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Friday Talking Points [317] -- Big And Little Brother

[ Posted Friday, August 22nd, 2014 – 17:06 PDT ]

A lot happened in the world of politics this week. People are still dumping buckets of ice water over their heads, for instance. There are actually multiple scandals happening to various governors right now, but since none of them involve sex, the media is mostly ignoring them (with the exception of Rick Perry, perhaps, since the media has been swooning over him ever since he put on a pair of glasses). But we're going to ignore most of it all this week, to focus instead on the aftermath and ramifications of what has been happening in Ferguson, Missouri for the past few weeks.

The news from Ferguson was the dominant story of the week. It even reached international proportions, as both Egypt and Russia got in a few digs at American police and protesters. I discussed this Cold War phenomenon way back in FTP [273] in more depth -- the old game America and the Soviets would play with each other, casually pointing out the bad things they did to their own citizens, on the world stage.

Putin's preposterous posturing aside, however, there seems to be one tangible proposal emerging from the chaos of Ferguson. Oh, sure, the nation is (once again) having that "discussion about race" which always happens after these events, but in the past pretty much nothing has ever really changed as a result. This time might just be different. Because there is a growing movement to require police officers to wear cameras all the time, while performing their duties. A new petition on the White House site calling for this change has (as of this writing) over 140,000 signatures -- well past the 100,000 threshold that is supposed to generate an official response. So we'll see what President Obama has to say about the idea soon, one assumes.

The idea is a simple one to understand, but it does have complexities. Enacting a "Michael Brown law" wouldn't be as easy as it first might appear. There are both technological problems (how long would the videos be retained?) and implementation problems (could the cops wearing the cameras ever turn them off?) to be considered before drafting any such law.

But the basic idea seems to be a sound one. It would turn the tables on "Big Brother," in a way. For years, I've been pointing out how the "Little Brother" effect has been growing (by which I mean citizens videotaping cops behaving badly, as well as wider geopolitical aspects of everyone now having a video camera/phone in their pocket). Here in America, citizens have a constitutional right to photograph or videotape police officers doing their jobs, as long as they aren't interfering with the officers' actions (standing in the path of a running cop, for instance). Not every police officer is aware of this, though, which has led to cops trying to stop people filming them and even confiscating cameras or forcing people to erase data. Hopefully, these incidents will become rarer in the future.

But why should the citizenry be responsible for taping police activities? Why shouldn't it be the government's responsibility to do so? As I said, this turns the camera around on the whole Big Brother concept. But while there might be technical or personnel issues to work out, there is one very important legal issue that needs addressing up front. Are the videos of police activities public record? San Diego doesn't think so, and have refused open records requests for such videos from journalists. The Washington Post ran a very interesting article on the subject, which cited a few other local examples in Maryland:

In the College Park case, a campus police surveillance camera was pointed at the area where Jack McKenna was beaten. But there's no security video of the incident. Campus police say the camera coincidentally malfunctioned at the time of the beating. A local news station reported that the officer in charge of the campus surveillance video system is married to one of the officers later disciplined for McKenna's beating.

This is not the first time a police camera in Prince George's County has malfunctioned at a critical time. In 2007 Andrea McCarren, an investigative reporter for the D.C. TV station WJLA, was pulled over by seven Prince George's County police cars as she and a cameraman followed a county official in pursuit of a story about misuse of public funds. In a subsequent lawsuit, McCarren claimed police roughed her up during the stop, causing a dislocated shoulder and torn rotator cuff. McCarren won a settlement, but she was never able to obtain video of the incident. Prince George's County officials say all seven dashboard cameras in the police cruisers coincidentally malfunctioned.

How convenient for the cops that all seven cameras "malfunctioned" at the same time! The article concludes with a radical suggestion (the "missing video presumption") as to how these "malfunctions" could be avoided in the future:

Currently, the courts generally treat important video that goes missing as a harmless mistake. They assume no ill will on the part of police. If you discover that the police were or should have been recording an encounter that would vindicate you of criminal charges or prove that the police violated your rights, and that video goes missing, you're simply out of luck.

Under the missing video presumption, if under the policy agency's police there should have been video and there isn't, then the courts will assume that the video corroborates the party opposing the police, be it a criminal defendant or the plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit. The state could still get over the presumption by presenting other evidence, such as witnesses, medical reports, and so on. But if it's the police officer's word against his antagonist's, there should be video to validate one side or the other, and [if] that video mysteriously goes missing while in police custody, the police should have to pay a penalty in court. Otherwise, there's just too strong an incentive for vindicating video to be leaked and for incriminating video to disappear.

When police officers know they are on video that could be introduced as evidence in a court of law, it can be assumed that they'll likely behave a little better in the choices they make while doing their job. That is a good concept, and one that a Michael Brown law could fix, very quickly and very easily.

If video existed of what happened on the streets of Ferguson when Brown was killed, then there would be no wild claims by either side about what had happened (or, at the very least, they would be quickly disproven). Both Brown's actions and the police officer's actions would be caught on tape, and even though the tape might not clearly answer all questions, it would certainly answer the biggest ones about what really took place that night.

The Ferguson police department actually has cameras for cops to wear. They're sitting in a closet, apparently, because they haven't gotten around to making officers wear them. With a Michael Brown law in place -- backed up by a "missing video presumption" by the courts -- this situation would be a lot different.

While there are still important details to be worked out, I have to come strongly down on the side of turning Big Brother's cameras around, to film government officers' actions. In this day and age, the people deserve such a legal change. A video would clearly show who was at fault, and whose actions crossed the line, and would remove much of the doubt and distrust. Maybe making such a change could prevent weeks of future angry demonstrations in the streets, in some other small town in America. That would indeed be worth the effort.

 

Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

We have to begin by marking the passing of former senator Jim Jeffords. Jeffords had left Congress by the time we started doing these columns, so he never won the coveted Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. But in 2001 he became a Democratic hero by jumping the Senate aisle. For the only time in American history, one man switching parties changed control of the chamber (when Arlen Specter switched in 2009, he gave Democrats an effective supermajority of 60 in the Senate, but political control of the chamber didn't switch). Before the Jeffords defection from the Republican Party, Republicans had a razor-slim 50-50 majority (plus Vice President Dick Cheney, to break ties). When Jeffords turned his coat, Democrats held the chamber 51-49.

Vermont's Jim Jeffords was one of a dying breed -- a New England Republican who was moderate on social issues. Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island was another courted by Harry Reid to switch parties at the same time (Chafee, currently the Democratic governor of Rhode Island, didn't leave the Republican Party until 2007, when he retired from the Senate). But Jim Jeffords was the one to make the big move, and he will forever be remembered kindly by Democrats for doing so.

Our weekly awards started long after Jeffords decided to leave the Republicans, and he never actually became a Democrat (he was an Independent who caucused with the Democratic Party). But we still feel he deserves a special, posthumous Most Impressive Party Switch Ever award, along with our thanks and condolences for his family.

Getting back to this week, our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week is none other than Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder did several impressive things almost immediately in Ferguson, including flooding the ground with F.B.I. agents to assure that everyone with a story to tell about what had happened was respectfully heard by a government official. Holder did not take over the local investigation, he instead launched an aggressive parallel investigation of his own. This week, Holder made a personal visit to Ferguson, showing the importance of what was going on there.

Now, some criticized Holder for merely swooping in for some photo-ops. We do not think such criticisms are valid. What Holder did was symbolic on one level, but the symbolism was pretty powerful, and can be summed up as: "The highest law enforcement officer in America -- and the first African-American ever to hold the post -- considered what was going on in Ferguson to be so important that he devoted his personal attention to the town, to the police officer in charge of keeping the streets safe, and to the family of the dead man." That is a strong and important statement to make.

The fact that the streets of Ferguson began to considerably calm down immediately after Holder's visit can't be completely credited to Eric Holder himself -- that would be overstating a very complex situation. Other events -- such as the opening of a grand jury investigation into the shooting -- were also happening simultaneously. The timing of Holder's visit may have been coincidental to the relative levels of rage of the protesters in the streets. But Holder's visit certainly helped the people see that their complaints were being addressed at the highest levels of government. That is a measure of respect which is often sadly absent in such cases. Holder has done a lot to rebuild the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice (after its neglect by the Bush administration), and this week was just one aspect of that shift in priorities.

For showing his personal interest and for making the trip to Ferguson, our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week was Attorney General Eric Holder. This is the eighth MIDOTW Holder has now won, we should mention as well.

[Attorney General Eric Holder doesn't have a public comment page, so you'll have to contact his boss via the White House contact page, to let him know you appreciate Holder's efforts.]

 

Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

Before we get to the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week, we've got two (Dis-)Honorable Mention awards to hand out.

First up is Senator Dick Durbin, who falls into the "trying to have your cake and eat it too" category this week. Durbin has been a pretty strong voice for reforming the way the government sends so many people to prison, in the past. However, at a recent local event, he praised a new prison in his home state for creating lots of jobs for his constituents. This is somewhat hypocritical, and more than a little tone-deaf. "Prisons are good when they employ people in Illinois, but otherwise we want to shrink the prison system" isn't exactly a high moral road to take, to put this another way.

Our second (Dis-)Honorable Mention goes to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was attempting to be funny at a gathering of Asian-Americans. Now, when you listen to the video of his remarks, you can hear a lot of people laughing and you can tell Harry's trying to make an off-the-cuff joke or two. Also in his defense, he apologized immediately when he realized he had been offensive. Walking the tightrope of "politicians attempting to be funny in a targeted way to an audience" these days is fraught with danger, however. Reid needs to get a new joke-writer, at the very least, so that this sort of thing doesn't happen again.

But we have to reserve the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award for Hillary Clinton. Clinton has been awfully quiet as the events in Ferguson have played out. She is actually not alone in this -- pretty much everyone being spoken of as a possible presidential candidate in 2016 has also been completely silent for the past two weeks on the subject (with the notable exception of Rand Paul, of all people).

Hillary -- and all the others -- have not begun campaigning, nor even announced their intentions for 2016. She has the luxury -- for now -- of not jumping in with her thoughts on every event in American life. That's all fine and good, but at the same time, playing it safe and staying out of the discussion is another way of saying Hillary Clinton just missed a big opportunity to show some leadership on an important issue. Even a simple statement backing up President Obama's position (or even Eric Holder's) would have gone a long way towards showing that Clinton knows how important an issue racial relations are.

She didn't even do this, though. For refusing to break her silence, and for missing a big political opportunity -- and most of all, for playing it safe rather than show some leadership -- Hillary Clinton is our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week.

[Hillary Clinton is currently a private citizen, and it is our standing policy never to provide contact information for such people.]

 

Friday Talking Points

Volume 317 (8/22/14)

This week's talking points mostly come from out on the campaign trail, in various different states from around the country. They're a little more locally-focused than normal, as a result, just to warn everyone.

 

1
   Disgusting and completely inappropriate

This one is pretty unbelievable, folks.

"Only 12 percent of the people in Ferguson, Missouri voted in the most recent municipal election. Al Sharpton even castigated the people of Ferguson for this record, saying: 'You all have got to start voting and showing up. Twelve percent turnout is an insult to your children.' There's a reason why there is such a racial imbalance between the racial makeup of the town's citizens and the makeup of their elected officials and police force, in other words. But when some tried to constructively address this problem by launching voter-registration drives in Ferguson this week, the executive director of the state's Republican Party called the efforts to sign people up to vote: 'not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.' He went on to say: 'Injecting race into this conversation and into this tragedy, not only is not helpful, but it doesn't help a continued conversation of justice and peace.' So, according to the guy who runs the Republican Party in Missouri, we're all supposed to have a 'conversation' about justice, just as long as nobody tries to sign black people up to vote. Personally, I find his line of thinking to be 'not only disgusting but completely inappropriate,' and I call on the Missouri Republican Party to immediately fire Matt Wills. Because otherwise, they are essentially agreeing with what he said. So much for all that talk of minority outreach from Republicans, eh?"

 

2
   Sewing up the human trafficking vote

Another one that is pretty hard to believe, this time from Florida.

"Seems like Florida's Rick Scott is having a bit of a problem vetting people in his political ads. After yanking an ad featuring someone who had to resign to fight charges of grand theft and corruption of his public office, Rick bounced back with an ad featuring -- are you sitting down? -- a convicted human trafficker. Yes, you heard that right -- Rick Scott ran an ad featuring a guy praising him who had been convicted of human smuggling in the Caribbean nation of St. Maarten. I guess Rick's going after every vote he can get, and trying to sew up the 'human trafficking vote' early in the race."

 

3
   Crazy onions in Iowa

Debbie Wasserman Schultz got in a great line, campaigning for Bruce Braley in the Iowa Senate race. The Republican running against him, Joni Ernst, has previously said some pretty wacky things (such as, earlier this year, stating that she still has "reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," and calling for Obama's "removal from office or impeachment"), which Democrats are now gleefully pointing out. But nobody can turn a phrase like Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Here is her description of Ernst:

I know that this state is known for its wind energy, for corn, for soybeans, but that woman is an onion of crazy. Every time you peel back a layer, you find something more disturbing about her views.

 

4
   War On Women (continued...)

News from the frontlines of the Republican "War On Women," from last week.

"I see that Republican efforts to bamboozle women into voting against their own interests continues apace. In North Carolina, they don't have much to show for this effort, of course, as new polling shows that Senator Kay Hagan is currently running 18 points ahead among women -- a margin of 52-to-34 percent. I bet the gender gap will be even bigger up in Minnesota, where I notice that a guy just won a primary for a House seat who has previously called two Democratic senators, quote, undeserving bimbos in tennis shoes, unquote, as well as making plenty of other disgusting comments on gay people and Native Americans, back when he was a conservative blogger. It's like Republicans are competing with each other in a contest to see who can drive away more women voters the fastest."

 

5
   What would you do with the people Obamacare has helped?

Greg Sargent at the Washington Post has been documenting this phenomenon for a while, now. It seems that Republican candidates (especially for the Senate) are ducking a very basic question. So, every chance a Democrat gets, this question needs to be clearly posed to Republican candidates.

"You state that you are for full repeal of Obamacare. You have no answer as to what you would replace it with, other than fuzzy bromides about how you'd achieve the same goals in some magical fashion. There is a concrete question that I would like to hear you answer about this subject, though. What will you tell the people who have signed up for the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act? What will you tell the [insert correct number for each state] people who were able to gain health coverage as a result of Medicaid expansion in this state? If you are successful in repealing Obamacare -- as you've stated is one of your political goals -- then you will be dumping [insert number] people off their health insurance, and replacing it with nothing. So, to be absolutely clear: Do you support this state's Medicaid expansion? Or do you want to take away health insurance for [insert number] of people? No waffling, please, just a simple answer to that, for the thousands of families who won't be able to afford a visit to the doctor if you get elected."

 

6
   Rove's at it again

Another aspect of the fight which Sargent has been on top of.

"Actually, in general, Republicans seem to be running away from what was supposed to be their big strategy for the 2014 elections: hating Obamacare, all the time. Funny thing -- the closer we get to the election, the less money Republican candidates seem to be spending on anti-Obamacare ads. Some Democrats are even fighting back against the ad-wars. Things are getting so bad that it seems like Karl Rove is the only one still fighting this battle of the airwaves -- by, quite laughably, flat-out lying about which party can be more trusted to save programs like Medicare and Social Security. Maybe most Republicans have figured out that the public is well aware that they've got absolutely nothing to replace any of the benefits of Obamacare -- since they now seem to be reduced to Karl Rove trying to sell lies and scaremongering. Just a few short months ago, Republicans were bragging that Obamacare was the key to victory for them, but you don't hear much of that sort of talk these days, do you?"

 

7
   Even Krauthammer?!?

Foreign policy has been a big subject all year, and now that there is a smattering of good news, Democrats should point it out.

"There is still a lot of bad news on the foreign policy front, but we have seen several positive developments in the past week. Syria's chemical weapons have now been completely destroyed, for instance. The Kurdish fighters in Iraq are working with the Iraqi national forces -- something previously thought unimaginable -- and together with the support of U.S. airstrikes have taken back territory from the Islamic State fanatics -- including the most important dam in the entire country. I was even astonished, this week, to read some nice things about President Obama's foreign policy in a column by Charles Krauthammer, of all people."

-- Chris Weigant

 

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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground
Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post

 

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