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home : insight & opinion : guest columns
October 21, 2017

9/7/2017 2:25:00 PM
Teachable moments in criminal justice
For the Daily News

I'm happy to be back in the classroom teaching criminal justice. I hope its good for my students, and I'm sure its good for me.

I had forgotten, for instance, that young people are uninformed about a good many things that bring some understanding to current events. This isn't really new; it's just more compressed. As we tried to discuss the urge to place blame on one side or the other about the recent Confederate monument riots, and our President's response, I thought to reach back to the Rodney King verdict of 1992 and the L.A. riots that followed.

My students are mostly 19 years old. 1992 was 25 years ago, six years before they were born. I took the time to show them what happens to society when law enforcement is overwhelmed by social unrest. Our social order turns out to be a good deal more fragile than we imagine. Right and wrong don't matter much when you call the police and they say they aren't coming.

The bad news from a learn-your-lesson point of view was that the Korean neighborhood only managed to save its property by arming themselves and shooting looters. That's not a good lesson, that's a race war.

My concern used to be that the president was getting bad advice, and I took heart every time he tossed out a troublemaker.  Now I'm more worried that we've forgotten our past and the road that brought us here. If we make those mistakes again, and it looks like we are here and there, there is no reason to believe the consequences will work out the same this time. Given the increased exposure social media provides, all fringe fanatics will have time to mobilize and arm themselves for whatever confrontation they choose to make. That's a bad thing.

It's just as bad that we would try to prevent them from gathering at all, claiming that we have had enough discord. A free society must learn to tolerate its critics or it's freedom itself that we lose in the process.

Finally, I have to say it is disappointing, to fans of the rule of law, that the president pardoned a person who believes himself above the law entirely. Sheriff Arpaio was unapologetically in contempt of the court's order in Arizona for violating the constitutional rights of Hispanic-Americans, and under normal times would only be able to purge himself of that contempt by compliance with the court's order and a jail sentence long enough to make him sorry for what he did. Instead we get a pardon from the president himself.

I have to ask, even though the answer is obvious - who's sorry now?

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