Friday 5 September 2014

missing data

Do you think that Google is holding out on you?  That, in the effort to deliver what it thinks you need (theatres in Dublin, Ireland rather than Dublin, New Hampshire for me please), you are not being told about things that would be interesting and informative? hmmm? What about your government, do you suspect it might not be telling you the whole story?  We spent the Spring in Ireland getting exercised about whistle-blowers (N=2) in the police.  We don't arm our own An Garda Síochána because we take the name (Guardians of the Peace) literally.  So Whistle-blower McCabe was primarily concerned about how people in the loop, including of course Gardai themselves, don't get penalised for driving too fast. Small potatoes you say, until your child is in the bus-line which gets whacked by a speeding squad-car. Speaking the truth to power about the suppression of data by The Man has secured Edward Snowden an exile in Russia.

Now here's an interesting point: you can show statistically that clean-slating is going on without pointing the finger at particular people who have benefitted or who have illegally and unfairly helped out a colleague.  You just have to look at the rate of accumulation of penalty points for driving infringements in a) the general pop b) gardai (and their friends&relations).  You finish up with a 2x2 contingency table and can apply a statistical test like ChiSq.  I applied such reasoning to Irish abortions in the UK a year ago.

D. Brian Burghart editor of the Reno News & Review, having reported a case where a police officer had killed someone who didn't seem from the evidence to be a violent threat, asked for the epidemiological data and couldn't easily find it.  What he was asking was whether police officers in Reno were killing more people than, say, police officers in Waco.  He didn't need to ask if the rate of killings by police was higher than in Kilkenny, Ireland because in this country we just don't do it . . . except when we do: then there is a huge hoo-har, a tribunal of enquiry, a constitutional crisis and compensation to the family of the chap who was offed. Burghart finds that those killed by the police across America are either black or mental unwell.  But it's hard to find them!

So he's asking for help to crowd-source some data on a) instances where people have been killed by police b) the back-ground and context.  He started his enquiries in 2012 after a naked unarmed white college student was terminated at University of Southern Alabama and his site notes that "The nation’s leading law enforcement agency [FBI] collects vast amounts of information on crime nationwide, but missing from this clearinghouse are statistics on where, how often, and under what circumstances police use deadly force. In fact, no one anywhere comprehensively tracks the most significant act police can do in the line of duty: take a life,"

A helluva lot of people in America suffer violent death from fire-arms, most recently in the news some goon was training a 9 y.o. girl to use an Uzi machine gun; she lost control and shot her teacher in the head.  Google completes "nine year old shoots . . ." with a wild variety of choices.  But Burghart is asking whether the enforcers of the peace [would we call our boys in blue Fhorfheidhmí Síochána if we gave them guns?] are responsible for a disproportionate score. We have a good friend in England who was for years the social worker who went with the police to house where "a domestic" was going on.  The police tried to identify and deal with the perp (it all started when she hit me back?), and our pal took the children away. She was studying for a Master's in Social Work at the same time. She told me, in the context of pedophilia, that scout masters and priests are not a random selection from the general public. It's only obvious if you have it pointed out to you that, if you feel inside yourself a tendency to see children as sexual objects, it might influence your choice of career.

What knowledge and predispositions are likely to make a young chap join the police?  A sense of justice.  An admired role-model or family member already in the force. A belief that girls like a boy in uniform blue. Likes driving cars fast. A fascination with guns. The early retirement benefits. What about if you had fantasies about killing people?  I guess the citizens of Anytown, USA really need to know when one of their boys in blue has been involved in >1 fatal encounter on the reasoning of Lady Bracknell "To lose one parent Mr Worthing etc."

I guess that the police undertake some of the dirty things in life so that the rest of us don't need to see or imagine such things getting cleaned up and we can sleep easy in our beds each night. I don't think anyone reckons that policing is an easy-living sinecure. But we don't want to enquire too closely into what police-work actually involves lest we get disturbed enough to have nightmares.  But a lack of enquiry can be equivalent to a lack of supervision and our Irish situation indicates that it is not sensible to allow the police to supervise themselves.

It's like reading a science fiction story, which I haven't written yet, where people living in Peacetown are not asking about the mysterious disappearance of their children until it is revealed that the kids are being farmed underground by giant ants which are all that prevents the town from being overwhelmed by war, pestilence, famine and the other one.  Philip Pullman's super-wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy has a similar trope. Indeed, a case could be made that the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur hinges on the sacrifices which civilised people have to make (7 young men and 7 young women annually for minotaur-chow) to ensure that their complacent equilibrium isn't disturbed. It was ever thus.

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