The City of Hamden was rocked this week by protestors angry about the shooting of a young woman, Stephanie Washington, by a Hamden police officer. Here’s my prediction – the City will pay the young woman $2.5 million to avoid a lengthy courtroom fight.
My phone lit up the evening of the shooting. Reporters wanted to know whether the City could withhold evidence of the shooting, which took place earlier that day.
“They can,” I told one reporter. The law enforcement privilege permits the police to keep evidence to itself during an investigation. The demands of protestors for immediate action and answers were understandable, I said, but premature.
The fact is that police officers have a right to use force, even lethal, or deadly force, when they are faced with an immediate risk of serious physical injury. Was this shooting justified? I had no idea when I spoke to the reporter.
It sounded like the shooting might have been justified, at least based on what the police were saying.
Officers were investigating reports of an armed robbery in the early morning hours on Tuesday in Hamden They spotted a car they contended matched the description of the suspect’s vehicle. They tried to stop the car – it was unclear whether there was a chase or not. When an officer stopped the car in New Haven, a young man got out of the passenger side and seemed to reach for a gun.
That will get you shot in most jurisdictions most of the time. Furtive movements – rapid or suspicious hand gestures during a police stop -- are a recipe for disaster. I’ve been around enough police misconduct cases to know the following: When a cop stops me in my car, I put my hands on the steering wheel, I keep them there until I am given permission to move them, and I move them slowly, explaining to the officer what I am doing.
Does this make me a slave? No. Do I resent it? Yes. But I know that on the streets officers don’t know who is friend and who is foe. Two of the deadliest encounters officers have are traffic stops and domestics.
But here’s the rub in the Washington case. A video shown on the news shows that the passenger did not get out of the car with anything in his hands; indeed, he appears not to have left the car at all The video makes it look like the officer approached the car and opened fire. Nothing visible in the video shown on the news justifies the shooting.
However, the officer retreats as he shoots, reacting in apparent fear to something he saw. His body camera will shed necessary light.
The Connecticut State Police have been called in to conduct an independent investigation. Their work will be supervised by New Haven State’s Attorney Patrick Griffin, a man I know to be a straight shooter and an honest man. Despite the public outcry for action now, the investigators will be methodic and thorough.
Here’s my prediction.
The Hamden officer who fired the shots, Devin Eaton, will not be charged with a crime. His fearful reaction as he retreated firing shots tells me that he perceived something that scared him, causing him to fear for his safety. The law will require that his conduct be evaluated from the standpoint of what a reasonable officer would do under the totality of the circumstances.
I’m betting the shooting will pass muster as a matter of criminal and constitutional law. Officers have the right a matter of state and federal law to respond with lethal force if they legitimately believe their live are in danger.
But that is not the end of the inquiry.
The real question is just what did Eaton think he was doing? His approach of Ms. Washington’s car was wrong, dead wrong. He was trained to react in a more cautious and sensible manner.
The car was stopped because it contained occupants whom the police believe may have been involved in an armed robbery. This was not a routine traffic stop. Police officers are trained to await back up before approaching a car in such circumstances, and when they do approach the car, they are taught to do so from a position of cover.
The sole video that has thus far been published makes Eaton look reckless. He rushed from his car, apparently heedless of the danger, and quickly approached the passenger side of the car. Within seconds, he was firing at the car, even as he backed up fearfully.
State law permits a police officer to be sued for negligence in certain very narrow circumstances. This case appears to be one of those circumstances. The officer appeared to create the very danger than resulted in his shooting. He doesn’t get a commendation for that.
So why the forecast of a $2.5 million settlement?
Police shootings in highly publicized police shootings resulting in death have been settling around the United States in the $5 million to $6 million range. Ms. Washington survived this shooting. The case is a political hot potato. Ms. Washington is represented, according to the press, by a former state legislator, Win Smith, of Milford.
Candidly, New Haven’s Mayor Toni Harp should be required to ante up some of the settlement – she expressed outrage before she had a chance to investigate the shooting: Is it any wonder morale in the New Haven Police Department is low? The mayor shoots with her lip and asks questions later. She’s poured flames on a combustible mix neither New Haven nor Hamden can afford to let smolder for long.
The case is already national news with the predictable narrative such cases yield.
Local police departments have been bracing themselves since Ferguson for the consequences of a police shooting. We’ve had one now. No one wants this case litigated. It would be better to resolve the lawsuit quickly and to then focus on how better to train police officers.
This shooting appears unnecessary, a result either of poor training, or carelessness.
I’ve been watching the baubleheads on the networks discuss the Mueller report, and I’m disappointed. From the left, cries for impeachment. From the right, claims of exoneration. And from the center, a wary appraisal – President Trump was never going to charged with obstruction, the Justice Department doesn’t, as a policy matter, indict sitting presidents.
Political operatives are murmuring: to impeach, or not, that is the question. How will it all effect the 2020 election?
This is white noise, sound and fury signifying nothing.
The real significance of the report is in its redactions, and its refusal to publicize certain material for fear such disclosure would harm ongoing investigations.
These redactions – large, blacked-out sections of text -- are particularly evident in the section describing the investigation of Russian use of social media to manipulate the 2016 elections and to sow discord in the United States. Do Black Lives Matter? Da or nyet, depending on whose pressing your buttons.
To date, I’ve not seen any of the talking heads spend any real time on the social media section. For my money, this is where the action is. Presidents come and go, and political jaw-snapping is a sport for the political leisure class. The rest of us live in a world bounded by our immediate fears, hopes and expectations. We’re all dancing to algorithmic tunes set by others.
So what does Mueller’s report have to say about social media?
The Russians, acting through the Internet Research Agency, IRA, have been busy recruiting trolls in the United States. As described in the heavily redacted page 18 of the report – all that is not blacked out is footnote 28: “The term ‘troll’ refers to internet users – in this context, paid operatives – who post inflammatory or otherwise disruptive content on social media or other websites.”
An example of the IRA’s use of these paid operatives: “Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary…” I can’t help but wonder whether Pizzagate was the brainchild of some IRA apparatchik.
The IRA relied heavily on Facebook and Twitter to influence internet users. According to the report, a Facebook executive admitted in testimony before Congress that 470 IRA-controlled accounts posted some 80,000 messages from January 2015 through August 2017, reaching as many as 123 million Facebook users. The report cites a Twitter spokesman’s statement that acknowledges as many as 3,814 IRA-controlled Twitter accounts and 1.4 million Twitter users in contact with IRA-controlled accounts.
The report discusses the use of bots, devices that automatically transmit messages, clogging the internet with chatter – hate multiplied by the mad frenzy of the digital behemoth that is at once invisible but all around us.
Apparently, there is an ongoing investigation of social media. Time and again, the social media section is redacted, the phrase Harm to Ongoing Matter, or sometimes, if space is short, “HOM,” typed in to explain the redactions.
I’m ambivalent about the investigation of social media users.
The first amendment gives us all the right to be as crazy as we want to be. Just this past week, Anna Merlan’s, Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, was released. Bottom line: from coast to coast, we’re up to our eyeballs in crazy conspiracy theories. Whether it’s a belief the Russians are out to get us, our Government is out to get us, or aliens are really in control, the puzzling fact of the matter is that conspiracy theories are alive and surprisingly well in the United States. They meet a need, they are the theodicy of the dispossessed. Distrustful people don’t stop looking for answers.
Candidly, I am less fearful of the conspiracy theorist armed with the right to speak than I am of the censor armed with guns, warrants and the concerted power of the state. The antidote to speech, whether it be hateful or merely crazy, is more speech. But the internet changes things – ideas once at the margins become centers of idiosyncratic silos. We feed on one another’s dark imaginings.
Just what is the internet? Who controls it?
The Mueller report begs the real question. Who controls big data, the algorithms that chart our every move, gesture, and, increasingly, seek, through affective computing, to forecast our emotional reaction to things? In the brave new world we now inhabit, data capitalists harvest data about us from every keystroke, seeking the better to predict what we will like, do and think in every conceivable circumstance. This behavioral economics yields an important corollary – the ability to control.
Lest you think I am paranoid, the past paragraph is a mere restatement of the research recently published by Shosana Zuboff in her masterful The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, a book that aspires to be the Das Kapital of the digital era. Zuboff is no conspiracy theorist: she is a professor at the Harvard Business School.
Surveillance capitalism, she writes, aims at nothing less than total control by means of harvesting surplus data each of us leave behind whenever we interact with the online world, either through email, viewing digital material, or use of the Internet of Things. Data about us is harvested, crunched by smart machines, and algorithms used to intrude into every aspect of our lives, the better to control us by third parties, the better to sell us products, and, perhaps, control us.
You see, long before the IRA sought to influence the 2016 elections, Facebook was doing experiments about how to influence voters. The New York Times reported just the other day that Facebook spends $22 million a year to provide security for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder. As I read the Mueller report and Zuboff, I concluded the son-of-a-bitch needs the security. He’s arguably the most dangerous man in American just now.
I appeared on Alex Jones’s Infowars the other day. Jones is a client of mine who has been banned from social media – the digital overlords don’t like what he has to say. I told him that I thought it was no coincidence that Julian Assange was busted a matter of days after Mark Zuckerberg called for greater regulation of the Internet in an opinion piece in The Washington Post. Wikileaks seeks transparency at all costs. Jones called me “quirky.” “Great,” I thought, “one of the nation’s leading conspiracy theorists thinks I’m quirky.”
But what if the likes of Alex Jones are only half right? What if all this bitching and moaning about impeachment is merely bread and circuses for we the digital mob? I want to see what’s been redacted about social media from the Mueller report. I suspect the disturbing truth is that we, and our votes, are manipulated not just by the Russians, but by the algorithmic overlords who seek to predict our every move, one keystroke at a time.