Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Institutional Knowledge vs Spouting From the Sidelines

Given that I can't be an expert on everything, I have a habit of defering to people with relevant expertise and experience on particular questions, unless they clearly have a conflict of interest or if I've seen relevant compelling evidence contradicting their position from someone with equivalent knowledge. I try not to base my opinion of an expert's opinion on my prior prejudices. Of course I might do that unconsciously anyway, but I do make a conscious attempt not to.

Take racial profiling as a police tactic. My gut instinct is that it's not a good idea for all the usual reasons - it gives both too many false positives and negatives as well as alienating the targeted group, which is the group which law enforcement is most likely to receive unsolicited tip-offs from if it doesn't feel too alienated. However, I am prepared to conced that it might be a valid tactic for law enforcement to utilise. A group like the Australian federal police or the US FBI have a strong vested interested in keeping potential sources of information open. They have institutional experience as to both the effectiveness or otherwise and the negative effects of profiling. Given that they are the ones who bear the retaliatory consequences if they're wrong and the ones with the hands on experience, I'm usually prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. So I'm not prepared to say that, for instance, the FBIs "voluntary" request for interviews with thousands of Islamic-Americans in the immediate aftermath of September 11 was unjustified, for example.

This evidently isn't the approach that Tim Blair takes to these sorts of issues. This week the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Keelty, criticised profiling as a tactic:
In a revealing interview with The Weekend Australian, Mr Keelty said racial profiling was self-defeating because it risked alienating mainstream Muslims while ignoring the real danger of homegrown non-Muslim terror.

"I remind people that the firstperson who was convicted of a terrorist offence in Australia was a person with the unlikely name of Jack Roche," the police chief said.
Mr Keelty said the danger of mistreating people who felt "the least bit alienated" was that they would become permanent outcasts in the community.

I'm sure he's mindful, too, of the fact that the latest UK terror plot was apparently thwarted by an unsolicited tip-off from a member of the Islamic community which the suspects were a part of and that such a vital source of information may be jeopardiesed by rough handed police tactics. I'm often a bit sceptical of police statements about policing when they're asking for more powers, because they have a natural insitutional inclination towards wanting more power and a disinclination to take competing considerations into account. But that concern is irrelevant here - the federal police have the powers to adopt a profiling policy if they so desired, but taking local considerations into account they've decided that it's not a good policy.

Anyway, Tim Blair, former Bulletin Journalist, Blogger and pontificator extraordinare apparently knows more about policing than the head of Australia's federal police, responding to Keelty's interview with the statement "Modern policing apparently involves a disinclination to examine evidence." You know, I'm not big on shouting "double standard" but it seems to me that Blair is showing a disinclination to examine evidence about policing provided by our own chief policeman. Or maybe Blair has a secret career which has given him expert knowledge on policing that I'm missing? And, no, "reading conservative opinion pieces" doesn't count, I'm afraid.


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