Ethics Quiz: The Ferguson Settlement

News Item:

The parents of black teenager Michael Brown and the city of Ferguson, Missouri, have settled a lawsuit over his fatal shooting by a white city police officer in 2014, according to a court document filed on Monday. …Terms of the wrongful death settlement between Ferguson and Brown’s parents, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, were not disclosed. U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber approved the settlement and ordered it sealed.

“The gross settlement amount is fair and reasonable compensation for this wrongful death claim and is in the best interests of each plaintiff,” Webber wrote. Both James Knowles, the mayor of the blue-collar, largely black St. Louis suburb, and Anthony Gray, the lead attorney for Brown’s parents, declined to comment.

Wait, what?

A thorough investigation found Officer Wilson guilty of no crime, nor did the shooting appear to be the result of officer malfeasance or negligence. Brown’s parents, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, meanwhile, took extraordinary measures to stir up racial hatred and anti-police sentiment, not just locally but nationally, sparking deadly riots in Ferguson and elsewhere, and leading to attacks on police. They even made a human rights complaint to the United Nations, based substantially on a lie (“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”) concocted by their son’s friend and credulously reported as fact by the news media. By what theory are Brown’s parents deserving of damages from Ferguson? By agreeing to this settlement, is not Ferguson setting the precedent that any time a black suspect is shot by a white police officer, it is a wrongful death mandating damages?

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Was this settlement, whatever the amount, ethical?

I’ll launch the debate by saying that the city probably had no choice but to settle, as the sooner this whole catastrophe can get in the rear view mirror the better off the city will be. In the narrow sense, then, the settlement was in the city’s best interest and the responsible course.

Long term, however, I see nothing but bad results flowing from this result. If Wilson was not wrong, then Brown was at fault. If Brown was at fault, his family should not benefit. If Ferguson paid out a significant amount when its police officer behaved reasonably, then Ferguson just set a precedent that Black Lives Matter could have authored in its dreams.

If a black victim is shot by the police, it is  racism and a wrongful death per se, whatever the facts are.

Observations On A Bad Police Stop

 

The ACLU of Colorado last week posted the above  video of an Aurora, Colorado police encounter with two black citizens last February.

The sequence, drawn from one of the officers’ body camera, shows Darsean Kelley and another man being stopped by police after they had received a call about a man allegedly pointing a gun on a child, but with no description of the man. Kelley and his companion were standing on the sidewalk in the vicinity of the alleged incident. Police asked the men  to sit down, which Kelley said was impossible to do because he had a groin injury. Officers then told both men to put their hands behind their heads and turn around. As his friend remained silent and apparently compliant, Kelley kept his hands raised and asked why he was being detained. Immediately after he said, “I know my rights!” one of the officers shot him in the back with a stun gun. He fell backwards into the street.

The police then arrested Kelley on a charge of disorderly conduct for failing to obey a lawful order. In his report, the officer wrote that he thought he might be reaching for a weapon. The ACLU of Colorado then filed a motion to dismiss the case arguing that Kelley was unlawfully detained and arrested without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

Observations:

1. Kelley and the other man were unlawfully detained and arrested. Were they unlawfully stopped? No. The police could stop men in the vicinity of a complaint like the one they had received in order to investigate it. When people become belligerent or uncooperative during such legal stops, cops sometimes become suspicious, or decide to use their power to stick it to an individual who shows hostility when the officers feel they are just doing their jobs, or trying to. This is when such situations escalate.

I’m sure the officers regarded the “I can’t sit down” claim as suspicious and provocative. I would. Note that no harm befell the other man, who remained quiet and followed the officers’ instructions. This is the correct way to respond.

2. I’m sure Kelley felt that he was being “stopped for being black.” I would if I were him. How are police officers today supposed to allay this suspicion at the outset of a legitimate stop? (Or maybe they WERE stopped for being black…)

3. What is the policy for tasing? The typical hierarchy for the use of force in police departments used to be this:

Table 1: Use-of-Force Continuum
Suspect resistance Officer use of force
1. No resistance 1. Officer presence
2. Verbal noncompliance 2. Verbal commands
3. Passive resistance 3. Hands-on tactics, chemical spray
4. Active resistance 4. Intermediate weapons: baton, Taser, strikes, nondeadly force
5. Aggressive resistance 5. Intermediate weapons, intensified techniques, nondeadly force
6. Deadly-force resistance 6. Deadly force
(Adapted from the Orlando, Florida Police Department’s Resistance and Response Continuum)

 

 

 

 

 

After the introduction of more powerful electronic control devices, many departments changed  their use-of-force directives  for handling suspects who were only passively resisting the lawful orders of the officer, and increased the required level of resistance by suspects to warrant use of stun guns or tasers from passive resistance to active, physical resistance.

Table 2: Levels of Resistance Defined

Passive Resistance The subject fails to obey verbal direction, preventing the officer from taking lawful action.
Active Resistance The subject’s actions are intended to facilitate an escape or prevent an arrest. The action is not likely to cause injury.
Aggressive Resistance The subject has battered or is about to batter an officer, and the subject’s action is likely to cause injury.
Deadly-Force Resistance The subject’s actions are likely to cause death or significant bodily harm to the officer or another person.
Adapted from the Orlando, Florida, Police Department’s Resistance and Response Continuum

I don’t know what the Aurora police policy is, but certainly under the kinder, gentler, saner revised standards above, stunning Kelley was excessive. Police brutality is not an unfair description of what he experienced. Continue reading

KABOOM! The Michael Brown Memorial

Brown memorial

Normally, as is the usual Ethics Alarms tradition when a story causes my head to explode, I would begin with a graphic representing the moment when reading a news item about unethical conduct so shorted-out my cranial wiring that my skull did an imitation of Dante’s Peak. The cause of the eruption, in this case, is even more disgusting than some of those bloody pictures, so I’m posting a photo of that instead. Now, assuming you have an ethics compass that doesn’t spin wildly due to a manufacturing defect, your head has exploded too.

KABOOM!

I have to hand it to the good people of Ferguson, Missouri. They have officially disproved the chestnut, “You have a right to your opinion, but you don’t have a right to your own set of facts.” The late Michael Brown—I’m sure you’ve heard of him—is being honored with his own memorial in the town, like military heroes, local martyrs, long-time community leaders, and distinguished men and women born in communities and who honored them by their accomplishments. Apparently the city is under the misconception that Michael Brown fits one of these categories, despite conclusive evidence to the contrary certified by the U.S. Justice Department, which was desperate to prove that the Gentle Giant was a pure as the driven snow. Thus Ferguson is anointing Brown with icon status, poisoning the values and the culture of the city from the moment the memorial is dedicated.

How sad, how wrong, and how stupid. Continue reading

Acting Ethics: Why We Don’t Want Actors Being Too Picky About Their Roles

FergusonX

In the strange ethics category of “Conduct That Isn’t Exactly Wrong But That Will Have Nothing But Bad Consequences To Society If There Is A  Lot Of It” (CTIEWBTWHNBBCTSITIALOI for short) is actors rejecting roles because they have philosophical or political disagreements with the script.

We’ve had two high profile examples of this occur lately. All we can do is hope that it’s a coincidence. The first was when about a dozen Native American actors, including an adviser on Native American culture, left the set of Adam Sandler’s first original movie with Netflix, “The Ridiculous Six,”a western send-up of “The Magnificent Seven,” claiming some of the film’s content was offensive.

Really? An Adam Sandler movie offensive?

The second and more troubling was in LA,  where five actors quit the cast of the new play “Ferguson,” which consists entirely of dramatizations of the Michael Brown murder grand jury testimony, because the actors apparently felt that it did not appropriately support the “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” narrative.

That’s really stupid, but I’m not getting into that again.

We don’t see many examples of professional actors doing this for several reasons. One is that they can’t afford to. Acting, except for the top fraction of a per cent, is anything but lucrative; it’s a subsistence level job, redeemable because it is, or can be, art, and tolerable as long as the actor doesn’t have a family to support, or has a trust fund.

The main reason this is unusual, however, is that an actor isn’t responsible for the content of the play, movie or TV show he or she acts in, but only the skill with he or she helps present that content to an audience. Actors—and technical artists like costume and light designers—are the conduits through which a writer’s work of performance art gets to live. They don’t have to like a show, agree with it or understand it, which is a good thing, since many excellent actors don’t have the  education, experience or intellect to understand complex and profound works. As one realistic actor friend once told me, “If we were that smart, we’d be smart enough to be in another profession.” Continue reading

“Ethics Dunce” Doesn’t Do This Judge Justice: Ferguson Judge Ronald J. Brockmeyer

When "judge not lest you be judged" is really good advice...

When “judge not lest you be judged” is really good advice…

Meet Ferguson Judge Ronald J. Brockmeyer. He  has been Ferguson’s municipal court judge for 12 years and serves simultaneously as a prosecutor in two nearby cities, as well as a private attorney. This is not as unusual a situation as you might think in rural areas, but it is certainly a fertile one for conflicts of interest, unless the busy individual is trustworthy and ethical.

This description would not seem to apply to this judge. While the Justice Department is alleging that his court in Ferguson, Mo. has reinstated the deplorable tradition of debtor’s prison, sending poor citizens of the city to jail for not paying fines they have no money to pay, Brockmeyer personally owes the US government $172,646 in taxes.

Federal tax liens filed against Brockmeyer by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) state that he has tens of thousands of dollars in overdue personal income taxes from joint filings with his wife, Amy, and owes tens of thousands in employer taxes for his law firm.

Justice? Compassion? Empathy? Fairness? Integrity? Trustworthiness? Don’t look for any of those from the judiciary in Ferguson. How amused  Judge Brockmeyer must have been to see Darren Wilson vilified, while his villainy passed unnoticed.

“Hands up, Don’t shoot,” being a lie, is no longer even an arguably legitimate rallying cry for the kind of systemic wrong the people of Ferguson have endured. Surely this despicable and cruel hypocrite can inspire a better one.

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Pointer: Lucian Pera

The Sixth Annual Ethics Alarms Awards: The Worst of Ethics 2014 (Part 1)

Cosby3

2014 was the year of the Ethics Train Wreck. They were coming so fast that they were getting tangled up with each other, and old wrecks from past years started rolling again, or the damage that was triggered a year ago or more started kicking in. I don’t know if every year really is more ethics free than the year before, or that it just feels that way because I’m getting better at sniffing it out. By any standards, it was a wretched year, with epic ethical misconduct across the culture. But I can’t stall any more: let’s wade into it. There will be more installments this year, so the misery is coming in smaller bites. You’re welcome.

Ethics Train Wreck of the Year

trainwreck

It’s a tie!

The Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck and The Obama Administration Ethics Train Wreck

The obvious winner is the Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck, which has managed to hook up with the 2012 winner, The Trayvon Martin- George Zimmerman Ethics Train Wreck, as well as a the sub-EthicsTrain Wreck attached to the death of Eric Garner, to further degrade U.S. race relations, undermine the stability of numerous cities, get several people, including the recently assassinated NYC police officers killed, revive race riots, give vile demagogue Al Sharpton unprecedented power and influence, and pick up such distinguished riders as President Obama,  Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, New York Mayor de Blasio. It is also still barreling along at top speed after many months, and is a good bet to continue its carnage well into 2015. 

Yet, it became clear to me this summer with this post that the entire Obama Administration has become an Ethics Train Wreck, and one that is neck-and-neck with the one spawned in Ferguson in threatening short and long-term damage. Incompetence, dishonestly, lack of transparency and arrogance have hardened cynicism in the public, corrupted the ethical values of defenders, let journalists to disgrace themselves, and fertilized festering potential disasters internationally and domestically. This is also, I now see, a wreck of long duration that started in 2009, and had gathered momentum with every year. It also has sparked other wrecks, including the one that now keeps it from being the sole 2014 winner. How much damage will The Obama Administration Ethics Train Wreck do in 2015? Which agency or department will prove itself to be corrupt, incompetent and mismanaged, which official will continue in a post after proving himself unfit to serve, which inept pronouncement or abuse of power will further degrade American trust and freedom?

I’m not looking forward to learning the answers.

Fraud of the Year

The U.S. Justice Department, which allegedly participated in a plot to force  Sierra Pacific Industries and other defendants  to pay $55 million to the United States over a period of five years and transfer 22,500 acres of land as settlement of charges brought against the company by DOJ for causing a 2007 wildfire that destroyed 65,000 acres of land in California. Naturally, the national news media has barely covered this scandal, which is still in litigation. Runner Up: The Victoria Wilcher scam, which made KFC pay for plastic surgery for a little girl when there was no evidence that the company was in any way involved with her injuries. After the fraud was discovered, it didn’t dare ask for its money back. Well played, fraudsters! Continue reading

New Link: Behavioral Legal Ethics Blog

One of these days I’m going to highlight some of the excellent websites and blogs among the Ethics Alarms links (to your left!), but for the moment I’m directing your attention to a new one: the Behavioral Legal Ethics Blog. The three professors who contribute to the blog describe it, accurately, like this:

“Behavioral Legal Ethics is a place for a wide-ranging discussion about the intersection between behavioral science, law and ethics.  The conversations will appeal to anyone interested in the ways in which empirical psychological research can inform questions about how legal institutions and practices encourage ethical behaviors in legal and non-legal actors.”

I had intended to add this superb blog to my links for some time. I confess that the fact that the current post quotes me did prompt me to finally act.

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Pointer: Legal Ethics Forum

 

The Threatening Banana

First, the story:

In Mesa County, Colorado, Nathen Rolf Channing, 27, was arrested after he pointed a banana at police officers as if it were a gun.  He explained that he doing a “trial run” for YouTube video as a “funny joke.”

The two officers initially thought the banana was a gun after Nathan “drew the object in the same manner someone would draw a standard handgun from a concealed holster.”  According to the arrest affidavit, Mesa County deputies Joshua Bunch and Donald Love  feared for their lives after Nathan pointed “what appeared to be a yellow tube with a black center” at them. Both stated that they thought the fruit was a gun, and Love was preparing to fire when Nathan shouted “It’s a banana!”

A conviction could get Nathan three years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

Now some observations:

1. Nathan is an idiot, and should be convicted. Just because an assault is silly doesn’t mean its not an assault. Police officers shouldn’t have to put up with gag threats on their lives. Continue reading

Ethics Dunces, Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck Files, “Seriously Confused” Division: The Looters of Ferguson Market and Liquor

Ferguson Market

Ferguson Market and Liquor was looted last night, targeted by protesters demanding “justice” for Michael Brown.

I’d like someone to explain the logic of that act to me, please.  Please. That was the store where Michael Brown was captured on video shoplifting and assaulting a clerk prior to his fatal encounter with Officer Wilson.

How dare that store be robbed by an unarmed teen! No, that doesn’t work. How dare an employee be assaulted by a shooting victim! Hmmm…no, no, that’s stupid. How dare the business allow the media to mention its name in connection with the examination of whether Mike Brown was just a gentle giant who wouldn’t hurt a fly or intimidate a clerk!  That can’t be it, can it? Or is it, “Let’s honor Mike by really hurting that small business where he stole some blunts  and shoved that  little clerk!” Really?

What exactly is the theory of justice here? My mind is open, it really is. I so want to understand.

Absent a persuasive explanation, however, I must conclude that anyone who sees “justice” in punishing Michael Brown’s innocent victims, however the teen met his demise, no more understands the concept of justice than I understand string theory, and I have no interest at all in listening to such an individual’s theories, protests, or rants about a subject about which that they are not only embarrassingly ignorant, but deluded as well.

What they did is injustice. They don’t know the difference between injustice and justice, which tells me that neither they nor anyone allied with them, supporting them or sympathetic with them should be taken seriously or heeded.

And when we are told, “The police are biased against people who think looting a store is justice!,” I am compelled to answer,

“As well they should be.”

 

Comment of the Day: “The Ferguson Riots: Of Course.”

I know this is a departure: this is my own comment. After I posted it in a fevered state, I decided that it warranted wider exposure.

It comes in response to a jaw-dropping post by one of the most articulate and analytical regulars on Ethics Alarms, who wrote in response to the original essay, this, beginning with a quote from it:

“the activists don’t care, literally don’t care, about [what really happened and why] For them, the issue is simple. A white cop in a racist police department shot an unarmed black teen to death, and that means that there will be riots if he’s not indicted.”

“As there should be.

The moral is – if you don’t want riots, regardless of whether the shooting was justified (if I were on the Grand Jury, then on the scraps of evidence I’ve seen, I’d indict to let it go to trial – just as if I were on the jury of the trial, I’d acquit barring more evidence) – anyway, the moral is – don’t run a racist police department.

Such civil disturbance is the natural countermeasure to tyranny.

I consider such civil disturbance to be a really, really, REALLY bad thing. I think anyone rational does. That means we have a responsibility to make sure that Law Enforcement is not so manifestly, systemically unjust that regardless of the facts in an individual case, riots are inevitable.

What should be is that there’s a justice system that, even though imperfect, is not so horrible that rational people become irrational and desperate. While there will always be some who are “professional rioters”, without a groundswell of popular sentiment behind them, they’re a small bunch of crims easily dealt with.”

After I carefully picked my jaw off the floor, I wrote this, the Comment of the Day, in response… Continue reading