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Ohio Probe: Did Safety Officials Lie About Covert Operation?

In January, Ohio highway patrol troopers were planning a covert operation on an apparent attempt to drop off contraband, mostly likely tobacco or drugs, behind the back fence of the official residence of Gov. Ted Strickland for an inmate working there. The Columbus Dispatch says the operation never happened. Instead, troopers were sent to visit the prisoner's wife, who was supposed to make the drop, and warn her against doing it. She didn't.

An investigation boils down to three questions: Who made the decision to abort the planned Jan. 10 operation in favor of what law-enforcement officers dub a "knock and talk"? How and when was it made? And why? Inspector General Thomas Charles says state public safety director Cathy Collins-Taylor made the decision to avoid political embarrassment for the governor. Her sworn statements that the original operation wasn't officially called off until late the morning of Jan. 9 by Col. David Dicken, superintendent of the State Highway Patrol, are lies, Charles says. Strickland said a close examination of the report shows that none of his three subordinates did anything wrong.

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Nashville's Serpas Named To Lead Troubled New Orleans Police Force

In tapping Ronal Serpas to lead the New Orleans Police Department, Mayor Mitch Landrieu lauded the new top cop's history of reducing crime, his community outreach efforts and knowledge of this city's culture, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Serpas, a former high-ranking New Orleans police administrator, has spent six years at the helm of the police force in Nashville. He is now tasked with transforming a troubled police force and quelling crime in one of the nation's most murderous cities.Serpas, a 49-year-old New Orleans native and third-generation New Orleans police officer, will take over the department within a week. Because Nashville is mired in a state of emergency, drying out from deadly floodwaters that swamped the city this week, the city's mayor asked Landrieu to allow for Serpas to see the disaster through. Serpas will earn $180,000, a slight bump from former Superintendent Warren Riley's $177,000 salary. It is a pay cut for Serpas, who was making $195,000 in Nashville and was slated to make $205,000 come July. Coming back to New Orleans will likely mean a hefty increase in his pension, however.

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NY Public Defender Challenge Lawsuit Can Proceed, Court Rules

New York State’s highest court ruled that a broad class-action suit challenging the state’s system of providing public defenders can move forward because there are enough signs that the system is failing poor people, the New York Times reports. The 4-to-3 ruling by the State Court of Appeals came in a case that civil liberties lawyers said could be a model for similar challenges across the country. It set the stage for a sweeping battle in the courts and perhaps the legislature.

Written by the state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, the ruling said the suit, which is opposed by the state, could proceed because it posed fundamental questions about the fairness of the criminal justice system. “Wrongful conviction, the ultimate sign of a criminal justice system’s breakdown and failure, has been documented in too many cases,” the decision said. The ruling came  after decades of reports and findings by state commissions that New York’s locally financed system for meeting the constitutional requirement to provide lawyers for indigent defendants, which varies greatly by county, is inadequate, with inattentive, unavailable, poorly trained, and poorly supervised lawyers handling huge caseloads. In many counties, the ruling noted, poor defendants are routinely arraigned without lawyers at all during initial appearances, where bail is set and many defendants are sent to jail. Improvements sought by civil liberties lawyers could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Security Dilemma: Threats From Citizens With Clean Records

The attempted Times Square bombing illustrates the challenge of handling security threats from citizens with clean records, says the Wall Street Journal. U.S. authorities are limited in the tools they can employ to legally monitor travel and other behavior of Americans who haven't otherwise aroused suspicion. As the numbers of such near-miss cases mount, officials and lawmakers are trying to develop additional measures to identify people who pose a threat who can easily hide in plain sight. "How do you do that with people who are living in this country, who are naturalized citizens or are born here?" said a U.S. counterterrorism official. "That's exactly the challenge were trying to think through."

Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection agency can question anyone to determine whether they are a threat when entering the U.S. The agency's decision to send Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad for additional screening when he returned from Pakistan in February elicited a phone number that helped link him later to the Times Square incident. The FBI is more limited in the steps it can take to monitor U.S. citizens without reason to believe they are about to commit a crime, said spokesman Paul Bresson. The FBI is required to show probable cause of potential illegal activity in order to conduct any kind of monitoring, such as entering a mosque and observing activities there. "If it's brought to our attention that there's something afoot so far as a criminal act, we can open an investigation," said Bresson.

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Gang Leaders Quell Violence At Chicago Elementary School

Two Chicago men who in past years controlled the city's drug business as leaders of the Vice Lords gang now have helped bring chaos in an elementary school to a halt, says the Chicago Tribune.  The men have served repeated stints in prison on charges ranging from drug distribution to unlawful possession of a weapon. They matter-of-factly discuss the details of their rise from street-corner hustlers to high-ranking bosses.

Both say they started removing themselves from lives of crime four years ago, after seeing too many friends killed or incarcerated and recognizing that their actions helped destroy the neighborhood they grew up in. Both are in their mid-30s, an age range at which experts agree many gang members — often surprised to be either alive or not in prison — turn their lives around. Since they  began working with kids at the school and intervening in disputes late last spring, suspensions have dropped from 46 in the 2008-09 school year to 13 thus far in 2009-10. "They changed the whole culture around the school," said the principal. "I don't have boys in here getting handcuffed and dragged out. That was happening before. Now it's not."

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States Divided On Registration Rules For Juvenile Sex Offenders

When Ricky Blackman was 16, he pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl, and an Iowa judge ordered him to register as a sex offender. If Blackman had lived in at least a half-dozen other states, reports the Associated Press, his name would never have appeared on a registry because states are divided on how to deal with the nation's youngest sex offenders. Juvenile justice advocates want rehabilitation instead of registration; public safety experts argue children must be protected from predators, even if they are minors.

The confusing array of rules for juvenile sex offenders persists despite a vast overhaul that was adopted four years ago to bring clarity and consistency to the nation's sex offender regristration laws. "It's a real bind for the states," said Michele Deitch, who teaches criminal justice policy at the University of Texas. "Do you want to comply with what could be poor public policy or risk not complying with the federal law? And there's no easy answer." Twenty-one states currently require juveniles convicted of a serious sex crime to register with law enforcement, found an Associated Press review of state laws and interviews with state officials. In 19 other states, only juveniles convicted as adults or who move from a state that requires registration are required to provide their information to authorities. In the remaining states, the laws vary.

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Pentagon Ejects 4 Journalists From Trial For ID Of Protected Witness

The Pentagon barred four journalists from the trial of Guantanamo prisoner Omar Khadr because they allegedly reported the name of a military interrogator who testified yesterday that he tried to frighten Khadr with the possibility of being raped in prison, reports Politico.com. "We threw some people out of there today because they disclosed the identity of a protected witness," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said. "He had been clearly identified as someone who needed to be protected."

The journalists kicked out of the proceedings, currently in the midst of pre-trial hearings, are Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald and McClatchy Newspapers, Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Paul Koring of the Globe & Mail, and Steven Edwards of Canwest Newspapers. The reporters have noted that the name of the interrogator in question, Joshua Claus, was widely reported in the Canadian press before the trial. The American Civil Liberties Union called "nonsensical" the move against the four reporters. "That reporters are being punished for disclosing information that has been publicly available for years is nothing short of absurd – any gag order that covers this kind of information is not just overbroad but nonsensical," the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer said. "Plainly, no legitimate government interest is served by suppressing information that is already well known."

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LAPD Disbanded Counter-Terror Unit In Budget-Cutting Move

The Los Angeles Police Department disbanded a counter-terrorism unit this year as part of Chief Charlie Beck's efforts to put more patrol officers on the streets amid budget cuts, the Los Angeles Times reports. The Protective Security Task Force team consisted of about two dozen plainclothes cops who were dispatched to provide a "cloak" of high-level security at buildings or events that had been threatened or were otherwise believed to be at risk, said Deputy Chief Michael Downing, head of the Counter Terrorism and Criminal Intelligence Bureau.

Task force officers also tested the vulnerabilities of city skyscrapers, landmark buildings, and other possible high-value targets and then worked with the buildings' private security forces to review ways to tighten their defenses. Officials said disbanding the unit was a tough decision, but stressed that it made up only a small part of police counter-terrorism efforts and that the bureau's primary function of gathering intelligence continues. Roughly 270 people are assigned to the bureau. In light of New York City's failed terrorist attack last weekend, the cut underscores the difficult decisions Beck faces as he struggles to mitigate the impacts of the city's fiscal crisis. Since the Times Square bomb was discovered Saturday, city officials in New York have pressed the federal government for more anti-terrorism funding to help the New York Police Department.

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Gun Lobby Fights Barring Those On Terror List From Buying Firearms

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank asks says the gun lobby seems to be fighting for terrorists' right to buy firearms. The George W. Bush administration urged Congress to pass a law barring people on the terrorist watch list from buying explosives and guns. The gun lobby objected. Now the Obama administration is urging Congress to pass the same legislation, and the gun lobby continues to object. On Wednesday, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly came to Capitol Hill to plead for Congress to change the absurdity in the law that keeps those with alleged terrorist ties off airplanes but enables them to legally buy guns and explosives.

"At a time when the threat of terrorism is still very real, as we in New York City know all too well," Bloomberg told a Senate committee, "I think it's imperative that Congress close  this terror gap in our gun laws and close it quickly." "Failure to do so places this country at even greater risk," seconded Kelly. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who has joined the cause, warned that if a terrorist uses a gun that he buys legally, "there would be blood on our hands." The hearing, before Joe Lieberman (I-CT)'s homeland security panel, provided a rare chance for gun-control advocates to take the offensive in a debate that has mostly gone against them in recent years. The Government Accountability Office has found that people on terrorist watch lists had bought guns or explosives from U.S. dealers 1,119 times over the past six years -- largely because the federal government has no power to stop them. (The suspect in last weekend's New York City attempted bombing was not on a terrorist watch list.)

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California Town Seeks Revival From Prison; Experts Cautious

Residents of Mendota, Ca., a town of 10,000 35 miles west of Fresno are hoping for an economic turnaround when the federal government opens a 1,100-inmate prison just down the road, bringing jobs and paying customers to the area, the Los Angeles Times reports. Never mind the prospect of guard towers, razor wire, and the occasional jailbreak — small towns in many parts of California are welcoming prisons, and the jobs that come with them, with open arms. At least six counties and two cities have approved measures to allow new prisons in their jurisdictions, says the state Department of Corrections, which is overseeing a $6-billion prison expansion program that includes construction of at least 35 new facilities.

While prisons often do bring more customers to local restaurants, gas stations and other businesses, the overall economic benefits are mixed, some experts say. Well-paid prison employees usually live some distance from the low-income areas that tend to attract prisons, and usually don't spend their salaries in town, said Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a USC professor who has studied how prisons affect California towns. Employers also avoid setting up shop anywhere near prison walls. Real estate values typically decline near prisons because people don't want to live near them, said Terry Besser, a professor at Iowa State. In Mendota, however, city leaders are confident they made the right call in pushing federal officials to build the massive gray-block structure  on land where farmers once grew crops. The agricultural slowdown has made the town seek a new economic driver. Construction was completed in April; although the opening date has not yet been set, hiring is well underway.

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