Thursday, November 26, 2015
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Nine Stockton Police Take Down Teen, Bernie Sanders’ Bill to End Private Prisons, and Glossip’s High-Profile Stay of Execution

September 18th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

As many as nine Stockton police officers wrestled a 16-year-old to the ground after he was stopped for allegedly walking in a bus lane on Wednesday.

When an officer asked the teen to stop, reportedly to write a ticket, the boy allegedly kept walking toward his bus. A bystander recorded a video (above) showing the officer standing over the sitting teen, and hitting him with his baton—an action that the department’s public information officer described as a “weapon retention technique”—because the boy had his hands on the baton. The officer appears to call for backup. Officers advanced on the boy, who was sitting with his head in his hands, threw him onto the sidewalk and handcuffed him.

The boy was allegedly arrested on suspicion of trespassing and resisting arrest.

RT has the story. Here’s a clip:

…police say that the video doesn’t show the whole story. The teen wasn’t jaywalking, but clearly ignored signs that said he couldn’t walk in that location.

“He was walking in a lane that is designated only for buses to drive in,” Silva said. “It was a safety issue, and trespassing according to the posted signs and the Stockton Municipal Code.”

When the officer approached the boy and asked him to move to the sidewalk, “the kid immediately started using obscene language and said that he wouldn’t listen,” Silva said.

Witnesses said that before the camera started rolling, the cop was telling the teenager to sit down, but the boy continued walking to his bus.

The officer kept grabbing his arm, but the kid still went on, so the cop took out his baton.

A scuffle ensued, during which time the officer’s body camera was knocked to the ground, Silva said.

The teen then grabbed the officer’s baton.

“We cannot and will not allow anyone to take our weapons,” Silva said, adding that the officer then employed a “weapons retention technique” to gain full control over the baton.


On Thursday, alongside leaders from the House of Representatives, US Senator (and presidential hopeful) Bernie Sanders introduced the “Justice is not for Sale Act,” which would shut down the nation’s controversial for-profit prison industry, end the feds’ daily quota of 34,000 incarcerated immigrants (read more about those lock-up quotas: here), and restore the federal parole system, which was abolished in the 1980′s.

Over 41,159 federal and 91,885 state prisoners are housed in private facilities. The US Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold 20% and 62% percent of their detainees in for-profit detention centers, respectively.

The bill, co-introduced by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Arizona), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) and Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Illinois), would also boost oversight of companies like Global Tel-Link and JPay that provide (costly) communication and financial services to inmates and their families.

“We cannot fix our criminal justice system if corporations are allowed to profit from mass incarceration,” Sanders said. “Keeping human beings in jail for long periods of time must no longer be an acceptable business model in America…Our focus should be on treating people with dignity and ensuring they have the resources they need to get back on their feet when they get out.”


An Oklahoma man on death row, Richard Glossip, was granted a stay of execution hours before he was scheduled to be executed on Wednesday.

Last week, Glossip’s lawyers announced new information casting doubt on Glossip’s already shaky murder conviction. In his final hours, Clancy Smith, presiding judge of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals gave Glossip’s legal team 14 days to present new evidence to the court.

As Glossip headed toward execution this week, lawmakers, activists, and the public spoke out against the state’s possible execution of an innocent man. A petition started by death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean, and Susan Sarandon (who portrayed Prejean in the film “Dead Man Walking”) garnered 236,000 signatures.

The Washington Post’s Mark Berman has the story. Here’s a clip:

Glossip’s execution hour arrived amid renewed questions about his guilt and high-profile calls for the execution to be called off. The execution was so close that Glossip had already been given his final meal — including chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, fish and chips and a strawberry malt — which state protocol says must be delivered the night before a lethal injection.

This case case focused on the killing of a motel owner named Barry Van Treese. In 1997, Van Treese was beaten to death with a baseball bat. Glossip, who worked for Van Treese, was found guilty of paying another motel worker to kill him. Justin Sneed, who confessed to killing Van Treese, testified against Glossip, and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole while Glossip received a death sentence.

Glossip, 52, was convicted of murder and twice sentenced to death. He was first sentenced in 1998, but that sentence was overturned due to what a state court deemed ineffective legal counsel, and he was sentenced again in 2004.

But Glossip’s attorneys argue that executing him based on Sneed’s testimony “risks a wrongful execution.” They also submitted an affidavit from a man who said that while in an Oklahoma state prison, he heard Sneed say that Glossip hadn’t done anything.

Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments »

Veterans in Jail, the New Prez of the LAPD Commission, and LAPD Chief Beck on Body Cams

September 17th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


At the Vista Detention Facility in San Diego County, veterans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law are placed in “modules” focused on healing, rather than punishing, men who are wrestling with any combination of PTSD, substance abuse, and homelessness.

The jail’s two modules, specifically tailored to the unique needs of veterans, offer vets a chance to deal with the struggles of life after active duty that helped put them behind bars. Vista’s vet modules provides a level of discipline and routine that’s familiar and comforting to the former military men, as well as daily classes, yoga, therapy, and the company of other veterans (even the guards are vets).

Note: currently, there are no comparable offerings in the US for female vets, who are subject to the same war-related traumas as their male counterparts.

The Crime Report’s Katti Gray has more on the Vista veterans program. Here’s a clip:

A year—to the day—after his baby brother was shot dead in a Kansas prairie town, German Villegas’ best buddy in Afghanistan was killed by a bomb he’d been ordered to find and defuse.

“We were both on the list to search for explosives,” Villegas recalled.

But U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Michael J. Palacios was the one dispatched that day in November 2012. “He got hit by a 200-pound IED,” two months before both men were slated to go home, Villegas said.

Villegas returned stateside, a shattered man.

“My number-one goal was to get drunk and just try to forget everything,” said the 23-year-old, who joined the Marines straight out of high school and spent five years there. Fired from the military police, he was shunted into what he calls “punitive duties” that had him cleaning up after battalion officers and picking up trash.

But the worst were the funeral details.

“(That) was the completely wrong thing for me to have to do,” he continued. “Every time I did one of these funerals, I’m seeing these families crying. I became pretty good at compartmentalizing—or so I thought.”

Villegas was sitting that afternoon in the communal area outside an all-male cell block at a San Diego County Sheriff’s Department jail, where he landed after being arrested for an assault on his fiancée. A few feet away, at the Vista Detention Facility, stood one of the armed deputy sheriffs, also a veteran, who asked to be assigned to that cell block. Just beyond that deputy was a Marine Corps retiree and correctional counselor who directs Vista’s almost two-year-old Veterans Moving Forward Program.

One of a handful of such projects in the United States, the program makes available to convicted ex-military men and those awaiting trial—including those like Villegas who’ve been diagnosed with mental illness—counseling, peer-to-peer support and other amenities rarely extended to people behind bars.

Minutes before Villegas gave a visitor his take on what war extracts from combatants and innocents alike, he had queued up at a nurse’s cart, where anti-psychotic and other prescribed drugs were dispensed to jailed veterans with mental illnesses. (Those with only physical ailments also filled their prescriptions.)

Villegas’ meds are intended to help him stave off anxiety, depression and the flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-arousal, hyper-alertness and exponential moodiness that are among the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such maladies are likely what triggered his admitted episode of violence. For Villegas, like so many other criminally charged veterans, had no history of illegal activity prior to military service.

“Jail is the last place I thought I would end up and the last place I thought I would find help, but this program has become a foundation that I can trust,” Villegas said. “The moment I came here and saw those military flags on the walls, it brought me to tears. There’s a brotherhood here … and there are things here that I need to restore my mental health, to get whole again.”


Matt Johnson, the newest Los Angeles Police Department commission president, also happens to be the only black member of the commission tasked with overseeing the LAPD.

When Johnson was growing up in New Jersey in the 80′s, he said he was on the receiving end of both racial prejudice from law enforcement officers and kindness from the cops who were friends with his dad. Johnson says this gives him the perspective needed to take on police-community relations issues.

But some community members criticize LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s appointment of Johnson, who is an entertainment lawyer, instead of someone who is a grassroots community advocate.

The LA Times’ Kate Mather has the story. Here’s a clip:

Richard Drooyan, a former Police Commission president, said the board’s role as the “eyes and ears of the community” is particularly important at this moment given the public desire for increased accountability of police. Johnson, he said, must be “willing to criticize when mistakes are made and support the department when the department is right.”

In one of its most important roles, the board decides whether police shootings and other serious uses of force were appropriate. It’s a responsibility that has come under greater scrutiny as police officers across the country have increasingly been criticized for how they use force, particularly against black men.

Activists have blasted the LAPD and commissioners for some of the police shootings in Los Angeles. LAPD officers have shot 28 people so far this year, half of whom were killed.

Some of the most vocal critics are affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, including some who denounced Mayor Eric Garcetti for putting Johnson on the Police Commission. They said they wanted an anti-gang activist on the board instead of another person who donated to Garcetti’s campaign.

When asked about the criticism, Johnson said the Black Lives Matter movement had “shined a light on very important issues.”

“The bottom line is, there is an alarming number of African Americans across our country who have been killed by police,” Johnson said. “A large part of the reason that I agreed to join the commission is that I’m concerned about it, and I believe I can play a positive role in reducing those incidents.”

Paula Madison, the outgoing commissioner who has been the board’s only African American member since 2013, described Johnson as a friend who works with quiet deliberation, someone who understood the impact he could have as a black man on the Police Commission.

“If you get the opportunity to help set policies, you take it very seriously,” she said. “And knowing Matt, he’s going to take this very seriously.”

Head over to Mathers’ story to read more about Johnson’s background and what he hopes to accomplish while serving as a commissioner.


On Wednesday’s on Air Talk, host Larry Mantle talked with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck about how the department’s implementation of officer body cameras is going, so far, and about recent pushback from the ACLU about when and how much video footage should be released to the public. The ACLU has asked the Department of Justice not to contribute funding to the LAPD’s body cam program because the department will not be actively releasing video showing officer-involved shootings.

Here’s Chief Beck’s response:

Well, the ACLU is welcome to offer whatever recommendations they want to whoever they want, but I don’t agree with them, I don’t think the federal government will agree with them either. Body cameras, and I’m wearing one right now as we talk and you can see it, are an evidence-collection tool, just like detectives are, just like the coroner’s investigation is, just like many many pieces of an investigation. We don’t release investigations piecemeal. Body camera footage is available for review by the district attorney, by the city attorney, by a civil court, by a criminal court, and in cases of uses of force that rise to the appropriate level, by the civilian police commission. So there are multiple levels of review, and to merely put video into the public without further investigatory information I think is inappropriate.

Of course, the concern is that the department is going to release the video when it suits its interests, not so quick to do so when it makes the department the gatekeeper. How do you respond to that concern?

I respond to it by looking at my track record. I’ve been Chief for five years now. We’ve had in-car video for that whole time, and I haven’t released that video when it supports my position or when it is detrimental to my position or to the department. I use it as part of the investigation; it is not something I use to form public opinion. It’s an investigative tool. That is not to say that I would never release video. If the state of the city depends on it, then that would weigh heavily on my decision. But in the day-to-day incidents of policing. One of the things I like to remind folks is that when you call the Los Angeles Police Department, it’s not on your best day. It never is. We go to your house. There may have been a domestic incident. You may have been the victim of a crime. It could be any number of circumstances. None of which you want put in the public domain. At least, all of the victims I’ve ever talked to. And so we want to be very circumspect, we want to be the guardians of the public trust. When people interact with the police, I think they have a right to some privacy in that condition.

Posted in Charlie Beck, LAPD, PTSD, Veterans | 8 Comments »

Who Pays for Incarceration?

September 16th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


The average family with a locked-up loved one racks up $13,607 in debt related to their family member’s incarceration according to a new report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

To put that $13,607 deficit in perspective: 38% of survey participants’ yearly household incomes were less than $15,000.

Researchers for the report, which was also sponsored by Forward Together, Research Action Design, and other community partners, gathered information from a sampling of more than 2,000 people in 14 states. They also collected more than 1,000 surveys and held 34 focus group discussions to document families’ individual stories. Of the survey participants, 35% were in California.

One in three families reported falling into debt because of the high costs of accepting collect calls from and visiting their incarcerated loved one. Research shows that contact with family is extremely important for a former offender’s successful reentry into their community, yet many families simply cannot afford to visit loved ones locked up far from home, or pay the fees charged by prison phone service providers.

The high cost of incarceration on families affects women, in particular. Of those family members specifically responsible for the cost of court fees and fines, a whopping 83% were women. A fifth of respondents reported having to take out a loan to cover these costs. It doesn’t help that when a family member is locked up, it often comes with a loss of income into the household.

Two out of three families surveyed had difficulties meeting basic needs because of these fees, fines, and other incarceration-related expenses. And 70% of those families were caring for kids.

“This study confirms what society has ignored for too long,” says Alicia Walters, Movement Building Director at Forward Together, a leading organization in the project. “…that already vulnerable families and the women who sustain them are being plummeted into greater poverty, stress, and strain when their loved ones are incarcerated. Decades of bad policy have torn families apart, typically leaving mothers to make up the difference and bear the brunt of these costs.”

The crippling costs that their families are shouldering weighs on the inmates, too. “Everything that was put into bailing me out was everything my mother had in savings and she borrowed some money from my grandparents,” an ex-inmate from Oakland, CA said. She was back to working paycheck to paycheck. Eventually, about a year and a half after being locked up, my mother had to give up the house she loved and move back to an apartment.”

An incredible 44,000 state and local restrictions are placed on former offenders. The report recommends breaking down barriers to successful reentry—things like housing, government assistance, family reunification, employment, and education—will reduce recidivism and cut costs for families and the government.

Researchers also recommend moving away from a focus on punishment and toward rehabilitation, citing California’s Prop 47 as an example worthy of replication. The report also calls for alternatives to pre-trial detention.

“Shrinking the criminal justice system through sentencing reforms is not enough,” said Azadeh Zohrabi, National Campaigner at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “We must enact policies that restructure the system, remove barriers, and restore opportunities to create lasting change that reinvests in the families and communities most harmed by mass incarceration.”

Posted in prison, Rehabilitation | 4 Comments »

A Look at Controversial Law Enforcement Bills on CA Gov. Jerry Brown’s Desk…and One Education Bill

September 15th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


Several noteworthy bipartisan-supported criminal justice bills that have landed on CA Governor Jerry Brown’s desk would create new felony offenses. Critics say the bills would contribute to prison overcrowding (backstory on California prison overcrowding saga: here), and go against the national push for decriminalization and decarceration.

But the bills’ authors and supporters argue that while keeping California’s prison population down is important, these public safety measures are more important.

A bill by Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton) would bump possession of date rape drugs with intent to commit a sexual assault from a misdemeanor to a mandatory felony offense. The bill, SB 333, would mean that those found with such drugs would face up to three years behind bars.

“The malicious intent behind possessing and using ‘date rape’ drugs on another individual necessitates an aggressive response from law enforcement,” said Galgiani, urging the governor to sign SB 333. “Assaulting a person that has become incapacitated from being drugged is an especially despicable crime.”

Under SB 722, sex offenders on probation or parole who disable or remove their GPS ankle monitors with the intention of absconding would also face a three-year sentence. The bill was authored by Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel).

AB 256 aims to protect people who record law enforcement-involved incidents on their phones. The bill, authored by Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), would make video evidence tampering a felony offense punishable by a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Another bill, SB 347, would not reclassify any misdemeanors as felonies, or create new crimes, but would include two non-violent misdemeanors—gun theft and bringing ammunition to school—to the list of crimes disqualifying gun ownership. The bill was authored by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara).

Governor Brown, who has not hinted about which way he’s leaning, has until October 11 to sign or veto the measures.

The LA Times’ Paige St. Brown has more on the issue.


Last October, an Alameda County Superior Court judge issued a Temporary Restraining Order demanding the California Department of Education help the LAUSD fix scheduling issues at LA’s Thomas Jefferson High School that gave kids filler classes and sent them home early, throwing many off the track to graduation. (Read that story: here.)

Another meaningful bill passed by CA legislature, AB 1012, would prevent school districts from placing kids in pretend classes without any educational instruction for more than a week per semester (with some exceptions), which has been a problem for students in the LA Unified, Compton, and Oakland School Districts, among others.

“Continual reforms to California’s education system have not fixed an underlying cause of education inequity, equal time for learning,” said the bill’s author, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles). “It is time to ensure that all of our schools have the support they need to provide real classes to every student until they graduate.”

AB 1012 would also bar schools from assigning students to classes they have already completed and passed.

Posted in crime and punishment, Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Education | 2 Comments »

Crime Victims Work to Cure for Both Grief & Violence in Los Angeles….and Beyond

September 14th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

Legal Affairs journalist Mark Obbie, writing for Slate,
is on Part 5 of his exceptional series on victims of crime.

In this fifth installment, Obbie looks at a different side to victim advocacy in Los Angeles, one in which violence prevention, intervention, and treating trauma are the priority, rather than the traditional get-tough on crime movement that held sway in the state of California for decades.

But before we get to the latest chapter, here’s a rundown of Obbie’s first four installments.


Part 1 tells the story of a mother named Linda White whose daughter was raped and murdered by a pair of 15-year-olds. When White and her husband were first reeling with shock and grief at their daughters horrific death, they found some solace in groups like Parents of Murdered Children, which pushed for—among other things—tougher sentencing laws.

“Soon, though,” Obbie writes, “the meetings’ emphasis on punishment started feeling to White like a hollow promise. ‘I didn’t feel like anyone was talking to me about healing, about moving forward. It was just about getting even,’ she says.”

Obbie details how the groups the Whites joined initially were a part of the California victims’ rights movement that emerged in the 1970s and ’80s, which worked for more respect for victims, but also joined with law and order advocates to lobby for more retribution when it came to sentencing.

But being a crime victim isn’t a one-size-fits all experience. Over the next few decades, many victims of crime became uncomfortable with the traditional approach, and looked for other forms of healing and reform.

In the beginning, Obbie writes, the traditional crime victim lobbying organizations pretty much marginalized anyone who didn’t toe the party line. But, in the last decade, all that has begun to change.

Linda White representative of that wave of change. Along with her husband, she pulled away from the traditional route. Instead, White finished her college degree, got a master’s degree in psychology, and found the concept of restorative justice. This, in turn, led to her decide she wanted to meet her daughter’s killer….


In Part 2, Obbie tells of the daughter and brother of a murder victim, killed in a home break in. Both the daughter, Kelly Watts, and her uncle, John Sage, struggled painfully for years, like White, to find a method for dealing with their wounds.

Kelly got a doctorate in psychology, and now counsels patients coping with grief and trauma, including veterans.

John Sage found his own way of giving his grief purpose by starting a program called Bridges to Life, in which volunteers go into prisons and talk to inmates convicted of violent crimes to tell them of the effect of their actions, in an attempt to “awake in prisoners a sense of empathy for and accountability to their victims.”

What sets Bridges to Life apart from other inmate educational programs, writes Obbie, is its volunteer teaching staff, made up of many crime victims or, like Sage, murder victims’ survivors.

“These victim-counselors deliver a message of redemption through apology and atonement, using their own painful stories to drive home the devastating effects of crime on others.”

Bridges to Life is now one of the largest inmate program providers inside Texas’ huge prison system.


Part 3 is a story about William Otis, the very influential criminal justice expert who thinks that sentencing reform of any kind is a terrible idea. While conservatives with last names like Meese, Gingrich, and Koch are pushing hard to “pull back from the extremes that gave America its distinction as the world’s prison warden,” Otis, Obbie writes, has a simple but powerful message, “one that has held sway for four decades now.” It is this: Any retreat on harsh sentencing would be a threat to safety and an insult to victims….


In Part 4 we learn that New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has created a new executive-level post inside the NYPD that he hopes will repair the department’s broken relationship with black New Yorkers. The position is deputy commissioner for collaborative policing, and its first hand-picked occupant is Susan Herman, a longtime advocate for crime victims with a progressive approach to policing.

“Solving police departments’ race problems, Bratton has declared, is ‘the issue of our times,’ especially among citizens feeling ‘overpoliced and underprotected’—those citizens, in other words, at greatest risk of both imprisonment and victimization.”

One way to get an idea of Bratton’s view of changing police culture and making peace with citizens in a racially divided city, writes Obbie, is to revisit what he accomplished at the Los Angeles Police Department. “His experience there also hints at what Herman might accomplish in her role under Bratton….”


Finally, in Part 5 of his series on crime victims, Mark Obbie begins by telling the story of Laura Sanchez, a 34-year-old mother of four, who was killed in a drive-by gang shooting in 2007. The gangsters were aiming at somebody else. Actually, they had intended to shoot her eldest son, a 17-year-old honors student. The shooters were black, and were looking for Latino rivals. They didn’t know Sanchez’ son, but decided he would do.

Sanchez’s death had a fearful symmetry. Her own mother had been shot and killed nine years earlier in a drive-by shooting while waiting on the front porch for Sanchez and her family to arrive for Thanksgiving dinner.

Adela Barajas, Sanchez sister-in-law, a single mother, stepped in to help raise Sanchez’ children. (Barajas brother—Sanchez’ husband—was shot in yet another drive-by, but non-fatally.)

Barajas was the family member who fought with the city bureaucracy to get Sanchez’ kids and her husband family grief and trauma counseling. The services on offer were minimal—not even close to what the kids needed, especially the 17-year-old who’d watched his mother get shot in his sted.

In the hope of helping other victims get better treatment, Barajas started a community organization where she counsels grieving family members, and guides them in learning how to wrestle what they need from the victim services system, and gives teens a safe place to go after school. (At 5 a.m., Barajas goes to work in an office job. When she comes home in the afternoon, she does her volunteer work.)

She calls her organization Life After Uncivil Ruthless Acts—--LAURA.

In the eight years since the murder of her sister-in-law, Barajas has focused her work for LAURA on two realities of her community’s condition: trauma and danger.

Trauma, she has learned, devastates families if they fail to overcome a natural reluctance to confront their traumatic losses and fears—a process that is often difficult to do without help. The second reality, which is a twin to the first, is the “relentless conveyer belt” delivering children to gangs, drugs, hopelessness and violence unless someone intervenes.

Barajas and her fellow volunteers attempt to help traumatized families toward healing, while also being that “someone else” who intervenes with neighborhood kids in whatever way is needed.

Barajas is one of a growing number in Los Angeles who are working toward those twinned endeavors.

There is, for example, Aqeela Sherrills, a former Grape Street Crip who was one of the architects of the Blood-Crip truce of 1992. Sherrells was well-known for his violence prevention work by the time his son, Terrell Sherrills, who was home on vacation from college, was murdered in 2004 in a minor dispute at a party, where some young gangsters showed up unexpectedly. (WLA NOTE: A lot of people claim to have helped broker the 1992 truce. Aqeela is the real deal.)

Now Sherrills works for Californians for Safety and Justice, trying to bring additional intervention and prevention resources to Watts….

Along with Barajas and Sherills, Obbie profiles, The Southern California Cease Fire Committee, longtime gang interventionists who work, at times uneasily, with law enforcement; Karl Cruz, an activist in a faith-based program called Victory Outreach whose past as a gang member helps him connect with youth in his San Fernando Valley community; and Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries (who, obviously, we at WLA know very well, and value beyond measure).

Obbie describes how Boyle started the jobs and intervention program that would eventually turn into Homeboy Industries when, as a young paster at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights he had to bury so many kids who were victims of gang violence.

According to Obbie, Father Greg says that one of his biggest frustrations is explaining to skeptics why he’s making such an investment in rehabilitating gang members, when there are so many victims of their violence that need help, too. “Boyle points out that gang violence itself is the product of victimization. ‘You look at those ASPCA commercials,” he says, “and they’ll have a picture of a dog who’s quite shaken and trembling and beaten up, and it will say, “Abandoned, tortured, abused.” And there isn’t a single gang member who’s ever walked through these doors—not one in 26 years—about whom you couldn’t say all three. Abandoned, beaten, and abused. And so that’s the profile of why somebody joins a gang: trauma, despair, and mental health issues.’

Obbie also writes that Boyle has little patience for politicians who proclaim, that they “stand with the victims.”

“It’s so dumb,” Boyle says. “How is this at odds with that? It just isn’t. It’s just the least sophisticated take on crime at its sources….”

“Americans are conditioned to see the harsh punishment of offenders as the best form of justice for crime victims,” writes Obbie near the end of Chapter 5. But Barajas, Sherrills, Boyle and their allies see things differently. They focus on both victims and offenders, addressing trauma care, crime prevention, and rehabilitation of former prisoners—-instead of police crackdowns and long sentences. And more and more they work with police, not at odds with them. They “wade into the messy consequences of violence, drugs, imprisonment, and chronic poverty resolved to replace a war on crime with a quest for peace….”

Read the story.

Posted in criminal justice | 2 Comments »

Fear Wins as SB 443, the Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill, Goes Down in Flames

September 11th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

If one has been convicted of a crime, it makes sense that any ill gotten gains produced by one’s criminal behavior should be forfeit. Right? We can all understand that logic.

And if the police agencies that make the busts get to keep the proceeds from some or all of the seizures of dirty money and property, so much the better. It is, as they say, a win-win.

Okay, but what if you have not been convicted and, in many cases, not even charged with a crime, should law enforcement be allowed to grab your money and/or property—and keep it—-without ever having to prove that a crime has occurred?

Under existing California law, the answer is no.

But due to a loophole in federal law (that we reported on back in April), in California, that no answer can be magically transformed into a yes. Local police or sheriffs who suspect that you might be guilty of a crime—which in the case of cvil asset forfeiture usually means a drug crime—can operate under federal law, instead of state law, if they invite the feds to work with them. Then the cops may take your $$ and whatever else, and keep it to pump up their agencies’ coffers, even if you are never convicted. Ever if you were never charged.

The policy was originally designed in the 1980s to strike a blow against big-time drug traffickers by hopefully crippling them fiscally. But, over time, the broad nature of the federal statute proved to be an irresistible lure to many local police agencies in need of additional revenue. In this way, the perverse incentive of profit making led to abuse.

California’s SB 443, introduced by State Senator Holly Mitchell, (D-Los Angeles) along with a diverse bipartisan group of six co-authors, was designed to plug the loophole. And for a while it seemed that it would. After all, the bill had amassed an impressive array of supporters and it passed out of the state senate with only one vote of opposition.

(Democrat Connie Leyva, the representative for District 20, which includes Pomona, the city with one of the highest asset forfeiture rates in the state, cast the one lonely no vote. To be specific, Pomona scooped up more than $14 million in civil asset forfeiture bucks last year, which was more than the cities of Oakland, Long Beach, Fresno and Bakersfield combined.)

Most Californians don’t like all this conviction-free asset snatching. In, a research poll taken at the end of August, 76 percent of Californians were against asset forfeiture unless the person whose property was taken was convicted of a crime. According to the poll, Republicans and Democrats were equally against the actions that SB 443 was designed to prevent.

When the bill got to the assembly, however, things changed—polls be damned. As we reported yesterday, the bill’s opponents—in the form of law enforcement lobbying groups from all over the state—suddenly showed up in force in the hallways of the capital, telling lawmakers that the bill absolutely could not be passed because local police agencies would lose far too much money, and public safety would be disastrously compromised.

Now parse that out for a minute. California police and sheriff’s departments who engage in this overaggressive forfeiture practice (which not all agencies do) should be allowed to keep the money, property and belongings taken from citizens who have never been convicted of a crime, because otherwise said cop agencies can’t balance their budgets, criminals will run rife through the countryside, and the drug king-pins win.

Despite the illogic, assembly members began to be freaked.

In a last ditch effort to save the bill, Thursday morning before the vote Mitchell and SB 433′s other authors held a press conference on the steps of the state capitol.

“We have today the opportunity to restore a core principle of American justice, and that is that no person’s property can be taken from him or her without due process,” said Republican Assemblyman David Hadley of Manhattan Beach, who was one of the main co-authors of the bill. “In the last 30 years we have strayed from that principle…..We’re here to fight for justice.”

A co-author on the senate side, Republican Joel Anderson, of La Mesa in San Diego County, spoke with equal conviction. “We don’t have a problem if the person is charged and taken to trial,” he told reporters. “What we have a problem with is seizing assets and never charging the individual. It’s wrong, it goes against everything that America stands for. We certainly want to stop crime. We want to stop drugs being sold in our communities. But we can’t do it at the cost of our personal liberties.”

Holly Mitchell, who ran the press conference, spoke first and last.

“Fifteen years ago, the California legislature passed reform measures once it was clear that police were seizing innocent people’s property under civil asset forfeiture,” said Mitchell. “Those reforms are being sidestepped by California law enforcement in order to continue bounty hunting at the expense of innocent California residents.”

Like the the rest of the lawmakers at the press conference, Mitchell expressed strong support for law enforcement, “respect for what they do to keep us all safe,” and a commitment to making sure that police have the proper resources to do their work.

But, she said, she objected to the exaggerations and scare tactics being used by lobbyists. “Bank robberies and [the actions of] criminal drug cartels are crimes under current law and should be prosecuted as such. This bill does nothing to change that….” But, Mitchell concluded, “innocent until proven guilty is the law of this land.”

The presser drew a bunch of reporters yet, by then, it was really too late to undo the damage. .

When the state assembly voted, the tally wasn’t even close. SB 443 went down in flames in a vote of 44 to 21.

Fear and intimidation won.

Posted in Civil Liberties | 5 Comments »

LA County Supe Mike Antonovich Bizarrely Slams the ACLU—Again

September 11th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

On Tuesday at the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors’ meeting,
Sheriff Jim McDonnell had just finished giving an update regarding which of the reforms requested by the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence had been accomplished, and which still remained to be completed. When the sheriff had concluded, Supervisor Michael Antonovich said he had a question, his tone somewhat contentious.

“We were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the jail to see that everything was going well and to be the eyes of the public,” said Antonovich, “…and yet we had all of these allegations which were proven to be factual because of convictions that have taken place. I would like to know how much money did we pay the ACLU to observe the conditions of the jail, and what did they actually do to stop some of the abuses that we’ve had people convicted for that occurred during their watch.”

It was an odd moment.

The rough translation seemed to be that, according to Antonovich, the County of Los Angeles was paying the ACLU many thousands of dollars to report to the supervisors on abuses in the jails. And now those abuses have resulted in a bunch of convictions in federal and in civil court, thus proving their validity, and so what was the ACLU doing all this time to prevent these abuses that they seem not to have noticed?

First there was the bizarre fact that Antonovich seemed to think that the board had hired and had elected to pay the ACLU to monitor the jails. (Mr. Supervisor, you do know that, for several decades now, the ACLU has had monitors in Men’s Central Jail by order of a federal judge, right? Rutherford v. Baca? Does the case name sound at all familiar? If not try its predecessor, Rutherford v. Block, or its predecessor, Rutherford v. Pitchess.)

And then there is the fact that the ACLU puts out very large detailed reports every year, some times twice a year, that the supervisors all receive, yet that Antonovich, it seems, has pointedly ignored.

For instance:

* There is the ACLU’s 2009 report detailing systemic problems with the treatment of inmates with mental illness, and also about excessive use of force, the use of solitary confinement as punishment, and a bunch of other cheery stuff.

That same year, there was a companion report that suggested ways to make things better. (This report, Mr. Supervisor, you might want to note, described a lot of the issues that turned up most recently in that court ordered agreement with the DOJ that you and the rest of the board signed off on this summer.)

* A year later, in ACLU’s May 2010 report they laid out an array of systemic abuses in the jails, including excessive force, illegal retaliation against inmates, severe overcrowding particularly in Men’s Central Jail, and inadequate mental health care.

* In September of that same year, the ACLU wrote yet another report about excessive force and retaliation by deputies against inmates.

One of the really interesting things about this report was that it included among the multi-dozen declarations by inmates, two that described beatings by Deputy Fernando Luviano. Deputy Luviano, in case you don’t remember, was one of the three former LASD members convicted by the feds of beating a jail visitor and then covering up their wrongdoing by lying about it and then falsifying criminal charges against the victim of the beatings. Nice guy that Luviano.

* The next year, in September of 2011, the ACLU folks were tired of being ignored by Mr. Antonovich, among others, so they pulled out all the stops with their newest report entitled Cruel and Usual Punishment, How a Savage Gang of Deputies Controls LA County Jails. This time, in addition to the more than 60 sworn declarations by inmates, they also included statements from a bunch of civilians, including a famous film producer, a chaplain, and a former FBI agent. In some cases, the civilians and inmates described the abuse they had witnessed or experienced on video, all of which was both dramatic and disturbing. The NY Times picked it up, as did other national news outlets. Rachel Maddow even showed some of the video clips on her news broadcast.

(And what was your response, Mr. Supervisor? Did you become concerned? Meet with the ACLU? Ask for more information? Suggest action?)

Although Antonovich reportedly again ignored the ACLU’s newest offering, the feds did not. In fact the declaration by the jail chaplain, who described a harrowing beatings by deputies, formed the basis for another of the federal criminal indictments.

*There was the 2012 report, which had a lot about a pattern of inflicting severe head injuries by deputies in use of force incidents…

*And then the filing of the Rosas, the massive class action lawsuit that resulted in a brand new landmark settlement that includes more court-ordered monitoring….

There are additional reports and letters in that same vein. But those are the relevant broad strokes.

So, yeah, the ACLU was paying attention. But for a long time, it seemed that no one else was.

(You’re welcome, Mr. Supervisor.)

NOTE: Peter Eliasberg, the legal director of the Southern California ACLU, sent the supervisor and the rest of the board a letter in which he described what I’ve mentioned above, however in better and more specific detail.

Posted in jail | 3 Comments »

Bills to Pay Attention to as CA Closes in on the End of the Legislative Session

September 10th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


A bill to block police agencies from abusing civil asset forfeiture has come up against major opposition from law enforcement. Asset forfeiture laws allow government entities to keep money, cars, real estate, and other property that may be associated with a crime (usually a drug crime). 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. SB 443, introduced by and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), would have only allowed law enforcement agencies to seize assets post-conviction, even after legislators weakened the bill to give it a better chance of passing.

But law enforcement groups went to battle against the bill this week, storming the capitol and urging legislators to pull their support or further amend the legislation, which they say will result in an annual budgetary loss in upwards of $80 million for CA law enforcement. And the US Department of Justice has stepped in to say that if the bill passes into law, CA may lose out on federal funding from an asset forfeiture program.

Today, legislators will take a final vote on SB 443 before it either heads to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, or more likely, the garbage bin.

In his column, San Diego Union Tribune’s Steven Greenhut preemptively laments the bill’s demise. Greenhut says that if the bill dies, “California police agencies and district attorneys don’t care about justice. They’re just about the money.” Here’s how it opens:

…When police agencies use “civil asset forfeiture” to take private property, they are not allowed to build their budgets around such takings. The funds are supposed to support extra programs – not supplant current dollars. That’s so agencies don’t replace the pursuit of justice with the pursuit of cash.

Unfortunately, forfeiture has become a widely abused practice. Instead of targeting drug kingpins as intended, police sometimes target average citizens who haven’t been convicted or even accused of a crime. For instance, officials tried to take a $1.5 million Anaheim office building because one of the owners’ tenants was accused of illegally selling a $37 in marijuana.

There are many cases of police pulling over a driver and finding a large sum of cash – and they often keep the cash even if there’s no evidence it was tied to a crime. It’s clear why this happens. A recent report shows a number of Southern California cities rely on forfeiture cases to fund their budgets. If they can take it, they will. And to avoid California’s tougher restrictions on these takings, police partner with the feds and split the loot.

SB 443 is a bipartisan effort to rein in the abuses. Mainly, it required a conviction before police can take property. It also was designed to stop police from bringing in the feds to circumvent state law and make it easier for people to contest a taking. It forces police to use this fearsome tool as intended – to target criminal enterprises – rather than to grab the cars of people caught in a minor offense.

The bill is scheduled for a final vote on Thursday, but law-enforcement lobbies are swarming the Capitol. Police chiefs are calling legislators. Some legislators from both parties are reportedly getting wobbly.


Gov. Jerry Brown signed an important bill to protect juvenile justice system-involved immigrant children from being deported by banning the unauthorized disclosure of kids’ records to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement without a court order.

The Voice of OC’s YVette Cabrera (whose recent series explored the hardships of undocumented boys navigating the juvenile justice system) has more on the bill and its implications. Here’s a clip:

In short, the new law makes it clear that the long-standing practice by some probation agencies in California of referring juveniles suspected of being undocumented to immigration authorities is illegal.

The controversial practice was contested for years by legal scholars, attorneys and immigrant youth advocates who said the referrals violated the state’s existing law protecting juvenile confidentiality as well as the constitutional rights of vulnerable youth in the juvenile justice system, including those with mental health and developmental issues.

Probation officials across the state — from Orange County to Santa Barbara to San Mateo — have disputed these assertions. They’ve claimed the referrals are legally sound, citing a federal law that not only protects their right to communicate and cooperate with immigration authorities, but which they said also supersedes state law.

San Francisco attorney Angie Junck with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which helped draft AB 899, said she was relieved with the outcome.

“We are extremely happy and grateful for the leadership in Sacramento that understood that we need to uphold the law for everybody in the state regardless of immigration status,” Junck said. “We understand that there’s a lot of work ahead, but this is an important milestone in upholding due process and equal protection for all minors in our state.”

Junck said she plans to share the legislation with national legal and immigration networks and hopes that California’s efforts will be replicated in other states.


When foster kids are transferred out of their home counties, they face months-long interruptions in much-needed mental health services. The problem is that, under current law, instead of following the kids, the responsibility (and funding) to provide mental health treatment remains with their home county.

AB 1299, introduced by Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), which would have ensured foster kids transferred outside of their home counties received continued mental health services in their new counties, was tabled until next year.

Writing for the Chronicle of Social Change, Patrick Gardner, director of the Young Minds Advocacy Project, has more on why AB 1299 failed to make it into the governor’s hands. Here’s a clip:

What is clear is that lobbyists for three county-centered entities — the California State Association of Counties, the California Behavioral Health Directors Association and the California Welfare Directors Association — opposed two critical parts of the solution. They opposed having funding follow the child to the child’s county of residence. Instead, the counties proposed giving half of the cost of services (the federal reimbursement half) to the county that provides treatment.

They also opposed having the foster parent, or the person who is responsible for making mental health decisions for the child, decide whether to transfer mental health care responsibility. Instead, the counties wanted social workers and probation officers to be gatekeepers.

It’s absurd to think that a system fix that covers only half the cost of care would work. It is also unreasonable to put responsibility for making system-wide mental health policy on individual social workers or probation officers, something that is clearly outside of their wheelhouse.

In short, it appears that the county lobbyists opposed the bill because it would have changed business as usual to ensure that foster youth who are sent to live in another county are no longer discriminated against when seeking mental health care. It’s a classic case of taking care of the system instead of taking care of the kids.

When one talks to individual social workers and probation officers, or even directors of children’s services or mental health care programs, they universally favor shifting responsibility for care to the county that can best deliver treatment and making sure full funding is there to pay for the services provided.

A package of three weakened, but still important, bills to curb doctors over-prescribing of dangerous psychotropic medications to vulnerable foster kids, has passed through the Assembly and is headed to the Senate for a final vote. (If you haven’t, read Karen De Sá’s powerful five-part series on the excessive and unchecked over-drugging of California’s foster children.)

California Healthline has more on the individual bills.

Another noteworthy foster care bill, SB 731, would give guidance to social workers placing transgender foster kids to ensure they are placed in safe, welcoming homes. The bill, by Sens. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Jim Beall (D-San Jose), has been passed by both houses and awaits the governor’s signature.

The bill “provides critical guidance to child welfare professionals by making clear that all children in foster care have the right to placements that are consistent with their gender identity,” said Shannan Wilber, the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ Youth Policy Director.

A bill by Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge), SB 445, which is also on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, would ensure children who become homeless can continue to attend their schools of origin.

Posted in Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (Jerry), Foster Care, juvenile justice, LGBT | No Comments »

New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s Law Enforcement Legacy

September 9th, 2015 by Taylor Walker

Ken Auletta has a not-to-be-missed profile of New York police commissioner (and former LAPD Chief) William J. Bratton in this week’s issue of the New Yorker.

In the mid-90′s, Bill Bratton stepped in as New York’s police commissioner the first time. The city’s crime rates plummeted under Bratton.

Bratton attributes much of the drop in crime to the department’s adoption of Broken Windows, a controversial method of policing which focuses on quality-of-life crimes like tagging and public drunkenness, as a way to prevent more serious crimes. But critics of Bratton and his Broken Windows policing say the downward crime trend wasn’t just happening in NYC. It was happening in many major cities across the US. Detractors also call Broken Windows a discriminatory practice that targets poor men and women of color, and can actually exacerbate tensions between law enforcement and those they serve.

After two years, in 1996, Bratton was ousted by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. After working in the private sector for several years, Bratton spent 2002 to 2009 in Los Angeles as the city’s chief of police. Under Bratton’s reign, a department mired in misconduct and use of force scandals underwent a fundamental culture change.

Bratton took the role of NY’s police commissioner for the second time, last year. The commissioner set to work improving law enforcement-community relations, in part by cutting down on the department’s controversial use of stop-and-frisk, which exploded under the watch of Bratton’s predecessor Ray Kelly.

Despite some opposition, Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio stand firm in their support of Broken Windows as a crime reduction tool.

When the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta asked Bratton about his legacy, the commissioner said he still hopes to “become the most significant person in policing in the country.”

Here’s a clip, but do go read the rest:

One day recently in a courtroom at Manhattan’s Criminal Court Building, at 100 Centre Street, thirty-one defendants who had been arrested for misdemeanors appeared before the judge. Only one was white—a homeless man. Two of the defendants had been apprehended the day before as trespassers for using a Port Authority bathroom that the police said required that they show a bus ticket. “They threw me against the wall, completely searched me, patted and frisked me in front of all these people, and threw cuffs on me,” Wendell Moore, a thirty-two-year-old man and a father of seven children, told me. The police found a cell phone on him that they claimed was not his. He spent the night in jail, and the next day was charged and released. “Other people going to that bathroom they didn’t stop,” Moore said. “They only stopped two black kids. They didn’t know who had tickets.”

Ed McCarthy, a longtime Legal Aid attorney, told me that broken-windows arrests have a way of steering people into the criminal-justice system. Clients who are younger than Moore often plead guilty, he said, because the alternative is worse: “You have a kid who’s nineteen, twenty years of age. He’s no longer eligible for youthful-offender status. He’s now jumped a turnstile for the third or fourth time, and the D.A.’s policy is ‘No, he’s had his chance. He’s going to be arrested or stay in jail because he’s had a couple of warrants.’ And, of course, if you’re nineteen and the choice is plead guilty, get a record, and go home, or risk going into Rikers for four or five days or even longer, what would you do? You obviously are going to plead guilty.” A criminal record of any kind can prevent a person from getting a job. And, because broken-windows singles out “recidivists,” convictions can quickly accumulate.

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York branch of the A.C.L.U., said of Bratton’s defense of broken-windows, “There is insufficient concern that a generation of young people, particularly young men of color, have grown up thinking that their legal rights aren’t worth anything, that their dignity isn’t worth anything, that their freedom isn’t worth anything.” She went on, “That’s a huge omission. It doesn’t speak of racial animus. It speaks of a race-bound kind of tunnel vision about how we look at social policy and at policing policy in particular.”

In April, de Blasio again expressed support for the broken-windows approach. “I want to emphasize, my vision of quality-of-life policing and my vision related to the broken-windows strategy is the same as Commissioner Bratton’s,” he said. But many left-leaning activists struggle to understand his reasoning. “De Blasio can’t credibly present himself as a progressive dedicated to equality when broken-windows is both a violation of human rights and a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ writ large,” Robert Gangi, the director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, and a longtime critic of broken-windows, told me. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, has called for low-level offenses such as public urination and turnstile-jumping to be decriminalized. Bratton has opposed such efforts. However, last November, the police department reduced the penalty for the possession of small amounts of marijuana from an arrest to a summons.

In August of last year, Bratton publicly conceded that the video showing the choke hold that led to the death of Eric Garner was “certainly disturbing.” And although Bratton maintains that community policing has always been central to his work, his closest advisers have acknowledged the need to adjust the department’s policing strategies. “The police environment has changed,” Robert Wasserman says. In 1994, when Bratton began his first tenure as N.Y.P.D. commissioner, crime was rampant, and the issues that he addressed revolved around what Wasserman called “policing solutions,” and consulting the community was not the highest priority. Today, Wasserman added, Bratton has to overcome the community’s “sense that cops only want to arrest people.” Jeffrey Fagan, of Columbia, told me, “When people aren’t in love with the police, they don’t help the police, they don’t coöperate with the police. Communities are the experts on crime, not the police; they know who the bad guys are.”

“One of the biggest challenges facing me now,” Bratton said, “is to continue to advocate for, and continue to implement, broken-windows, quality-of-life policing, because I think it’s essential to how the city feels about itself, and it has an impact on over-all crime. We should not make the mistake of my predecessor on the stop-question-and-frisk issue. We have to insure that the amount of it is appropriate to the issues that we’re facing, and be sure that it’s being done constitutionally, and that it’s being done compassionately, and by that I mean respectfully.”

Bratton often says that the police are “sales reps” and citizens are “customers.” At a buffet breakfast at the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Jamaica, Queens, last February, he told the audience that the N.Y.P.D. “needs to face the hard truth that in our most vulnerable neighborhoods we have a problem with citizen satisfaction. We are often abrupt, sometimes rude, and that’s unacceptable.” Subsequently, Bratton told me, “We want cops to be able to see the people they’re policing. In this department, and maybe in a lot of American policing today, unfortunately, too many members don’t treat people appropriately.”

In late June, in an effort to improve customer service, Bratton unveiled a new neighborhood-policing plan called “One City: Safe and Fair—Everywhere,” which assigns the same officers to the same areas (rather than shifting them around) and has them spend a third of their shifts on foot, talking with residents, merchants, and community leaders. Since January, all officers are required to take a three-day training course each year, one day of which has been devoted to “Smart Policing,” which aims to improve how the police interact with citizens.

Posted in Bill Bratton | No Comments »

The Life-Saving Art of Fabian Debora

September 8th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

“Art saved my life.”

These days my friend Fabian Deborah says those words in front of a wide variety of audiences. Sometimes the audiences are well-heeled adults at a fine art event. Other times Fabian might talk to a class of local elementary school children who, at first, stare at him nervously, like deer getting ready to bolt. But gradually his ability to be absolutely present with them starts to settle the kids down. By the end of class, a surprising number of students have painted pictures representing traumatic events in their lives that their teachers knew nothing about.

Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1975, Fabian’s family migrated west when he was five-years-old to what was then Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, the largest public housing project west of the Mississippi. His mother found low-paying piece work in a downtown factory sewing dolls. His heroin addicted father earned money transporting drugs from Mexico, a profession that cycled him in and out of prison.

During the height of the Los Angeles gang crisis, Pico-Aliso, as the mile-square area of the projects was called, was the home to six warring gangs, making it the most violent neighborhood in the city, according to LAPD stats of the time. Gang shootings took place almost nightly.

Fabian, who was a thin, sensitive kid, also coped with violence inside his household on the occasions that his dad happened to be home. When the hitting began, the boy would hide himself away with the small notebook he was never without, and he would draw. The worlds he created on paper became his one dependable form of protection from the emotional hurricaines that so often bore down on him.

At age 13, he found additional refuge in the streets by joining one of the Eastside’s most infamous street gangs. His street name was Spade. “You join a gang when you lose hope,” he explains. “I lost hope early.”

I got to know Fabian in the early 1990′s when I was researching a book about gangs in the projects, and the work of Father Greg Boyle. By that time, Fabian was trying to pull away from gang life and was starting to transition from spray-painting graffiti to working on color-drenched murals.

He had also begun smoking crystal meth to dull the pain that even a casual observer could see he carried. And, like his father before him, Fabian cycled in and out of juvenile, then adult lock-ups.

Hoping to steer Fabian’s obvious talent in a positive direction, Father Greg introduced him to Wayne Healy, a prominent Los Angeles-based Chicano-Irish muralist and painter. Healy liked the young man and took him under his wing as an apprentice. Through the relationship, Fabian began to discover himself as an artist. Even so, he couldn’t seem to shake whatever psychic injuries his early years had embedded. And he couldn’t shake the drugs.

In 1995, Fabian’s self-loathing became so overwhelming that, on one awful afternoon, he decided to kill himself. On impulse, he choose a particularly messy strategy. He sprinted into the oncoming lanes of traffic on the I 5 freeway assuming he’d be run down by some commuter going 70, and that would be that. Through blind luck, however, he made it across three lanes unscathed. But then, in lane four, he saw a turquoise Chevy Suburban coming at him. As he stared at the shiny grill of the truck bearing down on him, Fabian had a sort of religious experience in which some greater force somehow got him to the center divider, allowing the Suburban to whoosh by without doing harm.

The near-fatal freeway dash became a turning point. Fabian recommitted himself to painting. Then, a year later, he got clean and sober for good. A year still after that, in early July of 2007, I saw him for the first time in a decade. He showed up at a poetry reading that was part of a writing project I was involved with, in which some of his former homeboys were participating. “I’ve been completely clean for a year,” he told me after I spotted him at the back of the room and rushed to greet him. “I’m painting. I’m doing good.”

Indeed he was. And his work was remarkable.

Fast forward to today. Now that he’s saved himself through art, Fabian shows others how to find their own refuge and healing through the transformative power of creative expression. He gives talks about what painting can accomplish to at-risk teenagers in Chile, to transfixed students at Otis College of Art and Design, to the struggling former homeboys and homegirls who show up at his new downtown LA art studio.

He also has a day job as the Director of Substance Abuse Services and programing for Homeboy Industries, where he helps former gangsters in trouble with drugs save themselves through more prosaic means.

With the rest of his waking hours, Fabian spends time with his kids, and works on his extraordinary paintings, which have grown increasingly recognized for the way in which they illuminate the world that shaped him, a world that gave him both his wounds and his art.

“Drugs were my addiction,” Fabian told a class recently. “I would suffer without them. Now art is my addiction and I suffer when I don’t paint. So what do I do when I’m struggling? I paint. It’s something that no one can take away.”

This past week, a wonderfully-written long-read cover article for LA Weekly, by Lisa Whittemore, celebrates Fabian Debora’s teaching, his artwork and his story. Here are some clips:

Two stories above the intersection, behind a reinforced steel door and two deadbolts, Fabian Debora’s Skid Row art studio, La Classe Art Academy, reflects the chaos and cacophony of the streetscape below.

Debora clicks on overheard lights. What was outside is now in: the graffiti, the drifters and the gangsters, and a cross-section of those who call downtown Los Angeles home.

The sense of having been swallowed by the city is uncanny. Debora’s studio is a cornucopia of these streets, past and present. In one painting Einstein, grinning mischievously, is tagging “L.A.” on a wall; a skateboard deck featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs above a desk littered with paint pens; a memorial shrine with religious candles and dead roses is tucked in a corner. Smoke from a fresh sage bundle is curling into the air.

Canvases are propped on easels and stacked against one another on the floor. On one, a brown-skinned girl leans in against her older brother on the streets of Tijuana, smiling impishly. On another, Debora, arms outstretched, in fiery oranges and reds, stands life-size against a chain-link fence, offering his view of the Los Angeles skyline to his son. This studio space is the inside of Debora’s mind.


Every Tuesday from 9 to 11 a.m., Debora opens his studio to clients from Homeboy Industries, the nonprofit job-services organization that works with ex-cons and former gangsters, and to teenagers from Learning Works, a charter school associated with Homeboy. Debora says the art academy is in its fetal stage, “barely getting its breath,” but the students roll in.

“I carry many feathers,” Debora explains. “A gang member, a drug addict, a felon, but I have redeemed myself through the power of art. It has given me my self-worth.” He pauses, then adds, “I feel it is my responsibility to use my art as a vehicle in helping kids and even adults to heal and recognize value in themselves and their surroundings.”

They come because they want to. Attendance is not mandatory. Three folding tables, covered in tagged-up butcher paper, brushes and paints, fill the studio. An easel with the day’s exercise faces the seats. The level of the students’ capabilities varies, yet no one hesitates. They stroll in, get seated and begin working on their projects. The Isley Brothers harmonize in the background and heads bob.

Debora doesn’t dictate instructions; he simply makes himself available and waits to be asked for guidance. The students thrive in an atmosphere where they are not judged and have nothing to prove.

“Whoever shows up on any given day is who I work with; it happens organically,” he says. “I’m not looking to work with the professionals, I want the stumblers.” When Debora laughs, the right side of his mouth hitches up in a wistful, childlike grin.

Debora has come a long way from tagging his moniker, Spade, on the L.A. River’s bed. He has crossed oceans and borders, visiting Rome and various countries in Central and South America, telling his dark origin story and rendering his images of Los Angeles. His artwork has been featured in exhibits, both solo and group, across the country.

In 2013 Debora painted a mural on the ceiling of the American Airlines terminal at LAX to celebrate the opening of a Homeboy Café. Macy’s has hired him to live-paint murals for events and conferences. From 2007 to 2012, Debora worked as a teaching assistant to Ysamur Flores-Peña at the Otis College of Art and Design. Edward James Olmos awarded him a scholarship and featured Debora’s story in a 2007 documentary, Voces de Cambio. Since 2008, the walls of Homegirl Café on Bruno Street have rotated his works.

People in the art community focus on the relevance and meaning behind Debora’s art. Isabel Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, a nonprofit that preserves, documents and restores the murals of L.A., says, “I have seen his techniques grow and expand over time. Every day he is more accomplished than the day before. … Choosing art as his way to express himself, using his brush, the walls and the canvas, Fabian is writing our history.”

Williams came to the United States in 1973 from Chile. In 2012, she was approached by the U.S. Embassy in Chile about sending someone there to speak with at-risk youth, and she immediately thought of Debora. He traveled to Chile, spoke with government officials, facilitated art workshops and met with kids.

“Fabian made a tremendous impact on those kids in Chile, not only as an artist or a mentor but as a human being,” Williams says. “He showed with his art how it is possible to transform absolutely any experience.”

Debora saunters through his studio with his hands in the pockets of his creased Levis. Bending over a student, he whispers in Spanish about las oportunidades de arte. His inky black hair is meticulously braided and hangs between his broad shoulders. Before he answers a question, he always pauses and looks off to the side. His replies are soft, yet every word is weighted. His eyes are almost black, smooth and wet like glass. They miss nothing. The same skill set that served him on the street serves him in class. He’s watchful, aware and anticipatory.

Read on. It’s worth it. Fabian Debora is the real deal.

Posted in American artists, American voices, Gangs, Homeboy Industries | 1 Comment »

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