America’s ‘Shadow’ Vigilantes

What do the Three Strikes law, mandatory-minimums for drug offenders, the Stop Snitching campaign, and private police have in common? According to Paul H. Robinson, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, they are all expressions of a “shadow” vigilantism that has spread in the contemporary U.S.—usually in response to perceived failures in the justice system.

What do the Three Strikes law, mandatory-minimums for drug offenders, the Stop Snitching campaign, and private police have in common? According to Paul H. Robinson, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, they are all expressions of a “shadow” vigilantism that has spread in the contemporary U.S.—usually in response to perceived failures in the justice system.

shadow vigilantesThe forthcoming Shadow Vigilantes: How Distrust in the Justice System Breeds a New Kind of Lawlessness, which Robinson co-authored with his wife Sarah, a former sergeant in the US Army and social worker, explores how the impulse to take the law into their own hands has been a feature of Americans’ behavior since the Revolution.

In a conversation with TCR’s Julia Pagnamenta, Robinson explains why the history of vigilantism is more nuanced than the traditional view which defines vigilantes as groups like the KKK and white supremacists, and why vigilantism will continue to operate when disenfranchised individuals in society feel that the system is ignoring their concerns.

The Crime Report: Your book suggests that acts of vigilantism are very much tied to early American history. Can you explain?

Paul Robinson: Vigilantism certainly has, and for many good reasons, a very bad reputation. People tend to associate it with some horrendous Klu Klux Klan lynching. But of course it’s also true that it has somewhat more admirable roots in other places as well. The original American Revolution was really an act of vigilantism where the colonists thought they were being treated badly. England had not kept its end of the social contract, so they took the law into their own hands in the very dramatic way of declaring independence.

Another example is the story of the gold miners in San Francisco. This was a city overwhelmed by an influx of people either headed towards the gold hills in California or providing services in San Francisco to people headed to the gold hills, and with the swell of population came a government that for the most part was corrupt. The San Francisco vigilance committee formed itself from a large group of citizens who in very public ways went after criminals and held public trials completely independent of the official authorities. When they really did bring order back to the city, and once the government actually matured enough so that it wasn’t just a bunch of corrupt scoundrels, the vigilance committee disbanded itself.

TCR: You also mention a line in the U.S. Constitution that refers to the recourse that the American people can take when the government breaches its promise to protect its citizens. 

Robinson: Given what the creation story was for the United States, it is no surprise to find some language in the Constitution that specifically seems to support and recognize the legitimacy of some forms of vigilantism. This is a larger theme of the book: to say there really is such a thing in some circumstances as moral vigilantism. There are a lot of stories about the gay community in San Francisco being openly beaten where police ignore the anti-gay crimes. The same occurred in the South with the civil rights workers: blacks who were being victimized because of their civil rights leadership.

We have some modern-day stories about women in India who organized a vigilante group acting against men who publicly assaulted and groped women, and the police did little or nothing about it, and quite a few other stories where it’s hard not to read the story, see the extent of the victimization, see the extent of the violation of social contract by inherently indifferent police and authorities, and not be sympathetic to these groups that then openly become vigilantes.

TCR: Although the history of vigilantism in this country is more nuanced than the Klu Klux Klan, the history of white supremacist groups terrorizing and killing African-Americans is very much a part of American history… and one that is still playing out today.

Robinson: Those groups can’t claim to be vigilantes: nobody is victimizing them. Their expression of violence is just a product of their own racial bias. In that sort of situation you might well have some claim to moral vigilantism on part of the black community if the police weren’t taking seriously enough their victimization. Luckily, we are doing a little better than we were back in the Civil Rights era and the South, where a lot of civil rights groups did have to form their own vigilante groups to protect themselves.

The criminal justice system does take seriously that kind of victimization and is making prosecutions and providing protection so that we can avoid the need for black victims to form their own vigilante groups. Obviously, it’s an imperfect process at the moment, but certainly authorities are doing a better now than they did before.

TCR: Victimhood is crucial to understanding vigilantism. How do these two terms interconnect, or rather, how does one affect the other? 

 Robinson: Well certainly the victims themselves can feel the sting and frustration of the failures of justice in ways that other people can’t, and they may have the greatest motivation to become vigilantes. Whether it’s classic vigilantes or shadow vigilantes.

Human beings are built in a way that they care deeply about doing justice and avoiding injustice, and when they see that in the world around them, they are going to want to hold somebody accountable. If the criminal justice system is doing the best it can, they are willing to cut it a break and say, you know, it’s certainly trying. It’s very difficult to accurately reconstruct past events. We can’t expect it to be perfect. But when they see a criminal justice system that seems to be willfully frustrating justice, we know exactly what happened, we have compelling evidence of what happened, and we are still going to let this person walk away with no punishment, although they are clearly a rapist, or a murderer. What does that say?

TCR: Indeed, a theme in the book is the recurring ineffectiveness of government authorities in carrying out justice, especially for African-American communities.

Robinson: Right, that’s a classic invitation to moral vigilantism when it’s clear that the system isn’t going to do anything about it, and in fact is going to be complicit in the victimization itself.

TCR: You open the book with a harrowing example of a domestic abuse case. Maybe the criminal justice system shouldn’t handle cases of domestic abuse?

Robinson: I am not entirely sure I agree with that. To the extent that there are other institutions outside the criminal justice system that can attempt to reduce crime, reduce domestic violence or sexual violence, that’s wonderful, absolutely, let’s do that, but at the end of the day there is a social contract, and the criminal justice system has to step-up and provide that sort of protection. I think domestic violence is an example of how for decades the criminal justice system miserably failed. I mean there are some classic cases. The Torrington Police [in Connecticut] watched a woman [Tracey Thurman] get beat by her husband in front of them and it’s the umpteenth time that he’s done this, and they just stand around and watch.

Well, are we surprised that she, and most of the people she’s talked to, are just horribly offended with the police and the criminal justice system? Are we surprised that they don’t have the slightest confidence in the fairness and justice and effectiveness of that system? Are surprised that they would be happy to distort the system as needed from their point of view if that’s what was necessary to get the system to take this domestic violence more seriously? No, I think that’s human nature. I think that shadow vigilantism is a natural response to any time the criminal justice system systematically, apparently willingly, fails to do justice.

TCR: Right. You provide examples in the book where private citizens did take matters into their own hands and government agencies tacitly condoned their actions. 

Robinson: Yes, I mean the first half of the book is really about this struggle to recognize the legitimacy of vigilantism in these special cases, and at the same time to recognize that it’s very easy for vigilantism to slip past the boundaries of moral justification.

Once you’ve passed that signpost of what’s lawful and what’s criminal, and once you’ve justified moving into doing what’s criminal because you believe that you were morally justified as a vigilante to act or protect yourself, it’s very hard to know exactly where to stop. It’s very easy for a group to say, well, that didn’t work. Let’s do a little more. In fact, one of the chapters in the book is about reactions of communities to apparent police indifference to the increased use of drugs as essentially destroying their community, and some groups will certainly push back when the police don’t respond and seem indifferent to the damage that is being done to the community. They may step a little over the vigilante line by confronting drug dealers or crack houses.

I think one of the larger lessons from that is just to illustrate how easy it is once you’ve crossed that line to justify doing just a little more, and therefore always worrying whether you’ve passed the point about what is morally justifiable.

TCR: Do you see a correlation between this sort of vigilantism, of taking justice in your own hands, and the U.S. relationship with guns?

Paul H. Robinson

Paul H. Robinson

Robinson: I don’t see that connection. There are a lot of groups who have no particular interest in the Second Amendment, but who can say with some legitimate claim that the government has breached its social contract with them, and whether they care about the Second Amendment or not they are put in a difficult, if not impossible situation.

There’s a separate issue in moral vigilantism that is worth mentioning: even if a group is morally justified under their own terms, it’s simply from a larger societal point of view, a bad way to solve the problem of that group that is being victimized.

So, for example, one of the stories in the book is about a neighborhood that has a serious crime problem. They get together and create a neighborhood watch group that is fairly aggressive and they are actually extremely successful at reducing crime in their neighborhood, which you might see as a huge success story. This neighborhood watch group qualifies as vigilantes because they go a little outside the law sometimes, they are stepping in and doing what they think the police should be doing, but when you step back and look at the larger situation what you find is that [while] it’s now a better world for them because their crime rate is down so much, what in fact has happened is a lot of that crime has simply been pushed off into neighboring communities that don’t have as an effective neighborhood watch.

One of the problems of individual group vigilante action is that it’s not done at a larger stage, or national, or even city level, so it has that potential of simply solving the problem for one group at the expense of neighboring groups, and while it’s hard to deny that this is moral vigilante action, from a larger societal point of view it’s not a good solution.

Better that the government do that, extend more resources if need be, undertake the policy that we are better at reducing crime and apply that policy to all communities in the area. So it’s not a matter of just pushing the crime next door, but rather preventing it. That’s just an example of how, even if on its own terms moral vigilantism seems morally justifiable, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for society.

TCR: You write about the 1993 kidnapping and murder of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma, California, Was the response to Klaas’ murder an example of a moral panic, in which a horrifying act became politicized and had devastating repercussions for people who found themselves swept up in this new tough-o- crime initiative? 

Robinson: Let me go back and introduce this notion of the shadow vigilante. The moral vigilantes we’ve been talking about so far are classic vigilantes in the sense that they are themselves going out into the street and using force, and otherwise breaking laws, and sort of substituting for the police. They are doing what they think the police and the criminal justice system should be doing. But in some ways, that takes an unusual individual. Most of us just aren’t programmed to go out and become criminals ourselves.

However, the same frustrations that generate classic vigilantism also generate shadow vigilantism. They don’t go out into the streets, but what they do is less obvious, and in ways that don’t endanger them personally nearly as much. They nonetheless act in a way that undermines the criminal justice process: they try to subvert the process to push it to do what they think it should be doing. They manipulate the criminal justice process, and this I would argue happens a lot because it’s easy for people to do, there is nothing on the line.

Ordinary people have a role in the criminal justice process. Are they going to decide to report a crime that they see? Are they going to help investigators? Are they going to as jurors follow their jury instructions, or are they going to ignore the law and do what they want? Or in a grand jury, are they going to follow their legal instructions?

Or are they going to, for example, support policies like (California’s) Three Strikes law that seem like obvious overreach? A lot of its political support comes from people who are frustrated because they don’t see the current system as effectively dealing with the kind of offenses that now have mandatory minimums, and the kinds of offenders that fall under Three Strikes.

The problem with shadow vigilantes is that they are much more dangerous because they are much more common, and because there is not much you can do about them. And it all happens in the shadows, so you don’t even know it’s going on, and it’s not just ordinary citizens. Shadow vigilantism is something that is inspired by participants in the process as well, whether you are talking about police or prosecutors, or sometimes with the acquiescence of judges.

TCR: How does law enforcement contribute to shadow vigilantism? What are the implications on the criminal justice system as a whole?

Robinson: To give an example, police “testilying” is a phrase invented by New York police officers, invented because they wanted to distinguish regular lying under oath, which they considered entirely inappropriate, to lying with regard to, for example, what they considered the technicalities of the very obscure search and seizure rules.

This is just an example of a shadow vigilante who is frustrated by the systems, sort of an intentional failure of justice. This is how they respond. It’s not going out into the streets, and getting in fights, rather it is manipulating and distorting the system so that system will be more likely to impose the deserved justice that they think should be imposed.

TCR: Search and seizure rules are a point of contention between crime control and civil liberties advocates. What is your perpective?

Robinson: I would say, first, you can’t have a civilized, liberal democracy without having some form of Fourth Amendment that limits police intrusion in our personal lives. I mean that’s absolutely essential, and you need a way to enforce those rights. You can’t just have the Fourth Amendment on the books and then do nothing about it, so police are sort of free to intrude wherever they want, and though it’s a violation of the rules of the books, they can get away with it because there is no enforcement. There has to be some kind of enforcement mechanism. However, when we adopt the exclusionary rule as our enforcement mechanism [this] is a rule that on its face is designed to frustrate justice.

At the very least I would say this: every time we adopt a rule that we know is going to frustrate punishing people to the extent that they deserve it, no more, no less, every time we adopt a just as frustrating rule, we ought to understand that there is a hidden cost. That every time we do that the moral credibility of the system is undermined and people are going to be less likely to defer to it, to give it some kind of moral authority. Every time we approve these frustrating doctrines we are much more likely to inspire shadow vigilantes to feel morally justified in distorting the law to their own purposes.

I think it’s no coincidence that the Three Strikes doctrine, these mandatory minimums, are a problem that we currently have after a decade or more of the system’s reputation for letting people off on technicalities or tolerating really inconsistent sentencing where if you get the right judge you can walk away without no punishment at all. Once the system’s credibility for giving just punishment is undermined, well surprise, surprise, we know have these distortions in the other direction.

Part of the problem with shadow vigilantism is that it promotes a really damaging response. Once you have a system where everybody knows that there is this police “testilying,” everybody knows there are these mandatory sentences, and that these Three Strikes mechanisms are generating sentences that are well beyond what the community thinks is really just, once you have that kind of distorted system, are you surprised that there is then a backlash?

TCR: The Stop Snitching campaign arose from a mistrust of the police in some communities. Is that another example of the backlash you describe?

Robinson: The Stop Snitching campaign is a tragic development, because, of course, all it’s going to do is to reduce the effectiveness of crime control and make things worse, and increase victimization. It’s outrageous how the black victimization rates are dramatically higher. That’s a walking tragedy, but you can understand where Stop Snitching came from. You have a system that has a built-in police “testilying,” plus exaggerated punishment routinely under Three Strikes and mandatory minimums. Are we surprised then that there are some neighborhoods where the system is the enemy? No. The distortions that shadow vigilantism creates inspire its own backlash through Stop Snitching, and a lot of other ways that people think that they then have a reason to undermine the system further and it’s a downward spiral.

TCR: There is a lot of emphasis in the book on the failures of the criminal justice system being tied to offenders not receiving just punishment for crimes they committed, but the opposite argument can be made, that the U.S. criminal justice systems is one of the most punitive in the world. Can this in itself not be considered a failure of justice?

Robinson: Frankly, yes, I think that’s right. (Our system) tends to have exaggerated punishment at the high end, but in part I think that is a product of this shadow vigilantism distortion process that I talk about in the book. Having all those exaggerated penalties is a product in part of the frustration of the system not imposing punishment that was deserved. You know, we could have skipped that whole couple of decades where individual judges were free to just let murderers walk; well we could have saved ourselves a lot of the headaches that we have know with these crazy mandatory minimums.

TCR: What decades are you referring to?

Paul H. Robinson: Well, this is back in the 60s and 70s, before the advent of sentencing guidelines, there was an enormous amount of judicial discretion allowed. We thought it was quite justified. The problem of course was that a lot judges were quite idiosyncratic in both directions unfortunately, but the fact is that when ordinary people see that kind of disparity in sentencing, [they] are offended on both ends, and not just offended when somebody gets a lot more punishment than they deserve, they are also offended by people getting a lot less punishment than they deserve, and they are likely to react to what they see as the dysfunction in the process. One of the ways to react to people getting a lot less punishment than they deserve is to put in a set of mandatory minimums, which I think is tragic.

TCR: Do you think that the recourse to privatizing sectors of the criminal justice system leads to increased vigilantism? 

Robinson: There are many more private police than public police. We really have privatized policing in many areas. Certainly the motivation for hiring private police is that you don’t trust the public police, but there are unfortunate consequences that come from that, and one of the unfortunate consequences, of course, is that you can get effective policing only if you can financially afford it. If you can live in one of those communities that can afford private policing, well great, if you don’t, well then you’re screwed.

This is in part what contributes to the dramatic over-victimization of black communities. Most black neighborhoods are dependent on public policing. In a perfect world, we would have a public police department that was effective enough; in a criminal justice system with policing rules and exclusionary rules that cared enough about justice so that public police could be effective enough that everybody would find the services they offer to be acceptable. We’d have no further need for private policing and everybody was assured of that same minimum level of protection.

Julia Pagnamenta is a news intern with TCR. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Can a Jury Alone Decide Guilt?

Prosecutors have too often left it up to juries to sift through evidence of cases against individuals whom they decided were guilty of their crimes without a thorough investigation, says Brooklyn (NY) DA Eric Gonzalez. He adds his office is making sure that never happens again.

Is it easier to take a second look at suspect convictions when crime rates have declined, and the public is no longer clamoring for tough-on-crime strategies from their prosecutors and police?

Brooklyn (NY) District Attorney Eric Gonzalez argues that prosecutors in fact should beware of the opposite problem: when crime rates accelerate, critical evidence that might exonerate a defendant can be sidestepped by DAs who are too eager to satisfy the public’s demand for quick convictions.

Eric Gonzalez

Brooklyn (NY) District Attorney Eric Gonzalez

In a conversation with The Crime Report’s Victoria Mckenzie during last week’s John Jay/Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, Gonzalez conceded that prosecutors too often left it to jurors to decide on their own how to judge the credibility of both witnesses and evidence without pursuing thorough investigations.

The Crime Report: Since your Conviction Review Unit is handling cases that are decades old, are you able to see whether the decline of jury trials have had an effect on wrongful convictions either way?

Eric Gonzalez: Most of the cases that we’ve overturned have been jury trial cases. We have overturned a plea in one case, where a person was facing deportation, and we found…fabrication. But most of the cases have been jury trials. I’m going to say, and this is controversial in a way, but what I found is— especially in the 1980s and 1990s, when the homicide rate in Brooklyn (left) over 800 people killed, that the volume of cases weren’t very well investigated.

And often if there was probable cause, a lot of these cases would be put before juries with the kind of concept of “let the jury decide.” Make out a legally sufficient prosecution, but let the jury decide.

I think that today we look at these cases a little bit more critically. We don’t abdicate our responsibilities as prosecutors to make sure we have a certain moral certainty of the defendant’s guilt before giving it to the juror to say “you decide.”

That is something I am very critical of, and in some of these cases I think prosecutors could have stopped the prosecution of the case saying they had credibility questions about the witnesses. In the past maybe we allowed jurors to decide credibility, and sort of stepped back from making sure that we believed in their guilt.

TCR: So your review unit is not handling cases where the defendant pled out even if he/she may have been innocent, just to get out of jail etc.

EG: What we’re focusing in on right now are currently cases where the person is still incarcerated. And a lot of these plea cases, especially with low level crime, the person is pleading in order to get out of prison, and they’re moving on with their lives and they don’t have the resources or the organizations like the Innocence Project going back and bringing these petitions.

We have looked at pleas, we do look at pleas, but we’re really focusing our resources on the people currently incarcerated. So I think in a lot of plea cases you don’t have people still in jail.

Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Rape and the Justice System: When Police Fail to Listen

Two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters uncovered the trail of a serial rapist and two very different police investigations. TCR talks with one of the journalists who followed the story.

rape in americaIn 2008, 18-year-old “Marie” was raped in her apartment near Seattle, Washington. But within a few days of reporting the assault to police, Marie, whose full name remains unidentified, became the subject of the police investigation.

As Pulitzer Prize winning reporters T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong recount in in their book A False Report: A True Story of Rape, she didn’t act according to police preconceptions of how rape victims should behave. And when they received a phone call casting even more doubts, they dropped the investigation.

Then Marie’s attacker went on to rape several more women in Colorado.

Armstrong and Miller argue the story is an example of how preconceived notions influence police investigations and raise questions about the fairness of the justice system. In a conversation with TCR staff writer Megan Hadley, Ken Armstrong explains how reporters working in two different cities came together on the investigation, what it taught them about the media’s influence on sexual assault cases, and whether the gender of  investigating officers makes a difference in such cases.

The Crime Report: How did you first become interested in the case of a possible serial rapist out in Colorado?

Ken Armstrong: I lived in Seattle, so I had seen coverage in the Seattle Times of the rapists’ arrest and it turned out he had also raped a woman in Washington [named Marie], who had reported the crime and not been believed. What was missing from the coverage was Marie’s personal account. She had not spoken to the media about what she had gone through. What I was hoping to get were details on how the police investigation in Washington went off the rails. I was hoping to be able to reconstruct how the investigators first began to doubt the woman’s account, and how those doubts spread.

TCR: Where did you and your co-author, T. Christian Miller, find each other in the story?

ken armstrong

Ken Armstrong

Armstrong: It was a really unusual set of circumstances. I was working for The Marshall Project when I began working on the story in 2015, and T was working for ProPublica. He was interested in reporting on the investigation in Colorado because he heard about the outstanding work that the detectives there had done. So he wanted to profile an investigation done well–done spectacularly well. I was looking at the other half of this story, in Washington, in terms of what went wrong. Both of us intended to fill out our reporting by figuring out what was happening in the other state.

T crossed state lines first. He placed a call to Marie’s attorney in Washington and found out there was another reporter working on the same story. So he told his editor, and they decided, instead of rushing the story into print in order to beat us, they would reach out and see if we wanted to work on it together. So that’s what we did. It was pretty serendipitous. I had half the story based on what happened in Washington and he had the other half based on what happened in Colorado, so we were able to walk those two paths together.

TCR: Early in the book, you mention that cops take different approaches to investigating a rape because there is no universal consensus for the best way to solve it. Should there be necessary steps that police officers must take when investigating rape claims?

Armstrong: I do think there can be best practices. There needs to be a consensus that the most important aspect of any investigation is the evidence. Evidence trumps assumptions. You can’t be swayed by pre-conceptions or assumptions about what someone should act like when they get hurt. That’s what happened here. A lot of people around Marie had pre-conceptions about how she should act because she had been raped. And when she didn’t meet those expectations, they began doubting her. And one of the people who doubted her called the police, and then the police began doubting her.

That didn’t happen in Colorado. Detectives (there) investigated each of the reports thoroughly and they let evidence guide them towards what was the proper conclusion. So to me, it’s the idea that you have to investigate thoroughly and completely, and you can’t be blinded by your assumptions about what every victim should be doing.

TCR: You note that most of the police force is male-dominated, with a macho, hierarchical and militaristic mindset. Is that why so many rape cases go unsolved?

Armstrong: I don’t know if you can attribute it to gender- it did happen to be the case here though. The cases that were solved in Colorado, two of the lead detectives there were women. And the case that was so mishandled in Washington, the lead detective was a man. But I think what is most important is competence, compassion, patience and understanding and those qualities are not limited to either gender.

There have been studies showing that female police officers can be more patient and understanding, particularly in the case of domestic violence, and it’s possible that you might see a carry-over to rape cases. But I think that it’s the qualities I just described rather than the gender of the detective or the officer.

TCR: You also mention the public’s influence on police investigations, quoting a retired police sergeant, who said “people outside of law enforcement didn’t want to talk about sexual assault.”  Is that changing, in light of  the recent cases involving Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein and others?

Armstrong: That is changing. We’re seeing that with the #MeToo movement.  There is a real realization about how prevalent this problem is and how it needs to be dealt with directly and in a public fashion.  The examples you just mentioned with Weinstein and all kinds of cases that have been written about in the past year.

TCR: In the book, you include multiple chapters from the perspective of the rapist, detailing the “monster within” that he struggled with for many years. Did you want readers to sympathize with the serial rapist?

Armstrong: No we did not want readers to sympathize with him. We wanted to interview him for the same reason the FBI wanted to interview him after he was caught, to gain a better understanding of what drove him and to get a better understanding of how he avoided being caught for so long. The FBI agent spent four hours with him afterwards, trying to gain an understanding of what steps he had taken to avoid being caught, so that the police could benefit from that knowledge, and hopefully incorporate some of that knowledge towards how to investigate cases going forward.

TCR: Do you think, generally, someone convicted of a crime can go back and help police catch other perpetrators?

Armstrong: They can. This is why you often see police officers wanting to go and interview people after they have been caught. The more you understand about a criminal, the better your chances of catching other people going forward.

 TCR: You also include chapters from the perspective of Marie, the rape victim who police officers refused to believe. What are some of the issues that stem from pre-conceived notions about how a rape victim should act?

Armstrong: I think some people have an expectation that a rape victim would be crying, would be hysterical, and some are. But some aren’t. Some have almost no affect, their voice is flat, their appearance is flat. When you look at what happened with Marie, the people around her expected her to be hysterical and crying and they were taken back when she spoke with so little emotion. When she didn’t make eye contact, some people found that to be unusual. When she didn’t hug someone she would usually hug, people found that to be unusual. At one point she was giggling and people thought that was unusual.

People were constantly looking for behavior from her to align with what they expected, and when they didn’t see it they became suspicious, and that extended to both the people who were friends and family, and to police officers investigating the case.

TCR: What can police departments do to ensure that survivors are not re-victimized by the very institutions that are sworn to protect them?

Armstrong: One big element is to listen. Also, how you speak to someone who has been hurt and how you question them is important. The big problem in a number of cases we looked at is the police officers didn’t interview people as victims. Instead they interrogated them as suspects and treated them as though they were someone who committed a robbery. They used interrogation techniques that are grossly inappropriate in a setting like this.

Those interrogation techniques put an extraordinary amount of pressure on people, and when you see rape victims who were raped recant their story, you have to understand the interrogation techniques and how powerful they are.

TCR: You also note the layers of doubt that afflict every stage of a rape prosecution including the victim doubting themselves, police doubting, prosecutors and juries doubting. So, what needs to change in order for victims who are telling the truth to receive justice for the crimes committed against them?

Armstrong: I think it’s important to not start by doubting. When someone reports being raped, listen and investigate and let the evidence take you to the right conclusion.

Megan Hadley is a staff writer for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.


‘Invisible No More:’ The Other Women #MeToo Should Defend

Minority victims of sexual assault by law enforcement have often been ignored by reformers seeking to improve police-community relations, says attorney Andrea Ritchie. In a conversation with TCR, Ritchie, who assembled a database of 300 such cases, including transgendered, lesbian and gay victims, argues the issue should also be part of the nationwide focus on combating  sexual harassment.

Calls for reforms aimed at improving relations between police and the communities where they work have tended to leave out an important constituency: minority women, including those who are transgendered or gay.

That’s the message Andrea J. Ritchie, an author, attorney, activist and scholar, repeats at each stop of a current tour promoting her book “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color,” published last year.

The proof, she says, is reflected in ongoing headlines about #MeToo—a movement mainly of white women alleging sexual harassment and assault by powerful men—and the comparative lack of attention to #SayHerName, a hashtag emerging from a report by Ritchie and Professor Kimberlè Williams Crenshaw of the University of California at Los Angeles and Columbia University School of Law. The African American Policy Forum published that report, entitled “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” in 2015.

Invisible No MoreRitchie, a Barnard College researcher-in-residence and former Soros Foundation Social Justice Fellow, speaks from personal experience. She says that being a black lesbian who was once sexually assaulted by a police officer factors into her research and advocacy. She told Katti Gray, The Crime Report contributing editor, that her current efforts include trying to persuade the New York Police Department to ban its practice—a common one, nationwide—of having police investigate allegations of sexual assault and harassment by police. She’s well aware, she adds, that Chicago Police Department union leaders blocked a similar attempt at establishing civilian review of alleged police rape last year. Here’s an abridged version of Ritchie’s conversation with Gray.

 The Crime Report: In her foreword to “Invisible No More,” scholar and former Black Panther Party activist Angela Davis called it a very difficult book to read. Was it hard for you to write?

 Andrea J. Ritchie: I was sifting through reports, watching videos, looking at photographs and speaking directly to some of these sexually assaulted women and girls, and their families, and the relatives of women killed by police. I was witnessing people’s pain and vulnerability and their sense of betrayal by a society that largely ignores these crimes.

There were so many stories that I worried about which to cut from the manuscript. If I cut them, the public would never know what happened. So I also created a database of these cases on the book’s website. It contains 300 cases right now; we’re about to update that to add about 100 more. And these are not all the stories that are out there. If a person had filed a lawsuit against police, that case was already being told publicly. There are cases I came across where I felt we had to protect someone’s identity, fearing they would face retaliation for speaking up. Sometimes, the assaulted women are necessarily kept anonymous.

Yes, writing this book was hard. At the same time, it was healing. Bringing these issues to light, hopefully, will lead to action that makes these things not happen again.

TCR: How far back in history are these cases you write about?

 Ritchie: Back to the1950s, when the Civil Rights Congress, through its We Charge Genocide report, chronicled a number of cases of police violence against black women and girls.

But, in actual reality, these crimes started in 1492 when Christopher Columbus landed on these shores and began committing violence against indigenous people and indigenous women … and in [the 1500s] when blacks were first brought here as slaves.

TCR: Of all the stories of police violence against women in “Invisible No More,” which did you find the most searing?

 Ritchie: The ones that strike me make it so clear that these controlling, mythical narratives about black women and indigenous women, which are rooted in slavery, still operate in policing today.

In one case, a 12-year-old black girl had stepped outside to flip a circuit breaker back on while her mom was cooking in the kitchen. The police—who’d been called to pick up three white girls for prostitution—decided to arrest that 12-year-old black girl for prostitution instead. When they went after her, she started screaming for her mom … Eventually, the police officers showed up at her school to charge her with resisting arrest. You do not see this child as a child? You see her through nothing except the lies told over and over again about black women being promiscuous, involved in the sex trade, inherently criminal.

Another that sticks in my heart is of a Native American trans woman I met in Los Angeles more than 10 years ago … Police detained her, assaulted her, then threw her out of the car afterward and said “Yes, you are Native … We can do anything to you that we want.”

Another story: When a black woman on her stoop in Chicago laughed because a police officer couldn’t catch someone he was chasing, he punched her in the stomach and said, “You, black bitch.” He deliberately assaulted her as a mother and assaulted her child … He sent her into premature (delivery) later.

I could tell you story after story that enraged me. I cannot think of just one that makes me cry or keeps me up at night. They all do.

 TCR: What do the data suggest about women who are assaulted by police?

 Ritchie: The data are limited. When these crimes are counted, it’s when people report them to the media or file civil complaints. In that way, it’s clear that those who are sexually assaulted, predominantly, are black and other women of color. And police deliberately target women least likely to report.

Of the available data, one national study, conducted by a former police officer [Bowling Green State University Professor Phil Stinson] of [548] officers arrested for misconduct showed that 73 percent of sexual assault victims whose age was known were less than 18 years old. [After that 2014 study, the U.S. Justice Department funded Stinson’s study, released in 2016, of more than 6,700 police arrested nationwide. It chronicled 1,475 arrests of 1,070 sworn officers on charges of sexual misconduct.]

Many of these victimized women are in the drug trade, sex trade, or are women who are homeless, transgender, domestic violence survivors, sexual assault survivors. Police have deliberately targeted lesbian, and sometimes say they are—by sexually assaulting them—trying to show lesbians another path.

 TCR: You suggest that even among black social and political activists there is too little focus on crimes against black women. What do you mean?

 Ritchie: I’d reframe the question a bit. Black women, among ourselves, do organize around and tell the stories of violence against black women. I do agree, though, that, in the mainstream narrative, in the media, those black women’s stories are not placed in the foreground.

Also, black women often will speak at a rally about violence against their child or their husband but not against black women. We’ve internalized this notion that state violence happens to black and brown men, and private violence happens to white women.

TCR: Black women see speaking up as problematic?

Ritchie: Yes. But telling our stories does not take away from the experiences of black and brown men … I believe more women would come forward if they thought there would be protests on their behalf and the same kind of outrage that’s expressed when a black or brown man is shot down by police.

Often, the condemning comments on articles I’ve written are from black men, saying “Here come black women, gay ones, trying to take the spotlight away from us and our oppression.” That hurts. I’ve been on the street protesting the killing of every single black man that I could. I have fought for policies that protect all of us. There is so much opportunity for solidarity. [Georgetown Law Professor and former federal prosecutor] Paul Butler’s book, “Chokehold: Policing Black Men” talks about how men also are sexually assaulted by police. This work isn’t about dividing, it’s about fighting for change together…

It’s about leaving no one behind and looking at all of our experiences to understand the extent of the problem and come up with a full solution, instead of half a solution.

 TCR: In your years of litigating, researching, writing, and protesting on this front, what has changed, and what hasn’t?

 Ritchie: Particularly in the last three or four years, the level of awareness has risen significantly. That’s because of the work of the Black Youth Project, the African American Policy Forum, the Ferguson uprising and others. The Sandra Bland case helped catapult this to the forefront.

 What hasn’t changed is how much those experiences still do not inform our analysis of the issues and the strategies we use to resist bad policing and advance police reform.

What I’m looking at now is the question of how women’s experiences change the conversation. How do you hold police accountable for assaulting women of color in the same way that you hold them accountable for use of excessive force? How does excessive force affect women differently? Most departments have no policy about limitations of force against pregnant women. It’s not about just saying another name at a rally. But it’s about shifting the focus and the demands we make, and the reforms we pursue, and really rethinking approaches to all of this.

TCR: What are some examples of the changes you espouse?

 Ritchie: It can range from very specific things like rethinking mandatory arrest policies, which grows out of concern that domestic violence isn’t taken seriously enough. Police don’t really change how they behave when they respond to calls for help. Black women often are treated as perpetrators rather than survivors of violence. Eliminate that mandatory arrest policy. That would involve a more holistic, community-based approach. It involves the community asking, “What is contributing to this violence? What makes it seem OK to abuse someone in a private relationship? How can we take responsibility for that, instead of calling the police? How can people in the community rally to stop that?”

There are examples of communities that have domestic violence response teams. If you speak to elders in some communities, you’ll hear them say there was a time when the family sat down and said, “This will not happen again” to the perpetrator.

 TCR: Where are there active examples of that?

 Ritchie: I don’t necessarily want to point these out as models, per se, but Spirit House in Durham, N.C. does just what I was talking about. Creative Interventions has a handbook about how to respond to domestic and other violence in your community. The Audre Lorde Project in Brooklyn has created a program for LGBT people around police violence and community crimes. Those are just a few examples.

TCR:  You’ve pointed out some differences in the #MeToo and #SayHername movements.

 Ritchie: My recent op-ed for The Washington Post highlighted the reality that this heightened national conversation on sexual violence needs to shine the spotlight on sexual violence by police officers. To the extent that we are raising our hands and saying “me, too” we need to have a response regarding women of color who are assaulted by the very people we’re supposed to turn to protect us, but who are getting away with these crimes.

The Crime Report contributing editor Katti Gray covers criminal justice and health, mainly, for a variety of publications. She welcomes your comments.


Will Keeping Mass Killers Out of the Media Spotlight Save Lives?

How much do we really need to know about rampage killers? As little as possible, say Tom and Caren Teves, whose son Alex was murdered in the 2012 Aurora, Co. theater massacre. In a conversation with TCR, they report on the status of their “No Notoriety” campaign, which asks the media to focus on victims instead of perpetrators .

When authorities in Texas made a point of not mentioning the name of a man who killed 26 people during Sunday church services in November, saying they did not want to glorify him, their gesture was only the most recent expression of a sentiment that has found growing support in law enforcement and journalism.

The notion that rampage killers act, in part, out of a craving for attention—the so-called “contagion effect”—has long found support in psychiatric and scholarly thought. But the popular urge to curb the problem by changing how journalists cover mass shootings can trace its roots to a moment on CNN in 2012, three days after the Aurora, Colorado, theater massacre, when Tom Teves, an anguished father of one of the shooting victims, lashed out at news-coverage priorities.

“Why are we talking about that person?” Teves asked after the shooter’s first court appearance ended up plastering the airwaves and social media with his bug-eyed, orange-haired visage. Why not ignore him, Teves challenged—and focus instead on victims like Teves’ son Alex, 24, who was killed after heroically jumping into the line of fire to shield his girlfriend?

Alex Teves

Alex Teves. Photo courtesy Caren and Tom Teves

In the more than five years since, Teves’ first reaction grew into the No Notoriety campaign that Teves and his wife Caren run from their home in Phoenix. It has been endorsed by major law enforcement groups and a number of media figures, including Teves’ original CNN interviewer, Anderson Cooper.

Others have mounted like-minded efforts, among them the FBI-endorsed Don’t Name Them campaign developed by the ALERRT Center at Texas State University; and guidelines crafted by Columbia Journalism Review, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and Mother Jones magazine. But, thanks to the Teves’ flair for branding, and their stature as a murder victim’s survivors, theirs has gotten much of the attention.

Aurora victims

Photo courtesy No Notoriety

While No Notoriety’s approach is simple—urging journalists to curtail “gratuitous” uses of shooters’ names and likenesses—applying its standards has been anything but.

TCR contributor Mark Obbie spoke to Tom and Caren Teves recently about why they do this work, the evolution of their idea, and their frustration with a news industry that they see as obsessed with profit over all else. The conversation transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.

The Crime Report: Your interview with Anderson Cooper, the very first appearance you made about this, gave me the impression that this idea came to you fairly spontaneously. Is that right?

Tom Teves: Yes and no. It’s something that I’ve thought of in the back of my mind, that glorifying killers was wrong. But, honestly, I didn’t even think to do it until I watched the lead-up to us being on camera, and it was still all about the killer. And I was like, “Anderson, can you go 12 seconds without talking about him, without saying his name?” In the days before that, the only information that we could get from the news media was about the killer.

Caren Teves: This was at the time when we had no idea what had happened to Alex. We were on vacation in Hawaii. We just got a phone call from his girlfriend saying that there was a shooting.

TT: So then we went on the news and went online and tried to find out what’s going on. We were using everything. We were calling and calling and calling. But there was no information.

CT: All we kept seeing was information focused on the shooter, nothing about the victims, nothing about where people can call if they had missing loved ones, or where to convene in Denver, or what phone numbers to call. Nothing. It was just all about this evil thing, what he did, his background, his parents, where he lived, what he looked like, his Facebook page, you know, where he went to school — everything surrounding this individual, and meanwhile we’re trying to find out if our son is still alive.

TT: Here’s somebody who snuck up behind a whole bunch of people with an automatic weapon where they were powerless, actually planned it out so they’d be as powerless as possible, and mowed them down with armor-piercing bullets. And we’re making this thing into a hero? It should be the scourge of our society.

CT: So fast-forward from Hawaii to us landing in Denver. We were just too distraught to speak to anyone. We had to hide in our hotel. But the media started trying to learn more about the victims, finally. And they were getting Alex’s picture wrong, and they couldn’t pronounce his name. So we said we have to come out of hiding to be able to get the correct information out there. That’s when Tom went and spoke to Anderson (Cooper). Unfortunately our son was killed and that gave us a national voice at that point. So Tom decided to use it. And that’s pretty much how it got started.

TCR: At the beginning, your idea sounded pretty absolute: Ignore the shooters entirely, not just who they are but why they acted. When I read your recommendations now, they sound more nuanced. How did your thinking change?

CT: We’re trying to be realistic.

TT: It was a spontaneous moment a day or two after my firstborn son was murdered. I wasn’t completely in my rational mind.

TCR: Understandably.

TT:I’m a businessman. I understand how business works. And I know you guys are all in business to make money. Nobody goes into business not to make money, including the non-profits. We have to set it up so that you can do your job. I think we’ve made a lot of progress, not with the sensationalist reporters who, you know, basically have no soul, but with people who want to actually run their craft and do a good job and really care about their place in society and how important journalism is to our republic. We wanted to set that up so that it could work.

We know you have to identify the person. What we’re saying is, if you have to say it, say the name once. We found articles that in six paragraphs—and this is true—the name was said 41 times. What we wanted to do was just get people to act responsibly. Don’t turn them into antiheroes. Certainly limit the use of their pictures. If you’re gonna show a picture, show ’em in shackles. Or better yet show ’em dead, ’cause that’s what these people are: 95 percent of them are suicidal people who want to go out in a blaze of glory. And you guys provide the glory. And that’s scary, because you can stop it.

CT: There was a lot more pushback in the beginning. But as we move forward and this is being more recognized, the pushback is not as much because the killers themselves are proving our point and the researchers’ point. They’re telling us themselves, through their manifestos and whatever they leave behind, “We are looking for this glory.” And they’re getting it. So they keep using it.

TCR: What about the argument by journalists that writing about the shooters helps prevent shootings because it makes everyone more aware of the warning signs?

TT: We never said, “Don’t say that.” We never said, “Don’t write every detail about them.” (Instead) we’ve said, “Do all the research that you want. But understand, as you’re doing the research, one of the material causes of the shootings is the (killers) want to be famous. Go and find out where (they) went to school, what happened with (their) mother, all the other stuff.” But you’re also going to find that almost every one of them, and every (mass shooter) in recent times, tracks back to other killers.

CT: In the Sandy Hook (school massacre), the killer had a chart. So, whenever we see “the worst mass shooting,” we cringe because that’s a benchmark. He had (a spreadsheet) of all previous mass shootings, how many people died. So they research other killers. And the research is readily available for that.

TT: The benchmark right now is like 60 and 500—60 people dead, 500 people shot. So the next person’s gonna have to do worse. Think about it.

Editor’s Note: In the Oct. 1 shootings in Las Vegas, 58 died, with 546 others injured; many but not all from gunshots.

CT: Yeah, it’s a terrifying thought.

TCR: Do you think your efforts have made this a topic of conversation during the coverage of recent mass shootings?

CT: This is not a new concept. This theory and this proven effect has been around forever. But unfortunately we were given a voice. Alex was horribly, brutally murdered by someone who just wanted to make a name for himself. At that point, that’s when people are knocking on your doors. So I think we did bring it to a topic of conversation. And if that moved the needle, then it moved the needle.

Tom and Caren Teves

TT: Believe me, I’d rather not have the collateral we have to get you to listen to us. I’d rather have my son back. But the reason Anderson Cooper listened to me is because my son was murdered. Now I said something that resonated. (Forensic psychiatrist) Park Dietz has been studying this. Nobody’s listening to him because, fortunately for him, he doesn’t have to live with what we have to live with, right?

CT: Where we’ve come the farthest with No Notoriety is to elevate the victims and the heroes. More media now show the names of the fallen and the heroes and they tell more of those stories.

TT: USA Today is one of the worst. They had a story about remembering the mass shooting victims of 2017. And it was a fairly long, well-written story. And I want to say in the front of my brain, thanks for starting to look at the victims. But the back of my brain says are you doing this just to give yourself some cover so the next time this happens you can sell a whole bunch of newspapers with the next jerk’s picture and splash them all over the place so that you have some cover, so you have some moral sort of high ground? You could make the argument that what the media wants is more victims so that you can continue to have compelling reasons to click, to tune in, to buy your newspapers.

TCR: Do you really think anybody thinks that way?

TT: You know, I don’t. But when I see really intelligent people whose job it is to look at facts and report facts and make decisions on facts completely ignore the magnitude of data and evidence that says this is causing this, this is a material reason they do it, the cynic in me says, “You’re just trying to make money.”

CT: The fact that it’s continuing speaks very loud. But what we found is the journalists that we speak to, they’re on board, I’d say 90 percent of them at this point. It’s farther up in the chain where it starts to deteriorate.

TCR: You mean management?

CT: Yes.

TT: Your publishers, your editors, the people who are responsible for the dollars and cents. It will change. And the reason I know it will change is when we go to the SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists), and we usually have a panel at the SPJ, attendance at that panel gets larger and larger. It takes an hour at this point for me to leave that panel for all the young people coming up to me saying “You are so right. We couldn’t agree with you more. We want to change the industry.” So it’s gonna change.

CT: It will. I believe it.

TT: I think the other way to change it, if the media doesn’t do it on their own, is that we will have to figure out a way to pressure the advertisers to force the media to do it.

TCR: What about your well- being? The best way to promote your campaign is to monitor mass shootings closely and talk about your experience over and over. Aren’t you just keeping your own pain fresh?

CT: Yes. It’s like Groundhog Day. But it’s not about us. We’re trying to spare other people this pain. There are multiple ways to reduce this greatly, this being only just one of them. And when it keeps happening and happening and happening, every time it happens again I know what lies ahead for the survivors. I think to myself, “Wasn’t Alex enough? Wasn’t he just enough?” And it’s heartbreaking. And you know those 20 (Sandy Hook) parents, those 20 first-graders, they’re thinking “Wasn’t my kid enough to make change?” If the media had changed immediately following Columbine, I do believe my son would still be alive. I truly do.


TT: The sad thing about this is, if you do the right thing, it’s heroic in the truest sense, because no one will ever know whose life you saved. Because that kid won’t come out of the cellar with his AR-15 and shoot up a supermarket or a church because there will be no call to action. You won’t even know you saved somebody’s life. And you know something? To me, that’s the true hero. It’s the person who does the right thing for no reason other than it’s the right thing.

Mark Obbie, a former executive editor of The American Lawyer, writes on criminal justice issues for a variety of online and print publications, including The New York Times, The Trace, and TakePart. He can also be reached through his Twitter account. He welcomes readers’ comments.


Did ‘Repressed Memory’ Falsely Convict Jerry Sandusky?

Author Mark Pendergrast claims the former Penn State defensive football coach was a victim of “media frenzy” and a distorted use of repressed memory which led to his conviction for child sex abuse. In a conversation with TCR about his new book, he explains why he believes Sandusky should get a new trial.

In 2012, former Penn State defensive football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009. He is now serving a 30-60 year sentence in Pennsylvania’s SCI Greenesupermax” prison.

But in a recent book, journalist Mark Pendergrast claims that a closer look at the evidence presented at trial shows Sandusky is likely innocent.

sanduskyPendergrast argues, in The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment, that the charges were largely the result of efforts by aggressive police investigators and recovered memory therapists who encouraged boys to “remember” molestations that may not have occurred. Pendergrast published his original arguments in The Crime Report in 2016.

In a conversation with TCR writer Megan Hadley, he discusses how his earlier work on the “repressed memory” phenomenon led him to investigate the Sandusky case, why he believes “greed” and media frenzy helped to distort the facts, and how the “rush to judgment” may similarly have ensnared others who have been wrongly accused of campus sex abuse.

The Crime Report: Where did your interest in the Jerry Sandusky scandal begin?

Mark Pendergrast: In 2013, I got an email from a woman who read my book about repressed memories, and she wanted to know if I paid any attention to the Jerry Sandusky case. She said that it involved repressed memory therapy. At the time I didn’t know anything about it. I assumed Sandusky was guilty, particularly because of Mike McQueary, a graduate student at Penn State who had seen him abusing a child in the shower. But when I looked into it, I found McQueary didn’t actually see anything; he only heard sounds. Then I got the trial transcripts and really dug into the case. Frankly, I became obsessed with it. I believe it is very likely Sandusky is innocent.

 TCR: In your book you explain how a media frenzy can cause the public to panic. Is that what happened in this case?

Pendergrast: There have been several moral panics throughout history where everyone assumes someone’s guilt and it becomes a mass rush to take action. That clearly did happen in the Sandusky case. The media jumped on the grand jury presentation, and it became a feeding frenzy. Within a week Joe Paterno, the longtime coach, had been fired, the president of the college was fired, two other administrators were accused of hiding the abuse, and basically Penn State became the epicenter of a media feeding frenzy.

 TCR: In your book, you cite repressed memory therapists, police officers, and alleged victims as reasons why Jerry Sandusky was falsely accused. So who is to blame?

Pendergrast: They are all to blame. It started with a 15-year-old, Aaron Fisher, who didn’t want to spend so much time with Sandusky anymore. The pattern that I basically uncovered was that Jerry Sandusky would try to be a mentor to troubled young men who were in the Second Mile program and many of them at 14 or 15 started to pull away from him. He was concerned they would get into drugs and bad habits, and from the young men’s point of view, it was like rebelling against a parent. Aaron told his mother one weekend that Sandusky made him feel weird and he asked his mother about websites for sex offenders. His mother then decided this would be a meal ticket, according to the neighbor who lived next door to them in a public housing project.

So Fisher was sent to (Clinton County psychiatrist Dr.) Mike Gillum, who was absolutely sure from the beginning that Sandusky was an evil molester. Although Gillum denies he practiced repressed memory therapy, that is clearly what he did. He believed that Aaron was too scared or didn’t remember the abuse, and he needed to be educated about how the brain works. Gillum was sure Sandusky fit the profile of a terrible pedophile. It seems fairly clear that without Mike Gillum going after Fischer, none of these abuse allegations would have happened. I blame Mike Gillum. But I also blame greed. I think from the very beginning Fisher and his mother thought there might be a lot of money in this.

 TCR: What are your opinions about the Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood sex abuse scandal? Do you believe Weinstein’s victims are lying and seeking attention/ money as you claim Sandusky’s victims were?

Pendergrast: I don’t think so. I read the New Yorker piece and it all struck me as being researched and accurate. I think the Weinstein story is true and I think it unleashed a flood of allegations, most of which seem substantial and reasonable.

In the case of Harvey Weinstein, it would appear everyone knew he was doing this for years— unlike Sandusky, where nobody made any accusations. Weinstein is apparently quite guilty, and many of the other people are too. I think most women have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances at one time or another, almost every woman in America.

TCR: You state “allegations of sexual abuse on college campuses involving sports figures may be particularly susceptible to a rush to judgment.” What other parts of our society do you believe are highly susceptible to a rush to judgment’?

Pendergrast: Fraternities. Any allegations involving fraternities are assumed to be true because so many of them are true. In my book, I cited the University of Virginia case, where there was a false allegation reported in Rolling Stone and widely accepted. Or the Duke University lacrosse players.

The interesting thing about this is the way that the media has treated it. Because the case was debunked and thrown out and the players were exonerated, everyone rushed to write books about it. The difference between the Duke Lacrosse case and the Sandusky case was that Sandusky was found guilty and nobody wants to look at any alternative.

So far, the appeal process in Pennsylvania has upheld that judgment. Part of the problem in Pennsylvania is that nobody who is elected is going to want to be “soft on pedophiles,” certainly not the “evil” Jerry Sandusky. And the judges in Pennsylvania are all elected, so it is extremely unlikely that any Pennsylvania judge is going to grant a new trial to Sandusky. I am hopeful however, that when it reaches the federal level, he will get a new trial because his current lawyers did an excellent job at presenting the case.

So I have not lost all hope. But this innocent man is sitting in solitary confinement in prison, and it is remarkable that he has kept his sanity.

TCR: What role did the police play in the possibly wrongful conviction of Sandusky?

Pendergrast: There is something called confirmation bias that psychologists write about, and it means that you are looking for a presumption of guilt that you have already have. That is what the police did. They were not the least bit interested in children who said Sandusky was a great guy and he didn’t abuse them. [Officers] made it clear to these young boys they didn’t believe them and they said “if you remember something at 3 in the morning call us.” They would cross-contaminate by saying “many other people said [Sandusky] has done ‘this and this and this, how about you?’ ” [Officers] would make [the young boys] feel that they were failing, hiding, or lying if they didn’t say Sandusky had abused them.

People who believe Sandusky is guilty will say “young boys are ashamed of having been involved with a man in sexual abuse and will often hide it.” I think there is some truth to that. But it is extremely unlikely that none of these 35 young men who came forward told no one. Nobody suspected anything. So the police methodology was terrible and they trolled for victims. It wasn’t a matter of anyone spontaneously coming forward until, finally, after the grand jury presentment was out, people came forward, because it became obvious there was going to be a lot of money involved here.

You want to know who is to blame? Penn State is to blame. Penn State was terrified about looking bad, so they assumed guilt and fell all over themselves, giving away millions of dollars to basically anybody without any kind of due process.

 TCR: You quote from Mikhail Khorev, a Russian Baptist leader imprisoned for more than three decades in the former Soviet Union, who said, “It was interesting to see what lengths the state officials had gone to prove to themselves that I was a criminal.” Is this what happened in the case of Jerry Sandusky?

Pendergrast: Yes. But we also see that in many cases of DNA exoneration. People whose DNA proves they are innocent. But once the prosecutors and the police decided somebody was guilty, they would ignore any evidence of somebody else being guilty. So the real murderer or rapist went free while they were prosecuting the wrong person. And even when the DNA evidence exonerated [the innocent], the prosecutors and the police refused to admit they did anything wrong. It’s hard for somebody to admit they did anything wrong.

mark pendergrast

Mark Pendergrast

It is significant that there was no childhood pornography found on Sandusky’s computer or phone. The irony of all this, is that the prosecutors were sending racist, gross pornography to each other the whole time while investigating Sandusky, who is as pure as snow. He was considered to be something of a saint before the total vilification. But he was a very naive kind of guy. His children referred to it as a Mayberry world he lived in. All of Sandusky’s children (besides the one who went to repressed memory therapy) are sure he is innocent, but won’t say it in public because they are afraid for their own careers and families.

TCR: You say “False confessions are far more common, and easier to elicit, than most people realize.” How so?

Pendergrast: The police can lie to people. It’s possible for them to lie and say “oh your friend said you did it and we saw you.” Or maybe the police will tell the alleged victims they blacked out or repressed the memory. Many of those kids are sleep deprived and frantic, and they will say anything to get out of there. It happens.

TCR: Have you gotten any backlash for writing your book? Perhaps from victims, their families, or advocate groups?

Pendergrast: No, there has not been. However, the only book interview I could get was with one of the alleged victims. Nobody else would talk to me.

Editor’s Note: In a related book, Memory Warp, Pendergrast takes a critical look at the phenomenon of repressed memory. For more information on this and other publications by Pendergrast, he invites readers to check out his website.

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


The Perils of Big Data Policing

The criminal justice system is increasingly relying on algorithms to prevent crime and punish wrongdoers. Law professor Andrew Ferguson warns in a new book that it’s time to take a close look before these systems are locked in.

As the criminal justice system comes to rely increasingly on computer analytics, so-called “big data” that captures and collates enormous amounts of information are being used in many cities to identify potential lawbreakers. But this form of predictive policing has also been criticized for its lack of transparency and potential for racial bias.

big dataIn his new book, The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law EnforcementAndrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, argues that the criticisms are valid, and should generate a conversation about the use of new technologies before this form of policing becomes institutionalized.

Ferguson, in a recent conversation with TCR news intern Julia Pagnamenta, discussed the economic factors that have driven the use of big data in police departments, how it is has spread to prosecutors and judges, and why cities should consider holding regular “surveillance summits,” so communities can examine what’s being done in their name.

The Crime Report: In your book, you argue that explaining this technology to the public is only one element of the challenge. Can you elaborate?

 Andrew Ferguson: One of the responses to the (growth) of big-data policing is the fear of a lack of transparency. People ask, “What do you mean I am being targeted by an algorithm that I don’t understand and that I can’t see?” But that doesn’t feel right to me. I make the argument that while we should be debating and thinking about this idea of transparency, transparency itself may not be an answer.

If you go forward just a few years, when we’re really going to be talking about machine learning, artificial-intelligence predictive systems are designed (so) you can’t look into them and see how they’re made, because they are constantly learning from the data that’s being inputted, which keeps changing, and so if you went back to look at what they did, it has changed already, because that’s how it’s being taught to learn.

We have to come up with systems of accountability, and that may (involve) a chief of police or the city council, or whoever is funding this, explaining to citizens why they are using this technology, why they think it’s accurate, why they think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars, and what they’re going to do to audit it, to make sure it is working in the future. I call those moments of public accountability “surveillance summits.”  We need to have surveillance summits in every city in America.

(If) you deal with the problem of transparency in that way, it won’t matter if you don’t understand what an algorithm is, and it won’t matter whether you understand what artificial intelligence does. You’ll feel comfortable that there is an open conversation (involving) the citizenry, the technologists, the civil libertarians, and also the police who have to justify why they think this particular technology makes sense for their particular city.

TCR: Big data isn’t singular to the criminal justice system. Our information is being collected every day when we use our credit cards or our smart phones.

Ferguson: In many ways the rise of big data in a consumer space far outpaces where we are in the criminal space. We live in a world where Google knows everything we search for; Amazon knows everything we’ve bought; our smart cars know everywhere we’ve driven; our smart houses reveal when we leave for the day, when we go home. Our digital trails are revealing the patterns and practices of our lives. Big data in a consumer space has recognized that insight and in some way has tried to monetize it. We are the product. Our data is the product. We are being sold using the data trails, and in many ways we’ve bought into that by the convenience of this data.

What began as a database—although certainly not a big database—is the idea of CompStat, of being able to start mapping crimes and understanding crime patterns using crime data. (Former New York Police Commissioner) Bill Bratton built a data- driven policing system. When he went to Los Angeles, he was overseeing the origination of predictive policing as we now know it, and he brought it back again to New York when he took over the NYPD again in his last iteration there. After the stop-and-frisk practice was declared unconstitutional, Bratton said, “don’t worry, we have a new technology that’s going to replace it, called predictive policing.” The NYPD is up there with the LAPD as the most sophisticated local surveillance system that we have in America. They have networked cameras. They are using their own social networking analysis. They’re mapping crimes. They’re connecting with the Manhattan D.A.’s office to prosecute crimes. They are the cutting edge of how big data technology is changing law enforcement.

TCR: Everything we do is being tracked. Do privacy issues even enter the debate in the criminal justice arena?

 Ferguson: There is definitely a debate about it. In the book I point out how, as our lives have shifted to social media, and as our virtual selves are playing a role in communicating with other people, so has crime. People who are involved in criminal activity and gangs are posting threats on social media; they are bragging about crimes on social media. Naturally police are watching, building cases.  That obviously impacts individual privacy rights.

The Supreme Court [recently] heard a case, Carpenter vs. the United States about whether our third-party records, in that case cell phone information—really if you think about our digital lives, everything is a third party record—can be obtained by police without a warrant or whether police need a probable cause warrant to obtain some of this information. When that case is decided in the next couple of months, it may very well shape our feelings about privacy and some of our expectations of privacy under the Fourth Amendment. What we share with others, we don’t necessarily think we are sharing with police, but without either legislation guiding us or constitutional law guiding us, it’s pretty uncertain about whether we can really claim any expectation of privacy in things we are putting out in the world.

TCR: How has big data affected the way prosecutors do their job?

 Ferguson: Cy Vance, Jr., and the Manhattan D.A.’s office, have been at the forefront of pushing a new type of prosecution, which is part data-driven, where they are looking for the areas that are creating and generating violence; and part intelligence driven. They call it intelligence-driven prosecution. Intelligence in the sense of how intelligence analysts and the intelligence community might try and figure out whom to target. Their stated goal is to identify the individuals who are the prime drivers (of crime) in a community, and take them out by any means they can.

Andrew Ferguson

Andrew Ferguson

They also get community intelligence from gang intelligence detectives, and other community organizers, to try to take out those people, under the theory that if they can incapacitate these folks, crime overall will go down. They have recognized that one way to do that is build a big data infrastructure.

(Like police), they too have partnered with companies like Palantir which built a data system to track various people. Lots of people get arrested in Manhattan, and if one of their targets should show up, even on a low-level offense like (subway) turnstile jumping, they’ll know about it, and they can get that information to the line D.A. in time because it’s sort of automated—instead of someone cycling through the system and getting out because it’s a low level offense, there will be a different request for a bail hold. There will be different sentencing considerations; there will be less of an opportunity to plead guilty on the theory that they are trying to bring this person out of the society, figuring that if person is out, they will reduce crime. It’s really been a change in mentality (for) prosecutors.

TCR: Critics of these strategies say they disproportionately affect the city’s more marginalized communities.

Ferguson: I think (you) run the risk of targeting the data you are trying to collect.   So if what you care about is low-level “broken windows” policing and that becomes the data you are looking for, it’s obviously going to change policing patterns, and result in, lots of poor people being brought into the system who wouldn’t have otherwise if you weren’t targeting them.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You can use data-driven policing to target folks who you think are the most violent and most at risk—and not target others who aren’t in that category. Data is dependent on how you use it, and who uses it, and the choices being made to utilize it. There are many fair criticisms on the way the data-driven system changed what police were doing in New York. It became very much about quantifying arrests, and not about quality of life or policing.

We are able to target people that we think are the most at risk for violence in Chicago and intervene in a way that has similar concerns about who are the people being targeted. They tend to be poor; they tend to be people of color. They tend to live in certain communities. Is that simply reifying the same kinds of profiling by algorithms that we might be concerned about? I think these are real questions and concerns we should be raising. We should be having that debate right now, and (examine) how these new technologies are playing out in our communities.

TCR: You note that these algorithms falsely assess African-American defendants as high risk at almost twice the rate of whites. How do these high-priority target lists affect African American communities?

Ferguson: Take Chicago again. Part of the input of the Chicago “heat list” are arrests, and we know that arrests are discretionary decisions of police. We know that they are impacted by where police go, where they are sent, where the patrols are, where they are looking. You can’t be arrested if no one is looking at what you are doing.

We also know in Chicago, thanks to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division report in 2017 that there is a real problem of racial bias throughout the Chicago Police Department. It’s pretty systemic. So if you think that some Chicago police have either implicit or explicit biases and if they are using their discretion to make their arrests, and if those arrests become part of your big data system of targeting, you have to worry that that discretion and that bias is going to affect the outputs of whatever system because it’s affecting the inputs.

My concern is that we tend to stop thinking about racial bias when we hear that something is data-driven. It sounds objective. It sounds like it doesn’t have the same concerns; it doesn’t raise the same concerns of ordinary policing. But if your inputs are based on ordinary policing, and that has some problems in some cities, well some of your outputs are going to be based on those and that’s a real problem.

(That is) part of the reason I wrote the book. People talk about this move to data- driven policing, as if it is response to the concerns we saw in Ferguson, and in Staten Island, and in Chicago. Really, the same concerns exist and we need to make sure that we are aware and conscious of them, and are working to overcome them, because they can be overcome.

TCR: You refer to Chicago quite a bit in the book. How have certain of the city’s neighborhoods, and their residents, been affected by these algorithms?

Ferguson: Chicago is at the forefront. They have created what they’ve called the strategic subjects list, also known as the heat list. And that list essentially looks at individuals who they believe are the most at risk of violence, or being the victim of violence, or the perpetrators of violence in society, and this is the algorithm. They look at past arrests for violent crimes. Narcotic offenses, and weapons offenses. They look at whether the person was a victim of a violent offense, or a shooting. They looked at the age of the last arrest; the younger the age, the higher the score.  And they look at the trend line: is this moving forward; are there more events happening, or is it slowing down; is age less a factor?

They take those numbers, punch them into an algorithm, to come up with a rank ordered score from 0 to 500 about who are the most at-risk people, and then they act. If you have a 500-plus score, a Chicago Police detective or administrator shows up at your door, maybe with a social worker, and says: “Look you are on this list. And we know who you are, we know what you are doing, we know that you are at risk, and you’ve got a choice. You can either turn your life around, or if you don’t, we’re going to bring the hammer down. We know who you are and we are warning you.”

They might bring you in as a group, as a sort of call-in session, a scared-straight-session where they do the same thing but in a group setting. It is a measure of social control. It’s a measure of possibly offering social services (if there were money to offer those social services), and it is a recognition that there is a targeting mechanism going on in this town.

Depending on who you ask, it has not worked, or worked. It fluctuates. Shootings have obviously been a terrible problem in Chicago in certain districts where they are using it. Just this last year, they claim shootings have gone down, so they are taking credit for it.

Rand did a study of the early version of the strategic subjects list and said look we can’t find any correlation. It seems like it really became shorthand for the virtual most-wanted list of people you want to target anyway. The Chicago Police Department response to that was, well we changed the algorithm. We think we’ve improved it, and in some ways that’s a fair answer, because that’s what you do with computer modeling. You change it, if it’s not working, or if you think you can improve it. Computer models are supposed to keep evolving.

TCR: What do the police mean when they say these algorithms are working? 

 Ferguson: If you listen to the folks in Chicago who are defending it, they say: Look, if you want to know the people who are getting shot, they are on our list. Like 80 percent of the people are on our list on a particular weekend, and so we’re not wrong. We know that there are certain lifestyles and certain actions and certain groups that are more likely to be shot.

They tend to be folks who are in certain social groups, or gangs; they tend to have, a distrust of police, so if there is a violent action they respond with violence. This sort of reciprocal violence keeps things going forward, and the (police) response is “look, we’re not wrong about the people we are targeting, whether or not we can reduce violence.”

This isn’t an attempt to create some magic black box. There is a theory behind it, and the theory is that there are certain risk factors in life that will cause you to be more at-risk of violence then other people, so targeting those people might be an efficient use of police resources in a world of finite resources. The problem is that we just don’t know if the input is all that accurate and we don’t really know if this is the best use of our money and time and energy. It sounds like an idea or a solution when you don’t want to face the real solution.

Maybe, instead of using a “heat list,” we should invest in schools, invest in communities, invest in jobs, and invest in social programs that will change lives. But it takes more money than people are willing to spend. The chief of police of Chicago has one of the most difficult jobs in America. He has to answer the question, what are you going to do about crime? Sometimes (technology) is enough to quiet the critics who want you as chief to do the impossible, which is stop the shootings without the resources.

TCR: In the book you contrast New Orleans’ Palantir system with Chicago’s use of preventive algorithms. How do they differ?

Ferguson: In New Orleans had a terrible shooting problem, and the mayor partnered with Palantir to see if they could figure out who are the people who are most at risk for either being involved with violence or being violent themselves. And then to explore whether there are program services that can target them.

The difference I think, in New Orleans is that, at least initially, in addition to person-based identifications, they also brought in a lot of city data. They started looking at where the crime patterns were. They investigated whether there were institutional players who could be leveraged to stop some of the patterns of violence.

For instance, they’re able to say, that when students are let out of school at certain places there tend to be violent fights between different groups. Could we change the environment so when kids get out of school, they are not going to start the fights? Are there places where the lighting system is such that we constantly see crimes, because of course if you want to do a crime, you might want to go where no one can see you….Initially this sort of holistic data collection of city, local, state, and also law enforcement, brought down some of the shootings in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, it’s gone up since I published the book. But data can be used in a more holistic, constructive way, to identify some of the same problems (and) doesn’t have to necessarily require a pure policing response. It might actually be better to invest in social services, invest in fixing up neighborhoods. That might actually have a greater impact on crime reduction than simply putting a police car, or a police officer at a door, or a street corner.

TCR: You propose creating a risk map in the book. Can you talk about this suggested shift from mapping crime to mapping social services?

 Ferguson: I write about how, if you separate out the risk-identification innovations from the policing remedy, you might get other uses of predictive analytics. You could have a map of all the people who don’t get enough food in their lives, or all the individuals who’ve missed four days of school for whatever health reasons. You can use the same sort of identification for the social risks of society, for people who are in need.

Right now, we focus our energy on crime and policing because that’s where the funding came from, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe some of the innovations being created by these same companies, and by these same technologies, can be used for different purposes, and maybe with different outcomes.

TCR: You say that we should be viewing violence as a public health problem rather than law enforcement related.

 Ferguson: You have to understand why big-data policing has arisen at this time. In part it was a reaction to the recession, and it was a reaction to the fact that police officers, and administrators, and departments all across the country were being gutted.

Police needed a solution. (They could claim) that predictive policing technology is going to help us do more with less. And when you are in that mindset, it’s really hard to then also ask for help with what we know are the real crime drivers: poverty, hopelessness, lack of economic opportunity, lack of education, and an inability to sort of get out of a certain socioeconomic reality. As we’ve moved out of the recession, data (remains) our guiding framework for policing. I think there is an opportunity for chiefs to say, we are at a better place to figure out why crime is happening in this area. We can tell you where it is. We can tell you the people involved, but there is something beneath that, which is the why?

The risk factor is here, and that’s in part because this parking lot has been abandoned for the last decade. If you fixed it up and made it into a nice park, maybe we wouldn’t have killings or robberies there, right? We know there are certain people dealing drugs because all the jobs in this area have gone away. If we could figure out sort of economic opportunity potentials for these same young men, we might not have that same crime problem.

The data can visualize what we all know is there, but does so in a different way that might potentially offer a way forward. We might have partnerships with police and communities that deal with some of the underlying environmental, socioeconomic issues, and the data can lead us to a part-policing, but also a part-social services, civic investment strategy.

TCR: Judges have also had to learn to adapt to this new technology. How has it influenced the outcomes of trials, and decision-making?

 Ferguson: I’m a law professor, and I got my start trying to figure out how new technologies like predictive policing and big-data policing would affect trial courts, and Fourth Amendment suppression hearings, and the idea of reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion is the legal standard that is required for police to stop you on the street. They have to have some sort of particularized, articulable information that you are involved in criminal activity. In a small data world, which is the world we had when the law was being created, it was only what the officer saw. (For instance, a suspicious individual hanging around a jewelry store.)

Our laws are created based on that very tangible reality of what officers can see. In a big data world, there is a lot more information. Now that officer might know who that individual outside the jewelry store is. He might know his prior record. The data could tell him who the individual is associating with, and any prior criminal records. That information t has nothing to do with what that person is doing at that moment; but it might influence what the police officer thinks is happening. That’s natural. If you now know that an individual in front of you is not just a person walking by the jewelry store, but one of the computer driven, most-wanted, most at- risk of violence, it might change how you are suspicious of that person.

(In a similar way, big data) might change how a judge is going to evaluate that suspicion and say, well it makes sense. The officer knew from the dashboard that this person had a really high score. The judge knew that the reason for that high score was his gang involvement, and his prior arrests, and convictions for jewelry store robberies. Of course that should factor into his suspicion, and what has just happened is, data, big data, other information, has changed the constitutional analysis of how a police officer is watching an individual do the same thing.

That’s happening right now, as these cases make their way through the courts. And there’s a way that the courts haven’t really thought about what are we going to do with these predictive scores. What do we do if a police officer stops someone in a quote unquote predictive area of burglary? A computer told him to be on the look-out; how do we as a judge, or as a court, evaluate that information in our constitutional determination of whether this officer had enough suspicion? And we just haven’t seen great answers to that. We’ll see how it plays out in the future.

This conversation has been condensed and slightly edited. Julia Pagnamenta is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Murder in Your Living Room: Rethinking TV Crime News

Veteran Chicago TV newsman Robert Jordan, Jr. argues in a new book that the media—especially broadcast outlets—too often concentrate on the most violent stories while “sleeping” through more significant developments in American justice. He explains what he means in a chat with TCR.

Even in the Internet era, the broadcast media –especially local TV stations—are the major source of news about crime and justice issues. And they remain a huge influence on public perceptions of crime. How do they handle that responsibility?

That’s one of the central questions Emmy Award-winning TV newsman Robert Jordan Jr. tries to answer in his new book, Murder in the News, published by Prometheus Books. Jordan, currently a weekend anchor for WGN-TV’s News in Chicago, applies the lessons learned during his 47-year career in broadcasting to an examination of the role reporters play in advancing (or hampering) understanding of the criminal justice system in his book.

murderIn a chat with TCR’s Megan Hadley, Jordan discusses the contrast between media coverage of today’s opioid epidemic and the crack cocaine crisis of the 1980s; how TV audiences have more influence than they think they do on what local stations decide to cover; and the constant conflict in broadcast newsrooms between “beauty and substance.”

The Crime Report: To me, the main issue of your book is summed up when you write that in connection with gang homicides, it’s “bad guys killing bad guys… who cares?” How do you get the public to care?

Robert Jordan: The answer to that, is we really don’t (care). There’s a feeling that “they” deserve it, whenever it’s bad guys dealing with bad guys, we in the media are no different. We have wives and children and husbands, and we too are victims of crime. Our own prejudices creep into our thinking, even though we try not to, you can’t help it.

But that is not what our jobs ought to be. We are here to tell stories and not to be judgmental. Over the years, I’ve had to slap myself in the face and go “wait a minute—that’s not the way I want to phrase this.” Let me go back and talk to this guy’s mother. We have to make the effort to overcome our prejudices and inclinations to think bad guys getting bad guys is OK. There are great stories hidden there that need to be told. For example, gang-related violence stories are not pretty stories, until you dig into them and they are incredibly interesting stories about survival and determination.

If you ask someone “is the life of one person more important than the life of another?” they would say everyone is equal. But we truly don’t believe that, and the coverage of murders is proof. The murder of a doctor, lawyer, newsman or child is given much more attention than (the murder of) a homeless person or a gang member.

TCR: Early in your book, you describe how gang violence received very little media attention in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and still even today. Could gang violence have been reduced if it was covered in the media earlier on?

Jordan: It probably would. (In the book), I talk about how during years when we do cover a lot of gang violence in the media, politicians to feel the heat and will either enact laws, or flood communities with more police, or do reactive things that make a difference. So to answer your question, I think there would have been a different outcome, based on the reaction that our coverage causes.

This is likewise the case when there are high-profile cases. Gang members feel it because the police are out there. And the police will tell you “oh no we do this for every case, we were out there with eager and equal intensity,” but that really isn’t true. In a high-profile case, they flood the neighborhoods. They put extra cops and detectives on, and they get into the neighborhoods and there is more pressure applied.

TCR: Should there be an entire news channel dedicated to gang-related homicides?

Jordan: I don’t think so. I think that if you had a diet of nothing but murder, you would get a few people to watch but you would not get a large audience. You would get a few eyeballs, but not enough viewers to sell advertisements and support it.

Does that mean what we are doing now has to change? I think it does. In the book, I write about the need to get producers and assignment editors out of the office and onto the streets more often so that they are plugged into the realities of the neighborhoods. Let them sit in a truck; let them go knock on the door when someone’s been murdered. If you haven’t done that before, you’re in for a surprise.

Robert Jordan

Robert Jordan Jr

You talk about tense: Walk up to someone’s house when there’s been a shooting. Folks are standing on the front porch, they are waiting for people to come by any moment with guns, and you’re standing there with a camera crew wanting to do some interviews. That will pucker your lips up.

It’s a different life in the streets. But for the most part, you are dealing with human beings who are 90 percent good, wonderful people. We forget that. We allow ourselves to be jaded by that five to ten percent of gang members, and forget about the grandmas, grandpas, brothers, sisters, and kids who are good people.

TCR: You write in the book “sooner or later, the thug life will inch its way into middle and upper class neighborhoods.” Please explain.

Jordan: We didn’t see this in the 1970s and 1980s, when crack was explosive in black neighborhoods. Now that drugs are hitting middle-class America and suburban teens with epidemic proportions, we see a different attitude about trying to get these kids help. It’s not “let’s lock them up;” it’s “let’s get them treatment.” Addiction has moved into every neighborhood and every family. So there is a realization that we all have to do something. The shame of it is that it took so long for us to come together and realize this was a social issue that we had to work across races and social status to combat. That lapse of time has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and the shattering of millions of lives.

(The media) kind of slept through that story. Now we understand the depths of the epidemic for the first time. We’re talking about it because it is so widespread in Middle America; but it should’ve been something that we talked about years ago. There are unintended consequences when the media sleeps through stories. Heroin never went away. Crack has been given over to opioids. But the epidemic remains.

TCR: You write about the need for producers and assignment editors to cover a balanced mixture of stories, while also acknowledging the role of the audience as well. In your opinion, who is in charge of changing the types of stories we see in the media: the newsroom or the audience?

Jordan: Ultimately, the consumer. The reader, the viewer, the listener. But in the short term, it’s the assignment editor or the producers. They decide what the viewers will see because they make the initial decision. They decide whether or not to send out a crew on a story. They have the gut feeling which allows them to decide the hierarchy for the day. They decide what stories to put in the first segment, how to stack them.

Those are the media filters, but viewers and listeners are also determinate factors. They can text the stations and say “hey I didn’t see anything about this story,” and they can apply pressure and become a force in determining what the media covers. Because if viewers, readers and listeners say they want more of ”this or that,” then I guarantee you the media will give them more of that. That is what we do, that is our job. But for consumers, you don’t know what you don’t know. So if a murder happened in a neighborhood and we didn’t cover it, but another station did, how would viewers know? They wouldn’t. It makes pressuring the media tough.

TCR: Why is it that most television stations are using the same yardstick for deciding which murders to air, as well as which stories? Your book notes that most news channels air the same kinds of stories in the same order.

Jordan: We all go to the same journalism schools, we do the same internships, we follow the same websites, we are trained similarly and we have a manner of thinking which is very similar. We all have this understanding about what is big and what isn’t. We know the elements that cause a story. Like Harvey Weinstein, I’m sure he walks out the door and the paparazzi are all around him.

There’s a tacit feeling among us when there is a big story. We sense it. We have an understanding of our industries and we sense that a story is going to be a grabber and the audience will like it.

TCR: You discuss protest symbols, such as the hoodie Trayvon Martin was wearing and the skittles he was carrying when he was killed. The skittles and hoodie became symbols for protesting his death. Are symbols important ways for the media to spotlight social change?

Jordan: We are always looking to the unusual; that’s news. And when there is something unusual that attaches itself to a story, the reporter sees that and will run with it, because it gives it a nice hook. It’s something to hang that story on, as opposed to the usual mundane murder we cover time after time.

Sometimes it might not be just a symbol, but an element of the story. For example, a (Chicago) girl was shot in her neighborhood after performing in Obama’s second inauguration. She was an honor student. It might not always be a symbol like a skittles, but it’s an element. An element the reporter can seize upon and help drive that story differently.

TCR: As we have seen over the past few weeks, movie director Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey and many other powerful men have suffered accusations of sexual assault. It began with media attention focused on the allegations. But others wonder why it took so long for the media to catch up with systematic harassment of women in the workplaceor other forms of misbehavior.

Jordan: In the book I give an example of John Burge, a police officer in Chicago, who was torturing innocent men into confessions. I remember when that was going on and it’s one of the most embarrassing times of my career because I had heard about it, but we all tended to believe the authorities. So if the police said that’s not true, we believed it. Consequently, so many things slipped through.

See also: Cracking the Stonewall on a Nun’s Murder: A Reporter’s Story

In the case of many of these alleged predators, there were mumblings about their lifestyles that we, in the media, tended to overlook. Well, all it takes is a crack; and then, as you have seen, the dam breaks and there is a flood. There isn’t a day of the week that goes by now that there aren’t new revelations about sexual impropriety. I was just talking with some friends and saying we hope this continues. Inevitably, we move on after a while to something else.

We allow stories to remain hot, headline issues, but then at some point, something else comes along and we move on to it. But the consequences will be enormous, and as a result there will be change.

I think women now are no longer afraid to speak up and that is a huge breakthrough. I’m not critical of the fact we move on from these stories; I’m pleased that there is a causal change because we were giving a topic so much attention.

TCR: You write that the more viewers you have, the more you can charge for advertising and this has caused some stations to come up with the dumbest, wackiest, ill- conceived ideas a TV station could think of. Is this a problem of today’s broadcast media?

Jordan: Broadcast television is fighting over the bones of the audience, because most of the audience is gone. People have gone to cable, viewing (news) on computers, cell phones, tablets. They record news shows and fast-forward through commercials. The paradigm has shifted away from broadcast journalism and stations are fighting for the scraps of the audience. They are trying to figure out ways to gain viewers through promotions or goofy commercials.

There is an emphasis on beauty over substance. A “weather girl” is placed on the air as opposed to a meteorologist. They are going for more of a beauty queen look rather than someone who has substance in an effort to attract viewers. But stations are starting to realize you better have a trained meteorologist on the screen.

It goes back and forth, but it doesn’t mean stations aren’t always searching for a way to gather viewers by any means necessary. And over the years, there have been dumb and inappropriate things done.

TCR: Americans of color are not well represented in newsrooms today. How has that affected coverage of crime and justice issues?

Jordan: A  multicultural newsroom adds to the richness of ideas, and expands the thought process in editorial meetings and discussions. The debates can sometimes become heated—especially if they become personal—but they allow journalists to examine a subject from many different angles, including some we may not have considered before.

As an African American I found it difficult to cover a rally of the Ku Klux Klan in Nashville, Tennessee; and, years later, a rally by Nazis in Skokie, Illinois. I remember wondering to myself if I could be fair and honest in telling the story. I couldn’t just let the words flow from my pen as I would normally do. I had to scrutinize each word and ask myself, was this the most appropriate way to tell the story? When I turned in the Nazi story, my editor said I had done a good job. I didn’t know quite how to take that compliment. I still don’t.

TCR: You are critical of  today’s news coverage of crime.  How can TV do a better job?   

Jordan: I am not critical of television stations that focus on crime. These are necessary and important stories that should be covered and dissected and explored from many different angles. What does bother me is the use of crime stories as a tool for gaining ratings points: having blaring banners and agitated news anchors, taking viewers to a reporter standing in front of yellow police tape with nothing to report other than, “Our News Chopper 7 is overhead in this neighborhood where a suspect is on the loose.”

I think newsroom gatekeepers, assignment editors and producers, are too quick to “poo poo” a story—especially a murder in minority neighborhood—without looking deeper into the case to see if there might be a good story that was about to be overlooked. We miss some really good stories because we let our old perceptions about “who is important and who is not” blind us. (Those perceptions) keep us searching for the same types of victims and perpetrators instead of breaking the mold, and going after potentially good stories that are right in front of our faces.

TCR: The accusations of sexual harassment we discussed earlier also include some powerful media figures, both on and off  TV. What’s your take?

Jordan: I’m old enough to remember the days of the “Good Ol’ Boys Network.” If you were a CEO or powerful politician or respected civic leader, what you did behind closed doors was your business. Many times, the private lives of these individuals were whispered about in private conversations, but their scandalous activities were seldom reported. I can remember hearing men say outrageous, salacious things to women. I also remember admonishing men for making filthy remarks or telling off-color jokes around women. I was not alone in standing up for women and gays at a time when it was not popular to do so. But still, lamentably there weren’t many men who did stand up for women’s rights: Neither did the press.

Fortunately, these (sexual harassment charges) are more than a “trending” story that will drop off the news radar any time soon. This is a watershed moment, a turning point, in how men will be allowed to treat women and “get away with it.” Women are determining what is and what is not acceptable in a relationship. The new adjustment in sexual protocol will make some people uncomfortable. That’s too bad. There needs to be a sexual etiquette that men and women (mostly men) clearly understand, and when it is breached there should be grave consequences. But this will take time. An entire older generation, maybe two, of wrong-thinking male chauvinists will have to die out, so their way of thinking becomes extinct along with them.

This interview was condensed and slightly edited. Megan Hadley is a news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.


The Skewed Politics of the Death Penalty

A Texas man condemned to death for a crime he didn’t commit was freed only after his attorney discovered a concealed phone record that proved his innocence. The attorney, Brian Stolarz, who wrote a book about the case, tells TCR that it’s an example of how capital punishment in the U.S. is hostage to a system that depends on whether you have enough money to pay for good legal help.

Alfred Dewayne Brown was condemned to death in 2005 after his conviction for killing a Houston police officer and a store clerk in a botched robbery in Texas. He spent a decade trying to prove his innocence, but it was only when an attorney named Brian Stolarz took his case and helped uncover the records of a phone call that proved he wasn’t anywhere near the scene of the crime—records that had been concealed from the grand jury—that Brown was finally exonerated and released in 2015.

Stolarz’ book about the case, Grace and Justice on Death Row (Skyhorse Publishing), arrives at a time when the movement for abolishing the death penalty continues to be stymied at the federal level—even as it has won more support in the states.

In a conversation with TCR’s Julia Pagnamenta, Stolarz discusses the outlook for the abolition of capital punishment in the U.S., how the politics of electing judges makes death sentences more likely, and how his Catholic faith influenced his own approach to the issue.

The Crime Report: Why write this book now?

Brian Stolarz: The death penalty debate in this country is trending towards abolition. In a new Gallup poll, approval is the lowest it’s been since the 70’s. A Pew research poll had [the approval rate] below 50 percent. It is my belief that it will be abolished one day. And I hope that cases like Dewayne’s shine a light on why.

TCR: And yet in the current political climate, it doesn’t seem like the death penalty will be abolished on the federal level. 

Brian Stolarz: I think the best way to attack the death penalty right now is through the states. Nebraska was a good example of a traditionally red state having that important debate. I think the federal death penalty will stay in large part because of the make-up of the Supreme Court. Now, with [Neil] Gorsuch taking Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat, I think it will be a number of years, if not decades, before the court shifts to a 5-4 for unconstitutionality of the death penalty.

So the way to attack that is on the state level and to identify what is called the “outlier counties.” There are only certain counties in this country that use it, and if there’s pressure even in those states to narrow it, and get rid of it, then maybe we can chip away at this brick by brick. If Nebraska is doing it, then other states can too, and if we get it so that it’s done only in a couple of states, then it becomes even more unconstitutional, and you may even have a federal challenge to it.

TCR: Let’s talk a little about Dewayne’s case: the prosecutor coerced Dewayne’s girlfriend, Ericka Dockery, into giving false testimony, and then hid the phone record that would have exonerated him. How did this happen?

Brian Stolarz: This case was in our view a rush to judgment. You have a high- profile case in which a black defendant is being charged in the murder of a white police officer, and there is a sense that they want to get quick justice. And so because there was never any science that connected Dewayne to the case, (and) never will be, this case was based largely on the testimony of his girlfriend Ericka Dockery.

Dewayne’s alibi was incredibly straightforward: He was at Ericka’s apartment at the time of the murders, and made a phone call to where she worked. Ericka testified that way in the grand jury.

The DA, and the grand jurors in particular, were badgering her, and in our view threatening her, and they kept pressing on her. I’ve never seen anything like the transcript in this case. But she held firm to Dewayne’s alibi. And the DA—and this is the moment where the case changed—decided that on his own, he would charge her with perjury, and ask for a very high bail, and then she sat in jail for four months. Her life fell apart. She lost her job, her kids…and so she said “fine, I’ll say whatever you want.”

Alfred Dewayne Brown

Alfred Dewayne Brown is released from prison after his exoneration. Photo courtesy Death Penalty Information Center.

But then we uncovered through our investigation that she testified about the phone call occurring on the caller ID box. The DA, Dan Rizzo, subpoenaed the phone company the day after she testified in the grand jury. The documents were sent by the phone company to the police, and it showed that Dewayne paid (for) that phone call, but they never turned the record over.

And that is still astonishing to me. The reason we got it was because the DA who was in charge of the writ of appeal emailed us in May of 2013, and said that the cop in charge of the investigation had recently spring-cleaned his garage, and found a box of documents. He sent it to us, and in the middle of the box was the phone record we had been looking for (over) eight long years.

TCR: You write about the lack of money and resources for public defenders, especially compared to the funding and political backing prosecutors receive. Please explain.

Brian Stolarz: Sadly, it’s easier to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent in this country, and it’s always more popular to pay the prosecutor than to pay a public defender. I hope that is going to change, because the Constitution is only upheld and preserved and maintained if the process is fair for everybody. In this case, Dewayne had a court-appointed lawyer, and the DA had all the resources to investigate. I see that in cases I work on all the time, and it’s bothersome to me because if Dewayne had the law firm I worked at, K & L Gates, that could have thrown a lot of resources at it, it might have been a different result for him, and he might not have spent 12 years and 62 days in jail for something he didn’t do.

Further Reading: “Legal Aid for Capital Punishment Cases Depends on Where you Live” (TCR Nov 7, 2017)

TCR: You worked pro bono nature on Dewayne’s case. Is this a common practice for private law firms?

Brian Stolarz: A strong public defender is always the first line of defense and that should be where our resources go. You can’t depend on large law firms to pick up the slack on everything because there are only a few law firms that will put the kind of resources that our firm put towards it.

TCR: How important to the capital punishment issue is the fact that judges administering these cases are elected?

Brian Stolarz: There’s a part in the book where I write that the Alabama judicial system had a jury override function, that the jury could recommend life, but then the judge could override that and give death. Well, in election years, the judges would override the jury verdicts more. It’s transparent to me to why they did that: to get elected. To me, that’s not justice, that’s political gain; I think all judges across the country should be appointed by their respective governors, or whatever bodies can do it. I think that when you politicize law, you are making it such that certain things are valued over other things, whether it’s these tough-on-crime sentences, or whether it’s a judicial override, so that a person can say at a rally, I put ten people to death. Well that’s not what I want my judge to be up there saying.

TCR: Your Catholic faith guided you through Dewayne’s case, and informs your opposition to the death penalty. And yet, in the book you recall how a religious group outside of Dewayne’s prison refused to serve you any food after you told them you were defending a person on death row. How did that affect you?

There is a certain level of hypocrisy that I see when I speak in churches. When I talked to this group, where they were all too happy to give a fish platter to the guard but they wouldn’t give one to me because I was defending someone in there. They were all happy to advocate for this man’s death. It just didn’t seem like the Christian way. Growing up Catholic, I was told that life was life, beginning and end, no matter what you’ve done, and it’s not the state’s role to kill anybody. Pope Francis has put a finer point on that now, and I hope that that combined with the advocacy work of Sister Helen, we can finally show that the Christian stance is that the death penalty should not happen.

TCR: Justice Scalia, also a practicing Catholic, supported the death penalty.

Brian Stolarz: Justice Scalia and I differed on our application of it even if we both had a strong Catholic faith.

TCR: Well, maybe in his case it wasn’t a Catholic interpretation, but a Constitutional reading of the death penalty?

brian stolarz

Brian Stolarz

Brian Stolarz: Yeah, it had to be. That’s what I read into it, but my faith has told me it’s not the right thing to do. If I were a judge I guess I would have to think about it differently, but from where I sit right now, it’s not the right thing to do. The state shouldn’t do this, and I hope Pope Francis’s message carries some weight.

TCR: There is currently an art exhibit, “Windows on Death Row” at Columbia Law School. People on death row made the art, and Columbia hosted several events this fall around the topic. At the first event, a Swiss representative who introduced the discussion said a central tenet of Switzerland’s foreign policy was a universal abolition of the death penalty. It’s also a European Union foreign policy objective. Why is it that the United States is one of the only countries in the Western world that still uses the death penalty?

Brian Stolarz: I spend a lot of time talking to folks in the European Union (EU). I’ve been to a few conferences and people are still shocked that we have it. We’re on a list with countries like Iraq and Iran and China, countries we don’t normally want to be on a list with as far as human rights. You can’t be a member of the EU if you have the death penalty. EU companies are not allowing drugs to be shipped here for this reason. Their advocacy is really important, and I think with more pressure like that, it may begin to change how we all think.

The American frontier spirit, and the Old Testament “eye-for-an-eye” approach has carried the narrative for us up to now. But I think that’s changing given the recent public opinion polls.

Julia Pagnamenta is a news intern for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.


The End of Policing? 

The drive to diversify police forces and the renewed interest in community policing are transforming law enforcement across the country. But a provocative new book by a Brooklyn College sociology professor argues that these efforts don’t address the underlying problems. He explains why in a conversation with TCR.

Policing in the United States is in the midst of transformative changes, partly spurred by the well-publicized officer-involved shootings around the country—but also as a consequence of generational change, as police ranks open up to a more diversified group of recruits and as departments modernize their training. But Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, argues that little will happen unless police agencies rethink their roles in public safety.

In The End of Policing, Vitale offers a different framework for thinking about how law enforcement relates to the communities it serves. In a chat with TCR’s Isidoro Rodriguez, he explains why the current policing model perpetuates racial bias, why he believes community policing is misconceived, and what he means by the provocative title he chose for his book,


Alex S. Vitale

The Crime Report: The title of your book will attract a lot of attention. But do you really think that policing needs to end? 

 Alex Vitale: The title has a kind of double meaning. On the one hand, it means should we look at a complete rethinking of policing. But, also, within that, what is the purpose of policing? What is it that we have asked police to do functionally?

The book is really about trying to lay out a process of interrogating our over-reliance on policing, and using evidence-informed alternatives to try and reduce that reliance. And behind that is the understanding that policing is inherently a problematic tool for cities to use to solve problems because it comes with a legacy of reproducing inequality, especially along the lines of race. Also, it relies on the tools of coercion, force, and punitiveness to solve problems; and that brings with it a lot of potential collateral consequences that we should be looking to avoid whenever possible.

TCR: The punitive aspect of policing is a key issue today. Departments across the country continue to face controversy as a result of their officers’ often aggressive methods. As a result, many have implemented programs such as Crisis Intervention Training and placed new emphasis on de-escalation and conflict resolution. Are these the right ways to go?

AV: First of all, a lot of departments aren’t making meaningful changes. They’re not actively embracing significant new training regimes. My view is that, ultimately, training police to better do things that they shouldn’t be doing in the first place is not the ultimate solution. If we could really dial back the things we ask police to do, then we could talk about what kind of training and protocols would be best for doing what’s left. Police is the unit of government that we rely on to be able to use force.

It’s a mistake to think that, somehow, we can just train police to be nice and friendly all the time. Rather than creating this idea that we can make the police nicer, we should really just reduce the number of things we ask them to do.

TCR: One of the main areas where police are taking on more responsibilities than many feel they should is policing the mentally ill. Should we take the responsibility for this population off the shoulders of police who often aren’t even trained to deal with them?

AV: Absolutely. Instead of trying to fine-tune the police response, we need to just end the police response to most of these calls. And we can just look at the United Kingdom as an example of how to move in that direction. There, when someone in a family is having a mental health crisis and a family member calls for help, they call a phone number that’s tied to the national health service. It has nothing to do with the police. A trained mental health nurse practitioner, or other trained mental health worker, responds to that call.

Now, if there is a concern, or an articulation of violence, than it may be necessary for some police backup. But that call is handled as a health crisis call. The UK police don’t want to take those calls, are happy to have mental health professionals doing that work, and are angry that mental health services in the UK are being dialed back and more of the burden is falling on them. And, frankly, there are a lot of cops in the United States who think it’s a mistake to send police on those calls. They don’t want to do them;, they don’t believe that what they’re doing helps; and it’s incredibly fraught.

TCR: Why is there such reticence on the part of American police forces to adopt international examples of successful alternative policing methods like those practiced in the UK?

AV: Because it has nothing to do with the police. This is not their decision to make. This is a decision that’s been made by political leaders not to fund adequate community based mental health services due to a bipartisan consensus around the politics of austerity.

TCR: In the debate on how best to deal with the mentally ill, there’s a strong push for diversion methods such as mental health courts. Do you see that as a successful step of reform?

AV: The courts are not always that successful in diverting people. Whether it’s mental health courts, trafficking courts, or drug courts, they rarely provide the services that are often most needed in these situations: stable supportive housing and access to a stable income, whether it’s through employment or government transfers.

End of PolicingThey engage in a lot of therapeutic regimes, which may provide some aid in helping people stabilize, but don’t totally do so in a way that avoids future interactions with these systems.

Instead, we see a lot of churning of people through these courts, through therapeutic regimes and, also, through emergency rooms, police lockups, and jails—often at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year per person. I think what we should be looking at is not pre-incarceration diversion, but pre-arrest diversion. Instead of limiting access to drug treatment to people that get arrested, why not have drug treatment on demand for anyone who needs it? Why not have actual adequate community based mental health services?

Then, if we have those services in place, and there are people who are still producing problems in the community, let’s talk about how to address those individuals from a comprehensive standpoint. Instead, we make no services available, and then we criminalize people for engaging in antisocial behavior.

TCR: Another issue your book addresses is the militarization of the police, both in tactics and the supply of military-grade hardware, a reality memorialized by the protests in Ferguson. Please explain your perspective.

 AV: Political violence is a political problem, and it needs to be solved in the political arena. But, too often, rather than addressing those political concerns, our political leaders hand it off to the police to deal with. That leaves, again, police in a no-win situation where they feel the need to use force to resolve what are ultimately political problems. The other thing is that militarization of policing is about a lot more than humvees and tactical vests. It’s about a whole ethos that has become widespread in policing in the United States. About politicians telling police to wage a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on terror, and a war on disorder and then giving them budgets to buy military equipment and create paramilitary units with training regimes that treat the public as enemies to be neutralized.

We have seen that ethos at work in some of the most horrible abuses of policing. So what is to be done? Quit telling the police they’re at war with the public, scale down the kinds of thing that they’re being asked to deal with, and then think about what kinds of tools, training, and technologies are best for accomplishing that. In my mind, that would result in a vast reduction in the use of militarized equipment and training.

TCR: In your book, you point out that poor and minority populations almost exclusively shoulder the burden of overpolicing. Why?

 AV: We persist in a fantasy of color blindness that says the police response is merely a professional technocratic response to where the crime is, but ignore the ways in which our society has been structured along racialized lines and the ways in which poverty in the United States is growing and becoming more entrenched. This includes a lot of white rural communities that are suffering from opioids and other kinds of crime problems.

Our political leaders have chosen to define those communities as criminal rather than as communities that are in deep distress because of entrenched joblessness, discrimination, geographic isolation, etc. If they were to admit that the problems in those communities were the result of market failures, rather than individual moral failures, then they would have to intervene in markets in ways that those who put them in office don’t want them to. To address the problems of inequality in any way other than policing is politically unacceptable in our current political environment.

TCR: As you write in your book, today’s policing issues have deep historical roots—in some cases as far back as the 17th century. Does this history hold any lessons for policing today?

AV: Our popular culture, which is the main source of information that people have on policing, is suffused with the myth of police as neutral, professional crime fighters. In the book, I discuss things like Adam 12, which was created in the wake of the Watts riots, as a tool that the Los Angeles Police Department was actively using to restore public confidence in police along really invented lines. That has become the way police are portrayed primarily in our popular culture. What we don’t see, are the concrete ways in which the police reproduce enforced ghetto segregation, Jim Crow, and carry out the war on drugs and terror along racial lines.

TCR: In your book you describe the “hero narrative” that dominates police thinking about their role. Does that need to be addressed at the start of police training?

 AV: Most young people that I know, who have wanted to go into law enforcement, are motivated by a very real and genuine desire to help their communities. They believe that policing is the way to do this. What they don’t understand is the profound legacy of the structural impediments to using policing to truly solve community problems. So, police officers are often very frustrated in their jobs, because what they thought was going to be both exciting and helpful is bureaucratic and pointless. If you read memoirs from police officers, you often get “we spent years arresting people for drugs, and yet everyone in the community could get drugs any time they wanted them.” It’s the utter pointlessness of the enforcement.

TCR: The motivation to help the community is behind many police departments’ renewed drive for adapting community policing methods as a means of creating safer and more effective policing practices. Is this a step in the right direction?

AV: No. I think that community policing merely expands our reliance on police to deal with social problems that would be better handled in other ways. As long as the police are asked to wage simultaneous wars on drugs, terror, disorder, and crime, they cannot do this in a friendly and respectful way. And what the police consider to be the community excludes large portions of these neighborhoods and consigns them to being the enemy.

TCR: So much of your book emphasizes taking money out of criminal justice and putting it into viable progressive social programs. In your opinion, on a party level, is there any push for this kind of monetary change on either side of the fence?

Isidoro Rodriguez

AV: No. My hope is that the theatrical excesses of the Trump administration will create more political space to talk about the kinds of reforms and shifts in social spending that will actually make a difference. But I don’t see too much of that in the works among existing big city politicians. New York City Council members have written me letters, some elected officials came to my book launch in New York, but we have yet to see a true political tendency.

Of course, there are community- based organizations all across the country making these same points. What we need to do is bring together those groups, critical academic researchers, and progressive political leaders, and turn this into a real political movement.

 Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff writer for The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.