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Pulling Back the Blue Curtain: What Does the Public Really Have the Right to Know About Police Records?

July 28th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

In LA and around the country, law enforcement agencies are purchasing and deploying police body cameras as a means of increasing accountability to the public. But the use of all these new cameras means the potential accumulation of miles and miles of video footage. The question of who has the right to see all this video (and when, and under what circumstances) is already the subject of debate between police, civil rights advocates, and the public.

Last week, at the Crawford Family Forum in Pasadena, KPCC’s Frank Stoltze moderated what turned out to be a very informative and often contentious discussion on the complex issues relating to law enforcement transparency, and what the public legally has the right to know.

Panelists included Peter Scheer, of the First Amendment Coalition, Jack Leonard, the LA Times’ police and courts editor, attorney Mildred K. “Missy” O’Linn, Jeff Steck, head of ALADS, the LA deputies’ union, LASD Undersheriff Neal Tyler, and LA Times attorney Rochelle L. Wilcox.

One of the first and most polemical topics that emerged was the June 2, 2013 fatal shooting of an unarmed man, Ricardo Diaz Zeferino, by Gardena police officers, and a push from the Times (along with the Associated Press and Bloomberg) for the release of dash cam footage of the incident.

The city of Gardena settled the resulting civil lawsuit to the tune of $4.7 million, but fought to keep videos of the shooting under wraps, citing privacy concerns. Earlier this month, two years into Gardena’s fight to keep the videos hidden, federal Judge Stephen V. Wilson ordered the city to release footage from two radio car dash cams.

Panelist Missy O’Linn, who was Gardena’s attorney during the legal battle, had a great deal to say on the matter of police rights.

O’Linn argued that the videos should not have been released because they were part of a protective order. “The problem here is the process,” she said. “Technology is way ahead of the law…we need rules. We need guidelines…. as to what is to be made public.” And then a few beats later: “It appears that the first amendment has usurped state law.”

This last remark triggered a rash of noisy murmurs from the audience, which was filled with lawyers, journalists, and advocates, in addition to interested community members.

LA Times attorney Rochelle Wilcox, who successfully fought to get the names of Long Beach officers revealed last year, explained that the public is entitled to access records in federal cases, “unless the party advocating for secrecy [in this case, the city of Gardena] meets a burden of showing compelling reasons why the records should be sealed.” (The same is not true when it comes to state cases.)

O’Linn was not cowed. She argued that releasing video only presents one perspective of an incident to the public, and can create a pubic safety issue. “The public’s reaction, without information—which is controlled by mass media—has the potential to set your cities on fire, destroy your businesses…If it was no justice, no peace, marching in solidarity, and peaceful protest, that’s one thing. But call Baltimore, call Ferguson, where the business owners’ lives have been destroyed because they didn’t have a peaceful protest. And quite frankly, that is a public safety issue.”

When Stoltze asked O’Linn if it was fear of public unrest that was the most compelling reason given as to why the Gardena videos should not have been released, O’Linn was quick to answer. “Absolutely…Darren Wilson, an officer in Ferguson, Mo, will never work again as a police officer. Someone tried to beat him to death, and he will never work again. My officers do not deserve to be hung, judged in the media, without full information.”

So would she argue for a release of the entire record, including the video? Frank asked. “If you want full information out there, would that not be the logical next step?”

“The public does not go looking for that information,” said O’Linn. “The media directs the conversation.”


Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said it would not be too burdensome to release some videos, on a case-by-case, as-needed basis. “When it comes to police investigative records, they are 100 percent exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act. But the police have the discretion, if they wish, to release them,” said Scheer. “So why not, in some of these cases, release these videos at the discretion of the department, where the public’s need to know is compelling?“

Jeff Steck, president of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS), jumped in to say that videos often do not tell the whole story about an officer-involved shooting or other use-of-force incident. “I’ve just begun to understand what I see, and I’m an expert in the field,” said Steck.

Steck did agree with Scheer’s contention that the videos should be released to the public on a case-by-case basis, but said he was worried about the protection of victims. “I saw an officer get murdered on camera. If that happens to me, I don’t want my death on TV.”

Steck also expressed concern about the effect that indiscriminate video release would have on the privacy and the safety of officers and their families in general. “There are people who want to do us harm. We lost two deputies who were killed at their homes. We are concerned for our safety. When we’re on duty, we’re aware of the risk, but we don’t to take this home to our families.”

And if all videos were to be released, O’Linn broke in to say, it would be a huge burden to taxpayers, “…because your cities and counties that want to implement body worn camera programs are going to need to hire a team of editors to blur out faces and remove private information.”


LASD Undersheriff Neal Tyler said the department is working on new website that will share crucial data with the public regarding use-of-force incidents, without naming individual officers involved. The site will include information and statistics on officer-involved shootings, as well as data on complaints from the public and officer discipline.

Tyler emphasized that Sheriff McDonnell understands that giving the public access to department records will build trust. “We’re moving towards transparency. More access. Real access. It’s a good faith effort to properly balance public safety against all the factors of democracy.”

The LA Times’ Jack Leonard challenged law enforcement’s frequent unwillingness to release officers’ names. “We give police officers a lot of power,” he said. “We invest in them the responsibility and ability to investigate serious crimes, and also we give them the legal right to use deadly and other types of force. Yet, when individual officers are found to have misused that right, we don’t get to find out who the officers are.”

The public has way of knowing how departments deal with personnel issues like sexual misconduct, or officers who have been disciplined for lying, Leonard continued. “We have no idea how departments actually deal with that because it is all secret,” he said, explaining that part of the problem is with state law, not so much individual department policy.

Leonard was referring to the Public Safety Officer Procedural Bill of Rights, sometimes called the Peace Officers Bill of Rights (POBR) which, among other things, prevents public release of officer discipline issues.

On the other side of the legal tug-of-war, the California Public Records Act, in the name of government transparency and accountability, establishes the public’s right to view public records. But it has certain exceptions to the rule. Law enforcement personnel files fall under the “exemptions” category.

During the comments portion of the discussion, the ACLU’s Peter Bibring, who was in the audience, pointed out, that California has less access to police officer records than, say, Texas and Florida, where there is “open access once there’s a finding of misconduct by the department.” Many other states have automatic open access to peace officer records, even misconduct allegations, said Bibring.

Wilcox, the Times’ attorney, added more on the topic. “The police are public employees who have a very unique kind of protection,” she said. “They perform one of the most important roles in society, and yet the transparency that the government has agreed is good, doesn’t apply to them. So while we can get public misconduct information about teachers, we can’t get any information about the people who have the ability to do harm.”

O’Linn said she and her colleagues “encourage our departments not to take what we call a ‘bunker mentality,‘ to hunker down and refuse to ask questions. And they are listening.”

“When my police chiefs terminate someone, they can’t even turn to the rest of the department and explain why,” said O’Linn. “We do encourage departments to be more forthcoming, but they also have to act within the law.”

In the end, much of the issue was about public trust, said moderator Frank Stoltze as the evening drew to a close. “I think the challenging thing is if there’s been misconduct, the public wants to know what’s happening to law enforcement officers who are engaging in bad behavior,” said Stoltze. “I think the question is confidence in law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Department may be taking care of bad cops and firing them, but we don’t know that.”

Posted in Freedom of Information, Jim McDonnell, journalism, LASD, law enforcement | 5 Comments »

Crime, Justice & Pulitzers….& the LA Times Books Prizes

April 20th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


The winners of the LA Times Book Awards were announced Saturday night on the USC campus. It was a grand and glorious night devoted to the celebration of good literature.

(You can find the complete list of winners of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize here.)

But for those of you who, like me, are criminal justice junkies, (and also reading junkies) the Current Interest nonfiction list of finalists for the LAT prize is one that you should definitely check out.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I was one of the judges for the Current Interest prize.)

We found all five of the books we chose as finalists to be stellar, which meant we struggled to settle on a winner, with several of the books holding the top spot at one point in the judging or other.

The five were:

Atul Gawande,Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End”

Jeff Hobbs, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap”

Héctor Tobar, “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

These are all important books that each read with the narrative urgency of a novel. Yet, obviously, not all deal with justice issues:

Atul Gwande’s essential “Being Mortal,” is about the limits of medicine and how well or poorly we deal with aging and dying.

Hector Tobar’s brilliant “Deep, Down, Dark” tells the remarkable tale of the 33 trapped Chilean miners, their rescue and the aftermath.

But then there is Matt Taibbi’s “The Divide, which lays out, in relentlessly reported detail, stories of investment banks, hedge funds and short-sellers, many of whom commit extravagant crimes without being held to account, juxtaposed with the poor, whom Taibbi shows being locked up on the flimsiest of pretexts.

And there is Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” which recounts-–with stories that come from Stevenson’s own experience as a public interest lawyer—the many different and devastating ways that brutality, unfairness, and racial bias continue to infect criminal law in the United States

And finally there is the winner: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs.

Although the issue of race and justice is one of the many threads that wind through Hobbes’ haunting narrative about his near-genius Yale roommate who is shot to death in a marijuana deal gone bad, it is merely one thread in a complex and unforgettable interweave.

Here’s what we judges wrote when we turned our selection in to the Times.

We know the ending of the story before we open The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, yet when we arrive at the moment foretold by this important book’s title, author Hobbs has engaged us so completely that we wish to reach inside the narrative and roll back time, to make the finale play out differently, to force the spectacularly gifted, charismatic, courageous and painfully conflicted Peace to walk quickly in another direction. Hobbs’ deeply reported and mesmerizing work of literary journalism avoids easy assumptions, while offering us many satisfying gifts and troubling questions.

So read it. Hell, read ‘em all. You won’t be sorry.


LA Times book prizes were on Saturday, then the Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday and, among the winners and finalists, there were some works of extraordinarily fine journalism pertaining to the world of crime, justice, and juvenile welfare that you shouldn’t miss. To wit:


The Pulitzer’s top journalism prize for Public Service was awarded to the staff members of the Charleston Post-Courier for their shattering series, Till Death Do Us Part, about South Carolina’s murder rate for women, which is twice that of the nation’s.

Here’s a clip from Part I:

More than 300 women were shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten, bludgeoned or burned to death over the past decade by men in South Carolina, dying at a rate of one every 12 days while the state does little to stem the carnage from domestic abuse.

More than three times as many women have died here at the hands of current or former lovers than the number of Palmetto State soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

It’s a staggering toll that for more than 15 years has placed South Carolina among the top 10 states nationally in the rate of women killed by men. The state topped the list on three occasions, including this past year, when it posted a murder rate for women that was more than double the national rate.

Awash in guns, saddled with ineffective laws and lacking enough shelters for the battered, South Carolina is a state where the deck is stacked against women trapped in the cycle of abuse, a Post and Courier investigation has found.

Couple this with deep-rooted beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and the place of women in the home, and the vows “till death do us part” take on a sinister tone.

Consider 25-year-old Erica Olsen of Anderson, who was two months pregnant when her boyfriend stabbed her 25 times in front of her young daughter in October 2006. Or Andrenna Butler, 72, whose estranged husband drove from Pennsylvania to gun her down in her Newberry home in December. Or 30-year-old Dara Watson, whose fiancé shot her in the head at their Mount Pleasant home and dumped her in a Lowcountry forest in February 2012 before killing himself.

Interviews with more than 100 victims, counselors, police, prosecutors and judges reveal an ingrained, multi-generational problem in South Carolina, where abusive behavior is passed down from parents to their children. Yet the problem essentially remains a silent epidemic, a private matter that is seldom discussed outside the home until someone is seriously hurt.

“We have the notion that what goes on between a couple is just between the couple and is none of our business,” said 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, chief prosecutor for Charleston and Berkeley counties. “Where that analysis goes wrong is we have to remember that couple is training their little boy that this is how he treats women and training their little girl that this is what she should expect from her man. The cycle is just perpetual.”


One of the co-winners of the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting was Eric Lipton of the New York Times for his very disturbing stories showing how the influence of congressional lobbyists can slant justice toward the wealthy and connected—which is a definite must read.

The other co-winner was the Wall Street Journal staff for “Medicare Unmasked,” a remarkable project “that gave Americans unprecedented access to previously confidential data on the motivations and practices of their health care providers.”

But it is the runner-up for Investigative Reporting that we want to draw to your attention. It is a searing investigative report by Chicago Tribune journalists David Jackson, Gary Marx and Duaa Eldeib, about Illinois residential treatment centers for juveniles where kids are mistreated in ghastly ways.

Here’s a clip:

In residential treatment centers across Illinois, children are assaulted, sexually abused and running away by the thousands — yet state officials fail to act on reports of harm and continue sending waves of youths to the most troubled and violent facilities, a Tribune investigation found.

At a cost to taxpayers of well over $200 million per year, the residential centers promise round-the-clock supervision and therapy to state wards with histories of abuse and neglect, as well as other disadvantaged youths with mental health and behavioral problems. On any given day, about 1,400 wards live in the centers, although far more cycle through each year.

In the best cases, the facilities rebuild and even save young lives. But the Tribune found that many underprivileged youths — most of them African-American — are shuttled for years from one grim institution to another before emerging more damaged than when they went in.

Reports of patient-on-patient sexual assault are commonplace at some of Illinois’ largest and most relied-on facilities. Child prostitution schemes take root. Vulnerable children are terrorized by older ones and taught a life of crime. Some are preyed on sexually by the adults paid to care for them. And staggering numbers of wards, some as young as 10, flee to the streets.


In the category of Features, the winner was Diana Marcum of the Los Angeles Times for her compassionate and piercing dispatches from California’s Central Valley as its residents cope with the drought.

But it is the work of finalist Jennifer Gonnerman writing for the New Yorker, that we want to direct you toward. Her story about 16-year-old Kalief Browder who was accused of taking a backpack, a crime he maintained in the face enormous pressure, that he didn’t commit. As a consequence, Browder spent more than a thousand days at Rikers Island—many of them in solitary confinement—with no conviction before the district attorney simply dismissed the case.

With much of his adolescence simply lost to the system, Browder is working to make something of his life as he battles the ever-present emotional wounds of those frightening years inside Rikers.

Here’s a clip:

Browder’s brother…noticed a growing tendency toward despair. When Browder talked about his case, he was “strong, adamant: ‘No, they can’t do this to me!’ ” But, when the conversation turned to life in jail, “it’s a totally different personality, which is depressed. He’s, like, ‘I don’t know how long I can take this.’ ”

Browder got out of the Bing [solitary] in the fall of 2011, but by the end of the year he was back—after yet another fight, he says. On the night of February 8, 2012—his six-hundred-and-thirty-fourth day on Rikers—he said to himself, “I can’t take it anymore. I give up.” That night, he tore his bedsheet into strips, tied them together to make a noose, attached it to the light fixture, and tried to hang himself. He was taken to the clinic, then returned to solitary. Browder told me that his sheets, magazines, and clothes were removed—everything except his white plastic bucket.

On February 17th, he was shuttled to the courthouse once again, but this time he was not brought up from the court pen in time to hear his case called. (“I’ll waive his appearance for today’s purposes,” his lawyer told the judge.) For more than a year, he had heard various excuses about why his trial had to be delayed, among them that the prosecutor assigned to the case was on trial elsewhere, was on jury duty, or, as he once told the judge, had “conflicts in my schedule.” If Browder had been in the courtroom on this day, he would have heard a prosecutor offer a new excuse: “Your Honor, the assigned assistant is currently on vacation.” The prosecutor asked for a five-day adjournment; Browder’s lawyer requested March 16th, and the judge scheduled the next court date for then.

The following night, in his solitary cell on Rikers, Browder shattered his plastic bucket by stomping on it, then picked up a piece, sharpened it, and began sawing his wrist. He was stopped after an officer saw him through the cell window and intervened.

Browder was still on Rikers Island in June of 2012, when his high-school classmates collected their diplomas, and in September, when some of them enrolled in college. In the fall, prosecutors offered him a new deal: if he pleaded guilty, he’d get two and a half years in prison, which meant that, with time served, he could go home soon. “Ninety-nine out of a hundred would take the offer that gets you out of jail,” O’Meara told me. “He just said, ‘Nah, I’m not taking it.’ He didn’t flinch. Never talked about it. He was not taking a plea.”


And, we don’t want to forget, in the category of Breaking News, the LA Times staff was a finalist for their quick and excellent coverage of the Isla Vista shooting rampage. “The staff mobilized reporters in the middle of the night to cover a deadly spree near the campus of UC Santa Barbara that left seven dead, including the killer, and wounding 13,” said the Times in announcing the honor.

Posted in art and culture, arts, Books, children and adolescents, Civil Rights, criminal justice, journalism, writers and writing | No Comments »

Inmates Write their Own Obits, Community Policing, Ferguson Reports, and #Cut50

March 5th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


In this exceptional multimedia Column One story by the LA Time’s Chris Megerian, San Quentin State Prison inmates share obituaries they’ve written for themselves as part of a writing assignment. The inmates designed their own demise (several chose to die protecting others) and for what they wanted to be remembered.

Here’s a clip, but definitely go over to Megerian’s story and read and watch for yourself:

Since Julian Glenn Padgett arrived in 2006, he’s enrolled in academic classes and played Shylock in a prison production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” Even while sitting in a cramped storage closet during a break from his work at the inmate-run newspaper, he spoke with the intensity of an actor on stage. Asked about committing murder, he cited a Walt Whitman poem.

Padgett stabbed and killed a man he believed was a romantic rival. Therefore, his victim cannot “contribute a verse” in “the powerful play” of life.

“I don’t want to be remembered as the man to do that,” he said. Like You, he doesn’t mention his crime in his fictional obituary.

Padgett, a 51-year-old Ethiopian Jew who wears a knit kippa over his dreadlocks, was convicted in 1997 in Sacramento and isn’t eligible for parole until 2023.

His obituary is brimming with passion for outdoor activities that are out of reach.

“Julian loved everything to do with nature,” he writes, “and often took trips with many of his friends on the weekends where they would go camping, horse back riding, snow and water skiing and his favorite mountain climbing.”

Padgett describes an epic death from an earthquake striking the Bay Area. It was the first thing that came to mind, he said.

“Earthquakes are memorable. They’re forces of nature,” he said. “To take me out, it would take something like that.”


The day after Sunday’s LAPD Skid Row shooting of an unarmed homeless man, the White House released an interim report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (established after the controversial deaths in Ferguson, New York, Los Angeles, and Cleveland at the hands of officers). The report lauded the LAPD’s Watts and East LA community policing teams as well as its civilian oversight commission.

However, the shooting highlights how important it is that Los Angeles law enforcement agencies continue working toward better community relations through training, new programs, and policy changes.

KPCC’s Erika Aguilar has more on the issue. Here are some clips:

“Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community,” the report states.

The task force was formed in December in response to the national debate on policing after officers in Ferguson, Los Angeles, New York and Cleveland killed young African-American men.

In the federal report, the Los Angeles Police department’s community policing teams in Watts and East Los Angeles were highlighted for building on-the-ground relationships with public housing residents. Officers there are assigned to community policing teams for five years and are offered more pay, according to the federal report.

Los Angeles also earned a mention for its civilian oversight board.

But shootings like the one on Skid Row expose the remaining rifts between police and communities.

Criminology professor Elliot Currie of the University of California, Irvine said having multiple policing programs is a good start, but the goal is for police departments to implement relationship-based policing across the board.

“What we want is for these not to be considered as scattered programs that we implement within a police department that’s otherwise unchanged,” Currie said. “But that we slowly shift the whole conception of what a police department is.”

Here is a clip from Los Angele Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s statement to the task force late last month about the challenges the sheriff’s department faces with regard to ensuring better interactions with the mentally ill:

We are…ill equipped to address the challenges of this population in patrol. Patrol personnel lack the requisite mental health training and we have a dearth of Mental Evaluation (or ”MET”) Teams and community supports to help deputies properly handle and deescalate contacts with mentally ill persons. In 2013, nearly 40% of all use of force incidents involved individuals suffering from mental illness and in too many cases we “arrest” our way out of these encounters rather than diverting individuals to the community treatment and care they need.

The strategies that can enable us to change this paradigm exist and are in place in pieces around the nation, but have yet to be brought to scale throughout the country. We need:

1. Resources to support crisis intervention (“CIT”) training so deputies working the streets (as well as within Custody) know how to identify and respond to individuals with mental disorders and, wherever possible, divert entry into the justice system.

2. Support for MET teams where we pair deputies with mental health clinicians and create a comprehensive response to those in crisis. In LA these teams are few and far between – often they operate only during business hours and can be as much as an hour away from a critical incident.

3. Support for community-based resource centers with multidisciplinary treatment in a therapeutic environment that avoids incarceration. These models exist elsewhere and, in the long run, result in improved outcomes as well as fiscal savings.

4. A new paradigm with strategies that focus on alternatives to incarceration – including mental health courts and other diversion strategies.


In an 86-page report released Wednesday, the US Department of Justice cleared Ferguson officer Darren Wilson of “prosecutable [civil rights] violations” in the death of Michael Brown.

A separate DOJ investigation found systemic racial bias and policing-for-profit within Ferguson’s police force and court system. Among other findings in the scathing 100-page report, black residents accounted for 85% of FPD’s traffic stops, 90% of citations, and 93% percent of arrests. The report calls for….

The Washington Post’s Mark Berman and Wesley Lowery have a helpful cliff-notes list of the report’s highlights.

(And here’s a WaPo list of alarming statistics from the report.)


The Marshall Project’s Dana Goldstein explores what it would take to fulfill the goal of the #Cut50 movement to reduce the nation’s jail population by 50% within 10 years. That would mean more than a million fewer people would be locked up, through things like changing sentencing laws, bolstering diversion and reentry programs, and split-sentencing.

This figure is not attainable even by giving up the war on drugs and completely eradicating incarceration for non-serious/non-violent/non-sex offenses. Those convicted of violent crimes would have to be part of the population reduction equation.

This has criminal justice reform advocates on both sides of party lines disagreeing about the 50% goal, whether it’s feasible and inline with public safety, and what it would take to get there.

Goldstein’s story includes an interactive section that allows you to move sliders for offender groups and make your own 50%. (Go try it.) Here’s a clip:

Vikrant Reddy, coordinator of the Right on Crime campaign, agreed. “The focus among conservatives is the low-level nonviolent offenders.” As for Cut50, “I just don’t like the name of this organization. The reason is because I see this issue, and most conservatives see this issue, in terms of public safety. If I felt confident the levels of incarceration we have in the United States made us a safer society, I would begrudgingly say, ‘So be it.’”

“I really admire what Cut50 is trying to do, but I am concerned that people are going to misunderstand it,” Reddy added. “The bottom line is not just getting the levels of incarceration down. The end point is that crime rates are still too high.” (Crime is currently at a four-decade low, although rates remain high in segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods.)

Civil rights activist Van Jones is co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, the organization promoting the “Cut50” tagline. Jones and Gingrich are co-hosting a March 26 conference in Washington, D.C. to bring criminal justice reformers together across party lines. Jones acknowledges that conservatives have not signed onto the Cut50 goal. But he points out that many people convicted of violent crimes have, in fact, not hurt anyone physically, such as offenders picked up for theft or burglary and discovered to have a gun on them.

“We might want to look at whether someone who had a gun but didn’t use it should be considered violent,” Jones said. “People will say that’s gun crime and you can’t talk about them. Well, I think that’s ridiculous.”

That might discomfit some liberals who favor stricter gun controls. Meanwhile, the idea of the home as a castle has been popular on the right, resulting in laws that rank burglary alongside violent bodily assault. So on both sides of the political spectrum there is lingering support for the tough sentences that would have to be reduced in order to cut the prison population by 50 percent.

Jones and other reformers, both progressive and conservative, say it is not yet time to focus on the hot-button question of whether to redefine violent crime. “We’re not heavily leaning into that part of the conversation yet, because there is so much common ground on the nonviolent offenders, the indigent population, and the mental health population. We think we can get some momentum going,” Jones said.

Meanwhile, some scholars point out just how modest — by international and historic standards — a 50 percent reduction in the prison population would be.

“When does mass incarceration become regular incarceration?” asked Michael Jacobson, a former New York City corrections and probation commissioner and director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance. To bring the United States to a prison incarceration rate equal to that of European nations — or to our own rate in the early 1970s — we would have to slash our incarceration rate from 623 per every 100,000 adults to about 150 per 100,000. That would be a reduction of approximately 80 percent.

Posted in Jim McDonnell, journalism, LAPD, LASD, mental health, prison, racial justice, Sentencing, War on Drugs, writers and writing | 4 Comments »

Independent Investigations into Police-Killings, Restorative Justice in LA, Broken City Poets, and Streetcraft LA

January 12th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Several states, including California, are considering legislative measures that would require outside investigation of killings by police officers, which are ordinarily investigated by the local District Attorney’s office. In the wake of non-indictments for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there is rising concern that the connections between county district attorneys and law enforcement agencies may create a conflict of interest.

If passed, the California bill, authored by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), would transfer the investigation to a state Department of Justice panel that would then issue a recommendation to the local DA’s office as well as the California Attorney General. (Read more about the bill, which is still in its early stages, on Assemblymember McCarty’s website.)

New Jersey, Missouri, Colorado, and New York are all also looking into taking these particular investigation responsibilities out of the hands of district attorneys, following in the footsteps of Wisconsin where an independent panel must review officer-involved deaths.

But reactions to such legislation are mixed.

The Wall Street Journal’s Zusha Elinson has more on this interesting and complex issue. Here are some clips:

Maki Haberfeld, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that such changes don’t get at the real issues involved in American policing and use of force.

“Political decisions are based on how little I can pay to satisfy people: ‘Let me create a new entity and I will call it the special prosecutor or whatever,’ ” she said. “That’s a reactive approach, not proactive: There is a need to invest in recruitment, selection and training and then we will have less need for investigations.”


William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said there is no need to pass laws such as the one in Wisconsin. “I think it would be better to have a common-sense approach and utilize outside agencies on an as-needed basis,” he said.

But Jim Bueermann, a former Redlands, Calif., police chief who heads a research organization called the Police Foundation, believes more states will follow Wisconsin.

“I just don’t see that it would be overly problematic for most police departments,” he said. “Best practices would indicate that you wouldn’t investigate yourself in criminal investigations.”

But Mr. Bueermann said that a balance must be struck, arguing that too much scrutiny of split-second decisions can have consequences on the streets. “When police feel they are being judged inappropriately or too harshly, there is a phenomenon called ‘de-policing’ and they stop being proactive and become entirely reactive,” he said.


As the restorative justice school discipline model spreads to school districts across the nation, suspension numbers are rapidly shrinking. Last year, in Los Angeles, suspensions were down 89% from five years ago, thanks, in part, to swapping out harsh zero-tolerance policies, and engaging students, their peers, and teachers in conflict resolution activities. And in 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District mandated that all schools adopt the restorative justice system by 2020.

The AP’s Christine Armario tells the story of Augustus Hawkins High School in South LA, which was built in 2012, and has experienced a dramatic discipline turnaround in just a few short years. Here’s a clip:

In the last three years, Marcquees Banks has been taken out of class twice and sent to another school for getting into fights.

The third time he got into a scuffle, something different happened: A counselor at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles pulled Banks and the other teen aside and told them they needed to talk.

Seated face to face, Joseph Luciani asked them to explain why they’d fought and how they felt — part of the school’s new approach to discipline that is catching on in urban districts and focuses more on students working out their differences with counselors than suspensions.

“I realized we had a lot of similarities,” said Banks, 17, who said his father is involved in a gang and his mother jobless.


The Center for Investigative Reporting and Youth Speaks (a non-profit that helps kids in SF and around the world find their voices through spoken-word poetry) together commissioned Bay Area slam poet and activist, Josh Merchant, to teach workshops mixing poetry and investigative journalism to Stockton kids.

The goal was to help kids find and use their voices to cope with issues in their struggling city. We encourage you to watch the resulting documentary, Broken City Poets (above), in its entirety.


The Santa Monica non-profit, Streetcraft LA, redirects gifted young taggers from the streets, teaching them how to channel their talents to earn an income—selling their designs on clothing, wall art, and other merchandise. Streetcraft LA has provided a positive and profitable outlet to around 75 Los Angeles kids, who are either at risk or have spent time behind bars for tagging.

KPCC’s Adrian Florido has the story. Here are some clips:

Bobby Rodriguez started tagging when he was 13, spray painting illegal graffiti art from San Pedro to San Bernardino. Life in that world led to other illicit activity and several arrests…

Today, at 25, Rodriguez is an aspiring commercial artist, thanks in part to the efforts of a Santa Monica-based nonprofit called Streetcraft L.A.

Streetcraft co-founder Jonathan Mooney calls it a social venture, designed to show talented but troubled kids like Rodriguez that their art can be a source of legitimate income.

“There’s this misconception that graffiti is gang related,” Mooney said, adding that most is not. “It’s often creative young people who don’t have a different channel for their creativity.”


In the two years since Streetcraft was founded, about 75 young artists have taken its classes, though the organization doesn’t track how many kids give up illegal tagging after going through its program.

Streetcraft co-founder Mooney said the nonprofit is also working to become something of a diversion program for kids arrested for graffiti.

“We have begun the process of building a relationship with folks in the juvenile justice system to see Streetcraft as a way to perhaps give a kid a second chance to apply that creativity in a different way,” he said.

Posted in journalism, juvenile justice, LAUSD, law enforcement, Prosecutors, Restorative Justice, writers and writing, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | No Comments »

LAPD Discipline Survey, the Marshall Project Launch: Missed Habeas Corpus Deadlines, and CA Ordered to Start Paroling Second-Strikers,

November 17th, 2014 by Taylor Walker


An LA Police Department discipline survey of 500 officers and civilian workers in response to former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner’s rampage over his alleged biased termination from the department. While the department found the firing of Dorner justified upon review, it opened up a discussion among other officers who felt they had experienced discriminatory or otherwise unfair discipline.

The survey indicated that officers and other employees commonly feel the LAPD discriminates based on gender, ethnicity, and rank. But the results were mixed, in some cases. For instance, some survey-takers said they believed minorities were treated unfairly in the disciplinary process, while others said they believed minorities received better treatment from the disciplinary process because the department feared potential lawsuits. Similar contradictory opinions were given regarding female officers.

A considerable number of officers felt the department takes too many complaints made against officers, particularly ones that are “obviously false.” According to the survey, a yearly average of 28% of LAPD employees have at least one complaint filed against them.

The survey recommends updating and distributing complaint, discipline, and penalty guides, as well as regularly gathering and analyzing department data on these issues.

KPCC’s Erika Aguilar has more on the report. Here’s a clip:

The survey was done shortly after former LAPD officer Christopher Dorner was killed in February. The disgruntled ex-officer murdered four people and prompted a massive manhunt before fatally shooting himself during a standoff in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Though officers expressed disgust with Dorner’s actions, some said his grievances about disciplinary bias within the police department sounded legitimate. After a review of Dorner’s disciplinary hearing, the department declared his firing was justified.

The LAPD asked focus groups of employees to give anonymous feedback using a computer system. A group of academics and human relations consultants analyzed the feedback to look for trends.

Below is a sampling of some of the comments published in the survey report.

“Females are held to a lesser standard due to fear of lawsuits or claims of bias.”

“Race is a factor in the discipline system.”

“The media and public pressure have a direct impact on how discipline investigations are handled.”

“Discipline is not imposed when it involves managers and supervisors.”

L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck has been criticized for inconsistent discipline for several years now. It surged in the last year or so when a few LAPD captains filed lawsuits alleging unfair discipline and retaliation, saying Beck did not follow top brass recommendations for disciplining other officers. It has been one of the complaints of the L.A. police union that represents the rank-and-file.

The LA Times’ Joel Rubin and Jack Leonard also reported on the survey. Here’s a small clip:

The report…contained data that raised doubts about some of those perceptions of bias. Statistics compiled by the LAPD show that the ethnic, gender and rank breakdown of officers sent to disciplinary panels for suspensions or termination roughly matches the demographics of the LAPD as a whole. White officers, for example, make up 36% of the department and 35% of officers sent to a Board of Rights disciplinary hearing for a lengthy suspension or termination. Black officers account for 12% of officers and 14% of those sent to such hearings.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck ordered the report more than 20 months ago after Dorner, an ex-LAPD officer, went on a shooting rampage across Southern California, killing police officers as well as the daughter of an LAPD captain and her boyfriend. In a rambling online document, Dorner claimed that he was seeking retribution after being unfairly fired and was the victim of racial discrimination within the department.

The civilian Police Commission is expected to review the report at a meeting next week.


Ken Armstrong, of the new non-profit news organization launched over the weekend, the Marshall Project, has an excellent two-part series in the Sunday Washington Post about what happens when lawyers miss the final deadline for their death row clients’ last-chance appeal.

The first story tells of the 80 death penalty cases in which lawyers miss the final appeal deadline, by an average of nearly two and a half years (but in several cases by a single day). Of these 80 death row inmates thus denied habeas corpus, 16 have been executed. The reasons attorneys miss the cut off run the gamut from failing to overnight documents, to misunderstanding the complicated habeas law, to neglect. Here are some clips:

An investigation by The Marshall Project shows that since President Bill Clinton signed the one-year statute of limitations into law — enacting a tough-on-crime provision that emerged in the Republicans’ Contract with America — the deadline has been missed at least 80 times in capital cases. Sixteen of those inmates have since been executed — the most recent was on Thursday, when Chadwick Banks was put to death in Florida.​

By missing the filing deadline, those inmates have usually lost access to habeas corpus, arguably the most critical safeguard in the United States’ system of capital punishment. “The Great Writ,” as it is often called (in Latin it means “you have the body”), habeas corpus allows prisoners to argue in federal court that the conviction or sentence they received in a state court violates federal law.

For example, of the 12 condemned prisoners who have left death row in Texas after being exonerated since 1987, five of them were spared in federal habeas corpus proceedings. In California, 49 of the 81 inmates who had completed their federal habeas appeals by earlier this year have had their death sentences vacated.

The prisoners who missed their habeas deadlines have sometimes forfeited powerful claims. Some of them challenged the evidence of their guilt, and others the fairness of their sentences. One Mississippi inmate was found guilty partly on the basis of a forensic hair analysis that the FBI now admits was flawed. A prisoner in Florida was convicted with a type of ballistics evidence that has long since been discredited.


Some of the lawyers’ mistakes can be traced to their misunderstandings of federal habeas law and the notoriously complex procedures that have grown up around it. Just as often, though, the errors have exposed the lack of care and resources that have long plagued the patchwork system by which indigent death-row prisoners are provided with legal help.

The right of condemned inmates to habeas review “should not depend upon whether their court-appointed counsel is competent enough to comply with [the] statute of limitations,” one federal appeals judge, Beverly B. Martin, wrote in an opinion earlier this year. She added that allowing some inmates into the court system while turning others away because of how their lawyers missed filing deadlines was making the federal appeals process “simply arbitrary,” she added.

In the second story, Armstrong explains how only the death penalty inmates suffer the consequences of these lawyers’ missed deadlines. Here’s a clip:

Among the dozens of attorneys who have borne some responsibility for those mistakes, only one has been sanctioned for missing the deadline by a professional disciplinary body, the investigation found. And that attorney was given a simple censure, one of the profession’s lowest forms of punishment.

The lack of oversight or accountability has left many of the lawyers who missed the habeas deadlines free to seek appointment by the federal courts to new death-penalty appeals….

In 17 of the country’s 94 federal judicial districts, special teams of government-funded lawyers and investigators monitor the capital cases coming out of their state courts to make sure deadlines are recognized and met. In some other districts, the federal defender’s office helps to evaluate the private attorneys who might be appointed to handle those appeals.

But for lawyers outside the government, the work is difficult and often unpopular, with limited funds available for investigators and experts. And in most districts, where judges screen candidates themselves or with the help of review committees, the quality of legal counsel varies widely.

Federal judges sometimes appoint lawyers “who are not good enough to handle these cases,” says habeas expert Randy A. Hertz, a professor at the New York University School of Law.

However well-meaning, such lawyers may be inexperienced or overmatched. Some may know the judges who make the appointments, but not the voluminous and complex law surrounding habeas corpus. Others have been found to have mental-health problems, substance-abuse issues or other complications that were missed in their screening.

In about one-third of the 80 cases where habeas deadlines were missed, the federal courts eventually allowed prisoners to go forward with their appeals, often because their attorneys’ failures went beyond what the courts would categorize as mere negligence.

Yet even when attorneys have been chastised in federal court rulings for work described as “inexcusable” or “deeply unprofessional,” they have managed to evade any discipline from bar associations or other agencies. One lawyer castigated by the U.S. Supreme Court for “serious instances of attorney misconduct” still has an unblemished disciplinary record.

A prominent death-penalty defense lawyer, Gretchen Engel of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in North Carolina, offered a simple reason for the discrepancy between the magnitude of some lawyers’ mistakes and the paltry consequences they face: “The people who were hurt by it are prisoners.”

The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone speaks with Marshall Project founder Neil Barksy and editor Bill Keller (formerly NY Times editor-in-chief) about the Marshall Project, its mission, and what we can expect from the new publication. Here are some clips:

Neil Barsky has taken on varied roles over the years, from Wall Street Journal reporter to Wall Street analyst, hedge fund manager to documentary filmmaker. Now he has returned to the newsroom as founder and chairman of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering criminal justice and edited by New York Times veteran Bill Keller.

Barsky’s interest in criminal justice and the inequities of the U.S. system was ignited in recent years by two books: The New Jim Crow, which tackles mass incarceration and the over-representation of African-Americans in prison, and Devil in the Grove, which focuses on a 1949 rape case fought by Thurgood Marshall, then head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and later the first black Supreme Court justice. The project gets its name from Marshall — and for Barsky, its inspiration.

In an interview at The Marshall Project’s midtown New York offices before Sunday’s launch, Barsky said he wants to push criminal justice issues into the national spotlight. There’s a lack of urgency in dealing with the system’s flaws, he said, despite “how abysmal the status quo is.”


Keller said he likes coming out of the gate with Armstrong’s piece because it shows readers that The Marshall Project won’t expose flaws in the system only when they concern the wrongly convicted.

“The easiest way to get reader sympathy is to write about people who are innocent,” Keller said. “Everybody feels a sense of unfairness if the law sends somebody away to jail for something they didn’t commit.”

Keller recalled how early on, he and Barsky visited different advocacy organizations, including the Innocence Project, which fights to exonerate those wrongly convicted through DNA evidence. After their meeting, Keller recalled that Barsky said, “You know, we’re sort of the Guilt Project.”

“Most of what we’re going to write about is people who are not innocent,” Keller said. “But people who are not innocent are entitled to a fair trial. They’re entitled to not being raped when they get to prison. They’re entitled to competent defense. They’re entitled to prosecutors who don’t withhold exonerating information. They’re entitled to cops who follow Miranda. All these things that are built into our criminal justice system are there for the guilty as well as the innocent. That’s one of the reasons I particularly liked this piece as a debut.”


On Friday, federal judges ordered California to begin early parole hearings for non-violent second-strike felons by January, overriding the state’s projected hearing launch time-frame of July 2015. The state has been meeting mini-goals set toward a two-year population reduction goal by expanding parole and sentence reduction programs and policies. But because the prison population is still expected to grow, the federal judges are pushing for more lasting solutions. (For backstory on California’s prison population problems, go here, and here.)

The LA Times’ Paige St. John has more on the topic. Here’s a clip:

In February, California officials were ordered to take a number of steps to reduce inmate numbers. At the same time, federal judges agreed to the state’s request for a two-year extension to meet population caps the courts had been trying to enforce for years.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s corrections department did move thousands of inmates out of state-owned prisons while expanding parole programs for frail and elderly inmates. Corrections officials also increased the sentence reductions some nonviolent felons could earn.

Those moves cut California’s prison population by 1,000 inmates, meeting short-term goals even though state projections show inmate numbers will continue to rise. Judges had sought additional actions to produce a “durable” long-term solution.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has failed to adopt those steps, including the granting of early parole to second-strikers, the judges noted. In October, prison officials told judges that creating such a parole program was “a time-consuming process” and moving faster would “endanger the public.” They did not expect to finish until July 2015.

In an order several weeks ago, the judges said they were “skeptical” of such a delay. On Friday, they gave the state until Dec. 1 to finish plans for the parole program and ordered it in place by January.

Posted in Charlie Beck, criminal justice, Death Penalty, journalism, LAPD, The Feds | No Comments »

WLA’s Editor Wins “Online Journalist of the Year” at SoCal Journalism Awards(!)…LASD Civilian Oversight…Costly Prison Phone Calls…and More

June 30th, 2014 by Taylor Walker


I am very happy to report that WitnessLA’s editor, Celeste Fremon, has won 1st place at the SoCal Journalism Award for the “Online Journalist of the Year” category.

The judges called Celeste’s work for 2013: “a compelling look into problems in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Celeste did a great job decoding complex issues into a fascinating narrative.”

The rest of the winners can be found here.


Citing the Inspector General’s undefined power and tenure, an excellent LA Times editorial calls on the LA County Board of Supervisors to create a nine-person citizen’s oversight commission to watch over the Sheriff’s Department. The editorial says the commission should hold public meetings, and be free of micromanagement by the Supes, and that members should serve for set terms.

Here’s a clip:

The board started out on the right foot last year when it created the Office of Inspector General. It was designed to replace both a special counsel, who presented regular reports and recommendations to the Board of Supervisors but didn’t get enough public attention to spark any follow-up, and the Office of Independent Review, which relied too much on the sheriff’s voluntary cooperation to be a credible monitor.

But the supervisors rejected the strong recommendation of the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence to appoint the inspector general to a set term and make him removable only for good cause. And the board still hasn’t brokered an agreement with the Sheriff’s Department over the scope of the inspector general’s powers. So no matter how strong the work ethic and integrity of Inspector General Max Huntsman, he is an at-will employee of the Board of Supervisors with no law establishing his power or authority to investigate the sheriff.

Meanwhile, the county’s contracts with its previous monitors expire Monday, so for the first time in two decades there will be no independent sheriff oversight. Despite the opportunity and necessity for improvement, the county is in danger of falling backward.

Forward momentum will depend on more than new promises by the supervisors to do a better job of keeping an eye on the sheriff. It will require the board to create a citizens oversight commission that conducts its meetings in public and has the kind of insulation from micromanaging that so far the board has denied the inspector general. There should be nine members on the commission, enough for each county supervisor to appoint one while still allowing sufficient appointments by other authorities to prevent the commission from becoming the board’s proxy. Members should serve for set, nonrenewable terms, and be removable only on a showing of good cause.


In prisons all over the country, private companies—Global Tel-Link and JPay, in particular—are charging inmates preposterously high fees for phone, internet, and money services. Unfortunately, the brunt of the costs fall on the families of the incarcerated. And there’s no real competition from other companies who might charge lower fees. Global Tel-Link and JPay both pay cash-strapped cities, counties, and states incentives to secure their contracts within prisons. (In New York State, where these commissions are forbidden, inmates pay a fraction in comparison—72 cents for a 15-minute call.)

Global Tel-Link and JPay both have contracts in California through which they overcharge California prison and jail inmates’ loved ones.

In August of last year, the FCC placed a cap on how much companies can charge inmates for interstate calls at 25 cents per minute. That was a significant victory, but Global Tel-Link and JPay can (and do) continue to charge prisoners and their families shocking fees for in-state calls, money transfers, and other services. (For previous WLA reporting on this issue, go here.)

The NY Times’ Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg have the story. Here are some clips:

It is a lucrative proposition, in part because these companies often operate beyond the reach of regulations that protect ordinary consumers. Inmates say they are being gouged by high costs and hidden fees. Friends and families say they have little choice but to shoulder the financial burden.

But private enterprises are not the only ones profiting. Eager to reduce costs and bolster dwindling budgets, states, counties and cities are seeking a substantial cut in return for letting the businesses into prisons, a review of dozens of contracts by The New York Times found. In Baldwin County, Ala., for instance, the sheriff’s department collects 84 percent of the gross revenue from calls at the county jail. A Texas company has guaranteed the county at least $55 a month per inmate, according to a copy of the contract…

Some corrections departments use the commissions to provide services, said Steve Gehrke, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Corrections. In Washington State, all commissions go toward compensating victims and improving services like libraries.

But even some industry executives see problems with the current setup, saying the commission system encourages providers to charge inmates more, not less, for services. Companies often win contracts based on how much they will offer states via commissions, rather than the rates they charge inmates.

Global Tel-Link, of Reston, Va., has contracts with 2,200 correctional operations serving at least 1.1 million inmates. It argued in recent comments to the Federal Communications Commission that the more states and cities demand in commissions, the more it will charge inmates. “There is no free lunch,” the company said.


While the F.C.C. capped interstate telephone rates at 25 cents a minute earlier this year, after agitation from prisoners’ rights advocates, local phone rates can still be steep and other fees vary widely from state to state. For instance, using a phone to transfer $10 into an inmate’s account via JPay to the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, Mo., costs $3.95, while a similar transfer to the Illinois Youth Center in Chicago runs $5.95.

Placing a 15-minute in-state call from a Union County, N.J., jail costs $8.50, according to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which recently filed a petition asking for lower in-state rates. In New York State, which does not accept commissions from providers, a 15-minute phone call costs just 72 cents.


Every day in the US, an average of 13 kids, teens, and young adults (between the ages of 10-24) are victims of homicide, and more than 1600 are treated in hospitals for assault-related injuries. In fact, homicide is the third leading cause of death in young people nationwide. And 10-to-24-year-olds comprised 40% of arrests for violent crimes in 2012.

A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that youth violence and its devastating effects on kids (especially minorities), families, and their neighborhoods can be prevented, and lists evidence-based solutions communities can implement to counteract this violence.

The report suggests a number of tools and programs, from parenting and family training, to bolstering early childhood education, to data gathering, and policy-reform. Here are some examples:

The Strengthening Families program teaches parents to use discipline, manage their emotions, and communicate with their child and teaches youth strategies to deal with peer pressure, manage stress, and solve problems. Evaluations of this program have shown significant reductions in aggression, hostility, and conduct problems and improvements in parent’s limit-setting, parent-child communication, and youth’s prosocial behavior.

Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care is for youth who need out-of-home placements and includes extensive training of foster parents, family therapy for biological parents, skills training and support for youth, and school-based academic and behavioral supports. This program has been shown to significantly reduce delinquency, violence, and violent crime and sustain improvements over time.

Cure Violence (formally known as CeaseFire) works to interrupt violence, particularly shootings, and change norms about the acceptability and inevitability of violence. An evaluation found reduced shootings and killings and fewer retaliatory killings in most communities where the program was implemented.

These smart, evidenced-based recommendations are a hearteningly long way from the Superpredator theory of the mid-1980s.


Two people died in LA County Sheriff’s Dept. custody on Saturday. A man suspected of being under the influence of drugs was arrested in Lancaster after struggling with deputies. The man became unresponsive in the back of the patrol car, and officers were unable to revive him.

And later that afternoon, a woman was found dead in her bunk at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station jail. The woman had been booked on possession of a controlled substance two days prior, on Thursday.

LASD homicide detectives, Internal Affairs, and the LA Coroner’s Office are investigating both deaths.

KPCC has the story.

Posted in journalism, juvenile justice, LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, LASD, Violence Prevention, women's issues | 27 Comments »

Restorative Justice Transforms Colorado High School, Recommended Longreads, $6.4M for a Wrongful Murder Conviction…and More

February 21st, 2014 by Taylor Walker


Once consumed by chronic suspensions and expulsions, Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colorado has seen significant success using a “restorative justice” student discipline model. (We’ve pointed to other schools successfully swapping zero-tolerance policies for practices that foster positive behavior changes and keep kids in class—here, and here.)

The above PBS NewsHour video and transcript can be found here.


This week the LA Times featured two longform stories we didn’t want you to miss. Both are a testament to the value of narrative journalism’s ability to communicate the things standard reporting cannot.

For several years, Joel Rubin and photographer Brian van der Brug followed a class of LAPD recruits, from their first day in the academy, through graduation, and beyond.

Here’s how it opens (read the rest and watch the video by van der Brug):

Before they hit the streets as new cops, the recruits took a final run together.

It was a fitting end, given all the miles they had logged over the last six months. In a few days, they would graduate from the Los Angeles Police Department’s training academy and scatter to stations throughout the city for their rookie years.

On this misty morning in November 2010, they sang like soldiers do as they jogged from a training facility near LAX to the beach. “Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are. So we tell them, ‘We are the LAPD! Best department in the world!’”

In the front was Clay Bell, a young ex-Marine from Texas who had emerged early as the class leader. In the pack behind him, Ed Anderson sang the loudest. At 46, Anderson was the oldest in the class and the most unlikely cop among them. Vanessa Lopez lagged in the back. Lopez hated running. Barely cracking 5 feet, she had come to the LAPD after the Army told her she was too short to be a helicopter pilot. The LAPD had helicopters.

“Up early with the California sun. Pride run! Last run! Oh, yeah! Almost done!”

They arrived at a bluff overlooking the Pacific and scrambled down to the beach. They stared out onto the water, each of them lost for a moment in their own thoughts. The quiet was broken when a few charged into the water. Others who held back were tossed in. Anderson walked up to Lopez. Still dry, she crossed her arms and shook her head.

They had come to the academy from different worlds — she was a Mexican American from Compton, Anderson a father of two from a wealthy Bay Area town.

They had forged a tight bond over the one thing they had in common: They wanted to be LAPD cops.

“It feels like we’re just getting started,” Anderson said. “Like the hard part is only about to begin.”

In the other LAT longread, Kurt Streeter follows an experimental LAPD squad created to build positive relationships with the community of Jordan Downs, a 700-unit public housing project in Watts. Here’s how it opens:

Officers Keith Linton and Otis Swift stopped their patrol car, rolled down a window and motioned to a hoodie-wearing teenager. In this part of South L.A., such encounters can be tense — or worse.

“Hey, Linton. Hey, Swift,” the teen said. “How y’all doing?”

“Doing good, my man,” Linton replied, launching into a conversation about basketball.

Similar scenes played out all afternoon as the cops worked their beat in Jordan Downs, a housing project in Watts with a violent reputation and a history of ill will between residents and police.

Part of an experimental LAPD squad trying to bring a softer style of policing to the area, Linton and Swift didn’t make arrests or issue tickets. Instead they greeted every resident they could — even giving respectful nods to the gang members hanging out in an area known as the “parolee lot.”

“We haven’t had anyone cussing us out and no one has flipped us the middle finger,” Swift said. “Around here, that’s progress. Not long ago we’d pop in, make an arrest…. We were the invading army.

“We’ve found out that way doesn’t work.”

Jordan Downs, once predominantly African American, is now mostly Latino. More than half its adult residents are unemployed, only two in 100 have college degrees and the average family earns about $1,250 a month. It is home turf for the Grape Street Crips, whose reputation largely defines the development’s identity and whose blood-soaked feuds with rival gangs created the feel of a war zone.

But Los Angeles officials are pinning their hopes on a transformation. They have launched a nearly $1-billion plan to tear down all 700 units and replace them with up to 1,800 mixed-income apartments and a shopping center. The hurdles are significant. The plan leans partly on federal funds that may not materialize. And a parcel of land slated for construction needs cleanup after the discovery of lead and arsenic in the soil.

Anticipating that a makeover eventually will occur, the city’s housing authority is attempting to change the culture of Jordan Downs. The idea is to fill the new buildings with residents who have a fresh outlook and brighter prospects. The authority has poured at least $6 million into programs like job training classes, gang intervention and support groups for parents.

It also wants to do what would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: heal the community’s relationship with police…

(Read on.)


A New York man who spent 23 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction will receive a $6.4 million settlement from New York City.

Former detective Louis Scarcella allegedly manufactured David Ranta’s confession and coerced witnesses to lie about Ranta’s involvement in the murder. And Ranta may not be the only victim. Brooklyn DA Kenneth P. Thompson has created a panel to review more than 50 of Scarcella’s suspiciously obtained convictions. (Go here for WLA’s previous post on the issue.)

The NY Times’ Frances Robles has the story. Here’s how it opens:

A $150 million claim filed last year by the man, David Ranta, was settled by the city comptroller’s office without ever involving the city’s legal department — which the lawyers involved in the negotiations described as a “groundbreaking” decision that acknowledged the overwhelming evidence the city faced.

The comptroller’s quick acceptance of liability in the high-profile conviction is also significant because the case is the first of what is expected to be a series of wrongful conviction claims by men who were sent to prison based on the flawed investigative work of the detective, Louis Scarcella, who has been accused of inventing confessions, coercing witnesses and recycling informers.

“While no amount of money could ever compensate David for the 23 years that were taken away from him, this settlement allows him the stability to continue to put his life back together,” Mr. Ranta’s lawyer, Pierre Sussman, said. “We are now focusing our efforts on pursuing an unjust conviction claim with the State of New York.”


In part three of his editorial series this week, LA Times’ Robert Greene says the Board of Supervisors should consider the structure of the LA Police Commission and the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority when (and if) they create independent oversight of the embattled sheriff’s department.

The format cannot be exactly the same as either. Nor would it be as powerful: the sheriff (unlike the police chief) is an elected leader, and answers to the public. But, Greene says, bits and pieces can, and should, be taken from both the LAPD commission and MTA oversight models to build an influential LASD commission that is more than just an extension of the Board of Supervisors.

Here are some clips:

The city commission actually heads the LAPD and has an essential role in the mayor’s selection of a chief. It conducts weekly sessions which the police chief skips at his peril, and the chief or his staff must answer commissioners’ questions, usually in public although sometimes in closed session.

The commission has its own staff, including an inspector general who is independent from the chain of command. The commission is in some sense the eyes and ears of the mayor, who appoints the members as well as the chief. But because it holds its sessions regularly and mostly in public, and because the chief must appear, present documents, and answer questions as demanded, the commission is also the eyes and ears of the public.

And because the chief knows that in reporting to the mayor, the commissioners have a loud voice in determining whether the chief gets appointed to a second term, the body’s oversight of the Police Department is genuine.

No sheriff’s oversight commission could have any such voice in a second, third or any term for an independently elected sheriff, at least not under current law, and it could only request, not demand, that the sheriff appear and produce documents. How, then, could it exercise genuine oversight?


On its own, the Board of Supervisors can push forward with reforms, as it did with some recommendations offered over the last two decades in 33 substantive reports on the Sheriff’s Department by Special Counsel Merrick Bobb; or it can ignore them, as it did with many others. The task is to make the commission more than just the eyes and ears of the board; like the Police Commission, it must be the eyes and ears of the public.

Because it lacks the Police Commission’s formal power, it must be adept at using moral suasion and focusing public attention; and to do that it must have the credibility of a body that transcends the Board of Supervisors and is not merely the board’s proxies.

(Read the rest of Greene’s suggestions here.)

Posted in Innocence, journalism, LA County Board of Supervisors, LAPD, LASD, Restorative Justice, Uncategorized, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 1 Comment »

Oakland Advocacy Center’s New Future, LA County & the Death Row 2%, and California Media Shield Bill Signed

October 4th, 2013 by Taylor Walker


Had his life played out a little differently, Zachary Norris, the new executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, could have been one of the statistics he seeks to prevent.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s Katy McCarthy has the story. Here’s a clip about what Norris says was his defining moment:

Handcuffed during an act of civil disobedience protesting a new mega detention center in the area, Norris was taken to the nearby Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. That night, sharing a cell with a crowd of other young black men, he recalled, “I had this sense it was all too normal, too normalized.”

Wearing a shirt that read, “Stop the Super Jail,” Norris’ fellow inmates constantly asked him what it meant. When he told them that they were trying to stop a juvenile hall from being built across the street, the response, Norris recalled, was that it was “messed up.” The young men he met that night said building the facility sent a message to a kid that once they got out of juvenile hall they would just end up across the street.

Before becoming executive officer, Norris was essential to the creation of Ella Baker’s Books Not Bars program, a campaign to reform the California juvenile justice system that pulled parents and families into the advocacy team:

While the broad mission of the Ella Baker Center has historically been to advance racial and economic justice for low-income people and people of color, Books Not Bars focused solely on reforming the California youth prison system, with families testifying and advocating every step of the way.

“His work was the first in really bringing family members into the equation,” Burrell said. “Before that, it was all advocates and agency people and it was really an important contribution to bring the parents of children who are affected by all of these policy decisions into the picture.”

Among many accomplishments, Books Not Bars lists closing five of the state’s youth prisons, facilitating the youth prison population’s decline from 4,800 to 922 children, and defeating the 2008 “tough on crime” Proposition 6.

Norris has three promising new core strategies in the works for the Center:

On a local level, the Center is working to create a justice hub for families in Alameda County to assist them in navigating juvenile and criminal justice systems. As Norris foresees it, it will be a peer support group focusing on community-based organizing strategies to impact individual court cases. It will be “families getting together around a table discussing what cases are in front of them or their family members and developing strategies to impact those cases,” Norris said. “I think that often times, policy objectives could come out of that as well.”

Statewide, the Center is continuing to push for legislation that will “move resources from locking people up toward more supportive programs.”

On the national level, Norris said the Center is working with Justice For Families, Strong Families and other coalitions to plan and develop a national, community-driven research project looking at the multi-generational impact of incarceration on families from an economic and public health standpoint. “In some ways, families unlocking futures was the tip of a larger iceberg and we want to look at the iceberg,” he said.

Norris also co-founded of Justice For Families with social justice advocate Grace Bauer, and put out an excellent report on failings of the juvenile justice system, which we pointed to this time last year. (We don’t know a lot about the Ella Baker Center, but what we hear makes us want to know more.)

In the above video, Zachary Norris gets emotional at a downtown Oakland gathering after the Mehserle/Oscar Grant verdict is announced (which we reported on here, in 2010).


A report by the Death Penalty Information Center found that just 2% of counties are accountable for more than half of the nation’s population of death row inmates and those who have been executed since 1974.

Los Angeles County is number one on the list of counties responsible for the death row populace with 228 inmates. The second highest, Harris County, Texas, has 127 fewer inmates than LA with a total of 101. Four other California counties (San Diego, Riverside, Alameda, and Orange County) also made it on the top ten list.

Here’s what the DPIC had to say about the report:

Contrary to the assumption that the death penalty is widely used in the U.S., only a few jurisdictions employ capital punishment extensively, according to a new report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). Only two percent of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976. Likewise, only two percent of the counties are responsible for the majority of today’s death row population and recent death sentences.

“Eighty-five percent of the counties in the U.S. have not had a single case resulting in an execution in over 45 years,” said Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director and author of the report. “The relatively few prosecutors who drive the death penalty create enormous burdens for those outside their district. The rest of the country is paying a high tariff on behalf of the small percentage of the counties that are actually using the death penalty.”

The top ten counties among the two percent of counties responsible for more than half of the nation’s death row population are: Los Angeles County, CA; Harris County, TX; Philadelphia County, PA; Maricopa County, AZ; Riverside County, CA; Clark County, NV; Orange County, CA; Duval County, FL; Alameda County, CA; and San Diego County, CA.

The top ten counties among the two percent of counties responsible for over half of the executions since 1976 are: Harris County, TX; Dallas County, TX; Oklahoma County, OK; Tarrant County, TX; Bexar County, TX; Montgomery County, TX; Tulsa County, OK; Jefferson County, TX; St. Louis County, MO; and Brazos County, TX.

Just four counties in Texas (out of 254) account for almost half of all executions in the state.

Three counties in California produce more than half of the state’s death row – the largest in the country.


On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law an important media shield bill, SB 558, authored by Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance). The new law will ensure that any government agency or investigator gives journalists five days’ notice before going after a subpoena of phone records, internet records, or other third party information.

Reuters’ Sharon Bernstein has the story. Here’s a clip:

The California law, which was sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, mirrors the new regulations put in place at the federal level, said the association’s general counsel, Jim Ewert.

“If a reporter stores information in the cloud or on Google or on a server off-site, now the reporter is going to get notice and the publisher or the station manager is going to get notice of that subpoena,” Ewert said.

The new law, which takes effect on Jan. 1, will require any government agency or individual to provide five days’ notice to reporters and their news organizations before seeking a subpoena of journalistic information from a third party, such as an internet service provider or cell phone company.

California’s existing shield law provides journalists with five days’ notice of subpoenas for information in their possession, but does not apply to information on cloud servers, telephone bills, etc.

The Associated Press says that’s how investigators got away with the secret subpoenas served to AP journalists (and Fox News’ James Rosen) earlier this year. Here’s a clip:

California has a strong shield law for reporters that already requires law enforcement agencies to give five days’ notice to news organizations for subpoenas served on them or their reporters. But Lieu has said the Justice Department probe shows that investigators can bypass that law by secretly subpoenaing telephone or Internet companies for journalists’ personal and work-related information.

(By the way, the remarkably sane and sound legal definition of a “journalist” per the California Constitution’s Article 1, Section 2(b) can be found here.)

Posted in Death Penalty, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), journalism, juvenile justice, Los Angeles County, Uncategorized | No Comments »

House Votes to Deport “Dreamers,” Tar Pits Cold Case…and More

June 7th, 2013 by Taylor Walker

(Video of Thursday’s House decision getting booed.)


The House of Representatives voted Thursday to block funding for the Obama administration program (similar to the Dream Act) that defers the deportation of young immigrants who are in school or the military. The change came in the form of an amendment added to the Department of Homeland Security spending bill currently being considered by the House.

Huffington Post’s Elise Foley has the story. Here are some clips:

The House voted 224-201 on Thursday to end Department of Homeland Security discretion policies that allow it to delay deportations for young, undocumented immigrants and other people deemed low-priority, effectively demanding the government force out Dreamers who came to the United States as children.


The King provision was added to the Department of Homeland Security spending bill currently being considered by the House. It’s almost certain to be opposed by the Democratic-run Senate, or by President Barack Obama, who has expanded the use of discretion in deportation proceedings.


White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement on Thursday vowing the amendment will not be signed into law. The full statement:

As the Senate prepares to debate bipartisan commonsense immigration reform next week, House Republicans chose to spend today passing an extreme amendment to strip protections from “Dreamers.” These are productive members of society who were brought here as young children, grew up in our communities, and became American in every way but on paper. This amendment, sponsored by Representative Steve King, runs contrary to our most deeply-held values as Americans. It asks law enforcement to treat these Dreamers the same way as they would violent criminals. It’s wrong. It’s not who we are. And it will not become law.


A law enforcement task force sent an LAPD diver into the oozing La Brea Tar Pits in search of cold case evidence on Thursday.

LA Times’ Andrew Blankstein has the story (and there’s a short video). Here are some clips:

LAPD Lt. Andrew Neiman would not discuss details of the case and wouldn’t say exactly what authorities were searching for, other than that it involved investigators from a joint task force.

“They requested the assistance of our dive team to search for an item of evidence related to an ongoing homicide investigation,” Neiman said.


“It’s horrible in there,” Neiman said. “There’s a diver in the water in a full dry suit which is completely enclosed. He’s covered with tar. It’s a mess.”

On the warm afternoon when this story broke, LA Times writers couldn’t resist coming up with an endless series of tweet-puns. Here are our favorites from Andrew Blankstein and Joel Rubin:

Joel Rubin ‏(@joelrubin)
.@anblanx Sources tell me it’s a homicide from the Ice Age – a very cold case.

Andrew Blankstein (‏@anblanx)
Cold Case-La Brea Tar Pits @joelrubin: @RobertFaturechi says they are trying to find who killed the dinosaurs. #VeryColdCase #LAPD #FBI


A promising new Santa Barbara investigative and narrative non-profit news site, Mission & State, launched Thursday. M&S has some big journalistic talent behind it, including Joe Donnelly, the former deputy editor of LA Weekly and the founding publisher and co-editor of the quarterly reader Slake: Los Angeles.

They have a page full of interesting articles already up, like this one on Santa Barbara County Main Jail’s problematic releasing of inmates in the middle of the night. Here’s a clip:

There were 8,602 people released from county jail between January and April, according to Santa Barbara County Main Jail Custody Lieutenant Tim McWilliams. Approximately 2,508 people were released between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., about 20 per day. While the jail provides bus vouchers, Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District buses generally don’t run between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., and the bus serving the section of Calle Real adjacent to the jail doesn’t run between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Pressure to release inmates early is coming from two sides—court-ordered caps on the county jail population and AB 109, the state-mandated prison realignment that diverts low-level criminals from state prisons to local jurisdictions. The average daily population has increased from 887 in 2011 to 1,009 as of March 2013 partially because of the realignment, according to Lt. McWilliams.

Posted in immigration, journalism, LAPD, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Executions in CA Still on Pause, Virginia Gives Vote to Some After Prison…and More on DOJ/Media Spying

June 3rd, 2013 by Taylor Walker


The CA stay on executions will remain in place after a three-judge panel of the lst District Court of Appeal in San Francisco upheld a lower court ruling that the CDCR has failed to comply with procedural law when establishing lethal injection regulations.

The Sacramento Bee’s Denny Walsh has the story. Here’s a clip explaining what might come next in the process:

Steve Mayer, lead appellate counsel for the condemned inmates challenging the regulations, estimated it will take “at least nine months to a year, and maybe longer,” if the state decides to craft revised regulations and jump through the rule-making hoops set out in the Administrative Procedure Act.

On the other hand, if the Brown administration petitions the California Supreme Court for review, Mayer said, “we are looking at anywhere from two to four years” before the court issues an opinion. It depends on how long it takes the seven-member court “to get four justices to sign off on something.”

Mayer said the case is unique in that “the CDCR did such a bad job. There wasn’t a single step in the process they did right, so it’s not surprising there is no case law right on point.”


Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell announced that he would automatically restore the voting rights of disenfranchised non-violent offenders who meet certain criteria–a big step in the right direction for a state where over 7% of the adult population is disenfranchised.

In California, voting rights are restored automatically once a person is released from prison and discharged from parole (probationers can vote). You can look up the voting laws for ex-offenders in the rest of the states here.

Here’s a clip from an NY Times editorial on restoring the voting rights of the disenfranchised:

Governor McDonnell’s order, which could cover more than 100,000 people, reflects a growing awareness that disenfranchisement serves no rehabilitative purpose — and may, in fact, contribute to further criminal behavior by forcing former offenders to the margins of society.

In all, nearly six million Americans — about 2.5 percent of the voting-age population — are barred from voting by a confusing patchwork of state laws that strip convicted felons of the right to vote, often temporarily, but sometimes for life. Nearly two dozen states have softened their disenfranchisement policies since the late 1990s, with several states repealing or scaling back lifetime bans.


To address the controversy over recent outrageous cases of spying on journalists by the Department of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder assured media editors in a private meeting that the administration would push for a federal “media shield ban” to protect journalists from unreasonable and invasive subpoenas. (Thanks, Eric. Nice to know that you plan to protect us from…um, you.)

Wall Street Journal’s Devlin Barrett has the story. Here are some clips:

Mr. Holder and aides said they were open to changing the guidelines the department uses to broaden the circle of officials who have to agree that subpoenas are justified as a last resort. The officials also said they were open to annual reviews with news organizations, according to a Wall Street Journal editor who attended the meeting.

The department’s guidelines haven’t been revised in more than two decades, and the officials said they needed to be updated to deal with significant changes in news gathering that have occurred in that time.


Mr. Holder and the other Justice officials told the editors they were committed to protecting the role journalists play in reporting on the government. Mr. Holder and his top aide, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, have been criticized by press organizations and First Amendment advocates for what have been called overly broad seizures of reporters’ phone records, as well as a search warrant to read one reporter’s personal emails.

Mr. Holder and his aides also said the administration would throw its weight behind an effort to pass a federal media shield law, though such legislation would likely have little impact on the two cases at the center of the current controversy, according to the editor.


And with good reason, we think.

Here’s a clip from the Huffington Post’s story about why NYT’s Executive Editor Jill Abramson decided the paper wasn’t going.

Jill Abramson spoke out on Sunday about the New York Times’ decision to boycott Eric Holder’s meeting with news organizations, saying that the newspaper is worried that “the process of news gathering is being criminalized.”

Attorney General Holder recently met with outlets to review the DOJ’s guidelines for investigating journalists. The meeting, however, provoked even more controversy when it was announced that it would be off-the-record, prompting the Times among others to abstain from attending.

“To have this private meeting with the attorney general and not be able to share anything about it with our readers didn’t seem to have a point to me,” Abramson told Bob Schieffer on Sunday’s “Face the Nation.” “The Times and our readers are quite concerned about the six active criticism leak cases that the Obama administration has pursued. That’s more than all the other administrations combined. And, you know, we are concerned that the process of news gathering is being criminalized.”

Later, she added that it was important to remember that the public is probably less invested in the case than journalists, and more preoccupied with other issues like the state of the economy and the cost of health care.

The AP and the Huffington Post were among the other outlets that declined to attend once it was announced that the meeting was off-the-record—an extraordinarily tone-deaf decision on the part of the the administration.

At the meeting Holder reportedly announced to those assembled that, regarding the whole spying-on-media thing: “I get it.”

And yet the meeting remained off-the-record— although finally Holder agreed that journalists could report “in general” on what was discussed.

This leads many of us to believe that, although Holder is trying mightily to diffuse the media’s anger toward him and the DOJ, he still doesn’t, in fact, “get it.”

Posted in Death Penalty, Government, journalism | No Comments »

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