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Cause of Death in Utah

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

Utah is the happiest state in the country — we’re told. Though the state does have high suicide rates, those might be explainable in biochemical terms, neatly enough. So what are we to make of the Beehive State’s disturbing pattern in other-person homicide?

Police shootings dominate the stats:

A Salt Lake Tribune review of nearly 300 homicides, using media reports, state crime statistics, medical-examiner records and court records, shows that use of force by police is the second-most common circumstance under which Utahns kill each other, surpassed only by intimate partner violence.

And, as the Tribune explains: “so far this year, deadly force by police has claimed more lives — 13, including a Saturday shooting in South Jordan — than has violence between spouses and dating partners.”

The article goes on to talk about police training and other important issues surrounding police use of deadly force, but the long-term trends and are not clear.

We know that violent crime is going down in the country. Are police shootings going up, or have they merely remained stable against the rest of the violence?

Such issues were not addressed in the article. And over at Reason, Anthony L. Fisher brings up the fundamental problem: “This article serves as a useful reminder that there is no national database of shootings by police, and save for a few journalists, academics and sports websites, no efforts to create one.”

The issue is vital, for we give a lot of power to police personnel. And power can corrupt them as much as anyone else. But until we have better information, the big picture remains far too fuzzy.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Play Gun Theater

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Stop me if I repeat myself . . . but maybe we don’t need elaborate explanations for poor performance in America’s public schools.

Maybe it comes down to this: they are run by people as unhinged as the administrators of the Stacy Middle School in Middleford, Massachusetts.

Yes, it’s time again for American Play Gun Theater, in which children (usually boys) pretend to have toy guns in their empty hands, emit fake gun sounds from their mouths, and scare the living Horace Mann’s out of government employees.

The current case? That of Master Nickolas Taylor,. He formed his hand to vaguely resemble a revolver (index finger as barrel, thumb as hammer — don’t try this at home, kids!) and mimicked some ray gun sounds towards two girls in lunch line, and then blew his finger tip, as if smoke drifted up from firing.

I am not aware of ray guns needing this, but it does have panache.

His punishment? Suspension. The 10-year-old malefactor needed to be taught a lesson, by gum.

Had he done something truly dishonorable, like cut in line, some punishment was probably in order. But if all he did was pretend to have a toy gun (two layers of pretense here at least!), then the worst probably should have been to put him in Pretend Jail, with no bars and no irons and some irony.

The lad’s father and grandmother came to his defense; the local newspaper put him on the front page.

The lesson? For supporters of today’s abysmal public schools: Don’t reload. Rethink.

And if I’ve said this before, point a finger at me and make ray gun noises.

But hey: I may raise my special Deflect-o-shield.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

The Panty Raid 

Monday, November 10th, 2014

“We just thought it was something funny we could do,” Peregrine Honig says. “But it was so scary.”

Honig is part-owner of Birdies, an “intimate apparel apothecary and swimwear boutique.” The funny thing? Offer shorts with the letters “KC” and the phrase “Take the Crown” printed on them, to cheer on the Kansas City Royals in Major League Baseball’s World Series. The scary thing? The visit by two men who identified themselves as Homeland Security agents . . . who confiscated the underwear.

“I asked one of them what size he needed and he showed me a badge and took me outside,” Honig told the Kansas City Star. “They told me they were from Homeland Security and we were violating copyright laws.” Although Honig had designed the shorts herself, not simply mimicking a KC logo, the feds said that the intersection of the K and the C in the design was enough to cross the line.

But hey, they were nice!

Apparently even somewhat abashed, like “kicking a puppy,” as Honig puts it; very nice as they took away the merchandise. Which I’m guessing — now stay with me here — was not a threat to national security.

What we have here is called overkill.

At worst this is a minor and inadvertent infraction of copyright law. What’s that worth? A phone call. A visit. Maybe a cease-and-desist letter.

So, do we file this under Silly? Or Ominous?

Or round-file it as just one more little example of the governmental excesses we’re supposed to accept as normal?

Though they lost in the seventh game of a first-one-to-four-wins series, I was rooting for KC.

Oops, did I just commit a crime? I mean I was rooting for K . . . C.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

This Ain’t Laissez-Faire

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Things are what they are, not their opposite. Can we accept that as a starting point?

Not if we’re scoring ideological points regardless of the cost to clarity.

Newsweek calls drug-war violence in Long Island “a harrowing example of free-market, laissez-faire capitalism.” To this, Cato Institute’s David Boaz objects that “the competition between the local Crips and Bloods [is described] in terms not usually seen in articles about, say, Apple and Microsoft or Ford and Toyota.”

Under a truly free market, the rights of buyers and sellers to peaceably trade are legally protected from theft and violence, and their contracts defended from fraud. Black markets, on the other hand, are made up of illegal exchanges, actively prohibited trade.

Sure, black-market trade has something in common with legal trade. As with legal exchanges, persons willingly participate in black-market trades and expect to benefit.

But economic activity that can easily get you jailed is fundamentally different in just this respect from that conducted in a relatively laissez-faire context.

The difference has consequences.

You can’t go to court if you have a grievance with a black-market trading partner or competitor. And persons less scrupulous, more violent, more criminal than the norm tend to be disproportionately represented among sellers of illegal goods that have especially big markups precisely because they’re illegal.

So Boaz is right.

The legal capitalism at K-Mart, J. C. Penny, or a post-Prohibition-Era liquor store isn’t fertile ground for the gang warfare invited by the War on Drugs. We can’t tell the difference, though, if we ignore the difference.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

John Oliver vs. Cops Who Rob

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

“Since 9/11, under just one program police have taken two-and-a-half billion dollars in the course of over 61,000 seizures of cash alone, from people who . . . were not charged with a crime. That is the sort of behavior we laugh at other countries for, along with their accents and silly hats.”

So says a prime-time TV comedian who devotes more than 15 minutes of his monologue to exposing and critiquing the malignant practice of “civil forfeiture,” which lets cops grab and keep your cash just because it’s there.

You won’t find such an extended, mostly spot-on critique of civil forfeiture — bolstered by Q&A with the likes of Ezekiel Edwards and Scott Bullock — delivered by a “Tonight Show” or “Late Night” host. The credit goes to John Oliver (HBO’s “Last Week Tonight”), who finds plenty to satirize in the contradictions and silliness of “law enforcers” who function as thieves.

Much of the work is done for him. Oliver doesn’t have to try too hard, for example, to poke fun at the Funk Night raid, caught on video. The police seized 48 cars, contending, “simply driving vehicles to the location of an unlawful sale of alcohol was sufficient to seize a car.” Says Oliver: “Which means you might as well seize any car being driven by any teen on prom night.”

I’ve been more or less indifferent to the fate of John Oliver’s new HBO show; but now I say, ardently, “Live long and prosper!”

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

But for a Video

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

I’ve argued that police be required to wear cameras on the job — for the sake of both the wrongly used and the wrongly accused.

But ensuring that video is recorded and then, if necessary, used in tandem with other relevant evidence to secure justice doesn’t happen automatically. It requires a culture dedicated to upholding ethical standards of professional conduct.

This culture seems in short supply in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

There, explains the Washington Post, “it is now clear that the police, without provocation, can beat an unarmed young student senseless — with impunity. They can blatantly lie about it — with impunity. They can stonewall and cover it up for months — with impunity. They can express no remorse and offer no apology — with impunity.”

Beverly Woodward, the circuit court judge in the case the Post outlines, should have recused herself because of a conflict of interest. She did not. Then, without explanation, she tossed the case’s one modest conviction — which had been obtained only with great difficulty. The matter would not have stretched even that far had a video of the incident not eventually surfaced, exposing the lies of the officers who pummeled the innocent student.

Suspicious circumstances in the case abound. Radley Balko gives the laundry list.

When corruption is this pervasive in a locale, state or federal government must intervene to reform and prosecute. It should be a lot easier at all levels to prosecute and punish those public officials who commit clear wrongdoing.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Red Light Robots

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Since we constantly battle against bad government — it being necessary to pare government down to its essential kernel, where it protects rather than tramples our rights — we sometimes lose sight of the fact that good government is both possible and necessary.

Now, many folks will raise an eyebrow, here. “‘Good government’ isn’t just about protecting our rights,” they might say. “It’s about providing key services. Like roads. Traffic lights. That sort of thing.”

Sure, we need roads. And safety measures. Nevertheless, good government is not about overkill.

Take automated intersection policing. That is, the infamous “red-light cameras.”

The New York Post reports that one camera — one intersection robot (better term, eh?) — snapped 1551 infractions on July 7. That was $77,550 for one camera for one day. No wonder that one city councilman likes it. And says it makes roadways safer.

But over at Reason, Zenon Evans marshals some skepticism. “A British study on speed cameras last year determined that ‘the number of collisions appears to have risen enough to make the cameras worthy of investigation in case they have contributed to the increases.’” These dangerous effects don’t appear to be limited to the other side of the pond, either: “[M]any reports,” Evans concludes, “have indicated that red light cameras in the U.S. increase accidents.”

More policing isn’t necessarily better policing. The old rule about traffic safety is that the rules should be set to what most people would drive without the rules.

Let’s remember: rewarding ineffective, counter-productive policing with lots of money is a bad way to govern the governors.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.