Tag Archives: attorney general

Attorney General offers ‘national strategy’ to combat human trafficking

As part of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced the Justice Department’s National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking , as required by the 2015 Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act.

In addition to this new national strategy, every year, the attorney general also submits the Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons, which details the programs and activities carried out by all federal agencies and sets forth recommended goals for the upcoming year.

The most recent report, for FY 2015, is available here.

The department also has launched www.justice.gov/humantrafficking as a central destination to learn more about the department’s efforts to combat the scourge of human trafficking.

“Human trafficking is one of the most devastating crimes that we confront,” said Lynch.  “The National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking summarizes the work that our many components and our U.S. Attorney’s Offices are doing to better help survivors and target traffickers. These efforts encourage increased collaboration within the department as well as between the department and our partners in order to build on our successes as we prepare to take on the work that remains.”

The National Strategy sets forth plans to enhance coordination within the department and to develop specific strategies within each federal district to stop human trafficking.

The National Strategy includes the following:

  • An assessment of the threat presented by human trafficking based on FBI case information.
  • An account of the work of the department’s components that are most extensively involved in anti-trafficking efforts, including the Civil Rights Division’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit; the Criminal Division’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section; the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices; the FBI; and various grant-making components within the Office of Justice Programs.
  • A description of the district-specific strategies developed by each U.S. Attorney’s Office.
  • A discussion of human trafficking and anti-trafficking efforts in Indian Country.
  • Information about annual spending dedicated to preventing and combating human trafficking.
  • A description of plans to encourage cooperation, coordination and mutual support between the private and non-profit sector and the department to combat human trafficking.

On the web

To learn more about the report and the department’s efforts to combat human trafficking visit www.justice.gov/humantrafficking.

Ahead of hearing, ACLU releases analysis of Sessions’ civil liberties record

The American Civil Liberties Union this week released its analysis of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions’ record on civil liberties issues ahead of the Jan. 10-11 confirmation hearing. Sessions is Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general.

The ACLU report examines Sessions’ handling of voting rights, police reform, immigration, mass incarceration, religious liberty, LGBT equality, privacy and surveillance, torture, abortion and sexual assault issues.

“The American people deserve a full vetting of Sen. Jeff Sessions’ record if he is to become the nation’s top law enforcement official,” ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero said in a press statement.

He continued, “If the Senate does their job well, Congress and the American public will know if Sessions is the most qualified person to be the 84th attorney general of the United States of America. All Americans must have confidence that the highest law enforcement official in the country will protect them from discrimination and injustice. Trump and Sessions’ commitment to ‘law and order’ must embrace justice.”

This is from the introduction to the ACLU analysis on Sessions’ record:

More than thirty years ago, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, was in a similar situation as he will be on January 10 when he goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing. Tapped by President Ronald Reagan for a federal judgeship in 1986, Sessions sat before the very same committee for his previous confirmation hearing. Things did not go well.

Witnesses accused Sessions, then the U.S. attorney for the southern district of Alabama, of repeatedly making racially insensitive and racist remarks. Thomas Figures — a former assistant U.S. attorney in Mobile, Alabama, who worked for Sessions — told the Senate Judiciary Committee that his former boss said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was okay until he learned members smoked pot. Sessions said the comment wasn’t serious. Figures, an African-American man, also alleged that Sessions called him “boy” and told him “to be careful what you say to white folks.” Sessions denied this, too. 

But Figures wasn’t alone. Visiting Mobile, Alabama, from Washington, D.C., a Justice Department lawyer heard Sessions call the ACLU “un-American” and “communist-inspired.” He also heard Sessions opine that ACLU and the NAACP “did more harm than good when they were trying to force civil rights down the throats of people who were trying to put problems behind them.” Sessions said he didn’t recall saying that but admitted he could be “loose with my tongue” at the office. Not surprisingly, a civil rights coalition of over 160 groups and members of the Alabama Legislature separately opposed the Sessions’ nomination and asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote no on the young attorney from Hybart, Alabama. In a bipartisan vote, committee members refused to confirm Sessions, making him just the second judicial nominee in 49 years to be denied confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee at that time.

Sessions recovered well. In 1994, he was elected as Alabama’s attorney general. Two years later, the people of Alabama sent him to the U.S. Senate. He’s never lost a reelection campaign since, and now he’s poised to become the head of the Department of Justice. But the same concerns that doomed Sessions’ shot at becoming a federal judge three decades ago continue to stalk him today, only they have been made more troubling when you add Sessions’ Senate record to the mix.

The ACLU as a matter of long-standing policy does not support or oppose candidates for elected or appointed office. However, questions regarding police reform, voting rights, immigrants’ rights, criminal justice reform, Muslims’ rights, racial justice, LGBT rights, women’s rights, privacy rights, torture, and abortion rights must be asked of and answered by Jeff Sessions if the Senate is to be discharged of its duty and if Americans are to be fully informed of how the nominee is to serve as the nation’s highest law enforcement officer. The attorney general must be an individual who will steadfastly enforce the U.S. Constitution and protect the civil rights and liberties of all Americans equally.

On the Web

The report can be found at https://www.aclu.org/report/report-confirmation-sessions.

Warren wants to pull pot shops out of banking limbo

As pot shops sprout in states that have legalized the drug, they face a critical stumbling block — lack of access to the kind of routine banking services other businesses take for granted.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, is leading an effort to make sure vendors working with legal marijuana businesses, from chemists who test marijuana for harmful substances to firms that provide security, don’t have their banking services taken away.

It’s part of a wider effort by Warren and others to bring the burgeoning $7 billion marijuana industry in from a fiscal limbo she said forces many shops to rely solely on cash, making them tempting targets for criminals.

After voters in Warren’s home state approved a November ballot question to legalize the recreational use of pot, she joined nine other senators in sending a letter to a key federal regulator, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, calling on it to issue additional guidance to help banks provide services to marijuana shop vendors.

Twenty-eight states have legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational use.

Warren, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, said there are benefits to letting marijuana-based businesses move away from a cash-only model.

“You make sure that people are really paying their taxes. You know that the money is not being diverted to some kind of criminal enterprise,” Warren said recently. “And it’s just a plain old safety issue. You don’t want people walking in with guns and masks and saying, ‘Give me all your cash.””

A spokesman for the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network said the agency is reviewing the letter.

There has been some movement to accommodate the banking needs of marijuana businesses.

Two years ago, the U.S. Department of the Treasury gave banks permission to do business with legal marijuana entities under some conditions. Since then, the number of banks and credit unions willing to handle pot money rose from 51 in 2014 to 301 in 2016.

Warren, however, said fewer than 3 percent of the nation’s 11,954 federally regulated banks and credit unions are serving the cannabis industry.

Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade organization for 1,100 marijuana businesses nationwide, said access to banking remains a top concern.

“What the industry needs is a sustainable solution that services the entire industry instead of tinkering around the edges,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to be fully in favor of legalized marijuana to know that it helps no one to force these businesses outside the banking system.”

Sam Kamin, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law who studies marijuana regulation, said there’s only so much states can do on their own.

“The stumbling block over and over again is the federal illegality,” he said.

The federal government lumps marijuana into the same class of drugs as heroin, LSD and peyote. Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration has essentially turned a blind eye to state laws legalizing the drug, and supporters of legalizing marijuana hope Republican President-elect Donald Trump will follow suit.

Trump officials did not respond to a request for comment. During the presidential campaign, Trump said states should be allowed to legalize marijuana and has expressed support for medicinal use. But he also has sounded more skeptical about recreational use, and his pick for attorney general, Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, is a stern critic.

Some people in the marijuana industry say the banking challenges are merely growing pains for an industry evolving from mom-and-pop outlets.

Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care, one of the nation’s largest providers of medical marijuana products, said it’s up to marijuana businesses to make sure their financial house is in order.

“It’s not just as simple as asking the banks to open their doors,” Vita said. “The industry also needs to develop a set of standards that are acceptable to the banks.”

NAACP: Block Sessions for attorney general

NAACP president and CEO Cornell William Brooks issued the following statement opposing the nomination of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general:

America yet stands at the beginning of presidential administration but also in the middle of a Twitter age civil rights movement based on old divisions.

U.S. Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is among the worst possible nominees for attorney general amid some of the worst times for civil rights in recent memory.

Following a divisive presidential campaign, hate crimes rising, police videos sickening the stomach while quickening the conscience, protesters marching in the streets and politicians mouthing the myth of voter fraud while denying the reality of voter suppression, Senator Sessions is precisely the wrong man to lead the Justice Department.

The NAACP, as the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, opposes the nomination of Senator Sessions to become U.S. attorney general for the following reasons:

• a record on voting rights that is unreliable at best and hostile at worse;

• a failing record on other civil rights;

• a record of racially offensive remarks and behavior;

• and dismal record on criminal justice reform issues.

Voting Rights

Senator Sessions supported the re-authorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2006, but called the bill “a piece of intrusive legislation” just months earlier. Sessions has consistently voted in favor of strict voter ID laws that place extra burdens on the poor and residents of color, and drive voter suppression across the country. When the Supreme Court struck down federal protections in 2012 that prevented thousands of discriminatory state laws from taking effect since 1965, Sessions declared it was “a good thing for the South.” As a prosecutor in 1985, Sessions maliciously prosecuted a former aide to Martin Luther King for helping senior citizens file absentee ballots in Alabama.

Rather than enforcing voting rights protections, Senator Sessions has instead made a career of seeking to dismantle them. When Shelby County v. Holder gutted the protections of the VRA, Senator Sessions cheered. For decades, he has pursued the rare and mystical unicorn of voter fraud, while turning a blind eye to the ever-growing issue of voter suppression.

While Senator Sessions’ historical record on civil rights remains one of dismay, it is his unrepentant stance against the vote that remains our issue. The threat of voter suppression is not a historical but current challenge. At least 10 times in the past 10 months, the NAACP defended voting rights against coordinated campaigns by legislators targeting African-American voters in Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and many other states.

While the NAACP could gain the assistance of the Justice Department in fighting back against voter suppression, a Sessions-led DOJ would likely lead to the exact opposite.During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, then-Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach’s commitment to democracy allowed him to help write the VRA. Today, our nation stands on the verge of selecting an AG who has never shown the slightest commitment to enforcing the protections Katzenbach and others wrote into law. 

How can our communities who have born the both historical and current brunt of the attacks on the right to vote, sit idly by while an enemy to the vote is now given the responsibility of enforcing this right? The simple answer is that we can’t. 

Other Civil Rights

Since 1997, Senator Sessions has received an F every year on the NAACP’s federal legislative civil rights report cards. He’s voted against our policy positions nearly 90 percent of the time. Senator Sessions has repeatedly supported lawsuits and attempts to overturn desegregation while shamelessly voting against federal Hate Crime legislation four times from 2000 to 2009.

Notwithstanding, he has also repeatedly voted against the Violence Against Women Act that expanded protection for victims of domestic violence and repeatedly stood on the wrong side of immigration and LGBT issues.

Racial Insensitivity

During his failed 1986 federal judgeship hearing, four DOJ attorneys and colleagues of Senator Sessions testified that he made several racist statements. J. Gerald Hebert testified that Sessions had referred to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as “un-American” and “Communist inspired” because they “forced civil rights down the throats of people.

Additional accusations of racist behavior were attributed to Senator Sessions by Thomas Figures, an African American Assistant U.S. Attorney, who testified that Sessions said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions later said that the comment was not serious, but did apologize for it. Mr. Figures also testified that on one occasion, Senator Session railed against civil rights cases, threw a file on the table and called him the derogatory racist term “boy,” and later advised Figures to watch what he said to white people.

Criminal Justice Reform

In a time of expanding protests against the scourge of police brutality, Senator Sessions stands on opposite ground. He has repeated stood against the consent decree, a main tool of the DOJ to reel in racist and unaccountable police departments. In a report by the Alabama Policy Institute, Senator Sessions called consent decrees: “One of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power is the issuance of expansive court decrees. Consent decrees have a profound effect on our legal system as they constitute an end run around the democratic process.”

While under the administration of President Barack Obama, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division made investigating police departments charged with racism and police brutality a key focus by intervening in high-profile cases in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland to impose consent decrees and reforms to correct misbehavior and the violation of citizen’s civil rights.

Senator Sessions would become the Attorney General under a president who supports nationalizing the racist and disproven “stop and frisk,” strategy. Both Sessions and the incoming president are supporters of the DOD 1033 program which allows police department’s access to surplus military equipment including tanks, armored vehicles, grenade launchers and more. He also opposes the removal of mandatory minimum sentences and blocked efforts to reduce nonviolent drug sentencing despite wide bi-partisan support for doing so. If not enough, Senator Sessions has repeatedly voted against safe, sane, and sensible measures to stem the tide of gun violence.

Given that these are issues our nation the attorney general is sworn to protect and enforce his nomination represents an ongoing and dangerous threat to our civicbirthrights –particularly, and the right to vote.

We call upon the Senate to reject Sessions and for President-elect Donald J. Trump to replace Sessions with a nominee with a record of inclusion and commitment to protecting the civil rights of the American majority.

The NAACP does not believe that an election where the incoming president lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes represents a mandate to overhaul the America of the Majority. The vote remains the most important resource in making democracy real for all people.

As we have since 1909, the NAACP will continue to stand against Senator Sessions and any attempts to unravel the progress earned through the blood, sweat and tears of our people to enjoy the same rights under law as all Americans.”

Founded Feb. 12. 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest, largest and most widely recognized grassroots–based civil rights organization. Its more than half-million members and supporters throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors.

Mississippi man pleads guilty to hate crime in killing of transgender teen

A Mississippi man has pleaded guilty to a federal hate crime, admitting he killed Mercedes Williamson because she was a transgender girl.

Williamson was 17 years old and resided in Alabama at the time of her death.

Joshua Brandon Vallum, 29, of Lucedale, Mississippi, was charged with violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The plea was announced by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Davis of the Southern District of Mississippi and FBI Agent Christopher Freeze.

“Our nation’s hate crime statutes advance one of our fundamental beliefs: that no one should have to live in fear because of who they are,” Lynch said in a news release.  “Today’s landmark guilty plea reaffirms that basic principle and it signals the Justice Department’s determination to combat hate crimes based on gender identity.

Lynch added, “While Mississippi convicted the defendant on murder charges, we believe in the fundamental value of identifying and prosecuting these bias-fueled incidents for what they are: acts of hate.  By holding accountable the perpetrator of this heinous deed, we reinforce our commitment to ensuring justice for all Americans.”

“Congress passed the Shepard-Byrd Act to protect our most vulnerable communities, including the transgender community, from harm,” said Gupta.  “No conviction, even such a historic one, can relieve the grief and anguish facing this victim’s family.  But this guilty plea sends an unequivocal message that violence based on one’s gender identity violates America’s defining values of inclusivity and dignity.”

According to admissions made as part of his guilty plea, in the late spring or early summer of 2014, Vallum, a member of the Gulf Coast Chapter of the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation, began a sexual relationship with Williamson.  During his romantic relationship with Williamson, Vallum kept the sexual nature of the relationship, secret from his family, friends and other members of the Latin Kings.

Around August or September 2014, Vallum terminated his romantic and sexual relationship with Williamson and had no contact with her until May 2015.

On May 28, 2015, Vallum decided to kill Williamson after learning that a friend had discovered Williamson was transgender.  Vallum, according to his admission, believed he would be in danger if other Latin Kings members discovered that he had engaged in a sexual relationship with a transgender teenager.

On May 29, 2015, Vallum went to Alabama to find Williamson, planning to take Williamson to Mississippi and kill her there.

After locating Williamson at her residence, he used false pretenses to lure Williamson into his car so he could drive her to Mississippi. Vallum drove Williamson to his father’s residence in Lucedale, where he parked behind the house.  As Williamson sat in the vehicle’s passenger seat, he assaulted her.  After using a stun gun to electrically shock Williamson in the chest, Vallum repeatedly stabbed Williamson with a 75th Ranger Regiment pocket knife. Williamson attempted to flee at least twice, but Vallum pursued her. He repeatedly stabbed his victim and hit her with a hammer.

Later, Vallum falsely claimed to law enforcement that he killed Williamson in a panic after discovering Williamson was transgender.

In pleading guilty on Dec. 21, Vallum acknowledged that he had lied about the circumstances surrounding Williamson’s death and that he would not have killed Williamson if she was not transgender.

Vallum faces up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine for the federal crime.

He previously pleaded guilty to murdering Williamson in George County, Mississippi, Circuit Court, where he was sentenced to life in prison.

The federal government prosecuted the hate crime charge because Mississippi does not have a hate crimes statute that protects people from bias crimes based on their gender identity.

Janet Reno, 1st woman U.S. attorney general, has died at age 78

Janet Reno, the first woman U.S. attorney general who served eight years with President Bill Clinton, has died aged 78.

Reno’s goddaughter, Gabrielle D’Alemberte, said she succumbed to complications of Parkinson’s disease early on Monday in Miami.

The blunt-spoken lawyer worked as the top U.S. law enforcement official under Clinton from 1993 to 2001, becoming the longest-serving attorney general of the 20th century.

Just weeks into the job, she authorized the deadly 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian cult compound at Waco, Texas.

Reno later authorized federal agents to seize six-year-old Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez from relatives in Miami in 2000, and headed the Justice Department during the government’s huge antitrust case against Microsoft.

The former Miami prosecutor, picked by Clinton after his first two choices for the job ran into trouble at the confirmation stage, exhibited an independent streak and a brusque manner that often upset the White House.

Reno weathered White House complaints that she was not a team player and that she sought too many special prosecutors to investigate cases, including the Whitewater investigation involving the finances of the president and first lady Hillary Clinton.

She always said she made decisions based on evidence and the law.

WACO, GONZALES

Reno was only 38 days into the attorney general’s job when she approved the April 19, 1993, FBI raid that led to the deaths of about 80 people, including many children, at the Waco cult compound.

Federal agents had earlier tried to serve a warrant on the cult’s leader, David Koresh, who said he was the Messiah, for stockpiling weapons. Four agents and six cult members were killed in an ensuing shootout, leading to a 51-day standoff.

With negotiations at an impasse, Reno gave the go-ahead for the raid after hearing reports of child abuse in the compound. The raid on the heavily armed cultists ended in an inferno that engulfed the site.

“I made the decision. I’m accountable. The buck stops with me,” a grim-looking Reno told a later news conference.

Reno took a personal interest in the political tussle over Elian Gonzalez, the young shipwreck survivor whose mother drowned fleeing Cuba.

Reno met the boy and his Miami relatives who battled to keep him from returning to communist Cuba, and his father and grandmothers, who wanted to raise Gonzalez in his homeland.

Reno argued that Elian belonged with his father and acted after the Miami relatives defied a U.S. government order to hand him over. She authorized armed agents to take the boy from his relatives’ home in a pre-dawn raid in April 2000 and re-unite him with his father, who took him back to Cuba.

The raid infuriated Miami’s Cuban exile community, whose members picketed her home and denounced her as a “witch” and lackey of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

MICROSOFT, OKLAHOMA

In 1998, Reno’s Justice Department brought a huge antitrust case against Microsoft. Two years later, a federal judge ordered the breakup of the software giant because it had ignored his ruling that it had used unlawful monopolistic practices.

The case was settled in 2001 by the administration of George W. Bush, Clinton’s Republican successor, in terms seen as favorable to Microsoft.

Reno appeared with Clinton after the 1995 truck bomb attack on the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people, and vowed to seek the death penalty for the perpetrators.

Convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001 become the first federal prisoner executed since 1963. McVeigh said he carried out the attack to punish the U.S. government for the Waco cult raid and another raid in Idaho.

Some comedians made fun of Reno during her time in office, lampooning her appearance and height, around 6 feet 2 inches, among them Will Ferrell who impersonated her on “Saturday Night Live.”

Shortly after leaving office in January 2001 she appeared on the show next to Ferrell, both wearing identical outfits, in a sketch called “Janet Reno’s Dance Party.”

She was diagnosed in 1995 with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the central nervous system that caused trembling in her arms. “All it does is shake and you get used to it shaking after a while,” she told a TV interviewer.

Reno was attorney general throughout Clinton’s two terms as president and was in the job longer than anyone except William Wirt, who held it from November 1817 until March 1829.

After leaving Washington, Reno returned to Florida and ran for governor in 2002, but lost in the Democratic primary.

Reno was born on July 21, 1938, in Miami to parents who were newspaper reporters. She attended public schools in Miami and earned a chemistry degree at Cornell University in 1960.

She received her law degree from Harvard three years later and worked as a lawyer in Miami.

 

Statement on Janet Reno’s death

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch today released the following statement on the passing of former Attorney General Janet Reno:

“With the passing of Janet Reno, the Department of Justice has lost one of the most effective, decisive and well-respected leaders in its proud history.  From her years in state law enforcement to her long and eventful tenure as Attorney General, Janet Reno always strove, as she put it, to do her ‘level best.’  She led the department in a time of turmoil and change, confronting issues ranging from international and domestic terrorism to fair competition in the emerging technology sector.  In meeting these challenges, she was guided by one simple test: to do what the law and the facts required.  She accepted the results of that test regardless of which way the political winds were blowing.  She never shied from criticism or shirked responsibility, earning her the affection of her subordinates, the respect of her critics, and the esteem of the American people.  And of course, as the first woman to serve as attorney general, she was an inspiration and a trailblazer for so many women working in law enforcement and government — including me.  The United States is a stronger, safer and more just place because of Janet Reno’s leadership, and she will be dearly missed.”

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno greets the media next to a caricature of a journalist and fisherman with the the saying in spanish "A reporter lives here," at the back porch of her home in Miami, September 4, 2001. REUTERS/Colin Braley
Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno greets the media next to a caricature of a journalist and fisherman with the the saying in spanish, “A reporter lives here,” at the back porch of her home in Miami, September 4, 2001. REUTERS/Colin Braley
Democratic candidate for Governor of Florida Janet Reno speaks to supporters at the Sheraton Bal Harbor in Miami, Florida September 11, 2002.  REUTERS/Marc Serota
Democratic candidate for Governor of Florida Janet Reno speaks to supporters at the Sheraton Bal Harbor in Miami, Florida September 11, 2002. REUTERS/Marc Serota
President Clinton, accompanied by Attorney General Janet Reno July 19, 1993. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo
President Clinton, accompanied by Attorney General Janet Reno July 19, 1993. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo

Bar rises for Milwaukee police review after latest shooting

Milwaukee, shaken by violence after a shooting by police, is one of a few U.S. cities to have volunteered for federal government review of its police force and may now be held to higher standards for how it responds.

Beginning in December, the review included a public “listening session” that, according to Milwaukee media, drew 700 people to a library auditorium to air their frustrations to U.S. Department of Justice officials.

Some community leaders said the weekend violence should result in a tougher review and real change.

“I would hope that the cries of the unheard … are now being heard around the country out of Milwaukee,” said Rev. Steve Jerbi, the lead pastor at All Peoples Church in the Wisconsin city of about 595,000 people.

The Obama administration has promoted a $10 million nationwide voluntary review program as a way to improve policing amid nationwide complaints of racial profiling and targeting. Milwaukee has become the latest U.S. city to experience discord after high-profile police killings of black men over the past two years.

The review in Milwaukee will look at issues such as use of force, the disciplinary system and diversity in hiring. The city was 45 percent white in the 2010 Census, while the police department is 68 percent white.

“Expectations of the report itself and of departmental compliance with the report are going to be raised,” said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies police behavior.

There is skepticism of how Milwaukee authorities will respond to federal recommendations, after past responses fell short of demands.

Fred Royal, president of the NAACP’s Milwaukee branch, noted that the recommendations would not be legally binding, unlike those for cities such as Cleveland, Ohio, where police use of deadly force and other practices were being scrutinized under so-called consent decrees — settlements without a final ruling by a judge.

“They don’t have the teeth that a consent decree has,” Royal said.

Businesses were torched and gunfire erupted in Milwaukee after the shooting on Saturday of a black man, Sylville K. Smith, 23. Police said he refused to drop a handgun when he was killed, and on Monday, the city imposed a curfew.

“My experience with the Milwaukee Police Department has been that it is a department in desperate need of fundamental change,” said Flint Taylor, a Chicago civil rights lawyer who has sued Milwaukee over police tactics.

A spokesman for the Milwaukee Police Department said officials were not available for an interview.

Police Chief Edward Flynn has said previously that his department has made progress and can withstand scrutiny.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said officials there declined an interview request.

The Justice Department is expected to release its findings within about two months. Milwaukee could then receive outside assistance and monitoring for up to two years.

Making the challenge tougher are deep problems of poverty and segregation in Milwaukee, the 31st largest city in the United States.

Milwaukee was ranked as the most segregated city in America by the Brookings Institution last year and in the neighborhood where the rioting took place more than 30 percent of people live in poverty.

Residents have protested past police shootings, such as the 2014 killing in which an unarmed, mentally ill black man, Dontre Hamilton, was shot 14 times. An officer was dismissed but no one was charged.

In 2011, another black man, Derek Williams, died in the back of a Milwaukee police car after he told officers he could not breathe and needed help, according to a lawsuit his family filed. The city has not responded to the lawsuit.

And in January this year, Milwaukee officials approved a $5 million settlement with 74 black men who said they had been subjected to illegal strip and cavity searches.

Las Vegas, which volunteered for the same federal program after a series of shootings there in 2011, was handed a list of 75 findings and recommendations by the Justice Department, and 18 months later it had completed 90 percent of the recommendations, the department said.

Philadelphia and San Francisco are among other cities under review.

Reporting by David Ingram in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Julia Harte in Washington; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou Contini and Grant McCool.

ACLU calls for transparency in investigation of Milwaukee shooting

In response the Wisconsin Department of Justice declaring it will not release video footage of the officer-involved fatal shooting in Milwaukee, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin again called for transparency in the investigation of the underlying incident.  ACLU executive director Chris Ahmuty wrote the following letter to Attorney General Brad Schimel:

Dear Attorney General Schimel,

It is time for you and your agency to give the public more information about your investigation into the officer-involved fatal shooting of Mr. Sylville Smith on August 13, 2016 in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood.

In an August 14, 2016 news release you stated “The Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), at the request of the Milwaukee Police Department, is leading the investigation of yesterday’s officer involved death.  DOJ will work expeditiously to ensure a thorough and transparent gathering of the facts.”  According to an August 16, 2016 story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, your spokesperson said, “In recognition of the violence that has affected Milwaukee residents for the last 48 hours, DOJ is working expeditiously, and within the parameters of the law, to provide the community a transparent view of the events that took place on August 13 in a timely manner.  However, we are not prepared to release any of the video evidence at this time.”

To date you have promised transparency, but provided little information on your investigation to the community and Mr. Smith’s grieving family and friends, who seek understanding of the deadly incident that transpired on August 13.

In your news release and your spokesperson’s statement as reported in the media, you don’t even mention Sylville Smith’s name.  It is important for you to recognize that a Milwaukee police officer has killed a specific person, with family, friends and neighbors.

You have said that you will not “release any of the video evidence at this time.” Failure to timely release video of similar incidents has been a source of unrest in Chicago, leading officials there to adopt a policy of prompt release of video.  Note that Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn has already expressed conclusions drawn from a video the public has not been allowed to see.

You have remained silent regarding a host of other questions that would help the public ascertain whether your agency is conducting “a thorough and transparent gathering of facts.”  We ask that you please answer the following questions about your investigation:

  1. Are any of the investigators/analysts assigned to this case former Milwaukee Police Department employees?
  2. Has DCI interviewed the officer(s) who encountered Mr. Smith on August 13?  If so, when were the officers interviewed?
  3. Has DCI or MPD interviewed neighbors/witnesses?
  4. Who gets access to Smith’s companion (Is he in custody?  Does he have an attorney?)
  5. Does DCI have the body worn camera(s) (BWC)?  Does it have access to evidence.com?
  6. Did the officer or other witnesses review the BWC or dash cam video before your agents interviewed them?
  7. Was the officer given a blood test?
  8. What was the basis for the stop?  Are there radio communications that would reflect the basis for the stop?
  9. Is there audio from the dash cam or from nearby Shotspotter microphones?
  10. When will the medical examiner issue a report?

Nearly all of these questions are procedural and address aspects of your gathering of facts.  None call for details regarding the evidence, much less conclusions.

Please answer these questions.  If you refuse to answer any of these questions, please let me know your justification for refusing at this time.

Thank you.  I hope to hear from you shortly.

 

U.S. government sues North Carolina over anti-LGBT HB2 law

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced on May 9 a lawsuit against North Carolina seeking to block enforcement of HB2 in regards to the law’s discriminatory provision against transgender people.

The lawsuit names as defendants Gov. Pat McCrory, the state’s Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina and Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina.

“This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms,” said Lynch at a news conference. “This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them – indeed, to protect all of us.  It’s about the founding ideals that have led this country – haltingly but inexorably – in the direction of fairness, inclusion, and equality for all Americans.  This is not a time to act out of fear.  This is a time to summon our national virtues of inclusivity, diversity, compassion, and open-mindedness.  What we must not do – what we must never do – is turn on our neighbors, our family members, our fellow Americans, for something they cannot control, and deny what makes them human.”

The complaint alleges the defendants, as a result of compliance with and implementation of the bathroom and changing facility provisions of HB2, are engaging in a pattern or practice of discrimination against transgender public employees and applicants in violation of Title VII, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex.

Access to restrooms is an important, basic condition of employment and denying transgender individuals access to restrooms and changing facilities consistent with their gender identity constitutes unlawful sex discrimination.

The complaint also alleges that UNC is violating Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

“HB2 violates the laws that govern our nation and the values that define us as a people,” said deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Transgender men are men — they live, work and study as men.  Transgender women are women — they live, work and study as women. America protects the rights of all people to be who they are, to express their true selves and to live with dignity.”

The complaint is being handled by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Chad Griffin, president and CEO of the Human Rights Campaign, said, “The U.S. Department of Justice has made clear that Gov. McCrory’s HB2 is a discriminatory and dangerous piece of legislation that violates federal civil rights laws.

“Rather than working with state lawmakers to fix the mess he’s created, Gov. McCrory is instead choosing to waste even more time and millions more of taxpayer dollars trying to defend his indefensible attack on transgender people. We commend Attorney General Lynch and the Justice Department for taking action to enforce the rule of law and protect the civil rights of all North Carolinians.”

“The lawsuit filed by Gov. McCrory is another attempt to sidestep the inevitable need for a full repeal of HB2,” said Equality NC executive director Chris Sgro. “North Carolina’s image, economy and citizens are hurting because of the deeply discriminatory bill. Gov. McCrory and the NCGA leadership are risking billions of dollars in federal funding to uphold a law that should have never been passed in the first place. We applaud Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the U.S. Department of Justice for standing up for North Carolinians when its own leadership has failed to do so.”

The U.S. Department of Justice put McCrory and state officials on notice last week saying the state’s discriminatory HB2 violates federal civil rights law — including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. The feds gave the state until today to address the situation “by confirming that the State will not comply with or implement HB2.

Instead, McCrory announced he was filing a lawsuit.

North Carolina has lost more than a half billion dollars in economic activity from companies canceling or reconsidering plans to come to the state and in cancelled conventions, concerts, and other lost tourism dollars. The loss doesn’t include potential economic development that may be cancelled.

Nearly 200 leading CEOs and major business leaders have signed onto HRC and Equality NC’s open letter urging McCrory and the state’s General Assembly to repeal HB2.

What is HB2?

The law eliminated existing municipal non-discrimination protections for LGBT people and prevents such protections from being passed by cities in the future.

The legislation forces transgender students in public schools to use restrooms and other facilities inconsistent with their gender identity.

It also compels the same type of discrimination against transgender people to take place in publicly-owned buildings, including in public universities, convention centers and airports.

The law eliminated the ability of North Carolinians to be sue if they experienced discrimination in the workforce, including on the basis of race, religion, national origin and sex.

Lawmakers passed the legislation in a single-day session.

Senate passes bill to help victims of human trafficking

The Senate unanimously passed legislation on April 22 to help the victims of human trafficking, ending a tortuous partisan standoff over abortion that also delayed confirmation of President Barack Obama’s attorney general nominee.

The vote was 99-0 to approve the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which expands law enforcement tools to target sex traffickers and creates a new fund to help victims. The House has passed similar legislation and the White House has voiced support.

“We have not fallen deaf to the cries of those who actually need our help, the victims of human trafficking,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the lead GOP sponsor. “This legislation will be instrumental in helping victims of sexual abuse and trafficking recover from a life in bondage.”

The unanimous outcome put a bipartisan punctuation mark on legislation that started out with wide support from both parties, but veered into a partisan cul-de-sac last month when Democrats said they’d noticed language that could expand federal prohibitions on abortion funding. How or why Democrats had failed to see the provision in the first place became a topic of frosty dispute on Capitol Hill, with Republicans pointing out that the bill had unanimously passed committee, and one Democratic senator’s office acknowledging that an aide had in fact known of the abortion language.

At the same time, Attorney General-designate Loretta Lynch languished despite commanding enough votes to be confirmed, because Republican leaders made the decision, never fully explained, to delay her confirmation vote until the trafficking bill was completed. Now that it is, Lynch will get a vote on April 23 to replace Eric Holder and become the nation’s first black female attorney general.

The partisan gridlock on the trafficking bill and Lynch made no one look good, and with all sides eager for a resolution Cornyn worked with Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to arrive at a compromise, which they announced on April 21. It addresses Democratic concerns about expanding prohibitions on spending federal funds for abortions, by splitting the new victims’ fund into two pieces.

One part of the fund would be made up of fines paid by sex traffickers, and it could not go for health services, rendering the abortion restrictions moot. The other part of the fund, which could go for medical services, builds on $5 million already appropriated by Congress for Community Health Centers, which are already subject to abortion spending prohibitions. The compromise allowed both sides to claim a win since Republicans ensured any money for health services could not go for abortions, while Democrats could say that they had prevented prohibitions on spending federal money for abortions from being expanded to a new source of money.

“An effort to fight back against human trafficking in our country is, without question, no place for gridlock and dysfunction,” Murray said. “It certainly shouldn’t have taken this long but I’m pleased that we were able to work together, find common ground and reach an agreement.”

With the bill finally greased for passage following announcement of the abortion compromise, Republican leaders staved off one final partisan controversy by persuading conservatives in the caucus to hold back on a handful of immigration-related amendments they wanted to offer. U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said he was urged to pull back an amendment that would have allowed for punishing people for immigrating illegally with their kids or other family members.

“I yielded to higher authorities against my better judgment. … We ended up with no immigration amendments,” Sessions said. “They wanted another bipartisan accomplishment and it wouldn’t have achieved it.”

The amendments that did get attached to the bill passed with little controversy, though one, by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., drew concerns from at least one advocacy group. The measure would make it illegal for websites or social media sites to “knowingly” sell advertisements for sex services involving minors. A pro-privacy group, the Center for Democracy and Technology, said the measure was so vaguely written that it potentially makes every U.S. company that hosts web content subject to criminal prosecution.

Announced presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, missed the vote.