Will Trump End Federal Support for Justice Reinvestment?

The Trump administration wants to change the direction of a longstanding partnership with nonprofits aimed at reducing prison populations. Thirty-five states have taken part in the program.

Advocates of the 11-year-old national Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) are worried that the Trump administration plans to scuttle federal involvement in the project.

JRI encourages states to reduce prison populations and reinvest money that is saved in programs that help ex-inmates reenter society successfully.

The advocates’ concern is based on two recent developments.

Early this year, the administration asked Congress to end funding for federal participation in JRI, starting with the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

Congress hasn’t completed the spending process for next year, but both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees rebuffed the request and included money for justice reinvestment in their proposed budgets for next year.

The Senate panel would fund the program for $28 million. The House panel provided $30 million, although $5 million of that is for anticrime projects unrelated to the core JRI concept. (See earlier coverage in The Crime Report.)

The second action causing concern is a request for grant applications that the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued on June 28.

In it, DOJ sought proposals for a different concept for JRI, one that would focus on reducing recidivism of state prison inmates.

The DOJ document noted that Congress has said that it intends JRI to fund “activities related to criminal justice reform and recidivism reduction.”

The department then announced a “Justice Accountability Initiative” that it says “has been developed to meet the JRI goals to reduce recidivism and reform the  system by improving the effectiveness of risk assessments and to be more data-driven system-wide.”

The DOJ plan proposes to start pilot projects that would improve risk assessment tools that are now being tested to predict repeat criminality among those on probation.

As of 2016, there were 6.8 million people in the U.S. under the supervision of adult correctional systems, with nearly 4.6 million of them on probation or parole.

DOJ says that today’s probation and parole caseloads typically “include high risk individuals who pose a greater threat to public safety and have more criminogenic needs that may require additional services and increased supervision.”

A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study issued earlier this year said that 83 percent of offenders recidivate within 9 years.

“While the use of risk assessments has become wider spread,” DOJ says, “the effectiveness and objectivity of these tools could be improved, updated, or better utilized.”

DOJ is seeking applicants by July 30 that would ‘”develop a new, or improve an existing, risk assessment tool, moving it to a more scientifically rigorous and objective risk prediction tool (based on a computer-driven algorithm), and develop aligned offender monitoring and supervision plans and policies.”

The Justice Department also wants grantees to do related projects, such as assessing  current supervision strategies for former prisoners “and their impact on crime and recidivism and train staff in supervision strategies.”

Other aspects of the proposal include assessing a suggested “data-sharing system” for localities “that would focus on crime and recidivism among offenders released into their communities” and to “improve justice system partners’ abilities to produce a cross-system analysis that provides a better understanding of the contributions of pretrial, probation, parole, reentry, and other services to crime trends.”

The Justice Department proposal, which calls for spending $20 million next year, did not explicitly say that it would end the long-term partnership with outside entities on JRI.

DOJ officials would not elaborate to The Crime Report, but at least one Trump administration official in the department has said he believes that JRI is not consistent with the administration’s “tough on crime” practices.

In a fact sheet issued this week, Pew Charitable Trusts, the principal nonprofit that has partnered with the Justice Department on JRI, said that since 2007, 35 states have reformed sentencing and corrections policies through the initiative.

Other non-federal entities involved in the project are the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Crime and Justice Institute, and other organizations. The partnering organizations declined to comment on the DOJ actions.

It is possible that they will ask members of Congress who support the current direction of JRI to object to the Trump administration’s changes.

As described by Pew, the state reforms vary, but they “aim to improve public safety and control taxpayer costs by prioritizing prison space for people convicted of serious offenses and investing some of the savings in alternatives to incarceration that are effective at reducing recidivism.”

Since 2007, state imprisonment totals have dropped by 11 percent while crime rates have continued a long-term decline, Pew said. State justice reinvestment laws are expected to save billions of dollars in imprisonment costs.

The Pew publication includes a chart that lists various reforms enacted by states. The policy changes date from laws passed by Texas in 2007 that include easing terms of probation and improving government interventions in offenders’ mental health problems.

Six states passed JRI-related reforms last year, Pew said, including Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, Rhode Island, and North Dakota.

It was not immediately clear whether Pew would continue the aspects of the JRI project that involve helping states pass legislation on corrections issues if the federal government ends its participation.

Louisiana, which had led the nation in state incarceration rates, recently moved to number two behind Oklahoma as the result of changes enacted as part of the JRI initiative.

This week, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that the state had saved $12.2 million in the current fiscal year, doubling Pew’s initial projections of $6.1 million.

One aspect of the new DOJ Justice Accountability Initiative that could delay or derail it is that like other Justice Department grant programs, applicants must cooperate with federal officials on immigration issues. In other words, “sanctuary cities” or “sanctuary states” would not qualify.

Lawsuits already are pending challenging such requirements for other grants. It is possible that applicants also will contest that announced limitation on the new initiative.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Will a Polarized National Climate Derail Justice Reforms?

Three state and municipal politicians told a conference at John Jay College Wednesday that tougher national rhetoric on crime has complicated—but not stopped—the grassroots reform movement across the country.

Can justice reform be achieved in a polarized national political climate?

Three state and municipal politicians said Wednesday that re-framing the issues by looking at how individuals experienced the inequities of the justice system could ensure that the bipartisan movement for reform continues.

John Tilley, secretary of Kentucky’s Justice and Public Safety Committee and a Democrat who has helped spearhead a radical transformation of the state’s sentencing code, said there were signs of cracks in the once-solid bipartisan support for reform in his state.

“It only takes three or four voices in a 138-person legislature in the [state] House and Senate to derail any good effort,” Tilley said at a John Jay College conference on the jail crisis.

But he said that utilizing a “pro-family” framework that stresses the way mass incarceration breaks up families can counter a climate at both local and national levels that seemed to be leaning back towards a “tough on crime” approach.

“Maybe it’s easier to not take any political risks when I’m up for reelection every two to four years,” he said. “Maybe it’s easier to be tough on crime.”

Speaking to the need to inform the public of why reform matters, he quoted the late broadcaster Eric Sevareid: “Never underestimate your listener’s intelligence, or overestimate your listener’s information.”

“Once you go to a civic group and once you explain, they get it. They buy it,” he said. “The business community buys it. The constituents buy it. But you’ve got to explain it.”

John Bauters

John Bauters, mayor of Emoryville, Ca. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

John Bauters, mayor of Emoryville, Ca., and director of government relations at Californians for Safety and Justice, said paying attention to how ordinary people intersect with the justice system can make a huge difference in winning support.

“Attitudes evolve with time, and narratives are what change and what catch up with people in terms of how they perceive reforms: everything from prison overcrowding to whether a person with a felony conviction should have the right to vote,” Bauters said.

He found that legislators were particularly influenced by the testimony of the formerly incarcerated.

“Oftentimes, you need to have the narrative come from a person who is living the experience of what over-incarceration looks like,” he said.

Citing the example of a veteran who suffered PTSD and whose repeated contact with the justice system as a result of his mental health condition left him unable to find employment or housing, Bauters said, “It’s a prize when somebody who they don’t expect walks into the legislator’s office and talks to them about their experience with mass incarceration.”

Victims provided another perspective he believed was under-represented in the discourse surrounding incarceration, and that, if included, would shift the needle from a retributive to a restorative model.

“When we decentralize the narrative away from what crime victims need, we lose the sense of justice we’re trying to promote through the carceral system and the alternatives to incarceration,” he said.

“Anywhere between two out of three and three out of four people who have been victims nationally want healing, treatment and reconciliation over criminal punishment and incarceration.”

Bauters and Tilley were joined by Georgia State Rep. Chuck Efstration,  a Republican who has been a leading player in reforms instituted by Gov. Nathan Deal.

Chuck Elfstration

Georgia legislator Chuck Elfstration. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

“Politics can be very contentious many times,” he said. “But luckily, there’s been broad bipartisan understanding and acknowledgement of the importance of these issues.”

Efstration said the efforts by Deal, a two-term governor, to explain the rationale behind justice reform to conservatives in his state had helped ensure that most criminal justice reform legislation passed the Georgia legislature with “unanimous or close to unanimous support.”

He believed the tough rhetoric on crime promoted by President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions would ultimately not derail the reform process.

And Tilley added that some White House initiatives, such as the effort to promote counseling and education to prison inmates before their release, were welcome signs.

Bauter said changing language was another key part of getting constituents and key players on board with reform.

Regarding the common usage of the words “felon” and “offender,” he said, “Imagine if you were only called by a noun that described the single worst thing you ever did in your life. Imagine if you were called cheater or liar everywhere you went.”

“Now imagine what your prospects are if everywhere you go, you’re referred to as a felon.”

He added: “If you identify someone by the worst thing they’ve ever done, and not the most sympathetic thing they’ve ever experienced, you’ve prejudiced the community’s understanding of what’s really going on.”

The panelists stressed the importance of building coalitions, and encouraged reform advocates to be open to unlikely partnerships.

Tilley said that reformers in Kentucky had found an ally in the business community, which spoke up in favor of reducing incarceration when the growth in jail and prison populations began decimating the state’s workforce.

“We cannot fill the jobs we have,” he said. “So they have taken an active role since 2009,” pressing for less punitive policies and providing job training in reentry programs within prisons.

Such investments have proven mutually beneficial, aiding returning citizens in reintegrating into society and providing businesses with much-needed labor.

“There’s tremendous potential and talent behind these walls,” Tilley said.

Efstration spoke of a similar collaboration between education providers and prisons in Georgia.

“We’ve had a great expansion of technical college opportunities in coordination with the Department of Corrections,” he said.

The resulting certifications ensure that “upon a person’s release, there are employment opportunities immediately available. People are certified to practice in that area already, as soon as they get out.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR News Intern. She welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Will a Polarized National Climate Derail Justice Reforms?

Three state and municipal politicians told a conference at John Jay College Wednesday that tougher national rhetoric on crime has complicated—but not stopped—the grassroots reform movement across the country.

Can justice reform be achieved in a polarized national political climate?

Three state and municipal politicians said Wednesday that re-framing the issues by looking at how individuals experienced the inequities of the justice system could ensure that the bipartisan movement for reform continues.

John Tilley, secretary of Kentucky’s Justice and Public Safety Committee and a Democrat who has helped spearhead a radical transformation of the state’s sentencing code, said he had begun to see cracks in the once-solid bipartisan support for reform in his state.

“It only takes three or four voices in a 138-person legislature in the [State] House and Senate to derail any good effort,” Tilley said at a John Jay College conference on the jail crisis.

But he said that utilizing a “pro-family” framework that stresses the way mass incarceration separates children and parents can counter a climate that seemed to be defaulting on a “tough on crime” approach.

“Maybe it’s easier to not take any political risks when [you’re] up for reelection every two to four years,” he said. “Maybe it’s easier to be tough on crime.”

This attitude among legislators makes it all the more important for advocates to take control of the  narratives surrounding reforms.

Speaking to the need to inform the public of why reform matters, he quoted the late broadcaster Eric Sevareid: “Never underestimate your listener’s intelligence, or overestimate your listener’s information.”

“Once you go to a civic group and once you explain, they get it,” he said. “The business community buys it. The constituents buy it. But you’ve got to explain it.”

John Bauters

John Bauters, mayor of Emoryville, Ca. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

John Bauters, mayor of Emoryville, Ca., and director of government relations at Californians for Safety and Justice, said paying attention to how ordinary people intersect with the justice system can make a significant difference in winning support.

“Attitudes evolve with time, and narratives are what change and what catch up with people in terms of how they perceive reforms: everything from prison overcrowding to whether a person with a felony conviction should have the right to vote,” Bauters said.

He found that legislators were particularly influenced by the testimony of the formerly incarcerated.

“Oftentimes, you need to have the narrative come from a person who is living the experience of what over-incarceration looks like,” he said.

Citing the example of a veteran who suffered PTSD and whose repeated contact with the justice system as a result of his mental health condition left him unable to find employment or housing, Bauters said, “It’s a prize when somebody who they don’t expect walks into the legislator’s office and talks to them about their experience with mass incarceration.”

Victims provided another perspective he believed was underrepresented in the discourse surrounding incarceration, and that, if included, would shift the needle from a retributive to a restorative model.

“When we decentralize the narrative away from what crime victims need, we lose the sense of justice we’re trying to promote through the carceral system,” he said.

“Anywhere between two out of three and three out of four people who have been victims nationally want healing, treatment and reconciliation over criminal punishment and incarceration.”

Bauters and Tilley were joined by Georgia State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Republican who has been a leading player in reforms instituted by Gov. Nathan Deal.

Chuck Elfstration

Georgia legislator Chuck Elfstration. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

“Politics can be very contentious many times,” he said. “But luckily, there’s been broad bipartisan understanding and acknowledgement of the importance of these issues.”

Efstration said the efforts by Deal, a two-term governor, to explain the rationale behind justice reform to conservatives in his state had helped ensure that most criminal justice reform legislation passed the Georgia legislature with “unanimous or close to unanimous support.”

He believed the tough-on-crime rhetoric promoted by President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions would ultimately not derail the reform process, and that some White House initiatives, such as the effort to promote counseling and education to prison inmates before their release, were welcome signs.

Bauter said changing language was another key part of getting constituents and key players on board with reform.

Regarding the common usage of the words “felon” and “offender,” he said, “Imagine if you were only called by a noun that described the single worst thing you ever did in your life. Imagine if you were called cheater or liar everywhere you went.”

“Now imagine what your prospects are if everywhere you go, you’re referred to as a felon.”

He added: “If you identify someone by the worst thing they’ve ever done, and not the most sympathetic thing they’ve ever experienced, you’ve prejudiced the community’s understanding of what’s really going on.”

The panelists stressed the importance of building coalitions, and encouraged reform advocates to be open to unlikely partnerships.

Tilley said that reformers in Kentucky had found an ally in the business community, which spoke up in favor of reducing incarceration when the growth in jail and prison populations began decimating the state’s workforce.

“We cannot fill the jobs we have,” he said. “So they have taken an active role since 2009,” pressing for less punitive policies and providing job training in reentry programs within prisons.

Such investments have proven mutually beneficial, aiding returning citizens in reintegrating into society and providing businesses with much-needed labor.

“There’s tremendous potential and talent behind these walls,” Tilley said.

Efstration spoke of a similar collaboration between education providers and prisons in Georgia.

“We’ve had a great expansion of technical college opportunities in coordination with the Department of Corrections,” he said.

The resulting certifications ensure that “upon a person’s release, there are employment opportunities immediately available. People are certified to practice in that area already, as soon as they get out.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR News Intern. She welcomes readers’ comments.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Rural (In)Justice: The Hidden Crisis in America’s Jails

The use of jails to house individuals with serious mental illness is contributing to the skyrocketing growth in jail populations across the U.S.—particularly in rural and small counties—experts told a conference at John Jay College Tuesday.

Soaring jail populations, particularly in rural areas, are now driving America’s crisis of mass incarceration, a conference at John Jay College was told Tuesday.

Christian Henrichson, research director for the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, said the number of individuals in pretrial detention in rural or small counties with fewer than 250,000 inhabitants began surpassing urban detention rates in 2008—and continues to increase even as urban jail populations are falling.

“In the last couple of decades, mass incarceration has metastasized from the largest cities to almost every community in America,” Henrichson, author of a recently released Vera study on incarceration trends, told rural journalists participating in a conference on “Rural (In)Justice:Covering America’s Hidden Jail Crisis.”

More than 11 million jail admissions are recorded every year, yet few Americans realize that jails are a primary engine of mass incarceration in the U.S. Polls show that rural residents continue to think of it as a problem largely facing urban areas, Henrichson said.

Among the factors driving the increase is the growing use of jails to house the mentally ill.

Srteven Leifman

Judge Steven Leifman, 11th Judicial Circuit, Florida. Photos by John Ramsey/TCR

“When I became a judge, I had no idea I was actually becoming the gatekeeper to the largest psychiatric facility in the state of Florida,” said Judge Steven Leifman, Associate Administrative Judge for the 11th Judicial Circuit Court, referring to the Miami-Dade County Jail.

Judge Leifman said people with mental illness are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized, and that at any given time, about 550,000 people with serious mental illnesses are in jails or prisons, and another 900,000 are under correctional supervision.

It’s a “horrible, shameful American tragedy,” but it can be reversed with targeted crisis intervention programs for law enforcement working in collaboration with health and social services, he said.

Judge Leifman noted that since Miami-Dade implemented a program eight years ago that trains police officers how to identify people in crisis, and direct them to treatment and counseling services rather than arrest them, the county’s jail population has sharply reduced with no discernible increase in threats to public safety.

More than 450 counties across the U.S. are now implementing some version of the program, called the Stepping Up Initiative, a collaboration with the National Association of Counties, the Council of State Governments, and the American Psychiatric Association Foundation.

The swelling number of mentally ill individuals who are locked up is a consequence of the reduction of psychiatric beds in state facilities across the country. But analysts say it is part of a much larger problem: an increase in the numbers of individuals held awaiting trial because they or their relatives cannot afford the cost of money bonds.

Cherise Fanno Burdeen

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO, Pretrial Justice Institute

“Almost all of the jail growth in the U.S. since 2000 has been in pretrial detention,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a Washington, DC-based non-profit.

“If you’re a person of color, you’re more likely to have a high bond for the same offense than your white counterpart, as well as being less likely to make that bond.”

Other factors contributing to the high jail numbers include the opioid epidemic that has ravaged much of the American heartland, a rise in referrals of state inmates to county jails to relieve overcrowding in penitentiaries, and an increase in the use of jails to house undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation, conference speakers said.

Authorities in cash-strapped regions across rural America initially welcomed the referrals as an additional source of revenues, but many are now rethinking the practice.

Kirk Taylor, Sheriff of Pueblo County, Co., said the population of his jail has almost doubled because of state referrals.

Kirk Taylor

Kirk Taylor, Sheriff, Pueblo County, Colorado

“The legislature is …absolutely killing the counties,” Taylor said. “I have a list of 50 legislative changes that have deferred inmates to the counties.”

Larry Amerson, retired Sheriff of Calhoun County, Al., and former president of the National Sheriffs Association, said that 250 of the 600 prisoners currently held in his county come from state prisons—yet the expected boost in revenue never materialized.

According to Amerson, his county receives just $1.75 per person to cover food costs.

“Legislators often have no empathy for the problems we face,” he said.

The pressure on county authorities to meet the burden of rising correctional costs is so high that they are often faced with the unpalatable choice of building a new jail at the cost of other crucial infrastructure like roads, schools and hospitals, the conference was told.

G. Larry Mays, Regents Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at New Mexico State University and author of “Trouble in the Heartland,” said the most common way to fund county jails is through property taxes, but because many smaller counties reassess property infrequently, it can be hard for them to keep up with costs.

“Jails in rural counties suffer from both political conservativism and fiscal conservativism,” said Mays.

Both sheriffs said more attention to pretrial services and risk assessment tools were important ways of reducing recidivism as well as helping individuals receive counseling or treatment for mental illness or substance abuse issues, particularly in the midst of an opioid epidemic which has hit rural areas the hardest.

For Amerson, the jail crisis is personal. Three people in his family died of opioid overdoses—a tragedy he said might have been avoided if they had taken advantage of pretrial services providing substance-abuse counseling or treatment after they were arrested.

“I begged the parents not to make bond, but they said it wasn’t fair,” he recalled.

“The purpose of pretrial services is not to decrease the amount of people in your jails—that is a byproduct, we hope—but that is not the primary purpose,” said Taylor.

“It’s designed to find the people who are supposed to be in jail through your assessments and identify those people who are a risk to public safety.”

Bail Reform

According to Burdeen of the Pretrial Justice Institute, reforming bail practices is one of the easier strategies to reduce jail populations.

She cited data indicating money bonds have no discernible impact in terms of improving outcomes and public safety.

“Money bonds only detain people who are too poor to post that bond, and they let bad guys who can afford to post bond get out without being assessed or having conditions that would improve public safety,” said Burdeen.

She pointed out that money bond is simply a condition of bail, and that there are other alternatives, such as providing access to public defenders at hearings, expanding the use of citations instead of arrest, and getting prosecutors to review cases to see if defendants are eligible for referral to specialty courts.

Burdeen also noted that many places set high bonds on high-risk individuals because they don’t have preventive detention protocols, which allow the courts to find dangerous individuals and detain them.

The Pretrial Justice Institute believes elimination of money bonds could reduce sharply reduce the numbers of individuals held in pretrial detention, noting that programs underway in Washington, D.C. and New Jersey have made important progress in that area.

But solutions to the larger issues driving jail growth, such as the failure to find alternative ways to deal with individuals with mental illness and addiction issues, continue to elude policymakers, the conference was told.

“There’s something wrong with a society that is willing to spend more to incarcerate people than to treat them,” said Judge Leifman.

Marianne Dodson and Dane Stallone are TCR News Interns. The conference on Rural (In)Justice was organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, publisher of The Crime Report, and supported with grants from the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Safety + Justice Challenge. Readers’ comments are welcome.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Trump Pardons Father-and-Son Oregon Ranchers

President Trump pardoned father-and-son cattle ranchers in Oregon who were sentenced to serve prison time on two separate occasions for the same charges of arson on public lands. The return to prison of Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond helped fuel the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.

President Trump on Tuesday pardoned father-and-son cattle ranchers in Oregon who were sentenced to serve prison time on two separate occasions for the same charges of arson on public lands, the Washington Post reports. The return to prison of Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond helped fuel the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said an “overzealous appeal” of the Hammonds’s original sentences during the Obama administration, which sent them back to prison, was “unjust.” She said, “The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West. Justice is overdue.”

The Hammonds were convicted of crimes that require a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. A judge, however, initially gave Dwight Hammond three months and his son Steven Hammond a year and a day behind bars. The government won an appeal over the Hammonds’ sentences in 2015, and the two men were resentenced to serve out the remaining years of a five-year minimum. Their convictions drew sharp rebukes from the local community amid allegations that the family was aggressively prosecuted using anti-terrorism statutes because they were outspoken about public land use in rural Oregon.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Feds Drop Remaining Cases from Trump Inaugural Protest

Twenty-one defendants had pleaded guilty but prosecutors dropped 38 other cases. The American Civil Liberties Union called the broad prosecution “a big mistake.”

Federal prosecutors are dropping all 38 remaining cases stemming from the Inauguration Day demonstrations in Washington, D.C., last year, NPR reports. A protest turned confrontational when a small number of “black-clad protesters broke windows and police responded with pepper spray and a concussive device.” The U.S. Attorney in the capital said 21 people had pleaded guilty to “charges for their conduct that day, including one to felony offenses.” Prosecutors struggled to convict defendants in the cases that were brought to trial.

“I think they finally realized that they had made a big mistake,” says Scott Michelman of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The charges from the beginning were overly broad, and filed against far too many people,” Michelman says. More than 200 people were arrested and charged with felony rioting, though many of those cases were dropped before going to trial. While looking for evidence in some of those cases, the Justice Department issued a warrant demanding that the web hosting company DreamHost hand over all files related to a website used to plan protests called Disruptj20.org. A judge found that warrant to be overly broad. The ACLU had filed an amicus brief in support of the defendants, and has filed a civil suit against the District of Columbia police for officers’ actions during the protests. The ACLU said police used “excessive force” and “made unconstitutional arrests” of protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Police in America: Warriors or Peacemakers?

Training cops to avoid excessive use-of-force is only part of the challenge. The hardest part is learning a different mindset about policing—in the face of society expectations and peer pressure, experts and senior officers tell TCR.

In the wake of well-publicized cases of excessive force and officer-involved shootings, police departments in major cities like New York and Los Angeles have rolled out popular new training programs meant for both veteran officers and recruits.

Emphasizing de-escalation, conflict resolution, and empathy over the more force-oriented practices of the past, these programs may, indeed, be a step in the right direction. However members of the criminal justice community still warn that, while training is important, it alone is not going to stem police misconduct and, in some cases, might be part of the problem.

“Training becomes a simple solution,” Seth Stoughton, an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former Tallahassee police officer, said in an interview with The Crime Report.

“Whenever we’re talking about something as complicated as human dynamics, as complicated as racial interactions throughout the history of this country, as complicated as policing itself, I think we should be very skeptical of simple solutions.”

According to Stoughton who, as an officer, trained other officers and created policies to govern the use of new technologies, training may help─but it does little to change the underlying systems that govern police behavior.

Though officers may receive some form of de-escalation training at the academy, a major problem is that this can often be immediately contradicted by the guidance they receive from their peers after moving into the field.

“Every cop has heard some version of, ‘Forget everything that you learned in training, now it’s time to learn how we do it on the street,’” said Stoughton.

Certain departments have met this contradiction with a Field Training Officer (FTO) program, which assigns newly sworn-in officers with a veteran who guides and evaluates them based on the principles they have just learned at the academy.

Ideally, these programs would reinforce any de-escalation training new officers may have received, and steer them away from habits that violate the policies and procedures they’ve just learned.

However, Stoughton is quick to warn that policies and procedures are different for every department in the country, as are their training programs.

“The variety from agency to agency can be staggering,” said Stoughton.

According to a 2016 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are roughly 18,000 state, county, and local law enforcement agencies in the US today. These range from large departments like the New York City, to small, local agencies with 50 officers or less.

And with no national standards, two departments in two neighboring towns may have completely different rules for procedure and training.

Creating a ‘National De-Escalation Model’

That, says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), is one of the greatest challenges to changing the culture of modern policing.

“The kind of policies, the kind of training, tactics, and culture that we are talking about are really significant changes to the way we think,” said Wexler, whose organization is currently seeking to establish a national de-escalation model.

“90 percent of these agencies are smaller agencies, and they aren’t easy to influence in terms of changing policy.”

In fact, a 2017 study from APM Reports shows that, despite growing support for de-escalation training, only 8 states have officially mandated it for all of their officers. 34 other states have no de-escalation requirement. While APM Reports reveals that 24 of those states could have mandated de-escalation administratively, it found that most conduct no─or very little─de-escalation training at all.

In most of the training that does occur, Wexler believes the emphasis is misplaced.

In a survey conducted by PERF of nearly 300 agencies, they were asked what percentage of time was spent on firearms training versus de-escalation, crisis intervention, and communication.

“(We found) the lion’s share of the time is spent on firearms,” Wexler said.

According to PERF’s 2015 survey, among more than 280 law enforcement agencies, new recruits received an average of 58 hours of firearms training, and only eight hours of de-escalation training.

In some cases, it could even be as much as two weeks of firearms training. The survey also found that the fragmented nature of the training, where different elements such as using a firearm and the legal issues governing lethal force, are discussed often days, weeks, or even months apart, makes it difficult for officers to understand how everything fits together.

To tackle this issue, in 2016, PERF released it’s Guiding Principles on Use of Force, a report detailing the methods necessary to changing conventional thinking on how the police handle certain confrontations, particularly those that involve the seriously mentally ill who do not have a firearm.

Following this report, they created the Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) training guide, available online for any department’s use, which implements those methods through six training modules emphasizing critical thinking, situational awareness, and informed assessment.

“It’s all about education,” said Wexler.

For Tom Wilson, director of PERF’s Center for Applied Research and Management, part of that education means replacing what he says has become the traditional decision model of most departments today: described as the “use-of-force continuum.”

‘Use-of-Force Continuum’

“The use-of-force continuum assumes if someone has a rock I use a baton, if someone has a knife I use a gun, increasing the level of force,” said Wilson, in an interview with TCR.

A 24-year veteran of the Anne Arundel County, Maryland Police Department, Wilson insists that this process only exacerbates a potentially explosive situation, especially when considering interactions with people suffering from a serious mental illness.

“If someone is mentally ill and they have a knife, and you pull out a gun and start screaming at them, you raise their anxiety level,” said Wilson.

“So, rather than dropping the knife, they start to come toward you, which is the exact opposite of what you anticipated.”

Sadly, these sort of scenarios have become all too common.

A 2015 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement. In this year alone, according to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force analysis database, 68 mentally ill men and women have been shot and killed by the police.

Decision-making systems like the use-of-force continuum are directly linked to these statistics and yet, unfortunately, they are still the norm among many police departments in this country.

“We call them lawful but awful,” said Wilson.

“Lawful in the sense that they fit within the supreme court decision of Graham v Connor; awful in that the outcome is not what anyone wanted.”

The 1989 Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Connor, declared that an officer’s use of force is considered constitutional if it would be considered reasonable, considering the facts and circumstances of the case, from the perspective of anofficer on the scene.

The Court added that this “calculus of reasonableness” must take into account that police officers often have to make split-second decisions, in often tense and unpredictable circumstances, about the amount of force that is necessary for any given situation.

“This reasoning is why cases where an officer is brought to court, or even faces charges, for a use-of-force incident are so rare,” said Wilson.

It is also why many police departments still function on a shoot-or-don’t-shoot principle, effectively drawing a line in the sand no matter the circumstances.

Using PERF’s training module and philosophy, Wexler and Wilson insist that officers can be trained out of these outdated─and dangerous─practices and come to understand that, in a lot of situations, there is another way of doing things.

“We say there are some situations where, rather than increasing the level of force, you use another option, you step back,” said Wilson.

However, while the ICAT program may represent the best tenets of a new and necessary national police training model, both men agree it can only succeed if it occurs alongside a simultaneously national, and equally necessary, shift in American police culture: changing the idea of police as warriors to, instead, peacekeepers.

Alex Vitale, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, warns that changing policing’s war mentality might be easier said than done.

“There is a very toxic thin-blue-line ideology in American policing,” said Vitale in an interview with TCR.

“It has these components that say that the only thing that is holding society together is the constant threat of armed force, and that it’s the police that make civilization possible.”

Vitale points out that this “war” narrative is maintained on a political level, with police constantly being told by politicians that they are waging a war on crime, a war on drugs, and a war on terrorism and disorder.

All of this feeds into an accepted mentality that the only thing people will understand is brute force. And while he agrees that changes to training and ethos are, indeed, necessary, Vitale believes that effectively changing those things will be hard so long as the mission and scope of policing remains the same, especially when considering the most heavily armed and tactically trained branch of any department: SWAT.

“Look at what heavily armed SWAT teams actually do,” said Vitale.

“They’re not fighting terrorism, they’re not going after barricaded suspects, they’re not fighting off armored bank robbers, they’re serving low-level drug warrants in poor communities.”

The SWAT Toll

These paramilitary units are a representation of the popular, and ineffective, model of American policing. A 2017 examination by the New York Times revealed that thousands of these raids, in which officers issue warrants through forced entry into homes called “dynamic entries,” occur every year and that, while their toll has been mostly ignored by governments at all levels, they have continually led to avoidable deaths and multi-million dollar legal settlements.

The same piece reports that between 2010 and 2016, at least 81 civilians and 13 law enforcement officers have died in such raids. On average, most of the searches yielded little more than misdemeanor level stashes, or nothing at all. Despite these numbers and results, the Times found that 13 states have still enacted laws authorizing dynamic entries, and another 13 have “blessed them” through rulings by appellate courts.

“It’s gone a long way towards fostering the kind of military ethos in policing that has contributed to some horrible shooting incidents,” said Vitale.

Vitale also points out that SWAT forces are usually not required to complete any form of force reduction training at all. Instead, especially in smaller departments, they do exactly the opposite: receiving additional military grade hardware, worst case scenario training, and actually training with former military special forces units.

Elite units like SWAT are not the only ones contributing to the prevalent military narrative of policing in this country.

The very recruitment methods of many departments around the country utilize the same dialogue to draw in applicants. Recruitment videos for departments such as the Newport Beach Police Department are loaded with heart-pounding music, camouflage-wearing officers yelling and in pursuit of criminals, attack dogs, assault rifles, and fight training.

Even a video for Newport Beach Explorers, cadets aged 14-21, runs like an action movie and focuses intensively on weapons and tactics.

Frontier Mentality

This contributes to a cycle of violence that puts the lives of both civilians and officers at risk. In fact, a 2017 analysis by the Washington Post found that law enforcement agencies just having access to military hardware can lead to more violent behavior from its officers.

“It’s a frontier mentality,” said Vitale. “a Cowboys-and-Indians mindset.”

However, according to Sue Rahr, executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, that mentality can be changed by altering the paramilitary environment that new recruits face from the moment they first step into the academy.

It can start with a simple change in decoration.

“When I first started, there was a display case at the lobby of the academy filled with police batons, handcuffs, and commendations,” said Rahr, in an interview with TCR.

“We replaced it with a mural of the preamble and Article I of the Constitution.”

In addition, Rahr got rid of the myriad of posters that continually warned and reminded recruits of the dangers of the job. While she strongly agrees that recruits must be made aware of the very real risks they may face, Rahr also warns that repetitive messages like these can further ingrain new officers with the false bias that they are stepping out into a war zone, one with enemies on all sides.

“It favors possibility over probability,” said Rahr.

A 33-year veteran officer and former chief of the Spokane Police Department, Rahr is all too familiar with the war narrative of policing that sprung up in the late 1970’s, with police seeing themselves as soldiers during a time of rising urban crime rates and the crack epidemic.

Changing the Military Mindset

However, she insists that policing is not the military, and has taken steps to move her academy from the traditional, boot camp style of the past, to something a bit more collegial.

“Before, recruits would snap to attention and salute their superiors,” said Rahr.

“Now they are expected to start a conversation, even a casual one.”

In addition, Rahr created the LEED model of training: Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity. The idea being that people are more likely to cooperate with the police if they believe they are being treated fairly.

This type of environment reminds recruits that they must know how to talk to people and that this is one of the most important skills an officer actually needs to succeed at the job. Recruits are also given a copy of the constitution, further reminding them of their responsibilities to the communities they serve.

In the auditorium, an excerpt of Plato’s definition of “guardians” is emblazoned on the wall: In a republic that honors the core of democracy — the greatest amount of power is given to those called Guardians. Only those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility of protecting the democracy.

But while Rahr’s approach represents one of the most forward-thinking programs today, and has been embraced statewide in Washington, some among the criminal justice community remain skeptical, raising concerns that tactics like hers may put officers in greater harm’s way.

Is Restraint Always Healthy?

“There’s a real issue now about whether officers are being unnecessarily endangered and whether officers can protect themselves,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a retired and decorated NYPD officer and professor of Law and Police Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in an interview with TCR.

In addition, O’Donnell points out that there is possibly a larger question of whether officers are even inserting themselves into problem situations when necessary or are, instead, just avoiding them entirely.

“Police departments are being awarded gold medals for avoiding conflicts and I think that’s a real concern,” said O’Donnell.

This is best exemplified in New York, where a 2016 poll by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association found that 97 percent of 6,000 respondents believe that they might be demonized and condemned as “bad cops” for engaging in any sort of conflict whatsoever. For cities that have real public safety issues, O’Donnell feels that stigma like this can result in departments that are dangerously ineffectual and disengaged.

“It’s starting to become restraint above all else and restraint to an extent that it’s a danger to themselves and even other people if the police are unwilling to protect themselves,” said O’Donnell.

In fact, a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 76 percent of officers polled are reluctant to use force when it is appropriate, while 72 percent have become less willing to stop and question people who seem suspicious. O’Donnell also warns that, while new ideas about changing the culture and training methods in policing may be encouraging, they may also rely on what he calls a fantastical opinion of a recruiting pool that doesn’t exist.

According to an report by NBC News, police hiring is at an all-time low due to diminishing pay, high risk, and the recently popularized negative image of police in general. And while a 2017 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the growth rate for police and detectives at seven percent the national average, the bottom 10th percentile of an officer’s salary is still only roughly $35,000.

This is poor incentive for a job that ensures long hours, offers few to no holidays, and that recent FBI statistics have found to be increasing in danger.

“Policing is in an extremely bad place,” said O’Donnell.

These seemingly dire circumstances are only exacerbated when considering that many today feel, training or not, that police are taking on responsibilities beyond their capabilities, especially when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill.

“The police alone are not the right responders,” said Carla Rabinowitz, advocacy coordinator for Community Access, a New York based nonprofit that assists individuals with mental illness, in an interview with TCR.

Today, when a mentally ill person is in crisis, 911 is almost always the number called. And while the NYPD has embraced Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) tactics of de-escalation and conflict resolution, Rabinowitz warns that the challenges it faces may be indicative of broader problems.

“CIT is going well with the NYPD, but police have two problems: they’re not getting the newly trained CIT officers over to those calls and, under police protocol, the first officer on the scene takes the call, whether he has CIT training or not,” said Rabinowitz.

As Rabinowitz explains it, the average 911 calls can last anywhere from 17 seconds to four minutes. In that time, a crisis call has to be routed to a sergeant at the precinct where it occurs, that sergeant then has to find a CIT officer and move that officer over to the call. All of this takes time that she insists people in crisis often do not have.

“If you have to wait that time, police are not going to be there in time,” said Rabinowitz.

When and if officers do arrive, the current protocol of the first officer on the scene being in charge can often result in life threatening mistakes. This was the case in the shooting death of Dwayne Jeune, a mentally ill Brooklyn man wielding a bread knife, where, according to the Gotham Gazette, of the four officers who responded, the one without CIT training pulled the trigger.

Rabinowitz warns that even with CIT training, mistakes are made. Thus far, he notes, there has been little progress..

“The police started their training in June 2015. Two years after the training, from July 2017 to now, less than a year, there have been five deaths,” said Rabinowitz.

“Training alone is not going to do it.”

Co-Responding to 911 Calls

Instead, she points to cities like Denver, where co-response teams of officers and social workers are responding to 911 calls together, providing more opportunity for de-escalation and less risk of violence or death when confronting mentally ill individuals in crisis.

Rabinowitz and Community Access also advocate for the creation of diversion centers, such as those under Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Bureau, as well as a similar program in Florida, that provide police with an option other than jail for those in crisis.

In New York, according to an article in The Observer, litigation has begun to establish a different phone number people can call for situations concerning mentally ill persons in distress, similar to 411, 911, or 311.

“The whole goal is to get these crisis calls out of the hands of the police,” said Rabinowitz.

However, while programs and practices such as these are necessary, they currently only exist in a very small number of states and communities, and when crises arise the public still turns to the police for help. A 2017 report by the NYPD estimated that it responded to roughly 400 mental health crisis calls a day, more than 12,000 a month.

In San Diego, mental health crisis calls have increased by 92 percent since 2009, according to an article by KPBS.org.

In the face of a failed mental health system, police are the only ones picking up the slack. That seems to be accepted stoically as something that does with the job.

The Camden Model

“Over time, police are going to wear many hats. It’s the reality of the profession,” said Lieutenant Kevin Lutz, deputy director of the Camden County College Police Academy, in an interview with TCR.

Since 2013, when the shift began, the Camden Police Department has embraced that reality, doing everything possible to become a department that their community can trust and rely upon for any situation.

At the academy, officers are trained to use guns and handcuffs as only a last resort, focusing instead on the de-escalation tactics and communication skills recommended by PERF ICAT initiative and used by major departments around the country.

For Lutz, just putting these methods into practice has led to a shift in mindset.

“Our officers today are a new breed. They’re proud to talk, to de-escalate, to be protectors instead of warriors,” said Lutz.

This change was exemplified in 2015, when Camden Police confronted a man brandishing a steak knife and threatening the patrons of a Crown Fried Chicken. When police arrived, the man was ordered to drop the knife, when he did not and began to walk away, instead of engaging in physical confrontation, officers simply followed him.

Forming a cordon around him, they cleared the street ahead and repeated the order until, eventually, the man conceded. The video of the incident exemplifies the best possible result for what this new change in police culture can, and should, yield.

Since then, according to The New York Times, the Camden police have continued to evolve their life-saving practices, recently mandating a new “scoop and go” policy, in which officers are required to drive gunshot victims to the hospital themselves, rather than waiting for an ambulance, if the situation demands it.

Officers walking the beat are required to knock on doors, introduce themselves, and establish relationships with community members.

“The department has become very transparent,” said Dan Keashan, Director of Communications for Camden City Hall.

“Lieutenants are on a first name basis with the community, and they all walk a beat.”

Since implementing these new practices and policies, Keashan reports that excessive force complaints have fallen from 65 in 2014 to only 15 as of 2017. According to a yearly report by Camden County Police Department’s Strategic Analysis Unit, the overall crime rates have dropped 23 percent since 2013.

And the department’s initiatives don’t stop there.

“Internal Affairs makes house calls to people who don’t even complain,” said Keashan.

“They go out and conduct surveys.”

Keashan explains that these surveys help the Camden County Police better serve their community and get back to the roots of policing, to the idea of the job as that of “public servant.”

Returning to that idea earned them the attention of President Obama in 2015, who touted the department as a “symbol of promise for the nation.”

“We’re putting out a good product,” said Sgt. Raphael Thornton, lead instructor for the Camden County Academy, and a 22-year veteran of the force.

“Officers who imagine themselves as peacekeepers.”

Isidoro Rodriguez

It is a “product” that serves as an example of the benefits that come with embracing and enacting this new mindset and culture of policing. And while officers like Thornton and Lutz agree that more programs and facilities are needed so that communities can one day have other options, both maintain that, until that time, police can and will be wholly capable of meeting whatever challenges may arise.

“If not us, then who?” asked Thornton.

Isidoro Rodriguez is a regular contributor to The Crime Report on policing issues. He welcomes comments from readers.

from https://thecrimereport.org

AMA Joins Calls for Tougher Gun Background Checks, Restraining Orders

At its annual meeting this week, the American Medical Association House of Delegates backed a sweeping set of actions aimed at reducing the nation’s toll from gun violence, and calling on policymakers to seek “common ground.” It was the second major group, following the nation’s top think tank on policing, to weigh in on the issue.

The American Medical Association House of Delegates this week backed a sweeping set of actions aimed at reducing the toll of U.S. firearm deaths, including gun-violence restraining orders, tougher background checks and better data collection, among other measures, reports the AMA Wire.

“People are dying of gun violence in our homes, churches, schools, on street corners and at public gatherings, and it’s important that lawmakers, policy leaders and advocates on all sides seek common ground to address this public health crisis,” said Dr. David O. Barbe, an AMA officer.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, and we urge lawmakers to act.”

The AMA is the second major national group to weigh in this week on gun violence.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) released its own “action plan” on gun violence  earlier this week, calling for a gun ban for individuals “legally prohibited from owning them.”

PERF, the nation’s top think tank on policing, also called for strengthening the federal Background Check system and the establishment of a robust system of licensing.

The plan, “Key Findings and an Action Plan to Reduce Gun Violence,” was released following a gathering of the nation’s big city police chiefs in Washington, D.C., and outlined a combination of legislative, law enforcement, and individual solutions to the continuing issue of gun violence.

AMA Wants Gun-Free School Zones

AMA delegates adopted the policy recommendations at the organization’s annual meeting in Chicago. The AMA says it will advocate for schools to remain gun-free zones except for school-sanctioned activities and professional law enforcement officials, and it will oppose requirements or incentives of teachers to carry weapons.

The group also called for higher-profile recognition of the role of firearms in suicides. It said it will advocate for laws that allow family members and others to petition a court for the removal of a firearm when there is a high risk for violence; prohibit gun possession for those formally accused or convicted of domestic violence; and require states to establish protocols for removal of firearms from prohibited persons.

from https://thecrimereport.org

Mayors in Pot-Friendly Cities Urge Federal Marijuana Reform

Seven mayors from western states where marijuana has been legalized say it is time for the federal government to catch up with a trend they say will inevitably lead to lawful availability of weed nationwide.

Mayors from seven US cities in states with legal marijuana have formed a coalition to push for federal marijuana policy reform just days after President Trump expressed support for bipartisan congressional legislation to ease the federal ban on pot, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The mayors represent Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., and West Sacramento, Calif. The seven sponsored a resolution approved at the US Conference of Mayors in Boston this week that asked the US government to remove cannabis from a list of illegal drugs, among other things. The federal ban that puts marijuana on the same level as LSD and heroin has created a conflict with states that have legalized pot, creating a two-tiered enforcement system at the state and federal levels.

“As mayors of cities that have successfully implemented and managed this new industry, we have hands-on experience that can help Congress take the right steps to support other local governments as they prepare to enter this new frontier,” said Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock, who led the coalition. “We all face common challenges.” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said marijuana businesses employ thousands of people and generate millions of dollars in Oregon. He predicted that legalization eventually will come to every state. The resolution comes after Mr. Trump said he would “probably” back a bipartisan congressional effort to ease a US ban on the drug that about 30 states have legalized in some form. The bill supported by both parties was introduced June 7 and would dramatically reshape the nation’s legal landscape for pot users and businesses.

from https://thecrimereport.org

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