Unburden the Police

The Democratic slogan on crime should be “Unburden the police,” specifically: fund community-based violence interruption programs; fund first-response mental health programs; eliminate traffic stops. With those things off their plates cops can focus on crime-solving/case clearance.

We shouldn’t minimize the reasons communities have for hating and fearing police practices, but we also can’t minimize the reasons those same communities have for wanting protection from crime. So reform the practices: spend less person-power on routine interference with citizens (whether pedestrian stop & frisk or traffic stop & harass) and more on solving crimes (which will be easier when people don’t suffer constant adversarial or humiliating or even fatal interactions with cops). And turn violence interruption over to community groups trained in its successful practice (like those that provided Chicago with a fairly peaceful Memorial Day weekend) and mental health crises over to professionals trained to handle those encounters.

And then use the right rhetoric! “Unburden the police” means exactly the same thing as “defund the police” but sounds pro- instead of anti-cop, anti- instead of pro-crime. “Fight crime smarter not harder.” “Build policing back better.”

Let’s stop leading with our chins on an issue where we have the right answers and our “Blue Lives Matter” opponents have nothing to offer.

Royal bus wedding

Buses at the royal wedding, and the e-bus revolution.

This is SFIK the first royal wedding to feature buses. Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams and the noisy cast of Suits took up the option of the bus transport to the Harry-Meghan extravaganza provided by Kensington Palace. (Buses are surely an important cultural and political reference to black Americans.) They must have saved quite a bit on taxis, as prices were no doubt gouged on the day.

Meanwhile, the Thames Valley plod* impounded a bus used by an NGO to offer shelter to homeless people in Windsor. Can’t let sordid reality spoil the careful constructed image of multicultural bliss. I can’t find a photo of the guest buses, so the homeless one gets the RBC nod.

A-list celebrities are exquisitely sensitive to subtle shifts  in style and taste. Is the humble proletarian bus making a social comeback?

If it does, it will probably be on the back of electrification. Electric buses are much quieter and smoother than diesel ones, as well as non-polluting. The market is growing fast, led by China’s 100,000 a year (ca. 20% market share). Shenzhen, part of the Pearl River megalopolis and home to leading manufacturer BYD, already has a 16,000- strong all-electric fleet, a small part of which is pictured here.

Cities and other bus operators outside China are beginning to place serious orders, after several years of messing about with small trials. London; Nottingham; Oslo; Hamburg; Los Angeles; Schiphol and LAX airports. That’s a very incomplete list, the bandwagon is rolling. San Francisco, promising an all-electric fleet by 2035 with first orders only in 2020, comes across as a greenwashing shilly-shallier.

The dramatic shift is driven by a combination of greenery and costs. Many city halls are now aware of the devastating health costs from urban air pollution, much of it from diesel vehicles, much of that from buses. On the cost side, thanks to sharp falls in the cost of batteries, electric buses are now competitive with diesels and CNG (natural gas) on a total-cost-of ownership basis (TCO). BNEF (link to pdf):

As battery prices continue to decline, e-buses will have a lower total cost of ownership than
comparable diesel or CNG buses for all of the options discussed here, even at lower annual
distances covered. Using the same battery price projections as in the upfront cost analysis, we estimate that the TCO for the most expensive e-bus configurations – the 350kWh e-bus coupled with slow charging at the depot and the 110kWh e-bus coupled with wireless charging – will reach TCO competitiveness with a diesel bus as soon as this year (2018).

Buses are just now as important as cars in the overall battery market (BNEF, page 21, Figure 10).

So for Hizzoner or Herroner at City Hall, and the rival politicians seeking to supplant them, buying electric buses is a free move. It gains green cred with voters, for real not phony reasons, and it doesn’t cost anything using sensible accounting. And the riders and drivers get more comfort and less vibration and noise.

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*Plod: Br.E. informal: a police officer; by extension (“the plod”), the police force. Probably from the character PC Plod in the successful Noddy children’s book series by Enid Blyton, 1950s.


The NY Times Posted a Lott of Crap

So John Lott is promoting guns again, this time in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times. But this time he’s taking a different tack. Some years ago Lott maintained that a survey he conducted on defensive gun use showed its benefits. However, no one could check it; he said that he lost the data in a hard drive crash – but he couldn’t even provide evidence that he hired and paid interviewers to perform the survey.

He also used published crime statistics to promote his idea that relaxed gun laws prevented homicide. He subsequently was found to have misused the statistics in, shall we say, “innovative” ways, to “prove” that more guns leads to less crime.

Abandoning data and surveys to promote guns, this time he uses a couple of anecdotes relating to individuals. That is, one person who was improperly denied a concealed carry license is more salient to him than the deaths of dozens of schoolchildren across the country.

I first encountered Lott when he began to use crime data improperly and wrote to him explaining the issues. When he did nothing about it, I wrote an article criticizing his research. To counteract my criticism, a woman named Mary Rosh started appearing on the web, who vilified me and who praised Lott as one of the best teachers she ever had. Then it turned out that Mary Rosh was a fiction, a persona created by Lott to debunk his critics. [He even implicated his four children: he admitted that the name “Mary Rosh” was cobbled together using the first two letters of his kids’ names.] In other words, he hid behind the skirts of a woman he created out of whole cloth, just to promote himself and his pro-gun ideology. Here is my take on his actions in 2003.

At the time Lott was a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, an organization with which he is no longer affiliated – which makes me look more kindly on AEI. Now he hangs his at the Crime Prevention Research Center, where he is president. I have no idea who funds this center, but I can guess. Those who want to learn more about the organization and Lott should read this article.

I realize that the New York Times is trying to do its best to look at both sides of controversial policies, but this really takes the cake. To publish a person who admitted to lying about his professional life, and who is writing about the policies he lied about, is offensive to me and should be to all those who look upon the Times as a credible source of information.

A week to remember

Tomorrow morning, congress will be back at work, with a dozen working days to knock off a list of tasks that would be daunting even without an infantile, grievance-besotted, Russia-crazed president throwing sand in the works, and even if its own managers didn’t have a Freedom Caucus of know-nothing ideologues hanging on its ankles, and even if Trump hadn’t just tossed it the anvil of immigration reform.  Wow.

But that’s not all; this month only (but continuing for weeks and months of political hassle), you also get Harvey recovery, and wait, if you order now, and also if you don’t, you get two or even three additional exciting climate/weather events !  “Disturbance 1” is chugging west from near Cabo Verde at 10 mph with (at this writing) an 80% chance of getting organized within five days; “Disturbance 2” is brewing up exactly where Harvey started as a little baby orange X in the southern Gulf.

Irma is shaping up to be a very interesting event, as it is now drawing a bead on the east coast of Florida, likely to sail over warm water south of the Bahamas, turn right, and run north along the coast as a 3 or a 4. Of course these projections have a wide error band, but for now, let us reflect on what Neil Frank, the former director of the National Hurricane Center spent his career warning us of about just this storm.

(1) Evacuation routes in this region mostly run north and south; roads going inland (and you have to go a ways inland to be ahead of the storm surge) are basically narrow streets that peter out quickly among the alligators.  If the storm is following the shore north from about Miami, driving along the coast is not going to help you much.

(2) Almost no-one living on this coast has ever experienced a major hurricane and has no idea what to expect. Since the last one, there’s been significant sea level rise, increased paved area, land subsidence, and lot more people. There is no real high ground in  south Florida. Whole streets in Miami flood now just from a high tide.

(3) From Boca Raton south is a miles-long row of high-rise condominium towers lined up along the beach like dominoes, many taller than the space between them.  They are built on sand under (i) Florida building codes and (ii) Florida local government administration. The former are not as insouciant and optimistic as the rules that put Houston under water last week, but close; the latter is not as corrupt as Louisiana’s, but, um…my father had an expression “as crooked as a dog’s hind leg” …

Frank used to predict that the storm surge will wash the sand out from under some or many of these buildings and they will tip over, perhaps into the condo tower next door. If evacuation doesn’t work, there will still be people in them.

(The governor overseeing this mess will be the deeply odious, reactionary, willfully ignorant, climate denier Rick Scott, who’s idea of Christian charity is drug tests for welfare recipients, and of responsive government is allowing Floridians to be sure their children don’t learn anything they don’t know, like evolution.)

Irma is due (according to current model runs) about next weekend; the other two, too early to tell. Oh yeah, Russiagate continues to slowly fulminate, and North Korea…oy.

The writer Saki, back at the beginning of the last century, said “the Balkans create more history than can be consumed locally.” I think current times create more news than society, or anyone in it, has the bandwidth to cope with. Or that the remaining adults in government can react to usefully.

Crime and Big Data: Autopilot vs. Power Steering

There has been a host of recent articles and books decrying the use of “big data” to make decisions about individual behaviors. This is true in commerce (Amazon, Facebook, etc.), but also true in criminal justice, my field of research. Moreover, some of the algorithms that forecast dangerousness are proprietary, making it all but impossible to determine the basis for challenging a sentence based on the algorithm’s outcome. Recent books, such as Weapons of Math Destruction and The Rise of Big Data Policing, underscore the dangers of such activity. This is the essence of an autopilot approach to forecasting behavior – hands off the wheel, leave the driving to us.

There is some research that supports this type of algorithmic decision-making. In particular, Paul Meehl, in Clinical versus Statistical Prediction, showed that, overall, clinicians were not as good as statistical methods in forecasting failure on parole, as well as the efficacy of various mental health treatments. True, this book was written over fifty years ago, but it seems to have stood the test of time.

It is dangerous, however, to relegate to the algorithm the last word, which all too many decision-makers are wont to do (and against which Meehl cautioned). All too often the algorithms, often based on so-so (i.e., same-old, same-old) variables – age, race, sex, income, prior record – are used to “predict” future conduct, ignoring other variables that may be more meaningful on the individual level. And the algorithms may not be sufficiently sensitive to real differences: two people may have the same score even though one person may have started out doing violent crime and then moved on to petty theft, while the other may have started out with petty crime and graduated to violent crime.

That is, the fact that a person has a high recidivist score based on the so-so variables should be seen as a threshold issue, a potential barrier to stopping criminal activity. It should be followed by a more nuanced look at the individual’s additional life experiences (which do not fit into simple categories, and therefore cannot be included as “variables” in the algorithms). That is, everyone has an age and a race, etc., but not everyone was abused as a child, was born in another country, or spent their teen years shuffling through foster homes. Therefore, these factors (and as important, the timing and sequence of these factors) are not part of the algorithm but may be as determinative of future behavior as the aforementioned variables. This is the essence of a power steering approach to forecasting behavior – you crunch the data, but I decide how to use it and where to go.

Regarding power steering, I’m sure that many of you would rather look at an animated map of weather heading your way than to base your decisions (umbrella or not?) on a static (autopilot) weather forecast (BTW, does a 30 percent chance of rain refer to the likelihood of my getting wet in a given time period or to the fact that 30% of the area will be rainy and may skip me entirely?). The same issues are there in crime analysis. A few years ago I coauthored a book on crime mapping, which introduced the term that heads this post. In that book we described the benefit of giving the crime analyst the steering wheel, to guide the analysis based on his/her knowledge of the unique time and space characteristics of the areas in which the crime patterns developed.

In summary, there’s nothing wrong with using big data to assist with decision-making. The mistake comes in when using such data to forecast individual behavior, to the exclusion of information that is not amenable to data-crunching because it is highly individualistic – and may be as important in assessing behavior than the aforementioned variables.

The London high-rise fire

The inferno in London is out, mainly because the entire flammable contents of the building have burned up.  Fire hoses cannot deliver water to the upper floors of such buildings, and the ladders trucks can bring to the scene don’t reach nearly high enough. Many more deaths will be recorded-I expect a toll in the dozens-as the search for the missing continues. Police and fire brigades told people to stay in their flats and close their doors rather than escaping, and those people have been incinerated. As the structure of the building, whether concrete or steel framed, has certainly been compromised, possible collapse will make it impossible to search for bodies for quite a while. [update 14/VII: they are using drones! Nature imitating art; the Economist big drone wrapup was published last week.)

How is such a thing possible?  Well, first we should note that dying in a fire is rare and getting more so in all industrialized countries: annual fire deaths per million in the US are only about 12, and remarkably, down by two-thirds since 1979. The UK is on a similar trend and about a third safer overall. We should also note, as more information about administrative and regulatory failures dribbles out, that this was housing for poor people.

The ways to avoid fire deaths are as follows:

  1. start fewer fires
  2. faster emergency response from fire brigades
  3. buildings that resist fire spread after ignition
  4. buildings that facilitate escape
  5. proper behavior by occupants
  6. better medical care for survivors

No. 1 is the biggie, and it has to do partly with electrical codes and enforcement, but progress in recent years has mainly to do with smoking, both less smoking overall and safer cigarettes. A third of residential fires used to be caused by cigarettes, usually dropped on upholstered furniture. Cigarettes used to be laced with enough saltpeter to keep them burning if not puffed on, so the tobacco company could sell another cigarette when one left in an ashtray consumed itself; at least in the US that’s no longer true. But fire can start in many ways; see 5. below.

No. 2 is occurring, because fewer fires mean engine and ladder companies are less busy, and because it’s politically difficult to close unnecessary fire stations. Nearly all engine and ladder sorties in the US now are actually medical calls.

No. 3 is a matter of codes and code enforcement: hour-ratings for partitions and doors, less flammable materials, UL listing for electrical components, etc. and honest, effective inspections to be sure that’s all happening. Otherwise known as job-killing regulatory government meddling in the free market, don’t you know. Here the US is disadvantaged by traditionally building with wood rather than masonry. It’s also a matter of the most reliable, proven, life- and building-saving technology, sprinkler systems; something the Grenfell Tower seems not to have had, even in the corridors and escape routes.

No. 4 involves a variety of features. Small things like an alarm system (have you checked the batteries in your smoke detectors lately?) and quick-release locks on the bars people in poor neighborhoods put on their first-floor windows matter. For larger buildings, it’s a matter of having two escape routes from every location, and one of these has to be protected from filling with the smoke that kills more people than heat and flame; an example is the exterior fire escape we see on older buildings. I was appalled to read in the Guardian that 1970’s high-rise UK buildings of the Grenfell era had  “one escape stair which is not designed for a mass evacuation, but is designed for a small number of people to get out whose individual flats are on fire”. No; two stairs, and one has to be open to the outdoors (sometimes an interior “fire court” open to the sky) at every landing. When I was working in architects’ offices in the 70s and 80s, this was completely standard practice. It still is. If you live in a high-rise, do you know how to get to your fire stairs in the dark? If not, practice.

Twenty-four stories is a long way to walk down in the dark, afraid, aroused in the middle of the night from a sound sleep, in pajamas or nothing, especially with terrified little children. I would not live above the twelfth floor of any building. I wonder if the people enjoying the view from high up in the fifty-story condo buildings popping up in New York think about this.

No. 5 includes some training (point the fire extinguisher at the base of the flames) and occasional drills, not filling your apartment with unnecessary inflammable stuff (what doomed the partiers at the Ghost Ship in Oakland), not storing the gasoline can for your lawn mower in the same room as a water heater, staying in the kitchen when you have a frying pan on the burner, and so on. And do you know where your kitchen fire extinguisher is, and how to use it, and have you checked the pressure gauge?

Where fire comes to your house from outside, as in Mediterranean climate landscapes that burn regularly and will do so more with climate change, you have to maintain what we call “defensible space” in California, and stay on top of it as grass and brush try to grow into it.

The Japanese have a long history of living close together in wood and paper houses, and cooking indoors on open charcoal fires, but their fire death record is not much different from other industrialized countries: this is assuredly the result of learning to respect fire, and that hibachi. It’s also socially unacceptable to have a fire in Japan, an expert in fire safety told me a few years back: if you do, even a small one, you probably have to leave your home and move to another city. The FEMA study linked above notes, interestingly, that incendiary suicides inflate Japanese figures.

Every catastrophe has multiple ’causes’, so there will be lots to learn about this one as the facts come in. Whatever they are, they will include irresponsible, probably corrupt, behavior by people who should have known better.

[update 14/VI] Useful stuff is beginning to come in.  Aside from the other terrible mistakes and oversights,  it appears the exterior cladding, a Chinese aluminum/polyethylene sandwich, is so flammable that testing in Australia was suspended after the first sample practically blew up in the lab. Here’s an excellent post-incident report from a very similar fire in Australia. It has everything:  ignition by cigarette, overcrowded units, cladding carrying the fire up the outside of the building…but also working alarms, sprinklers, and proper fire stairs for evacuation. Deaths and injuries: 0.

Stardust and pixie dust

Another Trump lie: children is Detroit and in Nebraska do not see the same stars.

It was, I admit, far from the worst falsehood in Donald Trump’s inauguration speech:

And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the wind-swept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they will [fill?] their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator.

This is roughly what the child in Detroit sees on a clear moonless night. The photo was taken in suburban southern California, which surely has less light pollution.

Credit Wikimedia

At a plausible inner city star visibility cutoff of magnitude 2, about 70 stars are visible from anywhere on the Earth, or at most 35 stars from a given point.

This is what the same night sky looks like from unpolluted and bone dry Death Valley:

Credit Grant Kaye (a fine professional photographer but I couldn’t find copyright info – I’ll replace if he objects)

Continue reading “Stardust and pixie dust”

Onward and upward with ADUs

Almost two years ago, I was kvelling about a progressive land use policy improvement in Berkeley that loosened the parking and other screws on accessory dwelling units (ADUs, “mother-in-law units”, or “granny units”), a special kind of owner-occupied rental housing. The political wheels turn slowly, but now we have well-conceived ADU legislation statewide-HT to my Cal colleague Karen Chapple, who Debbie informs me lobbied effectively for it in Sacramento-that relaxes density, utility connection, and parking requirements. It won’t solve the housing crisis but it will help, in addition to providing a package of other good stuff (see the earlier post for details).

The Oakland Warehouse Fire

Three big lessons from this catastrophe.

First, think before you wish for ‘job-killing, economy-crushing regulations’ to be swept away. Fire and housing codes would have saved 33 36 young lives here if they had been enforced; an enormous fire in Cambridge the same day killed no-one, partly because there weren’t as many people crammed into one space, partly because the eleven old buildings involved met codes, or close, and had many ways out, partly because they weren’t full of paint thinner and the kind of flammables artists use at work.

Second, primary responsibility obviously rests with the owner and the building manager. But this was an implementation/management failure, not a policy failure: Oakland’s codes are entirely adequate to prevent this kind of thing, but they weren’t effectively used, whether because California has crippled its local governments financially by Proposition 13 and other short-sighted tax choices, or because the enforcement function in Oakland was incompetent or feckless.

The inspector who visited this deathtrap on Nov. 18 was “unable to gain access” and apparently the matter dropped there. It’s possible California needs some new legislation. For example, I have no trouble with the idea that the owner of anything larger than a single-family house has a duty to make himself  (or a subordinate or attorney with the keys) reachable for purposes of inspection access within 48 hours of any safety-related complaint the city chooses to act on. If he doesn’t open the building for the inspector, the inspector can admit himself, by force if necessary, during business hours.

Berkeley had a similar episode a decade ago, which unfolded quite differently because the city kept after the landlord. No fire, no deaths, no tragedy…

…but a bunch of artists out on the street. Third, the housing/workspace crisis for artists in happening cities is real (not to mention for teachers, students, civil servants, and every kind of poor person). The resistance to cleaning up the Drayage building came from the tenants whose safety was the point of the enforcement action, and they correctly understood that they had no workable options; things are worse for artists now.  Running around rousting artists from improvised housing and homeless from tent camps won’t fix this. Unless we make it easier to build, confront NIMBYism, and shovel out more housing supply-yes, including subsidized live-work spaces-we will have nightmares like the Ghost Ship and homeless camps under freeway ramps. People who can’t afford housing, whose price (in the Bay Area, and other places) has sailed into a completely unattainable stratosphere, will live somewhere, and that somewhere will be inhumane, intolerable, and dangerous in so many ways.


Quote of the Day

This is not the republic of my imagination.

-Charles Dickens, letter to William Macready, from Baltimore (1842)