Category Archives: Criminal Justice Reform

Cause And Effect in Baltimore

grayWith what’s going on in Baltimore, we’re beyond simple deja vu. What we’ve been witnessing is a sickeningly predictable process. Police beat the shit out of a black guy, and he dies. People get mad. Protests turn to violence. Everyone views the incidents through their own prisms, and assigns blame and praise as their worldview permits them. We have been repeating this process for some time, but in recent times it was the death of Michael Brown that instigated what has become a nationwide movement.

In order to fix the mess that’s currently being made, we need to see what got us here in the first place. Simply sticking our fingers in our collective ears while hauntingly saying “well, don’t riot!” is like someone whose answer to sexual assault is to tell men “well, don’t rape!”. It’s condescending and unhelpful. We need to investigate how we got to where we are, both in Baltimore and other communities such as Ferguson, MO.

Do the protesters have legitimate complaints?

Only a partisan fool would argue that the protesters in Baltimore don’t have legitimate reasons to be extremely angry.

The flash point for this community was the death of Freddie Gray, who was taken into police custody on April 12th and somehow came out of it with a broken spine the likes of which usually happen in car accidents. The incident sprung from Gray seeing a police officer and taking off running. It’s unknown exactly what happened inside the police van that he was taken into, which is different from the case of Walter Scott, who was taped being gunned down from behind by a police officer.

In addition, police brutality is a major issue in Baltimore, and with so many payouts – of taxpayer money, mind – for brutality cases, keeping in mind that these are just the ones that got caught, a reasonable person can draw one of two conclusions: either the Baltimore Police Department is so incompetent that they can’t even get away with one of the easiest things for an officer to get away with, or police brutality is so prevalent in the BPD that it’s skewing the numbers.

So it’s a race thing, right?

That’s not cut-and-dried. Baltimore’s a bit different in that they have a black mayor, a heavy black population within their police force, and their minority population is mixed race, with Latinos and other ethnic groups mixing in and creating an eclectic mix. This isn’t Ferguson, whose white police force regards their black population as walking ATMs.

But at the same time, race is heavily tied to class in all of the cases that have sprung up. This goes back to decades old debates on the poor economic straits of black people in America, owing to hundreds of years of slavery, followed by Jim Crow laws, enhanced by racist mindsets throughout America. Those are different articles altogether, but the economic plight of black people in America, on a bird’s eye level, contributes heavily to the crime rate, which causes police to react disproportionately, and perpetuates a never-ending cycle of distrust. The chicken vs. egg debate of which came first – the black inequality or black crime – is irrelevant to this context. What’s important, right now, is that in many cases, the police – even black cops, like the one who covered up for Michael Slager – have not helped, for years, due to outright profiling.

Wait a minute. You just said blacks commit more crimes. In fact, most of the people who have been killed had rap sheets as well! That kind of justifies at least some action, right?

Ever hear of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Because that’s what’s happening in most cases. Yes, in many cases, as reported by the press, the individuals who have been victimized recently had prior run-ins with police. Despite consternation by some that this is a ploy to prove that black people are all criminals, it would be irresponsible journalism to omit those facts.

But this issue isn’t just affecting poor blacks with a record. CNN’s LZ Granderson on Twitter yesterday pointed out the reality:

There’s also New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who’s son was stopped at gunpoint at Yale University, where the son is a student. It was a black cop that detained that young man, but ultimately, it’s the colour blue that matters more. As Mr. Blow notes in his piece, all that matters is how you look.

So what does this have to do with someone that has a “rap sheet”? There’s a huge difference between LZ Granderson and some random guy in the projects, right? Well, let’s extrapolate this to its logical conclusion:

1) Man is stopped for superfluous reasons. There are provable statistics that show blacks are far more likely to be stopped than whites. This is often called “walking(talking) while black”.
2) Man is ticketed or arrested for a meaningless crime. This is partly the fault of overlegislation – chances are good that due to the addition of “regulatory” crimes, you are breaking the law while reading this – but it’s also a problem for black people, so often pulled over by officers needing to justify themselves, especially if there’s a financial impetus.
3) If that person is later the victim of brutality, reasonable doubt can be cast on the victim by referencing “previous run-ins” with police. This not only affects criminal and civil trials, it doubles as a character assassination.
4) The general public – still overwhelmingly white, mostly conservative, and educated with a strong belief in law, order and the police as a force of protection instead of oppression – are quick to label the action reasonably justified, unable – or unwilling – to personalize the problem. The spectre of police brutality is so foreign to most white people that even well meaning individuals simply cannot understand what it’s like to walk around with a constant fear of police reactions. It’s literally not in our realm of thinking.

Whatever, you bleeding heart liberal. So the police occasionally thump a guy too hard. But I don’t wanna hear this stuff about poor people! They have just as many chances as we do! Just look at others who made it! Look at guys like Herman Cain!

First off, if you’re poor, you don’t have as many chances as you think, as is easy enough to prove. I grew up poor, and it took an immense amount of work, four years of the military, and a lot of luck just to make it into the middle class, and if something goes wrong now, I’m largely screwed.

Now, go back to that Ferguson report, know that that report could be written for entirely too many communities – particularly in the South, where blacks are still fighting the ghosts of Jim Crow, slavery, and a significant number of people who feel the Confederacy was justified – and imagine how hard it would be to “come up” under those circumstances. It’s hard to climb the social ladder when it keeps getting kicked out from underfoot.

This is the major reason why so many communities are protesting, fighting, attacking, you name it. They see no way out of the hell they’ve been born into, and the people that are supposed to be protecting them are inflicting further injustice. The minutia of how we can get poor people out of their plight is a political debate for another time.

OK, maybe I understand that. But that doesn’t justify rioting! Looting isn’t helping! In fact, it’s taking away from that community!

Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, looting and rioting are bad, m’kay? Looting is not protesting. It is naked theft, brought on by a simple-minded materialism that some could argue is a major reason why the poor are poor. And flies are said to be more attracted to honey than vinegar. This is all true.

But in light of everything that’s happened in the past two years, it’s hard to argue that the “nice” way of doing things has worked at all.

The above argument is the one that The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates made recently, stating that calls for order are only made with no other solutions in mind.

Now, tonight, I turn on the news and I see politicians calling for young people in Baltimore to remain peaceful and “nonviolent.” These well-intended pleas strike me as the right answer to the wrong question. To understand the question, it’s worth remembering what, specifically, happened to Freddie Gray. An officer made eye contact with Gray. Gray, for unknown reasons, ran. The officer and his colleagues then detained Gray. They found him in possession of a switchblade. They arrested him while he yelled in pain. And then, within an hour, his spine was mostly severed. A week later, he was dead. What specifically was the crime here? What particular threat did Freddie Gray pose? Why is mere eye contact and then running worthy of detention at the hands of the state? Why is Freddie Gray dead?

(…)

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.

As for the stealing, it’s bad. It’s wrong. It hurts the moral standing of the protesters. But if we’re talking in terms of scale, it’s worth noting that the City of Baltimore has a bad history of using civil forfeiture as a form of revenue enhancement. If we put the scale of that in a bar graph next to some assholes stealing some kit from the electronics department, the first bar is going to be astronomically higher.

Well… I still think what they’re doing is wrong. Win some elections and make change the right way.

Actually, Ferguson did just that.

It’s OK if you don’t care about the protests, and their resulting riots. It’s OK if Freddie Gray is just one more name on the news. If you want to mention some white guy somewhere that didn’t get this kind of attention – here, I’ll even do the work1 for you – then sure, even if you’re kind of being a dick.

But to sit there and assume that this is a problem caused by those in the streets is irresponsible, insensitive, and flat-out wrong. The people out in the streets right now aren’t nobodies, doing this for fun; they are citizens who think they have been getting a raw deal for years, decades even, and the death of one of their own, unjustified, by the people tasked with their “protection”, was finally the straw that broke the camel’s back. This isn’t the inane ramblings of a “social justice warrior” claiming that all sex is rape or some other crap. There are cold, hard, verifiable statistics showing that the poor and the black – too often synonymous terms – get an extremely raw deal all over America, and if it doesn’t change, what we’re seeing now will continue to be the new normal.

Note: In the time between this piece being written and being edited for release, six police officers have been charged with crimes ranging from false imprisonment to murder.

1 – Before reading that WT link – if you can get past all those damn surveys – go back up and read that Census link from before.

Christopher Bowen covered the video games industry for eight years before moving onto politics and general interest. He is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus, and has worked for Diehard GameFan, Daily Games News, TalkingAboutGames.com and has freelanced elsewhere. He is a “liberaltarian” – a liberal libertarian. A network engineer by trade, he lives in Derby CT.

Quote of the Day: Baltimore 2015 Edition

what ifI’ve been thinking quite a bit about the situation in Baltimore and the very state of our culture. This Facebook status update I came across yesterday is very worthy of repeating here.

I really wish people would stop posting Freddie Gray’s criminal record, as if that makes him deserving of having his spine broken while in police custody, killing him. You can’t claim to be a supporter of constitutional rights, yet care nothing of Freddie Gray’s rights. This brother was no less deserving of his life than any white collar criminal. I don’t support rioting & looting, but I also won’t support those who think his life was worth less than the next person, or that he got what he deserved. He was the victim in this case, and his record is irrelevant… – Talitha McEachin

Agreed. Unless Freddie Gray presented a presented a threat to the lives of the police officers while he was in custody*, the police had no right to use the force they used that ultimately ended his life. Whether he was arrested one time or a thousand has nothing to do with how Gray was treated.

*Of course at this point, we don’t really know what happened while Gray was in custody. This is yet another argument for the notion that each and every moment the police are interacting with a suspect that these interactions should be recorded and made available (eventually) to the public. There’s simply no excuse for this not to be the policy of every police department in 2015.

Quote of the Day: Jason Pye on the Smarter Sentencing Act

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Jason Pye, former contributor to The Liberty Papers and current Director of Justice Reform at FreedomWorks posted an article yesterday for Rare Liberty about some promising political developments in the area of criminal justice reform. Perhaps one of the most promising of these developments at the federal level is a bill being considered is S.502 – The Smarter Sentencing Act.

Jason explains why he believes this reform is a step in the right direction:

With federal prison spending booming, an unlikely bipartisan alliance has emerged to bring many of these successful state-level reforms to the federal justice system. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have joined with Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) to reform federal mandatory minimums – a one-size-fits-all, congressionally mandated approach to sentencing.

[…]

The Smarter Sentencing Act would expand the federal “safety valve” – an exception to federal mandatory minimum sentences for low-level nonviolent offenders with little or no criminal history – and cuts in half mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. This more rational approach to sentencing will reduce costs on already overburdened taxpayers. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated a net $3 billion cost-savings over a decade. The Justice Department believes the bill will save an eye-popping $24 billion over 20 years.

The benefits of the Smarter Sentencing Act may not end with the fiscal savings. It could also reverse the damage done by federal mandatory minimum sentences in certain communities, which, as Lee recently explained, “have paid a high cost for the stiff sentences that mandatory minimums require.”

Chicago Police Using Domestic “Black Site,” The Guardian Reports

Homan Square in Chicago. Image retrieved from New York Daily News website.

Chicago’s police department is running an “off-the-books interrogation compound” that attorneys liken it to the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site, according to a chilling report from the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman.

Suspects, like the trio of potheads who wanted to attack Obama’s re-election campaign headquarters with a slingshot and marbles in protest of the NATO summit, are taken to “Homan Square.” But no one is ever booked inside it walls. No public, searchable record of their time there is generated. Neither their families nor their attorneys are informed of their whereabouts. Lawyers attempting to gain access are turned away, even if their clients are in custody inside.

At Homan Square they don’t process paperwork about your arrest. You’re just gone. No one knows.

At some point they have to do the paperwork and prosecute you. After they get your confession, you wind up back in the paperwork.

Suspects allege being beaten, kept in chain link cages, and shackled for extended periods while held inside Homan for as long 24 hours, without access to a lawyer, before being transferred precincts for booking or simply released.

“They just disappear,” said Anthony Hill, a criminal defense attorney, “until they show up at a district for charging or are just released back out on the street.”

Brian Jacob Church, one of the NATO Three, was picked up for suspected terrorist plotting in connection with protests against the NATO summit. He was taken to Homan Square, handcuffed to a bench for 17 hours, and interrogated without being read his Miranda rights. Anticipating he might be arrested in connection with the protests, Church had scrawled an attorney’s phone number on his arm, and explicitly demanded an opportunity to call that lawyer. That request was denied.

“I had essentially figured, ‘All right, well, they disappeared us and so we’re probably never going to see the light of day again,’” Church said.

Since the raid that resulted in Church’s arrest was well publicized, a team of attorneys was simultaneously searching for him to offer their services. Through 12 hours of active searching, he and his co-defendants could not be located. No booking record existed. Attorneys ultimately complained to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Only then did they learn about Homan Square, and only hours later were Church and his co-defendants taken for booking at a police precinct.

Richard Brzeczek, Chicago’s police superintendent from 1980 to 1983, who also said he had no first-hand knowledge of abuses at Homan Square, said it was “never justified” to deny access to attorneys.

“Homan Square should be on the same list as every other facility where you can call central booking and say: ‘Can you tell me if this person is in custody and where,’” Brzeczek said.

“If you’re going to be doing this, then you have to include Homan Square on the list of facilities that prisoners are taken into and a record made. It can’t be an exempt facility.”

The NATO Three were ultimately found guilty of lesser charges (possessing an incendiary device and “mob action”), but acquitted of terrorism related offenses.

[D]efense attorneys, bolstered by undercover police recordings that prosecutors played in court, argued that the three were “goofs” who talked big and were goaded on by two undercover police officers.

[T]hey were frequently drunk, high and unable to complete simple tasks, once missing out on a protest because Church had to wait for his pot dealer.

One of the undercover officers told an apologetic Church that he needed to make a to-do list in the morning before smoking pot.

Church also said he wanted to attack four police stations but didn’t want to Google the locations of two of them. Chase advocated attacking Obama’s re-election campaign headquarters with a slingshot and marbles.

Church declined when Nadia Chikko, one of the undercover officers, asked Church if he wanted to try out one of the Molotovs they’d built with four empty beer bottles, some gasoline and a cut-up bandana from Mehmet Uygun, the other undercover officer.

“I’m too (expletive) cold to be going anywhere. I want to wrap up in my blanket and sleep,” he said.

A lawyer named Eliza Solowiej told The Guardian that she had represented a man who had already been entered into Chicago’s central booking station, and she had personally observed him in a police station without any injuries. Thereafter, someone changed his name in the system and had him moved to Homan Square without any record of the transfer. After his time in Homan Square, he was then taken to a hospital to be treated for head injuries he had incurred sometime in the interim.

Another lawyer reported taking a call from a worried mother. She believed her 15-year-old son had been arrested, but she was having trouble finding where he was being held. After “12, maybe 13” hours, the 15-year-old was released without charges.

A 44-year-old detainee named John Hubbard died in an interview room at Homan, allegedly of heroin overdose. But The Intercept’s Juan Thompson says there are no official records or even a coroner’s report confirming that cause of death. Nor are there records that explain why he was detained in the first place.

Chicago police at first did not respond to The Guardian’s questions about the facility. Once the story was initially published, the department issued a statement insisting there was nothing untoward taking place at Homan, that records are generated for arrests, and that if “lawyers have a client detained at Homan Squire, just like any other facility, they are allowed to speak to and visit them.”

As noted by The Guardian, the statement does not address how long into an arrest or detention those records are generated, or whether they are made available to the public, such as family members looking for relatives who have been picked up and attorneys searching for their clients. The department did not respond to The Guardian’s request for clarification on that issue.

[A] retired Washington DC homicide detective, James Trainum, could not think of another circumstance nationwide where police held people incommunicado for extended periods.

“I’ve never known any kind of organized, secret place where they go and just hold somebody before booking for hours and hours and hours. That scares the hell out of me that that even exists or might exist,” said Trainum, who now studies national policing issues, to include interrogations, for the Innocence Project and the Constitution Project.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Georgia Legislature to Consider Modest Reforms for ‘No-Knock’ Raids

boubou3

On May 28th, 2014 around 3:00 a.m. in Habersham County, Georgia a SWAT team raided a house the police believed to be occupied by Wanis Thonetheva, an alleged drug dealer. In the chaos of the raid instead were four children and up to four adults. The youngest of the children, 19 month-old “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh was burned and permanently disfigured from a flash-bang grenade which set the play pen he was sleeping in ablaze.

No drugs or contraband of any kind was found in the home. Also absent from the residence was the man they were looking for.

Bou Bou was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta where he was put into a medically induced coma. Doctors were not sure if the toddler would ever wake up but fortunately, he did.

This is not by any means, the end of the Phonesavanh family’s problems with Bou Bou’s medical expenses around $1.6 million and surgeries into adulthood. These expenses, by the way, that will not be paid by the county or the departments responsible for severely injuring this child.

In the aftermath of this botched SWAT raid, several Georgia legislators are looking to reform the use of “no-knock” raids. Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) introduced a bill he’s calling “Bou Bou’s Law” which would require a slightly higher standard for no-knock raids than required by SCOTUS. Bou Bou’s Law would require “the affidavit or testimony supporting such warrant establishes by probable cause that if an officer were to knock and announce identity and purpose before entry, such act of knocking and announcing would likely pose a significant and imminent danger to human life or imminent danger of evidence being destroyed.”

In the House, Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) introduced a similar bill which would go even further by requiring that no-knock raids be conducted between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. unless the judge issuing the warrant “expressly authorizes” another time. Tanner’s bill also requires that each department keep records of each raid which would be compiled with all the other records around the state into an annual report which would be sent to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and the Speaker of the House.

While these are laudable reforms which I would hope would pass any state legislature, these reforms do not go nearly far enough. Several of the articles I read in preparing this post had titles like “No Knock Warrants Could be a Thing of the Past.” In reading over these bills, I’m not quite that optimistic. As Jacob Sullum pointed out at Reason, its not at all clear that Bou Bou’s Law would have prevented the raid from happening. The police at the time thought their suspect was probably armed; it probably wouldn’t take much to convince a judge to issue the no-knock warrant.

As I took another look at Rep. Tanner’s bill, I saw no language that would restrict the hours of the standard knock and announce raids. His bill seems incredibly vague to my lay reading “all necessary and reasonable force may be used to effect an entry into any building or property or part thereof to execute such search warrant if, after verbal notice or an attempt in good faith to give verbal notice by the officer directed to execute the same of his or her authority and purpose”.

Its human nature to stretch and bend language in such a way that is favorable to one’s objectives. I can imagine the police “interpreting” this law to mean they could gently knock on the door at 3 a.m., speaking in a barely audible voice “Police, search warrant open up,” counting 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi, CRASH!

There is some concern by those who think that even these modest reforms put the police in unnecessary danger – police lives matter. I’m of the opinion that ALL lives matter and propose some (admittedly) radical ideas as to how and when SWAT tactics and/or police searches should be used to protect the life and liberty of all concerned:

– If the reason for a surprise raid on a residence is that the evidence could be quickly flushed down a toilet or easily destroyed by other means, then this isn’t enough reason for such a raid in the first place. A couple of ounces of any drug flushed down a toilet is not sufficient reason to put the lives of those in the residence or the police at risk.

– SWAT should not be used at all unless its an active shooter situation, a hostage situation, or credible reason to believe there will be active, armed resistance to the search. Unless there is a very real clear and present danger, leave your military grade toys at the station.

– Each and every police officer involved in the search wears a camera (preferably on the head to have a true POV). All video from the search would be made available to the suspect’s defense attorney.

– The police departments involved are responsible for any and all “collateral damage” to life and property. In the event an innocent life is taken, the individual officer(s) responsible should be treated as anyone else who takes a life. Investigation/prosecution would be conducted by an independent investigators and prosecutors.

– Absolutely no raids or searches of any kind between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. (though stakeouts and other activity which does not require interaction with the suspect(s) during these hours is permissible).

I’m sure that some if not all of these ideas are too radical for many lawmakers. If we really believe that “all lives matter”, however; these proposals should be thoughtfully considered.

If you would like to make a small donation to help pay Bou Bou’s medical expenses, go to this GoFundMe page which has raised nearly $43k so far.

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