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How U.S. Policy Aids Cuban Crime Rings

By Megan O’Matz

In September, police in Grand Rapids, MI arrested four people for skimming credit account numbers from gas pumps, copying the data onto new cards, and using them to buy thousands of dollars in gift cards at big box retailers.

These were not local Michigan crooks, however. They were Cuban citizens living in South Florida.

Across the U.S., Cuban crime rings are quietly stealing billions of dollars from U.S. businesses and taxpayers.  It’s a phenomenon we at the Sun Sentinel documented extensively in January 2015 in a series of investigative reports: Plundering America: The Cuban Criminal Pipeline.

A year later, the crime rings continue to thrive, even as the U.S. and Cuba take historic steps to end decades of hostility by opening embassies and holding regular talks on restoring air travel, protecting the environment, improving telecommunications, and—even—cooperating on law enforcement matters.

U.S. authorities and policymakers would be wise to scrutinize the activities of these Cuban criminal networks in far greater depth in order to better control how they access the U.S. and to determine what training and support they receive—just as importantly, to determine  whether stolen funds are winding up in Cuba.

The Sun Sentinel traveled to Cuba, examined hundreds of court documents, and obtained federal data never before made public to expose how Cuban crime rings gained easy entry to the U.S. and grew to dominate high-dollar frauds.

Obtaining information was not easy.

Local prosecutors and investigators were reluctant to talk for fear of offending the politically powerful Cuban community.  U.S. officials at the departments of state, justice and immigration declined interviews or gave unhelpful, off-point answers. Federal authorities denied numerous public records requests— even refusing to release the names of Cuban fugitives out of concern for their privacy.

Ultimately, the Sun Sentinel obtained a little-known database of federal arrests, called the Joint Automated Booking System. We found that Cuban citizens and immigrants were disproportionately represented in certain highly lucrative offenses ranging from Medicare scams and credit card fraud to indoor marijuana cultivation.

For example, while Cuba-born residents account for less than one percent of the U.S. population, they represent 41 percent of health-care fraud arrests nationwide.

How did the crime rings gain a foothold, and flourish?

U.S. immigration policy made it easy. For more than 50 years, America has welcomed Cubans as refugees fleeing communism. The U.S. allows automatic entry for Cubans who reach U.S. soil, and the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act grants them legal residency after just one year, an advantage given to no other immigrant group.

Greater openness in travel between the two countries has also aided the criminals.

We showed how people were taking millions of dollars back to Cuba from these rackets and recruiting friends and family from the island to work as foot soldiers in the operations. When law enforcement closes in, the culprits often return to Cuba, where they can live openly and freely.

Cuba so far has refused to return any of their citizens to face justice in the United States.

Reporting from Cuba, the newspaper located one fugitive wanted for stealing $180,000 in nickels from the Federal Reserve and another charged in a $1 million Texas credit card ring who had boasted he “went to the U.S. to steal, to damage the U.S. Government.”

In another case, the Sun Sentinel determined that the Cuban government benefited from the crime, seizing $200,000 from the leader of an $18 million auto insurance scam who had fled to Cuba to avoid arrest.

Our reporting eventually led us down a related path. We found Cuban immigrants were collecting U.S. welfare benefits – in Cuba. In a separate investigative series, Easy Money, published in October, the Sun Sentinel reported that Cuban immigrants were cashing in on U.S. welfare and returning to the island, making a mockery of the decades-old premise that they are refugees fleeing persecution at home.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami called the level of fraud uncovered by the Sun Sentinel unacceptable and said the Cuban Adjustment Act “is ripe for reform.’’ And droves of readers wrote and called the Sun Sentinel or offered comments online, decrying the unfairness of the policies and urging action.

As a result of the Sun Sentinel investigation, two bills have been introduced in Congress. One, filed in October by U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, would repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act.  The other, filed in December by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Miami, would make Cuban immigrants ineligible for refugee aid unless they prove they are  fleeing persecution and are unable to return home.

Congress and the White House need to examine whether the Cuban government has trained criminals to commit fraud here and determine the extent to which it has benefited from the illicit money flowing back. They should demand that Cuba accept some 34,000 criminals who’ve been ordered deported from the U.S. and that it return fugitives wanted for crimes in America.

The Obama administration and the presidential candidates should reevaluate the U.S.-Cuba immigration policy that began with good intentions—to aid those fleeing communism—but is now exploited with ease by Cuban crime rings.

Megan O’Matz is an investigative reporter for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Along with fellow staffer John Maines, she won the 2013-2014 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting award for a two-part series on drug busts in southern Florida. She welcomes comments from readers.



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Wrongful Convictions: Is the Tide Shifting?

By Reuven Fenton

One winter night in 1990, a Philadelphia barber named Muhammad Don Ray Adams was cutting a neighbor’s hair when gunshots rang out a few blocks away. He kept right on barbering; gunshots were just part of the evening soundtrack in North Philly.

But a few hours later, he got word that cops were eyeing him as the gunman. The buzz around the neighborhood was that someone named Don Ray had fired the shots, killing two drug dealers.

Eyewitnesses had described the killer as tall and light skinned; Adams was five-foot-four, dark skinned, stocky and went by “Muhammad.”

The discrepancy seemed to Adams too obvious  for anyone to seriously consider him a murderer, let alone a suspect. Yet police arrested him nonetheless and charged him with double homicide.

From then on,  Adams’ story became tragically commonplace: he waited a year-and-a-half in jail for his day in court, all the while taking for granted that even if police and prosecutors didn’t have common sense, a jury of his peers certainly would.

One crucial snag was that Adams was unable to produce the man whose hair he’d been cutting when he heard the gunshots, or the man’s brother—who was next up for a trim. They had outstanding warrants and could not be found. The only person who could testify to his whereabouts at the time was his girlfriend.

Nevertheless, Adams thought his case was tight.

It wasn’t. The jury found him guilty. A judge sentenced him to life in prison. And Adams became one of countless thousands abducted by law enforcement and sent up the river for crimes they didn’t commit.

Something needs to change.

Adams, whose saga is featured in my book, “Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned,” is one of the 1,700 people who have been exonerated in the United States since 1989. Though that number might seem impressive, consider that between 2.3 and 5 percent of men and women currently incarcerated in this country are not guilty of the crimes they were charged. That could put the number of the wrongfully convicted currently locked up time as high as 100,000.

Most of these people will serve their sentences to the end. This may happen because they’ve given up fighting or, more likely, because their fight is unwinnable for any number of reasons: The evidence was lost or destroyed, the fraudulent accuser refuses to recant, or they can’t find a lawyer to take their case.

The Innocence Project, which leads the fight against wrongful convictions, has—along with other groups—called for legislation to reduce the number of innocent people being convicted in the first place.

The good news is the tide is starting to shift. Reforms are slowly but steadily emerging to overhaul the five most common causes of wrongful conviction: false confessions, eyewitness misidentification, improper forensic science, false accusations, and government misconduct.

That last one, government misconduct, is too often the Big Bad Wolf where wrongful convictions are concerned. Prosecutorial misconduct includes withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense, destroying evidence and allowing unreliable witnesses or fraudulent experts to testify. Police misconduct includes coercing false confessions, lying on the witness stand, or failing to turn over evidence to prosecutors.

Such misconduct played a key role in Muhammad Don Ray Adams’s conviction. At his trial, a crack addict named Donna Benjamin testified under oath that she saw the defendant pull the trigger. Then, she said, he looked coldly at Benjamin lying sprawled out on the pavement, who was begging, “Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. It’s me.”

The “It’s me” was the knockout punch to his case. It communicated to jurors that Donna and Adams knew each other, that there was no way she might have confused him with someone else. The jury ate it up.

Nearly two decades later, Benjamin confessed that she had lied on the stand in exchange for leniency on a slew of outstanding warrants, mostly for shoplifting. Her recantation became the key to Adams’ exoneration—19 years too late.

It needs to stop. But how?

“You need to change the ethic in the prosecutor’s office from winning at all costs to what the rules of professional conduct say the prosecutor is, which is a minister of justice,” says Steve Kaplan, an attorney whose client Damon Thibodeaux—also profiled in my book—sat on Louisiana death row for 15 years before he got out.

“I think they all go in with great intentions, but the fact of the matter is they’re political animals and they’re judged on their wins and losses,” he continued.  “So I think you’ve got to get the politics out of it and you’ve got to have prosecutors who will say to their people, ‘I will not judge you on your wins and losses. I will judge you on the quality of justice you dispense.’”

Easier said than done.

But there has been some movement. Since 2000, eleven states have implemented criminal justice reform commissions that are specifically geared to study wrongful convictions and how to change the system. These states include North Carolina, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, and New York.

It’s a small step forward. But in the crusade to keep the innocent out of prison, every step counts.

Reuven Fenton is a staff reporter with the New York Post living in New York City. His book, “Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned,” (Tantor Media) was released in November. Follow the author on Twitter @reuvenfen. He welcomes your comments.

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We Need a National Plan to Stop Active Shooters

By Richard Webb

Once again, the world has witnessed a mass shooting. Predictably, people across the nation feel the need to do something when such things happen.  Soon after the tragedy in San Bernardino, armchair experts were having policy debates on gun control, immigration and mental health, even before all the facts of the incident were fully known.

But these debates divert our attention from immediate strategies that can and should be enacted now.

As a police officer with 35 years of experience, and one of the developers of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Multiple Assault Counter Terrorism Action Capability (MACTAC) plan for situations like the San Bernardino shooting, I offer up some strategies to deal with the reality that faces us.

We must prepare because the threat isn’t “coming.”   It’s already here.

It is time for a national action plan involving  law enforcement, educators, firefighters, paramedics, medical personnel and the security industry on how to deal with active shooter events—not only to address the incidents that have  happened in this country, but the kinds of events we’ve seen in Mumbai in 2008 and in Paris last month.  In Mumbai, ten shooters killed 172 people in coordinated multiple attacks.  Over 120 persons were killed in similar planned attacks in Paris.

We need a national standardized response platform, much like what the National Incident Management System  does for handling long-term disasters, on how to prepare, prevent and interdict multiple location attacks.

This plan, developed by an expert working group, has to be driven at the national level to ensure the same uniformity that we have in our responses to other disasters.  We should look at the successes of Israel, the outstanding work by first responders in San Bernardino, and other security experts to, once and for all, develop a standardized response.

Right now, there is no standardized plan that takes in coordination with fire and medical response in hot zones, universally accepted terminology for all responders, and so many other important issues.

As noted author Col. Dave Grossman   points out, we have entire fire codes designed to protect children in schools; yet few, if any, children have perished in school fires in the last 50 years. Just as schools practice fire drills, they must conduct active threat drills.  Each school should have an active threat emergency plan that is clear and practiced.

Schools should be designed (or updated) to allow teachers to reasonably block and prevent an attacker from entering classrooms.  Security systems should be layered and redundant. Doors should be secure and reinforced; alarm systems should be updated to include warnings about other dangers.  Each school should have trauma kits that provide life-saving first aid equipment for serious injuries, not just skinned knees.  Teachers should be taught basic casualty-care procedures.

On weekends, local law enforcement should train on the very campuses they may be called upon to defend.  Persons responsible for other facilities, such as governmental offices, should follow the same planning and preparation steps.

It is time for law enforcement and first responders to be more resolute than ever in confronting and stopping this evil.  Legislation is needed to mandate that law enforcement first aid curricula are updated, giving responding law enforcement cutting edge first aid skills to deal with gunshot and other traumatic wounds.  Best practices developed by our military in casualty care are slow to be implemented by law enforcement.

Officers should be issued individual first aid kits that provide them with such things as tourniquets, chest seals and clotting gauze.  Tactical training should be mandated for cops not only on confronting a deadly attacker, but how to provide medical care under fire.

Law enforcement agencies within cities and municipalities must train together.  Without working out tactical challenges ahead of time, chaos would hamper response.  For instance, at an attack at a school, it is critical to team up school police officers as guides for other law enforcement personnel because school officers have essential knowledge such as the campus layout, access to keys, whereabouts of personnel and children.

We have all seen photos of hundreds of police officers at the scene of a shooting.  Since there may be attacks in multiple locations, law enforcement and other first responders must have disciplined deployment schemes to avoid over-deployment of personnel at one incident leaving the remainder of the city unprotected from another potential attack.

The plan has to be in place and practiced. Precious time is lost organizing when bullets are flying.

Emergency managers must leverage the resources of the entire first responder community.  Educators, medical, firefighters, law enforcement and security industry personnel need to work out details ahead of time in the event of a shooting disaster.  In some jurisdictions, fire and police do not even agree on common terminologies during victim rescues.

Venues that claim to be gun-free should either enact viable common-sense security measures or quit wasting time and resources on feel-good but unproductive practices. My wife (also a cop) and I conduct our own security test do when we go to venues where they search bags for guns.  They have never found the  Beretta 9mm pistol in her purse.  Meanwhile, I walk through security, fully armed, and I’m never searched.

However, many venues with metal detectors prevent anyone, including off-duty police officers, from entering carrying a concealed firearm.  Police officers are trained to protect people.  Their firearm is a tool of the trade.  An FBI report on 160 active-shooter events found that off-duty police officers, as well as other armed persons have interrupted the active shootings in at least seven instances.

Amateurish security measures are insufficient.  Security at major gathering places needs to be seriously escalated to protect against the legitimate threat of active shooters.

It is time for action by those who can invoke change.  The federal government should place heavy emphasis on developing a national response plan for multiple active shooter scenarios.  The LAPDs Multiple Assault Counter Terrorism Action Capability could the stepping- off point for that discussion.  States should mandate that care under fire be a part of every law enforcement curriculum.  School districts must concern themselves with active threats as much as they do fire drills.  Emergency managers should focus on active-threat scenarios and mobilize the emergency response community plan and train together so that when the day comes, they are ready to roll.

As we have seen time and time again, the threat is real.  Evil will visit again.  We should make preparations to meet it.

Richard Webb is a Retired LAPD Commander and one of the creators of the Multiple Assault Counter Terrorism Action Capability (MACTAC) program and author of LAPDs guiding documents to deal with multiple location active shooters.  Since his retirement, Rick created PeakPolicing Strategies LLC. He welcomes comments from readers.


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Closing Down L.A. Schools: What Just Happened?

The unprecedented decision by Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ramon Cortines to shut the city’s more than 900 schools yesterday, has left a lot of people here in LA gap-mouthed, and wondering why over 650,000 students needed to be pulled out of school buses and sent home during rush hour, over what turned out to be  an empty threat.

The threat came in the form of emails to school board members, and mentioned both assault weapons and explosives, thereby echoing the modus operandi of the two Muslim assailants who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, CA, last week.

Essentially the same threat had been sent to New York City officials, who chose not to close New York’s schools. Later, LA’s own congressional representative Adam Schiff— who serves as the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence—declared the threat a hoax.

Even before Schiff’s announcement, however, questions and criticism had begun, the most pointed coming from Bill Bratton, the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and now Police Commissioner of New York City, and the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio. They seemed directed at Bratton’s protégé, current LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.

Asked if he was concerned, Bratton replied that he’d spoken earlier with the FBI, and quickly concluded that it wasn’t a “credible threat,” and that “what we would be concerned about was overreacting to it (emphasis mine). We’ll stay aware, stay involved, but at all costs we can’t start over-reacting to what might probably be a series of copy-cat initiatives.”

De Blasio referred to the email threat as “genetic and outlandish.” That could just be their opinion, but at this stage it sure does sound right.

And that raises questions: did the mayor’s office, the LAPD, and the school district have a plan in the eventuality of a crisis or potential crisis like the one that just occurred? There seems to have been no contingency plan, no protocols about who will decide what action should be taken in such a situation—nor who will announce it, and who then will speak for the city.

Have there been any agreements made with the schools and other public safety organizations about what part of a crisis each of the organizations will handle?

The first of job of a mayor and his police chief in such events is to reduce public anxiety.But the way it was handled in Los Angeles only increased it.

You want them standing together at a microphone, speaking as one, to  reassure the public, and let people know exactly what’s happening. Instead,  the outgoing schools superintendent Ramon Cortines  was left to both make the decision and the announcement.

And you can’t help but ask what he knows about evaluating a security threat and making a decision, especially now, when Southern California is so on edge.

Chief Beck says that making such a decision is hard. Yes it is. But Bratton called the FBI and discussed the threat, as did Beck. In fairness to the chief, New York City handles these kinds of threats on a more routine basis than L.A. and has by far the most experienced and largest intelligent apparatus outside of the federal government.

The decision had to be made very swiftly. But still, America’s second largest city looked remarkably unprepared to handle an event its police department should have been prepared for. In short, at the very least, the optics were terrible. The ball was punted to Cortines--instead of having the chief and mayor jointly owning the decision. 

In that regard,  LA Mayor Eric Garcetti put the final embarrassing touch to the whole incident.

Stepping up to the podium during a news conference, he announced that “the decision to close our schools is not mine to [make], but it is mine to support.”

Joe Domanick is Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, and Los Angeles bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.


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Donald Trump’s Threat to Justice Reform

By Christopher N. Lasch

Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from the country after our latest mass shooting is just the most recent example of a political ploy we’ve seen him and others use time and again:  Exaggerate the threat, oversimplify the cause, and call for a radical change in policy rooted in racist, nativist fear.

Trump has used this kind of inflammatory rhetoric before in relation to criminal justice issues. After five youths of color were charged (falsely, we now know) in the 1989 Central Park Jogger case, Trump described New York City as a “world ruled by the law of the streets, as roving bands of wild criminals roam our neighborhoods.”  Although he was not then a candidate for anything, he bought a full-page ad in which he lamented the “complete breakdown of life as we knew it,” and called for a return of the death penalty.

Almost three decades later, his racially divisive style remains unchanged. When Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination, he painted a similarly desperate picture of the United States as a “dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.”  He reviled Mexican immigrants, saying: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Weeks later, he exploited the accidental shooting death of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant who had been deported to Mexico five times previously, to reiterate his call for a “great wall” on our southern border.

Trump is not the only politician to lace fear with thinly veiled racial hatred. The exaggeration of threat and the linking of race, crime, national security, and immigration have been constant tropes in American politics—and they have been major impediments in particular to meaningful immigration reform for the last generation.

As the War on Drugs ramped up in the 1980s and 1990s, images of Latino narco-traffickers helped lawmakers across the political spectrum tie immigration policy to criminal justice policy.  Legislation like the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (and its subtitle, the Narcotics Traffickers Deportation Act), the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, contained important provisions focusing on “criminal aliens.” Immigration enforcement quickly became intertwined with criminal enforcement.

The horrific events of 9/11 added a second strand to the narrative of immigrant criminality.  Now immigrants were labeled not only a criminal threat but a national security threat as well.  The federal government called on local law enforcement to participate in immigration enforcement as a national security measure. In 2008, the “Secure Communities” program required the fingerprints of every prisoner booked into a jail or prison nationwide to be run through federal immigration databases.   The immigration enforcement system had successfully enlisted local criminal justice systems across the nation to feed the deportation machinery.

This fear-based policymaking has not served us well.

It is by now commonplace to recognize that the War on Drugs produced wildly disproportionate incarceration and over-policing of communities of color.  With immigration enforcement tied to the War on Drugs, we have seen similar results.  Writing in 1998, Kevin Johnson (now Dean of the University of California-Davis School of Law) described a “war” on Mexican immigrants with “unmistakable” racial aspects, noting that the racial subordination of citizens and non-citizens is “inextricably linked.”

Today, the marriage of the immigration and criminal justice systems has resulted in record deportation and detention numbers, largely focused on immigrants from Mexico and Central America—with nearly 34,000 people warehoused in immigration detention every day.

Promoting fear-based narratives   has led to the failure of immigration reform.  Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama have sought meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform, but the dominant narratives, identifying immigrants with criminals and terrorists and promoted relentlessly by both administrations, have completely undermined reform efforts.

Trump’s fear-based, race-based views would likewise kick to the curb any hope of meaningful reform in criminal justice.

It has taken much grief and hard work, but the bipartisan consensus on the need for criminal justice reform demonstrates at least an inclination to roll back the years of one-dimensional policymaking that gave us the 18:1 crack-to-powder-cocaine sentencing imbalance and a 600% explosion in the country’s prison population, with African American men representing nearly 40% of those incarcerated.

Trump’s recent comments, winning him the endorsement of a major New England police union—“anybody killing a police officer, death penalty is going to happen, OK”—demonstrate that his current thinking on criminal justice issues has not evolved since 1989, when he attributed lawlessness to a waning of police power.

“BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” his ad calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five cried out. “Let our politicans give back our police department’s power to keep us safe.” His current criticism of police demilitarization (“You know they're taking away the military equipment,” he warned the police union), in the wake of the string of deaths of people of color at the hands of police, echoes these cries, and it betrays Trump’s position as white nostalgia for unlimited police power.

In 1989, he wanted to “unshackle” the police from “the constant chant of ‘police brutality.’” That is the opposite of what the country needs right now.

Fear also quickly leads to lawlessness. Trump’s plan to ban all Muslims from the country has “many many legal problems,” according to law professor and national security expert Steve Vladeck.  And an attempt by Texas  to keep out Syrian refugees was rejected by a federal court this year—in a decision that may block the efforts of more than a dozen other states to do the same.   Similarly, legal problems have plagued the effort to commandeer local law enforcement for immigration enforcement purposes.

And last year’s episode involving thousands of women and children fleeing violence in Central America— mischaracterized by the Obama administration as a wave of “illegal” immigrants rather than a wave of refugees—led to a fear-based family detention policy that flouted the law.

The administration actually argued that these women and children should be held without bond due to national security concerns.

The fear-based rhetoric of Trump—and others---puts any hope of immigration reform, and justice reform, further out of reach.

Nuanced policymaking requires deep analysis and a commitment to pursuing our ideals.  Our politicians, rather than inciting limbic reactions rooted in our basest emotions, should appeal, as Abraham Lincoln did, to the “better angels of our nature.”  There may be much to fear. But Fear itself should top the list, particularly when it is combined with implicit or explicit attempts to exploit the racial and ethnic divides that have historically vexed us in our quest for meaningful progress.

We should gird ourselves to engage with today’s crises not with fear, but with hope.

Václav Havel set out the challenge over a generation ago, when he wrote: that hope ”is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Christopher N. Lasch is Associate Professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. His scholarship focuses on the intersection of immigration and criminal law. Prof. Lasch welcomes readers’ comments.


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Can the LAPD’s Charlie Beck be “A Chief For His Time?”

In many ways, the six- year tenure of Charlie Beck as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has been a triumph. In October, Beck went to the White House with 130 other law enforcement leaders to meet with President Barack Obama to discuss  the future of criminal justice, and it was Beck who was chosen to speak with the president on the group’s behalf.

Today, under the leadership of Beck and his mentor and predecessor, William J. Bratton, the LAPD has gone from appallingly bad to a national model of progressive police reform.

But here in Los Angeles, Beck isn’t quite the hero he once was. Like many other big city police chiefs – including other reformers like Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Baltimore’s Anthony W. Batts, who have been forced to resign– he is under attack for his handling of officer-involved shootings, especially those of unarmed civilians, the kind caught on videos that cause viewers to sit up and exclaim: “I can’t believe they just shot that guy!”

On one recent occasion, Beck  joined that chorus.

The May 2015 fatal shooting of Brandon Glenn, a white, unarmed homeless man in Venice, was so incomprehensible, that after viewing a security-camera video of the incident Beck said that he had  not seen the “extraordinary circumstances” required to justify the shooting under LAPD use of force rules.

In response, Craig Lally, the president of the LAPD’s powerful union, the Police Protective League, denounced the chief’s comments as “completely irresponsible.”

That response illustrates the unease in L.A., and the nation, over the volatile issue of officer-involved shootings, and it says a great deal about the challenges facing Beck as he tries to balance the demands of his often conflicting constituencies: Politicians concerned about crime; minority communities outraged by police abuses; clamoring civil libertarians; a critical media; and the concerns of his own troops, worried that new use-of-force policies, closer scrutiny and tougher sanctions threaten their careers and their lives.

If Beck stumbles while seeking the right balance, he risks the department’s carefully re-built reputation, not to mention his job—a tale that Los Angeles has seen before.

Daryl Gates, chief during the law and order 1980s and early 1990s, had a constituency of one: his own troops. He never saw a brutal LAPD incident or outrageous police shooting that he wouldn't combatively defend. After the Rodney King beating and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, he had lost all support other than that of his demoralized troops, which couldn’t save his career or his department’s reputation.

Willie Williams replaced Gates. An outsider  from Philadelphia, he came to L.A. knowing noone and failed to develop any constituencies, including within the department. Noone objected when the Los Angeles Police Commission dismissed him. Bernard Parks, an LAPD veteran, replaced Wiilliams. He was arrogant and uncooperative with his civilian bosses and the department's rank-and-file. The union went to war against him, joining Mayor James Hahn and commission in forcing his departure.

Bratton was next. The former New York City Police Commissioner had tangled with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and gotten fired in New York. In L.A.,  he courted two mayors, the media, the city’s black leadership, the union, and his division captains. And when controversy erupted, he was decisive.

On May Day, 2007, for example, about 150 LAPD officers suddenly attacked a festive, peaceful crowd of protestors and reporters in MacArthur Park, mowing them down with their batons. Bratton quickly responded by demoting and reassigning the highest ranking officer at the scene, and reassigning the second-ranking officer.  And he ordered officer-retraining in crowd control and dealing with the media.

On the issue of police shootings, however, Charlie Beck has been far from decisive. In 2015, police shootings in Los Angeles have almost doubled compared to last year, increasing from 23 to 45, as of mid-November. Nineteen people have died at the hands of the police, and two of those deaths— Glenn’s and that of another unarmed homeless man, Charly Keunang, on skid row in March—have caused protests and controversy.

Except for his gut reaction to the Glenn shooting, Beck’s overall responses have been uncharacteristically opaque. Like Bratton, he’s made himself available for numerous community meetings, and he’s met with protestors and the media. But little changed from his standard support for “full, fair” investigations of the controversial shootings.

Beck, and the status quo, came in for particular criticism in June, when, after 13 long months of “full, fair” inquiry, he finally ruled that an earlier questionable shooting was “in policy”—that of unarmed, mentally ill Ezell Ford, who was stopped by two officers and fatally shot during a struggle with them in August 2014.

He also implemented policy on body-worn and dashboard camera that allows officers to see the  videos before they make their use-of-force reports, but keeps the footage under wraps for almost everyone else. The decision pacified the Police Protective League, but left civil libertarians and other critics angry and disillusioned.

Meanwhile, the Police Commission—which is statutorily charged with overseeing and setting department policy—decided to challenge Beck's decision on the Ford shooting, overruling his in-policy finding and introducing a new holistic criterion for judging the LAPD's use of force. The Ford shooting was out-of-policy, the commission declared, because Ford shouldn’t have been stopped by the police in the first place.

Attempting once again to balance constituencies, Beck sent a pointed but restrained message of support to his troops in response to the commission’s potentially game-changing policy shift. Months later, he announced a new LAPD award, on a par with the department's highest honor, for heroism, the Preservation of Life Medal. It will go to officers who show restraint when they could legitimately use deadly force.

The union’s response came on its website: “A terrible idea that will put officers’ lives in danger.”

A case can be made that the chief’s careful maneuvering—and close-to-the-vest responses— are  the best that can be expected, given the conflicting desires of the union, the commission and the scrutiny of protestors and the media. He knows that trouble with the union is serious business. As a former street cop, he understands that policing in dog-eat-dog, violence-prone America is a dangerous and dirty business.

 Meanwhile, Los Angeles and the LAPD are heading into 2016 without a resolution for some of the hardest decisions of 2015. What will the punishment be for the officer who shot Ezell Ford? Why are the Glenn and the Keunang investigations dragging on?

Charlie Beck once told me that “a good police chief needs to be a chief for his time.”

That time is now, when controversial police shootings are the dominant issue, and even the very best police leaders, like Beck, are facing a deep public desire for a revolution in how Americans are being policed. It’s a moment that the chief needs to seize and make his own.

An earlier version of this essay appeared yesterday as an Op Ed in The Los Angeles Times. Joe Domanick is the West Coast bureau chief of TheCrimeReport.org and associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. His latest book is “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.”He welcomes readers’  comments.

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The ‘Peculiar Gap’ in New York State’s Interrogation Law

By Matthew B. Johnson

All states have laws and judicial rulings regarding criminal interrogation. The rules are intended to insure that confessions, and other incriminating statements, are voluntary and not the result of coercion or offers of leniency.  In New York State for example, a statute prohibits tactics that create a substantial likelihood of producing a false incriminating statement.  

Such rules are designed to maintain the reliability of evidence, and to protect the integrity of criminal prosecutions. But there is a peculiar gap in New York State law—and the laws of several other states—that can undermine these rules and lead to wrongful convictions.

Namely, there is no requirement for the police to maintain a videotape record of an interrogation so that the methods used to obtain “confessions” can be objectively evaluated.  The need for such a record may seem self-evident, but the effort to close this gap has languished in the state legislature.

One recent case helps to illustrate why having a taped record of an entire interrogation—not just a “confession”— is a critical tool to ensure that justice is administered in a fair and impartial manner.

Adrian Thomas of Troy, NY was convicted in 2008 for the murder of his four-month-old son. Six years later, in a unanimous decision, the New York State Court of Appeals in People v. Thomas reversed Adrian Thomas’ conviction and ordered a new trial. He was acquitted on June 12, 2014.

What caused the reversal?  The original trial conviction had relied on “confession” evidence and flawed medical testimony.  The state’s highest court found the original police interrogation had been coercive—and had undermined Thomas’ privilege against self-incrimination. Thus, according to the court, his confession was inadmissible and should not have been presented to the jury.

Thomas’ four-month-old son, Matthew, had been admitted to the Albany (NY) Medical Center in September, 2008.  A medical center physician informed the child protective and law enforcement authorities the infant was a victim of blunt force trauma.  This led to the removal of the child’s six siblings from the home, and a 9.5-hour-interrogation of his father, while the mother remained with the child at the medical center.

The initial premise of the interrogation was that either Thomas, an African-American described by the court as “a particularly large individual,” or his wife, was responsible for the child’s “injuries.”

But after viewing the videotape of the entire interrogation, the Court of Appeals found that Thomas had been coerced into a confession through an extensive series of impermissible deceptions. The videotape record revealed Thomas was threatened that his failure to take responsibility for injuring the child would result in the arrest of his wife from the child’s bedside.  In addition, he was falsely informed (21 times) that medical doctors needed details of the ‘assault’ to treat the infant.  He was told (67 times) the injury to the child had been “accidental;” he was told (14 times) he would not be arrested; and he was told (8 times) he could go home after giving the statement. 

These were all highly relevant details which the defendant was not likely to convincingly recall without the benefit of an electronic recording.  In fact, the Court noted every incriminating element in the “confession” originated from the interrogators rather than Thomas, and that the child had not suffered blunt force trauma. 

Imagine the obstacles to appellate relief Adrian Thomas would have faced if a videotaped record of the entire interrogation had not been available.   

The absence of such a record contributed to the wrongful conviction of the Central Park 5 defendants, who were denied a fair hearing and trial on charges of assaulting and raping a female jogger in 1989, because the police failed to preserve the evidence from their interrogation.

A similar fate befell several other New York defendants who were deprived of their right to a fair trial because police did not maintain an objective record of the entire interrogation.  Examples include the cases of  Marty Tankleff,  Johnny Hincapie, Jeffrey Deskovic,  Pedro Hernandez, and Shabaka Shakur. These defendants, along with numerous unnamed others who likely remain wrongfully imprisoned, have been adversely affected by the gap in New York State law.

Even though Adrian Thomas was unjustly incarcerated for several years, he eventually received relief due to the discretionary decision of Troy, NY authorities to preserve, by videotape, his entire interrogation.  

A bill presented in the New York State Senate makes such preservation mandatory. On January 23, 2015 New York State Senator Bill Perkins introduced Senate Bill No. 2419 which would require police to electronically preserve (via video and/or audio tape) all custodial questioning of criminal suspects. 

Unfortunately the bill has not progressed.  It is difficult to understand why.  This legislation will close the peculiar gap in New York State law that prohibits certain types of interrogation methods yet does not require an objective record of what actually occurred in the interrogation. 

There is no worthy justification for this evidence to be unavailable.  The resulting transparency will only support the integrity of criminal investigations, trials, and the appellate review process.  Just as other forms of criminal evidence (biologic, ballistic, photographic, autopsy findings, etc.) are preserved for review, where the state presents “confession” evidence to prove guilt, the methods used to elicit the confession need to be available for review as well. 

A legal mandate of this type has been adopted in New Jersey and several other states, and it has enhanced the efficiency of criminal prosecutions and legal proceedings.  The absence of such a record has tainted New York State prosecutions for too long.  

Matthew B. Johnson, PhD. is an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he has developed courses in ‘Interrogation and Confession’ and’ Wrongful Conviction’.  Portions of this commentary are drawn from the invited address “Why Innocent People Confess to Crimes They Did Not Commit,” that Prof.  Johnson presented at the New York State Judicial Institute - Pace University Law School, on March 11, 2015.


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How South Carolina Criminalizes Troubled Youth

By Mishi Faruqee

The video from Spring Valley High School in Columbia, SC is seared in many Americans’ memories.  A school resource officer, working for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, was seen grabbing a student, flipping her desk over, and dragging her across the classroom.

The October video clip went viral—and eventually led to the termination of the officer, Ben Fields.

Some have defended the officer’s actions, saying the video does not show the whole incident. But in fact, it is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the county—and state—treat schoolchildren who present disciplinary problems.

Parents, students, community members and elected officials have raised concerns about the presence of police in schools and say the lack of written policies, along with South Carolina’s regressive Disturbing Schools law – has led to the criminalization of minor misbehavior. Last week, state legislators representing Richland County filed bills to reform the Disturbing Schools statute and to track arrests of students statewide.

The Spring Valley incident also brought scrutiny to the department’s School Resource Officer (SRO) Program – the largest in the state – that deploys 87 police officers to every middle school and high school in the county’s two school districts.  It is now under federal investigation.  But there has been less attention placed on other questionable programs within the department’s Youth Services Division..

Richland County has launched several “diversion programs” that claim to help troubled pre-teens and teens, but in effect punish, humiliate and harm children.  

One of these programs is Camp LOTT, which stands for “Leading Our Troubled Teens” —but also happens to be the last name of Richland Sheriff Leon Lott. Local news footage of the boot camp shows several Richland County Deputies verbally assaulting and humiliating a group of boys – almost all African American – until some of the boys are clearly shaken and distraught.

In another instance, an officer picks up a boy who appears to be about nine years old and acts as if he is going to throw the small boy against a chain-link fence.

“We break them down in order to build them up,” says one sheriff’s deputy in the video proudly.

Another boot-camp program, called JUMP (Juveniles Under Motivated Pressure), takes place in the department’s parking lot. In this program, the “motivated pressure” involves children holding bricks over their heads while doing laps around the parking lot.  Smaller children – as young as six years old – have cinderblocks attached to a belt around their waist and are made to drag the blocks across the parking lot while doing squats.

When children stumble or tire out, the staff berate them and force them to continue these grueling exercises.

The Department’s READY (Richland county, Educating, And Deterring, Youth) program has been featured in the A&E television program Beyond Scared Straight. In this program, parents pay a $10 fee to have their children transported in shackles, suited in a prison jumpsuit, and locked in an adult holding cell for the night. Like Camp LOTT and JUMP, the purported goal of the READY program is to scare children into curbing behaviors that may land them in jail in the future.

By stationing its officers in Richland County schools, the sheriff’s department helps create a perverse demand for its diversion programs.  When a Richland SRO arrests students for low-level offenses in school, the departments often offers these students the opportunity to participate in the scared straight program in lieu of pressing charges.

In one case, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for marijuana possession in school and the department directed him to participate in READY as a sanction. When his parents refused to have their son spend a night in jail as diversion, the department referred his case to court, where the charges were ultimately dismissed.

While the sheriff’s department may intend to help troubled youth, humiliating and terrifying them is not the way to help them.  Extensive research has shown that boot camps and scared-straight programs are the least effective programs in preventing crime. In fact, several studies have found that sending children to boot camps and scared straight programs actually increases the likelihood that they will have future involvement with justice system.

One study of nine scared straight programs around the U.S. found that these programs increased crime by 28 percent for youth who participated in these programs compared to a control group.   Another national review of Scared Straight programs found that although these programs cost only about $50 per participant, the longer term costs are much greater because of the higher recidivism of these programs.  Taxpayers lose approximately $6,572 in increased subsequent criminal justice costs for each program participant. Adding the increased costs that accrue to crime victims from the higher recidivism rates increases the expected costs of Scared Straight programs to $24,531 per participant.

Instead of operating these harmful and ineffective programs, the Richland County Sheriff’s department should partner with proven programs in schools and communities that successfully divert young people from the juvenile justice system and help them grow into successful and law-abiding adults.

Effective community-based programs hold students accountable for their actions while also teaching them to resolve conflicts and contribute to their communities.

Restorative justice, teen courts and mentoring programs are much better alternatives to police in schools, boot camps and scared-straight programs.

In order to prevent more incidents like the one at Spring Valley High School, Richland County should remove police officers from its schools and make  investing in community programs that work to keep kids, schools and communities safe a priority.

Mishi Faruqee is National Field Director of the Youth First Initiative, a national campaign to end youth incarceration and invest in effective community alternatives. She is based in New York City, and welcomes readers’ comments. 

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Chicago Police: “Same Old Song and Dance”?

By Ryan Getty

When writing for academic journals and books about police behavior, I usually refer to past studies and findings.

But when I learned of last week’s firing of Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and read about the actions that had been taken since, a song automatically came to mind: Aerosmith’s classic The Same Old Song and Dance.” The title not only perfectly describes a past as checkered as Chicago’s police hats, but provides a sobering prediction: nothing will change.

In firing McCarthy, Chicago authorities seemed to be doing and saying the right things. They named an interim superintendent, John Escalante, who happens to be a minority (he’s Hispanic). They talked about reform.

But it represents the kind of political boilerplate we’ve seen too often.

This week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department to determine whether there has been a “pattern or practice” of bias in policing.

The Mayor is expected to address the City Council today (Wednesday) on police issues.

While these developments are encouraging, there’s no guarantee they will lead to genuine change.

There aren’t many people who can defend the Chicago Police Department’s troubled history. Very little has changed since we saw the disturbing images of Chicago police actions in the Grant Park Riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In fact, if I had more space, I would argue not much has changed since Chicago started a police department in the 1830s.

As recently as 1972, U.S. Rep. Ralph Metcalfe appointed a group of citizens called The Concerned Citizens for Police Reform with a mandate to hold hearings and issue a report to reform the Chicago police.  Within that report, entitled “The Misuse of Police Authority in Chicago,” the “blue-ribbon panel” recommended 47 changes.

It’s worth noting that none of those changes involved establishing a civilian review board. Instead, the report called for an independent investigating agency to address police misconduct. But it was sadly prophetic in at least one regard. “You will be hard pressed to go into any home in the black ghetto,” the report declared, “and not find at least one member of that household who either feels that they have been abused verbally or physically by some member of the police force, or has first-hand information of such an incident.”

More than four decades later, little has changed.

But Chicago is not alone. Other cities also seem to have learned few lessons from past failures. Countless expensive and time consuming “investigations” around the country have yielded substantial proposals for reform . Just to name a few: the Hofstadter Committee, the Knapp Commission, the Mollen Commission, the Christopher Commission. Most were met with apathy on the part of governmental leaders. Very few of the recommendations were wholeheartedly implemented.

Why have such efforts been so futile? One answer might be that, as time passes, and the press moves on to the next story, the political imperative to reform fades. But that might be too simplistic.

Here’s a more practical reason: It’s more cost-efficient both in dollars and votes to keep the status quo. Whether $1 billion of property is destroyed (as in Los Angeles in the riots following the Rodney King decision) or a plaintiff wins $5 million in a lawsuit, it is much easier to let the taxpayers or insurance pay, rather than fixing the real problems of reorganization and changing a department’s culture.

Sadly, it is a numbers game. Absent federal government intervention, it is more expedient for the lawyers and accountants to figure the possible costs of such incidents, versus the actual costs of substantial reorganization over time.

Academically, there are scores of studies and anecdotal evidence suggesting that these review boards and committee reports are ineffectual.

There is relief though—in the form of a Department of Justice (DOJ) consent decree. With such decrees, the DOJ goes to court because of some federally violated law (usually civil rights violations) and enters into an agreement with the department and municipal government to correct certain offending “patterns and practices,” while the court’s recommended monitor oversees and substantiates the changes, or the lack of compliance, to the court.

Currently there are approximately 20 police agencies around the United States under some form of federal monitoring, including in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Oakland, New Orleans, Portland, New York, and Detroit.

Such oversight is truly the best tool for reforming errant law enforcement agencies. Granted, it is not a panacea; but when departments are unwilling or unable to change, it is one way to achieve compliance.

The announcement of the DOJ investigation is a start. But what happens thereafter is up to the new command and people of Chicago. At one extreme, the DOJ can assume control of the department as was the case of the New Orleans Police Department or make several recommendations, some of which affect change, as in the case of the post-Rodney King LAPD.

In any case, there will be a certain amount of compliance in the form of DOJ recommendations. Many of these recommendations are in effect, coercive and require the department and its officers to involuntarily comply.

As most police managers know, involuntary compliance is not the best way to “force” changes.  Real changes should be organic.

In my experience, officers who are forced to change seldom really change. When orders “come from up high,” officers are not often told why things need to be done in a certain way. This makes officers less likely to voluntarily do something and more likely to sabotage departmental goals. One of the best examples is community-oriented policing (COP).

Not properly training officers and having them realize that COP is a philosophical change in the way the department acts, often dooms organizational success. Officers think the command has “gone soft” and has abandoned the “war on crime.” Police strategies such as “zero tolerance,” “saturation patrol” and “hot spots policing” are used in some areas of the jurisdiction while COP is pushed in others.

These often-conflicting messages cause confusion as to what the department’s goals are: Do the police get tough on crime or use community oriented policing?

The tactics and philosophy are not necessarily mutually exclusive and the officers need to know why different modes of policing are used. Without training and gradual change, department are doomed to repeat mistakes.

Changing organizational behavior remains elusive. Things will not change overnight, but outside pressure is the first step towards shaping the model for transforming a police department like Chicago’s. Unless that happens, we’ll continue to hear “The Same Old Song and Dance” from those who are responsible for allowing the problem to fester in the first place.

If history tells us anything, the DOJ will uncover some civil rights violations to the satisfaction of the citizens—but will not affect real change in the department over time.

It has taken decades to form the organizational culture of the Chicago Police Department and will take decades to (some degree) fix. As mentioned before, the police department must want to actually change and not just appear to change while under consent decree.

Just changing a superintendent (or mayor) will neither erase years of acceptable misbehavior. Nor will it effect real change unless the line officers and unions want the change.

Dr. Ryan Getty is an Assistant Professor at California State University, in Sacramento and a 25+ year veteran police officer. He has policed in Georgia and Texas and has held positions ranging from street officer to chief in small and large departments. He is a police instructor and a Master Police Officer in Texas and recently passed the California POST. His study interests are police training, FTO programs, police behavior, and misconduct. He welcomes comments from readers.

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