraints of the police budget (nothing is free and money spent on cameras is not spent on other good uses).

I saw an example of this years ago, in the early days of Youtube. It was a police shooting of a person who turned out to be unarmed. The officer claimed that he thought that the man was drawing a gun and the officer felt sufficiently threatened to warrant discharging his weapon. The context was a call from a gas station convenience store, late at night, regarding a man in the forecourt shouting and acting erratically. The first police car arrives, the officer steps out and calls to the man to get down on the ground. The man disobeys and is walking around, sometimes towards the officer and sometimes away. The officer draws his weapon and instructs the man again to get down on the ground. The man has his hand inside his jacket pocket.

At this point a second police car pulls up and that officer steps out, gun drawn, and joins the shouting to the man to get down on the ground. The man is still pacing, hand still in his pocket.

At this point, and in a split second, things going tragically wrong. The pacing man turns toward the first officer and in doing so, pulls his hand from his pocket. The first officer, thinking he is about to be shot, fires his weapon, fatally wounding the man. As the man falls, he releases what he had been holding in his hand. A cell phone.

So was this a reckless shooting? The man's family brought a suit against the officer and police department and introduced the dashboard camera of the second police car as evidence. In the fuzzy black and white video shot in the glare of the forecourt lights with the dark night as background, it certainly is clear that while the man is holding something in his hand, it does not appear at all like a gun. The officer might still be able to make the argument that he couldn't know that and that he was still justified firing his weapon but the video seems to strip away his capacity to claim that it looked like a weapon.

At this point, the police officer's credibility and position looks badly damaged. The police officer's defense attorney then introduced the video camera from the first officer's car. The cars were about twenty feet apart and at right angles to one another. The alternative perspective was striking. Seen from the shooting officer's angle, it looks just like a gun is being drawn and pointed towards him.

I really wish I could relocate this video clip because it is a compelling example that objective empirical evidence (such as a video) can be just as misleading as subjective evidence. Without the second video from just a slightly different angle, the police officer might have been in trouble. With the second video, the case was dismissed.

The challenge, always, is to get all the evidence and then weigh its interpretation in the balance. So I agree with Benforado's argument that there is value in having multiple sources of (video) evidence.

But, oh my, what a terrible example he provides. A driver speeds by a police car, 40% over the speed limit, and speeds up when the officer flashes his blue lights for him to slow down. The driver has multiple unpaid traffic tickets, has a suspended license, and is not wearing his seatbelt. And he is speeding. And not slowing down.

The officer gives chase across two counties with the driver speeding on narrow country roads at night creating a hazard to passing traffic. The officer eventually requests permission to perform a PIT maneuver, tapping the driver's bumper to spin him out of control and bring him to a stop. The officer receives permission and does so. The driver spins off the road and overturns. Because he has no seatbelt, he is thrown about the interior of the car, breaking his back. He is paralyzed from the neck down.

Now I believe virtually everyone can agree that this was a tragedy. The driver was 19 years old. His record indicated a past history of irresponsibility but not more than might be expected from someone out of a poor background. He was both working and attending school, so apparently trying to get himself on the right path, or so it would appear. And then to be cut down in this fashion. The very embodiment of tragedy.

But who is at fault. Though he never comes out and says so, Benforado clearly thinks that the police officer was in some way at fault. It is hard to see what it is that Benforado would have the officer do differently but he argues that
Victor Harris made a terrible error in judgment that rainy night, but he did not deserve to be paralyzed, and he did not deserve to have his case taken away from a jury. The system failed him because of the psychological limitations of the people who operate it—limitations we all share.
Harris certainly did not deserve to be paralyzed. But his injury was the consequence of his own decisions and actions, not those of the officer. The system did not fail him, he failed multiple times to do the right thing and pull over. In his effort to escape in a chase lasting a good while, he imperiled not only his own life but those of the other drivers and pedestrians on the road with him as well as those of the officers.

The police officer did not do anything wrong. The system did not do anything wrong. There is only the sad outcome of a young man's life radically changed for the worse as a consequence of his own actions.

For whatever reason Benforado wants to make this a case of psychological biases and of the system. He wants to make it the fault of someone else than the young man. His commenters eviscerate his example. No amount of additional cameras would demonstrate anything other than someone failing to obey the police by recklessly endangering others on the road. Contra Benforado's implication, had there been a forward and back pair of cameras in his car, we would still only have seen someone driving dangerously, seeking to elude the police. Benforado is absolutely correct that we need to be cautious about how to interpret evidence and that video shot from a single angle can create misimpressions. However, his use of this example to support his case, completely undermines it.

Why? Why did Benforado go all the way back to 2001 for an example which offers no support to his argument? It is an emotive tragedy, so from the perspective of trying to get the reader emotionally on board, I understand the rhetorical move. But his evidentiary example undermines his rhetorical strategy. I see this happen all the time with Social Justice Warriors and I don't understand it. You could argue that this is just Slate, a news organization notorious for its editorial laxity and left leaning bias.

But I hear the same thing at least once a week on NPR. Granted, it is also left leaning, but it has much more robust (though by no means infallible) editorial processes. But weekly, there is some report about some bad outcome where they bring in a person to serve as the poster child for whatever the injustice or tragedy might be and in support of some proposed action. The more you listen, though, the more you realize that the "victim's" actions were at least partially, or substantially, or wholly responsible for the bad outcome. Each time, I am left wondering, why did they choose this person as their poster child for this bad outcome?

I have no good answer for why this occurs and with such regularity. I am guessing that it comes down to two different mind sets, one being a pragmatic mindset accepting of the existence of tragedies, and the other being more utopian, a humanist hubris that all bad outcomes can be engineered out of human processes with sufficient good intent, money, time, and knowledge.

To the pragmatists, the utopian looks hubristic and ignorant. To the utopian, the pragmatists look uncaring and jaded. Neither is fully true. But I think that humanistic hubris is what blinds NPR reporters and editors to what seems obvious to everyone else - not all tragedies are the consequence of bad intent or bad actions on the part of others. Sometimes we grievously harm ourselves with no fault accruing to anyone else.

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