The following is the true life story of Mark, a young inmate,who wrote about the experiences that sent him to the juvenile justice system. The letter was originally published by The Beat Within, a juvenile justice system writing workshop, which has generously allowed The Crime Report to share his words.
Hi how are you doing today? My name is Mark. My interesting life started at Los Gatos Hospital on September 5, 1991.
I don’t remember a lot of things from when I was really young, but I do remember a little. When I was three, almost four years old, my mom was taking care of me, she took me to a lake for the first time. The lake was really beautiful and it was a great day to be outside. That’s why I think I’ve remembered it.
My mom was feeding the ducks and after a little while, she got me to start throwing the bread too. At the end, she took a picture of me. I had my Athletics’ outfit on. Yeah, I have been an Oakland A’s fan since I was three years old. That’s right.
Now I’m going to skip to kindergarten. I turned five years old right after the school year started. I started at Casell Elementary School, on the eastside of San Jose, the school was right around the corner from my house.
Well back to school, so a few months into kindergarten, I was at my table next to this kid I didn’t like. Let me tell you why I didn’t before you know what happens. Two week into school, that kid was playing tag with us and I was it and tagged him and he said that I didn’t. We got in a fight.
Then the week after that I was playing on the playground, he was behind me and pushed me on the bridge of the jungle gym and I cut my knee and hurt my elbow.
After I got back to class from the nurses office, my friend told me it was that same kid I got in a fight with the week earlier. So now back to that day in class. We had a group project to work on and my arch-enemy was sitting right next to me. We were twenty minutes into our project. Me and my friend were making fun of my enemy. After ten minutes of cracking jokes about how he was dressed and how ugly the kid was, he grabbed his pencil and stabbed me in the left knee with it. The led broke off in my skin. I screamed like a girl. My friend jumped over the table and beat that kid’s butt. Well, that’s what I was told from my classmates. I was on the ground holding my knee for dear life.
I hated that kid. How much of a punk do you got to be to stab somebody with a pencil when you ain’t looking? I guess he was though. What can you do, but deal with the punks in the world?
Later that month, my mom disappeared. I asked my dad and he said she just left. At night, they would always be fighting. It was always hard to sleep. My momma always tried to keep it down, but my dad never gave a shhh at all.
So after a few months into school my dad switched my sister and me to a little school down the street from my grandparent’s house. The first day of school I was nervous of going to a new school. It was scary. The school was called Earl Frost Elementary. It was really nice looking. It was ok though, ‘cause my teacher really helped me settle in easily.
It was fun in kindergarten no worries, no homework, how great, but it didn’t last that long though. Sooner than later I was in first grade.
Like five or six weeks into my second year of school, we went out to the big basketball court. It was my first time on a big rim. We all got in line and I was excited at the time. When it was my turn, I shot the ball, missed and then it was bouncing back to me. I stepped on the ball on accident and fell and scrapped my elbow really bad. I had to go to the nurse and I was crying a lot. The principal thought I got in a fight or something. It was really embarrassing when I got back to class, and everybody was looking at me. It hella sucked. I got through it though. It just made me stronger.
Another thing that was fun in first grade was Heads Up Seven Up. The game was really fun. We would always get to play it. When we finished our work early at the end of the day, I would always pick girls that I thought were cute.
Now I’m going to skip to third grade. My teacher was this black lady named Ms. Cooper. She was a really nice lady too. That year I started playing soccer on the field. I always liked to be goalie, and I was the best at it. Whenever my team wouldn’t score, I would always get out of the goal to help my team score. Some days me and my boys would play basketball instead of soccer though.
In the middle of the year this new girl came, her name was Gina. She was a bad Asian girl with hella booty. Well, for third grade she had hella… I ended up getting with her a month after she got to our school. I had to get some of that for sure, but after a month or two I got bored of her so I dumped her.
Then there was fourth grade, even more fun. I had a hella cool teacher named Mrs. Barrett. She was a big white lady that was really funny. She made me too laid back though, so at the end of the year I got held back. That’s when it started getting bad at home.
My second year of fourth grade, in the morning I just couldn’t seem to do everything as fast as my dad wanted. He would be yelling all the time in the morning. That year me and my sister got a box full of Christmas presents from my momma. I cried myself to sleep that night ‘cause I missed my momma so much. It meant a lot to me for real. I was really curious about her, but my dad said she didn’t care about my sister and me. I believed him too I didn’t doubt him at all. I was too scared to ever doubt him and why should I be doubting my father when I’m only ten. I shouldn’t right? Well I never did when I was really young.
So that year, I met this kid named Derrick M. He is a Samoan kid that was good at basketball, football, and soccer just like me. Him and I clicked real quick like brothers. At lunch, we would play on the same team against everybody and still win.
We were the shhh. Girls would sit on a bench or the edge of the playground to watch us play. They be jockin’ my boy and me tough.
When I was that young I wasn’t really trippin’ off girls that much. I was always about sports. My dad finally put me into football after begging him for two years. I played on a team called the Rams. When I started, I was having so much fun. I loved running around hitting people. That might sound bad, but it was the funnest thing for me.
It was two weeks before getting our positions and seeing if we’re starting or not. So for those two weeks, I went to practice early and busted my butt. I wanted to be a linebacker ‘cause they get to do most of the hitting on the field.
At the end of the two weeks, my hard running and hard hitting paid off. I became starting middle linebacker for my defense. That was one thing when I got home my dad was happy that I made the starting defense. It was the first time I seen my dad proud of me. That was one of my proudest moments with my dad. Too bad that season he only went to two games out of eleven. He would barely even come to practice. It was very disappointing being young like that and my own dad would rather play golf than watch how own son play football.
Yeah I know it’s pretty sad, but my dad was too worried about my older sister. She was clearly the favorite out of us two. That was the year I started to notice it.
Anyways, now fifth grade year, my boy and me were still running shhh.
That year was hard emotionally. Once in a while my dad would get so mad in the morning that he would hit me to the point I was crying. He was always slapping and punching me to make me cry and would say, “Now you’re not going to school today.” It made me really sad, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
Well, that year I also met a girl named Michelle C. She was a really cute and light brown white girl. I was really into her, but I was too focused in my sports to care about girls.
At home things were getting worse. One day my sister and me were left home alone. My dad went to work and said before he left, “If I get a call from either of you two, it’s not going to be good.” Well as I was saying, it was just us at the house. My sister got mad because I didn’t do something she told me to do. She is only a year and a half older than me, but she acts like my mom. So she said, “I’m going to call dad and he’s going to come and beat you’re butt.”
I knew she was right. My dad would never believe me over his angel, she would always talk back to him even scream at him. He still wouldn’t do anything to her, but threaten. The funny thing was both of us knew he wasn’t going to do anything to her. But hey what can you do he’s the parent?
So my sister called my dad when I was in my room. I was walking out of my room when my sister hung up the phone and she turned around, laughed and said, “Dad’s coming home now.” with a grin on her face. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even do anything wrong.
I heard the keys in the door, so I walked in the hallway. When I seen my dad after he opened the door, and he looked at me with this glare that I couldn’t explain all the way down the hall. Then in a dead sprint all the way up to me and tackled me so hard I hit my head on the floor boards. He started repeatedly punching me, I could have swore he hated me the way he was beating down on me.
After like fifteen to twenty punches, he stopped for a second and I crawled into his room. He said, “O where do you think you’re going?” Then ran into the room and started punching me more. I thought it wasn’t going to stop, but it did, after he got too tired and I stopped moving.
I remember waking up in my bed. At first, I thought it was a dream then my back, arms, cheek, and side hurt once I started moving. That year was hard physically on me and emotionally, but I had no clue what to do, so I could make things easier for me.
All right now we are at sixth grade. That year I started fighting in school. It was fun for me. It came easy to me also. The mornings got worse that year. I just couldn’t seem to get things right though, well, for my dad’s expectations. He would get so mad in the morning for the littlest things. My dad would get so mad to the point he was either slapping me or punching me. Once I would start crying he would say, “Now, you’re not going to school today.” That happened about twenty times that year in the morning.
Even though my dad did that to me, I still graduated with a 3.3 (grade point average). I was so proud of myself. I thought my dad would be too, but he didn’t show he was proud if he was. I couldn’t understand it. He always got pissed about my grades and I got good grades and he still wasn’t happy. It didn’t make any sense at all. I was still so young. I let it bring me down.
Also that year I was constantly getting yelled at in the morning. He would always find some bullshhh little thing. That year was harder emotionally.
Now going into Jr. high, I went to Herman Intermediate. The teachers and advisors were ridiculous. They were always making new rules about clothing. Come on, what is more important dress code or learning?
It got really irritating during those two years. Around my neighborhood, some guys and me started fighting for money. I won three fights in a row. We would fight till one person gives up. This black kid wanted to fight me for eighty dollars. That would be the most I fought for. I said in my head, “screw it.” I ain’t going to back away from a challenge, no way. We set it up for two weeks later on a Saturday. I worked out real hard for a little over a week so I won’t be sore when the fight comes.
I felt really good when the day came. My boys were pumped once they got to my house. They got me more pumped too. We went down the street and around the corner. He was already waiting there with his shirt off. It was a little intimidating, now that I think about it. At the time, I didn’t let myself get down.
Everybody circled around us. When I got up to him, I took my sweater and shirt off, turned to my boys all pumped up and said, “We gonna go smoke after this guys!” Then I turned around and said, “LETS GO!” The guy and me squared up. I always have let the other person swing first, even when I was that young. So he swung first and missed, then I swung and missed with a KO, right. But right after I missed, I jabbed him with my left to his right cheek, which sent him stumbling back. I ran and tackled him, gave an elbow to his face that split open his eyebrow. Then I started punching him in the face over and over again. I finally caught him clean on the chin with a right, he went limp and I stopped hitting him. I was really surprised how a quick it was. I caught him good. Well, I took him to the ground ‘cause I didn’t think it would be smart to go toes the whole time. I was hella juiced. My boys ran over and grabbed me and were pushing me around.
When I looked over at his boys, they were shocked, whispering to each other, and then they went to pick him up. His left eye was closed and he was bleeding out of the mouth on to his shirt. I got the eighty dollars and my boys and me went to go get an eighth (of weed). We got hella lit.
Also that year, I met this kid named Matt R. At first, I didn’t like him just ‘cause I felt he was trying to take some of my shine, but him and me clicked soon and then we started slangin’ marijuana. We supplied our whole school, and I pushed (sold) by my pad too.
That year was the same at home. I was wondering if he (my dad) liked to yell or something but that was just him. I was hoping he would change though. I would pray at night that my dad would try and think to treat my sister and me the same.
Near the end of the school year, one day my dad slapped me in the face and didn’t let me go to school. That night, I got a call from Matt. He said, “Ay bro’ I got expelled.” I couldn’t believe it my number one boy was gone for the rest of that year and the next. Well eighth grade year sucked, my dad was getting worse and we got this new kid named Mark that was annoying. He would always piss me off until one day during a basketball game we started fighting. He was bigger than me, but I beat his butt.
My dad gave it to me once he got home from work. He said, “You like getting in fights, lets go then,” and beat my butt. I was really scared of him. I ran away after he smashed me in the floor. My friend Jessica and her dad picked me up from down the street.
My friend and me were hanging out when my dad showed up. Jessica’s dad loved me, but after he talked to my dad it was over. He thought I was a liar and treated me like shhh after that day.
I went home that next day ‘cause he didn’t want me there. He ended up dying a month later, and Jessica moved to (the state of) Georgia and my other boy Derrick moved to Las Vegas (Nevada). So, I lost my three best friends, I didn’t get it.
Even though that year sucked socially. I was captain of the defense my last year for PAL (Police Activities League). I also played running back too. I ended the season with fourteen touchdowns. In our playoff game we lost. I was heartbroken. I ended the game with a touchdown and seventeen tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. We lost ‘cause our quarterback sucked. He threw two interceptions. He threw away the game! Our head coach took me aside after talking to everybody and apologized to me. It was weird, but he told me I played my best game that season.
My defensive coach took me aside after (that same game) and told me he was proud of me and to not get down about it ‘cause I have a future in high school football. It gave me a lot of pride to hear those things from them.
My dad still had screwed up things to say about my game. That brought me even more down. It took me a few days to get over it. I was ready for high school now.
That summer my boys and me started jacking rims, and cars once in a while. It was fun, now that I think about it, it was really stupid. Since I was doing stupid stuff during summer, I ended up getting into high school football late. I was over a month late for training camp, but it was all good I ended up getting a starting spot on defense anyways. I met a lot of new guys that were cool.
My boy that I clicked with was Jr. he was the other D-end on defense. Freshman orientation was cool Jr. got me a lot of people to buy trees. We were giving out my number like crazy. I was making good money for the first few months, but it wasn’t enough for me. I started to jack some dealers from my hood with two of my boys. We came up on racks and half pounds of trees. I was making about a rack (1,000) a week, but after I hit those licks, I was making double. After a few months, I stopped. It was getting a little hot. I still kept slanging though.
In class, I was really disruptive and gave the teachers a hard time. I got into a lot of trouble at school, which made it worse at home.
My dad kicked me out for the third time in my life. This time was the longest for now. I stayed at my boy’s pad for a month. He offered. So why not?
Sooner than later my dad let me back in the house. Also, I didn’t make grades for the second half of the season in football and that was my motivation for school.
The next year my dad didn’t let me play football ‘cause I got an “F” in math. It really pissed me off, ‘cause the varsity coach offered me a spot on his team.
One time in sophomore year my dad went to work some overtime, and left my sister and me at home. So I was on the computer when my dad left barely for five minutes and my sister said, “I need to get on the computer. You need to get off.”
I said, “You’re going to have to wait.”
She got pissed off. A few minutes later, she told me to turn off the porch light off. She was the one who turned it on in the first place.
I said, “I’m doing something. You go do it. You turned them on.”
She flipped out and started hitting stuff and throwing things.
Then twenty minutes later, she came out of her room with a grin on her face and said, “Dad’s coming home.”
I asked, “Why?”
She said, “You will see.”
When my dad got home fifteen minutes later, I was in the kitchen. He opened the door and asked my sister, “Where’s Mark at?” She told him where I was. He stormed into the kitchen and said, “So you like to boss around and hit girls.”
I was looking at him puzzled. I had no clue what he was talking about. Before I knew it, I got a right hook to the face. The second shot to the face sent me spinning around hitting my forehead on the counter. I blacked out for a few minutes. When I woke up, I was on the cold kitchen floor. My dad didn’t even put me on the couch or nothing.
It was a really sad time, thinking about it now. My dad would always get in my face and say, “I can’t wait ‘till the day you hit me, so I can mop you up on the floor.” I would always think he does it already though.
A few weeks later, I thought to myself I’m as big as him now. So one day he got in my face again and said, “I can’t wait till the day you hit me.” So I cracked him in the jaw with a right, and he went down. I heard a crack when I hit him. I then had to drive him to the hospital. We found out that I gave him a hairline crack on his jaw.
I felt really bad after it happened. Good thing though my dad didn’t hit me after that day, which was pretty much worth it, but it was wrong on my part. The thing about it is I could always admit that I was wrong and my dad never could. My dad and me didn’t talk for a little over a few weeks. It was the most peaceful time in my dad’s house.
Also, during that year, my sister was wilding out with my dad and got kicked out. She deserved it though, and she would always talk shhh to my dad and scream at him.
My dad bought her a car and hooked her up with two jobs before he gave her the boot, which was more than he has ever done for me. It’s all good, ‘cause that year I bought my own car.
It cost me six in a half rack. It was a little 5.0 Mustang with a super charger. I had a hella fast car, one of the fastest in San Jose when I got flow masters on it.
I started making more money too ‘cause I was mobile. I was making racks every month, but at home it kept getting worse, and my dad knew I was doing something to get money. Once in a while he would smell the marijuana. It was really pissing him off. He would never get me shhh, so what was I supposed to do? How was I going to get the things I wanted and needed? So I did what I had to do.
At the end of that year, my dad woke me up one morning and told me he was going to work. I asked him for a few dollars to get to the other side of town to get my cell phone and to get back.
He said, “No.”
I said, “Ok.” I wasn’t going to argue with him ‘cause it was seven in the morning and I was way too tired to start with him.
Though he started bitching for almost ten minutes, and I finally got up.
I said, “What is your problem!?” Then I said, “ok I’m not arguing with you.” It was ridiculous, but that was him ever since elementary school and still the same to this day.
We kept arguing, and I eventually smashed a bowl with change on the kitchen floor.
My dad ran over and started laughing and said, “Oh you did it now.”
I had no idea what he meant.
In twenty minutes my grandma came through the door, she was on the phone with the cops. I didn’t think they could do too much when they get here.
They came into my room with tazers, like I was robbing the house or something. They handcuffed me and sat me on my bed. I only had boxer shorts, and one sock on.
My grandma was in the hallway talking shhh about me. She was talking about holes in the walls that my sister made when she lived there.
My sister was bipolar and she would flip out and throw tantrums. Also she would kick and punch the walls, but the cop took pictures of everything and said, “Ok, I will file this, our work here is done, hey unhandcuff the kid lets go!”
My grandma said, “Wait you’re not going to take him?”
The cop said, “No he isn’t doing anything now.”
She said, “No I want you to take him.”
He said, “Are you serious?”
You probably already know what she said. I got taken downtown for the first time.
All the times my dad called the cops on me, they never did anything. This time was different though. So I got booked and put in one of the units of juvenile hall. My roommate had been in juvie for a few years straight. It really opened my eye to life and I told myself I wasn’t going to let myself end up like that. My dad picked me up two days later at night. I was so pissed when I seen him. I was cursing at him and everything. He took me over to the southside (of San Jose) just to drop me off. He was talking so much shhh. When I got out, I kicked the side of the car. I forgot it was my grandma’s that he was driving. He got out started laughing and said, “There’s another charge now.”
At that point, when he was getting into the car he rolled down the window and said, “Don’t come home, go sleep in a dumpster for all I care.”
I didn’t care at the time and walked to my boy’s house down the street. I told him what happened and he said, “Ay bro it’s cool. You already know you can stay here.”
My boy Austin, I could always count on him whenever. We always were tight. I only stayed with him for a few weeks. I didn’t like to push myself onto others. I would always feel like a burden when I stayed with them. So I left his house.
My other boy told me to go stay with him.
Oh yeah, I forgot, my other boy Steven got my car impounded. I let him go pick up a half-pound, but he got pulled over before he got there. My boy didn’t have a license and he had a warrant for his arrest too. So it was over for him. He got arrested.
I told him to be cool on the road ‘cause I knew he didn’t have his license. So I moved in with my other boy and his family. All my boys’ moms love me too.
One night I was coming home around midnight and five enemies surrounded me. I thought to myself, “Screw it and take it like a man.” So I started chunking with the first and grabbed him and threw him down. While I was throwing with the second, I got kicked in the back of the legs. I sunk to my knees and got kicked in the face. Next thing I know I was waking up on my back. I limped to my boy’s pad.
When I got there, it was after two in the morning and the walk was only a twenty-minute one from where I got jumped.
When I went inside, my boy came out of nowhere and said, “Wow, what the hell happened to you?” I told him. He wanted to go find them, but I said, “No.”
I went to go look in the mirror and I had a lot of dried up blood on my face. It was crazy. When I took of the shirt to take a shower, there was blood all over my chest and down my arm. I guess one of them cut me too. The next day was whack. My body was so sore that it hurt to move.
The next school year was all right, until one week when I showed up and I got sent to the office, where the principal of the school told me I’m expelled.
My dad and grandma went and got me expelled. They said I was a runaway and I was doing illegal stuff. There was no way I ever knew they could get me expelled without me even knowing it happened. It sucked though and I was shocked and confused.
That’s when everything got all bad. I started staying with my girls, and on the streets. Sometimes I stayed in parks, or on weekends in schools. I never knew how cold it gets ‘till I started sleeping on the streets. I would even wear a few pairs of pants and a few jackets and still be freezing. It was really hard at times. I really just wanted to give up at times.
After all of the summer and almost half of the next school year of being on my own, my dad let me back in the house. A few weeks later, we got into a fight and he kicked me out again.
After that, I stayed on the streets again. One night when I was walking around late, seven or eight enemies ran up on me. I tried to run but they whistled and a few more came out ahead of me. I told them that I don’t bang, but they didn’t care.
Before I knew it, I got hit with a bat or something in the back. When I stumbled forward, I got kicked on the side of the head. I went down and got stomped out. I got taken to the hospital when somebody found me. They got an ambulance to come get me. I had two cracked ribs, a broken wrist, and a concussion.
A few days later, I was sitting on the grass next to the sidewalk when my boy I used to go to school with and played football with walked up to me. He sat down next to me and we chopped it up for like twenty minutes. He told me to go with him to his house and stay with him. I said, “Na it’s all good bra, thanks though.”
He said, “Screw that bra’ you’ coming, Let’s go get you something to eat.”
I gave into him and went. Him and me got really close the next few months. We would just drink.
One day he went to work and I called my sister. I asked her to take me out to eat and give me like ten dollars, but she turned me down. Then she told me, “mom died last week.” I made myself believe I didn’t care, right then. But that night ended up being horrible.
I watched the Lakers’ game that night. My boy was talking with his ex-girlfriend in her car. Once it got dark, I brought a Gin bottle out to the curb and only one cup of soda. I listened to my boy’s iPod too. I was just giggin’ (to the sounds).
Once I drank half of the bottle, this light skinned Mexican kid walked into my boy’s court (street) checking car doors. He started going toward my boy’s pad. I went up to him and told him, “Keep it moving man, I live here.”
He was all right, he said, “All right it’s all good. I ain’t trying to start shhh. It’s cool.” So he left the court and I kept drinking.
About half-an-hour later the cops pulled up deep. I messed up ‘cause the guy that was checking car doors didn’t have his shirt on, and since I drank almost the whole bottle I had taken my shirt off.
The officers arrested me and threw me in the car. I threw up in the cop car.
A few weeks later, my dad picked me up finally (from juvenile). Then I got put on probation. When we went to my PO’s office for the first time, my dad was talking shhh. I couldn’t believe all the bullshhh and stuff he was making up.
When we were driving home, my dad was laughing at me the whole way. One thing he said was, “She will never believe you over me. I’m the parent.”
He told me when we got home “all right get out of here. I won’t tell your PO, leave.”
So I left and stayed with my boy down the street.
After a few months past, I left his house too. I went over to Campbell to get away from all the bad shhh in San Jose. I would sleep in apartment laundry rooms, and my boy’s house once in a while.
A few months later, I finally found a job. I worked really hard and my boss gave me a few days in a row of work. I got Thursday off.
Everything changed the next day. I woke up and went to my girl’s house. We ended up arguing and she said, “You can leave then.” So I got up and bounced. She came after me and pulled me down by my backpack. I tried to grab my backpack, but she had a hold of it. I said, “Let go”. She wouldn’t, so I said, “Screw it.”
I went down the street and got a water from Starbucks, then went back to her house to get my backpack. My backpack has my birth certificate, social security card, and license inside, so I needed to get it back.
She told me, “I’m not going to give you it.” I kept telling her to give me it. She wouldn’t, and then I got into an argument with her neighbor. Her neighbor threw a ball from downstairs and it hit my girlfriend in the face. So she called the cops as I walked away.
The cops came hella fast and my girl ran up behind me. One of the cops pulled over and stopped us. He took down our information and I ended up having a bench warrant, so he slapped the cuffs on me and took me downtown. The cop took me to County, but my PO got me moved back to juvenile hall. I got put in another unit.
It was cool that I got roomed with a guy I did two years before. It made it a little easier for me. After a few weeks, I started to understand that I really did care about my mom dying. I realized it almost a year after she died. I know that’s kind of sad though on my part.
When I get out I’m going to get her signature tattooed over my heart. My boss told my girl that when I get out that I’d still have my job, which made me happy.
I ended up getting detained my first court date and a week later got transferred to the max unit. It was cool ‘cause all the staff was really chilled.
I tried to start my GED, but they kept postponing the date. So I’m not going to be able to start it. I’m going to try for my diploma when I get out.
I have never got a discipline and I’m getting out on Saturday in two days. I can do one hundred pushups in a row now. I’m more appreciative of my clothes and food now.
I have thought of a lot of ways to stay focused when I get out. I am proud to have met David (from The Beat) because he told me to write this story of my life. It has taken a lot of weight off my shoulders.
Read more of the Beat Within here.
Picture via Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.
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KIPP and Americorp are involved in education reform, Brad Pitt is building houses in the Ninth Ward, and Harry Connick, Jr., and Branford Marsalis are behind a village for musicians.
But there is one New Orleans structure that hasn’t attracted celebrity attention: the notoriously dysfunctional criminal justice system. Even before Katrina, the New Orleans Police Department was plagued by brutality and corruption. In the storm, they lost hundreds of officers, not to mention guns, cars, records and ammunition. They also lost face as the country learned of police brutality immediately post-Katrina, including the shooting of civilians on the Danzinger Bridge.
For the past five years law enforcement in NOLA has struggled to take advantage of an opportunity to rethink the system. The city saw a slight dip in violent crime just after the storm, but by the summer of 2006 the situation was so bad Governor Kathleen Blanco called in the National Guard to police city streets – they stayed for almost three years. In May, mayor Mitch Landrieu brought in outsider Ronal Serpas to remake the department, he also wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder asking for the federal government to help him by investigating “what has been described as the worst police department in the country.”
Meanwhile, in the fall of 2006, city council members invited the Vera Institute of Justice to study and report on the problems in the city’s justice system, and arrange a retreat for department leaders with the aim of coming to consensus on the best ways to begin reforming the system. Four years later, a two-person team from Vera remains in the city, working actively with everyone from the Sheriff to public defenders to local religious groups to implement fundamental changes, including speeding up the arraignment process, “professionalizing” the public defenders office, and weighing in on the construction of a new jail.
The Crime Report asked Jon Wool, Director of Vera's New Orleans office, to discuss the progress and problems of the city’s criminal justice system.
TCR: What was the state of NOLA’s criminal justice system the day before the storm hit?
Jon Wool: Before the storm the criminal justice system in New Orleans was fraught with problems. Problems in the police department in terms of huge numbers of arrests and a great disaffection of community members with the way they were treated by police. There was a seeming lack of accountability for police misconduct and extremely long delays charging people arrested with crimes. Many of these things are problems in a good number of jurisdictions— it’s not only New Orleans. But I’m tempted to say that New Orleans may be unique in the extent to which all of these unaddressed practices come together and build on one another.
Katrina presented, in a complex sort of way, an opportunity here. There were some new people in government who stepped up to try to bring a reform agenda to bear and there was tremendous national attention being paid to the city. There was an absolute need to open up government here to the assistance of the outside…but private foundations had avoided funding reform work in New Orleans because reform was so difficult to achieve. Katrina changed that, although to what extent and for how long is yet to be seen.
TCR: What aspects of the system did you decide were most important to reform?
Wool: We spend a tremendous amount of money on criminal justice. Roughly a third of the city’s budget is spent on criminal justice. But what people care most about -- violent crime, is simply not being adequately addressed.
The jail in Orleans Parish held roughly 7,200 people at the time of the storm. The rate of detention in local jails was greater here than in any other city in the country, and that’s still the case: it is now three times the national average. [Part of the problem is] an absence of a pre-trial service system. New Orleans detains virtually all the people who come before a magistrate, unless they’re able to pay their bond. It used to take 64 days to get a simple drug case from arrest to first court appearance; because of our alliance’s work it now takes 10.5. If the person cannot post the bond then they’re incarcerated throughout this time. Now, with marijuana cases, 10.5 days in jail before seeing a judge is still unacceptable, so we moved those cases to the Municipal Court where they are heard in one day. But even in cases in which the normal sentence is rarely jail time, defendants serve at least 10.5 days in jail on minor offenses.
The biggest hole in the system is this overreliance on detention. People should not be in jail if they do not pose a public safety risk and have not been convicted of a crime. We detain more people per capita than any other city in the country. And, 89 percent of the city prisoners are not convicted of a crime—they’re awaiting their day in court. Many of our initiatives have as a result, if not the direct goal, the reduction of the use of detention when not necessary to advance public safety. This is where justice, efficiency, and good government come together.
But changes in practice are difficult whatever the field. With expedited screening, we suggested reforms where each agency would have to get its staff to change the way they did things, day in and day out. The police would have to the file their police reports the same shift in which the arrest was made, where they previously were not required to do that. And supervisors would have to review those reports and get them to the District Attorney the same day or the next day. That’s nuts and bolts stuff that leaders know is not always going to be easy to bring about. But collectively, we came up with ways to make things better for the officers. We got scanners for each of the police districts so instead of driving police reports to the DA’s offices, they’re able to scan and email them.
TCR: But you write in your recent report that the problem of over-incarceration was more insidious than just a slow system. The courts and jails literally run on the money gleaned from these low-level offenders. How does funding play into all this?
Wool: Part of the resistance to [expediting midemeanor cases] was that the state court from which the cases were being moved objected to losing the revenues from those cases. In marijuana cases particularly, defendants have a little money and could pay the court fees. And since there are so many of these cases, it amounted to $200,000-$300,000 in lost revenue to the state court. Now, that should not be a consideration when trying to design a reform that makes the system both fairer and more effective and efficient, but because of the way the funding structures are, it is a consideration for the judges who have to operate their court with the revenue they have at hand.
TCR: But there has been success remaking the public defense system, correct?
Wool: The storm basically ended the funding structure for the public defense system. The system was funded by fees from the conviction of defendants, as well as traffic tickets and the like. And since the court system stopped and certainly traffic arrests stopped, the money stopped. This is a really poor way to fund any part of a justice system.
Before the storm, public defenders worked essentially for the judges in whose section of court they practiced and were not part of an independent professional office devoted to representing the indigent. Now, with the help of a local judge and others, the city has created a truly independent public defense office now funded through a new statewide public defense system. But it is still considerably underfunded and plagued by what many public defense offices are plagued by — a crushing caseload. Systemically it’s well designed and well carried out, but not yet well funded.
TCR: Right now, the city is planning to build a new jail, since the current one has been declared unconstitutional by the Department of Justice. How is the reform effort playing out there?
Wool: The jail, perhaps unlike any jail in the country, is funded by a per diem. The city pays the sheriff, who is the jailer, a fixed amount of money per prisoner per day—$23.39 a day to house a human being most of whom have substance abuse, medical or mental health problems—rather than a budgeted [annual amount] for the jail. The amount of money [per prisoner] is very low. And in order to have the revenues to run his facility, the sheriff has an incentive to keep as many people in that facility at any one time as possible. This is not a good way to run a jail because it influences decisions about whether people are incarcerated or not.
So we need to…allow the sheriff to have the same amount of money, but to reduce the population dramatically, getting it in line with other cities. That way he could do more with the money and…could bring conditions to a point where they could meet constitutional standards and in fact help the people in the jail leave there in better shape than when they came in, which of course is critical to breaking the entire cycle of these small scale criminality that plagues the community. It’s important to do those things together – to fund it properly, adequately, and in a way that incentivizes the entire system to try and use the jail only for those who truly pose a public safety risk and not for others who for a number of reasons have been put in jail, including that they have dollars attached to them.
TCR: Why is it so important to do away with this funding system?
Wool: It poses very starkly for the city whether its going to be doing business as usual, which is large scale incarceration of our citizens with little public safety gain to show for it,, or whether we’re going to … make rational decisions about who needs to be in jail pretrial. Only those who truly pose a public safety risk [should be detained]…the rest should not be held simply because they’re poor, which is what a commercial bond based system does. It allows people to get out if they have money but it doesn’t make a rational determination of risk.
This new jail is going to set the tone for the city for 30 years or so. In a strange way, supply really drives demand in this business. If you have the jail beds, all of the parts of the system will adjust and you will use those jail beds. If you build them they will fill them, that’s a common saying in corrections. In addition to reforming enforcement and court practices to better address violent crime, we need to help drive down demand for jail beds for nonviolent arrests by reducing supply.
One of the great opportunities posed by the disaster was that the jail buildings were essentially destroyed by the storm. And that presented the ability for the city to rethink whether it is going to rely so heavily on detention. And that’s why at this fifth anniversary we have such an important decision to make in whether the city embraces new approaches to criminal justice, ones that are fairer, more effective and more efficient. Will we use the available federal dollars to rebuild an enormous jail complex or use that money to otherwise solve the tremendous crime problem that the city faces and restore the public’s confidence in criminal justice?
Julia Dahl is a freelance writer and contributing editor to The Crime Report.
Photo by Kris Krug via Flickr.
Are “prostitution free zones” and other new law enforcement tactics for snaring sex workers unconstitutional?
In late June I witnessed something unusual in New York City’s Midtown Community Court: a trial on a prostitution charge. Hundreds of people are arrested for a prostitution-related offense in Manhattan each year, but only a fraction challenge the arrest at trial.
This trial was even more interesting because the charge was not actually prostitution. The defendant, a woman, had not been caught in the act of agreeing to sex for money; rather, she had been charged with “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense,” a nebulous—some say unconstitutional—charge that allows police to arrest a man or woman they suspect is attempting to engage in prostitution. In New York, both charges are B misdemeanors that can carry a penalty of 15 to 90 days in jail.
The testimony of the arresting officer was just as intriguing. He told the court that, while sitting in an unmarked police vehicle early on the morning of May 21, he observed the defendant “engaging in conversation” with two men and “attempting to stop” another on the west side of midtown Manhattan, an area he testified is “frequented by prostitution.”
And that was pretty much it. The officer didn’t hear her say anything; nor did he ask any of the men he saw her talking to what she had said. That didn’t faze the assistant district attorney, who attempted to get condoms found in the defendant’s purse admitted as evidence. Judge Richard Weinberg rejected the request, and six weeks later, he rendered his verdict. I was there to witness the judgment.
“The people did not prove their case,” he said from the bench. “I find the defendant not guilty.”
The 25-year-old defendant—who, according to her Legal Aid attorney, Kate Mogulescu, had never before been arrested for prostitution—was visibly relieved.
Mogulescu, who has been assigned to most of midtown Manhattan’s prostitution cases since February, calls loitering for prostitution arrests both “arbitrary” and “discriminatory.” Still, although approximately 70 percent of her prostitution-related cases are actually loitering charges, she notes that in the past six months only four of almost 100 clients have chosen to fight the charge in court.
“A lot of my clients are really confused as to what they were actually arrested for,” says Mogulescu.
The problem seems to be recognized, at least, by the judges and DAs at the Midtown Community Court. During the three mornings I spent at MCC, the DA’s office allowed loitering for prostitution defendants with no prior prostitution arrests to plead to a disorderly conduct violation instead of a misdemeanor, and the judge then sentenced them to counseling, not incarceration. So, for many, it’s easier to just take the violation, pay a court fee, and put the embarrassing arrest behind them. But of course it remains on their record.
Mogulescu has made it her mission to fight what she calls such “suspicious” arrests, one by one. And she’s making headway.
Two weeks ago, Mogulescu got a not-guilty verdict for another woman with no record of prostitution who had been picked up for loitering for prostitution. And just a few weeks before that another defendant, this time a 21-year-old transgendered woman who was picked up early one morning in Manhattan’s West Village, was similarly cleared of charges after a trial. According to the woman, she was handcuffed by officers after a taxi driver stopped to ask if she needed a ride, and she leaned into his cab to say she was fine.
“These arrests are in danger of criminalizing constitutionally protected behavior,” says Mogulescu. “They’re set up to be immune from scrutiny and, traditionally, they’ve been unchallenged.”
Before the Internet, vice cops had it relatively easy. Most cities had specific areas known for street prostitution where undercover officers posing as johns could chat up a lady, strike a deal to pay for a sex act, and then pull out the cuffs. But in the last decade, the oldest profession has “gone high-tech,” says Jaime Ayala, Deputy Chief of Police in Arlington, Texas.
Anyone who has perused the adult sections of Craigslist or Backpage knows that men and women (and boys and girls) advertise their sexual services online. What this means for police is a lot more legwork. At the same time, a rise in awareness about the ugly world of human trafficking, where women from abroad—and, in some cases, American children—are held hostage in brothels disguised as massage parlors, has shifted law enforcement focus and resources away from traditional vice work, according to many attorneys.
“These days, prostitution is a very difficult crime to catch and prove,” says Rachel Palmer, an assistant district attorney in Harris County, Texas. Palmer says she is seeing fewer and fewer traditional prostitution cases come across her desk as budgets dwindle and the profession “goes indoors.”
But sex work on the streets persists, and the failure of scattered efforts to legalize it around the U.S. demonstrates that it continues to carry unsavory associations, especially for people who live in areas frequented by prostitutes. It is often accompanied by drugs and violence.
So how do you address a problem with dwindling resources in the face of mounting neighborhood pressure? You either get really creative, or you cut corners—or both.
One solution has been so-called “Prostitution Free Zones (PFZs).” Portland, Oregon, for example, created PFZs in the late 1990s to clean up certain areas that were notorious for prostitution. According to Elizabeth Wakefield, Chief Attorney at Metropolitan Public Defenders in Portland, a person with a prior conviction for a prostitution-related offense could be arrested for simply being in the zone.
But almost as soon as the PFZs were created, they were challenged. Wakefield recalls that much of the litigation centered around the constitutional right to travel, along with due process and equal protection issues, since the city wasn’t always allowing exceptions for potentially mitigating excuses like medical appointments or family visits in the zones and “public defenders noticed that African-Americans and Latinos were more likely to be excluded.”
“The ordinances were very amorphous,” says Wakefield. “We would attack one reason and then they’d modify the statute.”
Washington, D.C. also created PFZs in 2006. But, according to Professor John Copacino of the Georgetown University Criminal Justice Clinic, the district “gets around the constitutionality” by making the zones temporary: they can be in effect for just 10 days at a time. Portions of the district’s downtown area were declared PFZs during the inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009.
In Arlington, Texas, home to the Dallas Cowboys Stadium and site of the 2011 Superbowl, police have proposed what they called a “Prostitution Exclusion Zone“ in the downtown area. The City Council’s municipal committee is currently considering the proposal. According to Deputy Chief Ayala, the proposed zone is part of a project called Operation Spotlight, which began in 2006 and includes identifying habitual offenders and creating a public awareness campaign called “You Never Know” – referring to the fact that “you never know” whether the prostitute or john you’re talking to is a cop or not.
The proposed exclusion zone “isn’t going to fix anything,” says Arlington police spokeswoman Tiara Ellis Richard. “It’s just another tool for officers to use when dealing with this problem.”
But opponents of these zones say they make an officer’s job too easy.
“A Prostitution Free Zone allows the loitering standard to be so low that anyone who doesn’t look like they belong in a particular neighborhood – whether they’re a person of color, wearing a short skirt, or transgendered — they are rounded up,” says Cyndee Clay, Executive Director of Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS) a non-profit group in Washington, D.C.
Georgetown’s Copacino also sees problems. Standing around, even propositioning potential (non-paying) sexual partners while wearing a short skirt and stilettos, is not illegal. “You can’t criminalize normal behavior, ” says Copacino.
The key question for law enforcement, however, is how to distinguish between normal behavior and “loitering for prostitution” or, as it’s called in Arlington, Texas, “manifestation of prostitution,” or in Oregon “unlawful prostitution procurement activities.” In 1999, the Supreme Court struck down a Chicago anti-gang statute that allowed police to arrest “suspected” gang members for loitering on city streets. In his majority opinion for Chicago v. Morales, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the Illinois law was “impermissibly vague” and that the “freedom to loiter for innocent purposes” was a constitutionally protected liberty.
Who Defines Innocence?
The operative words are “innocent purposes.” How do police determine what is innocent and what is, in effect, attempted prostitution? It depends on whom you ask. J.R. Ujifusa, an assistant district attorney assigned to a special Portland police unit on prostitution, argues that police are trained to tell the difference.
“The officers who cite these cases aren’t like a normal person,” says Ujifusa. “Their minds are trained. There are very small indications that both men and women look for to decide if that woman is working. The four officers I work with have a great amount of experience and have the ability to recognize those indicators.”
Elizabeth Wakefield, the Portland defense attorney who fought the city’s PFZs, says her office has been encouraging women to fight these charges. Like Mogulescu, she sees the arrests as somewhat arbitrary and subject to abuse. “One person’s prostitute is another person’s homeless hippie kid hanging out,” she says. Or perhaps a community college writing teacher – like 36-year-old Ann Marie Selby, who was reportedly detained last year after she missed the bus and decided to walk home in an area known for prostitution. She sued the city and received $5,000.
The problem, says Wakefield, is that the city is now issuing many of these charges as violations rather than crimes, which under Oregon law means that the defendants don’t qualify for court-appointed counsel who could encourage them to challenge the arrest.
“The more cynical among us would say that’s why they’re doing it,” says Wakefield. “But really, it’s about budget issues. If you have to decide who goes to jail—someone suspected of prostitution or someone arrested for DUI—most people in the community would say the DUI is more dangerous.”
New York City’s Mogulescu says the loitering for prostitution cases she sees are similarly not scrutinized: “For most arrests, officers have to talk to a D.A. who accesses the arrest and decides what charges to prosecute,” she says. “But for these arrests, and other ‘quality of life’ violations like marijuana possession, they just check off boxes so no one is screening to make sure the arrest is actually valid.”
The New York Police Department did not respond to requests for information and comment on loitering for prostitution arrests.
“A Reduction of Freedom”
On July 13, at New York City’s Midtown Community Court, Judge Marc Whiten announced his verdict in the case the 21-year-old transgendered woman arrested in the West Village. But before he pronounced her not guilty, he took a moment to express concern over the woman’s arrest: “I shudder to think that if we allow such convictions of such individuals that it would lead to a very worrisome concern, a reduction in our freedom.”
For the young woman, who asked that her name not be used, the experience of being arrested for a crime she says she did not commit shook her. . As a veteran of group homes and homelessness, she knows what it’s like to be desperate and vulnerable.
“I’ll admit, there have been times in the past where I’ve taken money” for sex, she says. “But that life is behind me. For someone like me, it’s hard to find a community. My community is in the Village. But now I’m afraid to go down there. I’m afraid if that cop sees me again, he’ll arrest me.”
Julia Dahl is a freelance writer and contributing editor to The Crime Report.
Photo by Amber Schley Iragui via Flickr.
While the Justice Department waits to impose new correction standards on sexual violence, a new national survey shows that rape in prison is a growing problem.
The numbers are in: Since 2007, the number of reported prison rapes has increased by 4,000. Female offenders are twice as likely to be sexually victimized as males and two-thirds of male inmates have been victimized by female staff, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey released today. Although some believe the figures underestimate the problem, the report is widely believed to be the most accurate survey of prison sexual violence to date.
The report, comes as the Department of Justice is two months past the legal deadline for enacting national Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards set by the commission developed to address these growing and troubling trends.
“The report continues to confirm this is a nationwide human rights crisis that needs to be addressed,” said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International, a Los Angeles based national not-for-profit that helped pass PREA legislation. “The national standards that have not been finalized have the potential to become most important tool to end sexual abuse in prison.”
On August 20th a broad coalition, including the ACLU, the American Conservative Union, Focus on the Family and the NAACP, wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to adopt the standards, which advocates say could bring a halt or significant slow down in prison rapes if correctly utilized.
In 2003, as awareness of sexual violence in prisons grew, the U.S. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Under the law a national commission, National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, was formed in 2004 to create standards to prevent and detect incidents of sexual violence in prison. The group issued a report including new guidelines and standards in June 2009. Attorney General Holder was required to enact by June 23, 2010.
But June 23 came and went. In a letter Holder expressed regret at not being able to implement the commission’s standards by the required date. He wrote: “ I believe that it is essential that the Department take the time necessary to craft regulations that will endure.” Holder was concerned that prisons and jails do not have enough funding to implement strict new standards, which include staff training and inmate education, medical and mental health treatment for sexual abuse victims, and regular independent, external audits to hold agencies accountable for failures to keep inmates safe from abuse.
A month before the June deadline, the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) sent a letter to the DOJ outlining their concerns with PREA implementation. While ASCA stressed their commitment to ending rape and abuse in prisons and jails, they were concerned about the standard’s lack of transparency, possible false allegations duplications of audit, the difficulties of restricting cross gender body-searches, and the cost of complying with the standards. The association estimated it would cost $1.9 billion to uphold the standards nationally.
“It is better for the DOJ to take the time to get it right and we have every confidence they are doing just that,” wrote ACSA Co-Executive Director George Camp in an emailed statement to The Crime Report.
But Pat Nolan, Vice President of Prison Fellowship, a national faith based organization that serves prisoners and their families and has been actively involved in PREA legislation, disputes ACSA’s cost estimates.
“They just pulled those numbers out of air,” said Nolan, who said Oregon and California implemented these standards with putting any more strain on their budgets.
“Frankly,” he said. “ Most of these standards are basic common sense. Provide medical care. Secure your facilities. Treating rape as a crime.”
In July 2009, the State of Michigan agreed to pay $100 million to settle a class-action suit by more than 500 female prisoners who said they were sexually assaulted by prison guards. Nolan points out that money spent defending abuse litigation could instead be spent on implementation of PREA standards.
According to the new BJS report, an estimated 88,500 inmates experienced sexual victimization in 2008-2009. Females are twice as likely to be victimized as males, and incidents occur almost three times more often in prison than jails. There were 64,500 incidents of sexual violence in prison and 24,000 in jails.
Just Detention International (JDI) said they receive 40 letters a week from survivors of sexual abuse in detention asking for help.
“Its important to remember that these are fellow human beings who are behind bars and should not be subjected to sexual abuse,” said Stannow.
Picture via Arizona Prison Watch.
Correction Appended: Female offenders are twice as likely to be raped as males has been changed to emale offenders are twice as likely to be sexually victimized as males
The nation’s banks lost $46 million last year in holdups. What are they doing wrong?
At a time when bank surveillance cameras produce portrait-quality images and tellers can attach GPS tracking devices to stolen money, you might think robbing a bank offers slim hope of success.
Think again. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) tallied almost 6,000 bank heists around the U.S. last year—more than 16 a day―with robbers making off with a total of $46 million. Worse still, only about half the perpetrators have been caught, and about $8 million was recovered. In just over half of the cases, robbers wrote a threatening note demanding money but didn’t display a weapon.
The number of bank holdups last year represents a 26 percent decrease from 1990, part of an overall fall in crime in the last 20 years. But the figure still alarms security experts who believe that banks could do a lot more to protect customers’ hard-earned assets.
One reason why banks remain attractive crime targets, ironically enough, is their concern for customers―and profits. In an age when retail banking has become so competitive that branches pop up on every street corner, executives worry that the high cost of additional security, plus the possibility that obtrusive security may drive away customers, will affect their bottom line.
FBI statistics suggest that relatively few banks have the crucial physical defenses that could deter robbers. Less than 10 percent of the banks hit in 2009 had tellers behind bullet-resistant enclosures, and less than five percent employed guards. (The FBI’s numbers don’t identify the proportion of guards who are armed.)
Making a bank bandit’s job easier is that tellers are trained to accede to their demands to protect themselves and customers. Jamie Gordon, charged with stealing $11,000 from 11 Florida banks earlier this year, told television station WFTV in an April interview, “[You] can bring a note up there. . . and they’re going to give you the money and they’re not going to fight you, they’re not going to argue with it, for one because the bank’s [insured], and for two because nobody’s going to risk their life for money.”
$20,000 per Bulletproof Window
But deterring robbers through better security can be pricey. Richard Cross, author of the Bank Security Desk Reference (a manual for banks on how to protect themselves) and former director of security at the Bank of New York, notes that bulletproof teller windows can cost between $20,000 and $30,000 each, depending on the number purchased. Security guards cost upwards of $40,000 a year.
Another defense, known in the industry as a “man trap,” allows patrons to enter through one door, which closes and locks behind them. A detector then scans them for large metal objects, and a bullet-resistant second door then unlocks and allows them in. The devices, used by at least one large California bank chain, are regarded as “virtually infallible” by experts but run about $40,000 to $50,000.
“There’s never enough money allocated to physical security,” complains Chris Swecker, formerly head of corporate security at Bank of America and prior to that an assistant director at the FBI. “(But since) this is the one area where you could have a fatal situation, (there) shouldn’t be a cost-benefit analysis. (You) should do whatever you have to do to protect your tellers and customers.”
Last August, another former bank security director told BankInfoSecurity.com(a website for information security professionals and executives) that he’s seeing IT departments take over security because physical security departments, already strapped for cash, are having their budgets cut even further. “I used to joke about it: Whenever you go to see the physical security department, they’re usually in the basement, never at the executive level,” says Jim Destefano, who was in charge of security head for 10 years at two large Philadelphia financial institutions and now sells security equipment.
A bank robbery coordinator at an FBI field office who didn’t want to be named reports having a hard time convincing banks to spend enough on physical security. He’s told banks in his jurisdiction that he’d like them to invest more in new cameras, exploding dye packs that can be attached to stolen money, and GPS trackers. But he says, “the bank is typically worried about the bottom line.” And while the FBI can advise banks, it has no authority to regulate their security decisions.
Keeping Customers Happy
Even when protection can be had on the cheap, banks aren’t always buying it because they’re afraid of inconveniencing customers.
In 2003, the Missouri Bankers Association began urging member banks to require patrons to take off hats and sunglasses before entering. Robberies dropped by 37 percent over the next four years (the most recent year for which the association has numbers is 2006). But while about half of the state’s banks and credit unions have adopted the plan, the largest have not, citing concerns about negative reactions from customers. Those banks also may be paying for that decision.
“When we look at our numbers, [the large banks] are the ones that get hit the most,” says Bill Ratliff, the association’s executive vice president. As for banks’ concerns about disgruntled customers, Ratliff says he hasn’t heard of a single complaint about the policy.
Others in the industry say banks need the flexibility to adapt to local conditions. “If you were to build a branch like Fort Knox in Mayberry, that would be a waste of the customer’s money,” says Margot Mohsberg of the American Bankers Association (ABA). “You want to balance safety with comfort.”
Even so, banks must comply with minimal security provisions required under the federal Bank Protection Act, passed in 1968 when bank robberies were trending upward. Under the law, banks must have at least one camera, a vault, and exterior doors that lock. They’re also required to have a security plan and train staff on its procedures. The Act leaves compliance with the plan up to banks: security directors are supposed to report to the bank’s board every year on whether the plan is being followed and how well it’s working.
The FBI bank robbery coordinator thinks the law’s standards are “pretty low—they have to have a video system, but if it’s a VHS system run on a 20-year old camcorder . . . it’s considered to meet the need even if it doesn’t meet our need to investigate the crime.”
Swecker, the former security chief at Bank of America and now a consultant on financial crime prevention for organizations, coauthored an article last November in Security Technology Executive magazine about whether it’s time to update the Act. Noting that the rate of bank crime has trended upward since 1970, he and his coauthor concluded that “it seems the BPA has not made great strides forward in the first stated part of its mission [discouraging robberies, burglaries, and larcenies].”
But Doug Johnson, the ABA’s vice president for risk management, told them the association didn’t consider amending the Act to be a top priority because banks need flexibility to respond to their specific risks. “It’s in the financial institution’s best interest to make sure the customer is protected. I think as an industry we generally come to these conclusions without legislation.”
Some Banks Learn, Some Don’t
It’s not clear this is always true—especially considering some banks’ responses once they’ve been targeted. Banks that have been robbed once are more likely to be hit again, according to a 2007 U.S. Department of Justice manual on bank robbery. To illustrate the point, it describes a typical jurisdiction in which over several years, four bank branches were hit a total of 14 times, while 15 nearby branches were not robbed at all.
But the FBI bank robbery coordinator who didn’t wish to be named said that in his jurisdiction, banks sometimes don’t take preventive measures even after they’re robbed. “Some of them seem to learn and some don’t,” he says.
The response of one bank that was recently hit remains to be seen.
Until June 30, the last holdup in the upscale village of Woodstock, New York, was 25 years ago. But on that date, a man wearing a bandanna and ski goggles walked into the local Bank of America branch, pointed a semiautomatic handgun at tellers, and escaped with an alleged $20,000, a huge sum as robberies go. He’s still at large. At the time of the robbery, the branch didn’t have guards, bulletproof teller windows, a policy on hats and sunglasses, or “man traps.”
As of this writing, there are no visible signs the bank has taken additional precautions.
Bank of America’s corporate office refused to say whether it planned to increase security there, citing a policy of not commenting on security measures.
Will Technology End Robberies?
The ABA’s Mohsberg argues that every year the industry develops new technologies designed to reduce the number of robberies. But there’s no way to substantiate that. The ABA and the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents the nation’s largest financial services companies, said they knew of no studies of bank spending on physical security. And Bank of America spokeswoman Kelli Cishek said that the company doesn’t report its budget for physical security in its annual reports.
In the long term, banks’ security spending could be made irrelevant if societies move toward completely cashless transactions. In Sweden, a bank employees’ union is calling on the government to move more quickly toward cashlessness as a way to end robberies once and for all, according to a report by the BBC. Earlier this year, the Swedish central bank’s deputy governor appeared to support that idea, noting the higher cost of cash transactions to the country and citing as an example the expense of providing security at bank ATMs.
One U.S. expert who studies crime trends agrees. “How long [the transition to cashlessness] will take is an open question, but that it will happen isn’t an open question,” says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “And at that point, I think that bank robbery as we currently envision it, involving a predatory act between a robber and a teller, will end.”
Steve Yoder is a freelance journalist based in Woodstock, New York.
Photo by Matthew Sullivan via Flickr.
The city’s declining jail population is also getting older.
More than half of New York City inmates have a high concentration of mental illness, Dora B. Schriro, Commissioner of
New York City’s Department of Correction, said Thursday.
The same percentage of inmates are 36 years old and older, and have been involved with the
correctional system an average of 13 times, Schriro told an audience at the Harvard Club in New York
during a discussion sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to mark the release of a
special report on the problems of mass incarceration in the United States.
“It is not the typical offender one imagines,” she added.
New figures released last month show New York’s prison population has plunged to less than 100,000---
its lowest level in 24 years.
Schriro, one of the country’s foremost corrections experts, was appointed to head the city’s sprawling
jail complex last year. Previously, she served as a special advisor in the Department of Homeland
Security, where she prepared a report on its immigrant detention system. Her previous posts included
stints as head of the corrections systems in Arizona and Missouri, and as an assistant correction
commissioner in New York City.
According to Schriro, about a quarter of the city’s inmates are between 16-24 years old, commit
the most serious crimes, and spend the most time in pre trial stays. She also touched upon the her
department’s commitment to diversionary programs such as drug courts and mental courts which have
helped reduce prisoner intake, and reduce recidivism.
The report, published in the Academy’s journal, Daedalus, features essays by some of the country’s
most prominent criminologists. Essays range from women’s imprisonment and the clearing of troubled
assets to the contradictions of juvenile crime and punishment.
Glenn Loury of Brown University and Bruce Western of Harvard University, who chaired the working
group that put together the issue, also spoke. Western, who has studied the link between social
inequality and the growth of the incarcerated population in the United States called for a “Plan B”
approach to the current system of punishment.
“We need to have a commitment to service the communities,” he said.
The informal Q&A session also covered racial inequalities in the nation’s prisons and jails.
Cara Tabachnick is deputy editor of The Crime Report
Picture via capital x
Mass incarceration policies have taken a heavy toll on American families, neighborhoods and society. In an essay for The Crime Report, in advance of publication of a major American Academy of Arts and Sciences project, Prof. Glenn Loury of Brown University, calls for a profound change.
Over the past four decades, the United States has, by any measure, become a vastly more punitive society. This expansion, and transformation, of U.S. penal institutions—which has taken place at every level of government, and in all regions of the country―is without historical precedent or international parallel.
With roughly five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. currently confines about 25 percent of the world’s prison inmates. The American prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.
This is not merely law enforcement and punishment policy. It is also social policy, writ large, and a uniquely American form of social policy at that.
The present American regime of hyper-incarceration is said to be necessary in order to secure public safety. This is not a compelling argument. First, the notion that crime can be prevented by incapacitating criminals is overly simplistic. It ignores the fact that for many crimes―selling drugs, for instance—those who are incapacitated are simply replaced by others, there being no shortage of contenders vying to enter the illicit trade.
What is more, almost everyone who goes to prison is eventually released, most after just two or three years. For these hundreds of thousands of ex-offenders released each year, time behind bars will most likely have actually diminished, not enhanced, their odds of living crime-free lives: by lowering their employability, severing their ties to communal supports, and hardening their attitudes. That is, sometimes mass imprisonment actually undermines public safety.
One reason for this anomalous outcome is that incarceration in American cities is highly concentrated spatially. The ill effects for individuals of having spent time behind bars can reduce social opportunities for others who reside in the most heavily impacted communities and who themselves have done nothing wrong.
Some urban neighborhoods have as many as one in five of their adult men locked-up on any given day. Such spatially concentrated imprisonment fosters criminality because it undermines the informal social processes of order maintenance, which are the primary means of sustaining law-abiding behavior in all communities. Families living in areas of hyper-incarceration have been rendered less effective at inculcating in their children the delinquency-resistant self controls and pro-social attitudes that typically insulate youths against law-breaking.
The impact of high incarceration rates on the sustainable level of public safety over the long term is therefore ambiguous, because what happens in San Quentin need not stay in San Quentin.
The Role of Race
The role of race in this drama is subtle and important. More African American male high school dropouts are held in prisons than belong to unions or are enrolled in any (other) state or federal social welfare programs. It has been estimated that nearly 70% of African American male dropouts born between 1975 and 1979 had spent at least one year in prison before reaching the age of thirty-five.
These racial disparities in the incidence of incarceration are not accounted for solely by overt discriminatory practices (though such practices surely exist.) Rather, what might be called “tacit racism” ―malign racial neglect—seems to be the culprit. America’s punishment institutions have garnered public support at times because of, and at other times despite, this massive racial disparity.
They would never have been allowed to expand to such an extent if those subject to their depredations had not mainly been people of color. Moreover, we punish for expressive, not merely instrumental, reasons. We have wanted to send a message to the “thugs” about law and order, and have done so with a vengeance. In the midst of such dramaturgy―necessarily so in America—lurks a potent racial subplot.
Defenders of the current regime put the onus on law-breakers. “If they didn’t do the crimes, they wouldn’t have to do the time,” it is said. Yet, this pure ethic of personal responsibility could never justify the current situation. Missing from such an argument is any acknowledgement of social responsibility―even for the wrongful acts freely chosen by individual persons.
In saying this I am not making a “root causes” argument: “he did the crime, but only because he had no choice.” Rather, I am arguing that the larger society is implicated in his choices because we have acquiesced in arrangements which work to our benefit and his detriment, and which shape his consciousness and sense of identity in such a way that the choices he makes, choices which we must condemn, are nevertheless compelling to him. Put simply, the structure of our cities with their massive racial ghettos is a causal factor in the production of deviancy amongst those living there.
Here’s a “narrative defining’ question for the reader: should we understand the racial disparity of punishment in America as an accidental accretion of neutral state action applied to a racially divergent social flux—the chips having fallen as they may, so to speak?
Or, alternatively, is this powerfully salient feature of contemporary American social life better understood as the residual effect of our history of enslavement, violent domination, disenfranchisement and discrimination?
In other words, is the massive racial inequality in the incidence of punishment in this country a necessary evil, given our need for order maintenance? Or, is it an abhorrent expression of who Americans have become as a people at the dawn of the 21st century?
As an African American male, a baby boomer born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, I incline toward the latter view.
Glenn C. Loury, Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences, Department of Economics, Brown University, is co-project leader, with Prof. Bruce Western of Harvard University, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences project, “The Challenge of Mass Incarceration in America,” which is published in a forthcoming special issue of Daedalus.
Read the Daedalus issue here.
Photo by Andy Callahan via Flickr.
The following is the true life story of Manos, a young inmate,who wrote this as he leaves the juvenile justice system and enters the adult system. The letter was originally published by The Beat Within, a juvenile justice system writing workshop, which has generously allowed The Crime Report to share.
Hey Beat, What's cracking? Today I'm going to talk and write about my long life story from beginning to end. It all started off when I was born in O'Connor Hospital in San Jose. I was born on September 23, 1992. I can't really remember a lot of my memories from when I was a little kid, but I'll tell you the ones I do remember.
Before I get started, let me tell you that I have two younger brothers. One of my brothers' names is Jonathan and he is fifteen years old. My other brother is six years old, about to turn seven in October. My sister just turned thirteen back in February. So that makes me the oldest in the family as you can see.
Well, let me take you back to when I started school. I started school at the age of four or five; I can't remember exactly. I attended Grant (Elementary School) from Kindergarten to 2nd grade. I went to Grant because the school was so close to where I lived. It was just a couple of blocks away. My mom used to walk me to school. At Grant, I made a lot of friends that I still know at this time. Well, let me continue about school. Like I said, I went up to 2nd grade in Grant.
After that, I moved from San Jose to Los Angeles. My dad had family over there, so we moved in with them for like a year. It was pretty fun over there. I enjoyed my stay. I was enrolled in school and everything. I took the school bus because my school was far.
The thing about being in Los Angeles is that it was dangerous out there. I used to be at school and they would have to close the school and make a barrier of chairs against the door because they would say that there were people with guns and masks in the campus, trying to steal or get something. It was very scary just hearing that, especially because I was small.
After that, time went so fast. I came back to San Jose and started school at Grant again.
Let me tell you a little about how I was. I was a very intelligent kid. I liked going to school. My favorite subject was math. I was good at it. I was also into Pokemon cards. I liked collecting them and watching their TV series. When I was small, Pokemon was very famous. A lot of kids liked it. I also liked reading. I've always liked scary books because they have a lot of suspense. To this day, I still like scary books. I was an ordinary kid: I liked playing dodgeball, and I especially enjoyed playing at the playground with my friends. I finished the rest of my years that I had for elementary school at Grant.
After that, I started going to middle school at Hoover Middle School in San Jose by Lincoln High School. I was nervous and a little scared. I ain’t going to lie about that. When I got there, it wasn't even bad. A lot of my friends from my elementary school went there, too, so I wasn't alone like I thought I was going to be.
Well, school started and it was very fun. I had my first real relationship in 6th grade. Her name was Leslie. She was a very beautiful girl. I really don't remember exactly how long we were together, but it was pretty long. After we broke up, it was just girl after girl, enjoying life. I wasn't looking for another relationship. It felt good being alone, because I was able to do whatever I wanted.
Well, to change the subject from relationships and girls, as I entered middle school, everything changed. I noticed no one really considered it was "cool" to get good grades. The whole school dynamic changed when I entered middle school. I figured I had to adapt to fit in with the rest of those around me. If you attended class and did your work, others looked at you differently. You were seen as a punk if you didn't experiment with drugs and alcohol.
In the beginning, my friends from grade school and I tried to stay to ourselves, but we started hanging out with the wrong people. We slowly started drifting apart from each other. Some of us started hanging out with gang members, some of them got heavily involved with drugs, and others just stopped coming to school completely.
Childhood friends don't always make it through life's obstacles together. We picked up new habits. As school went on, I saw that none of my new friends and I were interested in hanging out after school and doing homework. It was more of "let's kick it, smoke, drink, and party with girls." My view on school changed. I no longer woke up in the morning with the same motivation to do well in school, but instead, I woke up in the morning just to ditch school, drink, smoke and hang out with the ladies. Nothing was the same anymore. No more good grades. No more nice letters sent home to my mom. No more certificates or awards taken home to show my mom. Instead, I took home citations and suspension forms.
I was continually getting in trouble with the law at school. I would get cited by the police while on campus for having pocket knives and drug paraphernalia. Fights also started having a huge impact on my motivation to go to school. When I started gang banging, I got into a lot of fights.
At first, I refused to let others call me a gang member; I would say that I just hang out with them, but that doesn't mean I gang bang. That didn't last for long, though. I quickly fell in love with the life-style, the attention, the respect from those around me, the thrill we got from confrontations with rivals, the girls that loved everything about us, and the feeling of having a family.
After thousands of warnings from my family and peers to not get involved with gangs, I decided "It’s my life.” I felt I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. So, I made the worst decision I feel I have made in my entire life. I became a gangster.
This all started happening in just the 2nd semester of my first year in middle school. In just six months of middle school, I went from an honor roll student to a young gang member, interested in nothing but doing drugs, fighting and looking good in front of females.
That same year, I was held back a grade due to a big drop in my academic participation. My teachers knew I was a smart student, but I feel that they didn't put that effort to push me that extra step toward doing my work and achieving good grades.
I can't exactly blame my failure in school at that point on my teachers, because the attitude I presented in class showed them that I didn’t want to learn and that I didn't take what they had to say into consideration. I feel they kind of gave up on me really easily, compared to those teachers that I have now.
Studies done by the University of Illinois show that parents who establish a routine for meals, bedtime and study/homework, and encourage the child to ready him/herself for studying will most likely get their young child in the habit of doing homework immediately after supper or after school. This will help them get adjusted to doing to same routine as they continue going to school down the road. This will help them succeed academically. That's what I’ve learned from my teachers.
I feel that's mainly right, but they never take into consideration that middle school is mainly when students are introduced to the real world. They are introduced to gangs, sex, and drugs. That's when they forget what the real purpose of going to school really is. They lose their focus on their primary goal. Those are topics that educators should really focus on: keeping the students focused on their primary goal, informing the students about the negative consequences of being in a gang, having unprotected sex at an early age, and doing drugs.
I personally can’t say that if someone had told me this, and had helped me stay focused and away from those negative things at school, I wouldn't have come out the way I did. My mother didn't really say anything to me. She would say, “You are your own man, and you will make the choices you want in life, regardless of what I say. So I want you to know that regardless of what choices you do make, I still love you. But I want you to learn about life the hard way.”
So, from that moment, my life went on and I entered high school. High school was even worse for me. Everything was completely different than middle school. In middle school, everybody hung out with everybody. Of course, except for gangs. But what I mean is that Mexicans hung out African Americans and Asians etcetera.
In high school, I noticed that everything was separated racially. I got deeper into the gang lifestyle. I went from just worrying about fighting at school, to worrying about getting stabbed on school campus. I went from just smoking marijuana, to drinking heavily, doing ecstasy, and cocaine.
Also, unlike middle school, drugs had a big role in high school. Drugs meant money and I got involved. I now saw school differently. I saw it as a place to make money. I completely forgot about what school was for. My freshman year, I went to school for two reasons only: to meet girls and to make money. I missed more than half of my freshman year, not because I didn't go to school, but because I just never went to class. I figured that you can't make money in class, so why go?
High school also brought so much drama to my life. It was a place to make a name for yourself. I kept on getting into fights. I found myself in situations where I was in front of half of the school, getting called out to a fight. Fights occurred a lot in high school.
The difference between those fights in middle school and those in high school is that you might be fighting someone four years older than you. It was also unlike middle school where, once the fight happens, it's all over. There was no retaliation after the fight. In high school, if you fought someone and you beat that person up, you would most likely be getting jumped badly or maybe even worse, getting stabbed. Pretty much what I'm trying to say is that if you fought at my high school, be ready to fight that same person every time there's an encounter between the two of you.
Within the two years that I was in the public high school, I fought over fifteen times on campus. Not to mention all the fights out of school that took place due to some stupid incident that occurred at school. All in all, high school was very exciting, but it also brought me so much drama that I still have to go through ‘till this day. But it's the life I chose to live, so I can't complain.
Teachers in high school were a lot more lenient than any other teachers I had met. I knew that they knew that there was gang tension, drugs being sold on campus, and a lot of racism, but they didn't seem to care. As long as they got their check at the end of the month, they didn't care.
Some teachers encouraged us to fight. They fueled the fire. For example, there was an incident that occurred one time in class between two rivals, and things escalated really quickly. One of the students in the incident then decided to stand up and confront the other student to a fight. Now, at this point, I'm watching the teacher. He notices what's going on, and doesn't even bother to call the principal or the on-duty police officers on campus. He just states that if they are going to fight, to take it outside of the classroom so that they don't end up breaking any of the equipment. Now you tell me – is that a good thing to do on his part? But think about it. My school at this point had had prior “race riots," continuous non-stop fights, and God knows how many drugs being sold on this school campus. Do you think that stopping one little fight will change anything? What would you do if you were the teacher?
As I went into my sophomore year, things didn't really change much. I still didn't go to any of my classes. I started trying to persuade the principals to help me out and let me get away with not going to school because I started getting letters home due to my attendance. I started having to go to numerous court dates due to my attendance and for various citations I had received.
I kept getting lucky with my encounters with the police. I would get cited or they would have my parents pick me up, but I never got locked up. I thought I was very lucky, but like it always happens, the luck eventually ran out. Police at school harassed me more than ever because they knew that I was a gang member and sold drugs. I got arrested multiple times with threats of going to juvenile hall for a long time. I knew the school officials had it in for me.
One day I stole a car. I kept it for two days close by my house. I used it like it was mine. I was stupid for doing that, but I didn't care; it was whatever. Well, one day I was about to go to pick up my friends. I did get over there, but on my way back to my hood I got blurped by a cop. They knew the car I was driving was stolen and they told me to stop. I kept going though, until it came to a stop, and I was blocked so I couldn't go anywhere. So, I stopped and got pulled over. From there, they took me to juvenile hall.
From that day, it was my first time getting incarcerated. My life was getting out of hand. My first time locked up, like everyone else, I thought there was a lot of stabbing and people getting capped and stuff, but it didn't turn out to be like that. I got 45 days and I did my time and got out.
As of 2008, I have been admitted to Juvenile Hall nine times. Currently as I write this, I've been here since November 2009 for another case I got caught in, and won't be getting out for a while. But it's all good. It ain’t a big deal. I always say time is time. I'll be out someday. All I can do now is wait ‘till that day comes and be back home. For now, I'll be getting my education and staying strong.
Read more of the Beat Within here.
Picture via Franklin County Courts
Accountability and civilian oversight have transformed Los Angeles’ police culture. But the job isn’t complete yet.
The good news in L.A. these days is that the epic struggle to reform the Los Angeles Police Department, which caused some of the deadliest American riots of the 20th Century, and so fiercely dominated and divided the city, is finally nearing its end.
Thanks to the Christopher Commission reforms limiting the department’s independent power, the 2000 federal consent decree, and the seven-year tenure of reform chief William J. Bratton, followed by the appointment of his protégé, Charlie Beck, the worst of the LAPD’s insensitivity and brutality has been curbed. And its notoriously isolated paramilitary culture has been replaced by the inclusive spirit of community policing.
Above all, a new era of accountability and civilian oversight has taken hold, and the decades of LAPD officers routinely using excessive force without consequence appears to be over.
This last is a remarkable development for Los Angeles, where the LAPD’s fearsome reputation was accompanied by the knowledge among its officers that no matter what they did in the line of duty, they’d be utterly unaccountable to civilian oversight.
Officer accountability, however, must be the bedrock under which any good police force operates. Without it, as the LAPD discovered during the violent response of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, you become a hated army of occupation. Scandal-plagued departments in cities like New Orleans, which are now attempting to right themselves, would therefore do well to examine where L.A. has been on the issue of independent civilian oversight, and where it is now and still needs to go.
IG: ‘Nothing We Can’t Look At’
LAPD’s new Inspector General, Nichole Bershon, was remarkably upbeat about the cooperation she‘s been receiving from the LAPD when I met with her last month. “We monitor every officer-involved shooting-investigation from the moment we’re called to the scene to its end; and take and monitor [citizen and other] complaints all the way through the process,” Bershon said. “There’s really nothing today that we can’t look at [within the department]. We ask for it, we get it. No discussion, no questions.”
Moreover, a number of the I.G.’s oversight functions have been codified into either the City Charter or the LAPD (operations) manual. The Charter, for example, gives the I.G. “the same access to police department information as the Board of Police Commissioners” (which sets department policy.) And the manual grants the I.G. the right to view the entire disciplinary file of all department employees, and requires that all LAPD employees “comply with any and all access to documents” requested by the Inspector General.
Additionally, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has continued an operational policy begun by Bratton: the development of an open-door culture of respect and cooperation within the department towards the I.G.’s Office (IGO).
Nevertheless, this is precisely not the time for Los Angeles to rest on its laurels.
The need for a a robust Inspector General’s Office to monitor the department’s internal discipline system, and to ensure that complaints will continue to be properly received, investigated, adjudicated and, when appropriate, punished has never been greater.
The IGO was created by a 1995 amendment to the City Charter on the recommendation of the Christopher Commission, following the 1991 Rodney King beating, precisely because civilian oversight of the department was judged to be virtually nonexistent. The principal functions the IGO was expected to perform include: oversight of the department’s internal investigations and issuance of periodic reports to keep the department honest and transparent.
Since then, however, it has functioned haphazardly, at best.
There have been and remain several serious potential problems. One is that the I.G. lacks the statutory powers of a traditional inspector general to act independently. Under the City Charter the I.G. works at the pleasure of the Police Commission, which has the authority, “by majority vote to direct the Inspector General not to commence or continue an investigation or audit.” (Emphasis added.) Moreover, the I.G. lacks traditional investigative tools such as subpoena power, and an attorney-client relationship with the Police Commission (which shields investigations).
While there’s no reason to worry about Chief Beck interfering with the IGO, we don’t know who will replace him, and what interests a new chief might represent. The mayor appoints the police commission which, in collaboration with the mayor, selects the police chief. If a newly elected mayor (and his hand picked commission) selected a hardnosed chief who allowed his officers to act unaccountably on the street (as the department did for decades in the not-so-distant past), and they backed that chief in stonewalling the I.G.O., what recourse would the I.G. have?
Such a scenario unfolded under LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, who took office in 1997. An old-school son of the LAPD’s secretive, circle-the-wagons LAPD culture, Parks sought to emasculate the I.G., with at least the acquiescence of Mayor Richard Riordan and his first-term police commission. He denied the department’s first two Inspector Generals access to information and access to witnesses, sending a signal to the department’s leadership not to cooperate with them.
Information they requested and were entitled to would be send back incomplete or inaccurate, or only at the last moment, when the statute of limitations was about to run out. In addition, they were either barred from attending and/or contributing during use-of-force hearings adjudicating discipline cases.
The situation has changed since then. Bratton instilled a new sprit of cooperation with the I.G. when he became chief in 2002, and the federal consent degree forced on the LAPD by the U.S. Justice Department in 2000 additionally required the LAPD to adopt accountability policies, enforced by a federal monitor and judge looking over its shoulder.
That consent decree was lifted in 2009, and a Transition Agreement is now in place. Theoretically an I.G. could still go to federal court and get an order compelling a recalcitrant chief to comply with her requests. But not without creating yet another Los Angeles police crisis, and causing an enormous rift within the LAPD that would be catastrophic for an Inspector General’s Office that depends not only on the letter of the law, but on the free, cooperative flow of information.
Bershon says she is now reviewing the Transitional Agreement, with an eye towards what “protocols the IGO is operating under that should be codified in the LAPD Manual or Special Orders.”
That’s a start. But not nearly enough.
What’s really needed is a full-throated, comprehensive effort to codify the I.G.’s rights, investigative powers and independence from the police commission, in a revised City Charter statute. As former federal prosecutor and Los Angles City Council member Jack Weiss recently put it: “The bottom line is this: can we rely on future chiefs as enlightened as Bratton and Beck? Are they the ‘new normal’ or exceptions to the history of the department?”
He might have added: can we rely on a new Police Commission not to close down or nix an I.G. investigation that might be politically embarrassing – or worse? The citizens of Los Angeles and its police department have been through too much chaos and heartache to have to again gamble on the answers to such important questions.
Joe Domanick is chief of The Crime Report’s West Coast Bureau. A version of this essay also appeared in the Los Angeles Times on August 12.
Photo by Kevin Dean via Flickr.
Location-based social networks using geotagging technology are a cool way of letting friends and family keep track of you—and as a law enforcement tool, they can protect public safety. But when we share, do we really know who’s watching?
In the world of social networking, Carri Bugbee is hardly a novice. The Portland, Oregon social media marketing strategist has 7,164 followers on Twitter, 1,197 Facebook friends and more than 500 connections on LinkedIn. But when she got involved with geotagging through a location-based network, she received an uncomfortable wake-up call.
Literally. One evening last February, she used foursquare, the popular location-based mobile network, to “check in” at a local restaurant, letting friends know where she was sitting down to dinner. Then she got a call on the restaurant telephone.
The caller, who swore at her and called her stupid, had tracked her down through PleaseRobMe.com, a site whose unsubtle name reflected its purpose: to warn people about the risks of geotagging by aggregating and publicizing location data from users of those networks. In Bugbee’s case, the warning was effective. She quit foursquare. She started hiring a house sitter. She became, as she put it a “geotagging curmudgeon.”
“I think that a lot of people have drunk the Kool-Aid without actually thinking that hard about it,” Bugbee said about location-based technologies. “At some point, some tragedy will occur.”
PleaseRobMe shut down last spring after a string of incidents like Bugbee’s suggested it may be more helpful to would-be criminals than to users. Nevertheless, its founders said they had accomplished their goal of educating users about the risks of broadcasting their location to the world.
“What is often forgotten is that you’re not really talking to a small group of friends,” said Douglas Salane, director of the Center for Cybercrime Studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You’re potentially talking to anyone on the internet.”
This can be incredibly useful for law enforcement.
Salane, who has worked with the Manhattan District Attorney and the FBI, notes that “one of the most useful devices for law enforcement is a cell phone.” But at the same time, he adds, users have largely ignored the longer term risks to privacy and public safety.
Our Digital Trail
About 59 percent of American adults now use wireless Internet, up nine percent from one year ago, according to a Pew report on Internet use. About 76 percent use their mobile device to take pictures, and 54 percent have used it to send a photo or video.
And things are getting more complex. The future of the Internet—Web 3.0, if you will—will likely rely heavily on information that users produce and broadcast, either willingly or unwillingly.
In the world of social networks and applications, location-based services are the next big thing. Twitter and Google already use them. Facebook, which hit 500 million users in July, plans to roll out a location-based feature any day now. As more emerge around the digital world, they will leave millions of pieces of location information in their digital wake.
And a small but growing number of programmers are trying to do something about it.
Ben Jackson and Larry Pesce had both safety and privacy in mind when they started ICanStalkU.com in May. With $1,000 and some programming language, the New England-based securities information researchers picked up where PleaseRobMe left off.
ICanStalkU automatically searches thousands of photos on Twitter for geotags, tiny location markers attached to about three percent of all photos posted to the micro blogging site. Then it turns them into a location message, showing how photos can be used to trace people in real time, using information many have no idea they have put out there.
Despite the eyes-in-the-dark logo and dramatic name, Jackson said they intended the site to teach rather than threaten. “We just want people to make an informed decision,” explained Jackson. “If they are posting this information, we want them to know what kind of risk this entails.”
Stalking in Cyberspace
Stalking experts say the rapid evolution in locational technology has upped the risks. “It doesn’t cause stalking but it makes stalking a lot easier,” said Rebecca Dreke, a senior analyst at the National Center for Victims of Crime.
About 25 percent of the 3.4 million people who reported being victims of stalkers during 2005-2006 said they had been stalked using some form of cyber technology such as e-mail or instant messaging, according to the most comprehensive evaluation of data to date. The data, reported in a 2009 study by the Department of Justice, predated the wide use of newer technology such as geotagging and may thus seriously underestimate the scope of the problem, says Dreke, who points out that many of those exposed to location-based tracking will not even know they are being watched.
Dreke helps educate law enforcement about how they might use the same technology to help uncover the offenders. It’s an uphill battle. “The offenders and the criminals are usually keeping ahead of the people investigating the crime,” she said.
A recent study recent study by the security company Webroot showed many social network users are aware of the perils of their digital life. Webroot found 32 percent of men and 49 percent of women reported being “highly concerned” about stalkers. More than half of the 1,500 respondents worried about the privacy implications of their geo-tagged lifestyles.
Todd Zwillich shares their anxiety.
Zwillich, the Washington correspondent for the Public Radio International program, The Takeaway, was driving around the capital on a recent Saturday when he spotted a blue Chrysler with the license number NCCI70I. He grabbed a friend’s iPhone, and ran into traffic to snap a shot of the “awesome” plate. “It’s awesome because that is the ID number of the Starship Enterprise,” said Zwillich, with a laugh.
Zwillich knew the image would lay bare his Trekkie obsession to friends and followers. But until ICanStalkU picked it up and The Crime Report contacted him, Zwillich didn’t know he was tagged as standing “nearby 669 New York Avenue NW Washington DC” that day.
The idea didn’t sit well. “I’m not interested in having constant GPS social surveillance,” he said. “It’s information I want to control.”
But increasingly complex privacy settings and out of date laws can make that hard to do. In the courts and on Capitol Hill, debates have begun about how to fashion laws governing cell phone records and electronic communications that strike the right balance between safety and privacy.
Geo-Location and Civil Liberties
Locational data can be culled from information we’ve opted to offer up to private companies—information emitted by our cell phone and collected by our service provider, pictures we’ve posted on Twitter, or profile information on Facebook.
The Constitution protects our privacy rights with respect to government prying. Private companies, on the other hand, may collect information on their users and often have wide leeway to use it as they see fit.
Often, that means cooperating with government. Recently, law enforcement has been using the Stored Communications Act to access locational data from cell phone providers, which requires law enforcement agencies to provide “reasonable grounds” before being granted the right to access location records from cell phone companies as well as social media networks like Facebook and Twitter.
The right to do so can help catch criminals and save lives, said Jack Killorin, director of a federal anti-drug task force in Atlanta. Like the FBI and NYPD, his agency has used location data emitted from cell phones in a number of cases, such as tracking a load of narcotics on the move.
“Where its certainly immediately helpful is when it’s used to track down victims of kidnapping, or fugitives,” said Killorin, who downplayed privacy concerns about this kind of technology.
“I don’t think that there’s a threat to the privacy of the overwhelming majority of citizens of the United States,” he said. “At least not from law enforcement.”
But law enforcement is already moving into some gray areas that raise questions not just about government access to data, but how it uses the data it collects.
Recently, police in a suburb of Dallas, Texas received $60,000 in federal stimulus funds to set up a license plate scanning system, a database of snapshots it can use to keep and track plate numbers to look for stolen cars or kidnap victims. The technology allows the department to track where and when any plate has been photographed, potentially offering up a map of how many of the city’s citizens spend their day—where they live, shop, eat, sleep, meet up with lovers and go to political meetings.
The legal scope for using this information is still murky, says Andrew Blumberg , a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas, who has done extensive work on locational privacy.
“Most people’s intuitions about their privacy and public space are wrong or out of date,” adds Blumberg, which is why he welcomes sites such as PleaseRobMe and ICanStalkU as useful counterforces to the notion that citizens have nothing to fear, as long as the users of such metadata act responsibly.
“Is it legal to keep (such information) forever?” wonders Blumberg, who co-authored a paper on locational privacy with the San Francsico-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends privacy rights in cyberspace. “We need to have a national debate about what the right legislation is.”
The debate has started. The law currently governing the use of email communication is the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act. In an unusual show of cooperation, privacy advocates, tech companies and service providers from the ACLU to Facebook have come together to form Digital Due Process, a coalition seeking to update the law for the modern webbed world.
The courts may soon weigh in as well. A case now pending before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals will rule on whether the government should show “probable cause” before obtaining location records from cell phone providers, as it would for a warrant—rather than the present lower standard of “reasonable cause. ”
In February 2008, a lower-court judge sided with the coalition of digital rights and civil liberties organizations that brought the suit, which included the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union. But the Justice Department says the judge was wrong. “An individual has no Fourth Amendment-protected privacy interest in business records,”argued DOJ lawyer Mark in a brief submitted to Third Circuit defending the current standard.
But ICanStalkU’s Ben Jackson isn’t sure the law can ever keep up. That’s why he and others on the cutting edge of technology will likely keep setting up sites to show the world the digital breadcrumbs they have left behind.
Jackson is already thinking beyond geotagging. The question stuck in his mind is: “What’s going to happen next year and the year after that to information I don’t know I’m giving out now?”
Lisa Riordan Seville is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn, NY.