It’s time to erase the Thin Blue Line. (part 1 of 3)

On March 21, 2009 in Oakland, California, Lovelle Mixon killed two police officers on a routine traffic stop, and then two further officers who attempted to apprehend him during a SWAT raid.

On November 29, 2009, four police officers in Lakewood, Washington were murdered by Maurice Clemmons at a coffee shop while they worked on laptops.

On July 7, 2016, in Dallas, Texas, Micah Xavier Johnson killed five cops and wounded nine others in an ambush designed explicitly to kill white police officers as retaliation for what he felt were unlawful killings of black men.

All three of these perpetrators were black. All of the murdered cops were white.

On October 12, 2019, in Fort Worth, Texas, Atatiana Jefferson was murdered by Officer Aaron Dean who shot her through her bedroom window while she was in her house playing video games with her nephew.

On April 4, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina, Walter Scott was murdered by Officer Michael Slager who shot him five times in the back while he was running away.

On October 20, 2014, in Chicago, Illinois, Laquan MacDonald was murdered by Officer Jason Van Dyke who shot him sixteen times, fifteen of those while he was laying on the ground unmoving.

All three of these victims were black. All three of these officers were white.

Why are these shootings so important? What do they all have in common? What makes them all so contentious and so critical to our understanding of the issues our nation is currently facing? Why is the race of both the perpetrators and the victims in all six of these cases of vital importance?

In this article I’m going to talk about police officers, the Black Lives Matter movement, and society as a whole. I’m going to discuss the problems with each of these organizations along with the perspective that each has for the other. Parts of this article are going to be difficult for some people to read, especially if you are the type of person who is dead-set in your opinions, with no ability to keep an open mind. If you’re that type of person, you might as well quit reading right now because this is a long article, and agreeing with everything I say that matches your current view of the world while scoffing at everything I say that is at odds with your current beliefs serves absolutely nobody, including yourself. I ask only that you keep an open mind, read through everything, and discuss with each other and myself anything you may not agree with. My goal with this article is to help pull us back from what I see as a precariously balanced position on the edge of a chasm that is growing exponentially wider and deeper. It won’t be long before we as a society tumble into that chasm with no chance to drag ourselves out. This article was heavily researched and in these days of so much fake news, I believe all of my sources are considered quite credible and well-vetted for authenticity. There are links in the text for everything I’m citing, and all sources are listed at the end of the article.

Before I get started, I want to explain something about the police profession. No matter what your opinion of the police, you have to admit that it is not an easy job. It’s the only job I can think of where you can do everything right and still lose everything that matters to you as a consequence of your actions. It’s the only job where the same people you will put your life at risk for hate you for it. It’s the only profession where true mistakes in decision-making can get you sued for everything you own, fired from your job, and prosecuted criminally. As an example, according to a study by Johns Hopkins University, doctors kill more than 250,000 people every year through medical mistakes. A quarter of a million fatalities because of bad decisions every single year! Somehow this rarely gets mentioned. I would bet that you had no idea it was this many. I know I didn’t. Society understands that doctors do a very difficult job under high stress and that they have to make the best possible decision in a snap moment. We know that medicine isn’t perfect and doctors do the best they can, so we shrug off statistics like this and go about our day. Police officers have the same problem, but people don’t seem to understand or accept that. Police officers are expected to be perfect every time, to make the right decision 100% of the time, to never make an error in judgement, often in snap decisions under high stress conditions, in poor weather, darkness, and completely chaotic circumstances where information may be incomplete or even intentionally false. Police officers kill 1000 people every year and only a handful of those are accidental, malicious, or illegal. Doctors kill 250 times as many, and all of them are accidental, malicious, or illegal. Police officers receive incredible press and scrutiny for these deaths. Doctors complain that their malpractice insurance is too high.

Police departments and public officials want their police forces to closely resemble the racial makeup of their city or county, and there are many good reasons for this that mostly have to do with public perception. Predominantly black neighborhoods want predominantly black officers patrolling their streets and responding to their problems. But this manifests into even more problems. This kind of selective recruitment makes our departments dumber. I don’t mean departments are dumber because black officers are dumber. I mean they’re dumber because this type of race-based hiring means that better-qualified candidates are passed over for lesser-qualified candidates simply because they check a race box. Think this isn’t true? According to an article in the New York Times, there are hundreds of police departments across the country that have more than a 30% positive disparity between white officers and the number of white citizens in the community they serve. Police departments have been actively trying to shrink this disparity for decades because of studies that have shown there is a huge image problem when departments are racially out of sync with the composition of their communities.  This means that they are very often taking extraordinary steps to both hire and, more importantly, to retain officers simply because of their race. This is a dangerous practice when we’re talking about giving someone the power to take your freedom away. Or your life. Police departments should be striving to attract and hire the most intelligent critical thinker and decision maker possible. Bypassing a candidate who scored higher on the civil service test for one who scored lower but is of a certain skin color cannot be good for the quality of the department. Retaining an officer who routinely shows poor judgement or decision-making skills, or passing them through field training just so you have that percentage to an acceptable level is incredibly detrimental to public safety. And this is happening all over the country every day.

When police officers are hired, they’re sent to the police academy where they theoretically learn a massive number of things needed in order to enforce the laws of the land and keep the peace. One of the biggest focuses of the academy is officer safety. Recruits are inundated with a barrage of videos showing officers being murdered in the line of duty. This is a problem because it sets a mindset in the recruit. It tells them that the streets are dangerous, and that’s true, but it makes that cop think that everybody is out to get them. It establishes an ingrained doctrine of fear when it comes to dealing with the public. Recruits are taught how to use instruments of force like pepper spray, tasers, and asps or batons. They spend a hundred hours or more learning firearms. They spend dozens of hours learning defensive tactics like pressure points, limb control maneuvers, and hand-to-hand combat techniques. They also learn how to follow orders. They learn military-like policies and procedures. They learn how and when to salute, how to address a superior officer, how to stand at attention. They learn how to follow orders and they’re taught to not question orders from superiors during critical incidents. They learn how to act in a quasi-military command structure that doesn’t allow dissenting opinions.

This last statement is a huge problem in modern policing.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times bestselling book, Outliers, he describes a study into a strange phenomenon in aviation. Asian and Latin American based airlines were crashing. A lot. Korean Airlines was leading the pack, experiencing a deluge of fatal disasters, and the underlying cause of these crashes was a mystery. Investigators knew from flight recorders that pilot error was a major factor, but why they were experiencing such a huge number of pilot-caused crashes was perplexing. And the crash frequencies were atrocious. In 1977, a KAL 707 wandered into Russian airspace and was shot down. Two years later, a 747 crashed in Seoul. Three years after that, another 747 crashed in Russia, then a 707 went down in the Andaman Sea in 1987. Two planes crashed in 1989, one in Tripoli and another in Seoul, and then yet another crash in 1994 in Cheju, South Korea, followed by a 747 that slammed into a hillside in Guam in 1997. For perspective Gladwell goes on to report a comparison using United Airlines. Between 1988 and 1998, the UAL crash rate was .27 fatality incidents per million departures, or about one crash for every 4 million flights. In that same period, the crash rate for Korean Airlines was 4.79 per million departures, almost 18 times higher than a comparable US airline!

The question was, why? There was no obvious answer. Pilot training was up to standards. The planes were not outdated and maintenance records showed that all maintenance was performed as per regulations. If you haven’t read Outliers, I highly recommend it, and the story for how this unfolds is incredibly interesting, but the answer to why Korean Airlines was experiencing such a high crash rate had to do with the hierarchical nature of Korean society, in particular with mitigated speech in the cockpit. In Korean culture, deference to authority is so deeply ingrained into the psyche, that it was inevitable that it would carry over into the cockpit. Interestingly, investigators looking for an answer to the crash rate found that most of the KAL crashes occurred when the captain was flying the plane as opposed to the first officer. At first this seemed ridiculous. How could the more experienced pilot be responsible for more crashes? The answer was that when the captain made a mistake, the first officer was, almost without exception, afraid to speak up. In fact, he was culturally unable to speak up. Doing so would have been tantamount to questioning the authority of the captain, an unthinkable act in a culture like Korea. If the first officer was flying and made a mistake, the captain would immediately speak up and take control of the plane. In fact, studies found incidents where captains would actually slap their first officers across the face if they made a mistake! And the first officers would bow and feel ashamed to have disappointed their superior. This seems absurd to western society, but was commonplace and completely accepted in Asian society.

The only recourse a first officer had if they saw the captain making an error was to hint around the issue. Things like, “Boy, trying to deice these wings seems like a losing battle sometimes” when the first officer has noticed an alarming amount of ice building on the wing. Or, “Our weather radar sure is useful, isn’t it Captain?” when the first officer has noticed they were about to fly headlong into a dangerous thunderstorm. Or, “It’s amazing how accurate these fuel gauges can be.” when the first officer noted the plane was dangerously low on fuel. As absurd as these examples might seem, these are the types of mitigated statements that investigators found in black box recordings during crash investigations. And it wasn’t just Asian based flight crews either. Latin American flight crews were experiencing similar problems, as with the crash of Avianca flight 52 from Medellín, Columbia to New York City in 1990. This Boeing 707 literally ran out of fuel on approach to JFK because the copilot used mitigated speech in his conversations with the control tower despite the captain telling him to declare an emergency. The tower was completely unaware of their low fuel state as the controller ordered them to circle out for a long approach to landing. The tower remained unaware of the fuel state right up until the moment both engines flamed out and they crashed, killing two-thirds of the passengers onboard.

After these findings, combating mitigating speech became one of the great crusades in commercial aviation. Cockpit Resource Management or CRM training was first initiated by United Airlines in 1981. Slowly, this training migrated to other parts of the world including Asia and Latin America. This training was later renamed Crew Resource Management, and Delta Airlines developed a comprehensive course on the subject in 1993. Mitigated speech is just one of many components of CRM training which is heavily focused on error management, but it also teaches junior officers how to be assertive, clear, and concise in their communications with the captain. It teaches flight crews how to work together in a hierarchical system and standardizes procedures for all of them when something goes wrong. First officers are allowed one attempt to use mitigated speech to address an error, but they quickly escalate that to clear and concise speech, followed by arresting physical control of the aircraft from the captain to correct the error. A decade prior, this type of action would have been unthinkable in Asian and Latin American aviation. This kind of training changed aviation for the better. Korean Airlines went from an airline that was a national disgrace and was under a State Department warning for U.S. travelers, to one of the safest airlines in the industry, with a spotless safety record for more than twenty years now.

Much of what we know of culturally significant hierarchical issues comes from studies done by Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede. He created what’s known as Hofstede’s Power Distance Index (PDI). This measures a country’s attitude toward hierarchy and how much they value and respect authority. In low PDI countries, power is something they’re almost ashamed of, something they try to downplay at every possibility. In higher PDI countries, authority is shoved down an underling’s throat, and they are happy to accept verbal and even physical abuse by superiors. The lowest PDI countries are Austria, Israel, and Denmark, all with a score under 20. The highest PDI countries are Malaysia, Guatemala, and Panama, with scores of 104, 95, and 95 respectively. The United States scores a 40, making it the 15th lowest country score. South Korea scored a 60 and Columbia a 67, putting those two countries well above the median score.

So, what does all this have to do with police work? Well, police departments in the United States are a rigid, top-tier hierarchy inside a rather low PDI country. Police chiefs in Malaysia and Guatemala have no issues with teaching police recruits order, control, and chain of command respect because the citizens recruits are quite comfortable in that role. In the United States however, that subservience often has to be drilled into recruits and cadets, and that conditioning begins even before a new hire is sent to the police academy. It is such a pain to teach this kind of conformity and deference to superior officers, that police departments are very over-represented in their ranks by former military veterans. This is intentional and even desired. Military members are very comfortable with authority and power structures. They are grounded in subservience to superiors, a core part of military life. This quality is so desired in police departments that preference points are given to former military members during recruitment. That’s right—smarter more qualified candidates are often passed over in favor of candidates who served in the military and were honorably discharged.

Is this a problem? Yes. I believe this is one of the biggest problems in policing today. Let’s take a look at the killing of George Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin in Minnesota a couple of weeks ago.  As we all know, Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, an action that seems to have at least contributed to his death if it wasn’t the actual proximate cause. For this action, Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and third-degree manslaughter. Three other officers were involved in this incident, and they’ve all been charged with aiding and abetting Chauvin in both of those felony crimes. The other three officers are Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Keung, and Tou Thao. We’re going to talk about hierarchical structures in police work so it’s important to understand who was in charge of whom on this crew of four officers. And, unfortunately, that’s not entirely clear. What is clear is that Derek Chauvin was the senior officer on the scene with almost nineteen years of service. Tou Thao had eight years on the job, and Keung and Lane were both rookies, with six months or so on the job for Keung and apparently only four days for Lane. What’s interesting is that there seems to be some real discrepancies here, particularly with regard to Keung and Lane. There are conflicting reports about Keung’s time of service, with some reports that he was hired in February of 2019 but that he graduated the academy in December 2019, though his lawyer has made the claim that this was only his third week as an actual patrol officer. No matter what’s true here, there’s no doubt he was a rookie with no more than six months on the job. The real issue is that all reports I’ve read from the city and from the prosecutor’s office, including the charging documents for all four officers and the probable cause statements indicate that Keung and Lane were patrolling together in the same car when they responded to the initial call. The records also indicate that Chauvin was Keung’s training officer, but nobody seems to know who Lane’s training officer was. It seems clear from the video evidence and written reports that Derek Chauvin arrived in the car with Tou Thao several minutes after Keung and Lane had arrived and had already taken Floyd into custody. None of that makes any sense whatsoever. There’s literally no department ever that would have two brand-new rookies riding in a car together with their training officers in a different car, and there’s zero indication that Lane, who was on his FOURTH DAY ON THE JOB even had a training officer on the scene. It’s really bizarre, but we’ll just have to ignore this unexplainable phenomenon until MPD decides to clear it up for us.

None of the officers were official supervisors, that’s not in doubt. There was no sergeant or lieutenant on the scene when the incident occurred. When there are no supervisors on a scene, the most senior officer is almost always the one who has tactical command of the scene. Even in departments where this isn’t the case, Lane, with four days on (if that’s indeed correct,) and Keung with six months on (same caveat) would have deferred to Chauvin. Even Thao with eight years on the job would have possibly deferred to him, though certainly to a much lesser extent. Eight years on the job makes an officer “experienced,” “a veteran,” and Chauvin and Thao would have likely considered each other near equals in the scheme of the hierarchy. For Lane and Keung though, this would definitely have not been the case. Those two would have deferred to either of the others and would have followed orders almost blindly. Now, don’t get me wrong, they’re not Nazis in Hitler’s military and wouldn’t have pulled out their pistols and executed all Jew witnesses on Chauvin’s order, but they would have followed all “lawful” orders, and would in fact have been expected to do so, under the implied threat of punishment up to and including suspension or termination.

Police departments are quasi-military organizations with full command structures. Things like insubordination, lying, failing to follow orders, violating grooming standards, malfeasance, failing to adhere to uniform standards, failing to follow protocol, disrespecting a senior officer, are all grounds for discipline up to and including termination. On the Hofstede PDI scale, while the United States is a low-end 40, police departments themselves would be well over 100, just below actual military ranks. Senior police officers have the authority to give orders to junior officers, and junior officers are required to follow those orders—as long as they’re reasonable and lawful—without questioning them. Obediently and blindly. This is especially important in police departments when they’re on an active scene or a call. This obedience is drilled into recruits right from the beginning.

When a police officer applies for the position, they go through a battery of tests and background checks often performed by specialized cops. Interviews with an oral board and with senior command, polygraph, medical, psychological testing, all conducted with superiors who expect the recruit to treat them deferentially, with “yes, sir,” and “no, sir,” responses. When the academy starts, students are expected to adhere to a rigid set of guidelines that include saluting the flag as well as instructors, and jumping to attention whenever anybody who might be even a lowly rookie commissioned officer steps into their presence. They’re required to maintain perfect grooming standards with regular inspections for meticulously ironed and creased uniforms and shoes polished to a mirrored finish. They’re required to stand for inspection with yelling officers routinely, and to maintain a perfectly organized dorm room at all times. Everything from the very beginning of the training is highly militarized and hierarchical, and any sort of rebellion is quashed immediately. This is done under the umbrella of the importance of (almost) blindly and obediently following supervisors’ orders during an active, high-pressure scene where lives are on the line. And, there’s certainly some justification for this rationale. There is no democratic process during an active scene, and trainees are taught to obey orders immediately and ask questions later. Asking why a given order was made during a debriefing is thought of as a good learning experience—a training opportunity—but it’s never allowed in the moment.

If a superior officer tells a junior officer to “arrest that man,” the junior officer will put the man in handcuffs without having any idea why he’s doing so. This is absolutely compulsory. Officers are taught to trust their superiors, and even to trust their partners of similar or even lesser status. If Officer A tells Officer B to arrest a subject, Officer B trusts that Officer A has probable cause for the arrest, regardless of his experience, and even if Officer B doesn’t know what that probable cause is.

This can even extend as far as applying force against a suspect, up to, and even including deadly force. I happen to know that there are training officers in academies who suggest that if your partner fires his weapon at a suspect, you should fire yours at him as well, because you should trust that your partner saw a valid reason to shoot. This is pretty atrocious, but it has been taught. A more plausible scenario, and one that gives cops nightmares because of the potential ramifications to blind decision-making, is what if your partner yells at you, “Shoot him! Shoot him, he’s got a gun!” What do you do then, if you don’t see a gun? What if its your sergeant or your training officer who’s yelling that to you? What if you’re a rookie, on your fourth day on the job, and you hear that order? What do you do? Are you willing to put your career, your freedom, your house, your family, maybe your life on the line because of pure trust that a fellow officer has made a good observation and a good decision? There is no clear answer to this, and no training can prepare you to make decisions like this. You are forced to make a snap judgement call in a situation where either decision might end in a fatality at your hands.

Back to the death of George Floyd. Charging documents indicate that on two occasions, Officer Lane asked Derek Chauvin if they should ease up on Floyd and roll him to his side. Here’s an excerpt from the probable cause statement for the charging document for Officer Lane:

You can see that Lane is concerned. He’s aware of the dangers of excited delirium, a condition that can cause death after vigorous, strenuous, or stressful exertion in combination with drugs or medical issues. He’s probably also aware of positional asphyxia, a condition where a person may not be able to breathe while flat on their stomach. He asks Chauvin, a training officer with 19 years on the job, if they should roll him to his side. He mentions excited delirium. Chauvin assures him that he’s considered that possibility and having Floyd on his stomach is the best position. Lane is presumably fresh out of the police academy where he has learned all about excited delirium. He has been taught that when excited delirium is a concern, the subject should be placed on their side. But now Chauvin is telling him that he’s keeping Floyd on his stomach precisely because of concerns over excited delirium.

Nobody but Lane can know what he’s thinking right here, but we can speculate. When a police recruit graduates the academy and hits the streets with the training officer, its very common for the training officer to make some sort of statement along the lines of, “You’ve learned how police work should be done by the book, now you’re going to learn how its ACTUALLY done.” It seems likely that Lane is running his mind back to what was probably about a 15-minute slide show or lecture on excited delirium. 15 minutes out of 800-1000 hours of training. He’s thinking to himself, “Damn, am I wrong? I thought they said put him on his side, but maybe it was leave him on his stomach.” More importantly, he’s got a 19-year officer telling him that they’re doing the right thing, and Lane has been on the job FOR FOUR DAYS!

This is a tough position for a rookie to be in. Don’t get me wrong, at some point Lane should have INSISTED that they roll him, ease the pressure holds on him, and even start life-saving measures like CPR. Particularly when Officer Keung checked for a pulse and COULDN’T FIND ONE! Their failure to step up here is a truly massive breakdown of civic and legal responsibility. They deserve some blame for this. However, THE SYSTEM also deserves blame. Although officers are taught that they have a “Duty to intercede” in training, this mandate is often in conflict with their duty to follow orders. It’s rarely black and white, particularly when an order seems like it might be dangerous but maybe doesn’t rise to the level where duty to intercede would be invoked.

What Officer Lane did was to make MITIGATED STATEMENTS to Officer Chauvin, just like the junior pilots did in all of the Korean Air flights that crashed. “Should we roll him onto his side?” is a suggestion. It’s a mitigated question designed to express concern while remaining deferential to the superior knowledge and tactical awareness of the much more experienced officer. This is the same thing as, “Boy, trying to deice these wings seems like a losing battle sometimes,” that the pilot of the doomed Korean airliner said to his captain. “I’m concerned about excited delirium or whatever,” was his next statement. Note the “or whatever.” This is mitigation in its extreme form. He’s telling the superior officer that he’s concerned, and he knows he’s already expressed that concern once, so this feels like escalation to him. He’s uncomfortable with escalation so he mitigates it with the “or whatever.” Now he’s expressed his concern twice and he’s been overruled both times. It’s expressly because of the inflexibly rigid structure of command hierarchy drilled into them throughout their training that Lane and Keung did not feel as if they could override Chauvin’s decision. This is why Lane stopped at his two mitigated statements. This is why Keung stopped at his single mitigated statement, “I couldn’t find one,” in reference to having checked Floyd for a pulse.

Its frustrating as observers to see these officer stop here, knowing that had they taken action at any point in here, Floyd would be alive today. And while they have a huge share of the blame here, perhaps even the lion’s share, I can’t help but assign a large portion of blame to the system that drilled this culture of mitigation into them.

Crew Resource Management in the airlines has forced a cockpit culture that has eliminated these types of problems, and an unknown but significant number of lives has certainly been saved because of it. Pilots are allowed one mitigated statement of concern. If the senior officer doesn’t act on that first statement, they are required to forcibly state their concern and the remedy they deem necessary. If the senior officer STILL doesn’t act, the pilot is required by policy to physically take control of the aircraft and make the necessary correction. If police officers had a policy like this, Officer Lane would have felt comfortable changing his second statement to a more forceful, “Hey, Derek, get your knee off his neck and let’s roll him, I think he’s actually in serious trouble here.” Had Chauvin still refused to move his knee, Officer Lane would have been fully justified and confident in physically shoving him to the side and taking control of the situation.

With the current training, there was almost no chance that was going to happen. And that’s tragic, as we all know from not just George Floyd’s death, but from the disastrous aftermath. Lane made the best decision he could with the training provided to him. It’s his training that was lacking. Officer Lane’s attorney agrees:

“I’m not claiming that he was following orders,” (Lane’s attorney,) Gray said in response to a question from CNN’s Josh Campbell. “I’m claiming that he thought what he was doing was right. Because he asked a training officer: ‘Should we roll him over?’ Twice. You’ve got to have criminal intent for second-degree murder. And, frankly, this is bullshit.”

There are other problems with officer training that I’m going to spend time discussing later, but I want to move on for now and discuss the great divide in this country between police supporters and Black Lives Matter supporters who seem to be completely at odds with one another. A line has been drawn in the sand, and it has never been more defined or sharper. You either side with the cops or you side with BLM, and there is no middle ground. If you side with the police, BLM supporters brand you a racist. If you side with BLM, police supporters dismiss you out of hand. If you try to straddle the line, or try to articulate support or criticism of both sides, or try to claim you’re neutral on the issue, both sides will ridicule you. It is, however, without question the fringe left that is the most vitriolic with their criticism of dissenting opinion. If you try to bring logic, reasoning, rational thought, or science and data into the argument with someone from the far left, you’ll be told in no uncertain terms to shut your racist mouth. You’ll be told that you’re white, brimming to overflowing with the privilege that comes with your skin color, and that your opinion has no place in these discussions. The country has descended into irrational madness driven by the spurious screaming of the culturally woke, and there is no room for logical, fact-based argument. Well, I for one do not accept this. I do not conform to what I view as a massive competition to prove who can show the world that they’re the least racist person out there. All information has become weaponized. Confirmation bias is destroying objectivity. When logic, science, and data are discarded for emotion-based irrational and unending action, then we find ourselves teetering on the brink of a chasm of destruction, and rational voices are necessary to pull us back.

In order to make things right in this country, it’s going to require the cooperation of the police, the African American community, and society in general. A three-pronged approach, and I’m not talking about the approaches that have already been tried and have failed. I’m talking about a new approach, one that has never been implemented. One that will be incredibly difficult to actualize partly because of the extraordinary community cooperation required, but mostly because of the anarchical barbarians of extremism who have deluged both the mainstream media news cycle and social media with their irrational and preposterous screaming.

In the next article, I’m going to talk about the role of police departments, Black Lives Matter, and society using a social model known as the Karpman Drama Triangle. Read part two by clicking HERE: https://wp.me/p7aEcB-xI

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