There Are No Better People

Kristin Devine

Kristin has humbly retired as Ordinary Times' friendly neighborhood political whipping girl to focus on culture and gender issues. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

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96 Responses

  1. Philip H says:

    Systems can make us better people. Where I’m struggling with how to respond to your well written post is the few Libertarians I interact with outside OT all seem to think we have too many formal systems, and that we’d all be better off if most of those systems – at least the government “inflicted” ones – went away.

    I’m probably undercaffeinated in regards to this question, but it seems we can have one or the other but not both.Report

    • Dark Matter in reply to Philip H says:

      There is a cost to systems and some of them are simply virtue signalling by their creators.

      Gun control is a stand out example, we have a shooting, something must be done by the political powers that be to show they care, so we have more regulations passed that won’t be followed by criminals.

      Another example are processes that try to abstract engineering competence.

      Having said that, because people fail in pretty predictable ways it’s probably a good thing to rotate your company’s accountant(s) so they don’t have the opportunity to spend decades cooking the books. Because of a lack of common sense and because “we can clearly trust Joe”, it would probably be a good thing to formalize that into a rule, or perhaps even a law.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Lovely essay.

    I imagine we’re going to re-learn a lot of lessons over the next decade.Report

  3. Chip Daniels says:

    I think the essay touches on a good point, that our natures aren’t reducible to simple descriptors of good or bad. Every gang member, every corrupt cop will get a character witness to tell a true story of their kindness and noble character.

    Its probably going to yield a better outcome to focus on behavior and how we as individuals, and we as a collective society can moderate and control behavior.

    Systems are fine but only as good as those who are implementing them. We are all familiar with the yawning gap between office policy and office procedure. Likewise there is a yawning gap between the Constitution and what is done.

    The Constitution, the system code of our republic, didn’t prevent Jim Crow or the Japanese internment and it certainly didn’t come to the rescue of all the George Floyds who were murdered with impunity over the years. It’s been said that America could become a dictatorship without changing a word of the Constitution and I believe this.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      More transparency. Colorado recently passed a law saying that if a cop turns his camera off, we now have the option of ruling his testimony inadmissable.

      I am not crazy about how it says “may be ruled inadmissible in court” rather than “will be ruled inadmissible in court” but… hey. What about in the situation where a policeman is peeing and then gets attacked at the urinal and then has to defend himself? What then???? Examples always get written in and that camel’s nose becomes the whole dang camel and we’re sleeping outside again.

      But just acknowledging that cops not only have good reasons to turn the cameras off in the middle of an interaction, but there are bad reasons to turn them off too? Sadly, that’s a step forward from where we were. And a step forward, in this case, is a step in the right direction.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Jaybird says:

        Don’t ever turn the cameras off. Encrypt it in real time. Decryption keys held separately from the line organization, and used when an investigation requires it and for system audits. Improper use of the decryption keys should carry heavy criminal and/or civil penalties.Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

        I’ve witnessed plenty of juries watch horrific video of people being beaten or shot by cops, and applaud.

        The most essential part of our system is that the “People are Sovereign” meaning what the people want, the people get.

        Donald Trump, and an entire police force of Officer Chauvins, is what a whole lotta people want.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

          We’re seeing people come up with excuses for the murder of the kids in the CHOP.

          People just want cops that they identify with. Once they have those, the cops can get away with murder.

          So maybe all we need is hyper-local policing.Report

          • Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

            My point was that designing better systems is certainly a part of making things better, but we shouldn’t abandon the idea of making people themselves better.

            Like all the studies of how totalitarian regime rise up by seducing the people and getting them to acquiesce or even applaud the brutality.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

              Making people themselves better?

              I’m pretty sure that I have seen that movie.Report

              • Dark Matter in reply to Jaybird says:

                It’s the trademark of basically every totalitarian regime. Either eugenics, direct control by the gov over culture, or both.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Dark Matter says:

                The only movie I’ve ever watched that was in the Khmer language was a Cambodian film about making better, more responsible, more socially aware people. It was made because Cambodians realized that the younger generation had no real knowledge of what their parents and grandparents went through under the Khmer Rouge.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

                It’s what churches try to do. And schools.

                But not businesses, so it is anti-American.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                It’s also what Burke’s “Little Platoons” do.

                Families, church groups, book clubs, bowling leagues, fraternal organizations..These things socialize us, enforce social norms and police our behavior.

                Even Ordinary Times itself is performing that function. We set codes of conduct and enforce them, shaping the behavior of everyone who regularly visits here.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                So we just need police who are members of the families, church groups, book clubs, bowling leagues, and fraternal organizations of the communities they police.


              • The question in reply to Jaybird says:

                well when the majority of the police forces in every major city in this country doesn’t actually live in the city but lives out in the in the basically Copland suburbs then yeah maybe we should get some cops who actually live in the fishing places they policeReport

              • Jaybird in reply to The question says:

                I dig it. Here’s the Crips kicking some BLM activists out of their neighborhood. Deputize these guys. Give them the jurisdiction to move product in their neighborhood (with a handful of reasonable restrictions, of course).


              • Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

                I’m thinking more of how each platoon creates its own system of norms as a way of urging people to improve:

                For example, one such might issue the following rules:
                When you disagree with someone, posting pictures of your fecal matter WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.

                Now this may strike some free thinking iconoclasts as prudish or narrow minded. However, notice the all caps, which indicates how strongly the community feels about pictures of fecal matter. I believe Jonathan Haidt had an entire chapter on this.

                Your username cannot be obscene like CumDumpster.

                Certainly, different cultures often have names which strike us as odd or even offensive; and a great latitude must be exercised before attempting to regulate such a personal choice as a name. However, reasonable people can disagree on whether the freedom of CumDumpster to post is a bridge too far.

                You cannot threaten to kill someone in the comment section.

                True, in the tradition of our forebears and the Founders, duels to the death occurred but some modern cultures hold that restricting this right is an important method of enhancing the use of the public square for everyone.

                As you can imagine, a small culture which enforces rules like these will almost certainly produce much improved citizens.Report

              • Dark Matter in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                I’m thinking more of how each platoon creates its own system of norms as a way of urging people to improve:

                You will never rat on your brother in blue, even if he’s a scumbag you need him, and the rest of us, to have your back.

                This sort of unwritten “norm” is why I think bad police departments need to be destroyed rather than improved. After you’ve hit that point, if a cop disagrees with that “norm” he’s already left for a different department where he does like the norms… so presumably everyone in the dept agrees with it.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                I’m familiar with the “churches” thing you speak of.

                There are downsides.

                Schools? I imagine that schools in some parts of town will be better at making people better than schools in other parts of town.

                You don’t want your kids going to the schools that aren’t good at making people better. (It’s even worth moving to a good school district to avoid that sort of thing.)Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird says:

                Its absolutely true that some of the little platoons are toxic and effective at producing sociopathic citizens.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                See also: Universities.Report

              • Uh, yeah guys, it’s also why we put people in jail, instead of just torturing or executing them for committing crimes.Report

          • Dark Matter in reply to Jaybird says:

            So maybe all we need is hyper-local policing.

            (This is a rush to judgement… but…) CHOP’s people have been in charge for a couple of weeks and the results don’t look like the utopia we were supposed to get with self policing.

            In terms of the police, imho we can do better than we have, but we can also do a lot worse.Report

          • Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird says:

            Not hyper local policing, hyper local juries.

            If a cop kills a black man in a black neighborhood, the jury is pulled from the whole region, and the defense can put together a jury that is so far removed from the abuses of the police that the dead person is an abstraction.

            Alternatively, we could treat all homicides like we should treat rapes. A crime has been committed, you don’t get to disparage the victim. No asking the victim what they were wearing or how drunk they were. No submitting into evidence the past criminal history of the victim in an effort to stir up a sympathetic justification.

            Honestly, how often, in a murder case, is the past bad acts of the victim, that the killer could not have known about, offered as a justification for the murder. About the only kind of case where it matters is in the case of physical abuse*.

            And I was just reading about a cop who got off (I think) on a sexual abuse charge because the prosecutor played a video of him committing physical abuse, and the judge declared it prejudicial.Report

      • CJColucci in reply to Jaybird says:

        Centuries ago, the testimony of parties was inadmissible because they were parties, and, therefore, had an interest in the outcome of the case, which meant their testimony could not be trusted and, therefore, could not be admitted. Used to be that if you had been convicted of a crime, your testimony was inadmissible because you were a convicted criminal, which meant your testimony could not be trusted and, therefore, could not be admitted. Over the centuries, we came to understand that such rules kept useful, and often critical, testimony from the jury, and we evolved the notion that whether testimony was worthy of belief was for the jury to decide on a witness-by-witness basis, not in advance by inflexible rules. You could bring up the witness’s interest in the outcome or criminal record and argue to the jury that, therefore, the jury ought not to believe what a particular witness said, but the testimony would not be categorically excluded. This is generally believed to have enhanced the ability of a jury to determine the truth, so the trend has been against categorical rules of inadmissibility based on the presumed unreliability of classes of witnesses, which is the opposite of “transparency.” And, as a general rule, no one’s testimony is inadmissible because of a lack of corroboration. That’s just anther factor the jury can consider. Colorado judges will probably rarely use their new power to exclude uncorroborated cop testimony, and a damn good thing, too. After all, we want transparency.Report

  4. Oscar Gordon says:

    This is what I keep telling people who insist that there are just a few bad apples. The bad apples don’t matter, it’s the system that allows the bad apples to stay in the bushel despite the fact that they are moldy and stinky and starting to ruin the rest.

    I’d be a lot more tolerant of those edge cases of questionable police use of force if the system did not work so hard to protect the obvious bad faith cases.Report

    • greginak in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Also it seems in many cases the bad apples have been promoted and are running the place. They are sending new cops off to “warrior training” and such bs.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      These aren’t bad apples. The tree is diseased. Some of the apples may not kill you. Some may actually be part of a balanced breakfast. But the tree keeps pumping out poisonous apples because the tree itself is the problem. The tree and the soil it’s planted in and the sunshine and rain it gets.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Yeah, I always think when people say “it’s a few bad apples” that the rest of the saying is “ruin the bunch.” A few bad apples in a bushel will turn the rest pretty quicklyReport

      • George Turner in reply to Rufus F. says:

        This subthread reads very different when you don’t scroll up and assume the bad apples people are talking about are the usual hoodlums who are committing all the violent crimes and property crimes in the neighborhood. “That’s why you never go there, and if you do you lock your car doors and drive fast with your fingers crossed, why the property values are in the toilet and the businesses are boarded up. It’s just those few bad apples that ruin it for everybody. If the police would just round those up, the neighborhood could experience a Renaissance and enjoy modernity.”

        But that wasn’t this subthread, and that’s not the optimistic future we’re heading for.Report

  5. Damon says:

    There’s something else I think going on too, whether it’s a good cop or a bad cop. Cops deal with, shall we say, some not good people. That’s gotta color you perspective and grind you down. If you constantly deal with rapists, murderers, child molesters, addicts, prostitutes, etc., that has an impact on you as person. It colors your attitude and behavior. I think that needs some looking at too…in terms of stress mngt, staff rotation, or something.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Damon says:

      From what I’ve seen, there is a toxic streak of ‘Tough it Out’ in the police. Internally, they all act tough and like it doesn’t bother them, and when people start talking about adding more psych support for police, they decline and ask for more Bearcats and MRAPs and Stingrays, etc.

      Except when you start talking about holding police accountable, then we hear all about how hard the job is and the toll it takes on everyone and how much we just don’t understand and can not possibly be able to judge them, etc.Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        You know it’s hard out here for a pimp
        When he tryin’ to get this money for the rent
        For the Cadillac’s and gas money spent
        Because a whole lot of bitches talkin’ shit
        Will have a whole lot of bitches talkin’ shitReport

      • Dark Matter in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        We just had a group of civilians give the job a whirl and in two weeks they’re killing people because of the color of their cars. Adjusted for population size, this is really bad.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Dark Matter says:

          There is something to be said for training…

          I do wonder if we shouldn’t operate the police like we operate military reserves. Policing would not be a lifetime primary career. You sign up, go through training, then serve for two years. Then you take a break for a while except for one weekend a month where you undergo training to stay current. After a few years downtime, you rotate back in and serve for a while again.

          And if you can not get yourself promoted past basic patrol after so many years, you are not allowed to re-up.Report

          • The obvious question is, “What do they do for that few years?” Jobs that pay as well as most LEOs that allow you to simply take two years off would seem pretty rare.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Michael Cain says:

              Social work. They can be the people who are called instead of the police when someone needs a wellness check.Report

              • Michael Cain in reply to Jaybird says:

                My county requires social workers to hold a relevant four-year degree. (Cities are not generally involved; significant state laws would have to be changed. That’s just a complication, not an impossibility.) As it turns out, my city requires that sworn police officers hold a four-year degree. When I’ve brought that up, no one here has said “What a dumb idea!” but close.

                I’m trying to understand what you’re proposing here. Are the reserve cops going to be real social workers, managing cases, making recommendations in family court, mediating counseling sessions, etc? Or something that’s neither an armed cop or a trained social worker?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Michael Cain says:

                I was going for dark humor.Report

              • Slade the Leveller in reply to Michael Cain says:

                This is a brilliant reply.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Michael Cain says:

                As I’ve been telling people, the OCP corporation’s ED-209 is capable of both general law enforcement and urban pacification. It never sleeps. It never gets tired. It can’t be racist or sexist because it’s a robot.

                It would also prevent the need for derisive social worker memesReport

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Here’s one step:
                LA City Council approves first step in replacing LAPD with community responders for non-violent calls

                The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday approved the first step in a plan to replace Los Angeles Police Department officers with community-based, unarmed emergency responders for non-violent calls for service.
                The motion instructs the LAPD to work with the county’s Department of Mental Health, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and other government agencies to respond to non-violent incidents, such as drug abuse and incidents related to mental health.

                It would include diverting nonviolent calls for services, such as neighbor disputes and others from the LAPD to the appropriate non-law-enforcement agencies.


                Obviously a very early and tentative step, but interesting.Report

              • George Turner in reply to Chip Daniels says:

                The motion instructs the LAPD to work with the county’s Department of Mental Health, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and other government agencies to respond to non-violent incidents, such as drug abuse and incidents related to mental health.

                See the derisive social worker meme posted above. One of the reasons we have police respond to drug abuse and mental health cases is that such people may present a threat of serious bodily injury, which is probably why the somebody called the police. The social worker will show up, look at the crazy, and then call the police.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to George Turner says:

                Exactly, but if the police are not needed, then they won’t be there to overreact.

                And if they are called, set the policy such that the social worker or mental health professional retains command of the scene (the cop works for the non cop and follows their instructions).

                Granted, this would require a great deal of training between cops and other responders, as well as a host of new policies, but some impatient cop with a macho problem should not be deciding how to deal with the crazy.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Learning how to handle violent patients is one of the skills that home health care aides and nurses possess.Report

              • Dark Matter in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                When our crazy was investigated, it was indeed a social worker who showed up.Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

              Same thing people in the military reserves do. Remember, this would not be a primary career. It would be similar to military deployment (with attendant protections). Folks don’t stay in the military reserves for the lucrative paychecks.

              The ultimate point would be to give people mental/emotional downtime.Report

              • Real questions, out of ignorance. What fraction of the military reserves are infantry or similar on the front lines? What fraction of those if called up would just be plugged into a front line unit w/o considerable training to remind them about real discipline? What fraction are specialists doing work that mostly doesn’t involve shooting at all?Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Everyone is a rifleman, and something else.

                There are very few people who are just riflemen, and they are usually low rank.

                And in the reserves, the one weekend a month is how you keep the discipline up so they can be effective when called up.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                For the most part, the people who would be happy as grunt infantrymen are the kind of people who go career.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to DensityDuck says:

                You can’t, military doesn’t allow it. There are no career E-4’s, for instance. If you can not advance to E-5 in a certain amount of time (8 years back when I was in, IIRC), you are not allowed to re-enlist. E-5 is some flavor of sargent/petty officer, which means you almost certainly have a specialty beyond infantry/rifleman if you are in the reserves (in the Army, active duty can be 11B/11C/11X, but not in the reserves).

                And since we are talking about the reserves here, that is relevant.

                Note that in the Navy/Coast Guard, you absolutely can not advance to E-4 until you have a rating (specialty). And if you can not gain a rating inside of 4 years, you won’t be allowed to re-up. There are no career seamen/airmen/firemen (the equivalent of an infantry rifleman in the Army).Report

              • jason in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                There are career infantry–they advance to positions such as platoon sergeants (which could be E5-E7), company gunnery sergeants or first sergeants. There aren’t as many of those, as many that stay in would either choose to switch their MOS (because grunt life sucks) or many just intend to do their time and get out. Those additional specialties will often be infantry related (or administrative). In the reserves, maybe they have more specializations, but that’s not the case in the fleet (at least for jarheads). And infantry “rifleman” can be machine gunners, mortar men, etc, so there’s some variety. But there are long term infantry marines (though they may have a break with DI duty, recruiting duty, sea duty-guards on ships, or embassy duty), they’re just not the majority of an infantry company or platoon.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to jason says:

                I was going off the Army website, where career infantry are not allowed in the reserves.

                I didn’t look at the USMC page.Report

              • jason in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Gotcha–and that model makes sense for the reserves.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to jason says:

                Being Navy, the whole, my job is to shoot a rifle, and that is it, is a bit weird to me.

                Every sailor knows basic seamanship and how to be part of a fire fighting team, etc. But no one is a simple ‘Seaman’. At least not past E-3.Report

              • jason in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                You’re oversimplifying the grunts a bit. It’s not just shooting a rifle–it’s also unit tactics (such as urban warfare), multiple weapon types, climbing, climate specialization, etc. It’s still a weird kind of MOS as far as the “skills” are pretty much “ways to kill people.”Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to jason says:

                I’m not trying to oversimplify it any more than I am oversimplifying the basics of Seamanship (which is a whole lot more than knot tying and firefighting).

                I mean, I guess one could argue that in the Navy a Boatswains Mate and a Damage Control Technician or a Machinists Mate are the ‘Infantryman’ equivalent, but even those ratings have a great degree of specialization once you get into the Petty Officer ranks.Report

              • jason in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                Don’t forget the skill of removing perfectly good paint and repainting it. Isn’t that a skill? Heh.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to jason says:



                so many fecking times…Report

              • My father was a senior petty officer for a few years. One of the things I learned from him as a kid is that if you have nothing more constructive to do, there’s always something that’s not as clean as it could be. After cleaning every inch of the water feed lines under the kitchen sink once, I became much better at finding things that needed doing on the days that dad decided to make war on sloth…Report

          • Slade the Leveller in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            I had the same basic idea, posted 50 minutes later.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            This makes me wonder… what sort of ongoing training are police required to have? In my neck of the woods, teachers need to get re-certified (technically, they have to continue moving up the certification ladder), which requires a mix of PD and schooling (depending on exactly where on the ladder you are and where you are going). Day care employees — which don’t necessarily have to be certified — also require ongoing training with increased specificity of what that entails.

            Does anyone know what sorts of training/PD are required of police? I’m sure it varies but even a general sense or just some specific info would be really interesting. It isn’t something I thought about before but Oscar got the gears turning.Report

    • Slade the Leveller in reply to Damon says:

      I was just talking about this with a friend whose husband is a Chicago police officer. She’s been posting a lot of stuff recently trying to counteract all the anti-police stuff showing up on Facebook. A common thread in all the videos is the years of seeing the stuff cops see changes a person for the worse.

      Having someone in a job like that for (insert number of years it takes to change a brain) years is proving to be detrimental to society. Perhaps we ought to have enlistment terms for police like we do for the military, let’s say 5 years. When the hitch is up, give whoever wants to re-enlist a psych eval. If that’s passed, given ’em a year of desk duty to decompress. No soldier stays on the line for his entire term of enlistment.Report

  6. Jaybird says:

    In the vein of the whole “it’s good when the police do things to people who are bad” tendency that seems to spring up in some surprising places, one of the people who was particularly vocal in the moments after the shooting of the children in the CHAZ/CHOP has since apologized for earlier bloodthirst as more details came out. (CW: Strong language.)

    Kto? Kogo?Report

    • Dark Matter in reply to Jaybird says:

      If only he had a support crew to tell him to shut up and keep blaming the victim. He’ll probably end up in prison. However there’s something to be said about confessions and learning from our mistakes.

      And don’t we do something like that for doctors? They confess, we go over in detail how this mess up happened, we (mostly) take prison off the table. The system is assumed to be at fault, we blame the system and try to fix it.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Dark Matter says:

        I find the whole “don’t snitch” thing that seems to be establishing itself in the wake of the killing of the two children (“Why do you keep calling them ‘children’? They were teenagers! In the 1800’s, they’d be married by now!”) seems to have a lot in common with the so-called “blue wall of silence”.

        Which is kinda messed up.Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    To the point of your asterisk, Radley Balko was on NPR today on Fresh Aire talking about his book “Rise of the Warrior Cop”.

    It’s not a re-run so I don’t think that there’s a transcript yet (googling didn’t show me anything after a few seconds of looking).

    So tune in, in your local area and I’ll try to dig up a link when I find one later. There have been a handful of Libertarians doing the Lord’s Work on this sort of thing when Republicans thought that cops could do no wrong and Democrats were still reeling from the last time they were seen as “soft on crime”. (Oh, and they’re going to be seen as “soft on crime” again, if they’re not careful.)Report

  8. James K says:

    This is a very good piece Kristen, the need to have systems that don’t assume good faith in our leaders is an important part of The Scottish Enlightenment and is key to create a successful government.Report

  9. Swami says:

    I agree Kristen. Institutions matter, a lot. We need much better institutional solutions to deal with our police.

    I will add, or at least emphasize, that mindsets matter too. Or, what Deirdre McCloskey would fall rhetoric. How we think about and position or frame issues and how we speak about them.

    We need to frame the abuse of authority in our justice system properly so that we can design institutions to counteract the problems. Failure to frame the issue properly, will lead not to better institutions, but likely to worse ones.

    My fear is that we (collective we, not you and I) all agree the institution needs fixin, but we may still be miles apart on what the solutions should look like.Report

  1. July 13, 2020

    […] my last piece, There Are No Better People, I wrote about how people are selfish, tribalistic, xenophobic, superior, mean-spirited, and even […]Report

  2. August 31, 2020

    […] who would never ever ever misuse such a terrible power. At that point in time I still believed there were better people, people who if only we could put them in positions of phenomenal cosmic power they’d be able to […]Report