Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘law enforcement’

Contrapositive version of “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute”

A judge in Chicago has reversed this famous Napoleonic bon mot. Whereas Antoine Boulay attacked a judicial decision (to condemn the Duc d’Enghien) as “Worse than a crime, an error,” Judge Dennis Porter has decided to acquit a murderer with the reverse argument: “It was not an error, therefore not as bad as a crime.”

The basic facts are these: the accused, off-duty police officer (not that that has anything to do with it) Dante Servin, having decided on his own initiative to confront a noisy crowd from the comfort of his automobile, says he was spooked when he mistook a telephone for a gun. He naturally did what any reasonable person would do in such a situation: He fired five shots blindly into the crowd, missing the man with the dangerous telephone, but killing one other person and injuring another. In his trial for manslaughter the judge ruled that he could not possibly be guilty of that crime, because manslaughter requires “recklessness”, and Servin was clearly not reckless because he intended to shoot at people. No, really:

Porter… agreed that Servin was acting intentionally when he fired his gun. In fact, he said in his ruling, Illinois courts have long held that when a defendant “intends to fire a gun, points it in the general direction of his or her intended victim, and shoots, such conduct is not merely reckless,” but “intentional” and “the crime, if any there be, is first degree murder.”

Since he had not been charged with first degree murder, the only alternative was to acquit him.

Possibly highly likely

Apparently I’m not the only one who finds the government’s vocabulary for risk of terror threat confusing. MI5 has estimated the risk of international terrorist attack in the whole UK as “severe”, which sounds pretty threatening, hardly a calming prospect. And yet, according to yesterday’s Times

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police commissioner, called for calm in an interview with Sky News on Friday, saying: “I don’t think it’s likely but I think we all know it’s a possibility — the threat level is severe and so therefore that means a terrorist attack is possible.

I’d say that calling the threat level “severe” is not what you do when you want the public to be “calm”. But then, his description corresponds to the official designation “moderate”. Obviously, no one wants to be the one who lowered the threat level right ahead of an attack, whereas leaving the threat level up for a few extra months (or years) has only diffuse and impersonal costs. Except that then you have to go out telling people that they shouldn’t really panic, even though the government says a terrorist attack is highly likely.

On a somewhat related note, the MI5 website ought to win a prize for the least helpful infographic. To illustrate the different threat levels for Great Britain and Northern Ireland they give us this map:

MI5 threat level graphic

For those plotting an attack in Northern Ireland but who can’t remember where it is…

There are just two “regions” whose threat level needs to be communicated. Is it really helpful to paste them onto geographically detailed maps of the United Kingdom? I’m guessing that, while they don’t want to specify any particular regions as potential targets, they don’t specifically want to make the point that Portree is equally at risk to certain southern metropolises with names beginning with L.

Aposematism and toy guns

Another person has been shot in the US because he was brandishing a toy gun.

Police hit the 32-year-old man three times Sunday evening after he pulled from his waistband what was later determined to be an air gun, which fire metallic projectiles such as pellets or BBs, police spokesman Albie Esparza said.[…]

The air gun did not have a colored tip on it, which is a standard identifier of a toy gun, Officer Gordon Shyy said Monday.

Actually, this wasn’t even exactly a “toy”. More, a sublethal weapon. I’m generally not the most sympathetic to police officers who kill the citizens they are supposed to be protecting. (In Utah last year police were the leading category of homicide perpetrators.) And the case of the boy who was shot on a playground because he had a toy gun clearly seems tinged with racism. But I can’t blame the problem on a lack of coloured tips on the gun.

Surely a brief thought about warning colours and mimicry in nature suggests that a strategy that says “a red tip means the police don’t need to worry about this otherwise very dangerous-looking weapon” can’t be viable. It’s too easy to mimic the signal and gain the advantage (lessened police response to your weapon). This is not quite the same as aposematism — advertising ones inedibility to predators through defensive colouration — but the general problem of cheap signals undermined by mimicry is the same. (more…)

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