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Blog Archive July 2014

The High Cost of Badly Paid Cops

To understand in any meaningful way a police force requires information about the culture in which the police are recruited, educated, paid, promoted, and disciplined. In a recent Bangkok Post article highlighting the suicide statistics among Thai police officers, it was noted:

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“At present, the force is divided into two distinct classes — the bosses who graduated from the Police Cadet Academy and junior officers from schools for corporals. The classes operate in an oppressively feudal and closed society where subordinates have no say whatsoever. Due to their low pay, the police tend to get involved in all sorts of underground businesses.”

There are the bosses and then there is the vast underclass that carries out their commands. The division is officially designated as between commissioned and non-commissioned officers. Source: http://www.aseanapol.org/information/royal-thai-police The national police force is a quasi-military organization that comes under the Ministry of Interior. Source: Wiki Senior appointments by the government have been routinely been controversial. For years there have been many studies, commissions and reports delegated with a mandate to recommend reforms. The members of these study groups and commissions have recommended a variety of reforms to the structure and culture of the Thai police force. But no substantial reform program has been implemented from these recommendations.

The size of the police in Thailand exceeds more than 230,000 officers according to Wiki. By comparison with countries with the same or larger populations: the UK has 167,318; The Philippines has 149,535; Myanmar has 93,000; and France has 220,000. In other words, in Thailand, there are by international standards, a relatively large number of police to the size of its population. In 1987, Thailand had 110,000 members in the Royal Thai Police Force. It would be interesting to analyze the political processes that resulted in more than a doubling of the police force over a quarter of a century.

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The statistics and brief background fail to convey the day-to-day reality of the non-commissioned rank-and-file police officer. Who is this man or woman behind the uniform in Thailand? What story can we tell about the ‘self’ behind the uniform?

“We are also the story we construct about ourselves, our personal narrative that interprets and assigns meaning to the things we do remember and the things other people tell us about ourselves. Research by the Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self (2005), suggests that these narratives guide our behaviour and help chart our path into the future.” Source: http://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/where-do-childrens-earliest-memories-go/

The police training and culture are material out of which that self is constructed. Another block of ‘self-worth’ and ‘self-image’ is the economic conditions in which a person lives, works, and interacts with others. The sense of self also takes a battering in Thailand where many people view the police with a sense of mistrust and suspicion. This likely causes the police to withdraw further into their own sub-culture for emotional and psychological support further increasing the feeling of ‘us and them.’”

The inequalities of wealth are experienced by police officers like anyone else. Unlike the rest of us, the police are authorized to carry guns and to use them inside such societies. And where there are businesses that operate at the margins of the law and those outside the law that are hugely profitable, policing by cops who don’t have a living wage can be compromised with cash payments.

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This chart shows the pay scale for police. The first three columns are the salaries of non-commissioned officers and the other columns for commissioned officers, with the last two columns reserved for those with the highest-ranking officers.

Unless you are a non-commissioned, column 1, Thai cop who entered the police department with a high school education you are paid after four years on the job (assuming no additional step increase beyond the usual annual increase). a salary of Baht 5,580 per month or US$177.42 a month. That works out to be 183 baht or just under $6 bucks a day. I don’t know about you, but I’d pay for a book that promised: accommodation, food, transport, sidearm, uniform, haircuts, food and entertainment in Thailand on a budget of $6.00 a day. The minimum wage in Thailand is 300 baht a day, which is closer to $10.00 a day. While there are possibilities to supplement the meager pay packet with per diems and overtime, the overall monthly amounts paid to police are, as the chart demonstrates, small.

If officers are appointed to a position, such as inspector, chief inspector in suppression or forensic units they receive an additional 3,000 to 5,700 baht, or if they are investigation officers (regular to expert) they receive an additional 12,000-30,000 baht, in executive positions (5,600 – 21,000 baht) or special expert/teaching positions (3,500 – 15,000 baht), increasing with rank. As is evident, the chance for supplemental pay is limited to the higher ranks with officers who’ve received specialized education or training. Typically a university graduate would start as an officer with a higher pay.

How could there not be corruption in a police force when the pay scale for non-commissioned officers condemns them to poverty? A man or a woman faced with a spouse and children waiting food on the table and doesn’t have the money to feed them can easily cross ethical and legal lines on a routine basis. If you were in that position, what would your consciousness tell you to do: feed your family or ask for a 100 baht from a driver who made a turn out of the wrong lane? It might be assumed (and it is impossible to prove with solid evidence) that the division of spoils falls mainly to the benefit of the high-ranked officers. Such a lopsided division would be consistent with how money flows between the ranks inside any feudal based organization. No one has ever suggested that egalitarian principles feature large in such a mindset. In a feudal structure, like the police, most of the workforce can be thought of as extras in the larger drama and there is only room for a few of the big names on the marquee. The rank, status and money is, in the main, set aside for the stars.

There are also psychological and social consequences arising from a police force modeled on a feudal structure. Most of these issues have not received serious attention by any of the many recent governments. One is the suicide rate among the rank and file police. The Bangkok Post reported a story about such an officer.

“On Wednesday, 24-year-old Police Lance Corporal Nitikorn Kulawilas shot himself in the head with a pistol and died at the Phaya Thai police station. The young traffic policeman was the fifth officer to take his own life since January.

“If the average police suicide rate per year is anything to go by, 25 more families may lose their beloved son or daughter this year.

“According to the Police Department, the number of officers taking their own life is steadily on the rise. The annual average number of suicides over the past five years is 29.17. Last year, it rose to 31.”

Suicide rates have been in decline in Thailand since the peak of 8.4 per 100,000 in 1999. Source: Hanging is the most common method to end one’s life, and is ten times more prevalent than a handgun. The police officers rate of suicide works out to be about double that of the suicide rate for the population as a whole.

What is it about being a cop that increases the odds of suicide? The dead officers superiors explained the suicide as caused by work stress and family problems. In other words, the suicide had nothing to do with the culture and the low pay environment in which he worked. This is the kind of denial that isn’t restricted to the attitude of his superiors. The explanation is based on a widespread perception that when an officer is caught stealing or aiding and abetting a crime, or kills himself, that is wholly the individual responsibility of the officer.

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It is this consensus that explains that despite all of the recommendations for reform, the continuation of a current system that hugely benefits a select few should consider the collateral damage that drives officers to crime and suicide as incidental, personal, and individual to the man or woman who felt they had no other choice.

What mental health screening and counseling is done for police officers? I can’t find any answer to that question. I suspect that silence is significant. Suicide rates are only one small sampling of those with mental health problems. Rates of depression should be examined and the results made public. The rate of divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism, or drug abuse is additional indicators of personal stability problem worth exploring.

Suicide rates of police officers compared to the rate for the general population have been analyzed in the States. The American police officer is statistically more likely to kill himself (or herself) than a Thai police officer. (Source)  There is, and likely never will be, any clear, unbiased or unambiguous set of statistics to support the premise that low pay is the cause of suicide amongst police officers in Thailand. One needs to accept that some of these suicides may have occurred no matter what job the person worked at, and needs to be viewed along with mental problems such as depression, assignment to high anxiety areas such as the South of Thailand, family or domestic violence, separation and divorce.

The Bangkok Post hammered a point that has been over the years but the political will to change the culture of the police has failed. “But an honest and efficient arm of the law is not possible if low pay, poor welfare, and a lack of unaccountability and meritocracy remain the norm.”

The correlation between low pay and the hidden economy is difficult to establish as the data is largely inaccessible and must be drawn from stories in the press. All that can be said from a common sense point of view with no set of viable statistics to back it up, is the low salaries paid to a number of police (certainly there are honest, not corruptible Thai police as I’ve met some of them) are likely subsidized by other opportunities that are only available to a man or woman in a uniform and carrying a gun. The question is whether there is the political will to change the salary and policing culture in Thailand.

Posted: 7/31/2014 8:40:58 PM 

 

Taser-cuffs for the 21st Century

From pre-historic times, we have been slapping handcuffs on an intruder, stranger, criminal suspect, violent lunatic or someone you simply don’t like. The idea of handcuffs is not to kill, but to restrain a person by limiting the movement of their arms and hands. From the beginning of our kind, we’ve used vines, reeds and animal hide as handcuffs. As our technology in the Iron and Bronze ages evolved through Greek and Roman times, our handcuffs also improved allowing us to securely bind felons and prisoners of war with fetters, chains and irons.

The big technological breakthrough came in the nineteenth century with W.V. Adams’ invention of the ratcheting mechanism. The Adams designed handcuff became the staple of handcuffs used by police forces around the world. Since the nineteenth century, we’ve witnessed incremental changes to the technology, including plastic disposal cuffs.

The images below will help you visualize the traditional handcuffs. Wikipedia along with a useful article on handcuffs displays three of the most widely used handcuffs.

Handcuffs used by law enforcement officers and soldiers, have until recently, been distinguished primarily by whether the dual wrist enveloping feature: 1) is secured by a chain, 2) is fixed, or 3) is a solid bar.

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Hiatt type 2010 handcuffs

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Dutch police handcuffs

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Solid bar handcuffs

The handcuffs have been standard issue for police and soldiers for many years and used to restrain and limit the movement of arrested demonstrators or protesters, or suspected criminals. They also have been used on prisoners of war or those captured in a civil conflict.

High-tech has caught up with the world of handcuffs. Here’s the latest invention to scale up an arresting officer’s ability to restrain and control a prisoner.

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The Scottsdale cuffs

Take a close look at The Scottsdale cuffs. What does the state of art bring to the world of handcuffs? Built into these handcuffs are wireless controls and sensors. The theory draws from those dog collars where you want to train a dog not to chew on your new shoes. Each time the dog puts his snout on a shoe, you give him a mild shock through his collar until the dog is able to register that getting close to your shoe will cause him pain. The dog learns to avoid your shoes.

Our history as species demonstrates that we are inclined to use violence against our own who put their nose anywhere near what we define as the ‘shoe zone’. The new cuffs have the capacity to deliver a high-voltage Taser-like charge. Not only is the person handcuffed, by the touch of a remote control, the authorities can disrupt his or her nervous system.

The implications for freedom and abuse of liberty are enormous. If you don’t follow an instruction, the shock runs through your body. You don’t walk fast enough, more shock; or too fast, here it comes again. The cuffs can be programmed so that they shock at five-minute intervals. Of course, the program can be overwritten if only you will co-operate. The cuffs have sensors that restrict the prisoner to a certain pre-determined area, and move from that area, and a large electric jolt runs through the body. The restricted area might be the back of a police van, or a room, or a house.

If that isn’t enough to give you nightmares, here is what the hi-tech handcuffs already patented have in store for your encounter with the police. Future handcuffs will come with built-in timers, needles, gas dispensing capability, gauging of vital signs, emotions, and movements. They will be used for arrest, court appearance of suspects, certain classes of prisoners, in mental wards, and perhaps to adjust the attitude of political detainees.

“In addition to radio proximity sensors, the cuffs could include an accelerometer, inclinometer, potentiometer, location sensing device, microphone, camera, a biometric sensor or a combination of devices. These could not only allow guards to keep track of prisoners, but also allow the cuffs to automatically deliver a shock if they detect violent or aggressive movements or even if the detainee shouts.

Aside from their deterrent functions, the Scottsdale cuffs could also keep track of prisoner movements, behavior and number of shocks administered, plus they include safety cutouts to prevent administration of an injurious or fatal jolt. In a truly Orwellian twist, the cuffs could also release gases, liquids, dyes and even inject the prisoner with sedative drugs.”

Link: http://www.gizmag.com/shock-cuffs/25421/

Think of the countries on the list of the eight least-free places. These are countries where exercising near complete control over their citizens actions, opinions, and attitudes is viewed as a paramount goal of maintaining the power of the authorities. The list includes: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. The local franchise owner of The Scottsdale cuffs stands to make a small fortune. There might be a viable market for such handcuffs in Thailand to deal with unhappy critics of the military government who are viewed as threatening the goal of universal harmony and unity.

Our hi-tech future promises many exciting innovations to improve our lives, environment, health, education and workplace. It also has the capacity to erode our freedom and dignity, and to transfer more power over our lives to those in authority. When the future of the handcuff is to require total submission to a police officer or a soldier, whatever convenience and comfort hi-tech innovation has provided us won’t be sufficient to compensate for the loss of the most basic human rights.

Not even Orwell could have imagined a world of the handcuffed underclass whose members obey like well-trained dogs. Those holding the remote control to the taser-cuffs will follow the orders of the elite few who decide whose shoes are protected. They say you should walk a mile in another’s shoes before you can judge a person. In a world where most will be barefoot, that old rule of thumb may no longer apply. It’s more likely that you won’t ever get a chance to put on such shoes, or if you did, you wouldn’t have to walk far to know that in the not too distant future those with the shoes will have created a world where there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

Posted: 7/24/2014 8:55:19 PM 

 

Impulse Control & Crime

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Two unrelated Thailand crime stories shared a common theme this week—impulsive, violent behavior. In one case, a sixty-two year old mother confessed to the police that she had shot he daughter dead with a .38cal handgun. The killing occurred in the bedroom of the family house, and was, according to the mother, caused by her sudden anger over her daughter’s outstanding debts totaling a million and a half baht. According to the Thai press reports, after killing her daughter, the mother said that she turned the gun on herself, fired but missed.

In the second case, a 26 year-old katoey had gone on a surprise visit to her lover but he wasn’t at home. Frustrated on her return, at 5.30 a.m. she came across a paralyzed 72 year-old grannie. The katoey told police she felt an irresistible urge to have sex and was also drunk at the time. The katoey’s attempted rape of the grannie was interrupted when the grannie involuntarily evacuated her bowels.

The sudden impulse of the killer mother and drunk rapist katoey propelled them to commit violent criminal acts. The killer mother told the police that she’d been overcome by a-rom chua-woop or a sudden impulse to explain her action. My Thai sources tell me this phrase is commonly found in local crime reports.

To what degree are cultural issues useful to understand psychological conditions?

The criminal justice system, whether in the West or the East, often faces offenders who claim a mental disorder. The way we process reality and control our impulses, at least in part, have a cultural foundation. How the Chinese and Thais view of gambling as part of their culture, will translate into the attitudes that people and authorities have towards casinos, lotteries, and slot-machines. There are two related issues: mental disorders such as impulse control and cognitive traps or illusions which handicap rational choices. In other words, we can be irrational over a range of activities; some of those activities involve crimes.

Starting with the cognitive process, Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow divides our thinking self, the one that reacts, contemplates, considers what someone has said or done, an event caused by man or by nature, or the thousand and one small decisions we make everyday such as where to have lunch, hitting the ‘like’ option on FaceBook, choosing a movie to watch or book to read. This is fast thinking for many. This is representative of System 1 thinking that happens in an instant.

System 1 is our automatic, auto-pilot decision-making process which requires little or no deliberation such as when we see 2 + 2 = (  ). Leaving aside the political implication of Orwell’s 1984, we don’t have to think; we ‘know’ the answer is 4. System 2 is a deliberative, slowed down decision-making; it is hard, takes up time and mental resources and most people avoid it in favor of the easy-rider feeling of System 1.  A System 2 example is 29 x 347 = (  ). There are people for whom this is a System 1 equation but for most of us, we have to do sums  and make a calculation. Or open the calculator app on our computer or cellphone to come up with the answer: 10063.

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System 1 Thinking

Both System 1 and System 2 are normal tools we apply throughout our day. The first is unconsciously decision-making, and the second is conscious, calibrated decision-making. There is another system that is pathological, and considered a psychological disorder—Impulse Control Disorder. It is a psychological disorder listed in the 4th Edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The lack of impulse control unleashes aggressive conduct that features in many areas of criminal behavior. The offender either easily loses control or lacks control over his emotions. Law enforcement officers are called to the scene of a crime to confront someone who has destroyed property, physically assaulted or killed another whose resorted to violence or aggression. Other criminal areas where this type of offender turns up is theft, gambling and arson.

A person with such a personality is often called, in the West, a ‘hot-head’ or in Thai jai rong (‘hot heart’). Though the mental condition may be something a person chooses. Some scientists have traced the disorder to neurological and environmental causes. Others are more skeptical as to the underlying cause found in mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse and personality disorders. “It can become clinically difficult to disentangle them from one another, with the result that the impulsivity at the core of the disorders is obscured.”

A person with this disorder usually blames the victim for doing something to cause the act of violence. It is rare such a person would accept responsibility. They believe they were right in their response and feel no guilt for the suffering or harm they’ve caused.  People with this disorder are disproportionally represented in domestic violence and rape cases. They lose control and in an irrational mental state harm others.

Criminal charges and penalties often are determined by whether the crime was ‘planned’ or ‘premeditated’ as opposed to impulsive or spontaneous. The difference between a hit man and a wife killer often turns on judging whether the offender had planned the murder or it was an explosive, irrational act.

We hold people who plan and use logic to commit a crime more blame worthy. These are the System 2 deliberate thinking criminals who calculate the odds of the crime, weigh the risk against the benefits, and contemplate the optimal time to strike. Our criminal laws reflect an assumption that people who are planners are more easily deterred by a heavy penalty. Conversely, as manslaughter counts indicate, there is an assumption that someone with an impulse control disorder, wasn’t in full control of himself and wouldn’t have been deterred.

While the death penalty might deter the planners it will be useless to stop those with a personality disorder, where logical, rational thinking is disabled. These assumptions take us into the realm of ‘free will’, ‘self-control’ and ‘personality disorders.’ The authorities select out those whose crimes are the of ‘unplanned’ and ‘spontaneous’ behavior as suffering from decreased responsibility for their acts.

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There are limitations on this analysis in Asia where culture is a factor in assessing what in the West is viewed as a personality disorder. For example, there was a 2008 study of Thai lottery gamblers. One group was guided by superstitious methods such as obtaining a ‘lucky’ number from a temple or divining a number by dripping candle wax into water. The other group didn’t report using superstitious methods. The use of superstition was found to increase the probability of the ‘gambler’s fallacy’, creating an illusion of predictability and control. The study indicates that one shouldn’t assume that cognitive problems and psychological disorders, as defined in the West, are applicable in places like Thailand.

The System 2 type of thinking also has a large cultural component reflected in the educational system. Hard or difficult thinking is nurtured in schools and universities where critical thinking is valued and promoted. Rote learning is a way to reinforce System 1 automatic thinking. This isn’t to suggest that System 1 translates into impulse control disorder. They are different concepts and involved different mental processes as well as different underlying causes. Where a culture promotes superstition, magical-thinking, and prophecy, people educated in that culture will have an increased probability of failing to recognize circumstances where their beliefs have created cognitive illusions. That way of thinking colors the approach to impulsive control disorders. The way of dealing with the disorder is less based on science than on the belief that non-scientific exorcism will solve the problem.

The next time you read one of the ‘strange’ crime stories from another country, you may have stumbled upon an example of why it is strange to you. The way thinking is taught, rewarded, honored is different, and the way of dealing with mental disorders reflects a different way of thinking. In Thailand, should you encounter someone in the throes of a-rom chua-woop, clear away the knives and guns, hide your daughters and grannies, and quickly run for the exit. You won’t have much time.

Posted: 7/17/2014 8:57:40 PM 

 

Reflections on 5 years of Blogging

In July 2009 I posted my first essay on International Crime Authors Reality Check. In the last five years, I have posted 260 essays. (Note to self: buy a lottery ticket with 260.) To have written that number of weekly essays requires a certain kind of personality—one predisposed to an internalized tyranny.  It is not unlike going to the gym. After a few weeks, the urge to put off working out or writing an essay grows. I haven’t figured out whether such discipline is a good or bad thing. All I can say is that truly surprises myself—looking back and finding that I managed each week to overcome the terror of not knowing what to write next. Yet each week, I discovered a subject, an idea, a pattern or trend worth exploring.

My style is to write an essay as if I am talking out loud to an old friend. Someone I urgently want to communicate information to about what I’ve stumbled over, whether it is a cultural artifact, a technological development, a scientific study, crime investigations and stories, or a new book that opens a door to new ideas. The large range reflects my eclectic interest in law, politics, economics, science, history, psychology, and sociology. I think of these categories as layers of analysis that focus on a specialized aspect of our world.  To understand reality means overcoming illusions and biases, and judgments in favor of examining different perspective on hard questions that life raises.

An unexamined life is not a life worth living. I have that taped to my computer.

The purpose of an essay is a kind of personal pattern making from a noisy information charged environment, one that is constantly changing, spinning a litany of contradictions, paradoxes, and uncertainties. The best essay raises the hard questions that lie submerged below the surface of our consumer society with its slogans, headlines, and sound bytes. The best essay refrains from the temptation to give a facile answer.  The shadows of doubt can never be eliminated. And that is precisely why there isn’t an Essay Channel on TV.

It is normal to want resolution. Even if that requires distortion, illusions and lies the comfort of believing that the author has solved a problem is irresistible. If you’ve followed my essays over the past five years, you have likely witnessed an evolution in my own thinking and writing. While, I may offer my own meaning of events, I’ve tried to understand that context and multi-perspective giving is a better approach. I’d rather a reader draw his or her own meaning. Events and forces are a roll of the dice. There is never any certainty what numbers will come up next.

I am a searcher and essays and novels are my tools. Like most tools they have their limitations. The way we use words and the situations in which we employ them is a confession of our bias. Each week I roll the dice. What caused those numbers to come up? One valuable lesson that comes from this kind of writing is to understand how much we take causation and agency for granted. And for that reason, most of our analytical tools fail the task of extracting the truth. We find it exceptionally difficult to accept that very small causes can have outsized effects. A nineteen year old shoot and kills an archduke in 1914 and ignites World War I leading to the death of millions of people. Any nobody who rolls the dice has the potential to bankrupt the casino. We look for meaning in a chain of causes even though the best minds such as Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Slow”), tell us that all the evidence is that such a chain is an illusion. Causation and agency are our shields against the forces of randomness and chance. We don’t leave home without that shield.

Essays are either shield building or shield destroying. I tend to write the latter. That is likely a huge career mistake if I want to be popular.

We are hungry for narratives that give us plausible alternatives to explain life in the face of doubt and chance.  Storytellers who create the simple, complete and satisfying story as a guide have our admiration and loyalty. There is a kind of cruelty that comes from the truth that there is no escape from the uncertainties of life. It makes readers uncomfortable. They look for the exit. Who can blame them? No one wishes to give up on the hope of meaning that transcends pure chance. Our modern life is based on the promise of that transcendence and pushes back on a destiny shaped by the outcome of events and forces beyond our ability to control—boundaries, culture, violence, and power.

When I reflect back over five years of essay writing and a quarter of a century of novel writing, I feel that I’ve been on a grand journey. I had to let go of a lot to take that journey. But I am glad that I made that choice. I am frankly not certain if I’d have the courage to have left a tenured university position should a time machine take me back to Vancouver in 1984.

I’ve recorded the experiences, people, events and ideas I’ve discovered along the way in words. I’ve described what I’ve experienced, felt, seen, touched, loved, hated, and wished for—and when you expose yourself in this very public way, the question is why bother, was it really worth the effort? Wouldn’t it have been better if I’d kept my thoughts to myself, taken a vow of silence, been still, and sought an inner peace beyond which words can describe?

I rolled the dice. What you read is the numbers that came up. Rather than looking back, I am looking ahead and asking what I’ve learnt over this time. About writing, life in Thailand, human nature, politics, the book and film business, relationships and communication.

I feel less certain of what I know and what I can know than when I started this journey. At the same time, I’ve become more comfortable with discontinuity and disruptions. I fear them less, and see such events as a natural part of what life delivers. I try to spend more time in the present than dwelling in memories of the past or in possible future realities.

We are in the midst of an information revolution. Whether essays and blogs such as mine continue to exist in this form five years from now is anyone’s guess. Will I finally run out of steam and say enough is enough? I don’t know. I use the metaphor of ‘out of steam’ with intent. Human beings are weak; they run down, break down after a relatively short period of time compared to the longevity of machines in the medium future.

Storytellers thrived in a world of incomplete knowledge. A world where evidence, facts, data played a different, smaller roll. Storytellers have had an audience because an ability to detect and explain patterns and weave them into compelling narratives that deliver a whole, complete and universal feeling to the reader. I fear our position won’t last. The best of algorithms to mine metadata for patterns will likely report correlations—depending us on our cause and agency fix—and deprive us of the cozy completeness of a unified, coherent, and plausible story that endures. In the world of big data and algorithms nothing endures as every nanosecond the patterns are adjusted as new data is accessed, analyzed and evaluated. And not just the data patterns, but the networks and connections shift and move.

But for now, I’d like to invite you to climb aboard a weekly train of thought, buckle up, and take a ride into the unknown with a driver who from week to week has no particular destination in mind. If I can challenge you to rethink something you’ve felt was settled long ago, or point toward ideas that you may not have discovered, then writing this blog will have been worth the effort. Sharing ideas is like sharing food; it something you do with friends. Online has in some ways changed how we view friendship, but I’d like to think that anyone who has read this far, is a fellow journey taker, who is ready to take the cup and roll ‘em.

Posted: 7/14/2014 4:07:48 AM 

 

The Online Sleuths and the Cold Case

Mostly criminal justice has been assigned to law enforcement authorities. There has always been some exceptions, where outsiders supplement the public officials’ task in apprehending law breakers.

Three such private actors come to mind: Vigilantes, bounty-hunters, and sleuths.

For centuries, members of these three groups have patrolled the darker paths that remain largely invisible to the ordinary, law abiding citizen. From Jack the Ripper to the Boston Bomber, private citizens have sought to assist in uncovering the killer. Traditionally, in the old analogue world, the private actors put time on the street, using up shoe leather talking to people in neighbor haunts, taking in oral information, following up until they had enough information to establish a probable location where the offender could be found. While their working methods were roughly similar, their motives differed. And revealing a person’s motives is usually a good way to tell a story that people can understand and relate to.

Vigilantes are motivated by personal or ideological reasons to bring a criminal to justice. A vigilante is emotionally driven. He or she is more likely to go along with street justice and dispense with due process.

A bounty-hunter, in contrast, has a more straightforward reason—his or her motive is money. They deliver a criminal to law enforcement officers in return for receiving a cash reward and what the authorities do with the criminal is up to them as the bounty-hunter walks away counting his cash.

Professional or licensed private investigators or sleuths undertake cases on behalf of clients who might wish a wayward bank teller is caught with their hand in the till. They aren’t motivated to go after a wrong-doer in their capacity as sleuth. It involves work, it can involve danger, and most people seek to minimize the risk of harm unless they can see the cash up front.

Amateur digital sleuths who work online to solve crimes that law enforcement officials have let fall between the cracks. This is a new category, and appears to fall somewhere between gaming and support groups. It is hard to peg all of the sleuths in this category as it is still evolving and taking in members from the traditional brigade of privateers who work the edges of the criminal justice system.

Vigilantes, for the most part, tend to be amateurs fired up by anger and hated. That fuels the emotional rocket for awhile. Though true-believers can burn up a lot of nuclear fuel before exploding into a white dwarf. Bounty-hunters and sleuths have the appeal of being cool, rationale, Sherlock Holmes cerebral types who through deliberative, clever, deductive reasoning solve the mystery that leads to the wrong doer. From online feuds and flame wars, the amateur digital sleuths have their irrational, emotional side, as well as their Dr. Spock, never-understood-emotional-response types. A CBC News report titled Madeleine McCann to Jeffery Boucher: Web sleuths quest for the missing

Private citizens spend untold hours online trying to solve crimes — does it help police? about online sleuthing, mentions that empathy for the families of the victim is another motivator.

Laura Miller, who writes for Salon,  reviewed Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. The book comes out 1st July 2014. The Skeleton Crew goes into the online sleuthing community to report on how the digital

Miller writes about The Skeleton Crew and the personal drama that arises from online sleuthing. There is, in Miller’s words,  “a methodological schism over how to interact with law enforcement and the families of the lost. Halber divides the two groups into the ‘mavericks,’ who prefer to proceed swiftly and as they deem fit, and the ‘trust builders,’ who insist on deliberating as a group before approaching officials or the bereaved.”

This is an interesting premise but I am not certain The Skeleton Crew is for me. The book is a series of anecdotes that illustrate the lives, ordeals, successes and drama of online investigators. In other words, as told from the lives of actual investigation as opposed to analysis of big data to see what patterns emerge from the activities of this community. Anecdotes, no matter how entertaining, revealing, and persuasive are not evidence. They are a story about a story. The end.

Miller’s review got me started thinking about the implications of three traditional categories being ultimately disrupted by a digital community that wouldn’t have existed 10 years ago. Halber’s book is coming at a very good time. Others are discussing the growth, meaning and use of the online sleuthing community. If Wikipedia can bring in hundreds of experts to work for free to patrol the factual accuracy of information, there must be thousands of people who a lifetime of movies, TV, and novels behind them to give them a sense that: a) they can have fun; b) they can meet other people who share their interests; c) they can benefit the public; d) they can obtain status in the eyes of others by solving cases that have stumped the police.

A cup of coffee in hand, and a burning to desire to find a murderer or kidnapper without leaving the comfort of one’s home was sufficient to attract the attention of the BBC. If you want to become a digital sleuth, where should you start? At the start, you are likely going to be looking to solve a ‘cold’ case. That’s an old, unsolved case that just won’t go away and the police, at least from the public’s perception, have put it in the unsolved file.

There are a number of sleuthing websites like Websleuths.com DoeNetwork Reddit’s Bureau of Investigations, NamUs.gov and Unsolved Mysteries. Inside of these websites, you’ll discover digital communities of people who devote time and effort, sharing information to solve kidnappings and murders. The BBC also know the danger of vigilante justice, and sites the Boston Bomber case, where the wrong person was accused of involvement.

What do the professionals say about this development?

Professor David Wall of Durham University, is quoted as saying that he “believes online communities can be hugely beneficial in some cases, but the temptation to get involved in more serious crimes is a recipe for disaster.” Joe Giacalone, a NYPD retired Detective Sergeant, with many years of experience, worried about the public getting involved in old, unsolved cases. “‘As an investigator, where you’re dealing with evidentiary issues and things, you don’t want to have people poking into the case,’” he says, adding, ‘You gotta remember, you have anonymous people sitting behind keyboards, you don’t know exactly – you could have somebody with an axe to grind.’” He’d never seen a case solved by someone working through one of the online sleuthing communities.

Professor Wall is joined by Nic Groombridge, a senior sociology lecturer at St. Mary’s University in London, England, who told CBC News,  “During the Jack the Ripper case, one of the problems the police had wasn’t a lack of leads — it was too many leads.”

The British, through their Association of Chief Police Officers take a slightly different view from Giacalone, saying, “” [Wrong quote repeated from above, you should have the Brit one handy.]  There are a fair number of lawyer’s demarcations as to the boundaries that private sleuths must recognize. It is a rather nice touch to use property law concepts to define the police as the owners of a criminal case. As former property law professor, the police are alerting outsiders that trespass is something to avoid. The case belongs to them. Be careful or you might be in trouble with the police and saying you were only trying to help won’t likely be a defense.

Where there is a niches that appear to welcome these outside communities it is with medical examiners who have skeletal remains and no clue as to the identity of the person. There have been some breakthroughs in identifying skeletal remains. There are a couple of larger questions looming in the near future—is online sleuthing a passing fashion at this stage of development? Big Data is developing at a speed that is difficult to assess (without metadata to help assess big data—you start to see a pattern not unlike one Escher’s recursive birds or frogs). My best guess is solving crimes turns on the amount, quality, provenance of data, and it is only a matter of time before the amateurs will be way outside the information silos where it is stored and analyzed.

Will the idea of police ownership of criminal cases gain more support as police forces hire experts and development specialized algorithms to search through vast amounts of data looking for clues? The probable answer is the police monopoly over cases will increase over time. And a monopoly is a property owners best friend.

Meanwhile, there are online scheduled meet ups and book clubs for online amateur sleuths. You’ll need to do a bit of sleuthing to find a meet up near where you live.

Posted: 7/3/2014 8:49:39 PM 

 

 

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