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Teenager at LA County Probation’s Sylmar Juvenile Hall Beaten on Video by Four Probation Officers as Supervisor Watches

June 17th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


On April 24, four Los Angeles County probation officers allegedly beat a non-combative 17-year-old probationer housed at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, CA, while a fifth officer, a supervisor, looked on.

The supervisor, who appeared to be overseeing the beating, was reportedly the facility’s “Officer of the Day” meaning, he was like a watch commander at a police or sheriff’s station. He was the guy in charge of he whole place.

There were no civilians present at the beating incident, other than the kid himself, so it would have been the teenager’s word against five adult law enforcement officers, had it not been for one thing: A video camera was installed in the probationer’s room.

And, unlike the bad old days, back in 2010, when around scores of the Sylmar facility’s cameras were broken or otherwise mysteriously disabled, and had been for several years, things have improved considerably on the surveillance front in the county’s juvenile halls, and the camera in the boy’s room was in perfect working condition. Thus there is a video that captures the whole event, including quite a bit of what happened—and didn’t happen—before and after.

WitnessLA has obtained a copy of the 4:18 minute video and it makes for very disturbing viewing. We cannot post the video itself as it involves a minor. But, we have posted a series of intentionally blurry screenshots that at least give you a small idea of what the recording depicts.


The four-plus minute video is taken from what appears to be a ceiling-mounted camera. In the beginning of the recording, only the supervising officer and the boy are present. He and the tall probationer are several feet apart and the supervisor appears to be instructing the kid. (The video is a bootleg of the original, thus has no sound.) The probationer does not appear to be behaving in any way that is aggressive, threatening or combative. But, presumably there is some verbal conflict between the two. As the supervisor talks, the man conspicuously rolls up the sleeves of his shirt in what several of our probation sources who have seen the video labeled a threatening gesture.

Eventually, the supervisor leaves the room. Before he exits altogether, additional words are exchanged, then the supervisor vanishes, closing the door and presumably locking it behind him. The boy, who has a cast on his right arm (that is reportedly unrelated to his time with the county), slumps against the wall, visibly upset. A few seconds later, he throws an object at the door. The object is large and soft like a blanket, mattress cover or most likely, the narrow cot mattress itself. (Update: We have since confirmed it is the mattress cover.)

Finally the kid flops down dejectedly on his cot, at the left side of the screen. He sits for a few seconds, then finds another object to throw at the door, this time a small, white object. (We initially heard the boy hurled a milk carton. But now we hear from a highly knowledgable source that actually the frustrated kid throw a balled-up piece of white paper.) In the case of both of the object tosses, there is no one else in the room, and the door is not only closed, it is locked (as are all such probationers’ rooms in the “SHU” area at Sylmar), thus the throwing is not an attempt to injure anyone, but an acting out of emotion.

Another twenty seconds pass. The door to the room opens. The supervisor reappears and walks into the room, at which point the boy stands up and shuffles to face away from the officer, either in response to a command, or for his own reasons.

Next, in reaction to a sound or to something that is said, the kid turns around to look at the officer, his body language still not at all threatening, coiled, or combative.

We see three additional probation officers enter the room. Five or six seconds after the boy’s turn, one of the new officers lunges at the kid from the rear with startling speed and force, slamming the boy face down to the cot, then dropping down on top of him.

We have recently learned that the cot is basically a rectangular cement block, which is reportedly only covered with a towel when the kid is slammed to its surface.**

The officer then appears to deliver a serious of fast hard slugs to the kid’s body. At the same time, the other two POs both pile on, wrestling, kneeing, and punching the tall boy.

A few seconds later still, a fourth juvenile hall staffer enters the room and piles on the boy along with the other three, each seeming to either strike or knee him or simply hold him down. The boy is still on his stomach, but now his head and upper torso are pushed off the cement cot and toward the floor.

The kid visibly struggles against the blows, seemly only trying to protect his body, although he is hard to see his actions fully, since the bodies of four large men cover his.

About 60 seconds into the beating, an adult in some kind of uniform, reportedly a second supervisor, comes briefly through the door, stares for a second or two at the beating-in-progress, then exits.

Finally, approximately 1:48 minutes into the thumping, and pummeling, it abruptly stops.

The attackers simply get up from their various positions on top of or kneeling over the kid’s body. They straighten their clothing, and exit the room, The supervisor holds the door open with his right hand as they leave, making a shooing gesture with his left hand. Then he goes out the door himself. And that is that.

Once the hands and bodies of the POs are removed, we can see that the kid’s lower body is still on the cot, stomach down, with his upper torso off the cot and draped toward the floor. Weirdly, whether it was simply due to the struggle, or was deliberate, the boy’s white shorts have fallen or been pulled down halfway to his knees meaning he is visibly naked from waist to mid-thigh.

As he raises himself slowly to a sitting position, he attempts to tug up his shorts, only partially succeeding. Finally he succeeds in moving to a sitting position on the cement cot, feet on the floor, facing the room’s door.

He puts his face in his hands. His back shakes briefly as if he may be sobbing. Then, after a brief swipe at his eyes, he clasps his hands in front of him, and sits quietly, his head down, as the video ends.

There is, of course, more to the video and, according to a department source who has seen the longer version, the boy eventually tries to get up off the cot and walk, but collapses due to the pain. Thus instead, he lies down on the cool floor, looking for relief.

We understand that a nurse came in to check on the boy some minutes after the five probation officers vanished from his room. Her entrance and time with the kid are on the extended version of the video, which we have not seen. Her ministrations were allegedly minimal. She swabbed the abrasions and swelling on his face, and the like. Then she reportedly left the room without a thorough check for injuries.

Later, however, the boy reportedly called for a staffer due to his pain. The second staffer sent him to the hospital where, in addition to bruising, reported black eyes, bruises, swelling and abrasions, it is learned that he has a badly and painfully sprained ankle.

According to our sources, once probation higher-ups learned of the incident, they made sure that the young man was moved to Central Juvenile Hall, rather than send him back to Sylmar, and also made sure he was seen by mental health professionals.

An investigation into the incident was launched right away.


So what should we take from this awful incident?

For one thing, it is extremely troubling that a minimum of six probation officers, two of them supervisors, either knew about or directly participated in a beating that was not a consequence of an emergent situation. To the contrary, four adults administered the beat down with cold efficiency, as a supervisor looked on, presumably with approval since he allegedly is the person who set it in motion in the first place.

Furthermore, we have spoken to three sources who have seen the video. Two are highly experienced probation officers, the third is a juvenile advocate who has spent a great deal of of time inside the county’s probation camps and halls, and is no stranger to the difficulties of safely housing and helping law-breaking, often traumatized kids, many of whom have poor impulse control, some of whom can be quite dangerous.

All three told us that they were distressed by what they saw.

“I was appalled,” said one of our veteran probation sources who asked not to be named. “The kid was never acting in any way that was threatening. His body language suggests he is angry, but he’s also compliant. When staff walked in the room, there was no time when the kid was noncompliant. That’s what was appalling about it,” the source said. “It’s pretty bad.”

Another veteran probation department source, who has also seen the video, had similar comments about the alleged beating. “It was quick, brutal, and then ‘adios.’”

We should also note that, while we don’t know whether the kid in the video did or did not mouth off or act out in some way prior to the incident depicted, one thing we have heard from sources inside probation, is that the young man in question reportedly does not have a violent record, nor a lengthy one.

The incident is alarming on its face, but the fact that these appear to be premeditated actions in which five probation officers, one of them a supervisor, participated, and that those staff members apparently assumed they could get away with it, suggests that the actions on the video are not merely part of a single aberrant incident.

Instead, sources we spoke to admitted, the incident would seem to point to the existence of a disturbing culture within the juvenile probation staff that is far more problematic than we had hoped. Given the recent completion of the multi-year oversight by the department of justice, the settlement a few years ago of a gigantic, high profile class action lawsuit, and many genuine strides toward reform, with more in the works—we would assume that the ghastly scandals of the past are over, and that four people beating a non-threatening teenager would be off the table—unheard of.

Evidently not.


Probation Chief, Cal Remington could say little about the incident, due to legal constraints. But he did tell us this: “We hold our staff to a very high standard. We have zero tolerance for mistreating the juveniles in our care. And while I can’t really comment on an ongoing investigation, this matter is being thoroughly investigated, and we take matters of this nature very, very seriously.”

The LA County Board of Supervisors reportedly learned about the alleged beating belatedly. But, a few weeks ago, they were given access to the video and several Supes have privately expressed extreme dismay. However, none whom we contacted wanted to go on record about the incident.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office has confirmed that the Probation Department has presented a case “involving the alleged assault of a juvenile housed at Sylmar.” The case, she said, concerns “multiple individuals” and is “under review by prosecutors” in the DA’s Justice System Integrity Division.

In the meantime, multiple staff members are reportedly on administrative leave with pay, while the DA’s office reviews their cases.

This is all well and good, and hopefully the five people responsible for the alleged beating of a non-combative 17-year-old on video will be appropriately held to answer, and will not be allowed to work anywhere near adolescents, now or in the future.

But what about the attitudes toward the law-breaking kids in our county’s care that the video arguably represents? By all accounts, we have good, reform-minded, and very skilled interim probation chief in Cal Remington, and presumably the powers-that-be will eventually find the right permanent chief to lead the state’s largest probation agency.

However, one person can only do so much, especially when an agency has been plagued by ghastly dysfunction as long as this one has—recent improvements, notwithstanding. For the foreseeable future, much of the day-to-day job of leading LA County Probation will involve juggling chain saws (metaphorically speaking).

We know that the Working Group for Probation Department Oversight is meeting regularly to, as they state on their website, “determine whether a new citizens’ commission should be established to comprehensively monitor the troubled agency,” as the Board of Supervisors have rightly requested.

We hate to be preemptive, as we understand the working group still has more work to do, but yes: monitoring body badly needed,. And make that a monitoring body with access to all relevant information so it has the ability to actually do its job. And by “relevant information” we mean, like, say videos of four adults overseen by a supervisor beating down a 17-year-old, who could be your kid, or grandkid, or could be mine.

**EDITOR’S NOTE: We have continued to update this story as we get more detailed information from sources familiar with what happened on April 24. For example, we originally were not sure if the cement cot was covered or not. We have since learned positively that the boy tossed his mattress at the door, and the only thing covering the cot at the time of the alleged beating incident was a towel.

Additionally, we have heard conflicting things about whether or not the kid’s jaw was fractured. So we’d rather leave it .

Posted in Juvenile Probation | 16 Comments »

The Oakland PD Sex Scandal Gets Even Weirder…and LA Foster Kids Housed Too Long at Temp Shelters

June 17th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


On Wednesday, amid a major Oakland Police Department scandal involving 14 OPD officers and the alleged sexual exploitation of a minor, Mayor Libby Schaaf removed interim Chief Ben Fairow from office—just six days after the former chief resigned.

Mayor Schaaf said she received new information earlier in the week that convinced her to oust Fairow. Because of law enforcement personnel privacy laws, Mayor Schaaf did not reveal precisely why she removed Fairow. “I own the mistake I made,” Schaaf said. “The important thing is I’m trying to fix it and fix it quickly.”

If you’ve missed the Oakland sex scandal story elsewhere, here are the basics:

Last week, a teen who calls herself Celeste Guap told a television station that she had sex with more than a dozen OPD officers, three of whom she reportedly had sex with while she was 17—in 2014.

Guap only named one officer, Brendan O’Brien, who committed suicide last year. The young woman, whose mother works for the OPD as a dispatcher—says the officers kept her safe while she worked the streets, and kept her informed about undercover stings. In exchange, Guap says, she had sex with them.

Following O’Brien’s suicide, the OPD (quietly) launched investigations into sexual misconduct within the department. Two officers have resigned, and three more are on paid leave. The scandal isn’t contained within the OPD either: Guap says she had sex with officers from other departments, including San Francisco, Richmond, and Alameda.

Guap says many of the cops knew she was underage, and evencalled her “juve.”

DA inspector Rick Orozco was also placed on administrative leave, after Guap said she had an online friendship with the inspector (then a OPD captain) while she was still a minor. Guap says that at one point Orozco told her, “I would love your taco!”

Guap also says she talked with former OPD Chief Sean Whent’s wife, Julia, via Facebook last year, and that the woman knew she was “dating an officer.” Whent resigned last week.

Brendan O’Brien fatally shot himself on September 25, 2015. A year earlier, on June 16, 2014, O’Brien’s wife, Irma Huerta Lopez, died in the same apartment. According to the coroner’s report obtained by the East Bay Express, Huerta Lopez’s death was ruled a suicide, but both Huerta Lopez’s and O’Brien’s coroner’s reports call Lopez’s death suspicious. Lopez’s family believes O’Brien killed his wife, and that the OPD did not thoroughly investigate the death. In his suicide note, O’Brien reportedly wrote that he had been battling PTSD from his time as a marine, and due to the scrutiny from the OPD and Huerta Lopez’s family after her death. O’Brien’s note said he had been drinking a lot off duty and on duty.

Before the scandal broke, the OPD seemed to be getting closer to ending 13 years of federal oversight (which came about because of misconduct within the department).

On March 23, US District Judge Thelton Henderson pulled the plug on the OPD’s problematic internal investigation. Detectives violated procedures while investigating the sexual misconduct case, according to Henderson. The judge ordered Robert Warshaw, the court-appointed independent monitor to conduct the investigation, moving forward.

The new acting OPD chief Paul Figueroa is sort of an interim-interim, installed Wednesday for the very short term, until Schaaf can find an interim chief to serve while she searches for a permanent chief from outside the department.

The East Bay Express’s Darwin Bond Graham and Ali Winston have the full story, which at 5 pages is quite the longread, but well worth your time. Here’s how it opens:

Celeste Guap was only seventeen in February of last year when a pimp chased her down International Boulevard. She spotted an Oakland police car and approached for help. That’s when she met officer Brendan O’Brien.

“He saved me,” Guap said of the lanky ex-Marine, who joined the Oakland Police Department in 2013 after graduating from the 166th police academy.

Rather than detaining Guap as a victim of human trafficking and turning her over to guardians, she said O’Brien released her. “We flirted a little,” she recalled, adding that she told O’Brien her mother was a dispatcher in the department.

Two weeks later, Guap saw O’Brien on patrol again in East Oakland. He and his partner were making an arrest near a taco truck. She struck up a conversation and they exchanged numbers. Shortly afterward, O’Brien and the girl began “dating” — a word Guap used to describe their relationship.

Guap said she had sex with the Oakland police officer numerous times while she was a minor.

The OPD and other East Bay law-enforcement agencies have positioned themselves as national leaders in the fight against human trafficking and the sexual abuse of children. But O’Brien and other East Bay cops betrayed this reputation with their exploitation of Guap. Officers trafficked her among their ranks and used the minor for sex for half a year.

The scandal is unprecedented: According to multiple sources close to the department and the city of Oakland, and documents obtained by the Express, at least fourteen Oakland police officers, three Richmond police, four Alameda County sheriff’s deputies, and a federal officer took advantage of the teenager. (The Express is not publishing her real name because she was a minor when her abuse began.)

Three Oakland police officers committed statutory rape of Guap when she was under-age. By the state’s legal definition, they engaged in human trafficking. The victim says every law-enforcement agent who had sex with her knew she was a sex worker.


As part of a settlement in a lawsuit challenging “overstays” of foster children at two problematic Welcome Centers meant only to hold kids for one day after they are removed from their families, the LA County Department of Children and Family Services moved kids to four private temporary group homes with 72-hour stay limits.

The Youth Welcome Center and the Children’s Welcome Center—where kids were meant to stay for less than 24 hours, but instead became a sort of purgatory for hard-to-place kids—were closed back in February. Unfortunately, because of a severe lack of available foster families, kids are staying too long at the new emergency shelters. And at one point, when the shelters were full, children were moved back into the closed Welcome Centers.

Before it was shut down, the Youth Welcome Center, in particular, had become mired in controversy, with kids getting into brawls, staff complaining about not enough bathrooms for children’s needs and privacy, as well as rumors about younger residents being recruited for sex trafficking by older residents at the center.

At the state level, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will overhaul counties’ child welfare placement systems, by eliminating traditional group homes, and focusing on long-term placements with foster families. The changes are slated to go into effect by January 2017. But what will happen to LA County’s high-needs foster children when the long-term group homes vanish? In a story for WitnessLA, USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism students Sara Tiano & Brittany Reid explored the issue in a story for WitnessLA.

Come 2017, the current controversial group home model will be thrown out in favor of short-term residential treatment centers (STRTCs) which will have to meet much higher standards of care than today’s group homes. Kids placed in the STRTCs will stay a maximum of six months while receiving specialized therapeutic treatment for mental health and other needs. A certain number of those (STRTCs) will be geared toward helping kids involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

The Chronicle of Social Change’s Elizabeth Green has more on the complicated issue. Here’s a clip:

In 2014, roughly 7 percent of youth overstayed at the Youth Welcome Center, and 16 percent overstayed at the Children’s Welcome Center. At the new transitional shelters, there were 646 entries in March and April, and about 18 percent of those, or 118, were there for more than 72 hours, Montiel said.

Montiel stressed that comparing overstay rates between the two systems is comparing apples and oranges because now the definition of an overstay has changed. In addition to the new 72-hour limit, children are now staying at the facilities during the day while their social workers look for an appropriate foster home. Before, a youth may have left the Welcome Center for the day and the clock would have restarted upon their return.

But Montiel said the hardest-to-place children are still the ones most likely to stay past the new 72-hour limit.

“It remains difficult to find sufficient homes for those babies and infants, for those sibling groups, and for those teenagers that have challenges remaining in a stable home,” Montiel said. “And those difficulties are not going to change overnight.”

Even with the longer window of time, the overstay rate reinforces the need for more foster homes in which to place these children. Dr. Astrid Heger, a clinical pediatrician who helped create the two welcome centers, is familiar with the challenges of working with hard-to-place children. Her clinic continues to provide medical screenings to children during off-hours before they are taken to a placement.

“Overstays aren’t a result of 24 hours or 72 hours, they’re a result of not having enough places to put kids downstream,” Heger said.

Posted in law enforcement | 5 Comments »

Serving LA’s LGBT Foster Kids

June 16th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


Los Angeles County has implemented a first-of-its-kind training model to educate social workers and foster parents about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender kids, with the goal of reducing homophobia and giving LGBT foster kids a better chance at getting placed in accepting homes.

But LA County still struggles to find welcoming foster parents for LGBT kids in the child welfare system. Part of the problem is that social workers aren’t always aware that a child identifies as LGBT. Another problem is that the county is dealing with a major shortage of available foster families. LA County’s RISE program—created by the Los Angeles LGBT Center through a $13.3 million federal grant—aims to educate the foster parents that are out there, while providing support to struggling gay homeless and foster youth in need of caring homes.

In Los Angeles County, 20% of foster kids identify as (LGBT). To put that in perspective, LGBT young people represent just 7% of the nation’s general youth population.

Many LGBT former foster kids (and non-LGBT foster kids) end up homeless after they age out of the system. An estimated 40% of the 1.6 million homeless youth living in the US identify as LGBT. The majority of LGBT homeless teens are either rejected by their parents and forced out of their homes, have run away, faced abuse at home, or have aged out of the child welfare system, and without adequate support, have become homeless. LGBT teens are also more than twice as likely as heterosexual teens to attempt suicide.

Back in 2012, state legislators passed a law that orders care providers and foster parents to attend a yearly education session focused on LGBT children, their unique needs, and the difficulties they face. That training, however, is just 60 minutes a year.

The comprehensive Los Angeles program is still in its early stages, but has the potential to serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

KPCC’s Leo Duran has the story. Here’s how it opens:

Juana Zacharias is 18, and she’s like other teenage girls her age.

She loves make-up, has a closet overflowing with cute clothes and talks about how to date a Latina like her (“Just give us the password to your phone and a bag of hot Cheetos, we’ll be totally good.”)

But Juana isn’t like most girls – she’s trans. She is also a foster child who lives at a group home in Oxnard with five other kids.

She’s one of over 400,000 foster children in America. In Los Angeles, 20 percent of those kids identify as LGBT according to UCLA – which is double the rate of LGBT kids outside the foster care system.

Juana spent the last seven years in the system, herself, after her father passed away and her mother rejected her, moving from group home to group home.

“My first group home I didn’t identify as a transgender because I was scared,” she says. “All my girl clothes? I kind of made them into guy clothes.”

Experts say it would be better if foster children like Juana lived with foster parents.

“You need to go home to Thanksgiving. You need somebody to take you to the dentist or the airport,” says foster care expert Khush Cooper.

But kids like Juana had problems finding parents – sometimes even group homes – who are accepting.

“The probation officers even said to me it’s hard to find a placement for you because you’re transgender. A lot of people don’t want transgenders,” says Juana.

Los Angeles has been testing out ways to change that, but the future of those programs is uncertain.

Posted in Foster Care | No Comments »

Reducing Exorbitant Phone Fees for LA County Inmates…and Gov. Brown Says He Won’t Declare Homelessness Emergency

June 16th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors approved a plan to significantly reduce exorbitant telephone rates for LA County jail inmates and kids in county probation camps to comply with a 2015 order from the Federal Communications Commission.

Research has consistently shown that contact with family is extremely important for a former offender’s successful reentry into their community, yet contractors gouge inmates’ families with outsized fees that can add up to hundreds of dollars a month—far beyond the means of many low-income families.

The fee changes are listed in a joint recommendation letter from LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell and LA County Interim Chief Probation Officer Cal Remington.

Fees ranging from around $1.00 to nearly $6.00 will be eliminated under the contract amendment. The actual per-minute call rate will go up, however, from $.15 to $.21-$.25 per minute.

The money the county receives from the phone contract with PCS—PCS a subsidiary of Global Tel*Link—is either $15 million per year or 67.5% of revenue (whichever is greater). The county then puts that money into Probation’s Detentions Budget and the LASD Inmate Welfare Fund, which pays for inmate education, substance abuse treatment, the jail libraries, and other programs.

The supervisors also requested that the Probation Office of Diversion and Reentry to report back to the board by September 30, with an analysis on the effects of the fee changes on inmates phone use. The supes directed County Counsel to “clarify the parameters of the FCC ruling” and connect with advocacy groups, experts, and other jurisdictions on how best to implement the rules in a way that boosts contact between families and their incarcerated loved ones and reduces recidivism.

Late last year, attorneys Ron Kaye, Barry Litt, Scott Rapkin, and Michael Rapkin filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of families of inmates in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, challenging the “grossly unfair and excessive phone charges” passed on to inmates’ families. (Riverside County is slated to switch over to the lower fees next week.)


Also on Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors approved a motion to call on lawmakers to declare a state of emergency over the homelessness crisis in California, in order to drum up $500 million in state funds for cities and counties grappling with serious homelessness.

Homelessness is still on the rise in Los Angeles County, according to the latest homeless count—up 5.7% over the previous year (to 47,000). In introducing his motion, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas cited several alarming statistics. “The number of homeless persons [in LA County] on any given night is 47,000 approximately,” Ridley-Thomas said. “I’m prepared to say we have 47,000 reasons to act with urgency, including 6,000 parents and their children,” and 4,000 veterans. The California numbers are increasing, too.

“I therefore move that the Board of Supervisors send a five-signature letter to the California Assembly and California Senate asking them to pass a resolution urging the governor to declare a state of emergency in California,” Ridley-Thomas said.

On Wednesday, Governor Jerry Brown announced that he would not declare a state of emergency. Gov. Brown’s press secretary, Debra Hoffman, told KPCC that it would be inappropriate for Brown to declare a state of emergency, and that local governments “remain best positioned to tackle challenges like this and tailor solutions to the needs of their communities.”

Posted in LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail | 1 Comment »

Bribery-Taking LA County Deputy Gets a Surprise Sentence, Causing Some to Ask What it Means for High Profile Sentences Still to Come

June 15th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


On Monday morning, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson sentenced former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy Gilbert Michel to six months in a federal prison, plus two years probation.

The sentence was a surprise to most of those observing.

The federal prosecutors had consistently pushed for prison time for other former LA Sheriff’s department members who had been convicted in the last few years. But in the case of Michel, who had cooperated with the feds from nearly the beginning (once he was caught), the government asked Judge Anderson for a sentence of four months of home detainment, which would allow him to continue to work to support his family.

And, for a moment it looked as the sentencing might go as expected. The government, represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lizabeth Rhodes and Brandon Fox, explained its position, citing Michel’s high level of cooperation, how he had taken responsibility for his offenses, and his concrete efforts to reboot his life.

“There needs to be a balance between personal responsibility and cooperation with the investigation,” said Liz Rhodes.

When it was his turn, Gilbert Michel read with apparent sincerity from a prepared statement, choking up several times as he did so.

“Five years ago, I made a decision that was very wrong,” he read. “In my arrogance, I took a bribe. I not only thought I could get a way with it, I thought I would not be held accountable for it.

“These decisions that I have made have not only affected myself, but my family, and the citizens of Los Angeles County.

“I want to apologize to my family, mainly my children, for not setting the example I should have set for you. I hope you’ve learned from my wrong decisions….

“To the citizens of Los Angeles County I am truly sorry for my misconduct. I took an oath to honorably perform my duties as a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, and I failed you….

“I humbly accept whatever punishment I am given.”

As he read his statement, Michel looked sober and sorrowful, yet self-pity seemed notably absent

(click to enlarge)


To remind you, Gilbert Michel was the deputy who, in July and early August of 2011, accepted cash bribes from an undercover FBI agent whom he believed was the friend of a jail inmate named Anthony Brown. In return for the money, Michel agreed to bring a contraband cell phone into Men’s Central Jail, and to give the phone to inmate Brown for his use.

For still more money, Michel further contracted to recharge the phone and return it to Brown, never sensing that Brown was a federal informant, and he, Michel, had just landed smack in the middle of an undercover sting designed by the feds to catch corrupt deputies—like himself—-who were willing to break the law in return for cash. The sting was part of a larger undercover FBI investigation into deputy brutality and abuse toward inmates.

In a deal struck with federal prosecutors six months later in January of 2012, Michel pleaded to one count of bribery, and agreed to fully cooperate with the government’s investigation into corruption and brutality inside the department’s troubled jail system.

“Cooperation” involved disclosing what he knew about deputy wrongdoing inside the jail, including his own misdeeds. It also meant testifying under oath at two federal trials involving former department members, one of them, the trial of Paul Tanaka, the other the trial of the six former department members convicted of obstruction of justice in what has become unofficially known as Operation Pandora’s Box.


Although Michel was not charged with abuse and brutality against inmates, he admitted to abuse in multiple interviews with the FBI, and also under oath in his lengthy testimony at both the Tanaka trial, and the earlier joint trial of six former department members.

In the trial of the six, Michel’s testimony was dramatic and harrowing. He testified that, shortly after his graduation from the department’s training academy, he worked the 2000 and the 3000 floors Men’s Central Jail where as part of his initiatory training he learned the “right way” to cover up unjustified beatings and abuse of inmates. In testimony that spread over two days, Michel’s described details of the individual beatings of inmates he’d been present for, or administered himself.

His testimony portrayed, not merely his own mistreatment of prisoners, but pointed beyond itself to a subculture of deputies inside the jails who engaged in routine brutality against inmates. The brutality was accompanied, according to Michel, in many instances, by the falsification of criminal charges against those same inmates, when such charges were needed to cover deputy violence. Michel’s testimony further suggested that such behavior went on virtually unchecked by jail supervisors and LASD higher-ups.

Even if inmates wrote up complaints, said Michel, they were often intercepted by deputies who had access to the complaint box.


On Monday morning, after everyone else had finished speaking, and it was time for the Anderson to hand down a sentence, Anderson’s expression was grave. He spoke of
“the seriousness of this offense,” the bribery itself, and “the fact that the offense involved repeated” behavior. And, then, although Michel wasn’t charged with anything more than the single count of bribery, Anderson brought up the physical abuse visited on inmates, that Michel had testified about twice in his courtroom, (Anderson presided over all four of the obstruction of justice trials.)

The defendant was a law enforcement officer, said Anderson. “He broke his solemn vow to uphold the law…victimized those he was sworn to protect… abused the public trust….Not only did he bring shame on the sheriff’s department, but on law enforcement in general.”

Then after a long pause Anderson got to the point. “The court finds that the defendant’s conduct does require a period of incarceration.”

Physical abuse of inmates, Anderson said, was “rampant and unchecked” and “went all the way to the top of the department.”

Department members “behaved no better than the inmates they were assigned to guard.”

Thus, due to the “need for deterrence,” and for “a sentence that reflects the seriousness of the offenses….six months of incarceration is appropriate.”

Anderson gave Michel a little over a month to get his affairs in order, telling him he must self-surrender by noon on July 26.


When those on the court benches filed out into the hallway after the hearing was over, one of the main topics of conversation other than the surpise sentence itself, is what it might mean for future sentencing. Did Anderson’s significant deviation from the prosecution’s request presage a similarly non-lenient view of, say, the upcoming sentencing of former sheriff Lee Baca on July 11, and also that of former undersheriff Paul Tanaka at the end of this month.

“If I were Lee Baca, I’d be concerned,” said one attorney who observed the Michel sentencing hearing.

“This judge wants to know that you get it,” agreed former Assistant U.S. Attorney Miriam Aroni Krinsky. “From what we’ve seen today, I don’t think he’s going to go easy on former sheriff Baca.”

A few minutes later still, Michel stood in the sun outside the federal court building on Main Street and told reporters that he does get it.

“I made a mistake. I did wrong. This whole thing has been a life changing experience for me,” Michel said. “I’m ready to take what the judge gave to me, and move on with my life. It’s a fair sentence. It was totally fair and justified.”

As for the “rampant and unchecked” abuse of inmates by deputies that Anderson and others have mentioned?

“There is an arrogance about the department where I worked….,” Michel said, his wife close beside him. “It was everywhere. We thought that we ran the jail. That it was our jail, that we controlled the jail. Nobody else did. It was arrogant.” We worked there. But” the jail “doesn’t belong to the deputies. It belongs to the people of Los Angeles. But that’s not how we saw things.”

Posted in LASD | 11 Comments »

California Prosecutors’ Rising Use of “Direct File” & How It Harms Kids of Color…Transparency in Child Abuse Near-Fatalities…and a Teen Transforms His Life

June 14th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

While the number of California kids arrested for felonies dropped 55% between 2003 and 2014, the number of kids transferred to adult court (directly filed by prosecutors) rose 23% during the same years, according to a collaborative report from the W. Haywood Burns Institute, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, and the National Center for Youth Law. The data suggests that there’s no discernible relationship between direct files and and youth felony crime rates. During the same decade, the number of judicial transfer hearings (where judges decide whether to send kids to adult court) dropped 69%. At the same time, more kids are being held in lock-ups during their trials, rather than being released, despite the drip in transfer hearings.

Today in California, there are three ways kids can be prosecuted in the adult justice system. In the first, a judicial transfer hearing, a judge considers the case particulars, including the kid’s background and other circumstances, and adheres to a set of criteria to decide whether the youth is “fit” for the juvenile system. Among these criteria are the severity of the offense, any prior involvement with the justice system and previous attempts at rehabilitation, and the juvenile’s level of “criminal sophistication.” A judge usually takes about six months to make a decision.

In a direct file decision, a prosecutor usually has 48 hours to decide whether to file charges against a kid in adult court, without all of the background information reviewed during a judicial transfer hearing. The direct file to adult court becomes mandatory if the prosecutor says the child committed a crime that, if committed by an adult, would carry a death penalty or life-without-parole sentence. And in discretionary direct file cases, if the prosecutor says the kid committed a “qualifying felony”—define—then the prosecutor is given discretion to either file charges against the youth in juvenile or adult court.

Proposition 21, a 2000 voter-approved law called the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, gave prosecutors far more power to charge kids as adults. Thanks to Prop 21, prosecutors have been able to bypass judges’ hearings, and directly file charges against kids as young as 14. The law also greatly expanded the qualifying offenses that trigger direct files.

Direct files are harmful to kids for a number of reasons. Prosecutors overuse the tool, disproportionately directly file black and Latino kids, and send kids into an adult system not prepared to meet their unique needs (emotional needs, education needs, safety needs, and so on).

Last Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing Governor Jerry Brown to bring his proposed criminal justice reform ballot measure before voters in November. The measure would block direct files, giving judges, rather than prosecutors, the final say on whether juvenile offenders are charged as adults (in addition to other reforms, like increasing prisoners’ access to good time credits). The Supremes reversed a ruling by a superior court judge who sided with a California District Attorney’s Association members’ lawsuit alleging that amendments to the initiative did not go through the proper legal process.


The report compares data from California’s 58 counties and how they use (or don’t use) direct file.

Not counting two counties that had five or fewer transfers to adult court in 2014, Los Angeles had the lowest rate of direct files—24% (18 cases), compared with 76% (57) via a judge’s transfer hearing. Merced and Riverside Counties have the second and third lowest direct file rates at 29% and 42%, respectively. Overall, in the state of California 72% of transfers to adult court (474 cases) were via direct files; 28% (183) were via transfer hearings. In 14 counties—including Ventura, San Diego, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Contra Costa, and Tulare—every time a kid was charged as an adult, it was through a direct file. San Francisco and 24 other (far less populated) counties reported no direct file or transfer hearings during 2014.

And while the direct file rate has decreased for white kids, it has increased for youth of color. In 2003, Latino juveniles were 2.4 times more likely than their white peers to be directly filed. By 2014, that number increased to 3.3 times more likely. For black kids the direct file rate jumped from 4.5 times more likely than their white peers in 2003, to 11.3 times more likely.


Last month, state lawmakers shot down a “trailer bill” attached to the California May budget revision, which would have closed off public access to records regarding abuse-related near-deaths of children involved in the child welfare system. (Lawmakers dumped a similar trailer bill last year.) Current state law does not require reporting in these cases, but also does not ban it.

According to the California Department of Social Services, over the past eight years, there were 855 CA kids so severely beaten that they nearly died (980 did die).

By way of the trailer bill, the California Department of Social Services, was trying to keep $5 million in federal funding that requires the state to clearly define what kind of information is to be released in almost-deadly child welfare cases. Mitchell and fellow lawmakers believe the department’s solution—which includes providing shortened summaries of the cases, without original case notes—is not the answer.

California Senator Holly Mitchell, who chairs the committee that blocked the sneaky trailer bill, says she believes the case information should be publicly available. “We spend a lot of time talking about the value of transparency in government, and I think that applies to this scenario, too.” Mitchell said. The goal is that more attention on the nearly fatal cases might lead to “a different internal procedure that can have a positive outcome for the next child,” Mitchell added.

A new version of the bill is currently being negotiated.

CALmatters’ Laurel Rosenahll has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

Disclosing a summary of findings would protect the privacy of a child recovering from abuse and adults or siblings in the home who were not responsible for it, state officials said, while meeting federal reporting requirements. Their plan had support from the Service Employees International Union, which represents social workers, and the County Welfare Directors Association, which represents local agencies that oversee child protective services.

“We appreciate the Administration’s thoughtful balancing of the public’s right to know certain relevant information about these types of incidents with the need to protect privacy for the affected children who are still alive and trying to recover from serious injuries and trauma,” the groups wrote in a joint letter of support for the bill.
But Ed Howard, a lobbyist for the Children’s Advocacy Institute, protested that the administration’s approach “elevated the needs of government over the needs of kids.”

Foster youth groups objected, too, arguing that original documents are more informative, and releasing them after near-fatalities would force counties to improve in how they look out for kids.

Children’s advocates and newspaper publishers lobbied for a bill that would require disclosure of reports on near-fatalities the same way it’s done when youngsters die.
The administration’s latest proposal surfaced last month as part of Brown’s revised state budget blueprint — a common way of passing laws that may be only tangentially related to the budget and one that avoids the lengthier vetting regular bills receive.

“They simply thrust it on everyone with this gun-to-the-head approach and attempted to get it jammed into the budget that way,” said Jim Ewert, lobbyist for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which promotes open government and access to public records.


At 12 years old, Junior Mendez led officers on a chase while under the influence. By the time he was 16 years old, the East LA teen was doing drugs, getting into trouble, and no longer going to school. LA County Sheriff’s Deputy Jerry Ambriz tried to help Junior make it through an LASD youth intervention program, but Junior quit. Not long after, in a pivotal moment, the teen decided to turn his life around, and re-enrolled in the Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives program, taking advantage of Ambriz’s offer of mentorship and support. Now, at 17 years old, Junior is one of 200 teens about to graduate from a rigorous five-and-a-half month paramilitary program run by the Army National Guard, called Sunburst Academy.

ABC7′s Miriam Hernandez has the story. Here’s a clip:

At just 12 years old, Junior led police on a chase while under the influence.

“It went really bad,” Junior said. “I was not going to school, I was doing drugs.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Jerry Ambriz said by age 16, Junior was both lost and hardened by struggles on the streets, at school and at home.

Ambriz tried to guide him through a sheriff’s program called Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives, or VIDA.

But Junior said he hated it and quit. Ambriz warned him about a life of crime.

“I promised we would meet up again,” Ambriz said.

Posted in juvenile justice | 3 Comments »

Prosecutors Call for 5 Years in Prison for Former LASD Undersheriff Paul Tanaka

June 13th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


“Defendant Paul Tanaka is responsible not only for obstructing justice, but also for fostering the culture that led to the significant problems in the Los Angeles County jails….While defendant claimed at his and three previous trials that he had only limited involvement in the conspiracy, the evidence showed instead that he was the ringleader from the beginning.

So begins the 23-page sentencing memorandum filed last week, in which government prosecutors ask U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson to sentence Paul Tanaka, the former second in command at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, to 60 months—or 5 years—in federal prison.

Tanaka, as most readers know, was convicted of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, on April 6. He is due to sentenced by Judge Anderson on Monday, June 27.

The government’s sentencing memorandum makes for interesting reading. In it U.S. Attorneys Brandon Fox, Lizabeth Rhodes, and Eddie Juaregui not only reiterate the crimes for which Tanaka was convicted, they also paint a picture of a rogue supervisor who fostered a toxic culture that allowed for a pattern of civil rights abuses and corruption in the LA County jail system, and beyond. This pattern of abuse, say the prosecutors, led to the multi-year FBI investigation that Tanaka was convicted of obstructing.

And Tanaka wasn’t just any participant, the prosecutors write. He was “in charge of” the obstructive operation, was “involved in all aspects of the obstruction,” and he “set the tone of the operation early and repeatedly with his ‘F**k the FBI’ statements.”


This attitude of Tanaka’s was not a new one, according to the prosecutors. It was, they contend, his signiture style as a supervisor that created the context for the crimes of which he and other department members have been convicted:

“During his time as an executive,” they write, “[the} defendant threatened to discipline supervisors who frequently referred deputies to Internal Affairs, transferred Captains who tried to reduce deputy abuse and break up cliques, instructed deputies to work in the ‘gray area’ of law enforcement, and expressed his desire to gut Internal Affairs. Defendant’s actions caused deputies to believe that they could act with impunity, which, unfortunately, they did much too frequently.”

Moreover, according to the prosecution, Tanaka “chose as his co-conspirators those who were ordinarily supposed to investigate the same type of crimes that they began covering up.”

The specifics of crimes of which Tanaka has been convicted are as follows: from mid-August 2011 through September 26, 2011, in a series of actions that came to be known, unofficially, Operation Pandora’s Box, Mr. Tanaka and department members under his direction, devised a scheme to hide a jail inmate turned-confidential informant from his FBI handlers through a complicated strategy of multiple name changes that made the federal informant, Anthony Brown, appear to vanish from the LA County jail system by making his name and distinguishing details vanish from the jail database.

The government also described how department members under Tanaka’s command attempted to intimidate potential witnesses, who had information about deputy wrongdoing, into refusing to cooperate with the FBI. Then the same group falsely threatened an FBI agent with arrest in an unsuccessful attempt to intimidate her into giving them information about the ongoing federal investigation.

For all these actions, say the prosecutors, Paul Tanaka was “the ringleader.”


In the memo, the government notes that the other seven former department members who were convicted of obstruction of justice for participation in the same actions that Tanaka has been convicted of directing and influencing, have been given sentences ranging from 18 months for then-deputy James Sexton, to 37 and 41 months, respectively, for former lieutenants Greg Thompson and Stephen Leavins, at the top end, with former deputies Gerard Smith and Mickey Manzo, plus former sergeants Maricela Long and Scott Craig, receiving sentences in between.

The government makes the logical case that since Tanaka was the guy in charge, the shot caller, he must get the longest sentence.

The prosecutors also address the Baca factor, which the defense will undoubtedly point to vigorously when they argue for a lower sentence.

Former sheriff Lee Baca, as most of you are aware, made a plea deal with the feds in early February of this year, in which he admitted to lying to federal agents about his part in this whole mess. In return, the feds have agreed to a sentence of between 0 to 6 months in federal prison.

(Anderson will be sentencing Baca on July 11, at which time the judge is theoretically supposed to hand down a sentence between those guidelines. Yet legally, Anderson could sentence Baca to as much as five years, or anything in between. However if Anderson goes at all outside the 0 to 6 parameter, then the plea deal becomes null and void—unless Baca and his attorneys decide to accept a higher sentence rather than lose the plea deal, and move to an indictment.)

In the Tanaka sentencing memo, the prosecutors don’t exactly argue that Baca is less guilty than Tanaka, but that the “quantity and the quality” of the evidence they have against Lee Baca is less than the mounds they have against Tanaka. In other words, you charge what you can dead bang prove.

Then, in a curious sentence near the end of the memo, in which the prosecutors call the judge’s attention to “the issues raised in Baca’s PSR. Those issues place him in a very different position than the others involved in this case,” they write.

“PSR” stands for Pre Sentencing Report, the report written up by probation officials with a sentencing recommendation, that the judge may follow or disregard. We don’t know what “issues” to which the government is referring in their reference to the “PSR,” but our best guess is that the former sheriff is claiming health issues that he and his attorney maintain should preclude him from going to prison.

We’ll see what Judge Anderson makes of all this on June 27—And then again, on July 11, when he sentences former sheriff Baca.

In the meantime, former Deputy Gilbert Michel will be sentenced Monday morning.

You can find the government’s Tanaka sentencing memo here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 35 Comments »

49 Shot Dead at Orlando Nightclub in Deadliest Mass Shooting in U.S. History

June 12th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

The heartbreak and devastation continues to grow as more details about the victims in Orlando filter out.

In addition to our heartbreak and thoughts for the families and friends of those killed in the horrific act of bigotry, hatred and violence at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Saturday night, we at WitnessLA also hope that news reporting on this tragedy is sober minded, fact-based, and resists the desire to twist the terrible sorrow of others for political purposes.

President Obama has called the attack at the popular LGBT nightclub that killed fifty people, and injured another 53, “an act of terror and an act of hate.”

The gunman, who is also dead, has been identified as Omar Siddiqui Mateen, a U.S. citizen. He reportedly called 911 prior to his shooting rampage, and pledged allegiance to ISIS.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, although there was no early evidence that they had contact with the gunman. It seems instead ISUS opportunistically claimed credit after the fact.

At the same time, Mateen’s father, and his ex-wife, have each told reporters that Mateen had often made anti-gay remarks in the past.

In addition, the former wife of the gunman described him as violent, abusive and unstable.

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles a man was arrested for weapons and explosives and told authorities he was planning to meet a friend at Sunday’s Gay Pride parade. It was reportedly later that the man allegedly planned to cause “harm” to those in the parade.

Yet, near the end of Sunday, this report was found to be inaccurate. The man with the guns and explosives intended to go to the parade but not cause “harm.” Why he was carrying weapons and explosives was not clear. The LA Times has been following the story.

Posted in Violence Prevention | 5 Comments »

Implicit Bias And Public Defenders…Mental Illness and Violence…Rape Hotlines for Prisoners…and the Budget

June 10th, 2016 by Taylor Walker


In recent years, there has been increased attention on the issue of implicit—or unconscious—racial bias among law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, and school teachers. San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi says it’s also a problem among the public defenders whose job it is to provide poor (often minority) defendants with effective counsel.

These implicit biases may cause public defenders to “try harder for a client that he or she perceives as more educated or likely to be successful because of their race,” says Adachi. And black defendants are more likely to be convicted of more charges and receive harsher sentences, according to preliminary data from an ongoing study of plea bargains in San Francisco.

When Adachi was approached about implementing implicit bias training among public defenders four years ago, he was skeptical that public defenders suffered from unconscious bias. Then, he took the Harvard Implicit Association Test (see image above), and found that even he had unconscious racial bias. Now, San Francisco’s public defenders take bias training twice a year, and have other safeguards to cut down on bias.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Adachi discusses how his office handles recognizing and addressing implicit bias head-on. Here’s a clip:

I also began reading studies on how defense lawyers were affected by implicit bias. One study showed that defense attorneys in death penalty cases paired pictures of white-skinned faces with stereotypically good words; they paired “bad” words with black faces. The study also found that 88 percent of U.S. attorneys are Caucasian and the vast majority of attorneys have “automatic reactions that make associating white with good easier than associating white with bad.” This made me realize that black clients had an extra obstacle to obtain justice because their lawyers’ biases could affect how hard the lawyer pushed for them.

This is also problematic because of the prevalence of plea bargaining. In most jurisdictions, over 95 percent of the cases that are not dismissed or diverted result in a plea bargain. Past studies have suggested that attorneys may consider race in assessing the client’s chances of conviction and may therefore be willing to recommend higher sentences to account for a biased system.

Two years ago, we partnered with social science researchers from the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice Plea to measure racial disparities in our plea bargains, and to determine whether the race of a client — or an attorney — affects outcomes. While the final study has not been released, the preliminary data shows a clear correlation between race and outcomes. Black defendants were more likely to be convicted of more charges and received more severe sentences. Armed with this information, we can now begin comparing outcomes and determining whether there is a rational explanation as to why they are different.

All of this research convinced me that I need to train my staff on how we form biases and how they potentially affect our work. The bias training we now undergo twice-yearly explores the subtle assumptions we make based on race. It forced us to examine who we choose to associate with, and who we choose not to, and how our fears and misperceptions about people affect the way we interact with them and ultimately represent them in court. And it required us to confront our own racism.

We also instituted some practical safeguards: Public defenders are encouraged to seek feedback from colleagues about potential biases and use checklist tools that ask questions such as “how would I handle this case different if my client was another race or had a different social background?” And we combat our own biases by getting to know our clients and their families. It is then they become individuals and not just criminal defendants.


Media attention on high profile shootings has perpetuated a narrative that exaggerates the correlation between mental illness and violence.

Just 4% of documented violence in the US is committed by people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression. In fact, a 1998 study showed that patients released from psychiatric hospitals were not any more likely to commit an act of violence than the general population (unless the psychiatric patients had co-occurring substance abuse issues).

Despite the extremely low rate of violence among the mentally ill, between 1995-2014, more than half of news stories about mental illness covered by several leading news outlets also mentioned violence, according to a new study published in the journal Health Affairs.

Rather than violence against others, people with mental illnesses are far more likely to commit suicide. The majority—60%—of all firearm-related deaths are suicides.

The Atlantic’s Julie Beck has more on the issue and why suicide prevention would have more of an impact on gun fatalities than a focus on the violence among the mentally ill. Here’s a clip:

A new study published in Health Affairs shows how the news perpetuates this narrative, with a look at how several prominent newspapers and broadcast networks covered mental illness from 1995 to 2014. More than half of the stories they looked at during that period—55 percent—mentioned violence in conjunction with mental illness. That proportion was pretty much consistent across the 19 years. But stories connecting mental illness with mass shootings specifically increased from 9 percent between 1994 and 2004 to 22 percent between 2005 and 2014.

Perhaps this can be partially attributed to high-profile shootings like the Tucson shooting in 2011, in which the killer did have schizophrenia. “That’s an event that is newsworthy, but the fact that it was linked to mental illness is not representative of most people who have schizophrenia, or most violence,” says Emma McGinty, the lead author on the study and a professor of health policy at Johns Hopkins University. “[And yet] that link pervades the public psyche.”

It pervades so much so that people speculate about killers’ mental states, even in the absence of any evidence that they were living with any disorder. For example, in an article about the gunman who recently killed a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, New York magazine writes: “Police do not know for sure yet if Sarkar had a history of mental illness.” Why does this particular absence of information bear mentioning? It seems mental illness is so linked to gun violence in people’s minds that we have to address it even when it’s not there.

And when there is evidence that a killer also happened to have a mental illness—like the pilot who crashed a Germanwings plane in 2015, who had a history of depression—the media seize upon it like a bear trap. “We’ve got it now! This is what was wrong with him,” is the message portrayed.

This is a really tricky needle to thread, because something was clearly wrong with him. Of course someone who is perfectly healthy and well-adjusted in every way would not go out and kill a bunch of people.


States and individual detention facilities are increasingly turning to rape crisis hotlines to help prisoners who have been sexually assaulted by staff or other inmates.

In 2003, Congress passed the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which established a set of “zero-tolerance” standards meant to eliminate rape in state and federal prisons. It took a decade to nail down and approve those standards. A 2014 report indicated that the number of sexual assaults behind bars had not changed much from 2007 to 2014 (before and after PREA standards were set in place).

Enforcement of PREA compliance has been abysmal. States only have to say that they intend to comply with PREA to keep the federal funding that’s at stake. And three states (Alaska, Arkansas, Utah) have flat-out refused to comply with PREA standards.

And prison rape is an all-too-common occurrence, there were 200,000 individual instances of reported sexual abuse behind bars in 2011—and certainly a lot more sexual assault that isn’t reported.

A proposed bill, the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, aims to kick PREA-resisters into action, setting a hard deadline of six years for states to achieve full compliance, with regular progress reports and public audits until then.

In the meantime, rape crisis hotlines are contracting with state corrections departments and prisons to provide abused inmates (who are most often violated by guards and staff) with much-needed help that they can access anonymously.

Mic’s Steven Yoder has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:

A handful of states — Virginia, Vermont, Washington and New York — and individual prisons are contracting with rape crisis providers to run hotlines. In San Antonio, the county jail approached the city’s Rape Crisis Center two years ago to staff a hotline. Since then, the center has expanded the service to 15 other detention facilities in Texas and one in Mississippi, says the center’s Deana Buril. In New York state, one rape crisis center reports that they contracted for 500 minutes of cell service annually to run their hotline when they started in 2014. They burned through those minutes in the first month.

Had Booth been in another California prison, he might have been able to get help before he was attacked. One rape crisis center — the Women’s Center High Desert East of Bakersfield — has been staffing one of the nation’s longest-running prison rape hotlines and offering counseling services since 2006 for inmates at the nearby California Correctional Institution. The hotline was launched as a pilot project funded by Just Detention International, an NGO that advocates for an end to sexual abuse behind bars.

The center’s experience shows that the existence of PREA doesn’t guarantee cooperation from prison staff. When the group first went into CCI in 2006, prison guards were mostly hostile, CCI rep Karin Stone said — when they were introduced to guards, they’d often turn their backs and walk away. Stone and her staff would put up posters with the hotline number in the prison yard and come back to find them gone. “Prison staff and even inmates viewed us as outsiders,” she said.

So she and her colleagues started bringing the guards fresh-baked cookies and picking up coffee from Starbucks. Stone would tell them about her father and her other relatives who worked in law enforcement. When that rapport was established, guards started calling the center’s main rape crisis hotline about problems in their own families. Gradually, they warmed to the counselors. By a year or two into the pilot, the sergeant who was introducing Stone and her colleagues would start with, “They’re PREA, but they’re cool.”

There’s no easy way to measure the value of offering prisoners a place to call anonymously, but those who run the hotlines said there’s little doubt the service is needed. Given that perpetrators are often guards themselves, asking a prison staffer to connect them to a counselor is no solution. Numbers from Virginia’s Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance, which runs that state’s hotline, show just how common that is. Of 637 calls the alliance has taken in which the caller identified who assaulted or abused them, 458 of those involved a perpetrator who worked for the prison.


By the way, California Governor Jerry Brown and state lawmakers have reached an agreement on the budget for fiscal year 2016-2017, which starts in July.

The Sacramento Bee’s Jim Miller has a helpful rundown on the noteworthy compromises. We at WLA have been following one particular proposed allocation for jail construction. In Brown’s proposed budget, he set aside $250 million for jail building, Advocates urged lawmakers to reject the jail spending, but the new budget actually increased the jail construction funding to $270 million. Here’s a clip:

▪ Affordable housing: Brown and lawmakers have been on the same page to borrow against the state’s 1 percent mental health services tax on millionaires to help build affordable housing for the mentally ill. But neither house embraced Brown’s proposal to limit local government’s land-use authority over proposed developments that include affordable housing. Similarly, neither Brown nor the Senate had signed on to the Assembly plan to spend $650 million on various affordable housing programs.

Negotiations continue on the housing package, with talk of a possible compromise of $400 million in one-time affordable housing money along with the changes sought by Brown.


▪ Jail construction: Brown’s budget included $250 million from the general fund for local jail construction. But the governor’s proposal found little support from lawmakers. Both the Assembly and Senate wanted to divert the money to other programs, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, law enforcement training and reducing teen pregnancies.

Thursday’s pact includes $270 million for jail construction, but funded by lease revenue bonds instead of the general fund. The compromise disappointed some criminal-justice advocates. “Really disappointed to see $270 mil in funding for new jail construction,” Natasha Minsker of the ACLU posted on Twitter.

Posted in Public Defender | 2 Comments »

WitnessLA Finalist for Southern California Journalism Award

June 9th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

We are delighted to announced that WitnessLA’s Taylor Walker and Celeste Fremon
are finalists for the LA Press Club’s 58th Southern California Journalism Awards. We were nominated in the category of Website, News Organization Exclusive to the Internet.

The nomination was, quite honestly, a surprise.

Our fellow finalists are both excellent news sites run by organizations that are far larger—and better funded—than our little-engine-that-could news site. But we are honored to be in the finals, and in their company.

The awards will be announced on Sunday, June 26, 2016.

Posted in journalism | 11 Comments »

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