Hold your horses!

Atrios, our Fearless Leader, the undisputed Godfather of West Blogville, has agreed to say something intemperate from time to time so that I can maintain my moderate credentials by criticizing him.

Today, for example, he links to this sad story about a fourteen-year-old San Antonio girl getting shot in the back of the head by DEA agents in the course of a drug bust, and comments only by providing a headline: “BASTARDS!”

Now for all I know the comment will turn out to have been entirely appropriate. Still, if the only basis for it is the story Atrios links to, then he’s jumping to conclusions, and maybe betraying his biases.

Here’s the story as the agents tell it: Two people came out of the house of a three-times-convicted drug dealer and started to drive off in a car with its headlights off. When the agents, thinking that the passenger was the dealer, cut off the car with their cars, the driver responded by deliberately ramming both of them. The agents fired, and the driver, who turned out to be the dealer’s daughter, was killed. The other passenger turned out not to be her father but another man who lived in the same house.

It’s not clear that they knew the age of the driver. In any case, once a suspect starts playing bumper-cars for real, there’s not much of an alternative to gunfire. Her death is regrettable, especially if her actions reflected mere panic rather than an attempt to injure the agents, but outside the movies there’s no such thing as “shooting to wound”: any gunshot can be a deadly one, especially when firing into a moving vehicle at night.

So if the agents are telling the truth, I see no objection to anything they did: cutting off a car moving at low speed in order to make an arrest isn’t an outrageously dangerous maneuver, firing into a car that’s ramming yours is entirely justified, and killing someone when you do so is largely a random outcome.

The surviving passenger tells a different story, one which makes the agents look worse. But I don’t know any reason offhand to believe him rather than them.

I have my share of gripes both with the drug war as now conducted and with DEA as an agency. But right now there’s no strong reason to think that the DEA agents in this case were anything but unfortunate. Questioning their parentage, even bloggically, isn’t going to fix anything.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com