Category Archives: Media Missteps

Contempt of Cop, And That Might Be It

iStock_000004808004_SmallI’ve worked closely with police officers my entire professional life, and I find most to be decent, honorable men and women who do a difficult job with a surprising amount of professionalism. I’m far from anti-cop. But sometimes it appears obvious that breaking the law isn’t what will get you arrested. Simply disobeying a police officer, even with the right to do so, might do it.

That’s anathema to the rule of law.

A disturbing video posted by the African-American political and cultural opinion magazine “The Root” shows a black man arguing with police officers, one male and one female and both white, in St. Paul, Minnesota in January and eventually being tasered and then arrested. It’s news again in light of recent events, and race is an assumed factor. At one point in his filming of the incident, the man interrupts the female officer and says “the problem is I’m black.” The two are then joined by a male officer who immediately demands that he put his hands behind his back. A struggle ensues, he’s tasered and then arrested.

I honestly don’t know if race was a factor for the officers involved. I’d like to think it wasn’t, but I completely understand those who most certainly do. Regardless, what bothered me most about the exchange I saw was simply the illegality of what seems to be happening. Apparently charges against the man for trespass, disorderly conduct and disrupting the legal process were dropped.

Understanding that cell phone video is hardly an infallible source of context in a tense situation, watching this one will not yield a single explanation by the officers as to why the man is being arrested that cites Minnesota law or local ordinance. I watched it repeatedly; I don’t hear it. Reports suggest a store clerk called with some concern about his presence as a possible loiterer although he was in a public place. The responding officer demands he identify himself. He refuses, as is apparently his right under Minnesota law. She appears to follow him as he walks away, at one point explaining her demand saying “this is what police officers do when they’re called.”

That may be, but that doesn’t make the demand legal. And if it’s not legal, and no other crime is occurring, she needs to shrug and walk away. Period. But police officers increasingly seem not to want to do that.

In February, a California Highway Patrolman arrested a firefighter who refused to move a fire truck at the patrolman’s insistence while working a car wreck. The firefighter was ordered released and later filed a complaint. Details are in dispute, but it seems as if he was handcuffed and placed in a cruiser simply because he disobeyed the command of the CHP, regardless of the letter of the law.

Like any institution that provides for trappings of authority, deadly weapons and combat training, police agencies sometimes attract bullies and others with big egos and little patience. I believe this is not the norm in American policing but generally an exception. I’ve not only worked closely with cops all of my life, I’ve befriended many. I’ve heard countless head-shaking stories (that never reach the media) of cops who have not used deadly force despite the actions of belligerent and aggressive people who threaten their lives and refuse to obey reasonable commands.

Still, there is justifiable criticism being leveled against the militarization of American police forces and the rise of the “warrior cop.” Engaging the community from behind barricades with automatic weapons is largely counterproductive and stupid. But what’s worse is ignoring the law and putting people in chains and cages- regardless for how long or to what eventual end- simply because they’ve made a cop angry. It doesn’t work that way. It can’t work that way.

As a young prosecutor I practiced before an old and quirky but wonderful judge named Dan O’Flaherty. He showed me once how he kept a copy of Virginia’s contempt of court statute (the one that allows judges to jail people on the spot for in-court behavior) actually taped to the bench where he sat. His reason? When he was insulted or otherwise disrespected by someone before him, he took time to read the statute and think very carefully before even threatening the person with contempt. Because sometimes what they were doing was infuriating, but not illegal.

Anyone with the honor of wielding a badge and a gun needs to understand that as well.

George F. Will: Championing Male Paranoia, Ignorance, and the Status Quo

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead, this sentiment is both insightful and beautiful, but deceivingly tragic as well. If, after all, Mead was right that only small, committed groups of people have really changed the world, then it’s exactly because human beings as they’ve assembled in larger groups never would or could.

It’s sad but true. Tribes, nation-states, empires and entire civilizations have made, by and large, miserable decisions over the millennia in just about every area of human interaction. In our largest collections, we’ve consistently chosen slavery, patriarchy, militarism, vengeance, racial and sectarian violence, bigotry and greed.

Regardless, hope and progress persist and have moved the world forward; I believe Mead is right that this progress in humanity has been driven in large part not by the masses but by the outliers, the suffering, the unusually reflective, empathic and brave.

When it comes to the shameful and shame-based, age-old shroud of silence that has been draped over survivors of sexual violence, nothing is different. Progress is being made, much of it born of the efforts of women (and some men) who refused at last to suffer silently and who finally punched through to the social consciousness with the feminist and victim’s movements of recent decades.

And now a small but surprisingly growing number are coming forward to expose what’s always been true and almost never acknowledged: Colleges and universities, like most institutional environments, have been havens for sexually violent individuals for far too long, and for reasons that institutional leadership could address far better than it ever has.

But for writers like George F. Will, this shedding of light and move toward accountability must be dismissed as hysteria and the establishment of yet another “victim class” with a hidden agenda. He’s armed with nothing more than one, remarkably atypical and grossly misleading anecdote of an apparently mischaracterized sexual assault. Yet he spends half of a column on its facts before dismissing pretty much all college-aged victims as confused and coddled miscreants, unable to characterize their own experiences due to “hook up culture,” or “hormones, alcohol, and faux sophistication.”

As Will himself would write in judgment of such a moronic conclusion:

Well.

Like so many before him, Will combines ignorance and useless moralizing; unlearned in sexual violence dynamics, he fails to grasp that most clear cases of victimization- let alone awkward or even borderline violent sexual events- almost never lead to complaints of victimization to anyone. Of course, awkward and negative sexual hook-ups happen. Of course regret sometimes sinks in. Of course women (and some men) feel cheated, used and angry after sexual encounters in many circumstances and because of many factors. The idea that they’ll now “cry rape” because of a handful of Department of Education initiatives, thus filling the country’s prisons with innocent men, is paranoid nonsense.

Regardless, as with so many men of his generation and inclination, Will’s real concern is with the fate of the hapless, charming lothario who he is certain has no ill intent but now faces the wrath of the badly behaved, deviously empowered woman with an axe to grind and a sympathetic, left-leaning government to help her grind it.

It’s garbage. But it’s not surprising. Will’s hysteria is a common and oft-repeated pattern of those who would preserve the status quo and the appearance of white, male dominated normalcy at any cost; just as women who demanded equal rights were once marginalized and dismissed as a small, vocal group of disgruntled malcontents; just as those who fought for an end to racial segregation were once branded as the minority in an otherwise content sub-culture of second class citizens. It’s that ever-present, all too common drone that has damned the world to so much misery and injustice for so long without change. On this issue, Will champions it shamefully.

My hope is that efforts like Will’s- ones which regrettably resemble the sad echo of mass group-think through the ages- will continue to falter, however improbably, because of a small group of thoughtful individuals who have simply had enough.

 

An Intolerable Glimmer and an Intolerable Focus on Controlling Women: Why I Still Fight Victim-Centered Rape Prevention

The “glimmer” is one of doubt. It’s the doubt that’s created when we analyze a rape perpetrated on a victim who was drunk, dressed seductively, or engaged in whatever behavior we have adjudged unwise and foolish. It’s a glimmer that allows for the blaming- ever so slightly, but still substantively- of the victim. It’s a glimmer that allows for the exoneration- ever so slightly, but still substantively- of the offender.

That’s what victim-centered rape prevention does. Regardless of how well-intentioned. Regardless of how coldly logical. Regardless of the reservoir of love and benevolence that lies behind it. Regardless. It still serves to create the glimmer. And the glimmer is too much.

See, we can claim we’re not blaming victims all we want when we advise seemingly obvious and demonstrably effective means of prevention. It does not matter; the effect still serves to blame victims and protect offenders. Why? Because sexual violence is a crime different from any other.

Read that again. Rape is categorically, undeniably in a class by itself. When one person attacks another sexually, the crime is analyzed differently than any other. Since criticizing Emily Yoffe’s State pieces earlier this week (her pieces are here and here) , I have received dozens of messages from people who construct analogies to other crimes to describe why her key advice (control your drinking) is simply sound advice and not victim blaming, regardless of how unfair it might seem. Others shake their heads and tell me I can wish for a kinder, fairer world all I want, but they’ll be damned if they won’t tell their daughters and sons exactly “what not to do” in order to protect them.

That’s understandable. But here is an undeniable truth: Leave aside my belief that all that advice, even if it works in many situations, also potentially opens up the hearers to other vectors of attack. For those who would still prefer to create rules and encourage loved ones to follow them in order to best play the odds, I will challenge them on at least one aspect of their thinking: They cannot avoid a charge of victim-blaming by claiming they would give similar advice to anyone in order to avoid, say, robbery (by walking on well-lit streets), or car theft (by locking doors).

Rape isn’t like robbery, car theft, or even murder. Sex, and how we view it, doesn’t allow for that.

The nature of sexuality in our culture (and most others) does not allow for it to be analogized to any other crime. The nuances and complexities of sexual interaction, seduction, flirtation, gender roles, the intensely private and culturally shame-based nature of the whole subject, the relation of the sexual organs to the excretory ones, the continued prizing of “purity,” etc, etc, etc, all combine to make sexual crime one that is always analyzed differently from any other.

So the danger of tipping the scales even a tiny bit and judging victim choices, thus marginally exonerating offenders, is magnified with sexual crime.

Another hard truth: The further we dig into the nature of sexual crime, the further we must dig into the nature of sex itself. And that means taking an honest look at gender roles, expectations, and deep-seated fears and obsessions that have shaped how society judges, treats, confines, punishes and subjugates women.

Read that again also, if you would. Far too much of the debate concerning how women can and should protect themselves from men is polluted with the continuing and still deeply unresolved obsession that men (and some women as well) still have with women as sexual beings. Our major religions, our societal structures, our laws, customs and mores. How many are hyper-focused on controlling female sexuality? When we can answer that question honestly and accurately, we’ll have uncovered much of what is wrong with how we seek to prevent rape.

That, in a nutshell, is why I find even the best intentioned, victim-centered prevention strategists to be ultimately wrong-headed. Try as they might, they are still tipping the scales. They are still creating doubt. As a prosecutor, that’s a thing I was trained very carefully to avoid when justice is on the line.

Emily Yoffe, Like Most Misinformed People, Won’t Get It. Maybe Ever.

Emily Yoffe is frustrated by the backlash against her well-intentioned but ill-considered original Slate piece from last week, but apparently emboldened by the support she’s received from other well intentioned and ill-informed supporters.

Yoffe, like many others, sees a reduction in drinking (on college campuses especially) as the key to reducing sexual assaults against women. Indeed, the answer seems startlingly clear to Ms. Yoffe, as if she’s sounding an alarm that those around her infuriatingly cannot hear:

Women! Stop drinking! You’re making yourselves vulnerable!

It seems so obvious. A woman (or a man for that matter) who decides, for whatever reckless, juvenile, or ill-advised reasons, to drink to excess, is making herself/himself vulnerable in a cruel and unpredictable world. That’s the seemingly clear-as-glass conclusion at which Yoffe and many like her have arrived.

My perspective is that of a former special victims prosecutor, so I suppose I must ask myself: Haven’t I seen countless cases in which objectively “bad” victim behavior (like heavy drinking) “led to victims being raped?”

Here’s the naked truth: I have worked with victims- male and female- who were raped during or after behavior that might have been judged unwise. But I have never seen a victim who was raped because of that behavior. I’ve only seen victims who were raped for the one, single, incontrovertible reason that all victims are raped:

Because someone chose to rape them. 

This is where Yoffe gets lost. Granted, it’s a subtle distinction and one I also had to absorb over time. It was a brilliant and irreverent PhD psychologist (Nikki Vallerie) who finally clued me in to a simple and profound truth: There is no vulnerability without danger.

A woman can skip through a big city park at midnight in a G-string made of sewn-together $100 bills. She will not be vulnerable- in other words, she won’t be at risk for the slightest victimization of any kind- even a criticism of her clothing choice- unless someone in her environment means to victimize her.

Let that sink in. No one is at risk, regardless of what they do or don’t do, if no one around them means them harm.

But the Yoffe’s of the world believe they’ve figured it all out and claim victory when it comes to policing bad or reckless behavior, believing the key to preventing most- if not all- sexual violence means the prevention of such behavior because of the “dangerous world” we all inhabit.

Indeed, the world is a dangerous place. But here are two critical areas where Yoffe and her ilk fail in their analysis and admonitions.

1. Women (and men) can be (and are) sexually victimized in the most “innocent” of circumstances, i.e., a day-time study group, a church function, an alcohol-free event or movie date. So warnings against “late night, drunken date rape” only protect victims from one type of rape- and could actually expose them to further harm as they’ll be unprepared for any other scenario other than what they’ve been warned against.

2. Rapists thrive on and celebrate- whether or not they do so consciously- the very rules of “wise and protective behavior” that Yoffe and her compatriots have so fervently and self-righteously promulgated.

The reasons are simple, and devastating.

First, as I alluded to before, a laundry list of things not to do will simply clear the path for the rapist who will rape after church, on a simple, alcohol-free DVD movie date, after a study session, or pretty much whenever he can isolate a victim who believes she (or he) has protected her/himself in every imaginable way from harm.

Second, the man who chooses to a rape a person who has “broken” a finger-wagging protective rule that society soberly approves of, knows full well that he’ll most likely never be accused of that crime.

Why? Because, thanks to the self-satisfying proclamations of the Yoffes of the world, his victim broke a rule and “got herself raped.”

Therefore, and as he well knows, she might not even be believed if she does report. But she’ll definitely be blamed even if she is. That will most likely keep her quiet. And so it goes.

Want to stop rape? Focus on rapists.

 

The “Re-homing” of Children Issue: A Response

Last week, I was contacted privately by an individual who was familiar with “re-homing,” also through an Internet group that included the participation of adoptive parents, some of whom were seeking to get rid of their children, and prospective “parents” looking to procure them.

The person who contacted me is also an adoptive parent, appears to be a dedicated one, and largely regrets any cooperation she might have given to the “re-homing” process. But while she acknowledges the failures and the risks, she still believes there is justification for the attempts some make at abandoning children to others with power of attorney, largely from the perspective of a desperate parent with a dangerous or unmanageable adoptive child. Since she contacted me privately I will not identify her and will do my best to avoid referring to facts that might also do so. But I believe a portion of my response to her is relevant to a further examination of the issue of “re-homing” and how dangerous and utterly thoughtless it can be. So here it is:

I understand your position that not enough resources exist for adoptive parents who find themselves with children who have theretofore unknown problems (or ones hidden from them) that make them not only unmanageable, but also perhaps a danger to themselves and their families. Still, I have little sympathy for adoptive parents in this situation who resolve it by dumping their children (I will not use the phrase “re-homing” without mocking quotes) with strangers and in the most dangerous of potential circumstances.

Adoption is among the most profoundly sobering decisions a prospective parent can make. I’m sure you understand this better than I as you have actually taken this step and appear to be doing so with love and decency. In my view, no prospective parent should ever consider adoption without also having the resources to address every possible type of problem, foreseeable and unforeseeable. If an adopted child becomes a danger to themselves, the parents or other siblings, and must be removed from the parents’ home, then the parents need to be financially prepared to seek institutional care for them, if necessary, but not while disowning them. If the best interests of the child and the family both appear to be in dissolving the adoptive relationship, then it should be attempted only through a formal, legally recognized process. 

You may not know well the tactics of predators who seek out children to exploit, harm or kill, but I can assure you that a “re-homing” platform is among the most powerful and gratifying vectors to what they would consider perfect victims. I say “perfect” because a predator could scarcely imagine a better scenario than parents desperate to pawn off an unwanted child- most likely a child who is emotionally and/or physically compromised to the point where they are virtually powerless to seek help or redress from any type of abuse.  It is a fact that child predators, like all things that hunt, seek the path of least resistance and greatest security. The legal ability to abandon a vulnerable (indeed, perhaps even objectively unlikable) child to a complete stranger with a pro-forma legal document is the clearest imaginable example of those two favored circumstances.

This fact alone makes “rehoming” reckless, cruel, and thoroughly abhorrent, even without considering the less sensational risks of simply unprepared and hopeful parents accepting a “re-homed” child and being even less able to properly care for her or him. Within the “re-homing” universe, what is the incentive for the abandoning parent to be honest about the true extent of the child’s problems (or potential dangers to others) to begin with? The system is about dumping human beings on others, plain and simple. No one should get near it. You shouldn’t have either. 

In a letter you shared with me, you rhetorically asked this question to the author of the original Reuters story: “Why are parents resorting to informal networking groups to help them with adoptions that are failing? Because there are no resources.  Because of societies preconceived notions that these kids just need love, a good family, etc. and all will be well.  Tell that to the mother who finds her daughter raping a sibling with a pencil, tell that to the father who finds out his daughter is giving blow jobs to his 4 year old.  Tell that to the family who has to sleep with their bedroom doors locked because they fear for their lives.”

What I would tell a family in a situation like the ones you describe above is that they are still parents, not renters of human beings. They may have to lock doors. They may have to maintain distance between individuals within the house for the safety of everyone. They may have to very carefully seek out institutional care for their wounded child. They may have to seriously curtail or refine their own goals, dreams and priorities. I don’t claim to know the difficulty of parenting, either my own child or an adoptive one. But I know quite well to not make such a monumental decision without being ready to accept and deal with everything that might befall me- and the rest of my family- if I choose to do so.