Homeless ‘Need Protection’ from Crime: Advocates

Concerns about security at New York City hotels used to shelter homeless families are rising after a report documents criminal activity at more than half the hotels last year. The city now houses more than 30 percent of the nation’s homeless families.

A rise in crime in New York City hotels over the past three years has had an unexpected victim: the city’s homeless population.

Crime in New York hotels and motels has increased by almost 20 percent since 2015, according to statistics compiled by STR, Inc., an industry research group, using New York Police Department (NYPD) data, the New York Post reported last week.

This surge comes despite a significant decline in the citywide crime rate in recent years.

While law enforcement officials and industry experts are unsure of the cause, the increase coincides with data showing a disturbing pattern of arrests in hotels that the city has been using to house homeless families since 2014.

In interviews with The Crime Report, homeless advocates say the figures suggest a lack of security at those hotels which has put an already-vulnerable—and growing─population at risk.

“We know that there are a lot of people who do prey on vulnerable homeless folks,” Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told The Crime Report. “And when you start to talk about Skid Row, the issue of drug use and drug peddlers always comes up.”

Although homelessness rates have eased across the US, the number of homeless has increased in New York: the city now holds an estimated 30 percent of the country’s homeless families.

According to a report issued by the New York’s Department of Investigation (DOI) found that since January 2017, criminal activity has been recorded at 34 of the 57 hotels used by the city to house homeless families with children.

New York is among only three places in the country, the others being Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., with a “right to shelter,” or a legal obligation to house homeless people. The right was established by a 1979 New York State Supreme Court ruling that compels the city to provide shelter to all New Yorkers who are homeless by “reason of physical, mental, or social dysfunction.”

The high homeless population in New York─roughly 76,000 people─makes this a challenge. The law does not specify exactly what form shelter must take and, particularly when demand is high, crowding can force people into spaces that are uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe.

New York City’s homeless population increased by 115 percent between 1994 and 2016. Since the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) began using hotel vouchers in 2014 to address the resulting strain on the city’s shelters, some 11,000 people are now housed in hotels around the city, from the Bronx Super 8 Hotel to the Manhattan in Times Square.

According to DHS spokesman Isaac McGinn, the NYPD Management Team at DHS oversees and manages shelter security citywide, including overseeing the 24/7 contracted shelter security at commercial hotel locations. As part of that oversight and management, NYPD reviews security at all new locations.

According to the DOI report, incidents recorded at the hotels used to shelter homeless included 59 prostitution and sex trafficking-related arrests, 34 assault-related arrests and 112 arrests related to the sale or use of drugs.

Overall, the number of hotel crimes reported annually rose to 2,656 in 2017, compared to 2,223 in 2015. Felony assaults, third-degree assaults, and second-degree harassment all exhibited particularly dramatic spikes of 51.9 percent, 38 percent, and 62.7 percent, respectively. Grand larceny was the most commonly reported crime, with 531 reported incidents, which marks a 12 percent increase since 2015. (The research group’s analysis on hotel crime did not provide details on locations.)

But the DOI report on arrests in hotels where homeless are housed suggest growing levels of insecurity for an already vulnerable class of people.

Homeless individuals currently being housed in hotels told New York Times reporters, for instance, of being propositioned to work as prostitutes.

It is unclear whether the criminal activity uncovered by the DOI preceded the placement of homeless individuals in the hotels, or whether criminal actors are drawn to locations which house the homeless.

Hustings of the National Coalition for the Homeless made clear that homelessness itself does not correlate with crime or violence in the areas where it is prevalent, citing a study by the Guardian focused on Seattle and Portland that uncovered no link between the homeless and crime rates in those cities.

Although Massachusetts and D.C. also use hotel vouchers when faced with crowding in shelters, both cities have significantly smaller homeless populations than New York, and Hustings said he was unaware of similar security issues in those places.

McGinn confirmed that DHS has no evidence indicating that any of its clients have participated in any illicit activity at these locations.

City investigators found that prior to the release of their report, the DHS did not consider criminal activity when evaluating the suitability of commercial hotels for housing homeless families, focusing instead on location, rates, number of available units, and the outcome of a site inspection.

The DOI recommended that safety should be included in the DHS’s assessment of prospective hotels, and that in the cases of hotels that might harbor criminal activity, the department should either withdraw its clients from the hotel entirely or occupy the entire facility to ensure that rooms are not used for criminal activities.

The January report claims that the DHS has accepted these recommendations and is working to solve the problem. McGinn confirmed that city officials took immediate action to relocate clients or occupy locations entirely following the report’s release.

McGinn told The Crime Report that after the DOI investigation, the NYPD enhanced its vetting procedures to perform vetting in the same way the NYPD Vice Unit does, including evaluating complaints, previous arrests, and any existing cases related to the location.

“We continue to work closely with our NYPD partners to protect the safety of all homeless New Yorkers, including providing 24/7 dedicated security at commercial hotel locations,” he said.

McGinn called commercial hotels “bridges” to be utilized while DHS phases out the use of all cluster sites and commercial hotels citywide and replaces them with a smaller number of high-quality borough-based facilities.

“Until we are able to fully implement our plan, and since the city is under court order to provide shelter under emergency circumstances at all times, there will be some cases in which we need to provide emergency shelter and place families and individuals in hotels if we have reached capacity,” he said.

This phase-out will take time. Despite the issues raised by the DOI, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio formalized the hotel voucher practice into three-year contracts costing nearly $1.1 billion in total this March.

While Councilman Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn) told the Post that “we should under no circumstances place families and children in situations where their safety is compromised,” he added that “unfortunately, with the shelter census being so high and the vacancy rate in shelters so low, we continue to rely on hotels, which are often not providing the level of security and wraparound services that families deserve.”

Shelters are not always a safer option for the city’s homeless, however.

The General Welfare Committee, of which Levin is the chair, will hold an oversight hearing later this month to investigate how DHS contracts are granted, including examining safety within hotels used by the DHS and allegations of abuse and violence inside homeless shelters around the city. The investigation was prompted in part by a video recently released by the Daily News that captures several guards beating and kicking a resident of a Brooklyn shelter.

In a statement on June 1, Levin confirmed that since 2015, shelter residents or staff have filed a combined 21 lawsuits against FJC Security Services and Sera, two security firms contracted by shelters, for violent incidents.

“Our communities deserve high quality shelter care and services,” said Levin, “and yet it is incidents like this that have made some New Yorkers concerned about entering a shelter, choosing instead to sleep on the street.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. She welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Navajo Justice Officials: Funding Shortages Worsen Public Safety Crisis

Covering an area of about 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is the largest Native American territory in the US, yet its legal infrastructure is severely understaffed and underfunded, according to senior tribal law enforcement officials, speaking on the “Native America Calling” podcast.

Covering an area of about 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is the largest Native American territory in the US, spanning Arizona, Colorado and Utah. Yet its legal infrastructure is severely understaffed and underfunded.

In an exploration of tribal justice issues, leading Navajo justice officials said on the podcast Native America Calling that the lack of sufficient resources for law enforcement infrastructure was intensifying the “public safety crisis” facing Navajo people.

With less than 200 police officers to cover a territory bigger than many states, Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco said that despite some increases in funding, more than twice that number was needed to provide a suitable amount of protection.

“We’re trying to rebuild and hire more officers,” said Francisco. “We’ve established our own police academy, (and) we’re the only Indian law enforcement agency that has that.”

But he said the sheer distance between police districts, combined with staff shortages, meant that it could take up to an hour and a half to respond to some calls.

“When we get there a lot of the evidence is gone, or the suspects are gone, so we have to do a lot of follow ups.”

Data consistently show that tribal nations suffer among the nation’s highest crime rates. According to FBI statistics, the Navajo Nation has a violent crime rate higher than most major US cities.

Francisco said the tribal police communication infrastructure is a major issue as well.

“We don’t get 911 data, so we can’t locate where people are calling from,” he said “Sometimes people call but they can’t get through our dispatch center, so crime is probably underreported because people can’t get through to the police department.”

Because the Navajo Nation has so few officers, sometimes there are only two officers on shift at a time.

“If two officers are on a domestic violence call, you don’t have anyone else, so we have to wait until we have someone else to respond (to other calls coming in),” said Francisco.

Ethel Branch, Attorney General of the Navajo Nation, said 40 percent of Navajo territory is in a “cell dead zone.”

“That makes it difficult for people to call for help when they need it,” he said. “60 percent is without two-way radio coverage, which is how officers communicate and respond.”

Describing the direness of the situation, Branch said, “Our homicide rates, which I find very alarming, are consistently meeting or exceeding high national homicide rates.”

Branch thinks that Congress needs to step up and ensure that Indian country citizens are getting the resources they deserve.

“Native Americans serve at the highest per capita rates in the military,” he said. “We ensure American families are kept safe, and we expect our families to be kept safe, even if we choose to live within our Indian nations.”

Branch went on to say that she thinks the Navajo Nation needs direct funding from the federal government, instead of funneling dollars through the states.

Gertrude Lee, chief prosecutor of the Navajo Nation, agreed that the Navajo Nation needs more resources, but says things have gotten better during her time there.

“We have enormous caseloads, but I’ve seen much improvement from what I walked into,” she said.”We’re doing the best to work with the resources we have available.”

Lee said that when she started, five of the nine district offices didn’t have prosecutors in them. She had seven prosecutors on her staff, but now there are 14, and a prosecutor in every office. Lee said that in 2017, her staff went to a combined 3,100 more hearings than the previous year.

Lee also noted that the office of the prosecutor received 3,000 more reports from police districts in 2017 than 2016.

“It’s testament to the Navajo police and the amazing work they have done since Francisco came on,” she said. “Having key leadership positions filled and directing resources to the type of crimes that need to be addressed has a huge impact.”

The police leaders said that despite signs improvement, the Navajo Nation is still needs more resources allocated from the Federal government.

“Federal funds haven’t been revised in 15 to 20 years, so we’re really trying to plead our case to Congress and Washington,” said Francisco. “We are critically understaffed for the area and demographics we need to police.”

See also: Justice Returns to the Navajo Nation

Dane Stallone is a TCR news intern. He welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Today’s True Crime Podcasts: Dostoyevsky Redux

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the legendary 19th century Russian writer and novelist, was well ahead of the modern fascination with True Crime, writes a Russian scholar in the New York Times,

The “true crime” genre continues to grow and shows no signs of stopping. Initially taking off with podcasts like “Serial” and the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer,” podcasts like “In the Dark” and the Netflix series “The Staircase” show how the genre continues to thrive.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the legendary 19th century Russian writer and novelist, was well ahead of this modern fascination, Jennifer Wilson writes in a New York Times op-ed.

The piece details Dostoyevsky’s passion for the judiciary, who would often try to sway public opinion on certain cases.   He would frequently attend trials and try to sway public opinion on certain cases. One of his character’s, Rodion Raskolnikov, was commonly invoked by defense attorneys when looking for sympathy from the jury.  Dostoyevsky was very concerned with people’s conception of guilt, and how those who have committed acts of violence and were acquitted were viewed.  He advocated the idea of “collective guilt,” and wanted people to realize their complicity in everyday actions that drive people to commit crimes.  Dostoyevsky’s focus on crime provides a guide for how we can further try to reform our criminal justice system and how we as both individuals and a community can shape it, writes Wilson, a post-doctoral fellow of Russian literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

This summary was prepared by Dane Stallone, a TCR news intern.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Chicago Braces as Summer–and Shooting Season–Arrives

While shootings have declined in Chicago, violence continues to acutely impact a handful of neighborhoods. Both residents and the police know that Memorial Day weekend often brings a spike in gunplay.

When 80-degree temperatures roll into Chicago in time for Memorial Day weekend, Solomon Johnson knows just where he’ll be: Safely inside his centrally cooled home in the Austin neighborhood, maybe slipping out for a barbecue dinner at his grandmother’s home in a safer neighborhood. There have been too many shootings around his home, and there’ll be even more as the weather finally turns. While shootings are down across the city, they have been concentrated in three West Side police districts that border each other: Harrison, Austin and Ogden. The districts rank first, second and third in the number of people shot this year, data shows. In the first week of May, nearly half the shootings in the city occurred there.

The Chicago Police Department plans to deploy more than 1,000 extra officers to contain violence over the weekend and, as in years past, hundreds of them will be sent to the West Side. Just how many, the department will not say. Two years ago, 27 of the 69 people hit by gunfire over the Memorial Day weekend were shot in or near the Harrison District. So many were shot there that patrols were beefed up. Nine more people were shot over the next two days. Last year, more officers were sent into the district and no shootings were reported there, though violence continued in the other West Side districts. This year, Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson would only say that a “large police presence” will be added to the lakefront, parks, the CTA, as well as neighborhoods.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Massive Child Sex Abuse and Crime

Observations Child sex abuse and physical violence is part of the experience of 80-90 percent of women offenders. The sexual abuse history of women offenders is routinely ignored. If we are going to end the crime problem in this country, then we must stop ignoring physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Author Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. […]

The post Massive Child Sex Abuse and Crime appeared first on Crime in America.Net.

Observations Child sex abuse and physical violence is part of the experience of 80-90 percent of women offenders. The sexual abuse history of women offenders is routinely ignored. If we are going to end the crime problem in this country, then we must stop ignoring physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Author Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. […]

The post Massive Child Sex Abuse and Crime appeared first on Crime in America.Net.

from https://www.crimeinamerica.net

Facebook Bans Violence, Crime and Criminal Behavior-Is That Possible?

Observations Facebook is banning violence, crime and criminal behaviors from its platform (see guidelines below). Social media is now a super-highway for mass murderers and their grievances. It’s also used for day-to-day criminal activity. Can offenders communicate criminal intentions without being obvious? Author Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning […]

The post Facebook Bans Violence, Crime and Criminal Behavior-Is That Possible? appeared first on Crime in America.Net.

Observations Facebook is banning violence, crime and criminal behaviors from its platform (see guidelines below). Social media is now a super-highway for mass murderers and their grievances. It’s also used for day-to-day criminal activity. Can offenders communicate criminal intentions without being obvious? Author Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning […]

The post Facebook Bans Violence, Crime and Criminal Behavior-Is That Possible? appeared first on Crime in America.Net.

from https://www.crimeinamerica.net

Violent Crimes Reported to Police Hit Record Lows

Observation In 2016, fewer than half (42%) of violent crimes were reported to police. This is the lowest percentage of violent crimes reported since 1998. It was 51.1 percent in 2010. The data is based on the National Crime Survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice, designed to review […]

The post Violent Crimes Reported to Police Hit Record Lows appeared first on Crime in America.Net.

Observation In 2016, fewer than half (42%) of violent crimes were reported to police. This is the lowest percentage of violent crimes reported since 1998. It was 51.1 percent in 2010. The data is based on the National Crime Survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice, designed to review […]

The post Violent Crimes Reported to Police Hit Record Lows appeared first on Crime in America.Net.

from https://www.crimeinamerica.net

Closing Arguments in Murder Trial of Atlanta Attorney ‘Tex’ McIver Set Today

Closing arguments are scheduled Tuesday in the trial of attorney Claud “Tex” McIver, one of Georgia’s most prominent Republican fundraisers, who is facing charges that he intentionally killed his wife, Diane McIver, in 2016.

Closing arguments in the murder trial of Georgia attorney Claud “Tex” McIver are set to take place Tuesday in Atlanta. McIver is facing allegations that he intentionally killed his wife, Diane McIver, on Sept. 25, 2016.

McIver, who has admitted that he shot his wife but insisted it was an accident, is charged with murder, felony murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony, and one count of influencing witnesses surrounding the death of Diane McIver.

The McIver case has attracted nationwide attention and has been compared to “something that Tom Wolfe might dream up” in a southern version of Bonfire of the Vanities.

Prosecutors have also accused McIver, who is among the state’s most prominent Republican fundraisers, of bribery.

You can watch a livestream of the argument live Tuesday. The Law & Crime Trial Network,  a Dan Abrams production, is a source of live feeds, legal analysis, and breaking stories in criminal justice, and a content partner with The Crime Report.

from https://thecrimereport.org

One Man’s 22-Year Search for Justice

Calvin Buari, convicted of a double murder he didn’t commit, was a casualty of over-zealous prosecutors in New York’s tough-on-crime era of the 1990s. In a conversation with The Crime Report about his new podcast, “Empire on Blood,” investigative journalist Steve Fishman tells the story of the battle to clear his name.

Calvin Buari spent 22 years in prison for a double murder he didn’t commit. He was a notorious crack dealer in The Bronx, N.Y., when he was arrested, which made the struggle to prove his innocence─and find allies who could help get his case heard─that much harder.

But when he persuaded veteran journalist Steve Fishman to investigate, his fortunes changed.

Buari was exonerated in May 2017, seven months after his conviction was vacated and he had left prison. The story of Buari’s search for justice is told in a recently released podcast, “Empire on Blood.” The seven-part podcast takes listeners back to the New York of the 1990s, when the city was reeling from a crack epidemic and 2,000 murders a year, and newly elected Mayor Rudy Giuliani came to power promising “tough-on-crime” strategies. But it also offers troubling lessons for today about the collateral damage of those strategies.

In a conversation with TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie, Fishman reflects on his seven-year-long investigation, on how he battled his own doubts about the case at the beginning, and on what his podcast reveals about the workings of the criminal justice system.

The Crime Report: Why were you obsessed with this case?

steve fishman

Steve Fishman in the studio (courtesy Panoply Media)

Steve Fishman: I resisted the obsession for a long time, but I guess the origin story, because I’ve thought about this a bunch, is the first call with Cal. He had been put in touch with me by a guy I knew, Emel McDowell, who in fact had won his innocence after being convicted of a murder at the age of 17. Emel says to me ‘I think Cal is innocent,’ so Cal picks up the phone and cold-calls me. And there he is at the other end of the line. Having had some experience with prisons, I can picture Cal on the payphone, standing with these inmates behind him waiting on line for their 15 minutes. And he’s kind of racing through the details of his case and all of this evidence, and it’s a blur—even if I really wanted to I couldn’t have deciphered it.

Maybe it was one of those moments where I was particularly open or vulnerable. I mean, his voice was filled with despair despite the fact that Cal, as I later came to know him, really learned patience and emotional control in prison. I’m imagining this guy with the whole system stacked against him running this campaign for freedom from this prison payphone. It was one of those moments where I was able to imagine, to whatever extent I could, that it must be excruciating to face those kinds of odds.

[I said] “OK Cal, send me the transcripts,” and then these 1,100 pages arrived. It turns out that not only is this one prosecution witness, Dwight, Cal’s “great friend,” really organizing the prosecution, but the prosecution is handing out deals. All of the witnesses who are brought in by Dwight have received an order of protection, which means that Cal and his defense attorney cannot know the names of witnesses who are testifying against him until they walk to the stand. So I’m reading this and I’m thinking— this is crazy! This is insane, this is unfair.

And then I read that in chambers, the judge is saying the same thing. It’s the first day of trial, and the prosecutor in chambers says he just got a phone call from a new witness, and it’s like raining witnesses… and the judge says, for all I know there’s a call out to the entire northeast, any drug dealer wanting to testify will have the charges dismissed against them!

And it just became a moment for me where you start to feel like—the system’s not fair.

It became a road that I was willing to walk. And I have to tell you, it wasn’t easy. I mean, Cal’s no angel. I liked him, I think he’s changed— but he was a guy who was boasting that he helped bring crack to The Bronx. He was a very successful drug dealer and he was ruining neighborhoods, and he needed to be off the streets.

TCR: It seems challenging to get the general public to care about the wrongful conviction of an admitted crack dealer

Fishman: It was a real problem for the audience, and it was a problem for editors— it was a problem for the lawyers that Cal reached out to! He got on the phone and told them the evidence, and when they heard he was a drug dealer, they said: “OK, best of luck.” But I came to the belief that the criminal justice world and maybe the world in general is a complicated place, and the podcast really takes that head on, and I’m proud of that.

oscar michelen

Courtesy Panoply Media

Calvin Buari and his attorney, Oscar Michelen (courtesy Panoply Media)

I think we say, yeah he’s no angel, but what does that mean? What right does that give you as the criminal justice system [to] say, “Well, he didn’t do this crime but he did another— so let the wardens sort them out?” I think that’s a pretty live question for the criminal justice system. People are flawed. Does the past always determine the future? If you believe in rehabilitation and psychotherapy, then no.

TCR: The story also epitomizes a key moment in New York City history, the Giuliani era. Where was your crime reporting at the time? How was this different from the other wrongful convictions?

Fishman: I had reported the wrongful conviction of a guy named David Wong, who was actually in prison for a robbery that he did commit, and then was accused and convicted of a prison yard murder he did not commit. Again, it’s a guy who’s not exactly the high school honor student that you want to root for. The difference for me is that I came in after he had been exonerated and I was telling that story retrospectively. So I was involved in it as a piece of drama that I had all the pieces for.

Cal’s case was very different, because in many ways I was really a catalyst. As a journalist you’re kind of supposed to be a step back, and you’re supposed to be objective. And I certainly was a journalist, as I had to remind Cal at several points. But I was also involved in the story, and I’m going to contend that’s where some of the richness of the narrative comes from.

I started a long time ago in an eastern Connecticut newspaper called the Norwich Bulletin, and the first big story that I ever did was about a rapist-murderer. Part of my portfolio has always been writing about crime, and that’s the reason I would get these envelopes from time to time.

TCR: Who was responsible for Cal finally getting the charges dismissed?

Fishman: Maybe the podcast put a little weight on that side of the scale, because the DA knew it was coming out in a few days and maybe it was a good idea to get ahead of the story. But it was really that Cal was incredibly, incredibly persistent and disciplined. Cal’s a smart and really gifted entrepreneur. One of the things he did on the street that he could not help but be proud of— even when he’s saying “oh, I didn’t realize all the bad I did” — when you get him talking about the crack trade, he says “I was always ahead of the game, I had these marketing gimmicks, I would do sales, two-for-ones,” and there’s a certain kind of pride in his voice. But it is true that he became this quite intuitively gifted businessman.

calvin buari

Calvin Buari (courtesy Panoply Media)

He goes into prison at the age of 24, and spends the next 22 years there. So he really spends his adulthood in prison. And he still has this entrepreneurial gift. He’s writing business plans. He starts a fashion business in prison. And at the same time, he’s maturing. He was all about self-gratification when he was on the streets, and he learns delayed gratification, and patience, and he learns discipline— to the point where he stops even leaving his cell. He just takes his meals in his cell, and reads his books and works on his case, with a level of single-minded devotion that is way beyond my capabilities.

And then, by the way, when he comes out— he’s been out seven months or so, because his case was vacated before the charges were dismissed—he started a business.

TCR: What was your role in the reinvestigation?

Fishman: I will admit that there were a lot of moments when I wavered because Cal’s story was not something that I always believed, not in all of its details. He was a drug dealer in an extremely violent time and he operated on a corner that was dubbed the Corner on Blood [Although] Cal said he was never violent, I always found that to be a little unsettling.

The private eye on the case was a guy who actually had been the private eye on the David Wong case. You meet him in episode 5. He’s a really weird, interesting guy, I mean very colorful. He was on this case and he knew that I was interested in Cal’s case, and he said, “Do you want to take a train ride? There were these new witnesses, and he didn’t know what they were going to say. We’re at a kind of restaurant at a Holiday Inn [in North Carolina], where we meet two sisters. One of the sisters had flashbacks of the scene right in front of me, because she had been 25 feet away [from the murders]. It solidified for me Cal’s innocence. And it certainly helped Cal’s case.

myron beldock

Myron Beldock (courtesy Panoply Media)

So Cal gets the affidavit from her and he manages to get hooked up with Myron Beldock, the legendary attorney who got Hurricane Carter out of prison. Beldock, then 85 years old, comes off his deathbed to basically take up Cal as his last case—and then he dies. And that’s another moment that really pushes me ahead on this path. Cal is a guy who can do 100 pushups without a stop—he’s a tough dude—and he hears that Beldock has died, and he’s in tears. It was just a very emotional moment. It was emotional for him, it was emotional for me. It was one of those moments where I could actually imagine what it might be like to suddenly have this… not just a setback, it’s like your life feels it’s on a course toward freedom, and then the tunnel you’re going through collapses on you.

Cal needed an attorney afterwards. He can’t make phone calls from prison except to people whose numbers are approved. so he would call me and I would conference in people, and I ended up conferencing in Emel McDowell, the guy who initially introduced me to Cal.

Emel had written the appeal that had gotten him out of prison, and then went to work for a law firm. [Emel offered his attorney] and he finally wins Cal’s case. I was a little bit of a provocateur, a little bit of a catalyst, and a little bit of a witness.

TCR: What was your role with the new witnesses?

Fishman: It’s a good question because I was there as a journalist, and I was introduced as a journalist. Journalists don’t usually get to ride along with investigators interviewing witnesses for the first time. I was also there as somebody who had been involved in the case for a long time. I would say that I was not there as an advocate, but I was certainly there as a participant. I did not see my role as urging them to come forward, but I grilled her on her story. It was a journalistic interview, but maybe there’s not too much difference between that and another kind of interview. I wanted to know how close she was, and I wanted to know what she saw, and who she saw, and how could she be sure?

Her story was very, very credible, and frankly I was kind of pleased by that, just from the point of view of having some assuredness about the story that I’d been on by that time for three or four years. it reassured me as a journalist, and because I always occupied a kind of strange space; it buoyed me as somebody who had been involved with Cal for a long time, because I knew, I knew as she said that. I knew that this really could change Cal’s life. It took another two years to get there.

TCR: One of the most striking moments for me is learning what happens to the witness who comes forward after 20 years to testify, how this innocent bystander gets punished by a pretty blunt-edged justice system.   

Fishman: This goes I think to a larger question about how justice works. As you’ve pointed out it was the Giuliani era, the 1990s, there were 2000 murders a year. These guys— the prosecutor, the detective— felt they were the good guys. And they were the good guys. Somebody had to clean up the streets. And it wasn’t always pleasant work to do.

I don’t think that these guys are corrupt. I think that in the context of the times, they felt they had a mandate to act, in a sense, by any means necessary. And if he didn’t do this crime, well he did another crime. and you know what? With Cal, it was true. He didn’t do the murder, he did the drug [crime]. They were going to do whatever it took to make sure that someone like Calvin Buari was not on the streets. But the system can’t work that way.

TCR: Earlier this year, in a conversation about conviction reviews, Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, commenting on the flood of murder cases of the 1980s and 1990s, said many of them were not very well investigated. The attitude was “We’ll just let the jury decide.”

Fishman: That could well be true. He probably mentioned, or maybe he didn’t, if you went before a jury in The Bronx in the 1990s, you didn’t have much of a chance. The DA had a huge advantage, and that advantage was that people were on the side of the DA. It was not a Black Lives Matter moment; it was a moment where Giuliani rolled tanks into the streets. People forget, the city was under siege. I don’t think [prosecutors] felt they had as high a burden of proof as they must feel now.

TCR: There were times during the podcast that you said either prosecutors or detectives intentionally neglected to investigate.

Fishman: I do think that there were times that… I want to choose my words very carefully here. I guess I can’t really use the word conspiracy, but listen— the main witness against Cal absolutely and definitively lied on the stand. And he lied on the stand in two regards: one is that he denied being involved in an attempt to murder Cal, and two, he lied in saying that Cal did it.

Dwight, the main witness, admitted to me that he lied about both of those things. And I really grilled him on the first one. Dwight had actually tried to murder Cal. And the fact that the chief witness against Cal had previously tried to murder him— that really seems like it would be an important fact for the jury to consider. Dwight was asked on the stand, did you have anything to do with the attempted murder of Cal, and he says no. But subsequently Dwight narrated for me how he tried to kill Cal– and so did the chief investigator for The Bronx DA! I asked Dwight, if he was surprised they let him get away with it, and he said no— that’s how the game is played. If you play by the rules, you’re always going to lose.

For me that was actually the most chilling moment in the whole walk through the criminal justice system. Because here you had the insider, the guy who really organized the prosecution, who was the chief witness. And basically he was not only saying that he lied, but he was basically saying that the system worked by allowing witnesses to lie. And I think one of the things the podcast does is really let you know how the system works.

Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor (Content) for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Can ‘Court Watchers’ Help Reform America’s Flawed Justice Systems?

A program that trains ordinary citizens in New York to act as watchdogs over the city’s courts has attracted flak from some who argue their criticisms are not well-informed. But the “Court Watchers” respond they are already having a positive impact.

In the upper room of an old bar in Brooklyn, a 66-year-old African-American man who has been in and out of the criminal justice system his entire life sits across from a young public defender in New York City, just starting out in her career. 

While their normal lives might never bring them together, here they are deeply involved–along with a handful of their fellow New Yorkers—in a passionate discussion about what they believe are the disparities and flaws of their city’s court system—and how to fix them.

It’s a weekly debriefing of New York City’s Court Watcher program. Although the program is less than two months old, participants already believe they are making a difference.

“For a long time people have focused on the back end of things–sentencing, jails, and policing, before you even get into the courts” said the public defender who, like some of the other Court Watchers interviewed for this article, asked that her name not be used. 

“The court system doesn’t have much activism, so we are trying to build an informed body of people who can advocate around what happens in court.”  

Since Court Watch NYC was launched in early February, the program has trained over 300 individuals from all walks of life to make informed observations about court cases they witness and, in effect, act as citizen “watchdogs” over court procedure.  

The New York program is modeled after a 2017 effort in Chicago organized by a group of local nonprofits calling themselves the Coalition to End Money Bond. While Chicago’s “watchers” are interested primarily in judges, New York’s focus on prosecutors.

A collaborative project with VOCAL-NY, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, and 5 Boro Defenders, Court Watch aims to hold the top prosecutors in the two boroughs where it is currently operating—Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez—accountable for their pledges to create a more fair and equitable legal system, specifically in areas of immigration and bail reform.

Gonzalez issued a directive last April reversing the longstanding practice of automatically requesting bail in the majority of cases, even those where prosecutors intended to seek a sentence of less a month in jail.

Similarly, Vance directed prosecutors early this year to stop requesting bail for defendants accused of nonviolent misdemeanors, like shoplifting, marijuana possession and trespassing.

But Rachel Foran, a Court Watcher and Managing Director at the Brooklyn Bail Fund, found holes in Vance’s promise for bail reform.

He used “carve-outs,” she told The Crime Report, to make it difficult for most misdemeanor cases to avoid bail.

“You have to be in this very small group of people that don’t have a parole hold, or don’t have a lengthy misdemeanor record, or don’t have another open case to avoid paying bail,” she said. 

“It wasn’t until we put Court Watchers in the room to point out what those carve- outs were that it became clear… no one is going to qualify for this.”

The reform wasn’t much of a reform at all, she noted.

To Foran and the Court Watchers, being able to reveal the “cut outs,” something most people might not be aware of, felt like a win.

“We pointed out the exception was actually the rule.”

Court officials, however, disagree. 

According to one source in Gonzalez’ office, who requested anonymity, their most recent numbers show that 90 percent of people charged with misdemeanors are released after their initial criminal court arraignment without requested bail.

“There has been an upwards trend of release rate since our bail policy started last April,” the court official said.

Notably, there is no criminal justice background required to join the program.

For Anne Elbert, a U.S. resident and currently Product Manager at WorldQuant University, her first time in an American court room was during her first Court Watchers shift. 

She was an outsider— from Germany— looking in at the American bail system.

Some court officials, who prefer to remain anonymous, see this lack of legal expertise as a problem.

If they don’t have the proper expertise or a law degree, how are Court Watchers fit to comment and critique individual court cases? said one. 

“They don’t say anything positive about the work prosecutors and DA’s are doing either.”

Court Watchers requires participants to go through a four-hour training session, which entails listening to lawyers speak about arraignments, and learning how to get to court, what to wear, and what forms to fill out.

They recruit new volunteers mainly through social media, as well as some advertising in law schools.

They also are briefed about what Vance and Gonzalez promised during their election campaigns to reform the system, and Court Watchers focus on whether the DA’s are holding up their end of the bargain.

Another attorney who participates in Court Watch NYC and wishes to remain anonymous, said the main goal is to educate the public on just how much power the DA’s office has.

“That plays out in two ways during arraignments,” she said. “The fact that the DA can make a plea offer right there says it all. If they give someone a plea deal, there’s no judge involved and they have full discretion about what the plea is too.”

In hopes of attracting more citizens, Court Watch NYC offers various ways to participate. And there are plans to expand into the city’s other boroughs.

One option is to join the data team, which takes the information gathered in court and puts it into a data base on the blog, as demonstrated during the week of March 20-27:

Photo by Court Watch NYC

Another possibility is analysis work, which looks at what watchers have recorded that week and pulling out trends that folks have seen, in real time.

Photo by Court Watch NYC

Or, simply documenting what was observed that day in court.

Photo via Court Watch NYC

According to the Brooklyn DA’s office, their presence in the court room is embraced.

In a statement for The Crime Report, a spokesperson for Gonzalez said “We welcome accountability and transparency in the criminal justice system and work to promote that through a partnership with other stakeholders, including reform experts, public defenders and service provider.

“It is our hope that these efforts will lead to additional reforms that will make the system fairer and strengthen community trust in the system while ensuring public safety.” 

Court Watch NYC uses their platform of social media, such as their twitter and online blog, to inform the community about what’s happening in the court rooms.

And they have caught the eye of the DA’s office more than once.

On March 13th, the Court Watchers tweeted about a domestic violence ruling, which sparked a long debate between the DA’s office, represented by Oren Yaniv, public defenders, such as Jerome Greco, and different advocacy groups, like Jails Action Coalition.

Julie Mente, a Court Watcher who wrote the initial tweet, believed the DA’s office was trying to intimidate and dismiss a simple observation that she had made in court.

“When I saw the DA’s response, I got scared” she said.

“I wrote what I heard, and what I observed, and it sparked an online back and forth between a bunch of people.”

“At first, I felt like I misrepresented Court Watch or I did something bad,” she recalled. “I felt lawyered.”

“But then a bunch of public defenders chimed in and challenged that perspective.”

When it comes to crimes of domestic abuse, sexual violence and crimes against children, the DA’s office is still seeking bail to protect vulnerable victims.

But is a wealthy domestic abuser any less menacing than a poor one, who can’t afford to make bail?

According to Mente, if prosecutors request bail for domestic abusers, they are still perpetuating an unjust system where wealthy perpetrators go free.

“The fact that somebody has means to pay their bail doesn’t make them any less dangerous than the person who could afford that bail,” she said.

In some cases, however, the victim does not want to prosecute their abuser.

Anne Elbert noted one instance where a man broke his girlfriends phone, and ended up in court, despite his girlfriend’s wishes. Simultaneously, in another case, a girlfriend was beaten; both cases were treated the same way.

Elbert also saw many petty crimes go by, where the root was obviously “poverty and homelessness.”

“To me what stood out was a case where a homeless man went to dollar general store, stole underwear and socks, and the DA requested a thousand dollars for bail. Luckily the judge didn’t set bail, and he ended up with 3 days community service” she recalled. 

“That was a depressing case.” 

But Elbert believes the presence of her team will have an inevitable impact on everyone in the court room, from judges, prosecutors, police officers and public defenders.

“There’s a lot of power in the feeling of being watched,” she concluded.

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org