Plus: A case against special police units
Wednesday, February 1, 2023

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Welcome to Up for Debate. On Wednesdays, I round up timely conversations and ask readers a thought-provoking question. Later, I publish some of your thoughtful replies. (Were you forwarded this email? Sign up here.)

Question of the Week

In “The Weight-Loss-Drug Revolution Is a Miracle—And a Menace,” my colleague Derek Thompson grappled with the rise of the drug Ozempic, the latest in a long line of much-hyped ways to lose weight and perhaps the most effective yet. My first encounter with the weight-loss industry, as a kid, was the cultural phenomenon of Jane Fonda’s VHS workout tapes. By the time I was in college, the weight-loss industry was as strong as ever––but so was a countervailing cultural critique of unrealistic beauty standards. Later, public-health concerns about obesity were ascendant. What are your thoughts, cultural memories, or personal experiences about weight gain, the weight-loss industry, diet, exercise, beauty standards, diabetes, medical treatments for obesity, or anything related?

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com or simply reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

There is near consensus in America that the five police officers who brutally beat Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, leading to the 29-year-old’s death in the hospital days later, perpetrated a horrific injustice. In that sense, the Nichols killing is more like, say, the widely condemned 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, than the more contested 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But a detail of the Nichols killing has fueled a polarizing debate about why it happened: All five cops facing murder charges in the case are Black.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, who is also Black, argued in an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon that the racial identity of officers undermines the narrative “that issues and problems in law enforcement” are about race. It doesn’t matter who's wearing the uniform, she said, “we all have that same responsibility. So, it takes race off the table, but it does indicate to me that bias might be a factor also, you know, and the manner in which we engage the community.” The New York Times quoted Robert M. Sausedo, who leads a nonprofit organization formed after the 1991 Rodney King beating: “It’s not racism driving this, it’s culturism. It’s a culture in law enforcement where it’s OK to be aggressive to those they’re supposed to serve.”

But many on the left insisted that white supremacy or institutional racism were to blame. As Shaun Harper, identified in Forbes as a diversity, equity, and inclusion expert, put it in an analysis:

Institutional racism explains how five Black men could engage in police brutality, leading to the death of another Black man. They participated in the same trainings as white cops. They entered a profession that was born of anti-Blackness ... They worked in a place where decades of anti-black policies and tactics were created. How a police department behaves, thinks about Black communities, and mistreats Black people informs how its employees engage with the Black citizens they were hired to protect and serve—even when they’re Black.

This debate sometimes frustrates me. Say that two people who want to reduce police killings and misconduct both believe bad training in police academies is one significant contributor to unjust policing––but one characterizes the training regime’s flaws as “toxic police culture” and the other attributes them to “white supremacy.” I think they should focus on identifying and implementing best practices at the training academy rather than debate the best abstract characterization of the problem. But so many of our debates happen at the highest possible levels of ideological abstraction.

A Case Against Special Units

Here’s an account of how the Memphis police unit whose members beat Nichols came about, told from 50 feet rather than 50,000 feet:

Chief Cerelyn Davis of the Memphis Police had been on the job for only a few months in 2021 when she saw that homicide numbers were rising toward a record. Near her new home downtown, drivers were buzzing wildly through the streets, often late at night. She had a plan to confront the mayhem. For reckless drivers, she told her team, officers were to focus less on writing tickets and more on an all-out strategy of seizing cars from the most dangerous drivers. Violent offenders needed to be targeted with new urgency. If the state could not take a case to court, she determined, her agency should ask federal prosecutors to take the case instead. “We all have that understanding about being tough on tough people,” she said at a community event in November of that year.

Two days later, Chief Davis, the first African American woman to lead the department, launched her most ambitious strategy: a new police unit named Scorpion — or Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods — would deploy some 40 officers as a strike team in some of the most volatile corners of the city. Before long, some residents complained of heavy-handed tactics, of officers from the new Scorpion team employing punitive policing in response to relatively minor offenses.

I suspect that a DOJ investigation into the Nichols case and the murder trials of the officers who were involved will provide support for the argument, made most skillfully this week by Radley Balko, that in Memphis and beyond, special units of under-supervised, supposedly elite police officers are prone to horrific abuses and are therefore bad responses to rising crime, however tempting they apparently are. (Watch the TV series The Shield for a dramatization of how and why).

But maybe that’s not what the facts of this case will show.

Whatever your theory on why Nichols was killed, I submit that the root causes will be more constructively debated after more details are probed, documented, and released. We need more evidence before assuming we know what caused any specific killing. This newsletter will revisit the case.

The Policing-Reform Debate With Sherilyn Ifill

In last week’s newsletter (published prior to the release of video in the Nichols case), I wrote about the various reasons the American public’s response to police killings is more muted now than it was in 2020, and went on to lament that in the years since 2015, when The Washington Post began its project tracking all police shootings in the United States, the number of Americans killed by the cops hasn’t meaningfully decreased, despite all the attention paid to the issue:

Long before Black Lives Matter’s ascent, I was among those inveighing against policing injustices and America’s catastrophic War on Drugs, and trying and failing to significantly reduce police misconduct. Black Lives Matter arose in part because most of us who came before it largely failed. When it did, I hoped it would succeed spectacularly in reducing police killings and agreed with at least its premise that the issue warranted attention.

But it is now clear that the Black Lives Matter approach has largely failed too.

Despite an awareness-raising campaign as successful as any in my lifetime, untold millions of dollars in donations, and a position of influence within the progressive criminal-justice-reform coalition, there are just as many police killings as before Black Lives Matter began.

Sherrilyn Ifill, a civil-rights attorney and the former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, posted a response to my piece on her Substack after footage of the Nichols killing was released. I appreciate the knowledge and passion she brings to the issue and hope to engage her perspective, but first I need to clarify one aspect of my argument that her rendering of it misunderstands.

In her telling, the central premise of my piece is captured by the question “Where should we assign blame for continued police violence?” In fact, my piece did not even attempt to assign blame. Instead, it focused on how best to reduce police violence. And I think this distinction is too often missed when evaluating all sorts of public policy and activism.

To probe whether a tactic or strategy for reducing police violence succeeds or fails is not the same as probing whether advocates of that tactic or strategy are to blame for the underlying ill. For example, if a civil-rights lawyer successfully pressures a police department to adopt body cameras for all of its police officers, but their presence does not deter excessive use of force, the lawyer is not to blame for the brutality. Nevertheless, their body-camera initiative failed, in this hypothetical, to reduce brutality, which anyone who is interested in actually solving the problem had better face squarely.

When I noted in passing that my writing against police abuses in the aughts failed to reduce them, I was not implying that I am to blame for continued police abuses or killings. Likewise, when I wrote that the Black Lives Matter approach to reducing police killings has failed, I was neither asserting nor implying that BLM is to blame for police killings—just that its attempts to reduce them have failed. The coalition to reduce police killings won’t succeed until it reduces police killings!

A Point of Substantive Disagreement

In Ifill’s telling, Black Lives Matter has made some important progress with its approach––indeed, she and I agree that it called for and achieved “greater awareness and confrontation with the truth of police violence.” I think that she is also correct to point out that it played a role in increasing the number of cases in which bad cops are criminally charged and helped elect some reform-minded district attorneys. As yet, it’s too early to judge the ultimate effects of those changes, but it’s certainly possible that they will reduce police killings in the future.

But I disagree with another of Ifill’s claims:

What has been most successful is the building of a movement of people who work every day to reimagine a new kind of public safety. Most people who are not afraid to imagine that our lives could really matter, now agree that the current system cannot be reformed and must be made over. Indeed it seems inevitable. The under-staffing and recruiting failures of police departments around the country demonstrate that no matter how much money is thrown at policing, the work itself has lost its appeal to a significant number of young people and is unlikely to reconstitute itself in the same form.

In 2014, I wrote about how “video killed trust in police officers.” In my lifetime, I would say that that process began with the beating of Rodney King and concluded with the George Floyd video––at this point, very few Americans remain unexposed to horrific footage of police atrocities.

Last year, Gallup found that half of Americans support “major changes” to policing. But there isn’t anything close to majority support for abolishing or defunding the police. Such proposals are reliably underwater among all Americans, among white Americans, and among people of color. So although it is true that policing is less appealing today to young people and that there are recruitment problems, I regard those labor shortages as an alarming portent of falling quality at policing institutions that will continue to exist in much the same form, not a hopeful sign of progress. I’d much rather that reform-minded young people intent on improving criminal justice were signing up to professionalize police ranks and leave no place for bad cops to hide.

There is so much more to talk about in Ifill’s piece––and I wonder if she might like to do a written back-and-forth on the subject to take some of them up?

Reform California’s Most Abused Environmental Law

The Los Angeles Times is editorializing on a court case that illustrates how NIMBYs are exploiting the California Environmental Quality Act:

A California appellate court is considering whether noisy college students are an environmental impact, akin to pollution or habitat loss, that should be addressed before UC Berkeley can build a new dormitory to ease its student housing shortage. The case involves the university’s plan to develop People’s Park, a swath of open space owned by the university and claimed by protesters in 1969, with housing for 1,100 students and supportive housing for 125 homeless people, along with a clinic, public market and landscaped open space.

Neighborhood groups sued to block the project, arguing the university violated CEQA. In a tentative ruling issued in December, the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco agreed the university failed to adequately study certain impacts, including noise. The ruling said that because college kids can be loud when talking, drinking and partying, the university should have studied and sought to reduce the “social noise” from future student residents.

Berkeley’s lawyers argue that noise from humans socializing shouldn’t be considered an environmental impact, and it’s a dangerous precedent to require additional environmental analysis based on who is going to live in a housing development. Would housing for the elderly prompt the same analysis? Some CEQA experts warned the decision, if finalized, could give Not-in-My-Backyard litigants a powerful new tool to block housing and other development projects.

Provocation of the Week

Writing at The Permanent Problem, Brink Lindsey continues to advance one of the most interesting theories about capitalism in today’s America, how to improve it, and the barriers in the way:

Changing laws to solve real-world problems is no longer the primary focus of politics in the rich democracies. Politics today has elevated the performative over the practical: eschewing the “slow boring of hard boards” as too slow, boring, and hard, it embraces spectacle and self-expression as ends in themselves. The shift to “identity politics,” in the full sense of that term, thus goes beyond a reorientation of political divisions from economic to demographic cleavages. As the larger culture has shifted from materialism, or the quest for tangible gains in the real world, to self-expression, political conflict likewise has moved away from a focus on the tangible actions taken by government and instead concentrates more on disputes over the relative status of clashing political identities. The demographic groupings arrayed on the left and right all have legitimate grievances with how government currently operates, and there are policy changes that could address those grievances and deliver concrete benefits. But seeking substantive redress is not where the real action in politics is these days. Rather, what truly motivates and energizes are symbolic clashes that raise the status of one’s own chosen political identity—and, more importantly, lower the status of one’s opponents.

In “The Retreat from Reality,” I discussed the rise of the new cognitive style associated with the turn toward the performative: what Yale law professor Dan Kahan calls “expressive rationality.” The performative political style, with its unshakeable confirmation bias and heightened susceptibility to conspiracy theories and other mass delusions, is often depicted as a triumph of unreason. But Kahan argues convincingly that what’s really going on is a shift from one kind of rationality to another—from “instrumental rationality,” focused on matching means to ends for practical action in the real world, to “expressive rationality,” focused on constructing and maintaining rationalizations that confirm the righteousness and superiority of one’s chosen identity. In other words, a shift from doing good in the real world to feeling good about yourself.

… While ordinary instrumental rationality in politics focuses on achieving outcomes—influencing government action in this or that direction—expressive rationality focuses on taking stands. So long as you subscribe to the appropriate views and defend them with sufficient vigor, you can rest safe as a member in good standing of your chosen political tribe. Assuming any responsibility for actually moving public policy into closer accord with those appropriate views isn’t necessary; on the contrary, doing so can actually be hazardous to the effective maintenance of your tribal identity. After all, effecting real policy change requires sustained, constructive encounters with people who disagree with you—searching for common ground and building consensus around it, understanding and relating to where the other side is coming from and then making judicious compromises in pursuit of half a loaf. Do any of that long enough and you can be sure that true believers on your side will start calling you out as a turncoat …

That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.

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