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Antonio Villaraigosa


The Accuracy of Drug-Sniffing Dogs and the Issue of Probable Cause, Why Criminal Justice is Missing from the Presidential Campaigns, and LA City Council Says “Yes” to Immigrant I.D.s

October 18th, 2012 by Taylor Walker

SCOTUS TO TAKE A LOOK AT DRUG-DETECTING DOGS VS. FOURTH AMENDMENT RIGHTS

The US Supreme Court will hear two new cases on Oct. 31st to determine whether the use of drug-sniffing dogs is a violation of the Fourth Amendment as “unreasonable search and seizure”—as in, how accurate does a dog’s sniffer have to be for their “alert” to constitute probable cause, and can officers have dogs sniff around the outside of residences in the hopes of being tipped off to drugs inside?

Law Professor Jeffrey Meyer breaks it down in an op-ed for the NY Times. Here’s a clip:

One of the new cases asks the court to clarify how accurate a dog must be in terms of its past identification of contraband — for, as Justice David H. Souter once warned in dissent, “The infallible dog, however, is a creature of legal fiction.”

My wife and I learned this firsthand at the Supreme Court itself several years ago. We were visiting the court for a reunion dinner of former law clerks of Justice Harry A. Blackmun. My mistake was to drive a car in which our dog — a tennis-ball-loving Australian shepherd — often rode. As we drove up to the back gate of the court to enter its highly secure underground parking garage, an officer emerged from a guard shack with a fearsome bomb-sniffing German shepherd and circled our car. The bomb dog suddenly perked up, and the officer coldly instructed me to open the trunk of my car. I watched as the court’s canine rose up on its haunches — tail wagging — and snagged from inside one of my dog’s prized tennis balls. No bombs or contraband were found.

The second of the court’s new dog cases asks if the police may take a drug-sniffing dog to the front porch of a home to sniff for evidence of marijuana inside. The court has always accorded special privacy protection for people’s homes. In 2001, the court ruled, in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, that police officers violated a homeowner’s privacy when they parked across the street from a home and, without a warrant, used a thermal imaging device to scan the outside of the house for signs of unusual heat inside that might be caused by high-intensity lighting, which is often used to grow marijuana.

If the police can’t thermal-scan your home from the street, why let them dog-scan it from your front porch? The government argues that a dog is alerted only by illegal contraband, while a thermal imager is set off more generally by “innocent” and “guilty” heat of all kinds coming from a home — whether from grow lights or from, as Justice Scalia noted in the thermal imager case, “the lady of the house” as she “takes her daily sauna and bath.”


IMPORTANT CRIMINAL JUSTICE ISSUES’ MARKED ABSENCE FROM CAMPAIGNING SEASON

In September we saw that both the Dem. and GOP platforms addressed serious criminal justice issues. It was promising. Now, however, in the throes of the presidential campaigns, there is an annoying avoidance of the topic.

Article 3′s Richard Trinick explains in great detail why criminal justice is such a critical issue, and why all parties involved are purposefully avoiding the subject. Here’s a clip:

Many people have written about why the USA’s criminal justice policy is a travesty, focusing on the human cost and the appalling conditions in which so many prisoners are kept, not to mention the problems with capital punishment. This is a hugely significant argument, and one that the candidates should be forced to address, but I am not going to dwell on it here, as other people have already written excellently about it (see related articles). It is probably the most important reason why criminal justice policy should be addressed by the candidates, but given the existing coverage, I want to focus on the other reasons why criminal justice policy is such an important part of domestic policy; and why politicians from both sides of the aisle, and much of the ‘mainstream media’, are so intent on ignoring it.

Reasons why criminal justice policy is so important

1)The biggest issue in this election is the economy and, on a related note, the deficit and the tax more/cut spending debate. For the 2010 fiscal year, prisons cost taxpayers about $63.4 billion, at an average of between $30-50,000 per prisoner (depending upon the state). The numbers vary, but in most states spending on “corrections” costs more than anything except Medicaid and takes 1 in every 14 dollars spent by the states. This is a colossal amount of money that neither candidate appears even to have contemplated reducing.

2)It is an area of policy that disproportionately affects people from ethnic minorities. As just one sobering example, consider the fact that more black men are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War. In many respects, the current criminal justice policy of the USA is a more effective method of segregation than the Jim Crow laws were. Inequality of all kinds is one of the biggest problems facing the future of the US, and this is the worst example of it.

[SNIP]

Reasons why criminal justice policy is ignored

1) It’s politically toxic. Any move to alter the current tough stance on criminal justice is inevitably viewed as being ‘soft on crime’, regardless of how much sense a new policy might make or how much it might reduce crime in the long-run. No politician, especially one running in a race as close as the current match-up, wants to be seen as ‘soft on crime’. For Republicans, “the party of law and order”, it would be sacrilege to even suggest a change in policy. For Democrats, especially Obama, the aim appears to be to avoid looking “weak and liberal” and avoid alienating middle-class white voters. In addition, it lacks appeal — few voters (read ‘people likely to vote in swing states’) care about the issue as they perceive that it does not affect them and it requires hard choices to be made.

2) People don’t like to have to think about it. This relates to the point above about having to make hard choices, but there is more to it. By its very nature, criminal justice is difficult and unpleasant to think about and so most people shy away from it — who wants to think about prison and criminals when there’s the new series of Homeland? The majority of people will have no interaction with the criminal justice system, especially not on the ‘wrong’ side of it, and so they shut their eyes, pretend they cannot see the problem and hope it will go away. The politicians and media know this and cater to the demands of their audiences.

Be sure to read on, it’s a very well-thought-out assessment of the issue.


VILLARAIGOSA’S IMMIGRANT I.D. SUGGESTION COASTS THROUGH CITY COUNCIL

Mayor Villaraigosa’s immigrant I.D. proposal made it through the City Council meeting Wednesday without any opposition. The council voted unanimously, and will start soliciting pitches from vendors who want to take on implementation of the I.D. card project. (For a bit of back-story on the program, check out WitnessLA’s Tuesday post.)

LA Times’ Catherine Saillant has the story. Here’s a clip:

Opposition to the so-called City Services Card is inevitable because it touches on the hot-button issue of illegal immigration, Councilman Ed Reyes said. But in the end “cooler heads will prevail and understand the humanity of the suggestion,” he said.

The committee voted unanimously to begin soliciting proposals from potential vendors who would implement the program, backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilman Richard Alarcon. That won’t happen, however, until a draft proposal is brought before the full council in about three weeks, officials said.

Although no one opposed to the ID cards spoke at Tuesday’s committee hearing, the Granada Hills North Neighborhood Council sent a letter stating that it had voted against the proposal.

Reyes, a member of the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, said it’s “about time” that Los Angeles residents, regardless of immigration status, have the ability to easily open bank accounts and access city services.

“Los Angeles is a cosmopolitan city with an international economy, Reyes said, and “this card allows people who have been living in the shadows to be out in the light of day.”

The photo ID would include the user’s name, address, date of birth and possibly other identifying information.
It could be used by any resident who lacks acceptable documentation to open a bank account or access city services, such as libraries or work-training programs, officials said.

Besides undocumented immigrants, seniors who no longer drive, the homeless and transgender people would also benefit, officials said, because they often lack official ID as well. City staff said the program won’t cost taxpayers anything because the third-party vendor would charge from $10 to $20 per card, and would also charge a few dollars a month if an applicant chooses to activate a debit card feature.

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, criminal justice, immigration, Presidential race, Supreme Court | 2 Comments »

Monday Must Reads: The LAPD Makes an Enlightened Move, SCOTUS Deals With Cocaine…& More

April 16th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


by Celeste Fremon and Taylor Walker


LAPD SAYS IT WILL HAVE SEPARATE AREA FOR TRANSGENDERED INMATES IN POLICE LOCK-UP

Last Thursday night, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck announced a newly crafted, and hearteningly enlightened policy toward transgender people—including a separate LAPD lock-up, the first in the nation. The new policy takes a hugely significant step in healing the problem-laced relationship between the transgender community and the criminal justice system in general.

(According to a study by UC Irvine commissioned by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, nearly 60 percent of transgender inmates in California lock-ups reported being sexually assaulted by other inmates, a rate 13 times higher than for a random sample of the general inmate
population.)

The LA Times’ Sam Quinones has the story. Here’s how it opens.

Responding to incidents of violence against transgender arrestees, the Los Angeles Police Department plans to open a segregated lockup for biologically male and female suspects who identify themselves as members of the opposite sex, officials said.

By early May, a 24-bed transgender module will open at the LAPD women’s jail downtown, the first such police lockup in the nation, according to Capt. Dave Lindsay, the jail division commander.

“This is a major change,” Lindsay said. It will allow for “an environment that’s safe and secure, as there’s been a history of violence against transgender people.”

City jails are for holding people only until they are arraigned in court on the charges on which they were arrested, typically a maximum of three days; then they are transferred to the Los Angeles County Jail, run by the Sheriff’s Department. The county jail will not be affected by the changes.

Go, Chief Charlie. This is a very good thing.

HOWEVER, AFTER YOU READ THE TRANSGENDER STORY, READ THIS BY THE LAT’S JOEL RUBIN ABOUT HOW THE POLICE COMMISSION IS CRUCIALLY AT ODDS WITH PART OF BECK’S DISCIPLINE POLICY



SCOTUS WILL HEAR ARGUMENTS THAT THE FAIR SENTENCING ACT—REGARDING THE CRACK AND POWDER DISCREPANCY—SHOULD BE RETROACTIVE, AT LEAST IN PART

ON Tuesday the US Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding whether or not the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 should be, in any way, retroactive If you’ll remember, the FSA is the law that (mostly) rectified the horrific 1-100 sentencing discrepancy between the prison terms handed down for powder cocaine sales convictions and sentences for convictions for crack sales. (The FSA changed the ratio to 1-20-ish.) The problem is that the new law implied —but did not implicitly say— that it would retroactively apply to crimes committed before the act was passed—but sentenced after the act was passed.

The twinned cases of Dorsey v. the United States, and Hill v. the United States are about that retroactivity issue.

Lyle Denniston over at SCOTUSBLOG has a very complete rundown of the finer points of the cases and the law. While he may be a little on the wordy side for non-wonks, his post is quite fascinating and informative if you take the time.

Here are some clips:

Blacks more often got punished for buying or selling the “crack” or “rock” variety of cocaine, which can be easily processed into a smoked version; conviction carried a much heavier prison sentence. Whites more often got punished for dealing in the “powder” or “blow” version, which can be snorted; conviction carried a far more lenient sentence.

[Snip]

For cocaine, that [1986 Anti-Drug Abuse] Act required judges to punish an individual convicted of a crack crime 100 times more severely than one convicted of trafficking in the powder form. In other words, every gram of crack was treated as the same, for punishment purposes, as 100 grams of powder.

[The Fair Sentencing Act] adopted a ratio that works out to about 18 to 1, crack to powder. A crime involving 28 grams of crack would draw a five-year minimum sentence, as would a crime with 500 grams of powder. A crack crime with 280 grams would be sentenced to ten years, as would a powder crime with 5000 grams. The Justice Department has explained the choice of 28 grams as the bottom amount of crack for sentencing on the premise that wholesale distribution of crack usually involves one-ounce quantities — that is, close to 28 grams.

Although only one lawyer will appear Tuesday for the two Illinoisians, the lawyers for each have filed their own merits brief. The brief for Corey Hill (whose lawyer will be arguing) put its main emphasis upon congressional intent in 2010: “Once Congress completed its historic overhaul of crack sentencing policy,” the brief said, Congress “wanted those amendments to apply immediately….The clear implication….was that the new mandatory minimums should take effect rapidly so that the Guidelines would have a model against which to ‘conform’ and be consistent.”

[Snip]

The Dorsey-Hill cases almost certainly will revive within the Court the long-running dispute over how to read federal statutes — to stay focused only on their language, or to look at legislative history, too. If the Court were to use the former approach, it would seem that the Court-appointed amicus has the better of the argument. The 1871 law is quite specific in requiring Congress, if it wants a new criminal law to have retroactive effect, to say so explicitly; Congress did not do that in 2010. But if the Court were to take the latter approach, there is much that went on during the process of passing the 2010 law that suggests that Congress did want retroactivity to the extent being advanced by the government and counsel for the two Illinois men — not least, the removal of the anti-retroactivity provision from the bill.


BALTIMORE POLICE ABOUT TO JOIN OTHER DEPARTMENTS WHO VIDEOTAPE INTERROGATIONS

The Baltimore PD, which is the 8th largest department in the nation, plans to begin videotaping interrogations in serious cases like shootings and murders. Criminal justice advocates across the country have been pushing for the move due to the now recognized prevalence of false confessions in innocence cases. Baltimore PD’s dithering—and their determination to make the change—is emblematic of similar policy shifts taking place in agencies all over the U.S.

Justin Fenton of the Baltimore Sun has the story. Here’s a clip:

The department, the eighth-largest in the country, recently began using video as part of a series of reforms of its sex-offense unit. Now officials are exploring equipment options and the policy impact of videotaping homicide and shooting interrogations. Detectives are being trained on subtleties such as where to stand and how their demeanor will play to a jury.

I’m committed to doing this, and I have a bunch of really smart guys working on getting this done,” said police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who has studied videotaping since he was chief of detectives. “But it’s not as simple as going to Radio Shack and bolting a camera into the wall.”

[SNIP]

Hundreds of jurisdictions across the country now videotape interrogations, and it is required by law in several states and the District of Columbia. The shift has been spurred by increasing affordability, as well as by questions of coercion and false confessions as DNA testing has led to the release of scores of inmates.

In Harford County, the sheriff’s department says it has long recorded interviews in major cases and recently got funding to add interrogation rooms to neighborhood precincts.

“It’s pretty much a standard for progressive law-enforcement agencies,” Sheriff L. Jesse Bane said. “People are finding out that the things Hollywood portrays really don’t take place.”


STRANGE, IMPRACTICAL MARRIAGE FOR LAPD? OR CONVENIENT HOOK-UP?

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to propose a merger between the LAPD and the General Services’ Office of Public Safety cops in his budget, to be presented Friday. The rather curious melding of the officers who guard libraries and courthouses with the LAPD may be a cost-efficient way for Villaraigosa to uphold his promise to add 1,000 officers to the LAPD ranks by the end of his mayoral term—or not.

Here’s a clip from the Daily News’ Dakota Smith’s report:

As part of his budget being released Friday, Villaraigosa is proposing to shift the Department of General Services’ Office of Public Safety into the Los Angeles Police Department, according to City Council members familiar with the proposal.

Under the proposal, some or all of the city’s 250 security officers and sworn officers who guard the city’s parks, zoo, and City Hall would move under the command of the LAPD.

City budget chief Miguel Santana is expected to release a report on the costs, advantages, and risks of moving the department to the LAPD next week.

Additionally, the LAPD is doing its own feasibility study on absorbing the department.

“There’s a lot of homework to do before this can occur,” said City Councilman Dennis Zine, adding he has questions about the plan.

For instance, Zine said the OPS and LAPD officers have different salaries and pension plans.

In any case, at this point, it’s far from a done deal.

The L.A. Times also reported on the issue.


CAN AN UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT WOULD-BE LAWYER GET ADMITTED TO THE FLORIDA BAR?

Rafael A. Olmeda of the Sun-Sentinel has the intriguing story. Here’s a clip:

Can an immigrant without a green card get a Florida Bar card?

Aspiring lawyer Jose Godinez-Samperio, 25, a Tampa-area resident, is hoping the answer is yes.

A native of Mexico who entered the United States legally with his parents 16 years ago on a tourist visa, Godinez-Samperio is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Law, the valedictorian of the Armwood High School class of 2004, an Eagle Scout — and an undocumented immigrant.

The Florida Board of Bar Examiners, which grants membership to the Bar, has asked the state Supreme Court to determine whether it can accept someone who is not in the country legally. The Supreme Court flagged the case as “high profile” last week.

Similar cases are pending in NY and California.


Original illustration by Scott McPherson

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, Antonio Villaraigosa, Charlie Beck, City Budget, Courts, crime and punishment, immigration, Innocence, LA County Jail, LAPD, LASD, law enforcement, LGBT, Must Reads, Sentencing, Supreme Court | 5 Comments »

Teaching Gay History, Angry Judges & More

April 20th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon



CALIFORNIA STATE SENATE PASSED BILL TO REQUIRE TEACHING GAY HISTORY IN SCHOOLS

The AP gets this story exactly right:

California conservatives were outraged in 1966 when the state Board of Education adopted a new junior high school history textbook. The book’s inclusive treatment of the civil rights movement and influential black Americans would indoctrinate students, undermine religious values and politicize the curriculum, they said.

Forty-five years later, gay rights advocates say similar arguments are being advanced to defeat a bill that would make the state the first to require the teaching of gay history in public schools. The California Senate approved the landmark measure last week, but it needs to clear the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Yet the debate about what children should learn about sexual orientation mirrors earlier disputes over whether groups such as 20th Century German immigrants, women, Muslims and Jews would have a place for their heroes and heartbreaks in the history books.

The AP points out that, right now, California requires schools to teach about women, African Americans, Mexican Americans, entrepreneurs, Asian Americans, European Americans, American Indians and labor.

Advocates point to studies that suggest that bullying dramatically decreases in schools where gay history is added to the curriculum.


STUDY SUGGESTS THAT NORTH CAROLINA SHOULD REPEAL THE DEATH PENALTY

A new study by an Appalachian State University professor finds that the state’s death is expensive, ineffective and racially biased—and should therefore be repealed.

The Winston-Salem Journal has the story. Here’s a clip.

The study was done by Matthew Robinson, a professor of government and justice studies. Robinson analyzed data from more than 20 studies on the death penalty and released his findings Monday at a news conference in Raleigh.

“In the past six years, three states have abolished the death penalty: Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey,” Robinson said in an interview after the news conference. “They did it for the same reason. They found racial bias, they found it to be costly, they found it to be ineffective and a threat to innocent people.”

Robinson said the studies he looked at were remarkably consistent in their conclusions — that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime, is racially biased and has led to people being wrongfully convicted.


TOUGH LOVE JUDGE FIGHTS BACK, THREATENS IRA GLASS WITH LAWSUIT

A few weeks ago the radio show This American Life profiled a Georgia drug court program that, in the words of the producers, ” we believe is run differently from every other drug court in the country, doing some things that are contrary to the very philosophy of drug court. The result? People with offenses that would get minimal or no sentences elsewhere sometimes end up in the system five to ten years.”

The show, called Very Tough Love, reported by TAL’s host, Ira Glass was an excellent and very affecting piece of journalism that was very critical of Judge Amanda Williams who presides over the court and seemed, by all accounts, to misuse her power as a jurist.

Judge Williams didn’t take very kindly to Glass’s criticism and was very vocal about her displeasure. First she released a press release about her vexation. Now, most recently, through her lawyer, Williams has publicly accused Glass of libel, plus has threatened a lawsuit.

Listen to the story here. Then read the letter from Williams and company, and Ira Glass’s response.

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, Death Penalty, journalism, LGBT, media, Must Reads | No Comments »

Villaraigosa’s State of the City Speech Gambles on Education Reform

April 14th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon



On Wednesday at approximately 5 p.m. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
gave his sixth state of the city speech. As anticipated, although AV talked about topics like the potential greening of LA, about the crime drop, and about filling more potholes, the speech’s centerpiece was about education reform, the one topic out of the list over which the mayor has exactly zip direct control.

Some of the potential candidates who hope to take his place after Villaraigosa terms out, tisk-tisked to LA times reporters about how AV should have instead addressed the city’s fiscal deficit, in that forming a workable city budget is a part of the LA mayor’s actual job description.

The critics made a fair point.…and yet….and yet…

In truth, Antonio did precisely the right thing with his speech. If we are to bounce back as a city and as a state nothing, and from there begin once again to thrive, nothing could possibly be more important than building on the fragile areas of growth and reform in the district, and blasting out of the road the calcified and obstructionist attitudes that have been so wrong-headed and ruinous to our schools and our kids for such a very long time.

Villaraigosa delivered the speech at Thomas Jefferson High, a school that six years ago—right after AV was first elected mayor—erupted in a series of huge and traumatizing riots on campus.

I was assigned to cover Jefferson’s riots for the LA Weekly, and so spent a lot of time at the school during the jittery days and weeks that followed.

In particular, I spent dozens of hours talking to teachers, administrators, kids, school police, parents, and others—all of whom were surprisingly eager to spill what they knew to somebody, anybody. They talked, not so much about the riots, but about a school that had a 31 percent graduation rate, where only 9% of Jeff’s students tested “proficient” in English, just over 1 % were proficient in math, and about the conditions on campus and at the district that made teaching and learning at Jefferson a discouraging daily swim upstream against an overwhelmingly strong current.

Worse, Jeff was merely one of many LAUSD high schools that had similarly ghastly stats and conditions.

It soon became evident that the so-called riots were not the story at all, but a big, bad signpost that pointed to the real story—which was the catastrophic state of LA County’s education system. The riots were the canary in the coal mine.

Yet, as bad as things were, at a district level, those in charge seemed too paralyzed to make any substantive changes. Instead they would hire a one more string of very high priced independent consultants, who delivered high priced reports that generally came to nothing.

Six years later, as Antonio points out, some heartening progress has been made in some pockets. But not anywhere close to enough progress.

Villaraigosa clearly hopes to shove the reform efforts into high gear before his mayoral term is up.

“This is a pivotal moment for our schools and our City,” the mayor said, and reminded the those assembled that we have a new superintendent of schools, John Deasy, whom he likened to “Bill Bratton with a ruler,” and newly elected union leadership that appears to want to turn over some kind of new leaf.

Then Villaraigosa got down to specifics about the changes he sees as essential.

JIn her dead-on column about the speech for the LA Weekly, Jill Stewart laid out the heart of AV’s message:

He called for turning LAUSD into a network of local, independently controlled campuses, allowing “open enrollment beyond traditional neighborhood boundaries” to create parental choice, and for “protecting and expanding the use of the parent trigger” to give parents the power to convert failing schools.

Finally, he issued the hottest news:

“The teacher contract expires in June,” Villaraigosa said. “With the stars aligned, we have to seize the opportunity. Let’s (devise) a new contract … Let’s stop dictating at the district level and let local schools make the decisions” on such things as staffing, funding and curriculum.

“Let’s compensate teachers for demonstrated effectiveness — not just [for their] years of service and course credits …. and do away with the last-hired, first-fired seniority system.”

He said to loud applause: “When more than 99% of district teachers receive the same ‘satisfactory’ evaluation, it serves nobody.”

Finally, he added: “I know that these proposals will raise some concern and spark controversy. I could hear some of the people [protesting] outside. As a former union organizer, I understand your fear. I stood with you then, and I’ll stand with you now. Change is hard.”

But he added: “Our time is now. The nation is watching. L.A. must take the lead.”

(Read the rest of Stewart’s column. It’s a good one—so far about the best thing I’ve read on the speech.)

“We’ve had our differences with the mayor…” said the LA Times said in its own editorial on Villaraigosa’s SOC speech.

Yes, well, haven’t we all.

But this time Antonio was right on the mark.

“We can fulfill the promise of public education by agreeing to a new contract with ourselves—a promise to put aside the concerns of a few adults in the interest of all children,” he said.

And he sounded like he meant it.

Here’s the full text of the speech.


Photo by Gary Friedman for the Los Angeles Times

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, Education, LA city government, LAUSD | 6 Comments »

Follow the Gang Money, Part 2: The Interventionists – by Matt Fleischer

September 8th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

EDITOR’S NOTE: With 1,076 known gangs and 80,757 gang members in Los Angeles County (according to the LA Sheriff’s Department) LA is still the gang capital of the nation. To address the gang violence problem that has tens of thousands of our city’s children reporting that they are scared on their walk to school, Los Angeles has budgeted $26 million.

So, is our city using that pot of taxpayer dollars well and wisely? Are the programs it buys making our violence-haunted communities safer? Are they effective in helping kids-on-the-edge stay out of gangs? Do they offer tools and alternatives to those desperately seeking a route out of gang life?

These are some of the questions we asked with our two-part investigation: Follow the Gang Money, reported and written by Matt Fleischer (and copy edited by Craig Gaines).

Follow the Gang Money is the first effort to come out of the LA Justice Report, which was created through a partnership between WLA and Spot.Us.

In the course of his investigation, reporter Matt Fleischer found bright spots, to be sure. But he also found a city gang program mired in secrecy, plagued by bureaucratic bungling, and lacking in the kind of accountability that was repeatedly promised when all of LA’s gang dollars were transferred from the city council to the mayor’s office.

In Part 1, Matt looked at the city’s flawed gang prevention program and why it was systematically excluding many of LA’s kids who most needed its services.

Now he looks at the rest of the story with his exploration of the city’s gang intervention program.

In doing so, he finds a whole new set of bureaucratic screw ups that resulted in even more wasted evaluation money than the City Controller originally reported.

Even more troubling, he finds that the strategy in which the city has invested most of its intervention $$—touted as the model for the nation—is in fact a copy of a much criticized program that has been shown in multiple studies to be ineffective at best and, when replicated in one city, actually harmful.

You’ll find the details and more in Part 2 of Follow the Gang Money.


PART TWO: THE INTERVENTIONISTS

Is the city pouring its gang dollars into a strategy that won’t work?

by Matthew Fleischer

Jose Leon remembers the first time he saw a shootout in the streets of his Boyle Heights neighborhood. “I was 5 years old and staying at my uncle’s place. I looked out the window and saw this guy running down the middle of the street, shooting. I got scared.”

A squat, powerful man with a shaved head, tattoos peeking out of his sleeves and eyes that read much older than his 21 years, Jose’s life in Boyle Heights got, if anything, more traumatic as the years passed until it read like a blueprint for gang membership by the time he was an adolescent.

“I had aunts and uncles who used to slang [sell drugs]. They were from the old neighborhood—Soto Street.”

As Jose got older, the shootings in his neighborhood became a routine part of his day, and fear of street life turned to fascination. He joined a tagging crew when he was 11 and joined a full-fledged street gang shortly thereafter. He was stabbed at age 14 when a rival crew ambushed him at Roosevelt High School.

“I got stuck in the stomach,” he says. “Spent a few days in the hospital.”

When Jose graduated from Roosevelt in 2006, he thought about getting out of gang life. But he was unsure how to replace the camaraderie and the income, frankly, that the gang world provided. He tried to find a job, but with no luck: By that time, Jose had a criminal record and no one wanted to take the risk in hiring him.

So he continued to sell drugs to get by when things were lean.

Then, two years ago, Jose saw a road out when he began working with Johnny Godines, a local gang intervention worker with the East LA nonprofit Soledad Enrichment Action (SEA). Jose had met Godines back in high school. He was an old-timer who had turned his life around and was now helping kids in the schools and on the streets. Godines knew the game, knew all Jose was going through, and had kept an eye out for him. But more importantly, he was a friend and mentor who constantly reminded Jose there were better things in life than what gangs had to offer.

“Johnny and me had some really good conversations. He said things that made me start thinking about me.”

Nearly eight months ago, thanks to his relationship with Godines, Jose landed a job in SEA’s human resources department. Now he works 8:30 to 5 to support his infant son and says he has no desire to return to gang life. By all accounts, Jose’s is a true gang-intervention success story—the kind that the city would seemingly want to see replicated with other troubled youth across the city.

But even though SEA is the largest organization within the Gang Reduction and Youth Development network (it runs one-third of the GRYD’s 12 neighborhood zones) stories like Jose’s are rare within the city-run program. Therapy, education, tattoo removal, and especially job training and placement—the kinds of things that are essential in helping gang members to leave the life for good—are not the priorities of the roughly $7 million intervention side of the $26 million program. (GRYD also has a prevention component [see Part 1 of this series].) Instead, the city’s intervention focus is on something called “proactive peacemaking,” otherwise known as hardcore street intervention.

GRYD’s intervention model is based on Chicago’s “CeaseFire” program, and it works like this: Local men and women–often former gang members who still have clout on the streets–are assigned to the GRYD neighborhood zone they are most familiar with, and instructed to sniff out threats of retributive violence between gang members and to try to broker truces between rival gangs. Intervention workers serve as both liaisons between gangs—a reliable means of transmitting messages between rivals—and sources of street expertise for the Los Angeles Police Department, with whom they have weekly meetings to discuss hotspots and crime trends and are supposed to contact if a violent showdown seems imminent.

GRYD has codified this method of intervention by investing $200,000 per year in the Los Angeles Violence Intervention Training Academy (LAVITA), which is attempting to train and professionalize street intervention workers and standardize their approach in the field.

“Our mission is not to break up a gang,” says Susan Lee, the Advancement Project’s director of urban peace, who oversees LAVITA. “Our mission is to reduce violence. We are about peacemaking.”

Advancement Project co-director and civil rights attorney Connie Rice explains the mission in more detail: “Hardcore police suppression has not reduced gang influence in our city. Gangs saturate the physical spaces of our neighborhoods: parks, schools, hospitals. We’ve let this problem get to the point where we need people with the street credibility to negotiate with gangs. Police can’t do it. Academics can’t do it. Politicians can’t do it. I can’t do it. These guys can.”

LAPD agrees, and though initially skeptical of street interventionists, they have come around to viewing these men and women as a useful component of violence reduction. “Without question we call on these guys,” says Northeast LAPD Captain Bill Murphy. “It’s my experience they know what’s going on and they provide options for how to deal with various situations. You can’t just arrest your way out of a problem.”

But while the idea of training former gang members to roam their old stomping grounds and talk their homies into forgoing violence has an undeniable narrative sexiness, and the backing of the LAPD, it’s an open question whether this strategy actually has a measurable impact. There is much evidence to suggest that, absent other services and active community involvement, “proactive peacemaking” produces no long-term effect, and in certain instances can even make things worse. In a 2010 RAND study of Pittsburgh’s GRYD-like street intervention program, RAND researcher Jeremy Wilson theorizes “that the presence of outreach workers increased the cohesion of gangs, making some groups more organized, in turn leading to increased violence.”

The real $26 million question facing Los Angeles is why are we basing a gang-reduction strategy on a model that has no proven long-term results?



WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE A LIFE?

On a hot, muggy day in mid-May, Father Greg Boyle enters the front door of Homeboy Industries in downtown Los Angeles to find several hundred current and former gang members staring him in the face.

“Happy birthday,” the entire room yells in unison before launching into song—once in English and once in Spanish.

Boyle professes surprise, but the secret birthday party has become an annual rite of spring at Homeboy Industries, America’s largest gang-intervention program. Boyle’s efforts have helped thousands of kids escape gang life and have earned him a national reputation. This year, however, while cake is passed around and conversation flows, there’s somber reality lying just beneath the surface of the celebratory mood. Virtually all of its more than 427 employees have just been laid off, and the future of the program is in serious doubt. News of Homeboy’s financial troubles have gone national—yet the program is nowhere near to raising the $5 million it needs to continue to run its programs. Its fate, and the fate of all those celebrating, is a giant question mark.

The potential catastrophic cuts in Homeboy’s services come at an especially crucial time since, with unemployment still in double digits, former gang members needing jobs are coming to them for help in greater numbers than ever. Homeboy, as well as organizations like the Toberman Neighborhood Center in San Pedro, practice a different type of intervention from the city’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development network—a services-based model that focuses on turning gang members into productive members of society instead of the tourniquet approach of asking gang members not to shoot at each other.

“We don’t deal with gangs, we deal with gang members,” says Boyle.

The logic behind the approach is similar to the CIA’s refusal to negotiate with terrorist organizations—although Boyle certainly wouldn’t put it in those terms. Instead of dealing with the gangs themselves, Homeboy serves gang members, plus men and women freshly out of prison and on parole, who want to turn their lives around. There are tens of thousands in each category, 12,000 of whom walk through the doors of Homeboy Industries every year looking to reinvent their lives.

Homeboy Industries offers various types of job training and placement programs. Its solar panel installation training program in partnership with East L.A. Skills Center has a long waiting list. Homeboy also has its own businesses, which employ 150 to 200 former gang members: Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen and Embroidery, Homeboy Merchandise, Homeboy Maintenance and the Homegirl Café. In addition, the program offers tattoo removal, GED prep, computer training, substance abuse counseling, legal advice, reentry services for parolees and juvenile probationers, comprehensive mental health and family counseling.

In other words, Homeboy Industries offers the basic services that a gang member most needs to send his or her life in a productive direction.

Boyle admits he is not a big fan of the hardcore street intervention method. Before developing Homeboy, Boyle says he practiced street intervention for nearly a decade, brokering truces, racing late at night between warring gangs to calm violent situations, chasing down individual kids who he knew were at risk of shooting. But by the mid-1990s he concluded that it was not an effective strategy. He also says sending in former gang members to do street intervention keeps them bound to the gang milieu.

“You wouldn’t send a recovering alcoholic into a bar to recruit for AA,” says Boyle. “It’s the same principle here. People have to want to leave this life behind.”

But is there evidence that the services-based model works any better?

As it turns out, there is. Homeboy Industries reports a 70 percent retention rate, which is quite high given that 30 percent is considered good among program evaluators. (Alcoholics Anonymous has a 10 percent retention rate.)“And out of the 30 percent who drop out [of the Homeboy programs],” says Mona Hobson, Homeboy’s director of development, 10 percent to 15 percent return “when they’re ready to embrace the program.”

Homeboy’s individual programs show similarly upbeat results. For instance, Liz Miller of the University of California, Davis, studied 502 clients of Homeboy’s Mental Health Education and Treatment Assistance Service, and found a dive in “depressive symptoms” from 64 percent to 26 percent during a three-month period.

Now Homeboy is being evaluated even more rigorously. UCLA researchers are two years into a five-year longitudinal study of the program’s effectiveness. The research regarding Homeboy’s success in transforming its clients’ mental and behavioral health isn’t final, but lead researcher Jorja Leap, an adjunct associate professor at UCLA’s Department of Social Welfare, says: “Homeboy is off the chart at stemming the tide of reincarceration. Simply in terms of cost effectiveness, services at Homeboy cost about $40,000 per person per year. It costs upward of $120,000 a year to put a person through the criminal justice system. And the preliminary evaluation outcomes [at Homeboy] are remarkable.”

Homeboy isn’t the only model in Los Angeles that has shown proven results. Leap also spent two years evaluating the Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (PCITI), run by longtime interventionist Aquil Basheer, who’s been doing this type of work since 1969, and found promising results. Basheer’s training methods yielded a 95 percent retention rate.

Interestingly, unlike Homeboy, Basheer’s model incorporates hardcore street intervention into its services-based approach. “I applaud the city and anyone out there trying to save lives,” says Basheer. “But if gang intervention is an octopus, hardcore street intervention is just one tentacle.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, Gangs, LA city government, LAPD, THE LA JUSTICE REPORT | 21 Comments »

Following the Gang Money: Where are the City’s GRYD Evaluations?

June 25th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Really, all we’re asking for is a little of the much promised transparency and accountability.

It’s a season of ongoing budgetary nightmares. LA’s libraries are losing one-third of their staff. Even the city’s firefighters are taking budget hits. However one of the few programs or agencies in all of Los Angeles that has not seen its funding slashed is the city’s $26 million plus Gang Reduction and Youth Development program—or GRYD.

This is not to suggest that the city doesn’t need every penny of that GRYD money. Even after LA’s drop in crime, Los Angeles is still the gang capital the nation. Gang violence takes lives, wrecks futures, fills prisons and causes staggering levels of measurable PTSD in school-age kids who live in gang-intense neighborhoods.

In truth, $26 million is not all that much considering the gravity and complexity of the problem.

Yet the very scarcity of funds is a big part of the reason why the community at large deserves to know exactly what we’re getting for our prevention/intervention millions now that we are two years into the mayor’s GRYD strategies—which is precisely why WitnessLA and Spot.Us have hired Matt Fleischer to find out under the banner of the LA Justice Report.

Matt’s been digging up a lot very intriguing information already. (The fruits of his labors will appear later this summer.)

But, as he digs and explores, it has been a bit vexing to find that the least cooperative people have been those in the mayor’s GRYD office.

Take for example the issue of the evaluation:

As part of its mandate, GRYD has contracted with the Urban Institute to conduct an evaluation of the various GRYD programs’ for performance and efficacy—for a fee of $900,000. The gang programs were officially moved to the mayor’s office in July of ’08 and here we are in late June of 2010. Yet, thus far we can find no one outside of GRYD who has seen any part of any kind of an evaluation.

And GRYD ain’t sharing.

In fact, every time Matt asked for any information whatsoever regarding the UI evaluation city officials switched on their vague-afiers.

It was in draft form, they said, so they couldn’t give him that.

Now, granted, the evaluation is a 3-5 year project, which means that every interim report is, by definition, a “draft” until 2013 or 14 or whatever, when there will be a final report. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t reports at the one year mark. Surely GRYD wants to know—and would want us to know—that they are on the right track with their $26 million worth of gang violence prevention and intervention strategies. Matt said that a draft of the evaluation would fine. Anything would be better than nothing. At this, the GRYD people remembered urgent business elsewhere and stopped replying to his requests altogether.

Just out of curiosity, I called a contact who is an insider at the LA City Council. I reasoned that since the council is responsible for approving all GRYD’s city funds, surely a well-placed person in the council offices could get some kind of interim evaluation at this point. Nope, they’d asked for it, he said. And so far, nada.

“The council gets quarterly reports,” he said, “but they don’t say much.

He reminded me that one of the selling points for moving LA’s gang dollars away from the city council and putting the money all under the single roof of the mayor’s office was to insure that the program would be more accountable and transparent than the city’s previous gang violence reduction programs had been. (cough) LA Bridges (cough, cough).

“Well, the mayor is two years into having all the money, and we’ve not seen a lot of either transparency and accountability,” he said grumpily. “They aren’t very good at collaborating either. As a result, if you as a taxpayer ask me what you’re really getting for your money, I can’t really tell you.”

Okay, we aim to change that. That’s what Matt’s reporting for WLA and Spot.Us is all about.



IMPORTANT NOTE: You can do another round of free “donations” to Matt’s investigation
for WLA the LA Justice Report by doing the following:


* going to Spot.Us

*Login/Register on Spot.Us (upper left hand side.)
* hit the EARN CREDITS button
*answer three anonymous questions about how reporters and techs might better collaborate.
*scroll down and choose the LA Justice Report when you’re prompted to select how to use your credits.
*hit the APPLY CREDITS
*Then confirm it at the prompt.

That’s it. You pay nothing, and our reporting fund gets ten bucks!

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, City Budget, City Government, Gangs | No Comments »

Fresh Picks: Faux Proms, Net Neutrality & Fiscal Motion Sickness

April 9th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

Kyrgyzstan-2

THE GUTSY LESBIAN GIRL, THE CREEPY FAUX PROM, AND THE SOMEWHAT HAPPIER ENDING

A new chapter just occurred in the case of Constance McMillen, the Mississippi teenager who made national news when she was forbidden to take her lesbian girlfriend to her high school prom. (She was also forbidden to wear a tux to the prom and told she had to wear a dress—demonstrating that the school is not only mean and discriminatory, but also fashion clueless.)

Constance did not quietly go away, but challenged the school’s policy. And the ACLU backed her up. (Go, Constance!)

When faced with a possible discrimination lawsuit, Itawamba Agricultural High School got freaked and canceled the official school prom.

After a federal court ruled sorta for McMillen, saying she should have been able to bring her girlfriend, a private prom was scheduled—which then saw fit to adopt the same no-same-sex-dates-or-girls-in-tuxes rules. It too was canceled.

There was still more kerfuffle and prom three—another private prom—was scheduled. It looked like there would finally be a happy ending.

But when McMillen and friend and a couple of kids with disabilities showed up at the local country club for Prom 3, they found that they were alone. The event was a decoy prom. All the other Itawamba promsters were at Prom 4, a private, parent-organized no lesbians invited prom.

When this news broke, a number of writers found themselves thinking really mean thoughts about the kind of adults who would pull such a fantastically creepy stunt.

Finally, this Friday, the AP has reported that Constance and date are invited to a gala dinner dance in San Francisco organized by The National Center for Lesbian Rights and to be held on May 1.

The group is paying to fly Constance and date in to SF and their executive directer
has said the NCLR plans to give her “a weekend she’ll never forget. It will make all these other proms and fake proms fade into distant memory.”

Good. Hope so. She’s earned it.


THE MAYOR DITCHES THE FURLOUGHS, FINDS NEW CITY BUCKS, MAKES NICE WITH THE COUNCIL…WHILE CITY HALL WATCHERS GET MOTION SICKNESS & THROW UP ON THEIR SHOES

Is it me or are the rest of you suffering from fiscal whiplash with this latest news?

It seems that—surprise—the city doesn’t have to renege on its bills, or close itself down for four out of every seven days of the week, or dress up in thigh-high bad girl boots to solicit funds on darkened, grungy street corners. (Okay, that wasn’t literally mentioned, but close.) On Thursday the mayor looked again through his figurative sock drawer and found a wad of money stuffed way at the back corner—and we were saved! Saved, I tell you!

Or something like that.

Maeve Reston at the LA Times has the details.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has backed away from his call to shut down some city departments two days a week, using positive news about the city’s budget crisis to downplay a threat that had become increasingly difficult to sustain.

“To all of our surprise, we’ve gotten an increase in revenues of $30 million more from property tax than we expected,” Villaraigosa said Thursday, two days after announcing the move might be necessary as soon as Monday to prevent the city from running out of money.

With the unexpected revenue and the City Council’s budget-balancing moves, “We might not be out of cash after all,” the mayor said.

Uh, Mr. Mayor, we’re really glad it worked out and all that. But, given the events of the past couple of days, we also feel a little bit, you know, jacked around.

Read the rest.


THE LA TIMES WEIGHS IN ON THE FED COURT’S NET NEUTRALITY DECISION

I’ve been meaning to post on this all week. Glad the LA Times spoke up on the matter. Here’s the opening of Friday’s editorial:

A federal appeals court reined in the Federal Communications Commission this week, ruling that it overstepped its authority when it penalized Comcast for surreptitiously disabling a popular technology that let people share files online. But the ruling did not quell the commission’s interest in regulating the way Internet service providers such as Comcast manage their networks. Instead, it set up a potential fight over whether the commission’s regulatory authority should be expanded, either by Congress or the commission itself. We think the best course is for lawmakers to give the FCC clear but limited power to preserve the openness that has made the Internet not just a hotbed for innovation but also the most important communications medium of our time.

At issue is “net neutrality,” which is the idea that companies selling high-speed Internet connections should treat all legal websites and online offerings equally.

Read on. This is a vitally important issue.

Meanwhile, the FCC strikes back after the fed court decision.

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, City Budget, Civil Rights, LA City Council, LGBT, media | 138 Comments »

The Mayor’s $73 Million DWP Brinkmanship – UPDATED X2

April 7th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

antonio-serious-2


UPDATE: 2 p.m. Wednesday.

The city council has just approved a motion to wrest control of the DWP away from the mayor. This would require a ballot measure.

The AP has the story.


I got a note late Tuesday night from a friend of mine who is a very talented LA librarian. She had evidently just heard Mayor Villaraigosa’s newest plan to shut down all of LA’s “nonessential” agencies’ for two days a week and other dizzying acts of fiscal brinkmanship.

“He’s making a whole lot of people very very scared including me,” she said. And then my normally refined and dignified friend, called Antonio a less than printable name.

The LA Times Op Ed for Wednesday explained the situation in stark terms.

Here are some of the most relevant parts of the essay:

Los Angeles is suddenly back in a deep and immediate financial crisis, and this time it’s not a result of recession, the mortgage meltdown or a persistent structural deficit. All those things pushed the city to the brink, but officials had begun dealing with the problem by making painful yet necessary program and job cuts. Now, just as the city was backing away from the edge, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Department of Water and Power are trying to see just how far over it the city can hang without falling. It’s an arrogant and irresponsible approach that leaves the city short of cash to pay its bills and compelled to imprudently empty its reserve fund, shut down city services or lay off more people.

At issue is the DWP’s breach of its commitment to transfer cash, as it does each year, from its account to the city’s general fund. As a municipally owned utility, it makes the transfers in lieu of the taxes that privately owned utilities must pay to the state or the dividends they must pay their investors. The DWP promised $220 million in the current fiscal year, and city leaders planned, budgeted and slashed accordingly. But the money comes in installments, and the utility had yet to pay the final $73 million. DWP officials now claim they never had any intention of making the final payment — unless the City Council agreed to increase power rates….

The city agreed to raise the rates—but not as much as the mayor and the DWP wanted. So in retaliation the DWP harrumphed and said it wasn’t going to give the city the $73 million period.

Things have gone downhill precipitously ever since. City Controller Wendy Greuel said that without that $73 million payment from DWP, the city’s General Fund would be $10 million in the red by May 5 and LA wouldn’t be able to meet its payroll. Next came the news that the city’s emergency fund—which is not meant to be the can’t-balance-the-budget purse—had to be raided. The fun-filled day climaxed with the mayor’s announcement that all city workers—save fire and police (or workers for any city agency that “makes money”)—will lose 2 fifths of their salaries, starting Monday. Those who are not laid off altogether that is.

Yeah. I think scared is an appropriate response.

There’s a lot going on in the city


UPDATE: The mayor is on Air Talk on KPCC Wednesday morning. Live right now. Podcast later.

Villaraigosa is interesting. Although I believe this problem deserves to be laid directly at his doorstep, there are some other doors that should get part of it, one of which he mentions.

He said, “If the union leaders would agree to a 4 percent pay cut [at least I think that was the number he gave.] we could generate $450 million. If the unions would take a voluntary cut, I wouldn’t have to shut down City Hall.”

The comments section for the KPCC story is particularly good—with a lot of very angry, and very articulate LA residents weighing in.


NOTE: I’m tentatively opening up the comments section. Operative word, “tentatively.”

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, Economy | 14 Comments »

Training the Gang Interventionists – Politics Intervenes

November 19th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

Aquil-Basheer


When all the gang intervention dollars were gathered under the single roof of the mayor’s office
two years ago, there were several promises made by then Gang Czar Jeff Carr, to make sure the money was spent wisely.

One promise was to train and professionalize the so-called hard core interventionists who were were being given city funds.

(Another promise was to have full, transparent and competent evaluations of all the city’s gang prevention and intervention programs—and to have them from the programs’ inception. But that is a topic that must wait for another day.)

Reporter Scott Gold has addressed the training issue—or lack thereof—in Thursday’s LA Times. And he has done so very well.

He reports, among other findings, that the training that was supposed to have taken place a year ago, just ain’t happened. And he looks at the squabbling and the politics that have prevented its launch.

It’s an article worth reading.

But before you begin, here is a bit of info on the main players mentioned:

You know who Connie Rice is, of course. She’s a long time civil rights attorney and public policy expert who as the co-founder and co-director of LA’s Advancement Project has, in the last few years, has turned her attention to gangs.

Connie is also one of the smartest people in Los Angeles.

But Aquil Basheer is a remarkable man who brings to the table his own set of formidable talents.—plus thirty years of street experience as a community organizer, mentor, martial arts trainer and street intervention and threat analysis expert. (And in an interesting side note, Aquil’s father was LA’s first African American firefighter.)

Okay, now here’s the opening:

A city-sponsored training academy for gang intervention workers will open at least a year later than Los Angeles officials had hoped after a collision of philosophies and egos — a hitch in the city’s effort to modernize its campaign against street violence.

Officials said this week that an independent panel has selected the Advancement Project, the legal advocacy, civil rights and public policy group, as the winner of a bidding process to run the academy.

But that bid was never supposed to take place. The city’s original plan – to meld the best practices of two gang intervention programs into an “official” curriculum — collapsed, according to interviews with city officials and City Hall advisors.

Now, the academy isn’t expected to open until at least the spring of 2010 – a year later than originally envisioned. And it’s not over yet: The head of a group that lost the bid called the selection process flawed and pledged to appeal the decision into next year, when the City Council will be asked to sign off on the contract.

The dispute might seem like insider politics, considering that the contract is worth just $200,000 the first year, with a possibility of $800,000 over four years. But it means the continuation of the status quo: scores of interventionists fanned out across the city, some skilled and relied upon by law enforcement, but many unregulated, untrained and operating off the books amid dangerous crosscurrents of street politics.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, Gangs, LA city government | No Comments »

The LA Weekly’s Truthiness Problem

November 18th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

despenser-LAweekly


Yesterday I linked to Kevin Grant’s Neon Tommy story about new LA Weekly editor-in-chief, Drex Heikes
and his plans to bring the paper back to strength and relevance.

Last night, as I reread Kevin’s piece I got to thinking about what has become so bothersome about the existing LA Weekly in the last few years.

Certainly, it still has Jonathan Gold’s wonderful reviews, and Christine Pelisek is still doing truly fine crime reporting. (Although, Christine, is it really necessary to refer to some of LA’s less affluent neighborhoods as the city’s “badlands?” A small point, admittedly, but that and the use of diseases to describe certain elements in LA’s population could go, trust me.)

And the new guy, Dennis Romero, seem to be doing a lively job his daily news blogging. I miss Steve Mikulan’s intelligent take on things, but okay, we’ve got Dennis now. And he’s got his good qualities too.

He had, for example, a nicely grumpy take this week on the city council’s inability to regulate marijuana dispensaries after two years, contrasted with their quick passage of a regulation banning cat declawing. (I’m personally against cat declawing too, but really. Priorities, people.)

But here’s the problem. Too often I catch the Weekly writing things that are either cringe-makingly slanted, or demonstrably untrue. One example of the former was the Weekly’s hit piece on Bill Bratton that ran last spring..

Then more recently, Romero wrote a small news feature on the new chief of police, Charlie Beck, that was littered with unsupported insinuations and outright falsehoods.


POLICE CHIEFS AND POODLES

The piece led with the suggestion that Beck was being trotted around like the mayor’s “poodle” to the four regional meet-and-greets that he and Villaraigosa did in South Los Angeles, Van Nuys, El Sereno, and the Westside. Student reporters from my USC class went to two of the four events and found them jammed with community members, and described Beck as very responsive to the questions and comments of residents who seemed thriller to have a chance to check out the new (nearly) chief.

But, sure, yeah, Antonio had his own political reasons for trotting out the likable Beck in advance of Beck’s confirmation by the City Council. And, okay, if one wishes to write a snarky story to point that out, why not?


IT WAS MIDWAY THROUGH THE SAME STORY THAT ROMERO WENT OFF THE RAILS.

After the snark about Beck being the mayor’s fancy dog (which is reasonably preposterous, but whatever) Romero went a lot farther.

He wrote that Beck was a forced choice who was jammed down the collective throat of an unhappy police commission by the mayor (along with Bill Bratton) who was determined to have Charlie Beck and no one but Charlie Beck as his chief.

….a backroom process that was so rapid and, perhaps, so prejudiced toward the man backed by Bratton that few outsiders applied for what is the brass ring of the police world.

Romero quotes blogger and former LA Daily News editor, Ron Kaye, as saying: “….it was always a done deal. There wasn’t any real process or search that was conducted.” (On his own blog Kaye goes further and quotes anonymous sources as saying that Beck wasn’t even on the list of the commission’s original three finalists at all, and that the commission had to rejigger the list of three to add Beck so as not to anger the mayor.)

Romero followed up with how…”…it is widely known now that the Police Commission was irritated when Villaraigosa undercut it by publicly announcing during the summer that a chief would be chosen by the fall, making it all but impossible politically for the Police Commission to launch a serious nationwide search that takes months…

In that the position of chief of police has a strong affect on the city’s health and well being, if the mayor had completely compromised the selection process that would be in important thing on which to report.

If it happened to be true.


SOURCES ANYONE?

Since I’d followed the selection process closely, some might say….um…obsessively, and Romero and Kaye’s reporting didn’t jibe with anything I heard, I figured I’d simply do a bit of fact checking.

Although, I had plenty of inside sources, I had not talked to anybody on the police commission.

I called Alan Skobin, one of the five police commissioners who were given the task of narrowing the 13 semi-finalist candidates given them by the city’s personnel chief (whose team had winnowed the field from the original 24 applicants).

In other words, Skobin was one of those five-some of folks whom Romero and the Weekly said had been force-fed Beck, and who were “widely known” to be damned unhappy that their search process was amputated, and who may not have wanted Beck on their list of three finalists at all.

I noted that Romero had briefly quoted Skobin, meaning he too had spoken to him. So maybe Skobin knew the inside dirt that I had somehow missed.



THE COMMISSIONER SPEAKS

Skobin and I spoke for about a half hour during which time we chatted in dept about all of the Weekly’s points—about the pressure, the truncated search time, and so on.

Skobin—an attorney and the Vice President of Galpin Motors—is a very bright, mild-mannered man, but he was clearly exasperated about what the Weekly had inferred.

“That’s absolutely not true,” he said—and he had told the Weekly as much as well.

“I was there. I was one of the five people in the room for every discussion! We didn’t have any pressure from the mayor. He kept his hands completely off and let us do our job. In fact I even thanked him for it.” Skobin paused to look for the right words. “Honestly, Celeste, we felt good at the end because we felt the process really worked. I know my fellow commissioners. And I really feel that everyone had an open mind. There was an incredibly diverse pool of very credible, capable candidates. And we worked to make sure that everyone had an even playing field.”

Skobin said a lot more and in greater detail. But that’s the bottom line of it.

About the accusation that there wasn’t a proper search, Skobin laughed. “Look,” he said, Bill Bratton was the highest profile police chief in the nation. When he resigned it was national news. “We paid for a small search and certainly had ads in all the proper places.” But what serious candidate wouldn’t know the job was open, Skobin said. “We didn’t feel in was necessary to spend $100 thousand more of the tax payers’ money to pay some executive search company. Why would we? Everyone knew this job was open.”

Moreover, according to Skobin, although there was there was the general belief that, unlike when Bratton was selected, the time was likely ripe for a homegrown candidate, the process still welcomed all comers.

The Weekly, however, insisted otherwise. As further proof that the fix was in, Romero wrote ominously that “….such big-gun names as San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon and Miami Police Chief John Timoney did not turn up as finalists. The process was seen by some as a mayoral ramrod down the public’s throat of Bratton’s favorite soldier.”

Let’s see. Hmmmm. Maybe it’s a mayoral a conspiracy. Or…..maybe Gascon and Timoney weren’t on the list of finalists because they didn’t apply for the job?

I knew the answer to the question from my own sources, but I asked Skobin anyway.

“Timoney didn’t apply to my knowledge. We certainly never saw him.”

And Gascon?

George Gascon is the LAPD’s former Assistant Chief who had since taken over as chief of police in Mesa, Arizona and then had been sworn in as San Francisco’s new chief on the day that Bratton formally announced his resignation.

Skobin laughed again. “I know George didn’t apply because he announced as much publicly. It was in all the papers.”

Right. A fact that I knew because I know Gascon. But also information which Romero or his editor Jill Stewart could have acquired with a 30-second with Google search.

But really, why let facts get in the way when you’ve got a mayor to slam.



EVERYONE IS NOT ENTITLED TO HIS OWN FACTS

For the record, yes, Bratton made it known that Beck was his preference, plus Connie Rice and Jeff Carr (the mayor’s former gang guy, now chief of staff) were actively and forcefully lobbying for Charlie Beck who was also their pick to click.

But by every single credible insider account, the mayor liked Beck a lot, but was dithering right up until the last minute BECAUSE HE DIDN’T LIKE BEING PRESSURED.

“I know for a fact he was still deciding up until the last minute,” said Skobin.

I do too.

And so to counter those sources and to bolster their assertions the Weekly had…..?

No one. Not a soul on the record. Or off the record for that matter.

Evidently Romero was able to intuit that these things were “widely known”.….. by “many”…. and also by “some City Hall critics.

Okay, to be fair, the Weekly also had Ron Kaye—editor turned pundit, who on his own blog had the purported conspiracy so muddled that he couldn’t even get the number of semi-finalists sent to the police commission right, and gleefully reported as valid every crackpot rumor he could get his hands on, no matter how easily dispelled.



SO WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT THIS?

Why does this matter? After all the LA Weekly is perfectly free to opine however much it wants about Antonio Villaraigosa and any other public figure.

It is a newspaper’s job—it is its sacred task, if you will—to hold public figures accountable.

(And Villaraigosa assuredly has a list of things that require some accounting. [see above post])

A news outlet is not, however, free to manufacture its own facts in order to do so.

If a paper shaves the dice on the truth when it is convenient—even if the untruths are the inside-baseballish sort of things most people would not catch, and even fewer would care all that much about—then we cannot trust what that paper says on anything.

And that, my dear friends, matters very much.


A FRIENDLY NOTE TO DREX HEIKES:

Drex, I know your work well and I don’t think for a minute that you would willingly co-sign on this kind of shoddy, deliberately mendacious behavior. But it has happened more than a few times at the paper whose helm you are now commanding, and this time it happened under your watch.

So it is you who needs to fix it. We are counting on you.

The LA Weekly once mattered.

It would be nice if it mattered again.

Posted in Antonio Villaraigosa, Charlie Beck, LAPD, media | 20 Comments »

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