Wednesday, November 11, 2009

You's A Dick

Not you. Well, maybe you. It kind of depends on who you are.

But definitely these people in the first act of This American Life's most recent episode Bait & Switch.

I'm, to put it mildly, not exactly happy with the idea of bait cars. I understand the impetus to make those criminally minded think twice about taking a car that looks like the perfect target. At the same time, I don't see how this isn't entrapment. And, possibly owing to my own admitted ambivalence toward the police and their authority, I see this as a potential conflict of interest.

In the article, there's one quote that stands out to me as particularly problematic.
"Let me ask you something: If you see a car with the keys in it, would you take it?" Tate said. "There are hundreds of people walking by these cars, and they make the choice to keep walking. The bottom line is this: If you see a car that doesn't belong to you, don't take it."
And sure, that is the bottom line. But that bottom line gets blurred when the person leaving the car open and inviting to be stolen is the person who is responsible for catching those who steal cars. The car would not have been there if the cops didn't think they could lure someone into taking said car.

And so, here we have a crime (or, in the case of Mark Ledford and Asia Ward, not even that) facilitated by the officers in question.

The same sort of morally grey case building has been highlighted before by This American Life, notably in Arms Trader 2009. That case had all the hallmarks of this one, had the same moral questions of setting someone up, of giving them all of the opportunities to commit a crime they otherwise may have never had the inclination to commit, and then arresting them and trying them for that crime. Another case highlighted in Act II by the This American Life episode Turncoat discussed Brandon Darby, a radical activist-turned-FBI informant who pushed two fellow (and fledgling) activists into more extreme actions than they otherwise would have participated in.

The moral implications of a nation whose policy it was to facilitate fake terrorist actions in order to smoke out people who would or could potentially turn to terrorism disturbed me. I would really rather not have a government goading people who perhaps do have some inklings or some potential to do some pretty bad shit, who have the potential to become arms dealers or crazed lefties throwing homemade bombs at Republican National Conventions, but who would very probably never get to that point on their own.

And in that comment by Sgt. Oliver Tate, it becomes clear as to why. No one should steal a car, or try to smuggle weapons to enemies of America or make plans to bomb places; but there is no moral high ground in creating the perfect storm effect, to push all of the buttons, on those people you suspect may have the want to steal a car or smuggle weapons or make bombs but who - without your help - would have none of the know-how or drive to do so.

What makes the case involving Mark Ledford and Asia Ward all the more abhorrent is what it demonstrates about the people who do plant the necessary buttons, who create those perfect crime-doing scenarios. It is that they don't care about the motivations. Mark Ledford called the car in to the police. He confirmed with a neighbor that she, too, called the car's presence in. And after he got no indication anything was going to be done, he decided to do something about the car himself. Smart? No. Criminal? Not in the least. And instead of admitting that they fucked up, instead of looking over their records and seeing what they could have done differently, instead of looking at the whole "bait" car itself and wondering if leaving a car unattended in a neighborhood may do more to unsettle the neighbors than it would ever accomplish in catching the criminally-minded-but-lazy, the police decided to leave out several salient details and set about bringing a case against Ledford and Ward. Instead of working to make the streets safer, the cops then were just being dicks.

And that's the problem with this "greater good" strategy. It gives too much power to those in authority. It trusts that those in authority are somehow more moral than the average person on the street. It trusts that in the event the authority is proven wrong, the authority will humbly admit to its mistake and take the necessary steps to correct it. And it does not allow for the formation of a crime independent of the entity responsible for stopping said crime. It makes the organization a facilitator in the crime it gets rewarded for preventing. And that? Is pretty heady. It is also possibly among the worst solutions to the problem.


Jeremy said...

This approach to policing is so silly and counterproductive.

petpluto said...

This approach to policing is so silly and counterproductive.

You are so much calmer about this than I am!

Jeremy said...


It's funny you say that. People (especially my family members) often accuse me of being too blaze about injustice. Yesterday, my mom told me that I need to "get more worked up about things."

I think grad school is slowly draining me of my humanity.

petpluto said...

I think grad school is slowly draining me of my humanity.

Wait, you had some humanity...?

When was that?

mikhailbakunin said...