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Police Group Prez Apologizes for “Past Injustices”…a Puzzling Inglewood Shooting…and Luiz J. Rodriguez

October 19th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


On Monday, Terrence Cunningham, the president of International Association of Chiefs of Police formally apologized to communities of color for law enforcement’s part in “society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”

Cunningham, who is the chief of police in Wellesley, Mass., gave his speech at an IACP convention in San Diego.

The IACP president acknowledged that in the past, police officers served as the “face of oppression,” enforcing discriminatory laws that have cultivated a “multigenerational—almost inherited—mistrust between many communities of color and their law enforcement agencies.”

Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director of the ACLU, Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and others have praised Cunningham’s apology, calling the high-ranking law enforcement official’s speech an important step toward healing police-community relations.

Critics of the apology point out that Cunningham’s apology treats of the issue of racism in policing as a problem of the past—the aftereffects of which continue to act as a barrier to peace between citizens and cops. Cunningham never addresses the issue of continued racial bias in policing occurring today. “There are bigoted cops today as there were when it was legal to be a bigoted cop,” Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at John Jay College said to the LA Times’ Jaweed Kaleem.

You can watch the speech in its entirety above.

The Washington Post’s Tom Jackman broke the story. Here’s a clip:

Terrence M. Cunningham, the chief of police in Wellesley, Mass., delivered his remarks at the convention in San Diego of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, whose membership includes 23,000 police officials in the United States. The statement was issued on behalf of the IACP, and comes as police executives continue to grapple with tense relationships between officers and minority groups in the wake of high-profile civilian deaths in New York, South Carolina, Minnesota and elsewhere, the sometimes violent citizen protests which have ensued as well as the ambush killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

Police chiefs have long recognized the need to maintain good relations with their communities, of all races, and not allow an us-versus-them mentality to take root, either in their rank-and-file officer corps or in the neighborhoods where their citizens live. Cunningham’s comments are an acknowledgement of police departments’ past role in exacerbating tensions and a way to move forward and improve community relations nationwide. Two top civil rights groups on Monday commended Cunningham for taking an important first step in acknowledging the problem.

“Events over the past several years,” Cunningham said, “have caused many to question the actions of our officers and has tragically undermined the trust that the public must and should have in their police departments…The history of the law enforcement profession is replete with examples of bravery, self-sacrifice, and service to the community. At its core, policing is a noble profession.”

But Cunningham added, “At the same time, it is also clear that the history of policing has also had darker periods.” He cited laws enacted by state and federal governments which “have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks…While this is no longer the case, this dark side of our shared history has created a multigenerational — almost inherited — mistrust between many communities of color and their law enforcement agencies.”


Back in February, five Inglewood police officers fatally shot Kisha Michael, 31, and Marquintan Sandlin, 32, after officers found them unconscious in a car idling in the middle of the street. Michael, a mother of three, was shot in the head, neck, and back 13 times. Seven more bullets proved fatal for Sandlin, a father of four.

In a police radio clip, one of the responding officers said that Michael had a gun in her lap. Both Michael and Sandlin’s families said the two were loving parents. Their families said they didn’t know why Michael and Sandlin were found with a gun.

A warrant had been issued for Michael’s arrest earlier in February after she violated the terms of her probation by failing to appear in court. (Michael was on probation because of a misdemeanor theft.)

Following the shooting, Inglewood police remained particularly quiet, giving hardly any information about the circumstances of the shooting. The department hasn’t even said whether either of the deceased had reached for the gun before the responding officers let loose a hail of bullets.

Michael and Sandlin’s loved ones find it hard to believe that the cops were unable to de-escalate a situation involving two people who were unconscious when law enforcement arrived.

Michael’s twin, Trisha, tried for several months to get answers from the civilian body tasked with overseeing the Inglewood Police Department, but every month, the commission’s meetings were canceled.

When the Inglewood Citizen Police Oversight Commission was established back in 2002, it had teeth. The commission had the power to conduct hearings on instances of police misconduct. The group had subpoena power and a say in officer discipline. But before the first meeting, the police union intervened, and the commission was stripped of its authority.

The commission rarely meets, and mainly acts as a porter for complaints against police. Meanwhile the Inglewood PD continues to face scrutiny over questionable uses-of-force.

The LA Times’ Angel Jennings has the story. Here’s a clip:

Jan Williams, a local resident who follows city government, said she often goes to the commission meetings only to find they have been canceled due to a lack of a quorum. On May 11 — the first meeting in seven months — she criticized the commissioners for not convening more often.

This is “suppose to be our voice. I encourage you guys to meet more regularly,” she said.

The commission’s fading role in police oversight is all the more troubling to critics because the department continues to come under scrutiny.

For example, the commission had no role in reviewing the shooting of motorist Juan Jose Palma, whom the city recently paid $4.6 million to settle an excessive force lawsuit. Palma, now 46, was shot in the head by an officer during a 2012 traffic stop. The officer said he shot Palma because he refused commands to show his hands and appeared to be reaching behind his car seat for a weapon. No firearm was found in Palma’s SUV, but a baseball bat was found in the vehicle. Palma survived but suffered lasting brain damage.


Michael Falkow, the assistant city manager who has served as the advisor for the panel since 2007, said the city’s elected leaders and commissioners have not had “a desire to change anything” with regard to how the police oversight panel functions.

At the May meeting, Falkow described the group’s limited purview.

The commission does not investigate allegations of police misconduct, he said. It can only make recommendations for discipline, but the final call belongs to the chief of police.

“To be very clear, the commission has no authority, the commission has no mechanism, the commission has no ability to discuss or oversee or even hear any cases of [or] related to officer involved shootings,” he told the two people in the audience.

By comparison, the five-member Los Angeles Police Commission overseeing the operation of the 10,000-officer force has broad authority and meets weekly. The panel sets LAPD policies and has an inspector general who investigates and audits the department on its behalf. In one of its most important roles, the board decides whether police shootings and other serious uses of force were appropriate.

Keep reading.


In an interview with Alex Cohen, of KPCC’s Take Two, Luis J. Rodriguez discusses his work and legacy as he finishes the last weeks of his two years as LA’s second poet laureate (ever).

Once a gang-involved, drug-addicted teen, Rodriguez is now a celebrated poet, author, activist, and mentor to young men and women seeking healthy alternatives to gang life.

When Rodriguez was appointed two years ago, he was told to do a minimum of 6 events. Last year alone, Rodriguez, who is paid a small monthly stipend, held 110 workshops, readings, and other events.

Rodriguez also completed an anthology featuring 160 LA poets called “The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles,” and a chapbook of poetry called “Borrowed Bones.”

Posted in Police, race, writers and writing | 9 Comments »

Crime, Justice & Redemption….at the LA Times Festival of Books

April 11th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


This past weekend, the University of Southern California hosted the annual LA Times Festival of Books and, amazingly, the weekend rain didn’t discourage the crowds that showed up by the thousands on the USC Campus, drawn by this stupendous yearly event that celebrates books.

I was on a Sunday morning panel called Crime, Justice & Redemption, with authors Joe Domanick, Shaka Senghor, & Sam Quinones (plus O.C Registor reporter, Margot Roosevelt, as the excellent moderator).

LAist kindly named our event as one of the weekend’s twelve “Can’t Miss” panels.

And, indeed, the combination of personalities and the enthusiastically interactive crowd produced a very dynamic, informative, and occasionally creatively quarrelsome conversation.

Among other topics, the panel discussed a personal experience of solitary confinement, the relationship between childhood trauma and crime, an unusual form of marketing heroin in the heartland, the challenge of post-incarceration reentry, the art of reforming the Los Angeles Police Department—and more.

Since I can’t magically transport you to the audience of Sunday’s event, I can at least strongly recommend the very good books of my fellow panelists, all of which will likely be of interest to those who care about, or work in and around, crime and justice-related issues.


Solitary confinement and post prison reentry are both matters with which author Shaka Senghor has had personal experience.

Senghor is a very warm, very intelligent man whom the audience liked right away. He also is a man with a complicated history. Seignior is a former prison inmate who shot killed a man when he was an angry and frightened 19-year-old, after he’d been shot four times himself a few months before.

Senghor spent 19 years in prison, four-and-a-half of those years in solitary confinement, where he was on lockdown in his cell for 22 or 23 hours a day, he said. During his time behind bars, he educated himself by reading voraciously. He also struggled to come to terms with the terrible fact that he’d taken someone else’s life.

Now Senghor has become a leader in the world of justice reform, and the author of an unforgettable book that inspires as it educates.

On the panel, Senghor spoke about the real life effects—and related subjects— with emotional precision and authority.

His book, Writing My Wrong, Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison, is very much worth your time.

His TED talk, which you can find here, is wildly popular for good reason.


On Sunday, Sam Quinones talked about, among other things, how in certain areas of the country, the magnitude of the heroin problem was initially masked because of the way white parents managed to keep their kids’ heroin deaths from becoming public.

Quinones’ intensely researched Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opium Epidemic, was on a bunch of 10 Best lists from last year, and was a finalist for the LA Times Book Awards—all for good reason. It paints very personal pictures of drug traffickers who pioneered a new business model for dealing heroin to America’s heartland, of law enforcement officers trying to deal with the fast-spreading epidemic, and of families devastated by addictions that, in many cases began with prescription opiates that were overprescribed by doctors who believed the preposterous lies of profit-driven pharmaceutical companies who claimed medical that such drugs were non-addictive and safe.

Dreamland is a page-turner that makes for very engaging reading, whether you think this topic is for you or not. Here’s an interview with Quinones by the PBS Newshour that will give you an idea of what you missed on Sunday.


We’ve already written here about Joe Domanick’s highly-praised and wonderful book about the Los Angeles Police Department, Blue: the LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing. Blue was also, very deservedly, a finalist for this years LA Times Book Awards.

Last year we pointed to BLUE’s “page-turning narrative borne aloft by a string of vivid nonfiction characters,” including, of course, the agency’s most recent chiefs, Bill Bratton and Charlie Beck.

But, while the heart of the book is a grand tale of the multi-layered struggle to reform the LAPD, Domanick also uses LA’s police department as a lens through which to examine the state of U.S. policing in general, and the crossroads at which it has presently arrived.

So, for LA residents interested in policing and criminal justice, this is an obvious must read.

On the panel, Domanick talked about the value and challenges of community policing, new ways of approaching use of force by officers and more.

And here’s an interview with Domanick from December 2015, in which he explains what has so fascinated him about the LAPD and its recent history. (Joe’s interview starts at about the 32 minute mark.)


One last thing: While we’re on the subject of the LA Times Festival of Books, on Saturday night, the winners of the LA Times Book were announced.

(You can find the winners here.) I have often been privileged to be a judge for the awards, and this year I judged in the Mystery/Thriller category.

You can find our four fabulous finalists below, and they are all books I can recommend without hesitation to those of you who, like me, sometimes choose to relax by reading about fictional murder and mayhem.

In no particular order, they are:

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Whites by Richard Price

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich

Our winner, however, was a book that my fellow-judges and I chose with almost instant unanimity.

It is The Cartel by Don Winslow, a novelistic depiction of the blood-soaked and hallucinatory disaster that is the war on drugs and, although Winslow’s tale, that is Tolstoy-esque in scope, is present as a mystery thriller it has the informative urgency of the best narrative nonfiction.

(Back in July of last year we wrote about The Whites and its importance here.)

So there you have it. Go, books and book lovers!

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Posted in American artists, writers and writing | No Comments »

BLUE: Joe Domanick Writes About Saving the LAPD & the Crossroads of American Policing

August 10th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

Award-winning journalist and author Joe Domanick has been a long time critic of bad policing,
particularly when it has been displayed by the Los Angeles Police Department. His fascination with—and in many ways, affection for—LA’s complicated, powerful, historically brutal and arrogant, yet often innovative and iconic police department brought us To Protect and to Serve: The LAPD’s Century of War in the City of Dreams—a deeply researched, and immensely engaging history of the agency’s first 100 years, which won its author a 1995 Edgar award for best fact-based crime.

Now Domanick has written a new book about LA’s cop shop called Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing. Stupendously timely and written with a finely calibrated understanding of the city’s history, and its unique cultural interweave, BLUE’s page-turning narrative is borne aloft by a string of vivid nonfiction characters, including, of course, the agency’s most recent chiefs, Bill Bratton and Charlie Beck. But, while the heart of the book is a grand tale of the multi-layered struggle to reform the LAPD, Domanick also uses LA’s police department as a lens through which to examine the state of U.S. policing in general, and the crossroads at which it has presently arrived.

We will talk more about Domanick and Blue in the near future. But, in the meantime, here are a couple of clips from the rave review of Domanick’s book by Mark Horowitz, the staff editor for The New York Times Op-Ed section, which appeared in Sunday’s NYT Book Review.

…Crime in Los Angeles had been increasing at twice the national average. Between 1980 and 2000, there were 11,500 gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County. “L.A.’s gangs were not simply growing but metastasizing.”

The city’s incompetent and brutal police functioned like “an army of occupation that waged war on the residents of black South L.A., Mexican East L.A. and Central American Pico-Union in the name of crime suppression.” During one operation, in South Los Angeles, 25,000 were arrested, though relatively few were charged with any crime. “It seems astounding,” Domanick writes, “that such a plan of concentrated, indiscriminate mass arrests would be executed in a major, liberal American city a quarter of a century into the post-civil-rights era.” Even the police dogs were out of control, surely a metaphor of some kind. Between 1989 and 1992, they bit 900 people, resulting in countless lawsuits.

Domanick is steeped in his city’s rich history, its fraught racial and ethnic conflicts and the complex demographics that befuddle so many outsiders. I lived there in the ’80s and ’90s, during recessions, earthquakes, the Rodney King beating and the ’92 riots: Domanick gets everything right. His brief portrait of the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, for example, is a valuable corrective. O.J.’s lawyer Johnnie Cochran was no racial show boater, though the national media treated him like some sort of West Coast Al Sharpton. Cochran was a brilliant and highly respected local attorney who made his reputation trying police-abuse cases. “He knew what black jurors knew deep in their bones,” Domanick writes, “that racism, planting evidence, shading the truth and lying in court had been part of the Los Angeles Police Department’s modus operandi throughout its history.” The trial was always about the dysfunctional L.A.P.D., never O.J.

Validating Cochran, the decade climaxed with the infamous Rampart Division scandal. Officers were discovered to be routinely framing people, robbing and shooting them, planting evidence and stealing drugs. How long it had been going on or how many other units were involved, nobody ever knew. There was no in-depth probe. The department proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was incapable of policing itself.

Enter Bratton.

More soon.


And in other news, the FBI will participate in the investigation into the death of an unarmed black Texas college football player, Christian Taylor, who was fatally shot by a rookie Arlington, Texas, police officer during a burglary call at an Arlington car dealership. The officer had yet to complete his field training.

A video shows Taylor behaving erratically at the dealership before the shooting.

Meanwhile the well-liked college student’s twitter feed, which showed a repeated concern about social justice in general and police violence specifically, went viral, particularly his now famous tweet that reads: I don’t wanna die too younggggg

Posted in LAPD, writers and writing | 24 Comments »

The Power of “The Cartel” – When Headlines Imitate Art….& Fiction Tells the Real Truth About the Drug Wars

July 20th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


After it was released on June 23, Southern California writer Don Winslow’s new novel The Cartel had already gathered a string of head-explodingly good reviews.

“A magnum opus . . .” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times. “Don Winslow is to the Mexican drug wars what James Ellroy is the L.A. Noir.”

“One of the best thriller writers on the planet. . . .” wrote Benjamin Percy for Esquire. “Winslow has written an epic, gritty south-of-the-border Godfather for our time.”

The rest of the reviews went on in that vein.

Yet all this critical enthusiasm did not put The Cartel on the best seller list. After all, what with its blood-drenched drug wars subject matter—it was not exactly the ideal upbeat beach read that vacationers were most likely to download to their iPads and Kindles.

Then on July 11, the news broke that the near mythic head of the Sinaloa Drug Cartel, Joaquin Guzmán, known as “El Chapo,” had escaped in an extravagantly dramatic fashion (and with lots of paid help) from Mexico’s most secure prison, Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 1—more commonly called Altiplano.

For those of us who’d read The Cartel, the story the made headlines around he world was unnervingly familiar. On pages 67 and 68 of the novel, to be exact, Adan Barrera, the fictional head of the Sinaloa drug cartel and one of the book’s primary characters, escapes from one of Mexico’s highest security prisons (with lots of paid help). In addition, Winslow had disclosed during post-publication interviews that he’d based the Barrera character on Guzmán.

As luck would have it, the collision of life and art did what all the stellar reviews had not yet accomplished. It put Winslow’s novel on the LA Times and NY Times best seller lists.

And now that more people are noticing the book, they seem also to be discovering that Winslow’s lengthy work of fiction contains not only a startling amount of disturbing truths about the narco drug wars, but also paints a stark, fact-laden picture of the costly failure of the USA’s 45-year war on drugs.


Prior to The Cartel, Winslow had amassed an ardent cult following for his 16 mystery/thrillers set in and around the beaches of San Diego county—books like, The Winter of Frankie Machine, Savages and The Dawn Patrol.

In 1998, however, while he was turning out surfing-related mysteries, Winslow—who lives in the San Diego area—got caught up in researching the drug war, which was growing increasingly macabre in its level of violence, some of which was occurring not far over the border from where Winslow and his family have a home. The result of the research was The Power of the Dog, published in 2005, which follows a Spanish-speaking DEA agent named Art Keller, and a rising star of the Mexican drug cartels named Anan Barrera, over a 30 year period.

After The Power of the Dog Winslow insisted he had no intention of writing about the drug war again. But it turned out he was unable to turn away from it either. His years of research for the 2005 book had given him knowledge, contacts and an emotional investment that he had trouble shaking. So for the next several years he continued to gather string, telling himself it was merely out of personal interest. Then the escalation of violence by the narcos convinced Winslow that he needed to do another book.

Enter The Cartel, which, while it still makes good use of many of the conventions of the thriller, is an ambitious work that–quite apart from its newly acquired best seller status—is arguably one of the year’s most important novels, even if, for some, it will be a hard one to read.

The Cartel, which weighs in at 640 pages, is filled with ghastly violence, none of it gratuitous. Instead, it reads like a deeply researched work of nonfiction that declines to pull its punches.

In fact, Winslow has said that, as bad as some of the incidents were that he portrayed in the book, that he didn’t write the worst of what he learned. There were times, he said “when I backed off…didn’t have the heart, or I thought [the incidents] were unbelievable, though I read them in two or three sources, but I didn’t think the reader could cope with it.”

Yet, by the book’s end, it isn’t the violence that lingers. Instead, it is Winslow’s portrayal of the terrible human cost of the drug wars to ordinary people with whom the reader can identify. For instance, Winslow introduces us to a group of journalists, writers and artists living in Juarez, to whom we become very attached–even as we watch as Juarez became the deadliest city in Mexico, as it in 2009.

We become similarly attached to other characters such as a woman physician who, after several unsatisfying years of catering to rich people in Mexico City, moves back to her hometown in the Juarez Valley to open a community clinic. There is her friend the famous woman baker, turned activist mayor and therapist-like advisor to the residents of the town in which the doctor has her clinic, located in the stretch of the Chihuahuan desert that became—in the novel as in life—the Valley of Death from 2009 to 2011. And there was the young woman who volunteered to be the town’s only police officer after the rest of the police had other been killed or had fled.

And so on.

After finishing the book, it was difficult not to want to google these unusually vivid characters to find out if they had real life counterparts. As it happens, in most cases, there was a counterpart that was close to what Winslow had written. Googling also caused one to learn that some of the people on whom Winslow based his characters were still alive. Others had been killed by the narcos.


Among the vivid impressions The Cartel leaves in its wake, is the fact that the cost of the war on drugs has been horrifically high, in terms of blood and treasure, on both the Mexican side of the fence and our own, and yet little or nothing has been accomplished. The Cartels are better organized than ever.

That impression is not accidental. It is precisely what Winslow intends.

After the publication of the book, Winslow went so far as to take out full page ads in several U.S. newspapers, including the NY Times, urging an end to the war on drugs.

Last Thursday, Winslow explained to Jeffrey Brown on the PBS NewsHour why he felt the need to place the ads.

And in an interview last Wednesday on NPR’s Fresh Air, host Terry Gross calls The Cartel a “grand tale of Mexico’s drug wars,” and talks to Winslow about a wide array of topics, including the real Guzman’s escape, and what Winslow thinks about the destructive futility of more than four decades of trying to shut down the cartels. Here are a couple of clips:

On El Chapo, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel

This is a very smart man, a survivor, a man with billions of dollars at his command, a man who can reach out and kill almost anybody he wants to kill, to have killed, and a man who knows secrets about high levels of the Mexican government. There’s a reason why they didn’t extradite him to the United States — principally because he could afford high-level lawyers to block that. He could afford bribes to block that. But also because if he were extradited to the United States, his only deal-making ability now is to start telling those secrets and telling those stories.

On how America’s drug problem relates to Mexico’s drug problem

We are the largest drug market in the world. We’re 5 percent of the world’s population — we consume 25 percent of the world’s illegal drugs. Mexico has the misfortune to share a 2,000 mile border with the largest drug market in the world. … At the end of the day, they’ll run out of products. It’s the illegality that makes those territories so valuable. If you criminalize anything only criminals can sell it. If only criminals can sell it, there’s no recourse to law, there’s only recourse to violence. That’s created the cartels. It’s our simultaneous appetite for — and prohibition of — drugs that makes those border territories worth killing for.

On the effect legalizing marijuana (just in Washington and Colorado) has had on Mexican trafficking

Just two states that have legalized marijuana, do you know what’s happened in Mexico? Forty percent of Mexican marijuana imports, they’ve been cut by 40 percent. In Durango and Sinaloa, where most of the marijuana is grown, they’ve almost stopped growing it now, because they can’t compete with the American quality and the American market. … I’m not making this up; you get this from Customs and from DEA, from the people who are trying to intercept it on the border and judge how much is coming through as a percentage of how much they seize, and what they’re telling us is it’s down 37 percent over the last two years. So by stopping fighting, just two states stopping fighting the war on that drug, it has been effective.

You can listen to the rest of the interview below.

And then read the book. It’s well worth the ride.

Posted in American voices, Drugs and drug treatment, War on Drugs, writers and writing | No Comments »

FATHERHOOD MATTERS: Dr. Jorja Leap Gives Readers a Remarkable Window into the Lives of the Fathers of Jordan Downs

June 19th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


Every Wednesday night around two dozen men from the Jordan Downs housing project meet to teach each other, and themselves, how to be fathers.

“See, most of the men in the group never had fathers,” Mike Cummings, told me two years ago. Cummings, whom everyone calls Big Mike, is a very large, very charismatic man and one of the program’s founders.

(WLA last wrote about Project Fatherhood here.)

“Or if they did have a father in the home,” Cummings said, “he was usually was doing drugs or an alcoholic, or abusive, or both. So those men never had anyone show them what it means to be a parent. At least not a male parent.”

Big Mike has been through his own wide array of life stages. He’s been an LA gang member, been shot, sold drugs, been to prison.

Now he’s an ordained pastor and a recognized community leader who spends most of his waking hours working to heal the same community that, as a young man, he and his friends helped to break.

The Wednesday group, which he and a handful of other men with experiences akin to his own, started in the fall of 2011—is called Project Fatherhood.

“A mother can teach a lot of things,” said Big Mike. “But she can’t teach the same things that a father can teach,” he said. “She can’t teach a boy to be a man.”


Dr. Jorja Leap is on the faculty of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and is an internationally recognized expert in gangs, violence, and crisis intervention. Leap has also been the resident academic, official social worker, and adopted sister of the Jordan Downs fatherhood program since its beginning.

Now she has written an absolutely essential book about what she has seen and learned from those Wednesday meeting. It is called Project Fatherhood: A Story of Courage and Healing in One of America’s Toughest Communities and it has already turning into required reading for advocates, policy makers and others.

Homeboy Industries’ founder, Father Greg Boyle called the story “a view of courageous men as architects of their own healing” that “offers hope for real solutions in our inner cities born from the community itself. “

I talked to Jorja Leap earlier this week about the book, and about the fathers who have left such a deep mark on her life.


WITNESS LA: Before we go further, explain a little about Project Fatherhood for those who have never heard of it.

JORJA LEAP: Sure. There was a group of men, former gang members who had become community activists—Big Mike, Andre Christian, Johnny Bailey, and some others. And they began meeting regularly with younger men from the community and trying to sort of mentor them out on these picnic tables behind Jordan Down housing project. They saw these younger men had the need, and so this group sprang up organically.

At the same time, a man named Dr. Hershel Swinger of the Children’s Institute, who was an important African American psychologist and a big believer that fathers were part of the family’s strength and that children who did not consistently have fathers in their lives tended to do poorly in school, were more likely to drop out, more likely to be caught up in the school to prison pipeline… So, he too was interested in strengthening the fathers [in places like Jordan Downs], and he got a big federal grant to do it.

The third factor in the creation of Project Fatherhood was HACLA—the Housing Authority for the City of Los Angeles—which plan to rebuild Jordan Downs and, in doing so, they want to, as they put it, build human capital.

So all three of these forces came together in a sort of positive perfect storm. The will, the knowledge, and the credibility was there from the community men who were meeting at the picnic tables. Children’s Institute and Hershel Swinger provided the funding, the support, and the infrastructure. And the locale was provided by HACLA.

WLA: How did you get involved?

JL: Big Mike called me because, to qualify for the funding, they were required to have an MSW on board—to deal with DCFS, child custody issues, issues of child abuse prevention, mental health issues, and a million other things.

WLA: So in some ways, when you were first brought in, it sounds like the fathers were just checking a box. How did that change?

JL: I’d known Big Mike for about ten years. And I really wanted to go back to Watts for some kind of project.

WLA: I know you and your family lived in South LA until you were around 10 years old….

JL: Yes, and as a young social worker I’d worked in South LA and loved it, so I was returning to an old love. But I had real doubts if the group was going to take hold, if people were going to show up. But then one of the fathers, Sy Henry, who is also one of the elders of the community, said to me, “Are you going to stick around? Or are you going to leave us too?” I realized I had to make a commitment. This wasn’t just drive by social work. So I committed. And what the group turned into was beyond my wildest imaginings. Truly.

I think, quite candidly, that was the case for everyone—including the Children’s Institute and, Dr. Swinger.

This group was supposed to help these men learn to be fathers. . But, they also did another thing. They fathered one another. They also took responsibility and wanted to be fathers to the young men of the community, whose fathers were not around. In a sense, they adopted them, and now they have these youth impact sessions.

WLA: What was one of the most challenging moments for you personally during these past years of your involvement with the program.

JL: One of the most shattering moments was a fight that we had when Christopher Dorner was in the midst of his…bloodbath. One of the fathers, a man named Donald James, stood up. Donald James had been in San Quentin for 32 years and he and I were often at odds. He stood up and said, “I think Christopher Dorner is a hero.” And I waited for somebody to say, “What’re you talking about?!” For someone to speak up. But there was no dissent. In fact, many fathers were nodding their heads. I didn’t know what to do. I was shattered.

When I went home to my husband, Mark, he had to set me on my ear. [Jorja is married to Mark Leap, a retired deputy chief of the LAPD.] He said, “Well, of course they feel that way. Do you know what the LAPD has done to them?

I’d always felt like little miss enlightened, and I understood, and had my finger on the pulse of everything. Instead I found I had my finger up my….well, I’ll leave it at that.

WLA: I know from reading the book that there have been many, many high moments. Tell us about one.

JL: There are so many. For example there was the evening that one of our fathers brought his daughters to the meeting. They were fighting with each other at school and got expelled. And he said, I want to whup both of them, but I know that’s wrong, so I brought them to you and I need you all to help me. And so the fathers did. And magic occurred. It was very humbling.

WLA: What made you decide to turn what you were witnessing into a book.

JL: Well it was complicated. Because these aren’t my stories. So I had to ask the men if the book would be okay with them and ask their permission.

But when I heard their voices, how the men expressed themselves, and how they felt about fatherhood, I realized that these were stories that had not been told. These were voices that had not been heard. And I realized I could be the vessel that carried these stories—that were their stories—out into the world.

And these are men who have pasts. When you total it up, the group has probably spent a couple of centuries incarcerated. Yet these men are, week after week, putting one foot in front of the other, while making this effort at healing themselves and healing their community.

WLA: What are the main misconceptions about the men whom you know from Project Fatherhood—and men like them.

JL: Good question. In the mind of many, there are the two extremes—deadbeat dads and the Clifford Huxtable dad—Bill Cosby allegations notwithstanding, the character he created on the Cosby Show.

We don’t seem to have room in our minds for the men who are between those two extremes. But I’m dwelling here in the heart of the territory between those two extremes. These men want to be fathers to their children, but it may not be mom, dad, the Prius and the 2.5 kids. Watts bounces between 50 and 55 percent unemployment during the years of this program. Yet, these men desperately want to work—and not make-work jobs or summer jobs. They want real jobs. They want to stay off public assistance. They’re very proud of staying off. They’ll say, “That’s my baby son. He wasn’t raised on the county. I raised him. “On the county,” means welfare.

WLA: What does what you’ve learned from Project Fatherhood suggest about changes we need to see in public policy?

JL: For one thing, I think there should be a program like this one on every corner, including in Brentwood.

Another thing, people tend to come out of the university environment and mine the data in these communities. And we need to be a presence. We need to not just mine the data, but help the community in tangible ways.

One more thing: every one is missing a bet in Watts, because the real leadership is coming from within that community. Outside agencies don’t need to come in and tell them what to do. Outside programs need instead to provide support for the qualified leadership that is already there.

WLA: What are the most significant lessons you’ve learned personally from your experience with the fathers in the group?

JL: There are so, so many, They helped me understand myself and my relationship with my father, of course. I’ve also learned the uncomfortable lesson that I bathe in White privilege without being aware of it. It’s one thing to read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow.” It’s another thing to live it every day.

And, by the way, we are not living in a post racial society. I’ll tell you that right here, right now.

We’ve lost several of our fathers to the New Jim Crow. There’s one father in the book, whom people will read about. What happened to him…broke everybody’s heart. I’m still struggling with it.

The other thing I become more and more aware of is what I’d call the wages of trauma, which is so profound for so many of these men. They are trying to heal themselves, while healing others whom they’ve hurt.

Witnessing their courage every week has been and continues to be very humbling.

NOTE: There will be a book signing and discussion with Dr. Jorja Leap on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 21, at 2 p.m. at Esowan Books, located at 4327 Degnan Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90008

All the proceeds from Jorja Leap’s book go back to Project Fatherhood.

The video above is from the book launch event for Jorja Leap’s Project Fatherhood featuring a discussion between Jorja and several of the fathers. Watch it!

Posted in American voices, Community Health, race and class, writers and writing | 5 Comments »

WitnessLA Story Wins New Award for Reporting on Baca, Tanaka & the LASD

June 3rd, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

The City and Regional Magazine Association, sponsored by the Missouri School of Journalism, gave out its journalism awards on Monday night.
We learned in real time that a story I’d written had won first place in the reporting category, because people at the CRMA awards dinner in Texas were tweeting the names of the winners as they were announced. Mary Melton, Editor of LA mag, was one of the happy tweeters.

The winning story ran in Los Angeles Magazine in March 2014, but much of it was based on reporting originally done for WitnessLA when we were covering the Los Angeles Shreriff’s Department the most intensely. The material was compressed and rewritten into the longread story you can read here at Los Angeles Magazine. It is called Downfall

Posted in LASD, Paul Tanaka, Sheriff Lee Baca, writers and writing | 21 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 »

LA Supes Finally Approve 2 Foster Care Fixes….Can SF’s Community Court Halt the Revolving Door?….NYC Bans Solitary for Inmates Under 21….More on the “End of Gangs…..and the Pain of Losing Al Martinez

January 14th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


It looks like those two new members added to the LA County Board of Supervisors have changed the mix enough to make a big difference when it comes to social issues. (Let’s hope it continues.)

To wit: On Tuesday, the board added two important–-and long-stalled—safeguards to the child welfare system.

The LA Times’ Garrett Therolf has the story. Here’s a clip:

After a year of stalled efforts to address breakdowns in Los Angeles County’s child protection system, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday adopted two key recommendations of a blue ribbon commission established in the aftermath of a beating death of an 8-year-old Palmdale boy.

In what is believed to be the nation’s first program, the board voted unanimously to pair public health nurses with social workers to investigate every allegation of abuse involving children younger than 2, an age group identified as being the most at risk of fatalities from mistreatment.

The public health nurses will help medical and child welfare workers evaluate children and determine whether they are in danger of abuse or need immediate medical attention. Deploying the additional personnel is expected to cost $8 million annually.

Supervisors said they hope the nurses will help connect families with needed child healthcare and keep families together when appropriate. Initially, the nurses will be added to two child welfare offices serving areas in and around South Los Angeles.

Lack of adequate medical evaluations have been tied to some child fatalities in recent years. In 2008, 2-year-old Isabel Garcia starved to death — two months after social workers visited her and wrote that she appeared healthy, despite the toddler’s sharp weight loss.

The board also moved forward with a recommendation to ensure that children are taken to specialized county medical clinics for health screenings when a nurse in the field deems it medically necessary. The clinics are equipped with sophisticated equipment and staff trained to detect and document child abuse. To accommodate the increased health screening, the county is spending $2 million on additional clinic staff.

“The time is now to move on the blue ribbon commission’s recommendations. The protection and well-being of children in our care should always be top priority,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who co-sponsored the motion with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

Now if the board will keep up the good work and move on the rest of the Blue Ribbon Committee’s recommendations, most notabley the hiring of a child welfare czar.

(cough) Judge Michael Nash (cough, cough)


With a U.S. incarceration rate that increased more than seven-fold between 1980 to 2010, and national recidivism rates at 67.8 percent (and far higher for drug offenders), some of the nation’s more forward-looking communities have been turning to alternative forms of justice such as community courts as a means to stop the revolving door that keeps many low-level offenders cycling in and out of jail or prison.

But do such strategies work?

Community courts have many of the same purposes as regular criminal courts: reducing crime, protecting public safety, and ensuring due process. But unlike most criminal courts, community courts are particularly focused on improving outcomes for offenders by addressing some of the key factors that often underlie certain kinds of criminal behavior—-things like mental and emotional health issues, unemployment, substance abuse, and an unstable home situation.

With such variables in mind, the community courts attempt to match services—not just sanctions—with offenders.

The first community court opened its doors in the U.S. in 1991, in New York City. Now there are more than three dozen such courts in the nation.

California’s two main community courts are located in Orange County and in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s community court, which is known as the Community Justice Center (or CJC), opened in 2009 in the Tenderloin.

Those involved with the court believed from the beginning that they were seeing a drop in recidivism among the CJC’s clients. But were they really?

“Success can be hard to measure in community courts,” writes the Christian Science Monitor’s Henry Gass in a story that looks at the emerging national trend. “The most common criticism leveled against the community court system is that it is often unable to prevent relapses into criminal behavior….”

As a consequence, he writes, “criminal-justice researchers are trying to put together solid statistical evidence of how community courts are performing.”

With this in mind, the RAND corporation decided to take a statistical look at whether or not the CJC really cut the likelihood of returning to the criminal justice system.

RAND researchers analyzed approximately 10,000 cases involving 6,000 defendants that the court heard from its opening in March 2009, through December 2013. When matching the CJC offenders with a control population, they did their best to compare apples with apples, by looking at those who committed similar offenses in the same general geographic area, but before CJC opened. They also looked at those who committed similar offenses after CJC came along in 2009 but who, for some reason, didn’t get funnelled to community court.

The results were published in late 2014 and they were extremely encouraging. They showed that those tried in SF’s Community Justice Center were 8.9 to 10.3 percent less likely to be rearrested within a year than those non-CJC offenders tried in convention court. Over time, the stats got even better. It turned out that the likelihood of not being rearrested rose the longer the CJC people were out. Whereas for those tried in regular courts, the opposite was true; they were more likely to reoffend as time passed.

So why did SF community court system work? One of the study’s authors, Jesse Sussell, said that he and his co-author, Beau Kilmer, weren’t 100 percent sure how to answer that question.

“Policymakers in the United States are aware of the enormous potential gains to be had from reducing recidivism,” he wrote in a paper for Social Policy Research Associates. “They also know that the status quo approach for handling offenders has done a poor job of preventing re-offense…”

But as to why CJC having a better effect?

“We still don’t know precisely why the San Francisco CJC appears to reduce recidivism,” Sussell admitted. But he thought the fact that the program wasn’t a one size fits all system might have something to do with it. “The CJC itself is really a collection of interventions,” he said. “A suite of services,”—some to address addiction, others to address homelessness and other situational problems, and so on.

The court was also speedy, Sussell noted. “Community court participants are also ordered to report to the court much sooner following initial arrest (about one week) than are offenders processed by the traditional court (a month or more).”

Bottom line, the RAND researchers found the study’s results to be very promising, but they’d like to now drill down a bit and look at “the relative contributions of these different program components.”

Sounds fine to us.


In a move that startled many, members of New York City’s board of corrections voted on Tuesday—7-0—to eliminate the use of solitary confinement for all inmates 21 and younger, a move that it is hoped would place the city’s long-troubled Rikers Island complex at the forefront of national jail reform efforts.

Los Angeles County has yet to come close to such a sweeping decision—although in the last few years it has greatly reduced its dependence on solitary confinement in response to a raft of public criticism by juvenile justice advocates.

Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz have the story for the New York Times on Tuesday’s policy change.

Here’s a clip:

The policy change was a stark turnaround by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio [whose corrections guy supported the surprise move], which recently eliminated the use of solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds but, backed by the powerful correction officers union, had resisted curtailing the practice more broadly.

Even the most innovative jails in the country punish disruptive inmates over age 18 with solitary confinement, said Christine Herrman, director of the Segregation Reduction Project at the Vera Institute of Justice. “I’ve never heard of anything like that happening anywhere else,” she said, referring to the New York City plan. “It would definitely be an innovation.”

The Correction Department has faced repeated criticism over the past year after revelations of horrific brutality and neglect of inmates at Rikers, the country’s second-largest jail system. Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, is suing the city over the treatment of adolescent inmates at the jail complex.


A large body of scientific research indicates that solitary confinement is particularly damaging to adolescents and young adults because their brains are still developing. Prolonged isolation in solitary cells can worsen mental illness and in some cases cause it, studies have shown.

Inmates in solitary confinement at Rikers are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, with one hour of recreation, which they spend by themselves in a small caged area outdoors. A report published in August by Mr. Bharara’s office described the use of solitary cells for young people at Rikers as “excessive and inappropriate.” Inmates can be locked away for weeks and months and, in some cases, even over a year.

As of Jan. 9, according to recently released city data, there were 497 inmates between ages 19 and 21 at Rikers, with 103 of them held in solitary confinement.

“The majority of inmates in the 18- to 21-year-old cohort are young men of color whom we presume innocent under our laws because they are awaiting trial,” said Bryanne Hamill, one of the board’s strongest voices for eliminating solitary for young inmates. “The evidence showed that solitary confinement will not improve their future behavior, but will reliably convert anger and frustration today into rage and violence tomorrow.”

The president of NYC’s 9,000-member correction officers’ union, Norman Seabrook, said the plan would endanger correction officers by leading to more inmate attacks. Seabrook told the NYT that he planned sue the board for every guard assaulted.


For those of you who were interested in the discussion that resulted from Sam Quinones’ story for Pacific Standard magazine, provocatively titled “The End of Gangs,” you’ll likely enjoy listening to the podcast of Monday’s Deadline LA on KPFK, featuring Barbara Osborn and Howard Blume interviewing Quinones about whether or not the gangs are disappearing from LA’s streets and, if so, why.

As you may remember, Quinones’ story is thought-provoking and deeply reported, but also controversial.

For instance, we still find his analysis far too law-enforcement centric. And it has made gang experts nuts that, in discussing the gangs’ lessened grip on day to day life in our urban neighborhoods, his story completely left out the essential role played by non-profit programs that offer jobs and other crucial support to former gang members, plus the powerful effect of grassroots community involvement, along with a host of other factors that have contributed to the drop in gang crime.

Yet, all that said, Osborn and Blume ask some great questions. And Quinones’ highly informed answers having to do with the measurable successes gained by policing “smarter, not harder,” along with the LAPD’s brass enlightened move some years ago to treat the most violence-afflicted communities they police as partners, not adversaries—and other intriguing topics regarding the world of cops and gangs—are very much worth your time.

So, listen. Okay? Okay.


Al Martinez, LA’s glorious storyteller, our city’s bard, as the Huntington Library called him, our deeply humanistic, gloriously poetic and wildly funny chronicler of the zillion extraordinary and ordinary facets of life in Southern California, has left us.

Martinez died Monday at West Hills Hospital of congestive heart failure, said his wife, Joanne, when she called LA Observed’s Kevin Roderick, for whom Al wrote his last columns. He was 85 and had been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Al wrote for the LA Times for 38 years—most notably as a columnist—before stupid management decisions forced him out during the worst of the Times’ staff purges, first once, then again. (After panicking at the furious response from readers, the Times rehired him after the first push out in 2007.)

Yet, the ongoing demand for his unique voice was such that Martinez easily placed his columns elsewhere after he parted with the Times, LA Observed being his last home.

He also wrote a string of non-fiction books, a novel and, since this is LA, after all, he wrote occasionally for television, when it suited him.

The LAT’s Valerie Nelson has a lovely obit on Martinez, and Roderick writes about his friend and columnist here, plus Al’s longtime friend and colleague, Bill Boyarsky writes his own tribute, “The Storyteller Exits.”

PS: Al settled himself and his family in Topanga Canyon when he moved to Southern California in the early 1970s. Thus, we who also make Topanga our home always felt that LA’s fabulously gifted teller-of-stories belonged to us personally. We understood we couldn’t keep him forever. Yet, losing him still seems unimaginable.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice, gender, law enforcement, Life in general, Los Angeles writers, Police, Public Health, race, race and class, racial justice, School to Prison Pipeline, solitary, Violence Prevention, writers and writing, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 9 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 »

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