criminal justice

“Genetic Informants” and the Hunt for the Golden State Killer

Last week officers with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, the suspected Golden State Killer who allegedly committed a dozen murders, at least 50 rapes, and more than 100 burglaries in California between 1976 and 1986. Police made the arrest after uploading DeAngelo’s “discarded DNA” to one of the increasingly popular genealogy websites. Using information from the site, investigators were able to find DeAngelo’s distant relatives, thereby significantly narrowing their list of suspects. This investigatory technique is worth keeping an eye on, not least because millions of people are using DNA-based genealogical sites.

I’m one of them. I’ve signed up to 23andMe as well as MyHeritage, both of which offer DNA analysis. I did this in part because family history is a minor hobby of mine, but also because 23andMe offers interesting medical information. While both companies offer a DNA service, I’ve only used 23andMe’s because MyHeritage allows its users to upload 23andMe data. One of the features of MyHeritage is its “DNA Matching” service, which updates me when a distant relative is found thanks to automated DNA analysis.

This month alone MyHeritage has altered me to the existence of two more 3rd - 5th cousins. This DNA Matching service has identified hundreds of my distant relatives, with varying degrees of confidence. 23andMe has a similar relative-finding feature. MyHeritage and 23andMe, as well as Ancestry.com, have all denied working with law enforcement in the Golden State Killer case.

According to The New York Times, investigators sent the suspected Golden State Killer’s DNA to GEDmatch, a free genealogical service. A GEDmatch release stated that it had not been approached by law enforcement and warned customers, “If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database.”

Stash House Stings: When the Government Can Invent Crimes and Criminals

Imagine a friend approaches you with an opportunity for what he believes will be easy money: a guy he met knows where some local drug dealers store their merchandise—a great big pile of it, fifty kilos, lightly guarded. Your friend’s guy thinks it could be grabbed relatively easily and flipped for a hefty profit. The whole thing sounds sketchy to you, but cash is tight this month and stealing from drug dealers does not feel like the most morally objectionable of crimes. Perhaps not the most sophisticated sort (and having watched a bit too much TV), you soon find yourself in a van on your way to the score.

Except there was no score—it never existed—and your friend’s “guy” is actually a police officer, whose colleagues arrive and arrest you and charge you with conspiracy to traffic in a controlled substance (the mythical fifty kilos) while carrying a firearm (your friend brought one along). Never mind that the drugs you are being punished for trafficking are make-believe—as is the place from which you were to steal them—you now face fifteen years in prison for indulging a yarn spun by the government.

These are, with some simplification, the facts of United States v. Conley, handed down last week by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The Seventh Circuit felt itself bound to uphold the conviction, but not without first referring to the practice as “tawdry” and “question[ing] the wisdom and purpose of expending the level of law enforcement resources and judicial time and effort in this prosecution.” The Court of Appeals quoted from the trial judge’s opinion in the same case, who declared Conley’s fifteen-year sentence for an imaginary crime “devoid of true fairness … serv[ing] no real purpose other than to destroy any vestiges of respect in our legal system and law enforcement that this defendant and his community may have had.” The trial judge was required however to impose it due to mandatory minimum sentences set by Congress.

Poor Defendants Should Get to Choose Their Lawyers Too

Americans may take for granted that if they’re ever accused of a crime, they can choose their own attorney to represent them. The Supreme Court has ruled that Americans have a right to counsel in serious criminal cases, and nobody seriously argues that the government should make that important decision for us.  

77% Say On-Duty Police Shouldn’t Swear at People

Nearly 20% of Americans report a police officer having used profanity with them. Yet, an overwhelming majority—77%—of Americans say police should be prohibited from using profanity or swearing at citizens while on the job. Twenty-three percent (23%) say police ought to be allowed to swear at citizens while on duty, according to a newly released Cato Institute/YouGov survey.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Opposition to police profanity reaches rare bi-partisan consensus—77% of Democrats and 75% of Republicans agree that police shouldn’t swear at people. Americans of virtually every demographic group identified strongly oppose allowing police use such language, including 77% of whites, 82% of blacks, and 72% of Latinos.

Why might police profanity matter? First, police image matters, and profanity could make police appear unprofessional, undisciplined, or “lacking self-control” as one research subject put it. Research experiments have shown that police using profanity are perceived as less fair and impartial. Further, police using profanity at the same time as using physical force with a person may cause people to view the force as excessive.  Given that personal encounters with police may be the strongest driver of attitudes toward law enforcement, one bad experience with police profanity may significantly harm a person’s willingness to trust and cooperate with police.

Second, some have argued that officers using profanity can “set someone off” and unnecessarily escalate confrontations with people leading to more force being used than was otherwise needed. Third, some contend police using such language can harm officers during court proceedings by appearing less sympathetic in front of the judge and jury.

Black Republicans and White Republicans Disagree About Bias in the Justice System

Survey data shows that black Republicans and Hispanic Republicans are far less likely than white Republicans to believe the nation’s criminal justice system is impartial.

I was able to combine two surveys conducted by the Cato Institute that included the same question on impartiality in the justice system to obtain a much larger sample size.[1] This offers an opportunity to take a look at how Republicans who are black, white, and Hispanic think about the justice system. Why do this? Essentially this “controls for” or accounts for the effect of political values when looking at how different racial/ethnic groups evaluate bias in the justice system.

Deep Racial Divide in Perceptions of Police and Reported Experiences, No Group Is Anti-Cop

In the wake of the mistrial of police officer Michael Slager accused of shooting and killing unarmed Walter Scott as he ran away, a new Cato Institute/YouGov survey of public attitudes toward the police finds a 38-point gap between white and black Americans’ perception that police are too quick to resort to deadly force.

Nearly three-fourths (73%) of African Americans and 54% of Hispanics believe the police are “too quick to use deadly force,” compared to 35% of white Americans. Instead, 65% of white Americans believe police resort to lethal force “only when necessary.” 

When it comes to police tactics overall, black Americans (56%) are more likely to think they are “too harsh” compared to white (26%) and Hispanic (33%) Americans. Majorities of whites (67%) and Hispanics (58%) believe police generally use the right amount of force for each situation.

Find the full public opinion report here.

Is the Justice System Impartial? 

Only 17% of African Americans believe the criminal justice system treats all Americans equally and only 31% are highly confident their local police department treats all racial groups impartially. Whites are 32 points more likely to believe the justice system treats everyone equally (49%) and a solid majority (64%) are confident their local police are impartial. Hispanics fall in between with 27% who think the justice system and 42% who believe their local police treat everyone the same. Among all Americans, only 42% think all are treated equally by the justice system but 56% are highly confident their local police department treats everyone equally. 

Are Police Trustworthy and Held Accountable?

Strikingly high numbers of whites (46%), blacks (61%), and Hispanics (61%) think that “most” police officers “think they are above the law.” Overall, nearly half (49%) of all Americans worry that police think the law doesn’t entirely apply to them. 

Nearly two thirds (64%) of black Americans and a majority (51%) of Hispanic Americans believe police are “generally” not held accountable for misconduct when it occurs. This is 21 points higher than the 43% of white Americans who also share this view. Instead, a majority (57%) of whites think police are generally brought to account. 

Are Police Effective?

African Americans (41%) and Hispanics (41%) are twice as likely as white Americans (29%) to say they are “extremely” or “very” worried about crime. Furthermore black Americans (41%) are more than twice as likely as whites (17%) or Hispanics (15%) to say they know someone who was murdered.

Despite more salient fears over safety, only 44% of African Americans are highly confident their local police department responds quickly to a call for help. White Americans are 15 points more confident (59%) in their local police to come quickly if needed.  In a similar pattern, white Americans are about 20 points more likely than black Americans to give their local police high marks for protecting them from crime (60% vs. 38%) and enforcing the law (64% vs. 44%). Hispanics fall in between with about half who give their police high marks for enforcing the law, protecting them from crime, and responding promptly.

Do the Police Care About You?

Only 37% of African Americans are highly confident their local police department cares about the people they serve. White Americans (59%) are far more confident that their local police cares. A little less than half of Hispanic Americans (47%) agree.

Are the Police Courteous?

White Americans (62%) are 19 points more likely than African Americans (43%) and 13 points more likely than Hispanic Americans (49%) to rate their local police departments highly for being courteous.

White, Hispanic, and Black Americans Report Different Experiences with Police

Most Americans have personally had positive experiences with the police but those who have experienced verbal and physical misconduct are disproportionately black and Hispanic.

African Americans are nearly twice as likely as whites to say a police officer swore at them. About a quarter of African Americans (26%) and Hispanics (22%) report a police officer personally using abusive language or profanity with them compared to 15% of white Americans. The study also found some evidence that suggests whites who are highly deferential toward the police are less likely to report experiences with police profanity, whereas blacks and Latinos who are highly deferential do not report similarly improved treatment. [1] 

African Americans are about twice as likely as white Americans to know someone physically abused by police. Thirty-nine percent (39%) of African Americans know someone who has been physically mistreated by the police, as do 18% of whites and 27% of Hispanics.

Higher-income African Americans report being stopped at about 1.5 times the rate of higher-income white Americans. In contrast, lower income African Americans report being stopped only slightly more frequently than lower income white Americans.

African Americans (50%) are also about 30 points less likely than whites (70%) and Latinos (66%) to report being satisfied with their personal police encounters over the past 5 years.

Favorability Gap Toward Police Has Changed Little Over Past 50 Years

Taking these results together, it comes as little surprise that there is a wide racial gap in favorability toward the police.  Only 40% of black Americans have a favorable view compared to 68% of white Americans. Hispanic Americans fall in between with 59% who share a positive view of the police.

What is particularly surprising, however, is that these numbers haven’t changed much since 1970 when 67% of white Americans and 43% of African Americans had a favorable view of the police—nearly identical to today’s numbers.[2] 

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