Hey, hey, ho, ho, John Thompson's got to go.
Translated into the rhetorical style of the times, that was the message of an agitated (but mostly peaceful) swarm of DFL leaders last week, led by Gov. Tim Walz in chanting, day after day, for state Rep. John Thompson to resign his seat in the Minnesota House.
So far, Thompson has declined, still defiant and accusatory, as seems to be his personal rhetorical style, denying allegations, remote and recent, of domestic abuse, disorderly conduct, ugly threats and other disqualifications.
But the tragicomedy of Thompson's one brief, whining moment in the political limelight may actually have several valuable lessons to teach.
First, it can serve as a reminder that the decay of our political party establishments and their institutional powers — the parties' resulting vulnerability to being hijacked by radicals and hooligans, from Trump to Thompson, you might say — is a far greater threat to our democracy than the supposed "voter suppression" and "election fraud" with which our feverish political factions are obsessed.
Second, Thompson's comeuppance illustrates some less obvious benefits of body-worn camera technology for police — its potential not only to hold police accountable, but to protect them from false accusations.
On voting issues, Democrats appear to see political opportunity, which seldom depends on logic. They commonly declare that the 2020 election was the most secure, fair and precise ever conducted. Yet they also seem to believe that this flawless plebiscite produced several dozen state governments that are on a crazed mission to abolish free government itself, making voting impossible for multitudes. President Joe Biden recently called it "the most significant test to our democracy since the Civil War. That's not hyperbole.Since the Civil War."
No word yet as to when Biden will suspend habeas corpus and start jailing disloyal newspaper editors, as Lincoln did in his similar crisis. But while I'm still at large, I beg to differ: This is not just hyperbole, but hysteria.
No doubt some of the rule-tightening measures passed or considered in Republican legislatures have been excessive. There is no sound reason to believe that irregularities played any important role in the outcome of the 2020 presidential vote. And Republican worries about voter fraud have for years been disproportionate, if not disingenuous.
But equally, the stricter voting rules advanced this year seldom seem to threaten the republic; they often involve partly rolling back liberalizations made just a year ago, supposedly in response to the pandemic and sometimes without legislative input. We're mostly talking about reduced days or hours for early voting, voter identification requirements, tighter standards for no-excuse mail-in voting, and so on.
Must democracy perish wherever drive-thru voting is curtailed?
Thompson's flameout sheds some light here. His undoing began, you'll recall, when he publicly denounced a St. Paul police officer for a July 4 traffic stop. This led to the revelation that Thompson does not possess a Minnesota driver's license, but rather a Wisconsin license, and to uncertainty, still unresolved, as to whether he resides in the St. Paul district he represents, or even in Minnesota.
Challenged on this point, DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon protested that his office lacks the "investigative or law enforcement powers" needed to verify where candidates reside.
OK. But in that case, what remains of routine assertions that Minnesota's election system is airtight, rendering ridiculous the slightest concern about ineligible voting— including same day registration, under which unregistered voters lacking identification can show a utility bill or have a neighbor vouch for them?
It turns out we can't even be sure our elected officials are eligible.
Meanwhile, if the alarms raised on both sides of the elections debate are overblown, police accountability is an urgent concern where any progress is welcome. The advent of body-worn cameras (BWC) for police in recent years (along with other proliferating sources of images) has brought a revolutionary increase in the evidence available to scrutinize police interactions with citizens, as in the George Floyd murder case.
The most obvious hope is that BWC will make it easier to detect officer misconduct. But advocates have also promoted the technology's potential for exonerating innocent officers. And just as it's hoped the watchful eye of BWC might improve police behavior, it's also possible that it could discourage dishonest complaints.
Thompson's trouble began with his allegations about a traffic stop. It was the fact that BWC footage existed to prove the cop in question did nothing wrong that equipped St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell to call Thompson out, which in turn set off his unraveling.
In a world with BWC, in short, falsely accusing police can be risky.
Yet this is one unusual case. Is BWC more broadly living up to its promises? A study published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, from scholars at American University, Stockton University and Georgia State, reveals encouraging data.
The researchers looked at more than 2,000 citizen complaints filed against the Chicago Police Department before and after BWC was introduced. Overall, they found that 20% of complaints were "sustained" with a finding of some level of officer misconduct, while in roughly 40% of the incidents there was insufficient evidence to determine what had happened. (Cops were cleared another 40% of the time.)
A key finding was that, after BWC was deployed, complaints were much more likely to be "sustained" than when no body camera images were available. The increase was evident among Black, white and Hispanic complainants alike.
Important racial differences surfaced when the researchers looked at the frequency of complaints ending unresolved because of inadequate evidence. Predictably, after cameras were deployed, fewer complaints went unresolved among all groups. But the decline in insufficient-evidence cases was especially large among Black complainants, suggesting to the researchers that "Black complainants were not given the same level of consideration as White complainants before the deployment of BWCs in Chicago, and BWC technology is an effective tool in minimizing the racial disparity. ..."
In addition, the researchers note that a range of studies suggest "the impact of BWC technology on citizen complaints does seem positive." That is, overall complaints of police misdeeds decline after BWC is introduced.
But, the researchers note, "[t]he question remains ... whether the decrease in citizen complaints is because of changes in police behavior (i.e., officers know they are being recorded and BWCs produce a 'civilizing effect') or because citizens are less likely to file false complaints due to the availability of video evidence."
Let's hope it's some of both.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.