Policing the Police

Rethinking “Qualified Immunity” 

The police in our daily lives are given power and privileges to protect us and themselves at the same time. None of those privileges is more problematic than “qualified immunity” — the idea that police officers cannot, in many cases, be held civilly liable for their official acts.  

Presidents and other elected officials enjoy similar protections from their own excesses, which is why whether Trump is guilty of inciting a resurrection on January 6 hinges largely on whether his speech in advance of the storming of the Capitol is considered an “official” event. 

In recent years, our police have made far too many serious mistakes in performing their duties, particularly when dealing with people of color.  

The deaths of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Tamir Rice and many, many others each sparked headlines and protests but, before the excruciating death of Mr. Floyd, brought little in the way of justice. The difficulty of assessing in-the-moment decisions, a culture of silence within police forces, and, yes, systemic racism all combined to ensure virtual immunity for even the most egregious acts.   

One of the key elements in assessing those situations is what the relevant facts have been and whether the police overstepped their authority. 

Because both their power and actions are not in the realm of normal behavior the police do run a continuous risk of overstepping their roles and therefore the laws governing their behavior include a qualified immunity from prosecution for going too far, except in cases where an officer violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.”  

That is a gray area the size of Alaska and Texas! Thus, the key question today is what qualified immunity truly entails and means. 

“Immunity” is what it says – if a mistake is made and proven, immunity can protect the police officer from civil liability from a victim and/or their family. 

“Qualified” adds the murky limits of the 1967 Supreme Court decision establishing the doctrine to the mix.  

How, when and by whom is that judgment made? If the qualification is too liberal the police can literally get away with murder. If it is too strict, police officers’ hands might be tied to the detriment of their personal as well as public safety.  

Real life – particularly in situations blending guns and conflict — happens quickly, and no thoughtful person can think it easy to make life-or-death decisions in the blink of an eye. 

As the Congress discusses ways to address the array of problems these questions pose, a central focus is what to do about qualified immunity.  

Some want it eliminated – an option both unlikely and problematic. But strengthening or narrowing the standard is also challenging. If there is clear, concise, readily understandable language that could do the job, we would already know it and I am not aware of one. 

Perhaps a solution lies elsewhere. Instead of a “qualified immunity” based on the explicated “rights” of victims of police violence, there could be established a system of “exceptional immunity” based on whether a police officer’s actions after the fact were consistent with and in proportion to the facts of the situation. 

Such judgement might come from a state board of impartial reviewers representing police, community groups, and retired judges. Such a body could develop clear “use of force” standards, require de-escalation in situations related more to an individual’s mental health than a non-violent crime, and otherwise provide reasoned guidance.  

This does resemble qualified immunity in some ways, BUT it would also allow many more civil actions against unjustified acts of violence by the police, while still preserving their protection for actions reasonably undertaken in the moment. 

Exceptional immunity (or any other such “carve out”) will not solve the problem of police violence against communities of color – THAT will require strengthening the criminal laws for excessive use of force. But it will bring us one step closer to justice.  

Isn’t that everyone’s wish and intention?! 

Making Your Home Work

And Pining for a Simpler Time…

When we moved into our four-story town house in Georgetown in 1960, we installed a then state-of-the-art communications system to enable telephone and intercom throughout the house.  

It worked beautifully for years. Then the world changed.  

Ma Bell broke itself up into smaller businesses that would themselves largely vanish.  Fax machines came (and then went). The Internet gave us email. Cell phones – blending the Internet and telephony in a single, handheld device! — was the death knell for plain old telephone service delivered over copper lines.  

Through it all, our own setup changed largely through the acquisition of additional equipment – a router replaced our dial-up modem somewhere along the way, but the telephonic underpinnings remained the same. 

Until the world forced us further into the 21st Century! Horrors! 

We decided to replace our now completely obsolete internal communications system with a totally simple, basic phone system with one wrinkle: an add-on display that uses voice recognition to write out what the person on the other end is saying, in close to real time, a real aid to people experiencing hearing issues!  MY WIFE for instance. Despite its technological underpinnings, all we needed was an electrical outlet and a simple old-fashioned phone jack! 

And there begins a saga of immense proportions. 

The existing jacks, which served us for so many years, do not work for this purpose – as if the house KNOWS we are not plugging in a rotary phone and is determined to stop us! We had three – yes, 3— “experts,” with some 50+ years of cumulative experience, each spending two hours at our house before giving up! 

As I write this, I am waiting for the fourth expert – who they swear really is the expert! (It turns out she WAS!!) 

An explanation of the trouble is hard to come by. I am told all the pieces are there, but the technicians are somehow not able to reassemble them to make a simple phone jack deliver a common dial tone. 

We seem to be at a place technologically where simplicity has been overwhelmed by accumulated complexity.  

Individually, we sweat and strain to accomplish things that should be simple. My quest for a dial tone involved four service “windows” — eight hours at which I HAD to be available, and during which the technician could appear at any time – or in one case, not at all. That is not even counting the struggle to GET a service call – automated systems insisted on diagnosing and troubleshooting devices that were working fine and wouldn’t let me request a service call until I undertook this pointless exercise!  

They seem to be in a world of their own and if the problem they are faced with does not fit comfortably into what they know and have experienced, it is as if they were on the moon for the first time ALONE! 

None in the series of technicians who visited our house turned in reports or debriefed their successors.  Each new visitor replicated their predecessors’ steps, to the same frustrating end. 

Until, with our fourth service call, we were visited by a woman willing to look beyond the blinders placed on her by her employer. She spent much of the day here, determined to solve the problem. And, in the end, she was successful! I am pleased to report that after dozens of hours of labor (mine and theirs), untold travel miles, and likely thousands of dollars of costs incurred (not by me!), I finally again have … a telephone jack with a dial tone. 

Perhaps the monopoly powers of the businesses that inherited Ma Bell’s legacy are so rich that the time and money wasted on problems like this does not come to the attention of the managers who should be concerned with SOLVING customer problems and saving their business needless expense (in that order!). 

The dial tone, it turns out, puts you into the system. And when you are in the system, you are in heaven, with everything it has in store for you.  

I have had a peek, and I recommend it! WOW. 

Basic Changes In Human Behavior

That sneak up without announcement!

In my early youth, my Dad worked six full days a week at the New York Stock Exchange — entailing a three-hour round-trip commute. Not long after, the Exchange made Saturday a half day and told the people who had long commutes to not bother!

Then lo and behold, barely a year later working on Saturday died altogether on Wall Street, followed quickly by the rest of the nation, and the five-day work week became the norm it has remained.

Fast forward three-quarters of a century. The Covid virus descended on the world early in 2020 and lots of things got scrambled up. Zoom became a proper noun, and virtual EVERYTHING became the new norm.  

Changes of all sorts were in the air, with no one certain whether they would prove fleeting or permanent.  Projecting into a post-Covid world has become vitally important for governments, business, and community organizations alike.

That kind of strategic forward planning, though, is very tough. It is VERY easy to be VERY wrong.

That said, I believe the era of the four-day workweek is about to be upon us.  Although the reasons are different, it is likely to look a lot like the shift to a five-day workweek in my youth.

The result then was an increase in productivity and profitability, as well as more leisure time.

Now as we slither into a four-day workweek similar changes will sneak into our lives.

Today, it has become painfully clear just how much time has been wasted – in cars and trains to and from distant offices; in endless meetings that serve no apparent purpose; in productivity lost to social media and online shopping, or the pesky intrusions of co-workers.

If the basic pay levels remain the same, even as the workweek shrinks, several things must follow:

  • Productivity will have to rise to meet previous levels of demand. That should be easy, particularly for workers who will remain (mostly) remote. Employers have already seen gains as employees informally “split the difference” of commuting hours saved.
  • And, spending on entertainment and recreation will also likely rise from even pre-pandemic norms – except perhaps cruise ships.

So, as we look for what to watch for spurts of growth, we already may have a few helpful hints to work with!

Amorphous New Rules

And Anxious ‘Enforcers’

A recent and dramatic increase in awareness of sexual harassment and assault (#MeToo) has happily reduced much inappropriate conduct in the modern workplace. It has also created a new world of anxieties about the rules necessary to avoid giving offense.

A recent business meeting evidently went awry at the introduction of a prominent news story in the Washington Post about a woman impregnated (knowingly) with her OB/GYN’s sperm (unknowingly). The concern was that someone in the room might have been so offended that they might bring action against the hosts of the conversation, which could be costly, distracting and counterproductive.

The first obvious point to be made clear is that the rules surrounding such exchanges are woefully unclear — a circumstance that, left unaddressed, may ultimately overwhelm both sides of the issues.  

Short of an official rulebook (impossible!) or at least MUCH clearer guidelines, the terms of free, open and productive conversation inevitably will be left in limbo, to the detriment of all.

 I wrote of this challenge last in May of 2020 and see little evidence of progress since then. There are few well educated people today who disagree with the basic premises and goals of the #MeToo movement.  At the same time there are too many people –both pro and con –today who have not yet plumbed the depth of confusion surrounding this subject. The result has been unnecessary and unwarranted confusion on all sides.

The time to clarify this murky situation is long past!

I’m Over Here

Where Are YOU?

Perspective, they say, is everything.  Where you are, physically and metaphorically, depends not just on where you THINK you are, but where others place you, where they think THEY are and where each of you has been before that moment.

Such thoughts are why there are no rich philosophers. Surely no one would pay for such hooey!

The problem of finding one another is, though, real, deep and important.

And, where you are depends even more on the means by which the answer is conveyed…  If the two people involved cannot see each other, answers may ricochet around creating even more confusion. 

It makes a world of difference if you can see each other. 

This is true for announcers on TV who speak into a void to an unseen and unseeing audience. It applies to writers who can only imagine most of their readers. And it is true of anyone who has ever sat in a meeting and tried to gauge whether their comment had an impact – and whether that impact would help or hinder their career.

It is, though, truest of all at home. “Honey, where are you?” isn’t usually a request for your GPS coordinates; it’s often a call for assistance, companionship or perhaps simply reassurance.

Here is wherever you ARE. THERE is wherever the other person is. 

The best form of communication is an open, two-way street in full daylight.

Even more important than where one is physically is where he/she is psychologically. Openness to hear the other person makes hearing much clearer and understandable. 

That is perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned in 70 years of marriage! 

Hallucinations

Are Invisible in Light

Somewhere in between sound, dreamless sleep and being awake are dreams and hallucinations.

Episodically, I sort of wake and often see a miniature helicopter-like natural figure in movement—or perhaps it is more like an octopus swimming on my wall or ceiling. I have had every reason to believe that I am actually seeing these ‘things’ moving about, UNTIL I got the bright idea of having a flashlight at hand to see them better. But the light revealed there was nothing – only a bright white backdrop to my apparently active imagination!

These critters do not seem connected to any dreams that I can recall.

What are they?

Why are they?

A neurologist friend has told me these images are hallucinations and that they are quite common and essentially harmless –hence they have not been studied much and are a continuing curiosity.

Since my middle name is Curiosity, I wanted to know more.  I was able to find a fancy technical term for the phenomenon: hypnopompic hallucinations, defined as “visual or other sensory events that occur at the transition from sleep to wakefulness.” While they can be a symptom of narcolepsy, they are more often simply “bumps” in the smooth flow of a good night’s sleep. 

Still, I would like to know more.

Do any of you have these sorts of experiences?

What sort ‘things’ appear on your ’walls’?

What do you think prompts them to appear, they often appear first simply as black dirt on my hands that when rubbed off metamorphosize into the images that follow in my imagination?

Could there be another dimension in our world that we only see this way?

I promise NOT to reveal anything of a specific nature at all, but I hope to discover something about what other people may have experienced in similar ways or NOT?

There has never been anything threatening or even frightening.

But this leaves me very curious.

Imagination and Greed

Are the base of cryptocurrency delight!

The prefix “crypto” means hidden or secret. In the case of cryptocurrency, it also means “illusory.”

Gold has been a store of value and thus a form of currency for millennia, one originally based on its cost of extraction and purification.

Other than that, monetary values have been based in recent decades on what a dollar can buy, an ever-changing (but generally declining) assessment built on international financial systems and based in large part on the domestic economy.

It is not entirely clear what a cryptocurrency adds to human existence. As long as government stands behind the dollar in its usual fashion, and the dollar remains the gold standard (pun intended) for global finance, Bitcoin and the like are poseurs, mere pretenders to the throne of value.

If a run on the dollar occurred that the government did not address appropriately, then other forms of money and/or exchange such as gold would have to fill the gap.

Who guarantees cryptocurrency? Not a soul. Nor is it subject to government surveillance of money movements. And there is no mechanism to “reverse” an illegitimate transaction – the tales of Bitcoin holders losing millions to theft are legion. Even forgetting the password to your Bitcoin account is a fatal error – the currency offers no way to retrieve or reset one.

How, then, does such an ethereal concept – a self-minted currency accepted almost nowhere – climb to nearly $50,000 in value for each digital “coin” it produces?

Easy: by riding the same forces that propelled GameStop to ridiculous heights – fractional ownership of shares that opens the market to hordes of uneducated (financially-speaking) buyers eager to catch a wave; a feeding frenzy of greed likely egged on by “pump and dump” speculators able to get in early, and glamorized by endless, breathless and credulous coverage in the media.

Cryptocurrency in effect is creating something out of nothing, based on nothing more than the willingness of people to buy into the fantasy

That is a great achievement –if you can believe it—for as long as the participants believe it.

It seems obvious that something like that cannot go on forever.

We have yet to see how, exactly, it unwinds, but one suspects it will not be pretty.

We may know soon. The answer is cryptocurrency has zero underlying value. Even Tesla is better, despite its insane values, because at least some people have bought their cars.

The world we live in governs our lives.

Heaven and hell forbid.

Tri-Partisanship

There really are three parties in this country.

In 1800 there were no political parties. Soon the politicians saw merit in having two parties.

We have been struggling in various degrees ever since to make bi-partisanship work. In recent years, however, ‘party loyalty’ has become a lethal weapon against independent thinking.

The Liz Cheney contretemps notwithstanding, it is a weapon used by both parties, but seemingly more often and better by the Republicans.

When elections produce a closely divided Congress, the results become especially acute, which is where we are today.

If we had a third party today – drawn from the middle of both existing parties—it might (and rightfully so) be the largest party, though much of the time it probably would need extra votes from either or both the left and right to achieve majorities.

The dynamics of that political process likely would be dramatically different from today and be more likely to serve the interests of most Americans by avoiding long-standing stalemates.

To be sure, this idea is not new. But perhaps the extremism in both parties makes this moment propitious. Surely enough people are sufficiently disgusted by the current circumstances that it would be possible to fund and mount a widespread effort to recruit candidates and manage ballot access petition drives – a difficult but necessary first step to any third-party initiative.

Party names usually are irrelevant. This one seems simple. A Center Party that bypasses left and right and might just be the perfect answer.

Yes, both existing parties will fight this idea. No one likes to give up any control or money.

But we really should not let the existing parties love of their status quo get in the way of better running our cherished democracy!

The Party’s Over

Rethinking Our Elections

In 1800, there was no such thing as a political party.

Today, the two major parties are all-controlling, as Liz Cheney’s efforts to keep her leadership post (and even her seat in Congress) amply illustrate.

I recently wrote about ranked choice voting and its potential to push candidates toward the center and away from their party’s extreme edges.

I’ve also noted that candidates at every level should HAVE to be supported by an outright majority of those casting ballots, with run-offs if needed.

Each of these ideas are intended to ensure at least modestly broad support for those chosen to represent all of us, regardless of party affiliation.

There are other ways to accomplish the same goals, and no shortage of experiments by states eager to ensure the perpetuation of democracy. One of those states, it might surprise you to learn, is Alaska.  

Alaska – a state where unaffiliated voters (56%) handily outnumber Democrats and Republicans combined – has embraced two electoral reforms that will debut with the 2022 mid-term elections.

First up is a “jungle primary” – known more formally as a non-partisan blanket primary. Under this system (already in use in California and Washington states), all the candidates for a given race appear on the same ballot, regardless of party affiliation, and all primary voters choose from among them, with the top two advancing to the general election.

Alaska’s wrinkle is that the top four candidates will advance, with ranked-choice voting used to choose among them in the general election.

Louisiana, among the quirkiest of states – and I say that as a fan – does much the same thing, but forsakes the primary entirely, with all candidates vying in the general election. If no candidate receives an outright majority, the top-two finishers compete in a subsequent run-off.

But presidential politics remains a holdout, in part because primaries don’t directly select presidential candidates, conventions do. No state, to my knowledge, uses run-offs in general elections for President. Georgia, the only state to use run-offs in races for the U.S. Senate, recently gave Democrats control of that chamber when that party won both Georgia Senate seats in run-offs.

Whatever the particulars, blanket primaries ensure that in the general election there will always be two people to choose between — not based on their party affiliation but entirely on their popularity among the voting public.

However, they are structured, blanket primaries are another tool, alongside or in combination with ranked choice voting and run-offs to reclaim elections from the political parties and put the power of democracy back where it was always intended: with the voters themselves.

We need to pick the best candidates, not those who were best at kissing rich fat partisan fannies!

Short and Sweet

Make a Point, Get a Giggle, and Scram!

Loudon Wainwright, father of the famous musical descendants, was a great friend for many years.

He was a writer in a world of photographers at LIFE magazine, specializing in a short word piece he called ‘A View from Here’ for many years. His commentaries were reportedly the second most popular part of the magazine, after the famous cover.

Loudon died much too young in 1988. He had believed that as a proud writer he owed the world a book before he passed. He started at least three times to write different books but gave up each time after he lost interest in the subject. Finally, he wrote “The Great American Magazine,” a history of Life magazine from birth to death.

He told me at the time that if he thought he had ‘a view from here’ and could not make that view clear in 1, 000 or fewer words, he probably did not have a clear enough view himself and tried again.  His pieces – a subset of which are available in the controversial “Google Books” project — still resonate in my head. Although I did not realize it at the time, he was my inspiration for my own musings when I joined (many years after his death) the league of independent correspondents known as bloggers.

Loudon believed that most people do not really like, want, or need to read whole books, because it takes so much precious time. But they do enjoy getting the many various points of view efficiently, easily and quickly.

When I started my blogging about 10 years ago, I had completely forgotten Loudon’s influence.

I have always enjoyed the process of writing and my first blogs were simply for my own amusement. When I began to get consistent feedback comments, and even appreciation, from what I am told is a significant number of readers, I began to up the ante and quantity. It was then that I remembered Loudon’s advice.

That led me to a formula I’ve tried to follow –make a point, get a giggle and scram.

On my dreamy days, I imagine that I might be remembered like Grandma Moses without a paint brush– Granfa Frank, as I’m known to my children’s children.

I am all too aware that my anti-Trump stuff was too much and hard to take for some.

Still there was, is and always will be, plenty of stuff in our lives that warrant a view – or at least a giggle and a thought.

This piece is in response to a number of queries over the years, I have had, about how and why I bother to burden you with my random thoughts.

If you have had enough, do not hesitate to say so!

In the meanwhile, I will keep chugging along.