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U.S. Attorney In D.C. Criticized For Slow Handling Of Benghazi Case

Unidentified sources are quoted by the New York Times as criticizing selection of the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington to handle the case of Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspect in the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. Khattala made his first court appearance this week after a June arraignment. “This is not how it should have been done,” said one law enforcement official. Said another unidentified official: “It took them nine months to charge this guy — far longer than it should have. Initially, they just didn’t know what they were doing.”

U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen defended his office’s record of handling such cases. “The national security prosecutors in this office are second to none,” he said. “Our national security section has a long track record of successfully prosecuting some of this country’s most high-profile and sensitive national security cases, including 13 convictions in terrorism-related cases since 2010 alone.”

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Jails, Companies Can Profit By Replacing In-Person Visits With Video

One of the few things a jail inmate has to look forward to is a visit from a friend or a loved one. The Texas Observer reports that some jails are eliminating in-person visitation and requiring instead the use of a video visitation system sold by Dallas-based Securus Technologies. Critics say it’s an outrageous profiteering scheme that has no policy rationale and could actually deteriorate security at jails. Securus markets its system as a cost-saver for jails and a convenience for family members who live far from their incarcerated loved ones.  The structure of the deals suggests there are powerful financial incentives for jails to curb or eliminate face-to-face visitation.

Securus charges callers as much as a dollar a minute to use its video services, and jails get a 20 to 25 percent cut. For big-city jails, that could mean millions in extra money. “We believe Securus sees Texas county jails as a really ripe market for them,” said Kymberlie Quong Charles of the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership. Securus is a major provider of phone services for jails and prisons, but the Federal Communications Commission is cracking down on what it considers exorbitant rates. Video visitation could offer a source of revenue at a time of sagging profits for the industry. In Dallas, activists and some local leaders helped kill a contract with Securus that included a requirement that the jail eliminate all in-person visits.

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DOJ To Do "Collaborative Review" Of Baltimore Police After Force Cases

The U.S. Department of Justice has pledged to conduct a thorough, independent and objective review of the city police force after hearing more concerns from residents about excessive force and other misconduct by Baltimore officers, the Baltimore Sun reports. While some Baltimoreans called for a full-scale civil rights probe of the city police, the head of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) said federal officials believe working with the department is the best way to improve its interactions with the community.

COPS director Ronald Davis said the Justice Department decided on that approach, which is called collaborative review, after considering the reforms instituted in last two years by Police Commissioner Anthony Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "The civil rights division is a part of the process," Davis said, "and they retain the ability to come into Baltimore if reform is not made, if recommendations are not implemented. … Nothing is off the table." Rawlings-Blake and Batts asked the Justice Department to examine the department this month. The request came after the Sun reported that the city had paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police misconduct since 2011. Nearly all of the people involved in the incidents that led to the lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges.

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Florida To Investigate Future Miami Police Shooting Incidents

After years of complaints and controversial shootings, Miami-Dade police will no longer investigate itself for criminal wrongdoing in shooting deaths. Those probes will now fall under the watchful eye of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Miami Herald reports. The move by the largest police agency in the southeastern U.S., which rarely accuses one of its own of using excessive force in a shooting death, was hailed by county leaders as a lesson in objectivity.

Local civil rights groups, which for years have been calling for the department to distance itself from investigating its own, are warily on board. The police union is complaining about not being involved in the negotiation process. “It really is an effort to give the public a sense of third-party objectivity,” said Miami-Dade County Police Director J.D. Patterson. “It’s always a good idea to have an objective third party from time to time if your integrity is questioned.” County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who pushed for the change, said it will make the department more transparent and strengthen the community’s trust. “I don’t believe agencies should be investigating themselves,” the mayor said.

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Tech-Savvy Criminals Can Build Cellphone Interceptors, Expert Says

With the right equipment, people can hijack your cellphone, listen to your calls and read your texts, alarming privacy rights advocates and tech experts alike, says NPR. Law enforcement agencies do it, but they have been restricted by the FBI from telling us about it. Beyond the police, the listeners could be the U.S. government, corporate spies or even foreign intelligence agencies. It's done with devices known as IMSI catchers or by a brand name like Stingray. They used to be expensive, bulky and hard to purchase. Now they can be bought online for $1,800 and can be as small as a briefcase.

"Today, a tech-savvy criminal or hobbyist can even build one using off-the-shelf equipment," says Stephanie Pell, a cyberethics fellow at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. IMSI catchers trick cellphones into thinking they're connected, as normal, to a network like Verizon or AT&T. But the devices hijack the phone's signal, and in some cases, intercept the contents of calls and texts. The IMSI catchers take advantage of a vulnerability built into the system. Phones using new technology can authenticate cell towers, but phones on older systems cannot tell between real and fake towers. NPR says, "There's an arms race on between the technology used to intercept cellphone calls and the technology used to detect that technology."

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State GOP Boss Charged in 'Indictment of Alabama'

Mike Hubbard, speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives and a powerful state Republican boss, has been indicted on 23 criminal counts, including using his office for personal gain, reports AL.com. Hubbard, 52, who led a historic Republican takeover of the state Legislature in 2010, was charged after a yearlong investigation. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of two to 20 years in prison and up to $30,000 in fines for each count. 

According to the indictment, Hubbard solicited favors from some of Alabama's rich and powerful, including former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and many prominent businessmen. He is accused of soliciting or receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in business from Riley and others for his personal firms, including The Auburn Network and Craftmaster Printing. "This isn't just an indictment of the speaker of Alabama's House of Representatives," said John Archibald of AL.com. "This is an indictment of Alabama."

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Violent Felon Accused of Serial Killings in NW Indiana

Accused serial killer Darren D. Vann took Gary, Ind., police on a bloody scavenger hunt last weekend, leading them to bodies of his alleged victims scattered in abandoned buildings all over the rusted-out Steel City, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. Police believe Vann used online prostitution services, including Backpage.com, to lure women to Gary and nearby Hammond, Ind. — typically to empty buildings — before killing them. And they said he has enjoyed showing off his handiwork.

“He’s basking in the glory,” one detective said. “He is reliving everything, seeing photos of the victims, dead and alive.” Police have connected Vann, 43, to seven victims, but there may be more. He allegedly admitted to killings dating back 20 years. He was arrested after surveillance video evidence linked him to the murder last Friday night of Afrika Hardy, 19, found strangled at a Hammond Motel 6. An Indiana native, Vann is a registered sex offender who spent five years in prison in Texas for raping and attempting to strangle a woman in Austin. He was paroled last July.

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Schools Struggle to Dial Back Juvenile Arrests

A generation ago, schoolchildren caught fighting in the corridors, sassing a teacher or skipping class might have ended up in detention. Today, there’s a good chance they will end up in police custody, says the Wall Street Journal. Over the past 20 years, prompted by changing police tactics and a zero-tolerance attitude toward small crimes, authorities have made more than 250 million arrests, the FBI estimates. Nearly one in three American adults are on file in the FBI’s master criminal database.

This arrest wave, in many ways, starts at school. Concern by parents and school officials over drug use and a spate of shootings prompted a rapid buildup of police officers on campus and led to school administrators referring minor infractions to local authorities. Some jurisdictions are so overwhelmed that they are experimenting with routing schoolchildren into specially designed courts that would keep first-time offenders from being saddled with an arrest record. Others have passed new laws or policies to dial back police involvement in school discipline.

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WA Court Hears Sex Case Against Backpage.com

The Washington Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Tuesday in a case filed by three sex trafficking victims who say the website Backpage.com helps promote the exploitation of children, reports the Associated Press. A separate federal case against Backpage.com was filed in Boston last week. The firm argues that the lawsuits are an attempt at censorship. It says the Communications Decency Act gives it immunity from the activities of its members or users.

Lawyers for the three girls say they were sold as prostitutes in advertisements on Backpage.com. They say it and other sites offering "adult services" are not protected by the communications act because the sites are responsible for some of the information posted. (On Monday, Indiana authorities said that a suspected serial killer of prostitutes who was arrested over the weekend met at least one of his victims through a Chicago Backpage.com ad.)

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Cops, Courts Increase Reliance on 'Cadaver Dogs'

Increasingly, law enforcement investigators across the country are putting dogs to work to help find remains — bodies, bones and blood from the missing and the murdered, reports the Associated Press. And the results of their labors are being used more and more often in court. Cadaver dogs, as the specially trained canines are sometimes called, were used in searches after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and to help find victims of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.

More recently, these dogs have helped convict some murder suspects, even when no body is found. Trainers and some forensic scientists say the dogs can detect human residue that's been left behind in a trunk, or on a blanket or tarp, or a temporary grave of some sort. In some cases, the dogs also help pinpoint areas where air and soil can be tested with increasingly sophisticated detection devices — though these methods have not been without controversy.

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TCR at a Glance

Can Homicide Be Predicted?

new & notable October 22, 2014

A new study in the journal Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice aims to isolate risk factors associated with youths who commit homicide