Rational or Reasonable Police

June 28, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Last week Senate Democrats blocked a Republican sponsored policing bill that did not go far enough. This week House Democrats proposed a bill that Republicans said went too far. A divided Congress where nothing gets accomplished but many fine speeches are made. Giving a microphone to a politician is like giving a lollipop to a young child.

Libertarians prefer a divided Congress. Aren’t there enough rules already? Each year, the Supreme Court decides on the different interpretations of more than hundred laws that are already on the books. They turn down thousands more cases (U.S. Courts, n.d.). Voters send their elected representatives to Washington to write laws. Even in a divided Congress, a few hundred bills pass both houses of Congress and become law. The media attention often focuses on those bills that are blocked by either chamber (U.S. Congress, n.d.). Policing laws…hold onto that thread for a minute.

Apple TV has announced the 2021 release of Isaac Asimov’s groundbreaking Foundation Series (Apple, 2020). Mr. Asimov is also known for his imaginative stories about robots. He invented the 3 laws of robotics, and his stories explore the contradictions and complexities of writing rules, or algorithms for robot behavior (Anderson, 2019).

Pick up the policing laws thread again. What rule for supervising police behavior might Asimov suggest? In a situation under review, ask this question: would a highly  sophisticated robot cop behave in such a manner? A quick refresher on the 3 laws: 1) don’t cause or allow harm to humans; 2) obey humans unless that conflicts with the first law; 3) a robot’s self-preservation unless that comes into conflict with the first two laws.

Let’s look at the George Floyd case (Hill, 2020), and begin with a consideration of possible violations of Law #1. Did the officer cause harm to George Floyd, a human being? Yes. But wait, there’s possible rule conflict here and this is the subject of some of Asimov’s stories. A robot might have to cause harm to a human being to stop that human being from causing even greater harm to another human being. So let’s ask. Did George Floyd cause harm to another human being at this time? No. Was he likely to cause harm, given that he was handcuffed and several officers were surrounding him? No.

On to Law #2: When George Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breathe,” did the officer respond by adjusting his position so that Mr. Floyd could breathe? No. A violation of Law #2.

Law #3: Self-preservation. Was the officer in imminent danger of destruction? No.

If the officer were a robot, his behavior would have been in violation of the laws. His positronic brain would have been replaced and later analyzed to understand the circuitry malfunction.

The laws and many of Asimov’s works explore the tensions and interpretations of several foundational philosophers: the universal rule-making of Immanuel Kant; the utilitarian and consequentialist principles of Jeremy Bentham; and the virtue ethics of Aristotle. Could R. Daneel Olivaw, the robot detective found in many of Asimov’s novels, practice virtue (Fandom, n.d.)? Yes, if a robot’s behavior is indistinguishable from that of a human being who acts with virtue.  

Like the behavior of Asimov’s robots, most of our laws are guided by the principles stated by Aristotle, Bentham and Kant. Our courts and juries judge human beings based on those laws. Police officers are not expected to act rationally like a robot, but like a reasonable person whose actions can be justified in the circumstances (Gardner, 2019). The reasonable person standard is a fictional person just as Daneel Olivaw is a fictional robot. Our legal institutions have difficulty defining and employing a consistent reasonable person standard.

Programmers would have as much difficulty coding mostly-rational-but-sometimes-erratic-but-understandably-so algorithms. Our cells behave like those algorithms – rational most of the time and cancerous when they become erratic.

In the far distant future, if we have robots policing our communities, we will have problems similar to our current concerns. Supervising the legal use of force has troubled many human societies and technology will not solve that persistent problem. Some robots will have defective positronic brains and commit acts of violence in violation of their programming. We’ll argue over the rules for robots and how to write them – at least I hope so. I hope that there is a Congress or some other deliberative body that argues over policing tactics as the House and Senate did these past two weeks. I worry when we stop arguing. That’s when the guns start arguing.



Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Anderson, M. R. (2019, November 11). After 75 years, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics need updating. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/after-75-years-isaac-asimovs-three-laws-of-robotics-need-updating-74501

Apple. (2021, April 01). Foundation on Apple TV+. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://tv.apple.com/us/show/foundation/umc.cmc.5983fipzqbicvrve6jdfep4x3?at=1000lDR

Fandom. (n.d.). R. Daneel Olivaw. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://asimov.fandom.com/wiki/R._Daneel_Olivaw

Gardner, J. (2019). The Many Faces of the Reasonable Person. Torts and Other Wrongs, 271-303. doi:10.1093/oso/9780198852940.003.0009

Hill, E., etal. (2020, June 01). 8 Minutes and 46 Seconds: How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody. NY Times. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html

U.S. Congress. (n.d.). Public Laws. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://www.congress.gov/public-laws/116th-congress

U.S. Courts. (n.d.). Supreme Court Procedures. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity-resources/supreme-1

The Underdog and the Elite

June 21, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Americans love the underdog. American colonists were the underdogs, weren’t they? Black people have been the actual underdogs but white people didn’t like to be thought of as topdog overlords. Aggrieved white slave owners advertised in the newspaper when a slave ran away. They paid good money for that slave, darn it. The slave owner was the victim!

How did a real estate billionaire become the leader of an underdog cult of white people? He is a populist who claims persecution, a key component of being an underdog. Who is persecuting the president? The IRS, for one. From his golden tower on 5th Avenue, he has endured constant audit and can’t release his tax returns.

He is persecuted by the media. Yes, the same media that gave him thousands of hours of free publicity during the 2016 campaign. They handed him a megaphone because they thought he was a buffoon in a political side show. Hillary Clinton would win, of course, but she was boring. A policy wonk. Check out Trump. He’s always been a nut. CNN’s ratings went up when Mr. Trump was on. Follow the ratings. More Trump.

Mr. Trump was the ringmaster, the P.T. Barnum of the political circus. He employed his limited vocabulary effectively when he spoke to his cult. Social media had become the carnival barkers of America’s political circus. He understood that and welcomed the publicity. He is fond of conspiracy theories because they attract attention like Barnum’s two-headed Queen from the Amazonian jungle. Conspiracies heighten the sense of persecution and validate his status as the leader of the underdog cult.

Tim Scott is a Republican Senator from S. Carolina. In an interview with the Wall St. Journal this week, he criticized a Democratic Senator, Dick Durbin, for characterizing the proposed Justice Act as “token, halfhearted legislation” (C-Span, 2020). Mr. Scott is black, one of the few black Republican Senators in the past 150 years. Mr. Durbin characterized the legislation as token, not Mr. Scott, but he later apologized. The legislation is a federal effort to impose some constraints on the police and Durbin did not think it went far enough.

In the interview with the WSJ, Mr. Scott thought the word was used intentionally to slight him and he referred to Mr. Durbin as an “elite liberal.” Thus Mr. Scott played to his voters and claimed underdog status. The entire Senate is composed of the wealthy and the powerful, a liberal and conservative elite. Why do grown men in positions of power behave like middle-graders? Why do our political institutions attract people who repeatedly demonstrate an arrested emotional development?

This weekend in Tulsa, President Trump will cover up his east coast eliteness with an underdog costume, stand before members of the underdog cult and speak of his persecution by the institutions of America, by the media, by the Democrats, and by [fill in the blank]. He has claimed to be blameless before God and needs no forgiveness (Scott, 2015). He is Job of the Bible. Is God also on the list of Mr. Trump’s persecutors? Did God send this pandemic to humiliate him?

When a white mob burned down a black community in Tulsa a hundred years ago, they were angry at the success of the black businesses and community, dubbed Black Wall Street. The blacks were taking business and jobs away from whites during the severe recession of 1921. Capitalism be damned. The white community felt it could not honestly compete with black people.  That is the underlying truth of racism in this country. Some white people worry that, if blacks were not kept down by discriminatory housing, education and employment practices, whites could not compete with them.

The cult has chosen as their leader a man who is a poster boy of the elite, the paragon of immaturity. He wants A on Monday and non-A on Tuesday. No, he doesn’t want to read his daily Presidential briefing. Don’t bother him about world affairs; he needs to watch the TV and see what people are saying about him. How are his re-election chances? Everyone is against him. Poor little him, the persecuted rich billionaire.

Mr. Trump has already ordered the U.S. Army to stand ready in Washington, D.C. and has threatened other cities that he will take harsh measures with protesters if the mayors of some cities will not. In 1989 the Chinese Communist Party sent tanks to confront and destroy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The soldiers killed an estimated 10,000 people (BBC, 2017). Would Mr. Trump do the same? Would military leaders follow his order? That much is not certain. Without a doubt, he would claim that the protesters had forced his hand. He is the underdog. He is blameless before God and needs no forgiveness. He’s a good dog.



Photo by Chase Fade on Unsplash

BBC. (2017, December 23). Tiananmen Square protest death toll ‘was 10,000’. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-42465516

C-Span. (2020, June 17). Senator Tim Scott on Police Reform. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?473151-9%2Fsenator-tim-scott-police-reform

Scott, E. (2015, July 19). Trump believes in God, but hasn’t sought forgiveness – CNNPolitics. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2015/07/18/politics/trump-has-never-sought-forgiveness/index.html


June 14, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Here’s a question that comes up in our public discourse. What obligation does Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, have to the workers at the company? Amazon is a public company as well. What about the obligation to shareholders of the company’s stock? What obligation does Mr. Bezos have to the personal capital – money, knowledge, time and risk – that he has invested in the company?

Mr. Bezos is one of a number of people who have helped engineer an extraordinary transition into today’s digital age. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, is another example familiar to readers. Both men have donated billions of their wealth to charity and public causes, including health care and climate change.

Each month these titans of technology implicitly send many of us a dividend check. We receive the dividend whether we own Amazon or Microsoft stock. The dividend is not included in government survey data because it is hard to quantify. The dividend is our time and time is money.

To understand this analysis, let’s step into an alternate reality, one familiar to older readers. Payments are done with cash and checks. Few merchants accept credit cards. Checks take 5-7 days to clear. There is no mail-in banking or electronic deposits. There are no picture IDs. We have stepped into a reality that looks like 1980.

This world is rocked with a global pandemic. Congress passes a relief and stimulus bill that provides money to each adult in the country. We all wait for our pandemic stimulus checks. People steal the checks out of the mailboxes of people with common last names like Smith, Sullivan and Gonzalez. If the thief does not share that last name, they can sell the check to underground brokers who will find someone with that exact name. 

Once we receive our stimulus checks, we go to the bank and stand in a long line. We always bring something to read or a crossword puzzle to pass the time while we wait. We are practiced at waiting.

If we have a checking or savings account, we can deposit the stimulus check but not cash it unless we already have the money in our account to cover the amount. We cannot spend the funds until the government check clears in 5-7 days. 

After 3 days we start calling the bank to see if the funds are available. The teller is polite but no it hasn’t cleared yet.  After a few more days it clears and we can write a check to pay our rent but there is a late fee. Some us went to a paycheck store and cashed our check after showing 2 forms of ID. Some will take a utility bill as one form of ID. They charge a fat fee as well.

Most of us enjoy the convenience of modern banking and payment services without paying much attention. Little of that time saving convenience is captured in government surveys.  How much time do we save every month? 4 hours? 8 hours? What is that convenience worth? That’s our technology dividend.

Let’s do another common task in our imaginary world – send an email. We need to return a form and we want a record of our communication so we don’t use the phone. We go down to the public library, where the librarian faxes a scan of our paper (Borth, 2020). If we have a message but not a form, we can go to the telegraph office and they will send the message to another telegraph office where the recipient can pick it up.

Since we are nearby, let’s go to the Post Office to get stamps. A fifteen minute wait but we are practiced at waiting. Once we are done at the Post Office, the office supply store is just two blocks away. We need some new typewriter ribbon. Our essay for school is due next Monday and typed papers get a ½ grade bonus. Oh yeah, we want some typewriter ink erasers and a box of paper. The total is a half day’s pay for a person working at minimum wage.

The post office, library and office store are all closed by 5 or 6 P.M. and are not open on weekends, so we take some time off from work to get all this stuff done. Either we call in sick and take the whole day off or fake being sick after lunch and take the afternoon off.

The grocery store closes at 6 PM on weekdays, too late to do shopping after work. It is closed on Sundays, so we do our shopping on Saturday. There are long waits at the cashier but we are practiced at waiting.

All of this inconvenience took time. An average wage in 1980 was almost $7 an hour, about $22 in today’s purchasing power (BLS, n.d.). How much is my technological dividend each month? Let’s make the math easy and call it $100, almost 5 hours of time saving each month.

Let’s return to our question of obligation, but ask it of ourselves – do we have an obligation to donate our technological dividend each month? This could be in the form of time or money. Decades ago utility companies in New York State charged urban customers higher rates to subsidize rural customers living in areas where providing service was more expensive. “We are part of a larger community. We share the burden,” my mother replied to my complaint that this was unfair. How many of us have that sense of community?  

We are far better at recognizing the obligations of others than our own. We are more comfortable discussing the duties of others. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of the human tendency to notice the speck in another’s eye and disregard the splinter in our own eye. That was 2000 years ago. In the past two decades, we have seen many changes in our daily lives but the essential qualities of our nature have changed little in two millennia.

2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato asked what are our obligations. We are still working on the answer. Plato, give us just a few more centuries and we’ll get back to you on that.



Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

BLS (n.d.) Average Hourly Earnings of Production and Nonsupervisory Employees, Total Private, FRED Series AHETPI. Federal Reserve. Retrieved from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/AHETPI

Borth, D. E. (2020, February 18). Fax. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/technology/fax

A Tug of War

June 7, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Is grandma your enemy? An uncomfortable thought. Different generations have different concerns. Funding a solution to one generation’s problem may take resources from other generations. Grandma wants to protect her Social Security and Medicare. Grandma votes her interests.

The introduction of Social Security eighty years ago marked an extraordinary shift in federal policy. For the first time in the history of this country the government took money from one set of people – those who were younger and working – and gave it to other people. This transfer was not a reward for military service – an old soldier pension – but a reward for getting old.  

During the Great Depression thousands of banks failed and millions of people lost their savings. That crisis called for a solution. Instead of addressing the problem, FDR and a super-majority of congressional Democrats created a permanent program that transferred money from people raising families to retired people. No military or community service required. The combined tax contribution to fund the program was 2%. It is now more than six times that.

In 1965, Democrats again enjoyed a super-majority in Congress and a Democratic President. Never waste a super-majority. There are no checks and balances. They passed the Medicare program, funded by a tax on working families who were ineligible for benefits under the program. In every election, old people vote to keep their benefits, and are the largest demographic of voters (Census Bureau, 2019). 

Younger voters change addresses more often. In dense urban areas with multiple voting districts, they are more likely to have out of date voter registration. Voters in rural districts remain in the same voting district when they move a few miles. Rural voters are predominantly older, white and conservative. In the first half of the 20th Century, rural populations migrated from the farm to the city. Rural voters controlled political power in many states because one rural vote counted far more than one urban vote. In two decisions in the 1960s, the Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution to mean one person, one vote (Mosvick, 2020).

As the children of farmers continued to move away in the last half of the century, rural voters adopted other strategies to control electoral power. Less funding for polling places in urban areas, claims of voter fraud, lifetime restrictions against voting by convicted felons, and locating prisons in rural areas where the prisoners are included in the county’s population, but the prisoners cannot vote. Groups like Judicial Watch initiate hundreds of lawsuits in Democratic leaning counties to invalidate the registrations of many voters (Lacy, 2020).

In 1965, a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson hoped that the newly instituted Medicare program would help stem the defection of Southern voters from the Democratic Party. It didn’t. The Party had successfully stifled the voting power of black people in the south for a century. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments which gave black people voting power and citizenship status had been forced on the Southern states after their defeat in the Civil War. Feeling that President Johnson and the party had betrayed them, voters sought a champion who could protect white voting power. 

Richard Nixon became their champion by default. In the 1968 race, the Republican candidate employed a “ southern strategy” that spoke to white voters worried that the recently passed Civil Rights Act would give blacks too much electoral power. In the spring, riots and demonstrations broke out after Martin Luther King’s assassination. At the Democratic Convention that summer, bloody conflicts broke out between Chicago police and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators. Nixon promised to be a law and order President, protecting the “old order,” older Americans and the white rural domination that had been the calling card of the Democratic Party in the South. When leading Democratic candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated that summer, the party was too disorganized to mount a challenge to Nixon. He won by a convincing margin in the electoral college, but bested Hubert Humphrey by only ½% of the popular vote (Wikipedia, 2020). 9 million voters chose Independent Party candidate George Wallace, who appealed to disaffected conservative Democratic voters in the South (PBS, n.d.).

Some of us have supremacist attitudes, some of us condemn those attitudes. Some of us feel threatened at the sight of a black man and call the police. Some of us understand Black Lives Matter; others don’t. We all understand our point of view a lot better than our neighbor’s. We all want to be believed more than believe.

We grant police the sanctioned use of force but we require temperance in their use of it. Clearly, there are many officers who do not have a tempered behavior. The lie is that it is a few bad apples. Smart phones have become common only in the past decade and there are hundreds of videos of officers acting without restraint. In another ten years, there will be thousands.

 One person, one vote. This country has been engaged in a tug of war since its founding. Regional and generational interests pitted against each other. Rural against urban. Businesses vs workers. City governments vs. workers. States vs. citizens. Decide which end of the rope you are on and pull. Grandma grabs the rope. In every election, a lot of money and effort is spent to prevent people from voting. If you don’t vote you are doing those on the other end of the rope a favor and they thank you.



Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

Census Bureau. (2019, July 16). Behind the 2018 U.S. Midterm Election Turnout. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/04/behind-2018-united-states-midterm-election-turnout.html

Lacy, A. (2020, May 28). Right-Wing Groups Aims to Purge 800,000 Voters in Pennsylvania. Retrieved from https://theintercept.com/2020/05/28/pennsylvania-voter-rolls-purge-judicial-watch/

Mosvick, N. (2020, March 26). On this day, Supreme Court reviews redistricting. Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/blog/on-this-day-supreme-court-reviews-redistricting.  Also, see Stahl, 2015.

PBS. (n.d.). Thematic Window: The Election of 1968. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/johngardner/chapters/5a.html

 Stahl, J. (2015, December 7). Baker v. Carr: The Supreme Court gets involved in redistricting. Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/baker-v-carr-the-supreme-court-gets-involved-in-redistricting

Wikipedia. (2020, June 06). 1968 United States presidential election. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_United_States_presidential_election