Note: I drafted this piece (beginning with the following paragraph) over the weekend (my friends can attest I make for a very exciting person to spend a day at the pool with...), and had been tinkering with edits since, only for news of Murtha’s dismissal from the discrimination lawsuit in Prince George’s County to hit the newswires today. I may have further thoughts on the implications of this news later, but for now, I’ll simply observe that (1) dismissal is not final, as it could be appealed to the circuit court, and (2) if my earlier observation that the discrimination issues were likely pretextual grounds for opposing Murtha’s nomination, many if not most of the signatories to the Board of Reps' letter in opposition to his nomination will remain opposed, only now for newly offered reasons.
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When I first read the letter from the Board of Representatives in opposition to the nomination of Chris Murtha to be our next chief of police, I was angry. Angry that, the foundational principle a man is innocent until proven guilty had been cast aside to placate a populist backlash against the unpopular nomination of an unpopular mayor.
However, then I re-read the letter, and realized my first impression may have missed the mark.
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Innocent until proven guilty is related to, but distinct from, the following concept: Allegations which fall below a certain level of likelihood should be treated as though they were never made in the first place. For example, if the allegations against Murtha were something to the effect of “he conspired with the FBI to falsify time sheets and destroy inculpatory evidence of bias against minority officers from Canada aged 21–27 and 56–58,” I think (hope?) we would all agree that, even if such allegations remained technically outstanding (and theoretically possible), the likelihood of their being true is so remote that they should not factor in a decision on Murtha’s nomination whatsoever.
The corollary to this concept is that, allegations made with sufficient credibility cannot be completely disregarded, even where they remain unproven. This distinction explains my initial error. The Board of Representatives was not ignoring the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Instead, they noted that certain allegations of misconduct remained outstanding against Murtha, and claimed those allegations remained above the threshold of “likeliness” such that they cannot be disregarded.
(Here, however, is the most questionable part of the Board’s letter, and I am being somewhat charitable in my interpretation of it. The Board writes that: “If there is any chance whatsoever that these charges are true, then Murtha cannot possibly be worth the risk to our diverse community and dedicated police department. And frankly, the odds that such allegations are true are not zero.” (emphasis mine). I assume they can’t intend to apply that standard literally, and instead mean it to communicate that if there is any material chance whatsoever that these charges are true, then Murtha cannot be confirmed. We do not live in a world where a “zero-percent risk” is something that can ever be ascertained; in other words, to have a standard that any candidate has a “zero-percent risk” of past disqualifying conduct is to have a standard which is impossible to satisfy.)
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Accordingly, looking in a vacuum at the question of “do the allegations against Murtha disqualify him at this time from being chief of police?”, your answer to that question turns on your answer to the following question: “how likely are allegations going to be proven true?”
The assumption I initially made (without realizing it) when I first reacted with anger to the Board of Representatives’ letter was that I’d already answered that question, and concluded that, given the facts available to me at that time, the odds Murtha will found guilty of all or even some of the charges against him are 10% or less.*
Therefore, I thought at the time, for all intents and purposes, I could already treat Murtha as innocent of the allegations made against him, and those who weren’t were shamefully dispensing with the presumption of innocence afforded all individuals in the American justice system.
However, reasonable minds can disagree as to their evaluation of the odds Murtha is guilty of the alleged claims. The signatories to the Board of Reps’ letter clearly do disagree. And there is no “proof” I can offer that they would find convincing as to why their estimates are overly pessimistic, and likely no proof they can offer that I would find convincing as to my estimates are overly optimistic.**
In case you’re wondering, among other reasons I am confident the claims against Murtha will not be upheld include (1) the praise given to Murtha by many of his colleagues, including a Hispanic officer who Murtha reports to, (2) the lack of factual specificity of the current allegations against him, (3) the seeming lack of corroborating facts or other instances of wrongdoing alleged against Murtha, and (4) the local NAACP’s initial endorsement of his nomination. I’ll note here that many people are likely drawing the wrong conclusion from the NAACP’s renouncement of its endorsement of his nomination. What that likely means, is that while the NAACP initially considered Murtha to be qualified on the merits, after making the endorsement, the chapter faced political backlash, and withdrew the nomination in the face of political pressure. As a rule, we should not give much deference to an organization’s statements when done with a transparently political motive.
As of today, I stand by my original position and my probability assessment that Murtha will not be found guilty, and, if I was on the Board of Reps, would remain a vote in favor of confirming Murtha as Stamford’s next chief of police. But upon further reflection, I understand why some members cannot look past the outstanding allegations in the same way that I have, as they believe the probability all or even some of them are true is much higher than I believe.
*As to the likelihood the allegations against the Prince George’s County Police Department are true, I have no idea and accordingly take no position (unlike as to Murtha, those allegations appear much more substantiated). I will, however, preemptively reject any concept of collective guilt attributed to Murtha if he is found innocent, but the County Police Department is found guilty. It’s anathema to American values to hold an individual responsible for the sins of a group of which they are a member. Most large institutions have some level of wrongdoing within them; only those actually guilty of the wrongdoing should be held responsible. Should Jim Matheny be held responsible for the four Stamford police officers allegedly guilty of manipulating the extra-duty system to get paid for jobs they weren’t signed up to work, or for the discrimination lawsuits I understand are currently pending against the Stamford Police Department? Of course not.
**While no one can offer “proof,” we can make predictions, and then check if our predictions were right or wrong. As I am confident that Murtha did nothing wrong in Prince George’s County, if it is determined that he had done something wrong, I should place less confidence in my estimates in similar situations like this moving forward. Similarly, if you are confident he is guilty of something in Prince George’s County, and it turns out you are mistaken, you should have less confidence in your predictions in similar situations in the future. I’ll do my best to return to these pages to let you know if you should consider my predictions trustworthy or not once the verdict on Murtha is in.