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Community Members Continue to Call for Release of LAPD Body Cam Videos Showing Shooting of 14-year-old Boy

August 15th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon



CONFLICTING VERSIONS OF A BOY’S DEATH UPSETS COMMUNITY

Jesse James Romero was 14-years-old and would have turned fifteen this month.

Instead, he was fatally shot by a member of Los Angeles Police Department on Tuesday of last week. The death of the Boyle Heights teenager has drawn an unusual amount of attention from local community members who want more answers than they say they are being given by LAPD officials.

Romero was a student at Mendez High School and a smart kid who applied himself to school work, according to friends, but he also skated the edge of gangs, they said, and had been harassed by members of other so-called “enemy” gangs. Yet he was enrolled in a gang intervention program at Soledad Enrichment Center (SEA) where he was reportedly doing well.

The shooting occurred after officers assigned to the gang detail from the Hollenbeck Division of the LAPD got a complaint at about 5:35 p.m. on Tuesday, about some possible tagging in progress near Chicago Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue, a few blocks away from where the Hollenbeck police station is located on 1st Street in Boyle Heights. When the officers rolled up on the two teenagers at the location, one of the boys was detained. But the other one ran, and officers gave chase.

The boy who ran was Jesse Romero.

What happened after he ran from the police is, at present, open to dispute.

The LAPD says that detectives spoke to a witness who saw Romero fire a handgun in the direction of the pursuing officers. And then, according to the witness, one of the officers, who were both in full uniform, fired back killing him.

But a second witness, who also said she saw the sequence of events, told Los Angeles Times reporters that she was “in a car stopped at a traffic light at Cesar Chavez and Breed Street,” where the shooting took place, when she saw someone running along Cesar Chavez Avenue, from Chicago Street. As the young runner turned onto Breed, the witness told the LA Times, he pulled a handgun from his waistband and threw it toward a metal fence. The gun hit the fence and fell onto the ground, at which point she heard the thing fire. Then she heard two more gunshots and saw the teenage runner fall to the ground.


“HE WAS JUST TRYING TO GET AWAY”

WitnessLA spoke to a third witness, who declined to allow his name to be used, but who heard the first shot and a few seconds later saw Romero running south on Breed St. then saw the officers speeding behind him having turned the corner from Cesar Chavez to Breed. The witness described seeing one officer extend his arm and shoot the running teenager twice in the back. Then the boy fell.

The angle was such that witness said he did not see whether or not Romero had a gun in his hands nor did he see him throw it.

“When I saw him, he was just trying to get away,” said the witness. “And the officer shot him.”

At a press conference on Wednesday, LAPD Deputy Chief Robert Arcos, explained to reporters that officers heard a gunshot as they turned the corner from Cesar Chavez to Breed and one officer fired at Romero and hit him. Arcos also reported that police had recovered a handgun near Romero’s body. The LAPD provided a photo of the handgun—a revolver*—that appears to be notably old and poorly maintained. According to those familiar with such guns, it could be a 1940’s era .38 or .22. (The Times showed the photo to a couple of experts who said this particular kind of revolver, if not well-maintained, could very well fire accidently if it was dropped or tossed on to a hard surface. )

A video taken by a bystander appeared on Democracy Now and shows officers handcuffing the limp body of Jesse Romero, next to a metal fence, with the gun lying on the other side of the fence from his body.



“LET THE CHIPS FALL”

So what is true?

LAPD officials have told reporters and others that the body cam videos from the cameras worn by the officers involved are intact and are being examined.

And the rusty gun found near to Romero is being tested for DNA and fingerprints.

The police have not mentioned testing Romero’s hands for gun shot residue, but one assumes that such a test has been done.

A retired LA County Sheriff’s department supervisor with experience in such things assured us that gun shot residue test can be done very quickly, “even at the scene,” if need be, he said. So presumably the police know if Jesse Romero fired that gun or not, even without the body cam videos.

But the videos are expected to be the true tie breaker.

Civil Rights lawyer Jorge Gonzalez, who is one of the attorneys representing Romero’s mother, held a press conference on Friday calling for the release of the videos.

“Be transparent! Let us see the videos now, and then let the chips fall,” Gonzalez said to us over the weekend regarding what he wants from the LAPD. “If the videos show that Jesse shot at police, and had that gun when he was shot, then we’ll withdraw our lawsuit.

“But,” Gonzalez continued, “if Jesse threw the gun, like the other witness says he did, “and when the gun hit the ground it went off,—”meaning, he didn’t have the gun when he was shot….well, that’s a whole different story.”

Gonzalez was also critical of the LAPD for telling reporters about the witness’s version of events that best matched the police narrative, while dragging their feet on producing hard evidence that would tip the scales.

In the meantime, community members held a vigil on Wednesday night calling for “justice” for Romero, and two other young Boyle Heights men shot this year by police, and on Saturday a several dozen demonstrated during the day in front of the Hollenbeck police station.

On Friday night, at Pasadena’s Levitt Pavilion, the musical group Quezal, dedicated their last song of the night to Jesse Romero.

Yet, not all of the talk in the community has been focused on the actions of the police. On Friday, August 12, the group “Building Healthy Communities held a press conference at the Ross Valencia Community Park at the corner of Chicago and 1st Streets to talk about the need for an increase in investment in Boyle Heights kids…like Jesse. Youth activists said that the city of LA spends $653 per resident on police and $43 per youth, while there are approximately 800,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 in the Boyle Heights area alone.

And then on Sunday at Dolores Mission Church, community women held a food sale after each mass to raise money for Jesse Romero’s mother to help pay for the funeral service for her son. Other community members have donated through GoFundMe


EDITOR’S NOTE: The LA Times has been doing excellent ongoing coverage of Jesse Romero’s death and its aftermath, so be sure to check out their stories.


CORRECTION: 8-16-2016: We originally and erroneously wrote “pistol” when describing the gun. It’s a revolver. Also, experts tell us it could be a .22 caliber.

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments »

Is There a Kid-Battering Subculture Inside LA County’s Juvenile Facilities?

August 12th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


A SINGLE INCIDENT OR SOMETHING MORE?

Is there a brutal subculture inside Los Angeles County’s juvenile facilities? Do certain LA County Probation staff members believe that physical violence, along with humiliating actions and demeaning language, is “necessary” to “keep” unruly incarcerated kids “in line?”

While many of LA’s juvenile probation staff do genuinely remarkable work with the teenagers in their care, sources inside the department, along with youth advocates and juvenile defense attorneys with whom we’ve spoken, are concerned that an unacknowledged minority of probation’s staff members are emotionally and physically brutal in their approach to the kids they should be helping.

In late June, we wrote about a reported beating of a 17-year-old boy by four Detention Services Officers (DSOs) while a supervisor looked on, all of which was caught on video. WitnessLA obtained a 4:18 minute bootleg copy of a portion of the official video that showed the April 24 pounding that took place in the boy’s room in the SHU section of Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall located in Sylmar, California.

The video—along with our report of a second alleged assault by a DSO at Central Juvenile Hall-–was much of what triggered the LA County Board of Supervisors to pass a Mark Ridley-Thomas-authored motion earlier this month, which asks the County CEO to return to the board in 45 days with a report that examines Probation’s policies and procedures for handling incidents like the ones was caught on video at the Sylmar facility. Within 90 days the board wants an analysis of three years of critical incidents that have occurred within the juvenile camps and halls. http://witnessla.com/probation/2016/admin/reports-of-another-alleged-assault-of-a-teenager-by-a-los-angeles-county-probation-staffer/

But, despite the existence of the recording that we obtained, and despite the board’s concern, a lot of questions remained about how this beat down occurred.

What happened before the beating incident that caused staff to pick on this particular kid?

Sources close to and inside probation have provided us with a few of those answers. In addition to the 4:18 minute video in our possession, there is another video clip that is of about 15 minutes in length, which was pulled from the camera feed in the young man’s room as part of the ongoing investigation into the April 24, incident.

Two sources, who asked not to be named, but who have seen the 15-minute-long video have described to us what it contained.

The beating is disturbing enough, said one of the sources.But what is equally disturbing, he said, is what led to the beating.

“They set the kid up,” he said.

But before we get to what came before the recorded pummeling, it helps to step back farther into the recent past to find out a little about the kid himself, and to trace how he came to be in an LA County juvenile hall in the first place.


A GOOD KID GOES OFF THE RAILS

The probationer on the video reportedly has no violence in his record. For purposes of discussion, at his mother’s suggestion, we’ll call the boy Curry, both to protect his anonymity and because he loves basketball. In any case, “Curry” had no juvenile record at all until life events sent him into an emotional crisis. His parents were divorced and, after shuttling for a while between mom and dad, in the last few years, he had lived full time with his father in Arizona. Then Curry’s father was diagnosed with a fast moving lung cancer. By the time the malignancy was discovered, it had metastasized.

When his father died a few months later, Curry was inconsolable. The death of his dad also meant he needed to leave friends and his school in Arizona, in order to go to return to Los Angeles to live with his mother.

By this time, Curry’s mother, whom we’ll call Naomi, had a new husband, and two children by spouse number two—a four year old, and a brand new baby. In addition, Naomi was juggling a full-time job along with the demands of baby and child-raising. Thus, no matter how much she knew she needed to help her teenage son, having a disaffected, grief-stricken 17-year-old parachuted into a home already made chaotic by the baby’s arrival, was less than ideal.

So perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, for a variety of reasons, things began to go south.

For one thing, Naomi had rules, and the dad had been far more permissive. Also, Curry has a mild learning disability and, according to his mother, is an athlete more than he is a student, even under normal circumstances. During the period of his father’s illness, he had fallen severely behind in school. When he came to LA after his dad’s death, his school situation worsened. He got farther behind in credits, was not reading at grade level and school officials recommended a self-study program at home. This was the last thing that either Curry or his overwhelmed mother wanted. From Curry’s perspective, home study meant he was no longer permitted play basketball, at which he reportedly excels, and which is the activity that, in the past, had most steadied him.

Naomi went to the local school board and tried to get officials to put Curry back a grade, which she hoped would allow him to both catch up and also to play ball, but school officials refused, she said. “Emotionally he needed help in dealing with his father. And he’d say to me, ‘I just want to be in school. I just want to play basketball.’ He lives, loves, eats basketball,” she said, and he wants to get a sports scholarship, which he felt was slipping away. “Maybe I should have pushed harder with the school officials…” she said.

Naomi did her best to help him stay on track with home study, but without sports, and with his grief over his dad’s death so fresh, Curry grew restless and began hanging out with people that his mom didn’t approve of. He started coming home late. Then sometimes he didn’t come home at night at all. Unable to rein him in, Naomi called the cops. She wanted somebody else to step in as an authority figure, and help her get her son into therapy, she said.

But Curry hadn’t broken any laws, and the police explained that getting her unhappy kid in line was her job. “We’re not the answer ma’am,” the officer she contacted said.

After the cops, Naomi called the Department of Children and Family Services—foster care—where officials had a similar reaction to that of the police. “No ma’am, that’s not how it works,” Naomi said the DCFS people told her. “You can’t bring him here.”

The act that finally brought Curry into the juvenile justice system-–and Naomi hoped, some help—occurred in a moment of adolescent stupidity and frustration; Curry took off in a car that belonged to an adult friend of his girlfriend. The car business was a murky affair that Naomi admitted she could not fully explain. Curry thought he was in the process of buying the car, putting whatever money he or his girlfriend managed to scrape together toward a used vehicle, never mind that he wasn’t an adult and had no driver’s license, nor ability to get vehicle insurance. The adult who was “selling” the car, off the books, to the non-licensed teenager, gave Curry the keys, and let him drive it for days at a time. At some point, however, the kid and the car-selling guy had a fight, reportedly over the terms of the “sale. “ Whatever the case, Curry drove off, and the car owner called the cops.

Since Curry had no previous juvenile record, the judge was reluctant to send this struggling but otherwise decent kid into lock up, so put him on house arrest.

Just about 24 hours after Curry’s newly acquired probation officer came to his mom’s house to explain the terms of his legal situation, Curry and his mother had yet another argument. Furious, Naomi confiscated his cell phone, and Curry punched a hole in the wall, fracturing his right arm in the process, landing him eventually in a cast. (The cast is visible in the 4-minute beat-down video.) Later that night, the squabble continued, and Curry took off, thus violating the terms of home detention, before it really got started. When he didn’t come home, his mother notified authorities, who tracked him down with little trouble.

Curry was sent to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, while probation officials tried to figure out what to do with him. But before he could be placed elsewhere, Curry and some other boys tried, unsuccessfully, to escape from Los Padrinos. After the foiled escape, Curry was transferred to Barry J. Nidorf juvenile hall in Sylmar, where he was put in the SHU, ostensibly to thwart any further breakout attempts.

This brings us back to April 24.


THE REST OF THE VIDEO

From the beginning of his time at Sylmar, Curry was reportedly labeled as a problem kid, either because of the escape attempt, or because he may or may not have been slow to follow directions on the yard. In any case, although our sources tell us there were no reported incidents, some staff evidently considered him a kid who needed a lesson.

At the beginning of the 15-minute video segment from April 24, according to our sources who have viewed it, we see Curry alone in his cell, where he is looking through what appear to be papers and a notebook.

“On the video you just see a whole bunch of time go by with the kid sitting on the bed, writing and looking through some papers,” said one of the sources. “He was occupying himself in what looked like a quiet, constructive way.”

Eventually, a staff member comes to the door of his room. The staffer tells Curry that he needs to get ready to shower. So the kid stashes his paperwork under his bunk mattress, takes off his clothes, leaving only his boxers, and wraps himself in a towel. The staffer returns and escorts him out of his room.

Next, according to our sources, the same staff member enters the boy’s room and begins tossing it. He finds the papers that the kid had stashed under his mattress, all of which the staff member confiscates along with Curry’s clothing, his mattress and his bedding—everything but his mattress cover.

According to department sources, staff members are allowed to search a kid’s room once a day. If there is some report of contraband, they can also search more often. But they are not allowed to confiscate a kid’s personal possessions unless those possessions are contraband or in some way pose a danger. (We continue to hear sporadic reports of these kinds of unmotivated confiscations of probationer’s belongings, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

In any case, a minute or two after the staffer exits the room, “Curry” reenters his room in boxers. “You see him realize that that everything has been taken,” said one of our sources. “He looks for his papers and notebook and sees they’re gone too.”

At this point, a clearly upset Curry bangs on his door calling for staff. Someone finally opens the door, and there is an exchange which upsets the kid further. When that staff member leaves, Curry bangs on the door a second time.

This time when the door opens there are two staff members. The one in front is carrying a dinner tray. There is an exchange that appears to upset the kid more. Now in a fury, the boy reaches out with both hands and flips the dinner tray back toward the staffer.

The video shows the second staff member behind the tray holder, pulling out his radio and making some kind of call.

A few seconds later, the supervisor arrives with two or more other staffers. As the supervisor talks to Curry, he reportedly twirls a “very heavy set of keys” that is attached to a chain. Our sources who viewed the recording, both described the key twirling as “aggressive” and “provocative.”

Perhaps 30-seconds later still, the part of the video that WLA has obtained begins. The supervisor and the kid are alone in the room, with the kid behaving in a compliant, non-threatening manner, but nevertheless visibly upset. The supervisor then rolls up his sleeves. A few words are exchanged and he leaves the room.

The very upset Curry picks up his mattress pad, which is now one of the few things left in his small cell, and tosses it impotently at the closed door. Then he tosses a milk carton—which is presumably a left over from the tray tipping incident—at the door.

The supervisor returns, tells the boy to face his bunk. Curry does so. Seconds later, three large staffers enter, one of them wearing black gloves. One lunges at the boy from the rear, slamming him down on his molded cement bunk, hard and fast. Then the rest pile on, as the supervisor looks at the action, pacing occasionally. Somewhere during the action, a fourth staff member enters the room, and the fray. After 1:48 minutes into the thumping, and pummeling, the four attackers rise off the kid’s body, and leave the room. After a pause, the supervisor follows.

Once alone, Curry raises himself painfully to a sitting position. His sole remaining article of clothing— his boxer shorts—have been pulled down halfway to his knees. Splotches of blood are visible on the shower towel that is now draped over the cement bunk.

But unlike our recording, the full 15-minute clip doesn’t end there.

Shortly after the beating, Curry tries to stand but his ankle, which was injured in the fight, gives way and he falls to the cell floor, where he curls up and remains, visibly in pain. While he is still on the floor, a nurse enters the room, but—counter to what we’d heard earlier—our sources who saw the longer video say that the nurse never touches the kid or attempts to examine him for injuries.

“She just stares at him, and leaves,” said one source. “It was incredible.”

Later there is a second nurse who saw the boy was injured, examined him briefly, and later, reportedly, caused him to be transported to County USC hospital, where he stayed for treatment.

After his release from the hospital, Curry was transferred to Central Juvenile Hall, and then finally to another “placement,” at Boys Republic.

At Boys Republic, he seemed at first to do well. But then, after a week at the facility, the distressed seventeen-year-old escaped from the Boys Republic facility on June 21, shortly after midnight, with help from his teenage girlfriend, who picked him up outside the place.

He was recaptured a few days later, and transferred back to Central Juvenile Hall while everyone tried to figure out what to do next.


SO HOW BIG IS THE PROBLEM?

We have learned from sources inside probation that when the five staff members allegedly involved in the beating first reported the incident, as is required when force is used, they stated that the force used on the boy occurred only after Curry forcefully assaulted detention officers (DPO). The account of the unhappy 17-year-old as the violent aggressor might have gone unchallenged, according to our sources, had someone in a position of authority not decided to pull the video recorded from the overhead camera in the boy’s cell. As we know now, those images told a very different story

“So you wonder is it just a small group guys who behave this way?” said one county official when we were discussing the matter. “Or is it a larger group of guys who think that this is how you teach kids a lesson? That’s the worry. These are traumatized kids. We need our staff to understand that,” he said.

“When you have nothing, and someone takes [the few things you do have], you’re upset. If he was writing gang stuff, then, yeah, you take it. But there is no evidence that he was writing anything that was a problem. So when staff took his stuff and didn’t give a good answer, he was upset. So let him be upset. But egos got involved.

“When you look at the video,” he continued, “you know that couldn’t have been their first time. It’s too organized. It’s too calculated.” So there are two issues, he said, “the actual incident, and the implications of that incident…”

Yes. Exactly.

Jane Robison, spokesperson for the DA’s office, said that the matter of whether the DSOs who allegedly participated in the physical assault of the non-resisting 17-year-old should be criminally charged is still being investigated.

As for the Probation department, Chief Cal Remington told us that his people are pursuing “an ongoing investigation that we take very seriously. But,” he said, “we’ve expanded it beyond just this one incident.”

Posted in Juvenile Probation | 8 Comments »

Protecting Foster Kids from Over-Prescribing Doctors….DOJ to Require Law Enforcement to Report Officer-Involved Deaths….and More

August 11th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

UPDATES ON BILLS TO PROTECT VULNERABLE FOSTER CHILDREN FROM DOCTORS WHO OVER-PRESCRIBE PSYCHOTROPIC DRUGS

On Wednesday, SB 1174, a bill to combat the excessive and alarming prescribing of psychotropic medications to California’s foster kids, unanimously passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee with 19 yes votes. (For the backstory and context, read Karen de Sá’s powerful five-part investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News, “Drugging Our Kids.”)

The bill, introduced by Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg), would trigger regular reports on physicians and their prescribing patterns of psychotropic medications, making it easier for the Medical Board of California to confidentially identify, conduct investigations of, and hold accountable doctors who over-prescribe psychotropic drugs to foster children.

Sen McGuire pointed out that if passed, SB 1174 would be the strongest legislation of its kind in the nation, and would go a long way toward protecting California’s foster kids, who, McGuire says, have experienced a 1,400% surge in psychotropic and antipsychotic medication prescriptions in the last 15 years.

“It is unconscionable that the state is not acting in the best interest of these foster kids,” Sen. McGuire says. “This legislation stems from a culture that has developed in our State’s foster care system where excessive prescription of psychotropic medication has taken hold and it has lifelong negative impacts on young lives.”

SB 1174 is part of a larger legislative package that includes SB 253, a bill scheduled for an Assembly vote today (Thursday), that would require second medical opinions for prescriptions to kids under five.

Another bill in the package is SB 1291, which would improve monitoring of mental health services provided to Medi-Cal eligible students, including foster youth. The bill has stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The San Jose Mercury News’ has more on the legislative push for reform. Here’s a clip:

McGuire told the committee there are almost 70,000 foster youth in California and that over the past 15 years, the rate of foster youth prescribed psychotropic medications has increased 1,400 percent — with “no way to measure the efficacy of these practices.”

After similar bills were passed in Illinois, Washington and Ohio, he said, those states have witnessed a 25 percent decrease in psychotropic prescriptions to foster youth.

But this bill, said McGuire, would be the strongest in the nation because it provides a state medical board with “the data they need to do their job” to scrutinize the prescribing rates and enforce the legislation.

Iris Hoffman, 20, who spent time in foster care, echoed his comments, telling the committee that the foster care system is “filled with stories of overmedication.”

She said she was prescribed more than one antipsychotic and “countless different medications” for a diagnosis that, she noted, later proved to be incorrect.

“My story is not unique,” Hoffman said. “There are so many people in the system who have had these experiences. There is absolutely no reason not to take a closer look at this” and put in place “some kind of protocol” that will prevent such abuse from happening again.

“Maybe we can focus some of our energy on stopping the overmedication of foster youth that is damaging lives to this moment,” Hoffman implored. “We cannot wait one more day.”

McGuire’s office agreed to amend the bill so doctors would only be triggered for scrutiny once a year, instead of quarterly, and only if they prescribed three or more psychiatric drugs to a child for 90 days or more.”


DOJ TO REQUIRE FULL REPORTING FROM LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES ON “ARREST-RELATED DEATHS”

US Department of Justice officials have announced that the nation’s 19,450 law enforcement agencies will be required to report information on officer-involved deaths to the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Currently, the FBI only collects voluntary data from local and state agencies on fatal uses of force by officers.

The system the BJS will use is inspired by The Counted, an ongoing project from the Guardian, which revealed that the FBI numbers only accounted for about half of officer-involved killings.

Rather than relying solely on self-reporting from law enforcement agencies, the BJS will collect data from media sources and have law enforcement and local medical examiner’s and coroner’s offices confirm information gathered about arrest-related deaths.

Besides reporting the numbers, departments will also be required to include specifics, like whether an individual was armed or unarmed, the events leading up to a fatal encounter, and the demographics of those killed by law enforcement.

This year, agencies will report once, at the end of the year, after which, they will be required to turn in their data once every quarter.

The Guardian’s Jon Swaine has more on the changes. Here’s a clip:

The new system is being overseen by the department’s bureau of justice statistics (BJS). It would, like the Guardian’s, document deaths caused by physical force, Taser shocks and some vehicle crashes caused by law enforcement in addition to fatal shootings by officers. A Washington Post tally counts fatal shootings by police.

In their Federal Register article, officials cited their authority under the death in custody reporting act – a law that states local departments must report all deaths in custody to the justice department or lose 10% of their federal funding. The law has been largely ignored since being reauthorized in December 2014.

The BJS carried out a trial of its new system that monitored deaths between 1 June and 31 August last year. Officials working on the pilot program cited The Counted as an influence on the initiative and a source for its information…

According to the announcement, police departments will be asked later this year to report once for all arrest-related deaths during 2016, before moving to the quarterly reporting process next year.

Under the new government program, all 19,450 American law enforcement agencies will be sent a form by the BJS that requires information on all the department’s arrest-related deaths in the past quarter of the year.

Deaths that were already noticed in media reports will be listed by the BJS for confirmation or correction by the local departments. Space will be included for the local department to list additional deaths that were not previously noticed. Departments that have seen no arrest-related deaths that quarter will be asked to return “an affirmative zero” saying so.

A second form seeking extensive information about the circumstances of each death will be sent to the local department responsible. It will require local officials to detail similar data to that logged by The Counted, such as demographic information on every person killed, how the deadly encounter began and whether the person was armed.

Other forms will be sent to the 685 medical examiner’s and coroner’s offices asking them to also confirm details of deaths that have been noticed in public sources. They, too, will be asked to return forms with details of any other deaths that went unnoticed.


SOLANO PRISONERS DECORATE THOUSANDS OF BAGS TO BENEFIT FIGHT AGAINST CANCER

Inmate artists at Vacaville State Prison, Solano—some of whom are battling cancer themselves—decorated around 2,500 white paper lunch bags with nature scenes, angels, flowers, hearts, tattoo-style art, and more, as part of an art show to benefit the American Cancer Society.

The bags—each dedicated to a person fighting cancer or lost to cancer—will be lit with candlelight and used to illuminate a school track during a nighttime Relay for Life.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s Dianne Reber Hart has the story. Here’s a clip:

Their original artwork, done in everything from crayons to acrylics, is part of an American Cancer Society fundraiser. The bags will circle a school track during an overnight Relay for Life event, each glowing by candlelight as a luminaria dedicated to someone battling or lost to cancer.

Collectively, the bags are both a tribute and an art show, an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for the fight against cancer.

A newly formed group within Vacaville’s California State Prison, Solano called Artists Serving Humanity decorated some 2,500 bags, each one checked by prison staff for inappropriate language, graphics or gang insignia.

The majority of bags passed clearance, many with tender images of angels, hearts, flowers, stars, clouds, crosses and hands clasped in prayer. Others show detailed landscapes of mountains, streams, sunsets, sandy beaches and palm trees — scenery far removed from inmates locked within the medium-security prison.

There also are abstracts, Teddy bears, words of hope and encouragement, and designs more typical of graffiti or tattoo art, each a one-of-a-kind tribute. Several were completed by inmates battling cancer.

“There are a lot of artists incarcerated and we want to give them a creative outlet that has positive implications for the community,” said Eric Lahti, the GED teacher at the prison who oversees Artists Serving Humanity. “It’s to help make up for all the harm they’ve done.”

This is an initial public effort for the new group of 100 inmate artists. Previously, artwork has been completed to brighten the waiting area for visitors.

Posted in Foster Care | 1 Comment »

Dozens of Bills (Some Overlapping) Tackle Child Sex Trafficking in California

August 10th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

As law enforcement and other agencies are switching from approaches that treat trafficked kids like criminals, toward methods that recognize the children are victims, momentum has been building in Sacramento, and California lawmakers are pushing a number of bills aimed at curbing commercial sexual exploitation of minors.

SB 1322, a bill introduced by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) to shield trafficked children from prosecution and criminalization is heading to the Assembly for a vote this week.

Two different bills aim to help exploited minors clear their records.

One of the bills, Sen. Marty Block’s SB 823, would assist young victims of trafficking in clearing non-violent offenses and sealing their juvenile records.

A number of the bills have bipartisan support and face little or no opposition. Others proposed legislative solutions have proven more polemic.

Some law enforcement and prosecutors argue that decriminalizing trafficked kids will make it more difficult to build links between the young victims and their traffickers in court, and also take away law enforcement agencies’ ability to hold trafficked minors in secure facilities and connect them with service groups.

Two other bills introduced by former Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins have garnered a lot of attention. AB 1730, would set up temporary housing, trauma-informed mental health care, and mentoring services for children (many of whom are involved in either or both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems) rescued from the sex trafficking industry. A companion bill, AB 1731, would form a task force to gather and report data on sex trafficking victims, the people who run trafficking operations, and those who buy sex. The group would use this information to train law enforcement to recognize and stop trafficking enterprises.

There are several other bills that take different approaches—like imposing harsher penalties for johns, and ramping up protections for kids testifying against their traffickers in court.

But opponents worry there may be unfavorable consequences attached to some of the bills. For example, opponents of a bill that would allow police to impound vehicles used by johns soliciting sex say the proposed legislation might spawn rights-violating seizures and other constitutional breaches.

The LA Times’ Jazmine Ulloa has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

More than 30 bills this legislative session alone have attempted to combat a multibillion-dollar industry that now operates as much online, if not more, as it does on the streets. But much of the legislation, still pending as lawmakers return to Sacramento for their final month of deliberations, varies in its approach to the problem. Critics say the competing proposals present a difficult path forward.

“There is no easy solution to modern-day slavery — if there was, we would have already been doing it,” said Stephanie Richard, policy and legal services director at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.

[SNIP]

State-run regional human trafficking task forces arrested nearly 1,800 people and identified 1,277 victims from mid-2010 to mid-2012, 72% of whom were American and 56% of whom had been trafficked for sex, according to the state attorney general’s office. FBI statistics consider three California cities among the areas with the highest rate of child sex trafficking: Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego.

Victims tend to be young. Boys are typically ages 11 to 13 when they are entered into the trade; girls are usually between 12 and 14.

With such staggering numbers, local coalitions began focusing on diverting young victims away from the criminal justice system and dismantling the perception that children and teens willfully and knowingly enter prostitution.

The most significant changes came in 2012 with the passage of Proposition 35, which increased sentences for all trafficking crimes and clearly articulated that trafficked people are victims, not criminals.

Now agencies are continuing the move from an approach that criminalizes prostitution to one that protects trafficked victims from prosecution and provides them with social services. But as lawmakers join the cause, how the Legislature can help make the shift is up for debate.

Posted in Sex trafficking | No Comments »

LASD Says Man Shot in Compton by Deputies Was Not Involved in Earlier Carjacking

August 10th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

On July 28, a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed 27-year-old Donnell Thompson, an unarmed man whom deputies mistakenly believed might be connected to a carjacking suspect who had fired shots at deputies three hours earlier.

On Tuesday, however, the sheriff’s department admitted in a statement that there was “no evidence that Mr. Thompson was in the carjacked vehicle, nor that he was involved in the assault on the deputies.”

The original incident began around 2:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 28, when sheriff’s deputies noticed a Honda Civic driving erratically. The deputy pulled the car over then ran the plates and determined that the car was stolen. The driver of the stolen car took off, crashing through the fence at a local elementary school driving onto school grounds to get away. As the case continued, the driver reportedly opened fire on police and eventually crashed the stolen Honda, and fled on foot. The alleged car jacker, whose name Robert Alexander was captured just before 5 a.m.

Shortly after Alexander was apprehended and arrested, deputies were alerted by a neighborhood resident that a man (Thompson) was lying in his yard. LASD Special Enforcement Bureau deputies in two armored vehicles responded to the call. The officers said Thompson was not responding to deputies’ commands. The SEB officers reportedly fired a flash bang grenade and rubber bullets at the man they viewed as a suspect. Thompson reportedly did not respond to the flash bang, but appeared to rouse in reaction to the rubber bullets, and finally stood up. Then, according to sheriff’s deputies, Thompson—who was reportedly small in stature—charged toward the deputies. A deputy fatally shot Thompson from the turret of one of the armored vehicles. That deputy has been reassigned to desk duties.

Thanks to DNA and gunshot residue testing, the department was able to make the determination that there is no evidence linkingThompson to the carjacking or the assault on the deputies involved, but department investigators are still in the process of reviewing the shooting and the events leading up to it.

Sources close to the department expressed concern to us back in July when news of this shooting surfaced. “This doesn’t add up,” one department veteran told WLA. Two weeks later, now that more information on the shooting is available, a retired department supervisor questioned why “the ‘highly trained SEB’ deputy” would shoot Thompson from “the protected turret of an armored vehicle.” (See above photo of the scene captured by ABC7.)

Friends and family members say Thompson, whom they called by the nickname “Little Bo Peep,” was kind and soft-spoken, and emotionally far younger than his 27 years. Thompson was attending classes for the mentally disabled at El Camino College, and reportedly had no criminal history.

“We just want answers as to why,” said Thompson’s sister. “We want the sheriff’s department to be held accountable for their actions.”

Thompson’s family reportedly plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the county.

“Clearly the Thompson family has some very grave concerns, and some questions that they’d like to have answers for, said LASD Captain Steven Katz in an interview with ABC7. “We believe that they’re certainly valid, and we have those same questions.”

Posted in LASD | 26 Comments »

Inadequate Education for Kids in San Bernardino Alternative Schools, LASD Sez No More Firing into Cars, and Asset Forfeiture Reform

August 9th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

SAN BERNARDINO, FEDS REACH AGREEMENT OVER ACCESS TO SPECIALIZED SCHOOLING FOR DISABLED STUDENTS IN ALTERNATIVE AND COURT SCHOOLS

On Friday, the US Department of Education (DOE) announced a resolution agreement with the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools after a DOE review found the district was violating federal law by not having a system in place to identify students in alternative and juvenile court schools who may have disabilities and need specialized education services.

In addition to not having an adequate identification system, the county also lacks a record-keeping system to track the students and make sure they are evaluated, regularly re-evaluated, and given a “free and appropriate public education” as required by law. The alternative schools are also failing to provide specialized instruction—like speech therapy—and are not tracking the use of these services.

According to the review by the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights, San Bernardino County is in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The county operates 14 community schools, where kids are moved to from traditional schools for things like expulsion, truancy, or parent referral, and two juvenile court schools, which teach kids locked up in the county’s juvenile detention centers.

By identifying and evaluating students who are or may be disabled, and by making sure students with disabilities receive specialized—and equal—education, “schools can stop the cycle of revolving placements, place students with disabilities on a path to educational success, and remove them from the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for OCR.

The agreement requires the county to hire a project manager to develop a full action plan for resolving the issues raised by the DOE review. The county has reportedly already started making required changes.


LASD DEPUTIES NO LONGER ALLOWED TO SHOOT INTO VEHICLES UNLESS OTHER WEAPON IS PRESENT

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has updated its policy to bar deputies from firing at moving cars, except when threatened by a gun or other deadly weapon. The LASD’s changes bring the department policies in line with the Los Angeles Police Department, which, in recent years, has had far fewer officers shoot into cars than the LASD.

While the LAPD shot into vehicles only twice between 2010 and 2014, members of the LASD shot into moving cars at least nine times during the same years, according to an investigation by KPCC’s Annie Gilbertson with Aaron Mendelson.

The deputies involved justified the shootings by saying that they feared they would be hit by the cars. The suspect was armed in only one of the nine instances of LASD deputies shooting into vehicles.

The new policy, which went into effect last week, bans deputies from shooting at stationary or moving cars, or the people inside them, unless the deputies are threatened by a deadly weapon other than the moving vehicle. The department also provided a training video that explains the policy change.

KPCC’s Frank Stoltze has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

“There was a concern about the number of shootings at moving vehicles we were having,” said Assistant Sheriff Todd Rodgers.

The policy rewrite, which went into effect August 4, states “firearms shall not be discharged at a stationary or moving vehicle” or its occupants unless deputies are being threatened with a gun or some other “deadly force by means other than the moving vehicle.”

The previous policy stated that fear would not “presumptively” justify a shooting.

“This is more descriptive and specific,” said Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers. “We are trying to impress upon deputies that its generally ineffective to shoot at a moving vehicle.”

The department also published a new training video for deputies that describes the new policy and why it’s not a good idea to shoot at moving cars. Any departure from policy will be reviewed on an individual basis, Rogers said.

One case involving shooting at a car could cost L.A. County millions of dollars. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday is expected to vote on a $2.8 million settlement for a man who was sitting in the back seat of a moving car when he was shot by a sheriff’s deputy.


LAWMAKERS, LAW ENFORCEMENT GROUPS COME TO AN AGREEMENT TO PUSH ASSET FORFEITURE REFORM BILL FORWARD

California Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) has reportedly come to a compromise with law enforcement groups on a bill to rein in police officers’ ability to seize money and/or property that may be tied to a crime (usually a drug crime).

Law enforcement agencies in California and other states circumvent their own states’ forfeiture laws through the controversial federal Equitable Sharing Program, which authorizes law enforcement agencies to use seized money as revenue, with only “probable cause” that laws have been broken, by bringing the feds into an investigation. Across the nation, local agencies are abusing the tool, using it as a cash cow, by taking money and property from people who have not been convicted of a crime.

Originally, Sen. Mitchell’s SB 443 would have required a criminal conviction for nearly every instance of asset forfeiture. The changes to the bill, which were introduced last week, would require a criminal conviction for assets under $40,000, but a the current lower burden of proof for permanent seizure of assets over that amount. Now, law enforcement groups have ended their opposition to SB 443.

Last year, Sen. Mitchell’s earlier version of the asset forfeiture reform bill could not survive lobbying from law enforcement groups.

The LA Times’ Liam Dillon has the story. Here’s a clip:

The $40,000 threshold is an attempt to balance advocates’ desire that those in poverty don’t lose their property unless they’re convicted of wrongdoing and law enforcement’s interest in preserving its ability to go after large criminal enterprises, Mitchell said.

“It’s those private citizens who could not be convicted of a crime whose assets that we need to protect,” Mitchell said.

As a result of the compromise, major law enforcement groups, including organizations representing police chiefs and district attorneys statewide, have dropped their opposition to the bill, SB 443…

Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney, the head of the California Police Chiefs Assn., said in a statement that his group was comfortable that under the new language police could still use the practice for its primary purpose.

“With the agreement on SB 443, conflicting sides took into consideration each other’s views and found a compromise that enhances safeguards on Californians’ rights, while ensuring law enforcement has the tools necessary to combat the gangs and drug traffickers damaging our communities,” Corney said. “This kind of proactive and collaborative effort demonstrates the strength between California law enforcement, political leadership and our communities.”

Posted in Education | 1 Comment »

Now That a Grand Jury Has Indicted Former Sheriff Lee Baca, Can His Trial Move Us Closer to Lasting Reform?

August 7th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

THE INDICTMENT ARRIVES

On Friday, former Sheriff Lee Baca was indicted by a federal grand jury for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. These two new charges are on top of the original charge of lying to federal officials that Baca admitted to back in February, as part of a plea deal hammered out with federal prosecutors.

The new charges were not exactly a surprise.

The grand jury indictment came about after U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson rejected Baca’s plea deal at a sentencing hearing in July, telling those in the courtroom that the 0 to 6 month sentencing range that the deal required “would trivialize the seriousness of [Baca's] offenses, his lack of respect for the law and the gross abuse of the public trust…..”

A six-month sentence, Anderson said, does not “fairly account for the significant harm” caused “by this defendant” and “under-appreciates this defendant’s culpability.” The guidelines agreed upon, the judge continued, “fail to fairly measure the culpability of this defendant….and the nature and circumstances of criminal conduct.”

Once Anderson dynamited the plea deal on July 19, at the next sentencing hearing on August 1, Baca and his attorneys had three possible ways to move forward:

Number 1: Baca could continue to plead guilty to the single charge with the understanding that the judge was going to hand down whatever sentence he saw fit, which could be as much as five years.

Number 2: Baca and his attorneys could work with the prosecutors to come up with a new deal that might please Anderson, which turned out to be nearly impossible.

Number 3: Baca could withdraw from the plea deal altogether, meaning that the only option left was to go to trial. This last option all but guaranteed additional charges, since the government had maintained in the negotiations for the plea that it could hit the sheriff with more counts, hence the motivation to plead to the single charge of lying to the feds.

On August 1, Baca went with Door Number 3, the go-to-trial option.

If Baca is convicted on the two obstruction counts, plus original count of lying to the feds, he could face as much as 20 years in a federal prison.

But that kind of lengthy a term is considered unlikely, especially since Baca’s second in command, Paul Tanaka, received a sentenced of five years—although he was, in the eyes of many, the person responsible for the day-to-day control of the operation that has thus far resulted in seven obstruction of justice convictions, on top of his own, with the sentencing of a ninth, former LASD Captain Tom Carey—who took a plea deal—still to come.

Yet, however one spins things, when it comes to the actions that have resulted in a string of convictions of LA Sheriff’s Department members in the last two years, some for obstruction of justice, others for corruption and brutality, all of that criminal misconduct—and far more, frankly—was allowed to occur on Lee Baca’s watch, which seemed to be much of Judge Anderson’s point.


DIMINISHED CAPACITY?

The former sheriff’s defense is expected to make Baca’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease a significant issue in the trial. His attorneys, Michael Zweiback and a new member of the team, Nathan Hochman, have already suggested that, in the summer of 2011—the period when the actions took place that make up the heart of the obstruction charges—the former sheriff “delegated more than he should have,” due to his condition. In other words, some kind of claim of diminished capacity may be in the offing.

On the government’s side, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brandon Fox, Lizabeth Rhodes and Eddie Jauregui, wrote that Baca was “well aware of the accusations of rampant abuse,” in the jails, particularly in Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility. There were the ever-worsening ACLU reports. Then there were things like the “allegations about LASD deputies who worked on the 300 floor of MCJ” and called themselves “the 3000 boys,” who “exhibited gang-like and violent behavior, who “used excessive force on inmates, “and “falsified reports to cover up wrongdoing.”

In the indictment, the prosecutors also hinted that they have witnesses waiting in the wings who will testify that they told Baca about brutality in the jails, and that he still made no effort to curb the problem.

As for the actual obstruction charges, the 15-page indictment of Baca is not as long or detailed as the 20 pages written by federal prosecutors in their final indictment of Paul Tanaka. For example, there are no dramatic moments when a witness describes the defendant shouting “Fuck the FBI!” as was the case in Tanaka’s indictment.

Yet, there is the mention of Baca approving an expensive bunch of overtime so that a rotating team of deputies could guard federal informant Anthony Brown round the clock, after he’d had his name changed and was moved to an out-of-the-way sheriff’s station in San Dimas, allegedly in order to allegedly keep him away from his FBI handlers. There are accounts of a meeting where Baca was reportedly present for discussions of approaching FBI agent Leah Marx and threatening her in order to obtain information. And there is the letter from Baca to then US Attorney Andre Birotte, threatening to “end the LASD’s participation in federal task forces” if Birotte didn’t yank his support for the FBI’s investigation of the jails—and so on.


A “VASTLY DIFFERENT” TRIAL

According to Baca’s attorneys, however, when it comes to the obstruction charges, the feds have themselves admitted that their case against the former sheriff is not particularly strong.

They point to passages in the prosecution’s sentencing memo, which was designed to persuade Judge Anderson that a six-month sentence for Baca was appropriate:

Indeed, there are lines in the memo such as the following: “Baca’s involvement in the obstruction is not as clear as the others,” and “may be more limited…” and “During the obstructive conduct, records show Baca was rarely in contact with any of those involved in the obstruction, with the exception of Tanaka. Tanaka himself was routinely in contact with the others.”

On the other hand, when the plea deal was first announced back in February, the government indicated that, if Baca changed his mind and the deal fell apart, they were willing and able to go to trial.

According to the feds, they laid the going-to-trial-with-additional-charges gun on the table when bargaining with Baca’s attorneys to achieve the plea. And they were fully prepared to fire that metaphorical pistol, if it became necessary.

Meanwhile, the former sheriff’s attorneys continue to express confidence.

In a text to WitnessLA, Hochman said that the new obstruction charges “represent punishment” by the feds for their client’s decision to go to trial. He also reiterated the defense’s point that the prosecutors had “admitted in court the weakness of its obstruction case” against Baca.

“This trial will be vastly different than the others,” Hochman wrote.

Well, one thing is certain: the upcoming trial of the man who led the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for fifteen years presents an opportunity like no other to shine a light on what went so catastrophically wrong in the LASD, and what still needs to be done to fix it.

The trial of Lee Baca is, at present, scheduled for September of this year.

Here’s the text of the Baca indictment



THE NEXT CHAPTER IN THE BACA SAGA & THE NEED FOR REFORM

Rhetoric aside, whether Baca or the federal prosecutors do or do not actually want to go to trial, it has come to pass that, barring something wildly unforeseen, the former sheriff will in fact be on trial after all—even though for several years, the likelihood of such an event occurring appeared all but impossible.

Now the trial of Lee Baca suddenly feels weirdly fated.

Given the disturbing display of departmental arrogance and wrongdoing that the previous LASD trials have have illuminated, it seems fitting that the guy at the top should also get his chance to face a jury—whatever the outcome.

After all, the whole obstruction of justice mess came about because the feds were covertly investigating accounts of brutal and corrupt behavior by deputies toward jail inmates (and, it seems, their visitors) that department higher-ups had aggressively refused to address, no matter how many awful reports of abuse were brought to their attention.

Unfortunately, based on our own investigations over the last six years, along with those of the LA Times, ABC7, the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, and others, the problems forced into public view by a raft of federal indictments are indicative of a larger toxicity that was allowed to spread unchecked in the department, both in the jails and elsewhere in the LASD.

Yet, despite what has been brought to light by two years of federal trials, and the many positive steps taken by Sheriff Jim McDonnell, the path to lasting reform still seems to be littered with obstacles.

It was heartening to note that, in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, the editorial board wrote about the fact that, while it’s a good thing that Baca will be on trial, the need for departmental reform is bigger, wider, deeper than the various prosecutions can reasonably accomplish.

Here are some clips from their essay:

Consider, for example, McDonnell’s continuing attempts to weed out of the department those deputies who have shown themselves to be unsuited to carry weapons and to wear the badge and the tan and green uniform.

Under the Los Angeles County system, fired deputies can be, and indeed have been, reinstated by a civil service commission that has no expertise in law enforcement or public safety and that makes its decisions based in part on the precedent set by previous sheriffs and commissions. So as McDonnell is attempting to raise standards of performance, the commission is judging deputies based on previous, lower standards. McDonnell then is compelled to take back — and to keep paying — deputies he and his command staff have deemed unfit for their jobs, completely undermining his power to set high standards of performance. It is an untenable system that has nevertheless become the envy of law enforcement officers in other agencies who would like to enjoy similar leniency…..

….The county Board of Supervisors voted this year to establish an oversight commission to keep tabs on sheriff reforms, but the panel has yet to be appointed or to convene. The board agreed to consider asking voters to grant that commission subpoena power, but with deadlines approaching to put measures on the Nov. 8 ballot, there has been no move forward on that issue….

….Switching out the man at the top was a solid step but it will not be enough to correct the Sheriff’s Department, and Los Angeles cannot rely on criminal prosecution of sheriffs, command staff and deputies as a substitute for oversight. Baca’s failed plea deal and his looming trial may be among the more compelling chapters in the story of the Sheriff’s Department, but the most important pages are those that lay out how we make sure that a similar meltdown does not occur again — and those pages haven’t yet been written.

Posted in LASD, Sheriff Lee Baca | 42 Comments »

Ninth Circuit Denies Appeal for 7 LA Sheriff’s Department Members Convicted of Obstruction of Justice

August 4th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

In a ruling handed down on Thursday, August 4, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld convictions for charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice against seven former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. The seven had been convicted in two separate trials for their part in a series of actions allegedly designed to disrupt a federal investigation into brutality and corruption inside the LA County jail system. The various actions—which came to be known unofficially as Operation Pandora’s Box—included hiding a jail inmate/federal informant from his FBI handlers, falsely threatening an FBI agent with arrest, and attempting to dissuade possible witnesses to wrongdoing in the jails from talking to the feds.

The ruling comes a few days after Sheriff Lee Baca withdrew from the plea deal with the federal government and decided to go to trial rather than risk a prison sentence in excess of six months. The sentences for the seven former members who got bad news on Thursday, range from 18 months in a federal prison to 48 months, ostensibly for following orders handed down from the top of the organization.

The actual Ninth Circuit opinion, which you can find here—NinthCircuitOpinion—was written by the most veteran of the justices on the panel, Judge Ferdinand Fernandez, and it is an interesting read.

Although there were some compelling points brought up in the July hearing before the three judge panel—issues like the editing of former deputy James Sexton’s grand jury testimony, and the possibly questionable dismissal of a juror by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson in the trial of the other six department members who were part of the appeal (for details see our previous story)—the panel did not really address most of those topics at all in their ruling.

Instead Fernandez laid out an argument that suggested that those disputed issues-–and other points brought up in the appeal, most specifically a series of claims of wrongly presented jury instructions—didn’t really matter, because in the panel’s opinion, the defendants did what they did, and the dispute was mainly about “why they did it.” Ultimately, concluded Fernandez, the two juries [Sexton was tried separately] “accepted the government’s position” on which narrative was the right one.

Posted in LASD | 28 Comments »

Changing Leadership at CA Women’s Prisons, and Why We Need More Female Cops

August 4th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

ON THE SAME DAY, RETIREMENTS ANNOUNCED FOR WARDENS AT BOTH CA WOMEN’S PRISONS

Both of California’s only all-female prisons—which have been under investigation by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—are reportedly undergoing changes in leadership. On Friday, the CDCR sent out two memos announcing the retirement of Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) Warden Deborah “DK” Johnson and California Institution for Women (CIW) Warden Kimberly Hughes.

A CDCR representative has said that the timing of the two wardens’ retirements is merely a coincidence, but prisoners’ rights advocates say the corrections department is cleaning house, and likely forced the retirements. And the CDCR spokeswoman, Krissi Khokhobashvili, confirmed that other higher-ups at CCWF have been reassigned.

We at WitnessLA have been closely following the situation at CIW, in particular. The prison has experienced an alarmingly high number of suicides (6), and suicide attempts (73), since at least 2013. In fact, the facility has the highest suicide rate–five times the state average—among all 34 prisons. (Read the story of Erika Rocha, who committed suicide in April, in the mental health unit at CIW, just one day before a scheduled parole hearing.)

Both prisons have struggled with serious overcrowding issues. The overflowing population at CCWF, one of the largest women’s prisons in the nation, has reportedly exacerbated problems with medical care at the facility, as well as “a culture of fear and retaliation…and a general lack of respect on the part of the guards toward the women,” according to Don Spector, executive director of the Prison Law Office.

LA Weekly’s Hillel Aron has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Krissi Khokhobashvili says the timing of the dual retirements is merely a coincidence.

“They both put in for retirement, as far as I know,” Khokhobashvili says.

But according to Khokhobashvili, a number of other top officials at CCWF have been reassigned, including its chief deputy warden, chief executive officer and chief medical executive.

Observers of the prison system see the personnel changes as a move by Department of Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan, who was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Dec. 28, to clean house.

“I’m relieved that there’s any response at all that indicates they see a problem,” Lenz says. “But I don’t feel optimistic, given their track record of investigating themselves.”

Spector agrees.

“We’re grateful that the department has made some changes to the leadership of both of those institutions,” he says. “But that’s only the first step. There needs to be intensive work to change the culture and practices at both prisons.”


VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND THE NEED FOR (WAY) MORE FEMALE POLICE OFFICERS

There are over 3 million incidents of domestic violence reported to police each year, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. Out of the reported assaults on spouses or ex-spouses, 95% were acts of violence by men against women.

Of the more than 4.5 million reported violent crimes committed against women every year in the US, 500,000 are sexual assaults—although rape and other sexual assaults are wildly underreported. Female rape victims—whose stories are often discredited by law enforcement—are statistically more likely to report sexual assault if female cops are present.

Yet, nearly 90% of law enforcement officers nationwide are male.

At the local level, the Los Angeles Police Department—which, interestingly, hired the nation’s first female police officer with arrest powers—had 1,855 sworn female officers and 8,046 sworn male officers, as of June 2016. (For comparison, the department employs 1,676 women and 1,129 men in civilian roles.) According to LA County’s open data website, the sheriff’s department is composed of 11,360 men and 6,349 women. (The county data is not broken down into sworn versus civilian.)

By telling the harrowing story of her grandmother—a victim of domestic abuse who became a police officer—author and journalist Sarah Smarsh discusses the gender disparity in policing, and the need for more female cops, who are no less capable than their male peers, and who bring to the table more empathy and respect toward the citizens they serve.

Female cops are also less likely to use excessive force or engage in misconduct. Smarsh argues that “toxic masculinity,” bias, and a culture of overly aggressive law enforcement (and even sexual assault) within troubled departments would be mitigated by having an even number of men and women wearing badges. “There is no greater agent of positive disruption than a female cop,” Smarsh says.

Here’s a clip from Smarsh’s not-to-be-missed Longread:

Men thus compose the immense majority of both women’s assailants and women’s official protectors…

“The history of police is the history of state power,” political theorist Mark Neocleous wrote in The Fabrication of Social Order. State power for millennia belonged mostly to men, of course, societal beneficiaries of a biological evolution in which size meant control. Modern policing thus centers on armed males trained to subdue civil disruption—most recently and notably, mass killings by male shooters with histories of violence against women—with physical force. The 20th century was a crescendo of militarization, first by the state and then by a fearful populace. It brought us to our current, boiling-point moment in which mostly male cops kill innocent civilians and mostly male civilians kill innocent cops. Racism is often the undercurrent, but toxic masculinity is the force that makes it lethal.

Meanwhile, a modern officer’s work more often involves driving a homeless person to a shelter than it does tackling a perp or drawing a weapon. For a society that in recent decades has dismantled many of the public institutions that once cared for citizens in need—mental health care, welfare, after-school programs—today’s American cop is among the few remaining tax-funded administrators of public wellness. He is less called upon to be a soldier than a caretaker.

Often the person who needs his care is a woman. In that process, gender can be a detrimental divide.

One result of that divide is that women are often disbelieved when reporting assault. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, ten officers in a Michigan police department—seven of whom were male—described their personal approaches to evaluating rape reports: “If there is no physical evidence and you said you got raped, did you get raped? …No,” one cop said. Other officers described giving alleged victims “a light interrogation” in the event that “there’s any inclination that there might be another motive” for the report. Such scrutiny of sexual assault victims deters reporting, of course. Unsurprisingly, the presence of female cops makes women more likely to report, according to United Nations research.

A police department’s treatment of domestic violence in its own ranks is telling of the culture it brings to work. In the Los Angeles Police Department’s handling of domestic violence claims against its own officers from 1990 to 1997, 227 complaints were filed, 91 were determined to be worth investigating—and just four resulted in a criminal conviction. The validated claims weren’t mentioned in performance evaluations more than three-quarters of the time, and over a quarter of accused officers were promoted while under investigation. Calling out bad cops is risky business, of course. When a legal consultant in a civil lawsuit noticed these scandalous mishandlings in LAPD personnel files and leaked the story to the press, he became the first person in U.S. history to serve prison time for violating a judge’s protective order.

An even more sinister outcome of a gender-lopsided police force: Sexual assault of female civilians by male cops. Last year, the Associated Press reported that, over a six-year period, about a thousand officers lost their badges for rape, propositioning citizens and other sex crimes. Victims—mostly young, poor females compromised by addiction or criminal records and unlikely to file complaint—included “unsuspecting motorists, schoolchildren ordered to raise their shirts in a supposed search for drugs… women with legal troubles who succumbed to performing sex acts for promised help, and prison inmates forced to have sex with guards.” The study doesn’t capture the size of the problem, as it only counted revoked licenses, thus leaving out untold reported and unreported offenses that went unpunished. (Nine states and Washington, D.C., including highly populous California and New York, didn’t provide numbers or have no state-level system for dealing with officer misconduct to begin with.)

High-profile cases of serial-rapist officers leveraging the power of their badges to assault women have brought recent arrests in Los Angeles and convictions in Oklahoma City. In March, an Alabama state trooper who raped a woman when responding to her call for help after a car accident was sentenced to just six months in jail. In June, Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf said of a scandal involving over a dozen male officers accused of having sex with a teenage girl and supplying her with money and information, “I’m here to run a police department, not a frat house.” In 2009 and 2010, sexual misconduct was the second most frequent complaint against officers, according to the Cato Institute.

The most frequent complaint: excessive force. This topic of broad public discussion for the last couple years has rightly centered on the race of victims, but relevant too is the gender of cops: Female officers are, in general, far less brutal. They are over eight times less likely than male officers to face sustained charges of excessive force, and two to three times less likely to receive complaints. This data, compiled by the National Center for Women and Policing (NCWP) in a 2002 report, also shows that female police officers favor—and succeed with—non-physical means of interaction with suspects, though they still use force when necessary. In 1991, an independent commission formed after the videotaped beating by white officers of black motorist Rodney King highlighted similar findings to little public notice.

Preference for nonviolence does not constitute physical weakness. The NCWP report cites studies indicating that women’s typically smaller stature doesn’t hurt their survival in the field. When physical force is required, training—not brute strength—better predicts success. Meanwhile, communication skills important for defusing dangerous situations, commonly measured as higher among female officers, are under-emphasized in officer-selection standards—hiring criteria that would encourage less violent male recruits, too. In these ways, a police force over-fueled by testosterone endangers not just women but people of any gender most likely to come into contact with police, including people of color or in poverty.

As someone who grew up with cops for family and friends, I’m sensitive to reactive discourse that casts every officer in a negative light—especially concerning so harrowing a job that I doubt most critics would perform any better. As recent killings of innocent black civilians by white male cops reveal, though, our police departments reflect the unjust power paradigms of our country.

Posted in prison, women's issues | 1 Comment »

Obama Breaks Clemency Record, Commutes 214 Drug Sentences

August 4th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

PRESIDENTIAL CLEMENCY FOR 214 FEDERAL INMATES SENTENCED UNDER HARSH WAR-ON-DRUGS-ERA LAWS

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 federal prisoners—including 10 Californians—serving time behind bars under outdated drug sentencing laws. Sixty-seven of the recipients were serving life sentences. President Obama granted the largest number of commutations during a single day since 1900.

Obama’s latest act of clemency, brings his total number of commutations to 562.

Wednesday’s commutations appear to signal a welcome increase in momentum for the White House’s Clemency Initiative as Obama nears the end of his final year as president. The move is a significant one for a president who, in past years, has faced criticism from activists for granting too few people clemency.

“In just the first eight months of 2016, the President has more than doubled the number of commutations granted in all of 2015,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. “But we are not done yet, and we expect that many more men and women will be given a second chance through the Clemency Initiative.”

It is worth noting, however, that the president has granted far fewer pardons (which wipe a person’s criminal record and restore their rights) than many of his predecessors, despite receiving more than 2,000 petitions. Obama has granted 70 pardons during his two terms, while George W. Bush granted 189 pardons, Bill Clinton granted 396, Ronald Reagan granted 393, Jimmy Carter granted 534, Lyndon B. Johnson granted 960, and Harry S. Truman granted 1,913.


In the above video, Norman Brown—a man who served 20 years of a life sentence before Obama commuted his sentence—offers advice to the men and women who will now reenter their communities after years in prison. “Take your time, be grateful…and enjoy starting your life all over again,” Brown says.

Posted in Obama | 2 Comments »

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