October 31, 2013

Yet another year of (yawn) Halloween security theater

Evidence and common sense no match for hype

BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND, I am reposting my blog piece from 2011, one in an annual series. HAPPY HALLOWEEN! 

For many, Halloween is a blast. Trick-or-treating, giving out candy, dressing up, perhaps even throwing a party.

But for many convicted sex offenders, it is the most dreaded night of the year. Group roundups, dusk-to-dawn curfews with the lights out, mandatory "no candy" signs on their doors and spot checks for compliance are among the various techniques of control ostensibly designed to protect the public.

Contrary to the sex offender hysteria on All Hallows Eve, however, sex offenders are not out snatching and molesting children on Halloween. And they never have been.

Last year, a published study proved what most experts already knew: There is no Halloween spike in sex crimes against children.

"The wide net cast by Halloween laws places some degree of burden on law enforcement officers whose time would otherwise be allocated to addressing more probably dangerous events," noted Jill Levenson of Lynn University in Florida, one of the study's authors. Her research, published in the journal Sexual Abuse, examined crime trends over a 9-year period.

The researchers used data from the National Incident-Base Reporting System to examine crime trends in 30 U.S. states over a 9-year period. They found no increased rate of sexual abuse during the Halloween season. Also, the number of reported incidences did not rise or fall after police implemented current procedures.

Unfortunately, empirical evidence seems incapable of bringing common sense to bear. Probation officers and others continue to implement ridiculous roundups and other once-a-year restrictions on sex offenders, instead of focusing on the real threat to children, which I'll get to in a moment.

Around the nation this Halloween, parole and probation officers will continue to order convicted sex offenders not to answer their doors, decorate their porches, or wear costumes on Halloween. Sex offenders are being ordered to post "NO CANDY HERE" signs on their doors. Others must attend special Halloween "counseling sessions" or "movie nights" where they will be monitored (and, incidentally, protected from false accusations). The restrictions are so widespread and so varied that I no longer have the time or energy to catalog them as I have done on my professional blog in past years. (If you are interested, just do a Google news search for "Halloween sex offender roundup.")

This despite at least one federal court ruling that the restrictions were overly broad, and ridicule from late-night TV pundits of some of the sillier Halloween restrictions.

The farcical crackdowns are a prime example of what Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast calls "security theater," that is, "hyping (and pretending to solve) a threat that in reality is extremely remote, even to the point of diverting resources from policing activities like DWI enforcement that would protect more people and save more lives."

Why Halloween, we might ask? After all, most sex offenders target people they know, not children off the street. And the crackdowns on registered sex offenders miss the mark anyway, because the overwhelming majority of new sex offenses are committed by men who have never been caught for a past sex offense. Furthermore, registered sex offenders feel so branded and ostracized that most are ducking and hiding today.

But the scare feeds into a deep-rooted cultural fear of the bogeyman stranger. This fear is memorialized in the timeworn Halloween legend of tainted candy that has endured despite myriad attempts at correction. As Benjamin Radford of the Skeptical Enquirer pointed out about the persistence of that stranger-danger myth:

"Despite e-mail warnings, scary stories, and Ann Landers columns to the contrary, there have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers but intentional murder by one of their parents."

The sad part of both myths is that children are taught a message of fear: Strangers, or even their own neighbors, might try to poison or molest them.

Oh, yes. What is the real danger facing children this Halloween?

It's one your mother always warned you about: Getting hit by a speeding car while crossing a dark street. Car accidents kill about 8,000 children every year in the United States. And children are more than twice as likely to be killed by a car while walking on Halloween night than at any other time of the year.

So this Halloween, show compassion toward a publicly identified sex offender. But please, children, don't get too friendly with cars.

* * * * *

Recommended reading:

Sex offenders: Halloween's boogeyman: Registered abusers are being rounded up tonight to protect trick-or-treaters. How real is the threat, though? by Tracy Clark-Flory, Salon (this piece quotes yours truly)

Stranger danger and the decline of Halloween, Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Lenore Skenazy (author of Free Range Kids)

My prior Halloween posts include:
2008: Pendulum swing on Halloween hype? (Oops! That one was just wishful thinking.)
2010: Psychology Today blog post

October 27, 2013

Black swan crash lands on Florida SVP program

Audit finds low recidivism, critiques reliance on inflated Static-99 risk estimates

Dan Montaldi’s words were prophetic.

Speaking to Salon magazine last year, the former director of Florida's civil commitment program for sex offenders called innovative rehabilitation programs "fragile flowers." The backlash from one bad deed that makes the news can bring an otherwise successful enterprise crashing down.

Montaldi was referring to a community reintegration program in Arizona that was derailed by the escape of a single prisoner in 2010.

But he could have been talking about Florida where, just a year after his Salon interview, the highly publicized rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl is sending shock waves through the treatment community. Cherish Perrywinkle was abducted from a Walmart, raped and murdered, allegedly by a registered sex offender who had twice been evaluated and found not to meet criteria for commitment as a sexually violent predator (SVP).

Montaldi resigned amidst a witch hunt climate generated by the killing and a simultaneous investigative series in the Sun Sentinel headlined "Sex Predators Unleashed." His sin was daring to mention the moral dilemma of locking up people because they might commit a crime in the future, when recidivism rates are very low. Republican lawmakers called his statements supportive of "monsters" and said it made their "skin crawl."

Montaldi's comments were contained in an email to colleagues in the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, in response to the alarmist newspaper series. He observed that, as a group, sex offenders were "statistically unlikely to reoffend." In other words, Cherish Perrywinkle’s murder was a statistical anomaly (also known as a black swan, or something that is so rare that it is impossible to predict or prevent). He went on to say that in a free society, the civil rights of even "society's most feared and despised members" are an important moral concern. A subscriber to the private listserv apparently leaked the email to the news media.

The Sun Sentinel series had also criticized the decline in the proportion of paroled offenders who were recommended for civil commitment under Montaldi's directorship. "Florida's referral rate is the lowest of 17 states with comparable sex-offender programs and at least three times lower than that of such large states as California, New York and Illinois," the newspaper reported.

Audit finds very low recidivism rates 

In the wake of the Sun Sentinel investigation, the Florida agency that oversees the Sexually Violent Predator Program has released a comprehensive review of the accuracy of the civil commitment selection process. Since Florida enacted its Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) law in 1999, more than 40,000 paroling sex offenders have been reviewed for possible commitment. A private corporation, GEO Care, LLC, runs the state’s 720-bed civil detention facility in Arcadia for the state's Department of Children and Families.

Three independent auditors -- well known psychologists Chris Carr, Anita Schlank and Karen C. Parker -- reviewed data from both a 2011 state analysis and an internal recidivism study conducted by the SVP program. They also reviewed data on 31,626 referrals obtained by the Sun Sentinel newspaper for its Aug. 18 expose.

All of the data converged upon an inescapable conclusion: Current assessment procedures are systematically overestimating the risk that a paroling offender will commit another sex offense.

In other words, Montaldi’s controversial email about recidivism rates was dead-on accurate.

First, the auditors examined recidivism data for a set of sex offenders who were determined to be extremely dangerous predators, but who were nonetheless released into a community diversion program instead of being detained.

"This study provided an opportunity to see if offenders who were recommended for commitment as sexually violent predators, actually behaved as expected when they were placed back into the community," they explained.

Of the 140 released offenders, only five were convicted of a new felony sex offense during a follow-up period of up to 10 years. Or, to put it another way, more than 96 percent did not reoffend. "This finding indicates that many individuals who were thought to be at high risk, were not," the report concluded.

Next, they analyzed internal data from the program itself. As of March 2013, 710 of the roughly 1,500 men referred for civil commitment were later released for one reason or another. Of those, only 5.7 percent went on to be convicted of a new sexually motivated crime.

Interestingly, this reconviction rate is not much different than that of a larger group of 1,200 sex offenders who were considered but rejected for civil commitment after a face-to-face evaluation. About 3 percent of those offenders incurred a new felony sex offense conviction after five to 10 years, with about 4 percent being reconvicted over a longer follow-up period of up to 14 years.

Logo on wall of sex offender hearing room in Salem, MA
"The recommended and the non-recommended groups differed by less than 2 percent in the percentage of offenders obtaining a new felony sex offense conviction after release," the investigators found. "Such a minor difference is surprising and indicates that the traditional approach to determining SVP status needs to be improved. There are too many false positives (someone determined to fit the SVP definition when he does not, or someone determined to be likely to re-offend but he is not)."

Overestimation of risk was especially prevalent for older offenders. Only one out of 94 offenders over the age of 60 was arrested on a new sex offense charge, and that charge was ultimately dismissed.

Finally, the auditors reanalyzed the data obtained by the Sun Sentinel newspaper via a public records request. Of this larger group of about 30,000 paroling offenders who were NOT recommended for civil commitment, less than 2 percent were convicted of a new sex offense.

What the public is most concerned about, naturally, is sex-related murders, such as that of young Cherish Perrywinkle. Fourteen of the tens of thousands of men not recommended for civil commitment had new convictions for sexual murders. This is a rate of 0.047, or less than five one-hundredths of 1 percent – the very definition of a black swan.

Static-99R producing epidemic of false positives

Determining which offender will reoffend is extremely difficult when base rates of sex offender recidivism are so low. However, the auditors identified an actuarial risk assessment tool, the widely used Static-99R, as a key factor in Florida’s epidemic of over-prediction. Florida mandates use of this tool in the risk assessment process.

Florida Civil Commitment Center
In 2009, government evaluators in Florida and elsewhere in the United States began a controversial practice of comparing some offenders to a select set of norms called "high risk." This practice dramatically inflates risk estimates, thereby alarming jurors in adversarial legal proceedings. The decision rules for using this comparison group are unclear and have not been empirically tested.

The recidivism rate of the Static-99R "high risk" comparison sample is several times higher than the actual recidivism rate of even the highest-risk offenders, the auditors noted. Thus, consistent with research findings from other states, they found that use of these high-risk norms is a major factor in the exaggeration of sex offender risk in Florida.

(It is certainly gratifying to see mainstream leadership in the civil commitment industry coming around to what people like me have been pointing out for years now.)

"The precision once thought to be present in using the Static-99 has diminished," the report states. "It seems apparent that less weight needs to be given to the Static-99R in sexually violent predator evaluations."

What goes around comes around

Due to the identified problems with actuarial tools, and the Static-99R in particular, the independent auditors are recommending that more weight be placed on clinical judgment. 

"It now appears that clinical judgment, guided by the broad and ever-expanding base of empirical data, may be superior to simply quoting 'rates,' which may lack sufficient application to the offenders being evaluated."

Ironically, the subjectivity of clinical judgment was the very practice that the actuarial tools were designed to alleviate. I have my doubts that clinical judgment will end up being all that reliable in adversarial proceedings, either. Perhaps the safest practice would be to "bet the base rate," or estimate risk based on local base rates of reoffending for similar offenders. This, however, would result in far fewer civil commitments.

Consistent with recent research, the auditors also recommended re-examining the practice of mandating lengthy treatment that can lead to demoralization and, in some cases, iatrogenic (or harmful) effects.

Although the detailed report may be helpful to forensic evaluators and the courts, it looks like Florida legislators aiming to appease a rattled public will ignore the findings and move in the opposite direction. Several are now advocating for new black swan legislation to be known as "Cherish’s Law."

As sex offender researcher and professor Jill Levenson noted in a commentary on the website of WLRN in Florida, such an approach is penny-wise but pound-foolish: 

“Every dollar spent on hastily passed sex offender policies is a dollar not spent on sexual assault victim services, child protection, and social programs designed to aid at-risk families…. We need to start thinking about early prevention and fund, not cut, social service programs for children and families. Today's perpetrators are often yesterday's victims."

* * * * *

Photo credit: Mike Stocker, Sun Sentinel
BREAKING NEWS: Montaldi has just been replaced as director of the civil commitment facility by Kristin Kanner, a longtime prosecutor from Broward County, Florida who headed that county's Sexually Violent Predator Unit for almost a decade. Not only does she have a JD in law from the Florida College of Law, but she holds undergraduate degrees in psychology and public policy from Duke. Word on the street is that she is an extremely competent and ethical person. It will be interesting to see how she will be treated by the media and politicians in the event that any black swan crash lands on the facility during her watch.

 * * * * *

The full report on the Florida SVP program is available HERE.  

Related post: 

Systems failure or black swan? New frame needed to stop "Memorial Crime Control" frenzy (Oct. 19, 2010)

October 20, 2013

Documentary explores town's polarization over transgender murder

Forensic psychologist key element in gay panic defense

For 20 minutes, Brandon McInerney sat patiently behind Larry King in their junior high school computer classroom. Then, the budding white supremacist pulled out a handgun and shot his transgender classmate twice in the back of the head. Larry died two days later, on Valentine's Day.

The 2008 murder polarized the community of Oxnard, California. The chasm widened during the highly publicized trial three years later, when a pair of private defense attorneys managed to turn the homicide into a reverse civil rights case for beleaguered heterosexuals and white people. With the help of a forensic psychologist, they were able to convince seven out of 12 jurors that Larry King had provoked his own death through his gender transgression. After the mistrial, several jurors became outspoken advocates for Brandon, wearing "Save Brandon" bracelets and raising money for his retrial.

Director Marta Cunningham
"He [Brandon] was solving a problem," explained juror Diane Michaels, an OR nurse. “Where are the civil rights of the one being taunted by another person who’s cross-dressing? He had no one he could turn to because the school was so pro-Larry King’s civil rights, but where was Brandon’s civil rights?"

"It was the high heels, the makeup, the behavior," agreed Karen McElhaney, a fellow juror and a surgical nurse, as the jurors bonded over wine and hors d'oeuvres at one of their homes.

Through such candid interviews with family members, teachers, students (including two eyewitnesses), attorneys and jurors, first-time film director Marta Cunningham explores the conflicting ideologies regarding both gender diversity and social tolerance that Larry King’s murder graphically exposed. Cunningham spent four years and collected 350 hours of footage for Valentine Road (the name of the street on which Larry is buried), a Sundance award-winner debuting on HBO. She hopes that schools will use the film as an educational tool to promote tolerance. 

Forensic psychologist blames the victim

This blog's readers will be especially interested in the role of the forensic psychologist, who helped sell the victim-blaming theme at trial. The testimony of Donald Hoagland gave the jurors an "expert" imprimatur on which to hang their hat.

 ABC News trial coverage featuring voice of 
forensic psychologist Donald Hoagland as he testifies

"What Larry was doing was an extreme form of bullying, an extreme form of sexual harassment," Donald Hoagland told the filmmaker. "Guys don’t hit on guys. Brandon was thinking he needed to get rid of Larry. He needed to save everyone from this scourge that had come upon this school."

At the trial, Hoagland testified that the cross-dressing victim's flirtation threw 14-year-old Brandon into a fit of homicidal rage. He testified that King's declaration that he was changing his name to Leticia triggered a dissociative state in which Brandon temporarily lost track of reality, according to the Ventura County Star.

The fatal flaw with that gay panic theory of the crime is that McInerney made advance plans to kill King. He announced his plan to several people the day beforehand, according to testimony during the eight-week trial, and also acquired and loaded the gun and brought it with him to school. He shot King twice in the back of the head during a first-period class.

Jurors who voted against a murder conviction said that Larry King's request to be called by a girl's name gave Brandon a "green light" to execute him. One juror even wrote to the judge after the trial to protest the "witch hunt" against the killer, citing the victim’s "long history of deviant behavior."

"They made a murder victim the cause of his own murder," marvels Detective Dan Swanson, a hate crime expert who testified at the trial.

Prosecutor Maeve Fox, who ultimately agreed to a plea deal of 21 years for Brandon, said the case exposed the deep layer of intolerance in society, an intolerance that is even carried into the jury box.

Unfortunately, the documentary gives short shrift to another central factor in community support for Brandon. A decision by the prosecutor's office to try the 14-year-old suspect as an adult led to widespread public opposition. Brandon faced 51 years to life in prison if convicted in adult court. A coalition of dozens of gay and lesbian groups even joined the chorus of pleas to try the boy as a juvenile.

Cunningham's direction is understated. Rather than hitting the viewer over the head with a message or point of view, she allows the characters to speak for themselves, interspersing their dialogue with artful sketches, news footage and school surveillance video. The resulting nuanced tale forces audience members to think for themselves about the moral implications of the tragedy.

Ultimately, Valentine Road is a sad and haunting story about two lost boys struggling for identity in a violent world. For the two boys were alike in many ways, both of them abused, neglected and lacking competent adult mentorship as they navigated the perilous journey to adulthood. Larry had been bullied since the third grade for his effeminacy; Brandon was dependent on a bullying father who physically abused him, while his methamphetamine-abusing mother was homeless. 

Yet for all its pathos the film also shines a ray of hope. Even as the defense team vigorously promoted a victim-blaming narrative, youths from the local community came together to honor Larry King and to use his death to promote a message of tolerance. One can only hope that the film will be shown far and wide, and will contribute to that worthy endeavor.


RELATED STORY: "The Hidden War Against Gay Teens," Alex Morris, Rolling Stone, Oct. 10, 2013

* * * * *

My prior coverage of the case: 
Hat tip: John Lewis

October 16, 2013

Militarization: When the extraordinary becomes ordinary

In line with the human rights theme of this year's Blog Action Day (it's exciting to be coordinating with 2,000+ other bloggers from around the world!),* let me share four brief anecdotes. They may seem unrelated but, ultimately, they do connect. I promise.

#1: Cheye Calvo, mayor of the small town of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, was in his bedroom one night, changing clothes for a meeting. His mother-in-law was in the kitchen, cooking a tomato-artichoke sauce. Suddenly, Calvo heard an explosion and the sound of gunfire. Heavily armed men clad in black burst into the house. He saw his mother-in-law lying face-down on the kitchen floor at gunpoint. His two beloved black Labradors lay dead in pools of blood. Clad only his boxer shorts, the mayor was bound and forced to kneel on the floor. This was it, he thought. He was about to be executed, but he knew not why.

* * * * *

#2: In the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, an alert neighbor observed a man forcing a woman into her apartment. Police were called. They burst in and found the woman in handcuffs, a man hiding in her closet with rope and two pairs of women's panties in his backpack. Daryl Thomas was a resident of the neighborhood, a husband and a father, and a computer system manager for a Manhattan law firm. When questioned by Senior Detective Harold Hernandez, he was forthcoming. No, this was not his first sexual assault; he had committed seven or eight similar attacks in the neighborhood in recent months. Yes, he was willing to show police the precise locations. The detective had one major problem: He was unaware of any serial rape spree in the 33rd precinct. If the victims had reported the crimes, the Manhattan Special Victims Unit would have notified the precinct of the pattern, so police could be on the lookout for a suspect matching Thomas’s description.

* * * * * 

Police prepare to enter Carey apartment
#3: After dental hygienist Miriam Carey attempted to ram a barricade near the White House and was shot to death on Oct. 3, her one-year-old baby in the car, police descended upon her home town of Stamford, Connecticut, armed with helicopters, bomb trucks, Hazardous Materials trucks and machine guns. The 100-odd personnel from the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI and state and local police sealed off the area and evacuated nearby residents before donning Haz-Mat suits with self-contained breathing apparatuses and entering Carey’s apartment. Rather than bombs, guns or Al Qaeda literature, they reportedly found prescriptions for the antipsychotic risperidone and the antidepressant escitalopram, medications consistent with Carey's diagnosis of postpartum depression with psychosis.

* * * * * 

Ohio State University's MRAP
#4: Ohio State University has just obtained a military surplus Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected (MRAP) armored personnel carrier. Explaining the acquisition, the campus police chief points out that stadiums are at risk for terrorist attacks, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The MRAP may also be used for crowd control at football games. The vehicle cost about half a million dollars to produce and is designed to withstand "ballistic arms fire, mine fields, IED's, and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical environments." To make its appearance less ominous, its desert tan is being repainted black and its roof-mounted machine gun being removed. The university joins the ranks of cities across America -- from Preston, Idaho to Cullman, Alabama to Boulder, Colorado and Murrieta, California -- that are cashing in on Department of Homeland Security grant money to buy such intimidating vehicles. In Dallas County, Texas, for example, the sheriff’s department plans to use its new MRAP to serve drug warrants

So what's the connection?

All four anecdotes relate to an insiduous shift in U.S. policing over the past few decades, toward greater and greater militarization.

The emergence of SWAT

Young people born in the 1980s may find it hard to believe that back in 1970, there was only one SWAT team in the entire United States -- in Los Angeles, California. Today, SWAT teams are a cultural icon. Almost all cities and most small towns have these paramilitary forces. By and large, the role of SWAT teams is far removed from the Hollywood image of hostage rescue or mass shooting intervention. Rather, they are being deployed – tens of thousands of times per year – in drug raids and to serve routine warrants, according to a new book by award-winning in investigative journalist Radley Balko

Cheye Calvo, the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland (Anecdote 1), was a victim of one such raid. Mistaken drug raids are far from rare. The judiciary's progressive weakening of checks and balances in regard to warrants and searches has fostered a police culture in which "extraordinary violence" is meted out with impunity. The shooting of dogs "at the slightest provocation," Balko writes, is part of a larger problem of an us-against-them "battlefield mentality" in which many police see the citizenry as the enemy.

Allure of the techno-warrior

"Why serve an arrest warrant to some crack dealer with a .38?" asked one U.S. military officer who trained police SWAT teams in the 1990s. "With full armor, the right shit, and training, you can kick ass and have fun."

As this quote implies, SWAT raids -- conducted hundreds of times per year in cities large and small -- foster a masculine culture of violence and a worship of a "techno-warrior" image of policing. SWAT raids are the ultimate in power, an adrenaline rush that is quickly habit-forming. Recruitment videos that emphasize this culture may, in turn, be changing the type of individual who seeks to become a police officer.

Texas SWAT team terrorizes organic farmers in August
Balko traces the militarization of police to the "drug war" ideology that began under President Nixon and escalated under Ronald Reagan. One specific clause in an omnibus crime bill of 1984, not considered particularly controversial at the time, ultimately produced a seismic shift in American policing. The asset forfeiture law allowed police to seize property, auction it off, and divide up the bounty, just so long as federal agents were even remotely involved in the investigation.

Asset forfeiture created a huge incentive for police to go after people in order to seize their property. Drug enforcement brought in boatloads of cash, much of which was reinvested into more battle gear. Police departments competed with each other for drug revenue, to the neglect of investigating violent crimes such as rape, robbery and murder. So, we end up with situations like the one a few years back in Oakland, California, in which a lack of investigative prioritization allowed a serial rapist on parole to remain free to prey on young African American girls until he finally made the mistake of gunning down four police officers.

Detective work is no fun

Many police officers are appalled by the insidious militarization of police. Betty Taylor, police chief of a small Missouri town, recalled how she became troubled by the economic disparity between the "drug guys," flush with property seizures and endless federal grants, and the struggling sex crimes unit that she had established.

"When you think about the collateral effects of a sex crime, of how it can affect an entire family, an entire community, it just didn’t make sense," she told Balko. "The drug users weren't really harming anyone but themselves. Even the dealers, I found much of the time they were just people with little money, just trying to get by." Her opinion solidified when she was recruited onto a SWAT team, and witnessed first-hand the lasting terror that the raids produced in vulnerable children.

"I thought, how can we be the good guys when we come into the house looking like this, screaming and pointing guns at the people they love? ... Good police work has nothing to do with dressing up in black and breaking into houses in the middle of the night…. When you get into that [us-versus-them] mentality, there are no innocent people. There's us and there's the enemy. Children and dogs are always the easiest casualties."

Downgrading crime

The case of Daryl Thomas (Anecdote 2) involved more than neglect of violent crimes. As Detective Hernandez discovered, police brass in his precinct -- and throughout New York City -- were systematically downgrading crimes from serious felonies to minor misdemeanors, in order to improve their CompStat crime statistics. A model that has been adopted throughout the United States as well as in England and Australia, CompStat had the unintended consequence of fostering competition among precincts for lower statistics. Only seven categories of major crime are counted in crime statistics and made publicly available, so police can reduce crime rates by, for example, reclassifying attempted rape as criminal trespass.

The Thomas case was handled quietly, with no media attention. Thomas was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. But Hernandez, frustrated by the constant battles with his own superiors, took an early retirement. "Unfortunately, this is the culture for the young cop coming into the department. He doesn't see the bigger picture," he said. "If it's going to allow him to have a day off, and they won't ride him or harass him, he'll go along with it. And New Yorkers are being victimized, and no one responds to their complaints."

While major crimes were being downgraded to misdemeanors, Manhattan police were also being encouraged to trump up minor cases -- drinking in public or driving without a seatbelt -- in order to bolster their statistics. Police officer Adrian Schoolcraft surreptitiously recorded his superiors giving these directives; with the collusion of a department psychologist, he eventually found himself drummed out of the force on trumped-up psychiatric grounds. (You can hear excerpts from his secret tapes on This American Life.)

Culture of fear

Putting the case of dental hygienist Miriam Carey (Anecdote 3) in historical context illustrates just how much has changed in the past few decades. 

Back in 1976, Chester M. Plummer became the first person shot to death by White House guards. Plummer and Carey were similar in some respects. Both were African American. Both were described as apolitical. And both manifested signs of psychiatric decompensation. With her postpartum psychosis, Carey had apparently incorporated President Obama into a delusional belief system. Plummer, a decorated Army veteran, former high school football star and part-time cabbie, had been examined by a psychiatrist after being arrested for indecent exposure; the doctor thought Plummer's recent divorce had triggered a psychiatric crisis. On July 25, 1976, Plummer scaled a fence while holding a three-foot pipe. He was shot to death after ignoring the guards’ orders to stop.

What happened -- or didn't happen -- next is where the difference in culture emerges. Blogging at The Nation, Rick Perlstein compares the two cases to highlight the extreme overreaction of police today to any threat, however contained.

"There’s terrorism now, they say. But there was terrorism then, nearly every month -- 89 bombings attributed by the FBI to terrorism in 1975, culminating in that awful LaGuardia bomb; and a veritable wave in the winter and spring 1976, much of it around the trial of Patty Hearst: of an FBI office in Berkeley, Standard Oil of California headquarters in San Francisco. Americans didn’t freak out, or shut down, or exhibit symptoms of PTSD. They had a massive outdoor national 200th birthday party."

Writing in The Baffler, Chris Bray makes a similar point in regard to the shutdown of Boston after the explosion at the marathon that killed three people.

Police outside Carey residence in Stamford, CT
In the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, and the paired 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, here’s what didn’t happen: whole cities weren’t locked down, armored personnel carriers with police logos didn’t rumble in, and SWAT teams in combat uniforms and body armor didn’t storm through the suburbs for a loosely ordered set of (ultimately hapless) house-to-house searches. Somehow, though, 2013 was the year it became appropriate to close cities, turning off taxis, buses, and trains and telling residents that the governor was suggesting -- okay, strongly suggesting -- that they not leave their homes until the police said so. One of those familiar moments in which officials ask the public to be on the lookout turned into a remarkable new moment in which officials ask the public to cease to exist in its public form so that the police can have the streets.

That leaves Anecdote 4, about armored personnel carriers, which pretty much speaks for itself.

"We are in the midst of a historic transformation," wrote Eastern Kentucky University professor Peter B. Kraska in 2007 in regard to police militarization. "Attempting to control the crime problem by routinely conducting police special-operations raids on people’s private residences is strong evidence that the U.S. police, and crime-control efforts in general, have moved significantly down the militarization continuum." 

The irony is that this militarization is occurring simultaneously with a great diminution in violent crime in the United States. In particular, despite the public's perception of police work as dangerous, the job of law enforcement is getting safer all the time.

The American Civil Liberties Union is looking into the broader implications of the spread of military culture into domestic policing in the United States. The agency believes that militarization has come at the cost of trampled human rights and a greater risk of violence, according to a report in the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. The study is due out next year.

That strikes me as a bit too late. Pandora's box has long been opened, and there's no going back.

So, don’t be too surprised if you happen to spy a mine-resistant, ambush-protected, armored personnel carrier rolling down your street in the near future. It's only a matter of time.

Sources and recommended resources:

Radley Balko (2013), Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces 

Peter Kraska (2007), Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed Forces and the Police

Graham Rayman (June 8, 2010), Village Voice, NYPD Tapes 3: A Detective Comes Forward about Downgraded Sexual Assaults: When even attempted rapes are being downgraded to misdemeanors, is the public safe?

Rick Perlstein (Oct. 3, 2013), Nation, Culture of Fear: Miriam Carey’s Tragedy, and Our Own

Ira Glass, This American Life, “Right to Remain Silent” (well worth a look or, better yet, a listen)

Sarah Stillman (August 12, 2013), New Yorker, Taken: Under civil forfeiture, Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of their cash, cars, and even homes. Is that all we’re losing? 

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*Blog Action Day is an international event in which thousands of bloggers around the world pledge to participate. This year's theme, in coordination with Amnesty International, is human rights. If you want to see a true smorgasbord of human rights topics streaming in live, check out the web page.

October 8, 2013

Study: Risk tools don't work with psychopaths

If you want to know whether that psychopathic fellow sitting across the table from you will commit a violent crime within the next three years, you might as well flip a coin as use a violence risk assessment tool.

Popular risk assessment instruments such as the HCR-20 and the VRAG perform no better than chance in predicting risk among prisoners high in psychopathy, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The study followed a large, high-risk sample of released male prisoners in England and Wales.

Risk assessment tools performed fairly well for men with no mental disorder. Utility was decreased for men diagnosed with schizophrenia or depression, became worse yet for those with substance abuse, and ranged from poor to no better than chance for individuals with personality disorders. But the instruments bombed completely when it came to men with high scores on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) (which, as regular readers of this blog know, has real-world validity problems all its own). 

"Our findings have major implications for risk assessment in criminal populations," noted study authors Jeremy Coid, Simone Ullrich and Constantinos Kallis. "Routine use of these risk assessment instruments will have major limitations in settings with high prevalence of severe personality disorder, such as secure psychiatric hospitals and prisons."

The study, "Predicting future violence among individuals with psychopathy," may be requested from the first author, Jeremy Coid (click HERE).