Tag Archives: cops

Justice Department to review police response at the Pulse

 

The U.S. Justice Department plans a comprehensive review of the Orlando Police Department’s response to the mass shooting June 12 at the Pulse nightclub.

The review will be conducted by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services — known as the COPS Office.

Announcing the review, COPS director Ronald Davis said he commended Orlando Police Chief John Mina for his leadership in asking for the assessment.

“The lessons learned from this independent, objective and critical review of such a high-profile incident will benefit not only the Orlando Police Department and its community, it will also serve to provide all law enforcement critical guidance and recommendations for responding to future such incidents,” Davis said.

U.S. Attorney A Lee Bentley III, assigned to the Middle District of Florida, said, Mina’s decision to seek an independent review of the law enforcement response “is another example of his effective leadership.”

On June 12, on “Latin Night” at the LGBT nightclub in the central Florida city, a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. He pledged allegiance to Islamic State terrorists in his call to police.

Some raised questions about the police department’s response, specifically whether law enforcement waited too long to storm the club after Omar Mateen’s rampage began.

Mina has said an early exchange of gunfire between Mateen and police forced the gunman into a bathroom at the club, where he held hostages. About three hours passed between those early shots and the police-killing of Mateen.

COPS will assess:

  • OPD’s preparation and response to the mass shooting.
  • Strategies and tactics used during the incident.
  • How the department is managing the aftermath of the massacre.

Similar reviews have been conducted in other cities, including Minneapolis, Minnesota; San Bernardino, California; Ferguson, Missouri; Tampa, Florida; and Pasco, Washington.

In Ferguson, an assessment followed the police-shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, and the mass demonstrations that followed Brown’s death.

The federal review led to a series of recommendations for the city of Ferguson and the police department regarding diversity, officer training and policies for responding to protests.

COPS dates back to 1995 and was established under Bill Clinton’s administration.

Arrest of NYPD officer brings filming of officers into focus

Charges against a police officer accused of arresting a man for filming him with a cellphone camera have drawn fresh attention to a decades-old issue: citizens’ rights to record police.

Officer Jonathan Munoz pleaded not guilty recently to official misconduct charges in the March 2014 arrest of 21-year-old Jason Disisto.

Even before Munoz’s arrest, Disisto contended in a lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court that New York Police Department officers intimidate or arrest people recording police activity. He cited instances since 2005 when people, including journalists, were arrested after recording police with cameras or phones.

Police spokeswoman Sophia Mason says NYPD employees are reminded not to interfere with people recording police activity.

Patrick Lynch, president of the union representing police officers, said people sometimes abuse their rights, using them to torment or harass officers.

“It escalates the tension and makes it more dangerous for everyone involved,” Lynch said. “The act of recording police starts from the belief that every officer is doing something wrong and that’s insulting to all police officers.”

For officers, problems arise when recording can be interpreted as interfering with police activity, union officials say.

They add that officers understand they may be filmed, but the line between interference and documentation is blurred when a bystander shoves a cellphone into a crime scene from an arms-length away and yells aggressively at officers.

Prosecutors say their case against Munoz, 32, was built in part through surveillance video from a commercial establishment disproving his claim that Disisto entered a “fighting stance” before lunging and swinging a fist at him as officers investigated a young woman suspected of buying marijuana.

“Had this officer’s attempts to conceal his alleged misconduct succeeded, an innocent man may still be facing charges for a fabricated crime,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a news release.

Munoz’ lawyer did not immediately return a message Thursday seeking comment.

Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said court fights over the issue have occurred periodically since a 1973 lawsuit resulted in a settlement four years later.

In it, the city agreed arrests would not result when someone merely takes photographs, remains near an arrest, or speaks out — even with crude or vulgar language — as long as there is no threat to safety and no law is broken.

In a report this year, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates allegations of police wrongdoing, said video recordings _ including those on someone’s phone _ had an increasingly important role in substantiating misconduct complaints. In 2012, only 3 percent of the agency’s investigations included video evidence, growing to 17 percent in the first half of 2015.

Dunn said the recording trend has exposed police.

“There are more and more instances surfacing where it is clear the police officers have lied in their descriptions of what happened in an incident,” he said. “That sort of police perjury is unconscionable and something police departments really have to tackle.”

Wisconsin’s criminal justice policies trap people of color in prison system | WiG cover story

The last line of “The Star Spangled Banner” proclaims America to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” But the “free” portion of that statement does not apply to a huge swath of the population, particularly people of color.

For decades, the United States has had the world’s largest prison population — by far. In 2013, the most recent year for which WiG could find consistent statistics, the nation’s federal and state prisons, along with its city and county jails, housed 2.2 million people tried as adults. Another 4.7 million adults were on probation or parole. Though just over 4 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, we account for 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Put another way, the nation’s 2013  per capita incarceration rate stood at 716 per 100,000, which compares with a rate of about 100 per 100,000 citizens in most countries. One in 35 Americans is in some way caught up in the criminal justice system — and that involvement is racially suspect.

According the American Civil Liberties Union, while a white male’s chances of ever being jailed are 1 in 17, a Latino male’s odds are 1 in 6, and an African-American male’s astonishing odds are 1 in 3.

In Wisconsin, the racial disparity is even more pronounced: Six percent of Wisconsin’s population is African-American, but half of its prison population is black.

‘SOCIAL EXPERIMENTATION’

Mass incarceration stems to a great extent from the so-called “war on drugs,” an experiment that has been devastating to the U.S. The majority of those jailed in this country are non-violent drug offenders, and prejudice plays a strong role in who gets sent to prison for such offenses. For decades, crack cocaine offenders — mostly black — received far more severe punishments than white people arrested for possessing powder cocaine. A 2010 law reduced that sentencing disparity.

Nonetheless, in 2013, nearly three-fourths of people sentenced for drug offenses in federal court were Hispanic or black, according to federal statistics.

 “There are more blacks in prison (nationally) now than there were living under slavery in 1860,” says David Liners, director of the Wisconsin chapter of WISDOM, a justice reform group composed of faith-based organizations. 

“This is social experimentation on a grand scale,” he continues. “No one has ever experienced this before. Half the African-American community in Milwaukee and other cities is incarcerated and we pay so many prices — the price for kids without dads and people not working.”

The Wisconsin incarceration rate is likely to grow even higher due to recent laws that allow people to be thrown in jail for not paying fees ordered by the criminal justice system, such as traffic fines.

As a measure of how Wisconsin’s incarceration rate affects the whole state, Liners offers this statistic: The cost of corrections in Wisconsin now exceeds the budget for the entire UW system.

ARBITRARY REINCARCERATION

In addition to the failed “war on drugs,” there’s another reason why Wisconsin jails so many of its own: parole revocation for non-violent offenses. Under Wisconsin’s parole system, former inmates are sent back to jail for the entire duration of their sentences due to minor violations of parole. Mark Rice, who chairs WISDOM’s Revocations Workgroup, frequently cites the case of Hector Cubero as an example.

Cubero, 52, served 27 years behind bars for being a party to the crimes of first-degree murder and armed robbery when he was 18 years old. Evidence showed he played no role in the killing, and he had adjusted well to life outside prison.

But after four years on parole, he unwittingly gave a tattoo to a 15-year-old, which is a misdemeanor city ordinance violation. The maximum penalty is 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Cubero says the teen claimed to be of age, but Cubero still got sent back to  prison — possibly for the rest of his life.

The tattoo was of a cross and a quote from peace activist Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Other states, including Alabama, North Carolina, Washington and Hawaii, have put limits on the amount of time that released inmates can be incarcerated for rules violations, which commonly include unauthorized computer or cell phone use, crossing county lines, missing appointments with probation officers and entering a bar. 

Parole revocations account for more than half of the 8,000 people entering Wisconsin prisons each year, and the practice costs Wisconsin taxpayers $100 million annually. 

Probation officers have control over parole revocation, and there are no uniform standards, according to Liners. One parolee might be sent back to prison simply for creating an unauthorized email account, while others are not sent back for more serious violations.

Parolees who are reincarcerated have no right to a lawyer or a trial. There is no requirement for proof beyond a reasonable doubt, even though parole revocation can send inmates back to prison for decades.

Liners says that revocation of parole is so commonly ordered by some probation officers that inmates released under their supervision don’t even try to avoid it. They assume they’ll be sent back no matter what they do, Liners says.

The subjectivity of the process allows personal prejudice to play a role, and African-Americans are disproportionately targeted, just as they are in policing. Half of parolees sent back to prison are African American.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

A driving force behind the nation’s prison statistics is the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, which represents wealthy corporate interests, presents model-legislation templates to state representatives to take home to their Legislatures in exchange for campaign donations. During the 1980s and ’90s, ALEC began promoting laws to establish private, for-profit prisons and commercial bail-bonding companies, which corporate leaders saw as potentially lucrative new revenue sources. ALEC also pushed forward laws that would increase the prison population. 

Wisconsin has thus far declined to adopt either private bail bondsmen or private prisons.

Conditions in private prisons are notoriously worse than public ones and produce greater recidivism. 

“For-profit prisons are by their nature not consistent with any sort of rehabilitative goals,” says John Stedman, an organizer for Jonah, an ecumenical organization for justice issues in the Chippewa Valley. “I think the profit motive gets in the way of what justice and rehabilitation are about.” 

In June, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos squeezed an 11th-hour provision into the 2015–17 biennial budget that would have allowed for-profit bail bondsmen in the state, but Gov. Scott Walker vetoed it, saying that it needed public discussion. Vos, who reportedly hopes to take Walker’s place in the governor’s mansion, has vowed to introduce the measure for a full hearing in the near future.

But as an assemblyman, Walker was instrumental in setting the stage for Wisconsin’s mass-incarceration problem. Seeking to make a name for himself as a “tough on crime” leader, he introduced dozens of laws to lengthen criminal penalties for everything from perjury to intoxicated boating, according to a report published by The Nation in February.

In 1995, Walker spearheaded the shipping of Wisconsin inmates to out-of-state, for-profit prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America, one of his major campaign donors. CCA was the recipient not only of Wisconsin inmates, but also about $45 million of Wisconsin taxpayers’ money before Gov. Tommy Thompson increased in-state capacity and ended the practice, according to Liners.

In the 1997–98 legislative session, Walker championed “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which eliminated the possibility of early release for good behavior or rehabilitation. In total, he sponsored or co-sponsored 27 different bills that expanded the definition of crimes and increased mandatory minimum sentences.

Prior to truth-in-sentencing, convicts who’d cooperated in prison were released after serving 67 percent of their sentences and completed their sentences under supervision.

Correction workers liked that policy, because it gave them a carrot and a stick to work with: If prisoners did as they were told, they could be released early, and if not they’d serve their entire sentences behind bars. 

Now the only stick correction officers have is solitary confinement, which is often needed just to house prisoners in overcrowded facilities. 

Under truth in sentencing, parole is meted out separately. Because so many harsh sentences were handed down to non-violent offenders, including people caught with small amounts of marijuana, that prisons quickly became overcrowded.  

Truth in sentencing has been particularly devastating in African-American communities. For example, despite similar rates of marijuana usage among blacks and whites, five times as many African-Americans in Milwaukee are arrested for marijuana possession as whites.

To alleviate prison overcrowding, Gov. Jim Doyle adopted a law allowing for early release of eligible prisoners. The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin praised the move.

But Walker restored truth in sentencing in 2011, noting that getting rid of the policy had only affected 479 inmates and produced “limited” savings. As a result of his action, the number of inmates paroled annually dropped precipitously. In 2008, 440 prisoners were paroled. But by 2013, that number had shrunk to 152. 

Walker’s union-busting Act 10 exacerbated the problem of prison overcrowding by causing a shortage of prison workers. As it did for teachers and other public workers, Act 10 took away correction officers’ rights to collective bargaining and increased by 18 percent their contributions for health and pension benefits. Many decided the job was too dangerous for the money and either retired or quit.

Now the state faces a critical shortage of qualified people willing to work in the prisons. And the challenges of Wisconsin’s prisons don’t stop there. As Liners puts it, “The Department of Corrections has a world of problems.”

As of April, 8 percent of positions for correction officers and sergeants in the state were unfilled — four times the rate of April 2010. As a result, overtime pay has spiked and personnel shortages have become so problematic at one facility that the state is paying mileage and hotel costs for guards who agree to work there on a temporary basis, according to a report compiled by the Daily Kos.

SOLUTIONS ARE POSSIBLE

WISDOM wants to set limits on how long a parolee can be reincarcerated for minor parole violations and to end lengthy sentences for non-violent offenses, including drug possession. Liners says that addicts, alcoholics and people suffering from mental disorders belong in treatment rather than jail.

Reforming the nation’s sentencing laws and incarceration policies has bipartisan support. High-profile conservative leaders who support prison reform include anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, conservative pundit Bill Bennett and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. They agree with liberals that the current system is unnecessarily expensive, both to taxpayers and society. 

Norquist, who’s famous for asking political candidates to sign a “no new taxes” pledge, came to Madison in April to urge Wisconsin’s GOP lawmakers to end the state’s truth in sentencing laws.

According to madison.com, Norquist told his audience that prison reforms in Texas not only reduced incarceration rates, but also failed to create a voter backlash against the elected officials who supported them. Fear of being branded “soft on crime” prevents many elected officials, particularly on the political right, from getting behind prison reform.

In 2013, WISDOM launched a campaign in Wisconsin to cut the state’s 22,000 prison population in half. Given that each prisoner costs taxpayers about $35,000 per year, reducing the prison population by 11,000 would save $38.5 million annually, although there would have to be increased funding for counseling and supervision.

WIDSOM’s campaign, titled “11 x 15,” sought to bring Wisconsin’s prison population closer to that of Minnesota, which is demographically very similar to Wisconsin, but which had a prison population of 10,289 in 2013.

Although WISDOM failed to achieve its goal, Stedman says it raised awareness of the problem of ridiculously long sentences for non-violent offenders. Prison reform groups this year won a budget increase of from $1 million to $2.5 million annually for drug treatment programs — a small step in the right direction, but a step forward nonetheless, Stedman says. 

WISDOM is also promoting Treatment Alternative Diversion programs as a substitute for imprisoning non-violent drug offenders. TAD programs take people who are coming into or returning to the criminal justice system and divert them into community-based treatment programs for alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness. A model program in Eau Claire features four treatment courts — Drug, Alternatives to Incarcerating Mothers, Mental Health and Chippewa Valley Veterans — “as a diversion alternative for individuals facing jail or prison time as a result of pending charges or potential probation revocation,” according to the Eau Claire County website.

Stedman says the approach uses a spectrum of evidence-based strategies, and it has kept families together and reduced recidivism rates, among other benefits.

“If we could fully fund TADS, the impact would be huge,” Stedman says.

Taking 17-year-olds out of the adult prison population and putting them into juvenile detention facilities would also ease the pressure on Wisconsin prisons, according to WISDOM. A robust transitional jobs program would help reduce the reincarceration rate by supporting ex-inmates in successfully re-entering society.

State Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-11th District, introduced a bill on April 20 that would decriminalize possession of marijuana in amounts of 25 grams or less. People caught with small amounts of the drug would be fined as opposed to imprisoned. 

Several Democratic legislators are working on a bill that would reduce the amount of time parolees can be reincarcerated for minor rule violations.

“It’s something that we all agree we have to delve into but the actual bill has not been introduced,” says state Rep. David Bowen, D-10th District. “Things are just getting underway. We’ll attempt to standardize (the revocation process), but we want to have some flexibility. You have so many moving parts.”

State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-76th District, says, “There seems to be some momentum on both sides of the aisle to do something” to end mass incarceration in the state. She said a recent motion would have brought in people from the Department of Corrections to give a presentation on people who are eligible for parole but it hasn’t yet happened.

Taylor says of the many correction reforms lawmakers are looking at, there’s one in particular that stands out.

“They have to look at the racial disparity,” she says. “People of color do not do more drugs and they’re policed more for drugs. We need to look at the policies that treat people unfairly, and it starts with the drug crimes.”

New ‘In God We Trust’ decals on Texas cop cars draw complaints

A police department in a Texas Bible Belt community has placed large “In God We Trust” decals on its patrol vehicles in response to recent violence against law enforcement officers, drawing criticism from a watchdog group that says the decals amount to an illegal government endorsement of religion.

The decision by police to unveil the phrase in Childress, an agricultural community of some 6,100 people at the southern edge of the Texas Panhandle, follows a similar move by dozens of other police agencies elsewhere in the country.

Police Chief Adrian Garcia said he decided to add the decals in response to recent attacks on law enforcement personnel that have received broad attention, including the Aug. 28 killing of a sheriff’s deputy who was shot 15 times at a Houston-area gas station.

“I think with all the assaults happening on officers across the country … it’s time we get back to where we once were,” Garcia told the Red River Sun newspaper. He did not respond to an Associated Press request for comment.

The Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund notes that eight officers have been shot and killed in the U.S. in the last month – and four died in the span of 10 days – but shooting deaths of officers from January through September of this year were actually down 13 percent compared to the same period last year.

Other law enforcement agencies have cited different reasons for adding the phrase to their vehicles. Mark Nichols, the sheriff of Randolph County, Missouri, said he had it added to his department’s fleet in July out of a sense of patriotism.

“It’s our nation’s motto and we want to be patriotic toward our country,” Nichols said.

He said the Missouri Sheriff’s Association previously voted to support adding “In God We Trust” to sheriff’s vehicles across the state.

In fact, of the dozens of complaints about the decals lodged in recent months by the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, about half were sent to law enforcement agencies in Missouri. Departments in Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Virginia and elsewhere also received complaints from the foundation, which says it will consider suing but acknowledges it can be difficult finding a plaintiff willing to be publicly identified as challenging the use of the phrase.

Gary Parsons, the sheriff in Lee County in Virginia, said his office spent a total of $50 to have the decals added to about 25 vehicles. He said many people feel their belief system is being trampled and that adding the phrase is a way of pushing back.

“It’s not only a symbol of moral values but also a symbol of patriotism,” he said.

In its letter to Nichols, the foundation said, “Statements about a god have no place on government-owned cars. Public officials should not use their government position and government property to promote their religious views.”

The letter cites the Pew Research Center when it goes on to say that 23 percent of Americans identify as “nonreligious,” up 8 percentage points from 2007.

Rebecca Markert, a senior staff attorney for the foundation, said the First Amendment prohibits government from establishing or even preferring a religion. The growing number of law enforcement agencies adding the phrase to vehicles amounts to a violation of separation of church and state, she said.

While Nichols and other leaders say their communities have been supportive, Markert says it’s important to protect the interests of those whose views may not be broadly supported , such atheists and agnostics.

“The Bill of Rights was passed to protect minority rights against the tyranny of the majority,” she said.

Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for the Texas-based Liberty Institute, a law firm that specializes in issues of religious liberty, said the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts have repeatedly allowed the phrase and other religious overtures as “part of the country’s history and heritage.”

This is why courtroom oaths are protected along with legislative prayers, the Pledge of Allegiance and other acts steeped in religious symbolism, he said.

Charles Haynes, vice president of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., explained “In God We Trust” began appearing on federal coins in the Civil War era, and Congress in 1956 approved it as the national motto.

The foundation notes in its letter to Nichols that the history of the motto has “no secular purpose,” explaining that it was adopted during the Cold War as a reaction to the “godliness” of communism. It says the country’s original motto, E Pluribus Unum, was purely secular.

Haynes said pitched battles over religious phrases likely will increase as groups like Freedom From Religion become better funded and gain broader support.

“I think we’re going to see a growing number of fights over these symbolic references to god by government,” he said.