Modern Mob Mentality

The nation is on fire, or at least it was after looting erupted near and intermingled with protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I haven’t written anything in a while, but have been pretty much consumed with these events, so I have plenty to say about them. In my less-than-typical manner, I’m going to get some bullet points out of the way without going into detail or nuance, just to get these ideas out here before I get to the real topic of this post, the mob mentality that is alive and well in the United States.

  • I am glad that there is law enforcement in this country and I want laws enforced.
  • I support the protesters and the #blacklivesmatter movement.
  • I do not like the destruction of property or violence toward people.
  • I was more sympathetic and understanding of the destruction of property when I thought it was uncontrollable rage by people who have plenty of reason to be outraged, but am far less tolerant of it when it’s perpetrated by people just trying to have fun at others expense or, even worse, deliberately trying to distract from the legitimate concerns of the protesters.

With that list out of the way, each part of which could very likely be a 1000-word essay from me, I want to think about the title here and how it’s a key part of the problems we’re talking about.

Too many Americans like mob justice. This is very likely not just Americans, but might be a human phenomenon. There seems to be this desire to have a public reckoning when there’s wrong-doing. “They should string that guy up in the town square” so we see his shame and make an example out of him. But at the same time, we want order. We don’t want that happening to us or our loved ones by accident, and we recognize the importance of being civilized. But every now and then we see the resistance to that civilized tone, and lately we see it from the top. The President has called for this kind of vigilante justice himself. He talked fondly about the good old days when protesters would have gotten beaten up by the mob, rather than safely escorted out by security. He told people he would pay their legal bills if they got in trouble for taking on the responsibility of punishing people themselves. All appealing to the mob mentality.

But we know, when we let the rational sides of us take over, that it’s probably not a good idea to have roving mobs of people dolling out punishment for the ills of society. We value law and order, but we love a good mob, so we’re left in conflict. How do we reconcile this conflict: apparently by creating a professional mob and calling them “law enforcement.” I believe that we need a police force. I believe that we need law enforcement. I believe that we need a criminal justice system. But here’s where I think we’ve let things go off the rails:

Here’s what comes back when I go to google and ask what the punishment is for theft in my home state, New York: If the value of the property or services stolen exceeds one million dollars, the offense is grand larceny in the first degree, a class B felony. (N.Y. Penal Law § 155.42.) The sentence for a class B felony in New York includes imprisonment for a term not to exceed 25 years, and a fine not to exceed $30,000.

Nowhere in there does it include being thrown to the ground. Nowhere in there does it include being hit with a club. Nowhere in there does it include being punched.

Here’s what I get when I search for the punishment for resisting arrest in New York: One resists arrest by intentionally preventing or attempting to prevent a police officer or peace officer from effecting the authorized arrest of any person. Up to 1 year in jail or up to 3 years probation; fine of up to $1,000 or twice the amount of the perpetrator’s financial gain from the underlying crime.

Nowhere in there does it include being thrown to the ground. Nowhere in there does it include being hit with a club. Nowhere in there does it include being punched.

Yet, so many times when we see footage of people being beaten by police officers, the defense is that they’re criminals. They were up to no good. They were resisting arrest. They were trying to get away. They deserved the beating they got.

We’ve empowered the mob mentality and put police officers in charge of making sure that criminals get what they deserve. But they aren’t getting what they deserve. For resisting arrest, a criminal deserves up to 1 year in jail or up to 3 years of probation and a fine of up to $1,000 or twice the amount of the financial gain from the underlying crime.

Don’t get me wrong, I get that police officers need to use force at times to defend themselves and protect others. I get that and I’m sympathetic to that. But too many times it, at least to my untrained eyes, looks like that’s not at all what’s happening. It looks like a gang fight where one gang isolated a lone member of the other gang and is making sure he knows who’s boss here. It looks like outraged public officials who cannot control their tempers and are using a criminal as an outlet of their rage and frustration. It looks like people are taking the language of “war on crime” too literally and instead of attacking the crime, they’re attacking people who are committing the crime.

So what’s the answer? The data suggest that there are specific things we can put into place that make a difference. It also appears that things I have supported in the past are ineffective. Bias training, for instance, makes me feel good and appeals to my senses, but it turns out that while it may help change attitudes, it doesn’t change behavior. What we need is a change in behavior. #8CantWait has ideas, backed by examination of the efficacy when implemented. Simply requiring reporting of all use of force was accompanied by a 25% reduction in deaths by police officers. When officers are required to intervene when a fellow officer is breaking the rules, it reduced deaths by police by 9%. Requiring that all alternatives are exhausted before shooting reduced deaths by police by 25%. There’s more there, and plenty more to think about and learn, but these seem like key first steps to at least try. Like all things, we may find that, as these ideas become widespread, that there’s some harm done by them. But we can adjust to that also, like we’re trying to adjust to what we have today, and find what works. But using the police as our professional mob, and not just allowing them to hand out penalties, but encouraging them to hand out penalties, just isn’t working.

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