Police and systemic storytelling

“Catching criminals.” This is the activity police truly like to identify with, however little of their time it occupies. Occasionally, police stumble on red-handed robbers or thugs fleeing an assault. But the bulk of “catching” people lies in traversing the city as necessary to find someone on the word of someone else. Police act as go-betweens for antagonists who may even be practically within arm’s reach — yelling outside their cars in a fender bender, or giving opposite accounts of a domestic dispute. Real “investigation” — the glorious business of tracing an unidentified malefactor after the fact of a crime, without just finding out who did it from the witnesses closest at hand — is an activity that does exist in police departments, but only among a tiny number of specialized personnel who don’t even have to wear uniforms.
When police identify crimes against the city, state, or law, rather than against an affronted person — the so-called victimless crimes of illicit possession, unlicensed work, or unlicensed sale — they perform the essential police function of distributing crime. The legislature declares certain objects and unlicensed commerce illegal; the police then go and distribute these violations. Street drugs are made illegal (prescription drugs are fine), hidden and unlicensed weapons are illegal (carried by people on unsafe streets, which is to say the poor), flawed cars are illegal (busted taillight, broken muffler, unpaid insurance). Thus police spend a large part of their time distributing crime to the sorts of people who seem likely to be criminals — the poor and marginal — and the prediction is prophetic: these people turn out to be criminals as soon as they are stopped and forced to turn out the contents of their pockets or glove boxes. Leave them alone, and most would never be “criminal” at all. The majority of violations technically listed in the tables of the law are of no interest to uniformed police. People who break laws in business are unlikely to be detected or sought out, and when their violations are disclosed — leading to the awkwardness of having to reach a settlement — they are dealt with by regulatory agencies, guilds, or accrediting bodies, and at the far extreme by civil-court proceedings and court-mandated money exchanges. Very rarely are police or criminal justice brought in.

From this brilliant piece by Mark Greif on police.

Pop culture is worth deep scrutiny because it is how so many people come to understand the role of certain jobs in society, like that of the police, and so the distortions of mediums like film and television become the mental errors of the populace. An analogous misperception exists with lawyers, who are almost always litigators in criminal proceedings in the movies and film, and then we enter the business world and spend most of our time working with lawyers on contracts, playing chicken on indemnification with lawyers representing some other entity in a transaction.

The basic ambition of a policeman is to ceaselessly project force, stolidity, seriousness, intimidation. But that’s impossible. Policing contains daily humiliations at each inevitable failure of the policeman’s front. The uniform itself, the badge in its widest sense, with the luster of all shields meant to dazzle, is meant to maintain this front regardless of the individual inside. But the uniform can never succeed. You would need Robocop. There is something in the cladness of police, their preoccupation with holding the uniform together, that makes us aware of all their armor’s shortcomings, or inspires one to imagine these human beings naked, their uniforms taken away. The traditional English name for the mana with which police are invested is surely awe. Erving Goffman, in his famous conceptualizations of front, face, and performance, recalled Kurt Riezler’s point that the inevitable obverse of awe is shame.
The coupling of awe and shame among police comes out in our awareness of police symmetry and asymmetry. A shield is worn on the peak of the hat, while a second one covers the heart. The gun descends from one side of the utility belt, and, traditionally, the nightstick hangs from the other. Sometimes a flashlight substitutes. Looking at individual police, they almost always seem lopsided. The belt pulls down on one side. The blouse comes undone. They are constantly hiking up their pants. The regulation shoes are the same as those of nurses, waiters, and mail carriers. Heaviness gathers at the waist, in a sedentary, slow, caloric job. There is something in police that droops.

"The inevitable observe of awe is shame." A wonderful line, one that can't help but bring our current President to mind, with his deep-seated need to reinforce his self-regard with public declarations laced with superlatives, staving off the despair that might come from confronting what is more than enough shame to last a lifetime. Shamelessness is exactly what it sounds like, an absence of shame, but it need not be nature. I've met many a person who can nurture their own seamless shell against the onset of their own shame; one can be shamed by the public but it truly wounds when one feels it themselves.

[I steer clear here of bodily shame, though many have directed such attacks at people like Trump and Bannon. I'm almost certainly guilty of this in the past, and I regret it. Body shaming is hitting below the belt no matter who it's directed against, and Trump and Bannon would be no less evil if they looked like George Clooney.]

Most surprising, perhaps, is that to spend time looking at police is to see that the law is not a true resource for them. A rationale, yes, but a thin one. Police lack law. I hadn’t noticed this until I really started watching them, thinking about what I saw, reading research done on them. The original television version of Law & Order split each episode into two parts. First, policing; second, courtroom proceedings. It took me years to notice that the title was backward. Police are order. This explains the police perception of, and anathema toward, any symbol of disorder or mess. In their daily practice, police pledge at every level to clean up dirt. The cliché from Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger, her cross-cultural study of the constitution of dirt and taboo, holds up here: What we call dirt is only “matter out of place.”
It is always hard to remind or convince police that their stated loyalty is to the Constitution. It’s not their fault, really, so much as it is the fault of a municipal organization of authority that keeps legal and political thinking at a level “above their pay grade.” A bad consequence is that it’s quite difficult to make police feel responsible for civil rights violations or unjust laws, since rights and the law of the polity are not theirs to know or decide.

This is one area where culture has shed some light on this paradox of police work. In film, the protagonist is often a rank and file policeman who tries to enforce the law but is deterred, sometimes by the a puppet of a police commissioner whose strings are being pulled by those with real power, like corrupt politicians, and sometimes by fellow cops who exploit their position to stand outside the law.

Still, it's an easy conflation. I haven't played the Sims since I was a child, but I'm sure if I played that game today, one of the tasks to be checked off in building any city would be the installation of a police headquarters as a proxy for instilling law and order. As Greif notes, that handles the "order" half, but law is something else entirely. I'm not sure if the game would be as appealing if establishing the rule of law were a prerequisite to building a community, but it would be an order of magnitude more instructive.

Liberal and social contract theories of democracy — those that begin from Hobbes and Locke and that form the official philosophical background to the American Republic that was constituted in 1787 — do have a central place for punishment, but not for police. This is perhaps because, on a strong version of contract theory, police ought not to exist. How could democratic agreement fail to be self-enforcing in its daily practice if the agreement is real, sustained by each individual’s consent? Social-contract theory does include the discouragement and rectification of error after definite breaches of the contract, as punishment will address the convicted wrongdoer who either gave in to the temptation of self-interest or was perverted to it by some personal flaw. But the right agency for requital is penal law. Crime and punishment belong to judicial proceedings and courts, where the cause can be unfolded after the fact. There is no location alongside or outside the citizens and their contract for a supplementary force or additional locus of authority and violence, for mediation or interruption. There is no place for any intervening agency with political standing, only as a kind of collector or picker-upper of persons — hence, an agency very much like that of a trash picker or one who carries dirt from the streets, as Smith proposed.

Again, film and television cues us to the separation of police from detective work and law through its choreography of crime scenes. The detective, not in police uniform, arrives and steps under the police tape to be greeted by one of many who are in police garb, handling the administrative work of keeping the crime scene clean. The detective is the one who kneels over the victim's body and asks the question, and the detective is the one that spots something amiss which will lead to the next development in the case, or the plot, as they are synonymous.

SUPPOSE WE SAY THIS: Police are negotiators, but without access to contract, law, or eloquence. Their medium is not law. They do not always use memorable or wholly coherent words. Usually they confront situations of conflict they did not cause, but which they are required to enter as third parties. There, they become deliberately distracting, grandstanding observers, turning the attention of other parties away from each other and toward themselves.
When you look at them this way, focusing on the middle range between space-holding inaction and violent attack, you can see how negotiating is actually what the police do unendingly, habitually — but unfamiliarly, because in some way they refuse to recognize or care about the original goals of the relevant parties. They bring a separate set of criteria to bear, and not always an appealing one. Is this chargeable? Should this person be removed or transported temporarily? How soon can I leave, and how do I scare these citizens a bit so they won’t come into conflict again and police won’t need to come back? Police negotiate without a unitary reference or goal — other than to end the necessity for their being present, unless they’re in a location they want to forbid the use of to others. And they are always asking themselves a separate question, of whether to lift a person out of the horizontal conflict and into the vertical mechanism of criminal justice — a process they will not ultimately be responsible for, and which they won’t have to enter into themselves.

The pleasure of a David Simon work is that he is a systems storyteller in a world where most pop culture is focused on lone hero, the descendants of Odysseus in the Western canon. What made The Wire so astounding, and what makes The Deuce the best show on television right now, is Simon's recognition of the power of structural forces. The way he teaches is through a nested Russian doll plot architecture which still, at its core, begins with an individual, but the story always ends with that individual trapped several layers deep. He's hooking us with the marionette, but then removing all the stage dressing and scaffolding so we see the puppeteer.

Systems storytelling isn't always pleasurable. As Penn and Teller have noted about explaining how magic tricks work, doing so usually removes all the magic.

Matt: “So why don’t you explain all your tricks?”
Teller: “Because the short explanation—the explanation that you’d have to do during a theatrical or TV performance—is dull and no fun. The greatest secret to making a deceptive piece of magic is you do it by the ugliest possible means. It’s complex, it’s unromantic, it’s unclever. Because there are no big secrets. There is no safe full of magic secrets somewhere. Jim Steinmeyer said he thinks most of the public believes there’s a big safe that contains all the magic secrets. The biggest job for a magician, he says, is to conceal the fact that that safe is empty. Because every magic secret is just a minor modification of something that you fully understand in everyday life. Take suspending something with a thread, for example. Everybody’s not been able to see a piece a thread when they were trying to put it through a needle. What makes it difficult to find is lighting and background. If a magician’s using a thread on stage, say, to levitate a ball, he must use lighting and background to conceal the thread. There’s no obscure secret in that. You learned that playing in your grandmother’s sewing box. Every magic ‘secret’ is hiding in plain sight in the everyday world. It’s not news, and eminently drab.”

But it doesn't have to be dull. As Penn and Teller themselves have shown, sometimes revealing the mechanics of magic is still magical. Dorothy was disappointed to find the Wizard of Oz was just a man behind a curtain, pulling knobs and levers, but we probably don't revere systemic understanding nearly enough.

If the glove kinda fits, do not acquit?

So I wrote down the simplest model I could think of — a model too simple to give useful numerical cutoffs, but still a starting point — and I learned something surprising. Namely (at least in this very simple model), the harsher the prospective punishment, the laxer you should be about reasonable doubt. Or to say this another way: When the penalty is a year in jail, you should vote to convict only when the evidence is very strong. When the penalty is 50 years, you should vote to convict even when it’s pretty weak.
(The standard here for what you “should” do is this: When you lower your standards, you increase the chance that Mr. or Ms. Average will be convicted of a crime, and lower the chance that the same Mr. or Ms. Average will become a crime victim. The right standard is the one that balances those risks in the way that Mr. or Ms. Average finds the least distasteful.)
Here (I think) is what’s going on: A weak penalty has very little deterrent effect — so little that it’s not worth convicting an innocent person over. But a strong penalty can have such a large deterrent effect that it’s worth tolerating a lot of false convictions to get a few true ones.

Steven Landsburg lands on a counter-intuitive conclusion: you should lower your standards for conviction the harsher the punishment.

It seems as if Landsburg's model argues for convicting any number of people who surpass some lowered threshold of evidence for a crime. Several people all seem like they could have committed a crime, so convict all of them, even if only one could have committed the crime. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the implications, others can help verify Landsburg's model.

Also, how often are there N people who all seem equally guilty of a crime? I'm at a disadvantage here in not having seen Making a Murderer, but perhaps Landsburg's model here applies equally as well to that case as it does to Serial Season 1.

Let's broaden the conversation and bring in Alex Tabarrok, discussing one area in which fellow economist Gary Becker may have been wrong.

Becker isn’t here to defend himself on the particulars of that evening but you can see the idea in his great paper, Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach. In a famous section he argues that an optimal punishment system would combine a low probability of being punished with a high level of punishment if caught:
If the supply of offenses depended only on pf—offenders were risk neutral — a reduction in p “compensated” by an equal percentage increase in f would leave unchanged pf…
..an increased probability of conviction obviously absorbs public and private resources in the form of more policemen, judges, juries, and so forth. Consequently, a “compensated” reduction in this probability obviously reduces expenditures on combating crime, and, since the expected punishment is unchanged, there is no “obvious” offsetting increase in either the amount of damages or the cost of punishments. The result can easily be continuous political pressure to keep police and other expenditures relatively low and to compensate by meting out strong punishments to those convicted.
We have now tried that experiment and it didn’t work. Beginning in the 1980s we dramatically increased the punishment for crime in the United States but we did so more by increasing sentence length than by increasing the probability of being punished. In theory, this should have reduced crime, reduced the costs of crime control and led to fewer people in prison. In practice, crime rose and then fell mostly for reasons other than imprisonment. Most spectacularly, the experiment with greater punishment led to more spending on crime control and many more people in prison.
Why did the experiment fail? Longer sentences didn’t reduce crime as much as expected because criminals aren’t good at thinking about the future; criminal types have problems forecasting and they have difficulty regulating their emotions and controlling their impulses. In the heat of the moment, the threat of future punishment vanishes from the calculus of decision. Thus, rather than deterring (much) crime, longer sentences simply filled the prisons. As if that weren’t bad enough, by exposing more people to criminal peers and by making it increasingly difficult for felons to reintegrate into civil society, longer sentences increased recidivism.

It's a great post by Tabarrok. He does give Becker, one of my economics idols, credit.

Let’s give Becker and the rational choice theory its due. When Becker first wrote many criminologists were flat out denying that punishment deterred. As late as 1994, for example, the noted criminologist David Bayley could write:
The police do not prevent crime. This is one of the best kept secrets of modern life. Experts know it, the police know it, but the public does not know it. Yet the police pretend that they are society’s best defense against crime. This is a myth
Inspired by Becker, a large, credible, empirical literature–including my own work on police (and prisons)–has demonstrated that this is no myth, the police deter. Score one for rational choice theory. It’s a far cry, however, from police deter to twenty years in prison deters twice as much as ten years in prison. The rational choice theory was pushed beyond its limits and in so doing not only was punishment pushed too far we also lost sight of alternative policies that could reduce crime without the social disruption and injustice caused by mass incarceration.

The problem with annual reviews in companies is not necessarily with an annual review process but with lack of immediate feedback in between those reviews. The most useful thing I learned from the 10,000 hour rule wasn't that you needed 10,000 hours to become an expert, it was that people improve with deliberate practice if feedback on their work is immediate.

For effective parenting and coaching, shorten the time between performance and feedback, and be consistent.

Crime and punishment

Longer sentences didn’t reduce crime as much as expected because criminals aren’t good at thinking about the future; criminal types have problems forecasting and they have difficulty regulating their emotions and controlling their impulses. In the heat of the moment, the threat of future punishment vanishes from the calculus of decision. Thus, rather than deterring (much) crime, longer sentences simply filled the prisons. As if that weren’t bad enough, by exposing more people to criminal peers and by making it increasingly difficult for felons to reintegrate into civil society, longer sentences increased recidivism.
Instead of thinking about criminals as rational actors, we should think about criminals as children. In this light, consider the “Becker approach” to parenting. Punishing children is costly so to reduce that cost, ignore a child’s bad behavior most of the time but when it’s most convenient give the kid a really good spanking or put them in time out for a very long time. Of course, this approach leads to disaster–indeed, it’s precisely this approach that leads to criminality in later life.
So what is the recommended parenting approach? I don’t want to get into a debate over spanking, timeouts, and reasoning but one thing all recommendations have in common is that the consequences for inappropriate behavior should be be quick, clear, and consistent. Quick responses help not just because children have “high discount rates” (better thought of as difficulty integrating their future selves into a consistent whole but “high discount rates” will do as short hand) but even more importantly because a quick response helps children to understand the relationship between behavior and consequence. Prior to Becker there was Becaaria and in Beccarian theory, people must learn to associate crime with punishment. When responses aren’t quick, children, just like scientists, have difficulty learning cause and effect. Quick is thus one way of lowering cognitive demands and making consequences clear.

Alex Tabarrok on what Gary Becker got wrong about crime and punishment. A great post with lots of broadly applicable wisdom.

I try to apply the same principle of quick, clear, and consistent to the feedback I provide to my teams at work. Much of white collar work, including product management, tends to have slow feedback loops. Often the time between when you come up with an idea and when it ships and elicits feedback from consumers is months. That means very little of that work falls into the category of deliberate practice. Post-mortems, if they even occur, take place long after the key decisions were made.

Some of that is unavoidable, but much of it just requires a change in habit as managers. If you have feedback to share with a team member, share it as soon as possible. Someone didn't lead a meeting as efficiently as possible? Grab them right after the meeting for a quick chat. Have a presentation ready? Practice on someone as soon as possible and gather their immediate feedback.

The higher the cadence of these practice and feedback loops, the more rapid the improvement. Not all such work can be transformed into deliberate practice, but the amount that can be is non-trivial.

For most people, delivering feedback at such a cadence does not feel comfortable or normal in a white collar work environment; it feels paternalistic, even arrogant, and it still does not come naturally to introverts like myself. Certainly many aren't ready to receive notes at such a cadence, either. Much of this may stem from underestimating the amount of rapid feedback and deliberate practice one spends time on in other crafts, like music, sports, cooking, and so on. Going to an arts school helps. I've never received as much feedback as frequently as I did in my undergraduate creative writing classes or in film school.

Reservoir of goodness

As a poetic companion to Justice Kennedy's majority opinion for marriage equality for SCOTUS today, read Andrew Sullivan's piece on the momentous ruling. A recollection, an appreciation, a victory lap, beautiful throughout.

In fact, we lost and lost and lost again. Much of the gay left was deeply suspicious of this conservative-sounding reform; two thirds of the country were opposed; the religious right saw in the issue a unique opportunity for political leverage – and over time, they put state constitutional amendments against marriage equality on the ballot in countless states, and won every time. Our allies deserted us. The Clintons embraced the Defense of Marriage Act, and their Justice Department declared that DOMA was in no way unconstitutional the morning some of us were testifying against it on Capitol Hill. For his part, president George W. Bush subsequently went even further and embraced the Federal Marriage Amendment to permanently ensure second-class citizenship for gay people in America. Those were dark, dark days.
I recall all this now simply to rebut the entire line of being “on the right side of history.” History does not have such straight lines. Movements do not move relentlessly forward; progress comes and, just as swiftly, goes. For many years, it felt like one step forward, two steps back. History is a miasma of contingency, and courage, and conviction, and chance.
But some things you know deep in your heart: that all human beings are made in the image of God; that their loves and lives are equally precious; that the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence has no meaning if it does not include the right to marry the person you love; and has no force if it denies that fundamental human freedom to a portion of its citizens.
We are not disordered or sick or defective or evil – at least no more than our fellow humans in this vale of tears. We are born into family; we love; we marry; we take care of our children; we die. No civil institution is related to these deep human experiences more than civil marriage and the exclusion of gay people from this institution was a statement of our core inferiority not just as citizens but as human beings. It took courage to embrace this fact the way the Supreme Court did today.

I turned on CNN in my hotel here in Italy after dinner tonight. I've watched maybe 15 minutes of television this entire month I've been traveling, distance and the preoccupations of exploring a foreign country have a way of making all news seem too local, but tonight I happened to catch Obama in the midst of his eulogy in Charleston, live. I will always stop to watch Obama speak in a black church, just to hear the cadence of the call and response, the ebb and flow, the dialogue of a communal consciousness.

In his speech, a remarkable and moving one, he referenced Marilynne Robinson's phrase “reservoir of goodness.” If we could just tap into that reservoir of goodness, he both urged and wondered, if we could just tap into that grace, what might be possible?

On this day of all days, the answer seemed to be: more than even Andrew Sullivan expected in his lifetime.

It is so ordered

Everyone is posting the same final two paragraphs from Justice Kennedy's majority opinion (page 33 in this PDF) affirming marriage equality. I will as well, because sometimes legalese rises beyond the mundane and ascends to the lyrical.

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered. 

A real world experiment in police enforcement

In the wake of the murders of two NYPD officers, arrests in NYC have plummeted.

Citations for traffic violations fell by 94 percent, from 10,069 to 587, during that time frame.

Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination also plunged 94 percent — from 4,831 to 300.

Even parking violations are way down, dropping by 92 percent, from 14,699 to 1,241.

Drug arrests by cops assigned to the NYPD’s Organized Crime Control Bureau — which are part of the overall number — dropped by 84 percent, from 382 to 63.

The latest official stats are here (PDF).

The police unions deny any coordinated work stoppage.

Mr. Bratton said on Monday that a “weeklong period of mourning” and demonstrations that were straining resources were contributing to the drop-off in arrests and summonses. But he said the slowdown should not concern New Yorkers. “I would point out it has not had an impact on the city’s safety at all,” Mr. Bratton said.

A top union official flatly denied that there was a job action and pointed to the orders to double up and the need to police demonstrations as the main reasons.

We rarely have such a stark change in public policy with which to analyze the effects in the real world. This is a case where a crude A/B test jump-started itself in the real world (it would be more useful if it were only specific precincts within NYC that saw this decline in arrests rather than all of them, but we can still look at the effects across cities). It will be interesting to look back in a few weeks and see if there are any new conclusions to be drawn about the broken windows policy.

Serial and the flaw in the design of our criminal system

Great piece by NY public defender Sarah Lustbader about a crucial bug in the design of our criminal system, one she argues that Serial could have put a spotlight on.

In our judicial system, two equal opponents argue zealously for their side, right? 

Actually, that common-sense belief is completely wrong. Prosecutors in the United States occupy a special role, charged not only with protecting society from crime but also with protecting the defendant from an unfair trial. According to the American Bar Association, a prosecutor “has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate.”


I’m a public defender, and when I begin a case, I often know my client’s side of the story and nothing else. The prosecutor, by contrast, usually has access to police investigations, witnesses, forensics, and, after indictment, grand jury testimony. We have no legal right to that material until much later, most of it only on the eve of trial. 


The Supreme Court ruled in the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland that if a prosecutor comes across evidence that is potentially exculpatory — a witness recantation, a negative DNA match — that evidence must be turned over to the defense. Unfortunately, the Brady rule is violated at a rate Federal Judge Alex Kozinski called “an epidemic.” In 2009, the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Wrongful Convictions found the practices of police or prosecutors — including several Brady violations — might have led to wrongful convictions in 31 of the 53 cases examined.

I had no idea this was how our criminal system is supposed to work, but I'm just as unsurprised most prosecutors don't adhere to their legal duty to seek justice rather than just seek to win a conviction. It's crazy to expect humans to be able to optimize for two goals which may be in opposition.

Lustbader identifies a possible solution.

One partial fix to this problem would be open-file discovery, a system allowing defense access to the state’s entire file throughout the case (adjusting for witness safety). This system would ease the burden on prosecutors to play contradictory roles as judge and adversary, a combination that NYU Law Professor Rachel Barkow has called “the most significant design flaw in the federal criminal system.”

Open files would improve and accelerate plea bargaining, allowing defendants to make informed decisions, instead of the blind game of chicken we currently play. “If we were designing a government from scratch and knew that prosecutors were the final adjudicators in 97 percent of the cases, there is no way we’d let them make those determinations in secret,” Barkow said in an e-mail.

Recall Linus's Law: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Open-file discovery seems like a helpful step towards some legal equivalent. 

Lustbader's piece was a real eye-opener for me. However, I don't fault the folks behind Serial for not having locked in on this single aspect of the our justice system as the podcast's central theme. Koenig and team stated that they were figuring things out as they went along. Many of us have, myself included, took a long time to realize they weren't kidding. The way the first episode or two unfolded, we couldn't believe that they didn't know how things were going to end.

The whole thing was reminiscent of a mystery narrative, but it's become clear with the past few episodes that it really was more of a narrative of the reporting process, of just how many false starts and dead ends one encounters when trying to unravel the truth in real life, whether as a reporter or a criminal lawyer or investigator.

When the twelfth and final episode of season one of Serial posts in just a short while, I doubt we'll have any tidy conclusion as to Adnan's true guilt or innocence. Some listeners will be disappointed because they thought the podcast was one thing when it was something else entirely, but the next time around, both Koenig and team and listeners will have clearer expectations from the outset.

The stunning grand jury decision in Ferguson

A St. Louis County grand jury on Monday decided not to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police Officer Darren Wilson in the August killing of teenager Michael Brown. The decision wasn’t a surprise — leaks from the grand jury had led most observers to conclude an indictment was unlikely — but it was unusual. Grand juries nearly always decide to indict.

Or at least, they nearly always do so in cases that don’t involve police officers.

Former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

That's via FiveThirtyEight. Those are federal numbers, and this case was heard in state, so it's not a perfect comp, but speaking to my sister and other lawyers, failure to get an indictment is still extremely rare.

Despite the grand jury leaks, somehow I held out hope, perhaps naively, that they'd still decide to indict.

The prosecutor had long said that he'd release evidence if the grand jury failed to reach an indictment, but the judge has not agreed to it yet

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCullough has repeatedly stated that he would obtain a court order to unseal grand jury evidence, an unusual step that was seen as an attempt to defuse potential anger over the decision. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story on Nov. 23, St. Louis County Court Administrator Paul Fox said Judge Carolyn Whittington had agreed to grant the request.

But Fox described the paraphrased quote attributed to him as “not accurate,” in a letter released after the story, and said Whittington had not made an agreement to release grand jury evidence and that any requests “will require the Court to analyze the need for maintaining secrecy of the records with the need for public disclosure of the records.”

It's perhaps self-serving on the part of the prosecutor, a way to show he did everything possible to secure an indictment, but let's hope the judge agrees to release the evidence. Even without that, given the grand jury transcripts that have already been released and the full sum of reporting that has already been donee, I'd love to see a Serial-like podcast from a lawyer or criminal law expert walking through the events on the night of the shooting and the subsequent investigation and court case.

Twitter is somewhat of a comfort now, a way to feel connected to the collective anguish of much of the country, but in a few months, maybe sooner, some will start tweeting "Remember Ferguson?" as some collective reprimand of our short term memory. Very soon, 140 character outbursts won't be enough, and that's where a longer form medium like a serial podcast would feel more appropriate.