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


May 31, 2020

by Steve Stofka

There are three kinds of rage: the silent and composed rage of men who kneel on necks. Derek Chauvin, the killer of George Floyd in Minneapolis, belongs to that group. There is another group that loots and destroys to express their rage. There is yet another group that displays their rage in organized protest. On Saturday in Minneapolis, that group cleaned up the debris left by the looters Friday night. A CBS reporter was disheartened, or bored, by the lack of violence.

Those in the first two groups – the destroyers – are mostly men. Those in the first group – the quiet destroyers – are middle-aged men who rob others of life, dignity, and basic human rights. They destroy the self-esteem and social cohesion of others. Those in the last group, the noisy ragers, are young, shot full of testorone and unmuzzled. Neither of these groups cleans up after the wreckage they leave behind. Their instinct is to break, not build.

A hundred years ago white people in Tulsa, Oklahoma took out their rage at the success of the black community in their town (Brown, 2018). They burned down most of the black owned businesses and homes, killing more than 300 people and leaving thousands homeless. Rage and revenge provoked many lynchings of black citizens by white mobs. In 1963, white people in Alabama threw rocks at black children trying to go to school (Bell, 2013).

It’s been almost four years since Philando Castile was shot in his car by a police officer in St. Paul. It’s a 20 minute drive across the river from the site of Castile’s death to George Floyd’s death this week in the sister city of Minneapolis. Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who shot Castile, was found not guilty of 2nd degree manslaughter. Derek Gauvin, the murderer of George Floyd, has been charged with 3rd degree manslaughter. Unlike 2nd degree manslaughter, the prosecution does not have to prove intent.

Over 1200 black people have been shot by police in the past five years (Code Switch, NPR, 2020). Only four police officers have been convicted of some crime (MPV, n.d.). Many victims were going about their day when police officers targeted them. Guilty of being black. Some, like Tamir Rice, were children. Such is the rage of white society that they will not let black children play with toy guns.

Mr. Trump, the self-styled King of the United States, threatened to shoot black people for looting stores on Main Street (Lichtman, 2020). White people looting in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles on Saturday night were arrested and loaded into police wagons. Don’t shoot white people. White people stood on charred police cars and took selfies. How many likes could they get?

Four hundred years of white rage against black people. Four hundred years of systemic looting of black labor through slavery and forced prison labor. Two hundred years of vandalism of black communities through housing discrimination and vicious lending practices. When will the rain extinguish the rage in our spirit?



Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

Bell, D. (2013, June 11). George Wallace Stood in a Doorway at the University of Alabama 50 Years Ago Today. US News & World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/press-past/2013/06/11/george-wallace-stood-in-a-doorway-at-the-university-of-alabama-50-years-ago-today

Brown, D. (2018, September 28). ‘They was killing black people’. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2018/09/28/feature/they-was-killing-black-people/

Code Switch. (2020, May 30). A Decade Of Watching Black People Die. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/05/29/865261916/a-decade-of-watching-black-people-die

Lichtman, A. (2020, May 29). The ugly history of Trump’s ‘looting/shooting’ threat. Retrieved from https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-ugly-history-trumps-loot-shoot-threat-20200529-64c2wp6vhjeazigbgega76r33q-story.html

MPV. (n.d.). Police killed more than 100 unarmed black people in 2015. Mapping Police Violence. Retrieved from https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/unarmed

The Donald and the Washington Post

March 22, 2016

The editorial board and several other employees at the Washington Post recently sat down with Donald Trump.  Here is a transcript of the conversation .

Here are some highlights.   Donald rambles a lot but I think I got the kernel of his responses.  I think my edited version does Donald more justice than the sometimes incoherent responses he actually gave. He really is not ready for prime time. At this point in the campaign his responses to questions about foreign policy, international trade, and other issues mentioned on the campaign trail should be more practiced, not the rambling sentiments that any of us might have in a conversation with a co-worker at a lunch break.

WP = Editorial staff at Washington Post, DT = Donald Trump.  I’ve included some context where I thought it might be needed.

WP: “is there a secretary of state and a secretary of defense in the modern era who you think have done a good job?”

DT: “I think George Shultz [Reagan’s Sec’y State] was very good, I thought he was excellent.”  “I think your last secretary of state [Hillary Clinton] and your current secretary of state [John Kerry] have not done much.”  Trump uses the word “your” to indicate that media institutions are partisan and biased, and including the WP in the liberal media. It indicates that Trump’s essential sense of the world is polarized, a game of warball.  That may be the case in Washington but it mutes Trump’s appeal among independent voters who have less polarized outlooks. Trump offered an example of Kerry’s bad negotiating tactics with Iran: “We should have had our prisoners before the negotiations started.”

In response to a question about promoting values like democracy and freedom around the world,
DT: “I don’t think we should be nation building anymore,” indicating that he is not a neo-con. “We’re sitting probably on a bubble and, you know, it’s a bubble that if it breaks is going to be very nasty. And I just think we have to rebuild our country.”   Trump is not the only person who thinks that extremely low interest rates for seven years have over inflated stock, bond and housing values.  Trump immediately changes the subject and endorses infrastructure spending, aligning himself with economists Paul Krugman, Robert Frank, and others who recommend large Federal stimulus programs to repair infrastructure and employ those with low to modest educational backgrounds.  Trump recalls that we built schools in Iraq, and rebuilt them several times when they got bombed “and yet we can’t build a school in Brooklyn. We have no money for education, because we can’t build in our own country. And at what point do you say hey, we have to take care of ourselves. “

WP: “So what would you do for Baltimore [as an example of a city with troubled inner neighborhoods]”

DT: “I’d create economic zones. I’d create incentives for companies to move in. I’d work on spirit because the spirit is so low… unemployment for black youth in this country, African American youth, is 58-59 percent.”  These are called enterprise zones and have been used with mixed success in the U.S. but particularly in Britain.  See this article

WP: “in general, do you believe there are disparities in law enforcement?”

DT: “I’ve read where there are and I’ve read where there aren’t…I have no opinion on that.  We have to create incentives for people to go back and to reinvigorate the areas and to put people to work…we have lost million and millions of jobs to China and other countries.”   When Trump doesn’t like the topic, law enforcement, he switches subjects to an old refrain, jobs lost to China, and now Mexico. “Mexico is really becoming the new China.”

WP, returning to the topic:  “There is disproportionate incarceration of African Americans vs. whites. Is that something that concerns you?”

DT: “It would concern me. But at the same time it can be solved to a large extent with jobs.”  Some economists and social scientists have championed this idea that people in poor neighborhoods will choose  legal employment if presented with better job prospects.  Over time, residents in the area will become more committed to the neighborhood, to the protection of their property, to law and order.

WP: “Baltimore received a lot of federal aid over the years. What’s different specifically about your approach to these issues from what’s been tried in the past, because a lot of effort has been put in just the direction you just described.”

DT: “I think what’s different is we have a very divided country.”  He goes on about how divided the country is, as if we didn’t already know that.  How does that answer the question about Baltimore? “I thought that President Obama would be a great cheerleader for the country. And it just hasn’t happened. You have to start by giving them hope and giving them spirit and that has not taken place. I actually think I’d be a great cheerleader for the country.”

WP: “What presidential powers and executive actions would you take to open up the libel laws?”

DT: “I’ve had stories written about me … that are so false, that are written with such hatred.  I think libel laws almost don’t exist in this country.  I think that [the media] can do a retraction if they’re wrong. They should at least try to get it right. And if they don’t do a retraction, they should, they should you know have a form of a trial. I don’t want to impede free press, by the way.”

WP: “So in a better world would you be able to sue [the Post]?”

DT: “In a better world I would be able to get a retraction or a correction. Not even a retraction, a correction.”

WP: “Would you require less than [actual] malice for news organizations?”  “Actual malice” is a legal standard, a criteria for liability for libel set up the Supreme Court in 1964.  See below.

DT: “I would make it so that when someone writes incorrectly, yeah, I think I would get a little bit away from malice without having to get too totally away.”  What does that mean?

WP: “How are you defining ‘incorrect?’ It seems like you’re defining it as fairness or your view of fairness rather than accuracy.”

DT: “Fairness is… part of the word. I’ve had stories that are written that are absolutely incorrect. I’ll tell you now and the word ‘intent’, as you know, is an important word, as you know, in libel.”  Trump then gives an example of a news account of a protester at a Trump rally.  The video tape is edited to make Trump supporters look guilty of unprovoked violence.  Trump says these are professional protesters with trained voices that can be heard throughout a large hall in order to disrupt Trump’s speech or a question from the crowd.  Trump says that news media accounts do not potray these incidents accurately.

Through several questions various people from the Post try to get Trump to acknowledge that Trump condones violence.  Trump insists that he supports law and order, not violence.  Trump’s campaign manager notes that there are repeated public service messages before every rally that the audience should not confront protestors and to let security personnel do that.  Trump repeats that some protesters, when interviewed, say they don’t know why they are there, implying that the protesters are paid agitators by those who want to make Trump rallies look violent.  Some protesters simply interrupt his speeches with shouted obscenities.  Out of 20,000 attending a rally, Trump claims that there are just a few protesters and that they are strategically placed at the rally venue.

WP:  “given the Supreme Court rulings on libel — Sullivan v. New York Times — how would you change the law?”  New York Times v. Sullivan is a 1964 decision by the Supreme Court that there must be a malice standard applied before reporting about a public official can be considered libel.  “Actual malice” is a legal concept that the media outlet knew the information was incorrect or should have known, i.e. that they exercised little or no effort to find the correct information.  After this decision, a person claiming libel in the U.S. must prove the untruth of something published.  This departed from centuries of common law precedent.  In Britain, for example, the defendant of a libel claim must prove the truth of the information they published.

DT: “I’d have to get my lawyers in to tell you, but I would loosen them up.”  Although Trump is not specific on this, I’m guessing that he would like some balance between the strict U.S. system and the Briitish system.  U.S. precedent was based on a problem that existed in the southern states during the early 20th century.

WP: “Would that be the standard then? If there is an article that you feel has hatred, or is bad, would that be the basis for libel?”

DT: “The Washington Post never calls me. I never had a call, ‘Why – why did you do this?’ or ‘Why did you do that?’ It’s just, you know, like I’m this horrible human being. And I’m not.”  If a news organization makes no effort to validate information, is that cause for libel?  “I want to make it more fair from the side where I am, because things are said that are libelous, things are said about me that are so egregious and so wrong, and right now according to the libel laws I can do almost nothing about it because I’m a well-known person.”

WP: “can you talk a little bit about what you see as the future of NATO? Should it expand in any way?”

DT: “Ukraine is a country that affects us far less than it affects other countries in NATO, and yet we are doing all of the lifting, [European members of NATO are] not doing anything.”

WP: “Could I ask you about ISIS, speaking of making commitments, because you talked recently about possibly sending 20 or 30,000 troops”

DT: “I said the generals, the military is saying you would need 20- to 30,000 troops, but I didn’t say that I would send them. I would put tremendous pressure on other countries that are over there to use their troops and I’d give them tremendous air … support because we have to get rid of ISIS. I would get other countries to become very much involved.”

WP: “What about China and the South China Sea?”

DT: “We have trade power over China. I don’t think we are going to start World War III over what they did, it affects other countries certainly a lot more than it affects us. I always say we have to be unpredictable. We’re totally predictable.  And predictable is bad. Sitting at a meeting like this and explaining my views and if I do become president, I have these views that are down for the other side to look at, you know. I hate being so open.”

WP:  Asks about Iraq and ISIS

DT: “We then got out [of Iraq] badly, then after we got out, I said, “Keep the oil. If we don’t keep it Iran’s going to get it.” And it turns out Iran and ISIS basically—”  Trump is interrupted but I wonder if he was going to say that Iran and ISIS were conspiring to get Iraq’s oil?  Iran and ISIS are blood enemies.  Iran embodies the Shia sect of Islam, ISIS is Sunni.

WP: “How do you keep it without troops, how do you defend the oil?”

DT: “I would defend the areas with the oil [with U.S. troops].”  Asserting that Iran is out for Iraq’s oil, Trump says, “Iran is taking over Iraq as sure as you’re sitting there. And I’ve been very good on this stuff. My prognostications, my predictions have become, have been very accurate, if you look.”

WP:  Asks Trump about his claim that he could use trade as a diplomatic cudgel against China’s territorial ambitions in the South China sea.  These disputes involve Vietnam, the Phillipines, and Malaysia.

DT: “You start making it tougher [for Chinese exporters]. They’re selling their products to us for… you know, with no tax, no nothing. If you’re a manufacturer, you want to go into China? It’s very hard to get your product in, and if you get it in you have to pay a very big tax.” “I don’t like to tell you what I’d do, because I don’t want to…”

WP: “This theory of unpredictability …there are many people who think that North Korea invaded South Korea precisely because [Secretary of State Dean] Acheson wasn’t clear that we would defend South Korea. So I’m curious, does ambiguity sometimes have dangers?”  Acheson served under Truman from 1949 to 1953.  In 1950, the N. Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea.

DT: “President Obama, when he left Iraq, gave a specific date – we’re going to be out. I thought that was a terrible thing to do. [The enemy] pulled back, and after we left, all hell broke out, right?”

WP: “What you’re saying [about European NATO members] is very similar to what President Obama said to Jeffrey Goldberg (Atlantic article) in that we have allies that become free riders. Do you have a percent of GDP that they should be spending on defense? Because it’s not that you want to pull the U.S. out [of NATO].”

DT:  “No, I don’t want to pull it out. NATO is costing us a fortune and yes, we’re protecting Europe but we’re spending a lot of money.”  Again, nothing specific in answer to the question.

WP:  “does the United States gain anything by having bases [in Japan and S. Korea]?”  The Post cites an unnamed public source that the U.S. pays 50% of non-personnel costs to maintain the bases.

DT: “I think we were a very powerful, very wealthy country. And we’re a poor country now. We’re a debtor nation.  We’re spending that [money] to protect other countries. We’re not spending it on ourselves. We have armor-plated vehicles that are obsolete. The best ones are given to the enemy.”  Donald relates that the son of one of his friends has served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.  “He said the enemy has our equipment – the new version — and we have all the old version, and the enemy has our equipment.  “We send 2,300 Humvees over, all armor-plated. we have wounded warriors, with no legs, with no arms, because they were driving in stuff without the armor. And the enemy has most of the new ones we sent over that they captured. And he said, it’s so discouraging when they see that the enemy has better equipment than we have – and it’s our equipment.”

There was more, including someone at the Post asking about the size of Donald’s hands.