Reading about the Flint charges

Any time there is a major story on Flint, I find myself checking the Detroit newspapers to see the local coverage.  The Free Press had a story on just how rare the charges are:

There first thing that I found surprising that the charges aren’t linked to the lead in the water, but to the related problems that led to a Legionnaire’s Disease case that was a result of water treatment issues.

The main point of the article, however, was that officials being prosecuted for endangering public health is very rare, while prosecutions for corruption are fairly normal.  Yet both are fundamentally failures to live up to public trust.

Perhaps it’s a little easier to make the line to pressing charges when the case is “He or she took a suitcase full of cash,” than it is to make the case with “He  or she knew this was serious and didn’t make the phone call they should have made.”

Or is there something else at work here?  As a scientist, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea of criminalizing a mistake in professional judgement.  The scientific community was deeply upset by the prosecution of geologists for “failing” to state the dangers of the after-shock of an earthquake in Italy a few years ago.

Do we artificially extend the protection we should give to scientific judgement to cover moral judgement?  This seems to me to be linked to why this is considered unusual .


3 Replies to “Reading about the Flint charges”

  1. Your BLOG touches on many things. It includes professional responsibilities and consequences. It also touches on the very nature of crime and punishment. What is the standard for crossing the line from incompetence to mistake to reckless to endangerment. I would throw in another dimension as well. There are criminal standards. There are ethical standards and then there ate moral standards. Immoral is the idea that most people in society would agree the behavior (or lack thereof) is wrong. Violate this and you may be shunned and shamed. Unethical is the next level up for professionals. As a professional, you acknowledge and recognize professional ethics, which is a higher standard than immoral. Violate this and you lose your profession and job. The highest standard is of course criminal. Violate this and you can get fines and prison. Maybe we need to do a better job unpacking the criminal and ethical? An engineering mistake might not be criminal in nature, but an individual making a big enough mistake might need their ability to ever work as an engineer again forever denied for public safety..

  2. Great article. I hadn’t seen it. One thing to note: City of Flint and State of MI government employees have, indeed, been charged for conduct that relates to the lead contamination (see, for example, At the same time, it’s interesting to think about how exposure to lead and exposure to legionella bacteria can be markedly different in terms of a) visible signs of harm and b) testing that confirms exposure. Without having any legal expertise but from what I’ve read, I too get the sense that proving a direct relationship in court between employee (mis)conduct and public health harm might be challenging (or, at the very least, contestable). However, at what point does a “mistake in professional judgment” look more like an intentional, concerted, and organized effort by multiple employees to ignore, misinterpret, explain away, and/or hide a) regulatory requirements, b) clear indications of contamination, and c) visible signs of public health harm? In the DC case, in the period between 1994 (when the Aqueduct was first told that its water treatment was inadequate for controlling lead) and 2004 (when residents and the Washington Post exposed the crisis), would you say that the actions of DC WASA, EPA Region III, DC DOH, and the Aqueduct were “mistakes in professional judgment”? What do you make of the fact that to date, no official in the DC case has been held accountable?

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