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Must Reads & Short Takes for Cesar Chavez Friday

March 30th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

it slipped my mind that today was Cesar Chavez Day.
So since many are taking the day off (and, yes, many of us aren’t), the promised Part 2 of Aero Bureau will appear Monday, not today.

In the meantime, watch the hour-long PBS video on the Farm Worker’s Movement at the end of the post ( It reminded me about, among other things, all those years that no one I knew would have dreamed of eating table grapes. Even after the strike was over, it took a long time to learn to like them again. I imagine I was far from alone in that somewhat irrational post-strike reaction.)


New LAPPL prez Tyler Izen wrote LAPD Inspector General Alexander Bustamante a strongly worded letter asking for an investigation into the matter.

“…the unlawful disclosure of the confidential information regarding any officer by unscrupulous self-serving individuals has reached a level of indecency so great that we will not stand by and remain silent,” he wrote.

(The full text is here.)

And, to remind you what we’re talking about, here’s an opening clip from Joel Rubin’s LA Times article.

A white police officer has been targeting Latino drivers for traffic stops because of their ethnicity, a Los Angeles Police Department investigation concluded — marking the first time the department has found that one of its officers had engaged in racial or ethnic profiling.

For decades, the question of profiling — “biased policing,” in LAPD vernacular — has bedeviled the department. Accusations that the practice was commonplace throughout the 1970s and ’80s alienated the LAPD from the city’s minority neighborhoods. And, despite dramatic reforms that have boosted the department’s image in recent years, complaints of profiling have persisted, with hundreds of officers being accused of bias each year. Until now, none of those complaints has been substantiated.


Of course, at least the LAPD’s probable Peace Officer Bill of Rights violator wasn’t a department captain who, in a fit of pique, blurted the existence of an IAB investigation against an LASD sergeant formerly under the captain’s command, all this in front of a very full and public board of supervisors meeting. Making matters worse, the captain failed to include in his blurt (that had a wild-eyed county attorney looking to be on the verge physically tackling him) the information that the charge had already been resolved in the sergeant’s favor—but instead inaccurately implied the exact opposite.


Wired Magazine’s Danger Room section has the not-terribly-cheering story. Here’s a clip:

The FBI once taught its agents that they can “bend or suspend the law” as they wiretap suspects. But the bureau says it didn’t really mean it, and has now removed the document from its counterterrorism training curriculum, calling it an “imprecise” instruction. Which is a good thing, national security attorneys say, because the FBI’s contention that it can twist the law in pursuit of suspected terrorists is just wrong.

“Dismissing this statement as ‘imprecise’ is a rather unsatisfying response given the very precise lines Congress and the courts have repeatedly drawn between what is and is not permissible, even in counterterrorism cases, over the past decade,” Steve Vladeck, a national-security law professor at American University, says. “It might technically be true that the FBI has certain authorities when conducting counterterrorism investigations that the Constitution otherwise forbids, but that’s good only so far as it goes.”

The reference to law-bending was noted in a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller from Sen. Richard Durbin that Danger Room obtained. When Danger Room asked for the original document, the FBI initially declined. On Wednesday, a Bureau spokesperson relented, but refused to say who prepared the document; how long it was in circulation; and how many FBI agents, analysts and officials received its instruction….


“Lawyers for the independent agency that investigates allegations of police abuse in New York have been given wide new powers to prosecute officers in misconduct cases under an agreement city officials reached on Tuesday,” writes Al Baker for the NY Times.

This is something that could be very useful to consider in LA. It involves both civilians and police officers.


The New York Daily News has an unusually good send off for the enormously influential feminist poet, Adrienne Rich,
who died this week.

And in this video from the PBS Newshour Judy Woodruff and Jeffrey Brown help us say goodbye to both Rich and Earl Scruggs, who also died this week.

“He made you stop in your tracks,” said Bela Fleck of the brilliant and beloved banjo innovator Scruggs.

Yep. That he did.

And here he is doing it again— with those he inspired.

And now back to Cesar Chavez.

Posted in American artists, American voices, Board of Supervisors, Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, FBI, LAPD, LASD, law enforcement | 4 Comments »

MISSING SCHOOL: LAUSD’s Chronic Student Absences & What to Do About Them…Plus Child Dependency Court & Reax to Dizzying Health Care Arguments

March 29th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Chronic truancy is a daunting problem in districts all over California,
but it’s far worse in the Los Angeles Unified School District where nearly one fourth of the district’s middle-school students are chronically absent from school.

What is even more alarming is that an identical number of LA’s kindergartners— 22.7 percent—are also chronically absent from their classrooms.

(Chronic absence” is defined as missing 10 percent of the school year for excused or unexcused reasons.)

Fortunately, not every school district in the state has those miserably high truancy numbers.

In fact, earlier this week, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced that 11 districts have been designated as models of attendance improvement and dropout prevention by the State School Attendance Review Board. The 11 model districts, which include Alhambra, Montebello, San Bernardino and San Diego, will be given awards at a conference in April.

““There’s a very basic fact that is often overlooked: Even the best teacher can’t help students who don’t make it to school,” Torlakson said in a written statement. “These [districts] are proving that there are highly effective strategies for improving attendance and reducing the dropout rate”

After new research pointed to chronic absence as a key indicator of a kid’s academic future, reducing absenteeism became a major focus for Torlakson’s administration, which is trying to find low coast ways to motivate districts to identify students who are are missing too much school, and then intervene early.

“And by early, that means kindergarten, says David Kopperud, the chairperson of the state’s School Attendance Review Board. “We thought the problem began in middle school and high school,” Kopperud told me. “But it starts way before that. It turns out that even kindergarten is important because that’s when students learn beginning reading skills.” Once kids fall behind in their first three years, he said, the slide can all too easily become cumulative until, by middle school they’re in trouble.

“Now they’re too far behind to catch up, and so the next thing is, they start to misbehave.”

School suspensions follow the misbehavior, which means more classwork in missed.

“In a lot of schools,” Kopperud said, “20 percent of their absences are due to suspensions. And we find that schools with high suspension rates, have a high drop out rate.” It’s what other experts call the push out factor. And pretty soon you have this really large population that is lost to law enforcement.”

So what to do?

“We’re learning that the best kind of drop-out intervention, is prevention,” said Kopperud. “But that means analyzing the school attendance data so that you have a good early warning system to tell you when kids are missing too much school, and then intervening aggressively.”

But aggressive and timely intervention requires the personnel to do the intervening—at a time when districts like LAUSD are in a frenzy of cutbacks.

So that’s where the awards come in..

Kopperud said that he and his board members hope that the other districts will look at the honorees and think, hey, if those guys over there can improve , we can too. “So we’re handing out certificates and plaques,” he said.

“It’s a reminder that there are places where, despite the odds, they’re beating them,” said Kopperud. “So it can be done. Even in this economy, it can be done.”

Let’s hope LAUSD takes note. So far what they’ve done districtwide is….not much. (Unless you count paying consultants fat fees to produce this and that report and analysis, without any appreciable follow-up that would change outcomes for actual kids.)


Whittier Law School professor William Wesley Patton evidently slammed LA Times editor-at-large Jim Newton for his coverage of LA’s newly-opened child dependency court in an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Daily Journal (which is hidden behind a hefty pay wall, or I’d link to it).

Newton, who wrote two excellent columns about his visits to court in the weeks since Judge Michael Nash ordered the opening of the long-secret proceedings to the press (here and here), decided not to simply ignore the slam, but to point out its truthiness. Here’s a clip:

The shift from holding almost all Dependency Court hearings in private to declaring a presumptive openness of those proceedings to the press is understandably upsetting to those accustomed to working in private. It is hard to have prying eyes where once there were none.

And yet, what is often lost in the resistance to change is what is most important. The interests of children are, of course, paramount in all of this, but those who side with Patton, in my view, see those interests too narrowly. Secrecy in Dependency Court has protected social workers, lawyers and even judges who perform poorly from being held to answer for their work. We would never tolerate such immunity from scrutiny in our adult and family courts, nor should we when the stakes are even higher — the preservation of an opportunity for children who have done no wrong. In the end, the victims of secrecy in Dependency Court are children whose caretakers are allowed to fail them without consequence; the beneficiaries of a more open system would be children as well.

So far, the experiment in Los Angeles Dependency Court is bearing out that argument. Perhaps that’s why Patton distorts it.

What Jim said.


Dalia Lithwick of Slate sounds stunned and depressed after Wednesday’s round of arguments….

Amid all the three-day psychodrama, it’s easy to get confused about what’s happened and what hasn’t. Court watchers seem to generally agree that the individual mandate is in real peril and will rise or fall with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy. Court watchers also agree that 19th-century tax law—while generally adorable—will not prevent the justices from deciding the case by July. And they also agree that they may have counted five justices who appear willing to take the whole law down, along with the mandate, and the Medicaid expansion as well.

But the longer they talked, the harder it was to say. A lot of today’s discussion started to sound like justices just free-associating about things in the law they didn’t like. That doesn’t reveal all that much about the interplay between the four separate challenges—what happens when they all have to be looked at together—or anything at all about what will happen at conference or in the drafting of opinions. Could the five conservative justices strike down the entire health care law, and take us into what Kagan described this morning as a “revolution”? They could. Will they? I honestly have no idea anymore. As silent retreats go, this one was a lot less enlightening than I’d hoped.

While Adam Teicholz at the Atlantic wonders morosely…but interestingly…. if bloggers killed the health care mandate before it got to court…

Back in early 2010, before the 26 state attorneys general, before the angry protests and the breathless headlines, before the six hours of oral argument at the nation’s highest court, the legal challenge to the individual mandate was greeted with head-scratching skepticism. The constitutional argument was dismissed by many Court-watchers. A week after the first challenge was filed, one liberal scholar suggested the claims were so frivolous that the lawyers could face sanctions.

Now, however, the atmosphere has changed, “and that,” Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, told me last week, is in part “a testament” to the persistence of a small group of conservative and libertarian attorneys. In the last few days, Politico and the New York Times have shone a light on Randy Barnett, the Georgetown Law professor who has taken on the dual role, unusual for an appellate lawyer, of spearheading advocacy both in court and in more public forums.


Blogs — particularly a blog of big legal ideas called Volokh Conspiracy — have been central to shifting the conversation about the mandate challenges. At Volokh, Barnett and other libertarian academics have been debating and refining their arguments against the mandate since before the ACA was signed. At the beginning, law professor Jonathan Adler fleshed out the approach that came to typify the elite conservative response for the first months of the public debate: the Founders never intended for the Constitution to permit such broad federal power, but given New Deal-era precedent, the mandate, if it became law, would pass muster. Things changed on Volokh around the time that it became clear that an insurance mandate would be part of whichever health care reform package passed into law.

One congressional floor speech seemed to mark a tonal turning point for Volokh, the moment its writers realized their power to shape debate…..


Amid the Aero Bureau controversies, it’s important to remember the great work LASD pilots do day in and day out, both in patrol and rescue. Here’s a KTLA report of the most recent dramatic example of Air-5′s rescue work. (Scroll down for the video.)

Posted in Education, Foster Care, health care, How Appealing, LAUSD, Supreme Court | 2 Comments »

Late in Posting – UPDATED

March 28th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Back mid-morning.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Well, so much for that “mid-morning” thingy. it’s now mid-afternoon and I’m not going to post until late tonight as I’ve got to leave to host a panel soon.

Back tonight with several stories.

And then Aero Bureau: Part 2 – Friday morning

Posted in Life in general | No Comments »

LASD INVESTIGATIONS: AERO BUREAU – PART 1: THE CONTRACT. Did the Sheriff’s Department Over Pay Drastically for Work and Equipment on Its New Fleet of Helicopters?

March 27th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

EDITOR’S NOTE: A few weeks ago, WitnessLA acquired an LASD internal report that we have since been investigating. The report pertains alleged wrongdoing at the LA Sheriff’s Department’s Aero Bureau. Aero Bureau, as the name implies, is an elite LASD division that oversees the department’s aircraft—–mostly helicopters.

The report, by LASD Sergeant Richard Gurr, formerly of Aero Bureau, alleges that a $29 million Board of Supervisors-approved contract to do completion work on the LASD’s 12 new helicopters, may be loaded with overcharges and unnecessary equipment to the tune of up to $11 million. In addition, it alleges that some Aero Bureau supervisors, several of whom are reportedly close to Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, colluded to rig the bidding process.

The story below is a part of our ongoing LASD INVESTIGATIONS, a continuing prove into dysfunction and corruption in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Part 2 of the Aero Bureau story, soon to follow.


On May 11, 2010, The LA County Board of Supervisors was asked to approve the purchase of 12 new helicopters to replace the existing but aging fleet of 12, plus two extra helicopters, to be purchased, pending the sale of a certain number of the old fleet.

Law enforcement is hard on aircraft thus the replacement cycle reportedly occurs about every 7 years. The old fleet went into service in 2003. So it was time.

According to the document given to the Supervisors for approval, (and obtained by WitnessLA), the new fleet was to be delivered over a period of around 8 months, meaning that one helicopter would be completed about every 3 to 6 weeks.

The base price of each “green” helicopter—meaning the no-frills aircraft that comes straight from the American Eurostar factory in Texas without the additional finish work and equipment that law enforcement requires—was to be $1,969,161 per aircraft.

The cost of doing the completion work that the department required was listed at $2,085,250 per helicopter. An avionics company located in Carlsbad, California, won the competitive bidding process for the $29 million aftermarket outfitting job. It was comparatively new firm named HangarOne Avionics that reportedly got its FAA certificate in December of 2007.

It is this second part of the purchase process, the $2 million plus per helicopter covered by the HangerOne contract, that is analyzed in a highly critical internal report that WitnessLA has obtained. The report echoed, albeit with a far more detailed analysis, some very similar allegations made by a former Aero Bureau supervisor, Lt. Ed Cook, in a whistle blower lawsuit.

The internal report, which features around 30 pages of collateral material, lists “four areas of concern” that it contends support “initiating an investigation for violations of Department Policy” and “County Purchasing Code.”

(The report also alleges that Aero Bureau supervisors helped manipulate the bidding process for HangerOne. However this allegation is a story all its own that we will get to later.)

The four reported “areas of concern” are as follows:

1. Excessive labor costs,

2. The purchase of extra equipment outside the scope of what was approved by the Board of Supervisors, and often with hefty mark-ups attached

3. Standard equipment purchased in excess of what was required.

4. Charges for installation of basic equipment that conventionally should have been installed at the factory as part of the price of the aircraft.


The first area of concern alleged has to do with the $350,000 fixed labor costs for the completion of each aircraft.

In a previous service contract between HangarOne and the LASD, the report notes that HangerOne set its labor price at $90 per shop hour—reportedly the high side of the industry standard, but still well within the bounds of usual prices. Thus, noted the report, if that same hourly rate was used for the aircraft completion, then that would mean the department was being charged for 3,888 shop hours—which, using an 8-hour work day and a five day work week, would equate to 24 months worth of shop hours per aircraft.

Since the purchase approval document approved by the LA County Board of Supervisors, called for the helicopters to be delivered to the Aero Bureau from HangerOne at a rate of at least one aircraft per month, this meant the department was allegedly over-paying for labor by hundreds of thousands per heliocopter. (In speaking to sources inside Aero Bureau, we learned that the helicopters were delivered at a rate of one aircraft every two months, which is reportedly a normal speed. )

“Even at three months, (480 shop hours),” states the report, “the labor cost would only amount to $43,200 per aircraft.” This would mean more than $300,000 in excess charges per helicopter—X 12.

(WitnessLA is still investigating the labor overcharging issue, as it is a complicated matter and there are some other potential variables that we are told could come into play. We’ll have more shortly.)


Certain equipment is considered to be a part of the proper outfitting of an aircraft for law enforcement work (just as, when the department buys a fleet of patrol cars, there is a range of equipment—lights, siren, radio, floodlights, et al— that is considered standard. ).

However, according to the report, there was $1,716,156 worth of extra items purchased that were not installed in the helicopters but were shipped directly to Aero Bureau, reportedly at LASD Aero Bureau’s request.

An example of one such item is a FLIR Star Safire HD priced at $749,816.

The FLIR is a high definition thermal imaging system that, according to the company’s list of clients, is primarily used by the military, some border patrol agencies, and maritime search and rescue.

We are told the Star Safire is a swell gadget, as you can see from the video below, but according to those familiar with Aero Bureau equipment, it is a long way from necessary—especially at a time when the Sheriff was regularly in front of the Board of Supervisors asking for additional funds for overtime and other real necessities. Moreover, its price places it well above the monetary threshold that, if it was not bundled questionably into the price of the completion, would have required board approval.

To go with the FLIR Star Safire, is a companion item, the FLIR Ultra 9500, an infrared camera that cost the LASD $356,775. The two items together total $1,106,591.

According to the report, there were 15 more extra items that allegedly should not have been part of the helicopter completion price.

In addition, the report states that many of these extras were purchased at a ferocious mark-up. For instance, in the report’s supplementary material it shows the GSA price ( U.S. General Services Administration) on the FLIR Ultra 9500 to be $185,996 instead of the $356,775 paid by the LASD.


Another allegation the report makes is that, even with the standard equipment delivered with the aircraft, much of it was bought in inexplicable excess, or simply wasn’t needed in the first place.

For instance, the contract calls for the purchase of 42 pairs of night vision goggles at $491,473.

“Aero Bureau has 10-12 NVG goggles which are sufficient to support any LASD mission,” the report states. ” …Very few additions would be required.”

The report notes similarly high numbers of items such as binoculars, helmets and a list of other types of equipment that it contends the department already has.

Additionally, the report notes some odd items like 14 personal locator beacons, of the type used by backpackers and mountain climbers. When I asked one experienced Aero Bureau source when such a device might be used in the course of department work, he said the only possible application would be if the aircraft crashed in a remote area and the crew had to hike out over a long distance. (There’s already a locator on the helicopter that activates in the event of a crash, so to use these 14 items one would have to leave the aircraft.) I asked if, to his knowledge, a pilot and observer had faced such a situation.

“To my knowledge? Never,” he said.


The helicopters, while stripped down when they leave the Eurocopter factory, still must be “flight ready,” we were told. “After all, they had to be flown from the factory in Texas to us,” explained one of the bureau’s pilots.

However, according to the report we obtained, some of the items that would normally have been installed at the factory, were instead part of the HangarOne charges, which the report deemed an “area of concern.”

The report lists $3,619,813 in “factory associated” equipment that instead turned up as HangarOne charges.

For instance, the report lists “windshields,” for $59,232,

“Obviously the aircraft can’t be flown back from the factory without a windshield,” said another Aero Bureau source whom we asked about the charge. We also asked if law enforcement aircraft require special windshields.

“No,” he said. “The windshield that comes on the aircraft from the factory is what’s on it now.”

As we reported previously, the allegations contained in the report have been passed on to the D.A’s office for consideration although they were audited by the County Auditor Controller as well as investigated by the department’s own criminal investigative unit, ICIB. Both those probes found the allegations to be “without merit.”

Several sources inside Aero Bureau or those familiar with its workings have concurred with all or parts of this internal LASD report.

Given the radical disagreement that has surfaced thus far about the HangerOne contract and the allegations surrounding it, and given the amount of money at stake, WitnessLA hopes that the Supervisors will consider calling for a full forensic audit by an entity entirely independent of the county or any of its agencies.


Posted in LA County Board of Supervisors, LASD, Sheriff Lee Baca | 89 Comments »

SCOTUS Healthcare Arguments Today (We Hope), & Thinking About Trayvon Martin

March 26th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


Say what? Can it be true that, after all this lead up, the Supreme Court won’t begin hearings on the Affordable Health Care Act on Monday? Really????

Uh, yeah. Apparently it’s quite possible the Supremes may decide that, legally speaking, they’re jumping the gun in hearing the case—or at least on the most important part of the challenge. (No matter what, the court will hear the Medicare expansion part of the arguments on Wednesday).

Both David Savage of the LA Times and Robert Barnes of the Washington Post have stories on this perplexing turn of events.

As an introduction, you need to know that everybody involved—the Obama Administration and the challengers from the various states, et al—want this sucker—ahem….this Constitutional challenge—to move forward now, for crying out loud.

Here’s a clip from Savage’s article (which I’ve excerpted from the Sac Bee, although it will also be in the LA Times but, as I write this, it isn’t on the LAT site yet).

The Supreme Court’s opening day of arguments on the health care law will not focus on whether the Affordable Care Act is constitutional. Instead, the justices will consider whether the legal challenge to it has arrived too soon.

The problem is the Anti-Injunction Act, which dates to 1867. It says, “No suit for the purpose of restraining the assessment or collection of any tax shall be maintained in any court by any person.”

Question: How does this figure in the health care case?

Answer: It could block a suit against this key part of the health care law if it imposes a tax. The law seems to say that no one can sue over a tax provision until he or she has paid the tax.

Q: How is the Affordable Care Act a tax law?

A: During the debate over it, President Barack Obama insisted it did not impose new taxes. However, people who do not have minimum health coverage in 2014 will be assessed a “penalty” to be paid on their tax return, which will be due in April 2015.

And here’s a clip from Barnes in the WaPo.

The Supreme Court begins its constitutional review of the health-care overhaul law Monday with a fundamental question: Is the court barred from making such a decision at this time?

The justices will hear 90 minutes of argument about whether an obscure 19th-century law — the Anti-Injunction Act — means that the court cannot pass judgment on the law until its key provisions go into effect in 2014.


At the heart of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the requirement that almost all Americans either obtain health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty. The question the court will consider Monday is whether that penalty should be considered a tax. And if it is, does the Anti-Injunction Act mean that courts must stay out of the way until someone is actually required to pay it?

The first time that could occur is when someone files a tax return in 2015, because that is how the penalty would be collected.


Thus far, WLA hasn’t commented or reported on the heart-shattering story of Trayvon Martin’s death, in part because so much has already been said and written, thus I wasn’t sure what exactly we could add to the conversation.

But speaking personally, the main reason I’ve not written about the issue is because every time I stare at Travon’s photo, rather than being inspired to post something wise and meaningful, I find that I am simply struck dumb with grief for his mother—and for his dad, and the rest of his family of course too. But I am a mother of a son, so it is to Sybrina Fulton that my deepest sorrow goes.

If course, Trayvon is far from the only young person to die tragically and violently these past weeks. LA’s Youth Justice Coalition head, Kim McGill, tells me they’ve buried five of their own young members in the past two months. (I’ll have more on the five in the future.)

But some deaths get to you more than others; perhaps in that way they stand in for stand in for all the others. Travon Martin’s is one of those deaths.

Still, as much fearful empathy as I feel for Travon’s mother Sybrina, I do so with the understanding that there is one part of her experience that I cannot adequately feel into, at least not in the bone-deep way that many other American parents, sadly, can.

That difference has to do with the fear described in this story by Jesse Washington writing for the Associated Press. It is titled “Trayvon Martin, my son, and the Black Male Code,” and I’ve excerpted it below. But I urge you to read the whole thing.

I thought my son would be much older before I had to tell him about the Black Male Code. He’s only 12, still sleeping with stuffed animals, still afraid of the dark. But after the Trayvon Martin tragedy, I needed to explain to my child that soon people might be afraid of him.

We were in the car on the way to school when a story about Martin came on the radio. “The guy who killed him should get arrested. The dead guy was unarmed!” my son said after hearing that neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman had claimed self-defense in the shooting in Sanford, Fla.

We listened to the rest of the story, describing how Zimmerman had spotted Martin, who was 17, walking home from the store on a rainy night, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head. When it was over, I turned off the radio and told my son about the rules he needs to follow to avoid becoming another Trayvon Martin — a black male who Zimmerman assumed was “suspicious” and “up to no good.”

As I explained it, the Code goes like this:

Always pay close attention to your surroundings, son, especially if you are in an affluent neighborhood where black folks are few. Understand that even though you are not a criminal, some people might assume you are, especially if you are wearing certain clothes.

Read the rest. It’s worth it.


Howard Kurtz asked that question on CNN on Sunday, and opened it for a round-table discussion you can read here.

I can’t say that the discussion is brilliant or even all that insightful, frankly, but listening in may stimulate your own thinking. (Really, I think Jon Stewart had the right take when he said of another big story that the media has two settings: blackout….and circus.

In truth, I think, the better question is what made the mainstream media finally snap awake. I credit Trayvon’s parents who refused to let the injustice of their son’s death go unnoticed and, together with supporters, were able to frame a clear narrative around the shooting of their son, together with a good picture, that gradually got the press’s attention—and has kept it. In a similar way, Kelly Thomas’s father in Fullerton exhibited the same well-focused determination, in which he was clear about what the story needed to be, and managed to keep it in the news rather than letting it be reported on once or twice and then vanish without a trace. As a result, Jim Thomas may get some kind of justice for his son.

Moreover, the rest of us should be grateful that Trayvon’s parents did not let their son’s death go unrecognized. As a consequence, out of their sorrow we are being shoved into having another round of the national conversion about race that we very much need to continue to have, but too often avoid.


Here’s Marion Wright Edelman (pictured above) president of the Children’s Defense Fund, with her own thoughts about Trayvon Martin, what his death should signify.

Here’s a clip:

….Just as sadly, Trayvon’s death was not unique. In 2008 and 2009, 2,582 black children and teens were killed by gunfire. Black children and teens were only 15 percent of the child population, but 45 percent of the 5,740 child and teen gun deaths in those two years. Black males 15 to 19 years-old were eight times as likely as white males to be gun homicide victims. The outcry over Trayvon’s death is absolutely right and just. We need the same sense of outrage over every one of these child deaths…

Photo by AP, for the Children’s Defense Fund

Posted in health care, media, race, racial justice | 13 Comments »

LASD Sends Case to DA Alleging Aero Bureau Officials Helped Manipulate a Multi-Million $ Helicopter Contract Creating Gigantic Overcharges

March 23rd, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Thursday afternoon, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department sent to the Public Integrity Division of the District Attorney’s office
a case alleging that an official or officials in the department’s Aero Bureau (the section of the LASD that provides air support and air rescue) colluded with an outside contractor to manipulate a multimillion dollar service provider contract.

The DA’s office will now have to decide whether or not to open a criminal investigation into the case, according to DA spokesperson Sandi Gibbons “We also need to know if the department is doing any further investigation on the case,” Gibbons said.

According to Mike Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, the material sent to the DA’s office involves three sets of allegations all having to do with a contract for the completion and outfitting of 12 to 14 newly-purchased LASD helicopters, at approximately $2.1 million per aircraft.

In brief, as we understand it, the allegations are as follows:

1. That a supervisor or supervisors in Aero Bureau had an inappropriate relationship with Hangar One, an avionics contractor doing business with the department. And that, as a consequence of that relationship, a supervisor colluded to manipulate the bidding process for a $29.2 million million contract, so that that Hangar One was the only possible successful bidder, acing out more experienced providers, even though Hangar One was a comparatively new company without a long term track record. As part of this “inappropriate relationship” it is further alleged that a select group of Aero Bureau officials benefited from the Hangar One contract in the form of expensive flight suits and the like.

2. The allegations further suggest that the resulting contract is rife with gross over-charging for fixed labor costs in doing the outfitting, and that the over-payments reach into the millions of dollars.

3. It is also alleged that bundled into the retrofitting contract is the purchase of several million dollars worth of high ticket equipment that is not directly related to the helicopter outfitting, and therefor did not fall within the scope of what was approved by the LA County Board of supervisors. If true, this means that the additional items bypassed the usual purchasing protocols. It is also suggested that many of these extra purchases were charged at significantly above standard industry prices.

THESE AND OTHER ALLEGATIONS are also contained in a whistleblower lawsuit filed against LA County by Lt. Edison Cook, a 33-year veteran of the department who came to Aero Bureau in the summer of 2009, and was reportedly alarmed by what he saw.

IT SHOULD BE NOTED THAT the allegations related to the Hangar One helicopter outfitting contract were sent to the office of the county’s Auditor Controller, who reportedly found nothing amiss, according to the OIR’s Genneco.

(The OIR has not completed its own investigations into the various Aero Bureau-related allegations.)

Sheriff’s department spokesman Steve Whitmore told WitnessLA last week that, in addition to the Auditor Controller, the same contract-related allegations were investigated by the department’s own internal criminal investigative arm, ICIB. “They said there were no irregularities and no substantiation to the allegations,” said Whitmore.

As to why, then, the three-pronged investigation was then sent to the DA’s office, Whitmore said the process was not unusual, even with unsubstantiated allegations. “It’s good to include others,” he said.

Whitmore also informed WitnessLA with regard to these and other allegations contained in Lt. Cook’s lawsuit, that Elizabeth M. Kessel, one of the attorneys representing the county in the lawsuit, characterized Cook as a “disgruntled former employee. This litigation will show that his allegations are meritless, and based on gossip and innuendo.”

“It’s very unusual for the defense counsel to make that kind of statement,” added Whitmore.

When we called Kessel’s office, she declined to get on the phone with us, but a representative called back to reaffirm the “disgruntled former employee” characterization, et al.

Experts we polled agreed that such a statement from the county’s defense attorney, while not entirely unheard of, was indeed unusual, especially in advance of litigation.

MEANWHILE, OTHER SOURCES FAMILIAR WITH THE VARIOUS ALLEGATIONS claim that there is much more to the Aero Bureau story than the department has thus far been willing to admit.

WitnessLA has conducted our own 8-week investigation into these and additional allegations made regarding Aero Bureau, in the course of which we have made some interesting discoveries. We will post the first part of our 2-part report very shortly. So stay tuned.

Posted in LASD | 75 Comments »

SCOTUS and…Health Care, Cameras & the Rights of Accused in Plea Bargains

March 23rd, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


This coming Monday, the Supreme Court will start hearing arguments regarding the Affordable Health Care Act—AKA Obamacare.

Dalia Lithwick of Slate, who has the advantage of being wickedly smart, gives the most intriguing analysis of what to expect from the justices that I’ve read yet.

Below is a clip from the essay, but if this case interests you at all, read the whole thing, as it is guaranteed to stimulate your thinking.

The first proposition is that the health care law is constitutional. The second is that the court could strike it down anyway. Linda Greenhouse makes the first point more eloquently than I can. That the law is constitutional is best illustrated by the fact that—until recently—the Obama administration expended almost no energy defending it. Back when the bill passed Nancy Pelosi famously reacted to questions about its constitutionality with the words, “Are you serious?” And the fact that the Obama administration rushed the case to the Supreme Court in an election year is all the evidence you need to understand that they remain confident in their prospects. The law is a completely valid exercise of Congress’ Commerce Clause power, and all the conservative longing for the good old days of the pre-New Deal courts won’t put us back in those days as if by magic. Nor does it amount to much of an argument.

So that brings us to the really interesting question: Will the Court’s five conservatives strike it down regardless? That’s what we’re really talking about next week and that has almost nothing to do with law and everything to do with optics, politics, and public opinion. That means that Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion in the Raich medicinal marijuana case, and Chief Justice John Roberts’ and Anthony Kennedy’s opinions in Comstock only get us so far. Despite the fact that reading the entrails of those opinions suggest that they’d contribute to an easy fifth, sixth, and seventh vote to uphold the individual mandate as a legitimate exercise of Congressional power, the real question isn’t whether those Justices will be bound by 70 years of precedent or their own prior writings on federal power. The only question is whether they will ignore it all to deprive the Obama of one of his signature accomplishments.

Professor Randy Barnett, the intellectual power behind the entire health care challenge, wrote recently that Justice Scalia could break from his previous opinions—freeing him to strike down the Affordable Care Act—“without breaking a sweat.” I suspect that’s right.

If that’s true, we should stop fussing about old precedents. These old milestones of jurisprudence aren’t what will give Scalia pause. What matters is whether the five conservative justices are so intent in striking down Obama’shealthcare law that they would risk a chilly and divisive 5-4 dip back into the waters of Bush v. Gore and Citizens United.

Oddly enough that turns more on what we think about the case than what they think.

This clip is interesting, but read the whole column. Lithwick builds a thesis that deserved to read in its entirety.


Slate’s Andrew Cohen has a pleasingly cranky column on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Pardon me for being such a drag on the eve of the Supreme Court’s momentous health care arguments, but I respectfully dissent. There is something discordant here, something that just doesn’t feel right. While the legal and political elite gleefully plan their big week at the High Court, while members of the Washington establishment applaud themselves for their inside connections to the courtroom, the rest of the country will be left, as usual, in the dark. The contrast gives new meaning to the phrase “unequal justice.”

Starting next Monday, for three consecutive days, two hours a day, the justices will hear oral argument in three joined cases that are primed to determine the immediate fate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the controversial new federal health care law. Together, the three cases (out of Florida) are the most closely watched Supreme Court cases since Bush v. Gore, for they have the potential to determine the outcome of the next presidential election and not just pick a winner in the last one.


This column by the NY Times’ Adam Liptak illustrates why Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling that expands the rights of the accused when it comes to pleading out a case, is so important—and amazing, really, that the ruling favored the accused.

Here are clips from Liptak’s story:

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to effective lawyers during plea negotiations, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a pair of 5-to-4 decisions that vastly expanded judges’ supervision of the criminal justice system.

The decisions mean that what used to be informal and unregulated deal making is now subject to new constraints when bad legal advice leads defendants to reject favorable plea offers.

“Criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. “The right to adequate assistance of counsel cannot be defined or enforced without taking account of the central role plea bargaining takes in securing convictions and determining sentences.”


Scholars agreed about its significance.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in these two cases constitute the single greatest revolution in the criminal justice process since Gideon v. Wainwright provided indigents the right to counsel,” said Wesley M. Oliver, a law professor at Widener University, referring to the landmark 1963 decision.


Some 97 percent of convictions in federal courts were the result of guilty pleas. In 2006, the last year for which data was available, the corresponding percentage in state courts was 94.

“In today’s criminal justice system,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant.”

Quoting from law review articles, Justice Kennedy wrote that plea bargaining “is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.” He added that “longer sentences exist on the books largely for bargaining purposes.”

Posted in health care, Supreme Court | 2 Comments »

Jumped In: Jorja Leap Looks at Gang Violence Through a Very Personal Lens

March 22nd, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

My friend Jorja Leap has written a wonderful new book called Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love and Redemption, about her last ten years spent in some of LA’s most violence haunted neighborhoods, in order to study the causes and possible solutions to the gang violence that still claims the lives of nearly 5000 kids and young adults in America.

Jorja is a nationally recognized expert in gangs, violence, and crisis intervention, she is the senior policy adviser on Gangs and Youth Violence for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and has served in similar post for the mayor, for the National Institute of Justice, and more. Jorja brought her crisis intervention skills to post war Bosnia and Kosavo, and is on the faculty at UCLA.

She’s also in the middle of a five year study of the homeboys and homegirls at Homeboy Industries, and has another project at Jordan Downs in partnership with Mike Cummings, a gargantuan former gang member who goes by (and lives up to) the name of Big Mike. Once a fearsome and notorious gangster who helped found the Grape Street Crips, Mike now facilitates groups of men to discover in themselves a passion for fatherhood, with Jorja documenting it all.

In other words, she knows her stuff.

The book draws from all that expertise, of course, but the heart of it is something much closer to the ground, much more intimate, much more heartbreaking, tragic, joy-producing and transformative.

It is also a personal tale of finding her own deepest self in the course of delving into the lives of others. (Did I mention that right in the middle of her research Jorja, the tough girl who was never going to have kids, inconveniently fell in love with and married a widower LAPD Commander with a young daughter? For quite some time, both cop husband-to-be and gangster research subjects were horrified by the proximity of each other.)

But rather than give you any more generalizations, I’ve posted some (very rough) iPhone shot video clips of Jorja speaking at Skylight Books* on Tuesday night.

In the clip above, Jorja fields questions about any fears she had doing the research, and what cultural barriers she encountered.

In the clip below, former gang member Wilfredo Lopez, who came with Jorja to the Skylight event, gives his own perspective on some of the issues the book covers.

In the clip above, Jorja is asked what most surprised her in the course of researching the book. “I know just what surprised me,” she says without missing a beat. “Lesbians.”

In this clip, Jorja address a question about how one “pierces the veil of secrecy” surrounding gangs.

Here she talks about the difference between LA street gangs and organized crime.

*NOTE: Apologies to the wonderful and unmistakable Skylight Books for, in my fatigued haze, originally writing their name as the also wonderful City Lights bookstore in San Francisco.


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Posted in Gangs, Homeboy Industries, writers and writing | No Comments »

Sheriff Lee Baca Considers Closing Parts of Men’s Central Jail….and More News

March 21st, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Jack Leonard and Robert Faturechi, of the LA Times report that Sheriff Lee Baca may be planning to take the first big step
in reorganizing his troubled jail system by moving part of the population of the antiquated and violence plagued Men’s Central Jail to the women’s jail in Lynwood.

This is welcome news.

Here’s a clip from the Times’ article:

Facing a federal investigation into allegations of brutality in his jails, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is considering a bold proposal to shutter a portion of the department’s most troubled lockup that has been plagued by inmate killings, excessive force by guards and poor supervision.

The plan would shift about 1,800 inmates, including many of the county’s most violent criminals, from the old section of Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, a sheriff’s jail commander said. The inmates would probably be moved to a newer facility in Lynwood that currently houses female inmates.

Indeed, there’s probably little question that the federal investigation into inmate abuse by deputies in the jails, a newly appointed “citizens” commission to look into the jails problems not to mention the ongoing press attention to the matter, have all been part of the reason that the Sheriff has wisely—at least for the moment— stopped hectoring the LA County Board of Supervisors for his much-desired $1.4 billion for new jail construction and is, instead, actively entertaining some of the alternative solutions that jails experts and reform advocates have long been suggesting.

As we mentioned in late January, the Sheriff has recently opened the door to an analysis of his jail housing problems by jail and prison population expert, Dr. James Austin—after resisting an Austin report in previous years, when the ACLU suggested such an analysis and even agreed to foot the bill for it.

Nevertheless, it is to Baca’s credit that now he appears to be embracing the notion of working with Austin.

Last week when I asked the Sheriff’s spokesman, Steve Whitmore, about Austin’s final report, he said it was not yet completed. However, I’ve seen some of Austin’s preliminary material, which includes an analysis of t the existing population in each of the county’s jail facilities, and then an assessment of the projected population over the next few years, taking into consideration the extra inmates coming to LA County because of the state’s realignment strategy.

The final report will also look at where and how in the existing facilities the jails’ population could most successfully—and safely—be housed, and how the population might also be reduced by instituting the kind of pretrial release system that has worked well for some other cities and counties.

Another report that the Sheriff was expected to draw on for his future plans is the 289-page study by the Vera institute, titled the Los Angeles County Jail Overcrowding Reduction Project, that had been previously commissioned by the LA County CEO’s office. (The report was first completed in 2008, then revised in Sept. 2011.)

(As with Austin’s work, the Vera report has a detailed section about pretrial release and how and why LA’ County’s bail system needs to be rethought. It shows with plenty of graphs and pie charts how the current system lets wealth, or lack thereof, decide who gets out on bail, and who languishes in a cell while they wait for trial, when the deciding factor really ought to be “risk assessment”—namely who is most at risk of not showing up for trial, or might be a danger to public safety.)

One thing that all concerned seem to agree upon is the need to close all or part of the decrepit and poorly designed Men’s Central Jail. At the last Jails Commission meeting on March 2, Mike Genneco of the Office of Independent Review and Merrick Bobb, the Special Counsel to the Board of Supervisors each told the commissioners how hard CJ is to oversee because of its floor plan in which cells are arranged in long rows, and thus not visible from a single vantage point. Lynwood, in contrast, is built with a more modern and effective floor plan that places a guard post at the center with a view of an entire cell block.

Both men explained that, while not the cause of the culture of violence that has been permitted to fester in Men’s Central Jail, the facility itself hasn’t helped the situation.

“It’s structurally a very, very difficult jail to manage,” said Merrick Bobb, citing the cell layout. “That’s why we’ve recommend cameras so many times over the years for Men’s Central Jails.”

As of the March 2 meeting, the camera installation had yet to be fully accomplished.

(NOTE: For some of the main points from Austin’s preliminary analysis go to the bottom of the post here.)


You can listen to Nina Totenberg’s report here at NPR.

Doug Berman at Sentencing, Law and Policy (who wrote an amicus brief for the cases) wasn’t very encouraging in his analysis. Here’s how he began his report:

On reading the transcripts in the two juve LWOP cases that the Supreme Court heard today, Miller and Jackson, I’m struck by how confused the Justices are about how to frame the issues. The advocates certainly didn’t seem to give the Court the help it was looking for.

However, Adam Liptak at the New York Times had this to say:

…A majority of them appeared prepared to take an additional step in limiting such punishments, but it was not clear whether it would be modest or large. The court’s precedents have created so many overlapping categories — based on age, the nature of the offense and whether judges and juries have discretion to show leniency — that much of the argument was devoted to identifying the possible lines the court could draw.

In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the court abolished the juvenile death penalty, a decision that affected about 70 prisoners. “It is worth noting,” that decision said, “that the punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is itself a severe sanction, in particular for a young person.”


Please don’t miss Jim Newton’s terrific column on his second trip to child dependency court,since the court was ordered open to the press by Judge Michael Nash. (Judge Nash is my hero for the year for unilaterally moving to open the long-secret courts, over much shrieking objection.)

Here’s a clip about one particular case of the many Newton observed the day he went again to court:

…..Secrecy has become routine for Dependency Court, but as this example illustrates, it’s often hard to see whose interests that has served. When the case was called last week, the lawyer for the father moved to have me excluded on the vague grounds that it would intrude on her client’s privacy. But during a break in the proceedings, the father sought me out and complained that privacy has hidden the misdeeds and indifference of social workers and his own lawyers.

“They’re trying to make it seem like we haven’t learned anything from our parenting classes or our domestic-violence classes,” he said. “We don’t have anyone to raise a voice for us.” He said he feels victimized, not protected, by privacy, and he urged me to use his name: It’s Carlton Vereen.

Conversely, secrecy may have protected this father from scrutiny. It came out in court that he’s plowed through lawyers and caused repeated delays without anyone watching. And his actions have postponed resolution of the case — and stability for his daughter — for month after month.

So, if secrecy can be bad for the child and bad for the parents, for whom is it good? Well, it undeniably serves the interests of those whose judgments might be second-guessed.

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Posted in jail, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, Sheriff Lee Baca | 10 Comments »

Foxconn, Apple, This American Life….and Reactions to the Great News Retraction

March 20th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

On January 6, of this year Ira Glass’s This American Life aired a show about the FoxConn factory
in China, where so many of our nice, shiny, perfect Apple products are made (including, I assume, my brand new iPad), and which has become infamous for its brutal working conditions.

The TAL broadcast, which was to become the most downloaded in the show’s history, centered around monologuist Mike Deasey’s popular one man show about Apple and Foxconn called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

The TAL segment was such a powerful and disturbing portrayal of factory conditions that it triggered a slew of other media reports on the Chinese factories used by Apple and other American tech companies.

Then last Friday, TAL’s creator and host, Ira Glass, announced that although the show had vetted a lot of Deasey’s material, it hadn’t been able to vet it all, and Glass and crew had now discovered that some of Deasey’s “facts” were far more theatrical than truthful.

But Glass didn’t stop with the written statement. He and his producers turned all of this past weekend’s show into one giant retraction that included a deconstruction of the various errors, an interview with Deasey’s Chinese translator, and a painfully uncomfortable conversation between Glass and Deasey— all of which turned out to be wildly compelling radio.

The retraction, and Deasey’s subsequent blogging remarks after the TAL broadcast has triggered a flood of commentary from other journalists and media types.

The collective discussion about truth, facts and journalism has been largely a very good one, and worth your while to wander through if you have a mind.

But first listen to the two TAL episodes. They are utterly fascinating, especially given what we know now.

Here are some links to and clips from some of the better commentary.

This is from the NY Times’ David Carr:

Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one.


It’s worth examining that question now that we have learned about the lies perforating the excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one-man show on Apple’s manufacturing processes in China, broadcast in January on the weekly public radio show “This American Life.”

No one is suggesting that everything about Apple’s supply chain is suddenly hunky-dory, but the heroic narrative of a fearless theater artist taking on the biggest company in the world is now a pile of smoking rubble.

Mr. Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” closed its very successful run at the Public Theater in New York on Sunday. The show played a significant role in raising public consciousness, not just about the ethics of offshore manufacturing, but about whether those of us who fondle those shiny new iPads every day are implicated as well….

And this is also from the NYT, this time from Charles Isherwood:

in his own statement on Friday Mr. Daisey said: “What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism.” He also said he regretted allowing parts of his work to be heard in the context of a factual program.

Mr. Daisey may not claim to be a journalist, but there is little question that in his show, which he has been performing since 2010, he gives no indication that some of the events he describes as having witnessed himself were embellished or based on incidents that took place elsewhere. The program at the Public Theater described it as “nonfiction.”

Nonfiction should mean just that: facts and nothing but the facts. For its part the Public released a statement saying: “Mike is an artist, not a journalist. Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn’t his personal experience in the piece.”

Certainly Mr. Daisey uses language more evocative than a reporter would in describing his encounters with workers at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. But in an hourlong segment of “This American Life” released for broadcast on Friday that delved into the reasons behind the retraction, it became clear that this was not a matter of reordering events or using colorful description for maximum theatrical effect, but of presenting as firsthand experience incidents that never happened.

Rebecca Greenfield has some good stuff to say at the Atlantic.

Here’s a link to the story by Rob Schmidt, the NPR Marketplace reporter who flagged some of Deasey’s truthiness in the first place.


The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday in the matters of Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, the twinned cases that aim to test the constitutionality of sentencing a 14-year-old killer to life without parole.

Professor Douglas Berman of Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, along with a group of second and third-year students at Moritz filed an amicus brief in the two cases. In the video above, Doug Berman explains in layman’s terms what’s in the brief and what are some of the things you should know is you’re watching these cases. (Doug Berman also runs the wonderful Sentencing, Law and Policy.)

With an eye toward the SCOTUS hearing of the cases, Sandra McElwaine at the Daily Beast interviewed former inmates who were convicted of murder as teenagers but who did not get life. Their insights regarding the paths of their own individual redemption is very much worth reading.

Andrew Cohn over at Atlantic Wire has a well-reasoned look at which justices might go what direction in the juvenile LWOP cases, and that the fact that Chief Justice Roberts has two kids who are about to become teenagers may have bearing on the matter. (But in the end, it’ll likely come down to Justice Kennedy—again.)

The Guardian’s story on the twinned cases features a video with an incarcerated man in his 20′s named Quantel Lotts who killed his stepbrother when he was fourteen.

Here’s a clip from the Guardian’s article on the cases:

There is a singularly brutal quality to this aspect of US justice. America is the only country in the world, bar none, that is known to sentence children to die in prison without any hope of release. Even in a country that practices the death penalty it has the ability to shock, because this is a living death.

“All I want is another chance,” says Lotts. “A shot at living an actual life. I’ve been in prison since I was 14, so I don’t know too much about anything – I’ve never been anywhere, done anything. I’ve never lived a life.”

Posted in Civil Rights, media | 2 Comments »

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