Arizona Prisons Grapple with Upsurge in Inmate ‘Self-Harm’

More than 80 inmates tried to hang themselves so far this year, and 138 attempted drug overdoses, at a time when the Arizona Department of Corrections is under fire over allegedly inadequate health care. The state still has no mental health director, according to a report by the Phoenix public radio station.

Hundreds of people in Arizona prisons are hurting themselves and trying to take their own lives.

New data from the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) show inmates are harming themselves at an alarmingly increasing rate.

Numbers collected by ADC show a dramatic uptick in self-harm among inmates in the past year. Total incidents increased by almost 70 percent.

In fiscal year 2017, more than 80 inmates tried to hang themselves, and 138 tried to overdose on illegal drugs.

Table courtesy Arizona Department of Corrections

The number of inmates using blunt-force trauma — which can include inserting objects in the body and banging the head against a wall — has almost tripled in a single year.

The surge in self-harm reports comes as ADC is attempting to settle a lawsuit over poor health-care conditions in state prisons.

But reports generated for that settlement show ADC and its private contractor Corizon are still understaffing critical health-care positions.

The latest numbers from August show the state prison in Douglas, AZ has no medical director and just one psych associate.

The state prison in Phoenix is designated for seriously mentally ill people. The facility has no psychiatric director, no mental health director and less than half of the psych technicians specified by the contract with Corizon.

There is also no state director of mental health.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to specify that the numbers reported by ADC are incidents of self-harm, not necessarily individual inmates.

MORE: Arizona Prison Health Care Contract Leads To ‘Severe Understaffing’

David Fathi, an attorney for the inmates in the settlement, said there may be other factors at play but the staffing shortages cannot be helping.

“This is behavior that we often see with mentally ill people in particular whose mental illness is not being effectively treated,” Fathi said.

Incidents of cutting increased by nearly 50 percent. Fathi said that while not all cutting incidents are life-threatening, they should be taken seriously.

“This is potentially lethal behavior. Some incidents of self-harm result in serious injury or even death,” Fathi said. “And that can happen even if the person doesn’t intend to cause death. Any kind of self-harm behavior has to be treated extremely seriously.”

Fathi called the numbers extraordinary and said the increase in self-harm events “cries out for some sort of investigation.”

In a written response to questions about the increase, ADC spokesman Andrew Wilder said “personnel work very hard to identify, intervene and prevent inmates from committing acts of self-harm.”

He said ADC will begin a mental-health training program for correctional officers this month.

But Wilder’s statement downplayed the seriousness of the self-harm numbers, saying they should not “be construed as all being suicide attempts, as they certainly are not.”

“More commonly, these self-harm behaviors involve scratching, biting, ingesting/inserting objects, banging one’s head or hitting one’s self, etc., where there is no intention to commit suicide,” Wilder said

Wilder said the state “has put into place a mental-health transitional watch program aimed at assisting inmates as they come off of a watch and transition back into a general population environment. The goal is to reduce incidents of self-harm behaviors. The department is already in the process of expanding the program.”

According to ADC, there have already been 142 incidents of self-harm in Arizona prisons in fiscal year 2018, putting it on track to be the worst year on record.

ADC August Health Care Staffing Report

Jimmy Jenkins is a 2017 John Jay/Measures for Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a slightly abridged version of a story broadcast earlier this week by KJZZ in Phoenix as part of his fellowship project. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Starting Over: ‘So Many People Want You to Succeed’

A program launched this year by the Illinois Department of Corrections transfers inmates with less than four years remaining on their sentence to a facility that provides life-skills training and job counseling. The sense of hope among participants is hard to miss, says a reporter who attended a recent “Day with Dad” weekend at the Kewanee Re-Entry Center.

When Roberto Tejeda leaves the Illinois Department of Corrections early next year, he’s determined to beat dismal odds: half of those released from prison will be behind bars again within three years.

Tejeda’s chances of being an exception to those recidivism statistics improved in February, when he was transferred to the newly opened Life Skills Re-Entry Center in Kewanee, IL, about an hour’s drive from Chicago.

The 42-year-old Chicago man, currently serving a four-year sentence for residential burglary, was among the first 60 inmates admitted to the program, which offers vocational and educational counseling for men with less than four years remaining on their sentences.

On a recent visit to the Center’s first “Day with Dad” event, The Pantagraph found them in a buoyant mood.

“This number,” said Tejeda, pointing to his IDOC prisoner identification badge as he took a break from playing with his children, “is due to be recycled.”
Tejeda, who is using the resources of the center to sharpen his computer, interpersonal and job interview skills, is optimistic that he will be able to rejoin his family, and go back to work at a granite supplier.

Anthony Williams, Kewanee’s warden, shares his optimism.

It’s time for thinking outside the box about how to help former inmates reenter society as productive civilians, says Williams, who served as assistant warden at Menard Correctional Center, the state’s maximum security facility in southern Illinois, before coming to Kewanee.

“What’s been done nationally and in Illinois doesn’t work,” he said, noting that as state and local governments reduce expenses incurred when the same offenders cycle through the criminal justice system, the state’s investment in re-entry services will pay off.

Andrew Mattingley is another determinedly optimistic Kewanee resident.

Currently serving a four-year sentence for residential burglary, Mattingley intends to return to Decatur, IL with a plan to support himself and his family as a commercial truck driver.

For his daughter Peytin Mattingley, who will enter sixth grade next year, that day couldn’t come soon enough.

“It might be on my birthday” in April, said the girl, her broad smile a mirror image of her father’s grin.

A Former Juvenile Prison

The sprawling facility on the outskirts of Kewanee formerly housed up to 300 juvenile offenders.

The youth prison closed in 2016 as part of the state’s move to reduce the number of children in state custody. With plans to double-bunk inmates, the population of the re-entry center — currently 89 inmates — will gradually increase to about 600 as new staff is hired.

To be accepted at Kewanee, inmates must complete an application with an essay that explains their reasons for wanting to come. Those who qualify are entered into a blind draw to choose who enters the program.

“It’s nice to know we’re helping these guys put together plans to be successful in the future,” said Allison Trigg, a teacher hired to teach Kewanee inmates the practical skills they will need after their release, including how to secure a job and housing and to handle their finances.

They even learn how to tie a tie.

Roberto Tejeda plays basketball with his daughter, Giselle, 12, and his son junior, 6 during Kewanee’s Day With Dad event. Photo by David Proeber/The Pantagraph

For some inmates, success hinges on getting help for their complex needs that often were left unmet in the community. Mental health staff at Kewanee provide cognitive behavior therapy and other services.

“We tailor everything to what the population needs,” said Williams, noting that three inmates have been unsuccessful at Kewanee and were returned to their previous facility.

Kewanee is open to any inmate with four years or less left to serve, regardless of the crime that brought them to prison, said Williams.

“For me, everything else is trivial because they’re going home,” he said.

Inmates cited for a major rule violation within the previous six months of their application are ineligible.

Kewanee has the support of area churches and civic groups that have donated clothing, food for special events and hundreds of volunteer hours to mentor inmates.

“Henry (County) and the surrounding counties have really embraced us and the mission of this facility,” said Williams.

As the program evolves, the state plans to invite inmates with life sentences to apply for admission. Inmates ineligible for release could serve as mentors for others when they leave the program, said Williams.

Former participants are likely to be equally effective mentors.

One of them could be Rafael Ortiz, who spent more than half of his 38 years behind bars for a murder he committed when he was 18 while living in Chicago.

When he leaves Kewanee in about four months, Ortiz is looking forward to a fresh start in a new city where he plans to complete training to be a substance abuse counselor.

Ortiz, who now helps other inmates with job interview skills, said what’s special about Kewanee is the environment it creates.

“(You’re) around so many people who want to see you succeed,” he said.

This is an edited and slightly rewritten version of a story published this month in The Pantagraph by staff writer Edith Brady-Lunny, a former John Jay Criminal Justice Reporting Fellow. It’s part of a continuing series of stories on the challenges facing people after their release from prison. To read the original story, and the entire series, please click here. Readers’ comments are welcome. Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny


OK Grapples with High Female Incarceration Rate

Oklahoma leads the nation in female incarceration – at a rate more than twice the national average. On Wednesday, legislators, activists and academics will explore how to reduce the rate in a livestreamed conference hosted by The Atlantic magazine in collaboration with Reveal, of California’s Center for Investigative Reporting.

The stories behind Oklahoma’s disproportionately high female incarceration rate are the subject of an upcoming investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and a forum in Oklahoma City that will explore the experiences of women in the state’s justice system.

On Wednesday, September 20, The Atlantic will host Defining Justice: The Experience of Women and Children Behind Bars in collaboration with Reveal. Journalists from Reveal, including senior editor Ziva Branstetter, will discuss our upcoming investigation and data analysis examining the roots of the problem.

Defining Justice will confront key questions surrounding women in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system: Why is the women’s incarceration rate in Oklahoma so high? What are the long-term human costs to women and children affected by the justice system? And what solutions would create a criminal justice system more responsive to women?

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin will join the program for a one-on-one discussion on the political path toward criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, moderated by The Atlantic’s contributing editor Alison Stewart.

Stewart and Branstetter will moderate discussions throughout the day, along with Allison Herrera, a reporter and social media editor at Public Radio International; and David Fritze, executive editor of Oklahoma Watch. Herrera and The Frontier, an Oklahoma-based news website, partnered with Branstetter on Reveal’s investigation.

Speakers include policymakers, advocates, justice experts, journalists and women who have been incarcerated in Oklahoma prisons. Among the experts taking part in the discussions are Sheila Harbert, chief community outreach officer for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma; and Mimi Tarrasch, executive director of Women in Recovery.

Also scheduled to speak are: Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry and former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives; and Susan Sharp, presidential professor emerita at the University of Oklahoma and author of “Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners.”

“Defining Justice” is the first in a series of three events by The Atlantic examining aspects of the American criminal justice system and how they affect women and children in cities across the country. is running an ongoing digital reporting series, The Presence of Justice, which focuses on efforts across the nation to move beyond the age of mass incarceration.

Reveal will release its investigation into Oklahoma’s female incarceration rate on our website, podcast and radio show with PRX later this month. Sign up for our newsletter to get the story sent straight to your inbox.

Defining Justice will be recorded and streamed live online by The Atlantic. You can follow the discussion on social media using the hashtag #DefiningJustice.

TCR is pleased to republish this article, produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a California-based nonprofit news organization. Learn more at and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at Readers’ comments are welcome.


Getting Bail Right

Releasing the wrong defendants can increase the risk that they won’t appear in court as directed—or commit additional crimes. But holding people unnecessarily can be costly. A series by The Sentinel studies the impact of bail decisions in two Pennsylvania countries.

Setting bail has consequences.

For a defendant, the consequence can be the difference between going home or sitting in jail.

Even a short stay in jail can cost an individual their job or even their home.

For society, releasing the wrong people can mean increasing the chance they will not appear as directed or possibly more victimization.

Holding people unnecessarily can be costly and, as recent studies have found, it can actually lead to an increase in recidivism and crime.

All of this is to say there is incentive for everyone to get these decisions right at the earliest possible point.

Whether a defendant sits in jail or remains free in Pennsylvania can be a matter of what zip code they were arrested in.

In 2016, the average defendant in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland County with monetary bail imposed was expected to pay $10,000 to remain out of jail, according to an analysis of court records conducted by The Sentinel.

However, the average defendant in neighboring Franklin County was expected to pay three times that.

Median bail for defendants charged with selling drugs in Franklin County was $100,000 last year, compared to only $25,000 in Cumberland County.

The variations don’t stop at the county level.

In Cumberland County in 2016, median bail amounts per judge ranged from $7,500 to more than $40,000.

Both Magisterial District Judges, Paul Fegley and Vivian Cohick, had set median bail amounts of $25,000.

“My first thought process is I did not bring you here,” Cohick said about dealing with the consequences of bail. “There has been a charge against you for a violation of the law.

“This is not just saying ‘you climbed up on the stool and I didn’t want you to climb up on the stool, so I’m going to paddle your butt.’”

“A person is being charged with a violation of the law,” she added. “That takes away some of the ‘you’re free to walk around and do what you want to do.’”

The Sentinel analysis reviewed all cases entering the magisterial district judge level in 2016 and sorted bails set at preliminary arraignment, which generally occurs around the time of arrest.

Cases where the defendant was issued a summons, usually lower level offenses, were not included in the analysis.

The Sentinel found no significant difference in the types of charges dealt with at arraignment that could explain the variation in bail amounts.

“How long are they going to sit in jail? That would be one of the things that might pop in my head,” she said. “But generally not so much, because I’m scheduling (a preliminary hearing) within three to 10 days. … That would bring them to their preliminary hearing quickly, so if they may not have bail, they may not have to sit long.”

Each year, thousands of bed days are lost at the Cumberland County Prison to defendants who are held on monetary bail before ultimately have their bail reduced and are released without financial conditions.

Most appear as directed. Many are later sentenced probation or other non-prison punishments.

A growing trend in criminal justice is the use of algorithms, known as risk assessments, to help quantify the decision-making process.

A recent study by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation found a county in Ohio was able to get better outcomes with less pretrial incarceration after implementing a risk assessment tool.

“Ultimately we want to just know what the person’s true risk level is,” University of Virginia Associate Professor of Public Policy and Economics Jennifer Doleac said. “Unfortunately, that is impossible.”

Risk assessments to do not eliminate all risk or provide absolute certainty of the outcome of individual cases.

In the case of the Ohio Risk Assessment, roughly five percent of low-risk defendants will likely fail to appear for court as directed if released.

Doleac also said risk assessments do not necessarily eliminate racial or other biases in the system.

“If you are deciding whether or not someone is a risk to fail to appear … and you know the person is unemployed and has no family, we know those things seem like they would be very plausibly causal factors to show back up in court,” Doleac said. “It’s just easier for you to take off if you don’t have any ties.

“But, we also know that black men are more likely to be unemployed, marriage rates are lower and those types of factors are going to be correlated with race.

“You have to draw a line somewhere.”

This is a condensed version of a series published by The Sentinel. Read the full series here. Joshua Vaughn is a 2017 John Jay/Measuresfor Justice Fellow. He welcomes comments from readers.





How to Make Justice Count

An innovative database created by Measures for Justice is helping officials in an Indiana county make smarter policy decisions on how to deal with mentally ill individuals who run afoul of the law.

When it comes to policy decisions that impact the public and thousands of people who move through the criminal justice system each year, anecdotal information can be misleading and expensive.

In Indiana, the McLean County Board expects to use hard numbers from the county’s participation in several data collection projects to devise solutions based on facts—not perceptions—related to mentally ill residents, many of them homeless and prone to commit offenses that land them in jail.

County Administrator Bill Wasson said the county is working with the University of Chicago to develop a database of information on so-called “super utilizers” of mental health services in McLean County that could be shared with public and private agencies.

When agencies know a person’s history as defined by 300 measuring points, the work of helping the individual avoid recurring crises becomes easier, said Wasson.

McLean County Administrator Bill Wasson. Photo by David Proeber/The Pantagraph

“One of our goals is to have actionable information for our agencies so they can make the best decisions about where individuals should be directed for services, or how they can be diverted from the criminal justice system,” said Wasson.

The numbers come from more than a dozen private agencies, including hospitals, in addition to fire, police and the adult and juvenile detention facilities. Records are coded to protect the privacy of the individual whose mental health treatment or interaction with police is examined and added to the database.

The county will be able to compare how it’s doing on a wide range of criminal justice issues later this year when Measures for Justice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, releases several years of data on McLean County.

See also: TCR May 15, 2017 “Measures for Justice: America How Are We Doing?”

The project offers a county-level view of criminal cases that follows a defendant through all stages of the system. The free data tool is currently available to 300 counties in six states and will expand to include five Illinois counties by the end of the year.

Measures for Justice looks at 32 performance measures based on three primary objectives of the criminal justice system: public safety; fairness; and fiscal responsibility. The data is designed to be a conversation starter that allows users to compare their county with their peers, said Fiona Maazel, director of communications for Measures for Justice.

“We see a need to bring a new degree of transparency to the system that’s perhaps been lacking, so people know what’s going on in the criminal justice system,” said Maazel.

In McLean County, the extensive collection of local numbers was launched by the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in 2009 as part of the effort to reduce overcrowding at the jail.

Since then, the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development at Illinois State University has drilled down jail numbers to examine factors such as inmate demographics, case processing time and recidivism.

The critical shortage of affordable and supportive housing in McLean County is the focus of the county’s partnership with the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH). The county is in the early stages of exploring whether the CSH “Pay for Success” program to fund housing for people with complex challenges, including homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse disorders, is a good fit. The county received a $200,000 grant from CSH in May for technical assistance related to the data-gathering process.

The CSH housing model relies on partnerships between private and philanthropic groups and investors who work with local governments to provide upfront dollars for housing. Providers are required to prove the success of the program through reduced costs of hospitalization, incarceration and other services frequently accessed by those with unstable living arrangements.

It may take about two years for the county to complete the research needed for the CSH program, said Wasson, but in the meantime the county is looking for other ways to address the housing situation.

McLean County Board Chairman John McIntyre traced the county’s work to reform the local mental health system back to 2012 when former Sheriff Mike Emery brought the issue of mental health care for jail inmates to the attention of the county board.

“The county has taken it on and we’re in it for the long haul,” said McIntyre.

A 2013 report from the National Institute of Corrections called the jail “clearly one of the most professionally managed and forward thinking jails in the nation,” but recommended the county consider major changes to address inadequate housing for nearly 30 percent of the jail population with a mental health diagnosis.

The county subsequently developed the Mental Health Action Plan that laid out priorities for improving the mental health system. The practice of mentally ill housing inmates in the jail’s booking area — a practice jail officials developed to protect vulnerable inmates — was addressed with the county’s plan to construct an 80,000 square foot addition to the jail. The $39 million project underway on the east side of the existing facility is expected to be substantially completed by late 2018.

Edith Brady-Lunny is a 2017 John Jay/Measures for Justice Reporting Fellow. The complete published version of her story is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.


 ‘There’s No One Left to Hurt But Me’

In an essay written for the San Francisco Beat Within prison-writing workshop, a California inmate looks back on the mistakes that landed him behind bars for most of his life, a process he says has taken him from “blame to shame.”

As I look back at all the things I’ve done to get me to this point, I must admit I’ve worked really hard to mess up my life. All the illegal things I did on the streets earned me a (lifetime) in prison.

And if that wasn’t enough, once in prison I continued down that same path. The things I did while in prison earned me a sentence in Pelican Bay’s infamous SHU program—“the Hole”—a prison within a prison. It’s a place designed for those deemed by the prison administration to be the worst of the worst.

Staring at the 5,286 holes that make up the front of my cold concrete (SHU) cell, I remember thinking, “Is this it?”

Is this where I’ve been working so hard to get to, in a cell by myself for 22 ½ hours a day, going to a yard the size of a walk-in closet with nothing in it: no handball, no basketball, no dip bars, no pull-up bars , not even a sink or toilet?

Nothing but concrete walls, a camera and me!

I had to be strip-searched, handcuffed, waist-chained, leg-shackled and escorted by two correctional officers with billy clubs in hand every time I left my cell…”Escort coming through!”…they would always yell, as if the sounds of my many chains couldn’t be heard echoing throughout the empty corridors with every step I took.

Having no direct sunlight or human contact whatsoever (means) complete isolation, humiliation and sensory deprivation.  It means having all my food and cosmetics taken out of their original containers and placed in paper bags and paper cups; having to drink my coffee and eat my food out of milk cartons because bowls and cups aren’t allowed; having absolutely no access to a telephone,  not even when there was a death in my family.

It means having to be told that the only way I would get out of the SHU was if I died, was paroled, or debriefed (to snitch).  It means I have to fight every single day just to keep my sanity!

To be honest, I find it impossible to even pretend anymore.  As I take a real hard look at my life and all the harm I’ve done to myself, I realize that I have absolutely nothing to show for my life. That hurts more than words can describe.  I don’t have anything, because I’ve never done what it takes to get something and keep it! I’ve lived the life of an irresponsible fool!

Even when people tried to tell me where my life was going to end up if I kept down the road I was going, I refused to listen, thinking I knew what I was doing. Now here I sit in a jail cell, wishing I had listened to somebody other than myself, because thanks to me my life has literally been one disaster after another. I’ve messed up my life on so many levels that I may never be able to fully recover!

Those self-inflicted wounds hurt like hell!

Being honest with myself has taken me from blame to shame. Now I find myself at that fork in the road everyone keeps talking about, where my life literally depends on my making the right choices. Because when I do get another chance, it will surely be my last. I’ve done 16 months in juvenile hall, three years in CYA (youth prison), three years in the county jail, and 23 years, 6 months and 18 days in prison. I now have five “strikes,” which means I’m faced with the possibility of a life sentence any time I come back to jail, no matter the charge.

Not only am I all out of chances, but I can’t even afford the luxury of a negative thought. I’m done subjecting myself to this.  When I walk out these jailhouse doors I will never be back!

I’ve done all the time I can do. I’ve given the game, the streets, the hood, the block and the homies all that I can give. The rest of my life goes to me and my family.

It really saddens me to say this, but not only have I been in jail most of my life but I’ve also been alone for most of my life as well. Sadly, I’m used to it. I wish that I wasn’t, but I am.

That definitely isn’t normal—nothing about being in these places is normal—and the longer you stay inside these places, the further away from normal you get.

This place eats away at you a few bites at a time till there’s nothing left but a shell of your former self, wasting away in some cell with nothing but a few war stories to tell.  I’m done lying and playing games with myself. I’m tired of saying, “It is what it is!” When the truth is–it is what it is because this is what I’ve made it! I created this mess!

My choices put me here. And in all honesty, after looking at my life for what it is and finally facing some ugly truths about myself and what I’ve done to my life , I can see why I am where I am. I’ve been my own worst enemy most of my life.  I’ve always found something or someone else to blame, when the truth is–I’m to blame.

I’ve had so many opportunities to have a wonderful life, but each time I was on the brink of success, I sabotaged myself again and again by making all the wrong choices. Choosing the wrong people, places and things is why I am where I am today—alone—in a jail cell.

I’ve hurt everyone in my life over and over again, till finally, there’s no one left to hurt but me!

Jesse Jackson is a participant in the Beat Within’s San Francisco County Jail writing workshops. Other prisoner essays are available here.  Readers’ comments are welcome.


DEA Agents Pose as Guerrillas to Net Arms Trafficker

Faouzi Jaber, a 61-year-old Ivorian citizen, pleaded guilty this week in a case involving smuggling arms and drugs to Colombia’s FARC group. But the undercover tactics by U.S. agents raise questions about future drug-war strategies in Colombia.

A man from the Ivory Coast has pleaded guilty in a New York federal court to offering support to undercover DEA agents posing as members of Colombia‘s FARC guerrilla group.

The case involving Faouzi Jaber, a 61-year-old Ivorian citizen known by the alias “Excellence,” raises questions about the handling of similar operations in the future in light of the FARC‘s ongoing demobilization.

Faouzi Jaber. Photo courtesy InSight Crime

Jaber pleaded guilty on July 25 to conspiring to traffic arms and drugs in support of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) insurgency, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.

According to a press release from the U.S. prosecutor’s office, Jaber met multiple times with confidential sources working for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) who were posing as members of the FARC.

In those meetings, Jaber introduced the confidential sources to drug and arms traffickers, and promised to help the guerrilla group obtain weapons, smuggle drugs in Africa and launder money.

Jaber was arrested in April 2014 by local authorities in the Czech Republic acting on a US request for his capture and extradition.

Jaber is not the first international arms trafficker brought down by DEA operatives pretending to be members of the FARC.

Perhaps the most infamous example is the 2008 arrest in Thailand of Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death” who was later convicted in the United States of conspiring to sell arms to DEA sources posing as FARC fighters.

More recently, a Romanian-born man named Flaviu Georgescu was convicted in the United States of participating in a weapons trafficking conspiracy following a similar set-up.

Although the tactic of posing as the FARC has helped the DEA capture a number of suspected international criminals, the agency will almost certainly have to find a new group to impersonate in these types of stings. The FARC, one of the world’s oldest and most famous guerrilla groups, signed a peace deal with the Colombian government last year and recently handed over its weapons to the United Nations.

However, the fact that the FARC is now effectively defunct as a guerrilla organization does not mean that the DEA will stop using confidential sources posing as criminals to execute sting operations.

In fact, this tactic—which has been criticized as a form of entrapment— has become a staple of the DEA’s pursuit of so-called “narco-terrorism” cases in Latin America and abroad.

Mike LaSusa is editor of InSight Crime. The Crime Report is pleased to publish this story in collaboration with InSight Crime. For the complete version, including related links, please click here. Readers’ comments are welcomed.


Can a Civilian Persuade L.A. Cops to Stop Shooting?

A Los Angeles entertainment lawyer has turned the city’s police commission into a force for addressing police abuse. His first goal: reducing the officer-involved shootings that have become the civil rights issue of the 21st century for young African Americans through “de-escalation” strategies.

It’s 11 a..m. on a Tuesday last March, and Matthew Johnson, the president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, is seated front and center with the four other part-time civilian commissioners in a large theater-style meeting room at the LAPD’s headquarters downtown.

On today’s agenda is approval of a potentially historic new policy intended to decrease the high number of LAPD shootings.

But as has been the case for years now, the angry, overwhelmingly black, overflow crowd is hurling obscenity-laden invective at the commission—and particularly at Johnson, who is also African American. One person tells him to “shut the fuck up!;” another keeps calling him “house Negro.”

Johnson knew that he had a difficult road ahead when Mayor Eric Garcetti asked him to join the commission in 2015. But after seeing protests over police shootings and abuse explode across the nation in 2014, he felt compelled to take the post, which is unpaid and part-time: Police abuse had become the civil rights issue of the 21st century for young African Americans. Johnson wanted to change that dynamic, and the commission was the best way to go about doing that.

“Even before I accepted this position,” he says, “I started doing a lot of research on police reform. And I found that Los Angeles was unique in the way civilian oversight is structured and that a civilian can actually come in and make a real difference.

“There’s no other civilian commission—certainly in any medium or large city—that has the resources and the power we do to make change.”

That wasn’t always the case.

A holdover from the good government Progressive era of Teddy Roosevelt, the five-member Los Angeles Police Commission is tasked with setting LAPD policy and monitoring its implementation. But between 1950 and the 1992 riots, the commission rarely had the stomach to challenge the department, despite appalling numbers of unarmed civilians being killed by officers too quick to pull the trigger or to apply choke holds using their batons.

In fact, the commission allowed former police chief Daryl Gates, whose egregious leadership was essentially responsible for the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed, to write his own civil service evaluations—all of them positive.

Gates was nonetheless forced to retire after the riots, and the commissioners effectively fired the next two chiefs, who in their collective ten years on the job failed to make the lasting changes the city was so desperate for. A new period of genuine reform followed with police chief William Bratton and his successor, current chief Charlie Beck.

Since the nationwide protests in 2014 over police shootings and abuse, the commission has been seeking yet more fundamental change. In 2015, under then president Steve Soboroff, it mandated the use of body cameras for officers and dash cams in patrol cars—important steps in assuring officer accountability, especially with shootings.

Since becoming president in 2015, Johnson has been pursuing changes to the use-of-force policy in an effort to reduce shootings.

A 49-year-old father of four, he is a managing partner at the entertainment law firm of Ziffren Brittenham. While he doesn’t talk much about the strains that come with his work on the commission, he’s clearly paid a personal price for taking it on. Black Lives Matter protestors have picketed his Sherman Oaks residence and barged into his Sherman Oaks office, and he got a restraining order against an activist who showed up at his home after he had commented on one of Johnson’s sons during a tirade at a commission meeting (a remark Johnson declines to discuss today).

The March commission meeting took place shortly after, and the policy change it yielded marks the crowning achievement of Johnson’s two-year stint as president, which comes to an end in a month or so.

“Upon my appointment I knew I had a limited window as commission president to work through my agenda,” he says. “I believe that the ticking clock actually helped me stay focused.”

Working-Class Childhood

It was a long haul to get to this point. Johnson grew up working class in the segregated New Jersey town of Highland Park. His father was a firefighter; his mother, a schoolteacher. She pushed him toward success and fought hard to ensure that her son got into those AP classes that helped him earn acceptance at Rutgers University.

As a kid, Johnson learned that simply walking or riding his bike could mean being stopped and questioned by the police, but it wasn’t until he was in college that he experienced the peril that comes with being a young black man in America.

He was driving home on a cold winter night, doing the speed limit as cars whizzed by him on the New Jersey Turnpike, when state troopers pulled him over without cause and handcuffed him on the side of the road.

Refusing his pleas to let him put on a jacket, the police insisted he was ferrying drugs and searched his car.

All Johnson kept thinking was, “Please, Lord, don’t let them plant drugs on me.”

He’s carried that memory with him to this day, though he’s quick to note that he met many good cops through his father.

While attending law school at New York University, he fell in with a group that remains tight to this day. “All of us were incredibly poor graduate students—young men of color from humble beginnings who recognized our commonality,” says Dean Garfield, now the president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council.

“We saw values in each other we wanted to emulate, and in the process became a support system for each other’s success.”

Johnson moved to L.A. two weeks after the ’92 riots, knowing nobody but sure he wanted to be an entertainment lawyer. Twenty-five years later, he’s counted Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams, Forest Whitaker, and Sacha Baron Cohen among his clients.

Making partner at any high-powered law firm can mean putting in hundred-hour weeks, but Johnson didn’t want to give up the community work he’d begun in law school. For the past 20 years he’s volunteered with Boys and Girls clubs, serving as their board president and as a national trustee.

His wife, the documentary filmmaker and activist Yasmine Johnson, runs the Alliance of Moms, a nonprofit focused on serving pregnant and parenting teens in L.A.’s overwhelmed foster care system.

Johnson respected the difficulty of being a cop but had ideas about how policing could be done differently. After taking over as president, he spelled them out by writing a public assessment-slash-manifesto about the department and where he intended to focus.

A primary goal: reducing those officer-involved shootings.

So Johnson turned to best-practices literature. “He reads everything,” says Soboroff. “He’s a lawyer. He’s not looking at the yellow highlights in a report. And he knows what he doesn’t know. That’s really valuable.”

Johnson and the commission settled on a de-escalation policy advocated by the Obama administration’s Justice Department.

“What de-escalation acknowledges is something that has been apparent in policing forever: What you do at the beginning of a situation often controls its outcome,” Charlie Beck recently told me.

“We see situations where officers have no choice but to use deadly force. But had they been more skilled a few minutes earlier—in their tactics and communication skills—it might have never gotten to the point where deadly force had to be used.”

This is especially true when dealing with the mentally ill homeless or distraught people who can be talked down by officers who’ve taken precautions to take themselves out of immediate danger.

Johnson also needed to learn the lay of the land and build support from a long list of players: the mayor’s office, the chief of police, disparate community-advocacy groups, the LAPD command staff, and the LAPD’s politically powerful rank-and-file union, the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

In the months before the vote, the league had been publicly blasting Johnson, warning that he was going to have blood on his hands if the policy passed. To get their sign-off, “Matt had to spend a lot of time doing things where there was no glory,” says fellow police commissioner Shane Goldsmith.

“He was very disciplined at getting input and analysis—from the people around him, from stakeholders directly impacted, from the inspector general, from all different sources—and in finding where there was room for compromise while still creating a viable new policy. It was really an extraordinary accomplishment.”

Technically Johnson and the commission didn’t need the league’s approval, but long-lasting cultural change—particularly on an issue that can affect officers’ lives and careers—almost demanded it; there are too many ways cops can ignore, sabotage, and/or get around such a controversial policy shift. The league’s imprimatur would mean acceptance by cops on the street—grudgingly, perhaps, but acceptance all the same.

“There’s the political ability to get something done and the practical reality on the ground,” Johnson says. In this case, “if officers feel like they are under attack, they’ll stop policing. That’s not accomplishing the goals.

“I want them to embrace the policy so they can still do their jobs effectively in a way that is safer for the community. So buy-in from the union was big. At the end of the day, this was not an intellectual exercise.”

The payoff, says Beck, is that “now officers will be required to do everything they can to de-escalate a tense situation.”

One group that Johnson couldn’t keep on board was the ACLU, which withheld its support essentially over one word: de-escalation tactics must be used only when “possible.”

(Johnson contends the ACLU didn’t understand the way the policy works.)

So far the policy seems to be taking hold. The commission and Beck have established exercises in which officers act out specific scenarios as part of their de-escalation training, and the department is in the process of equipping every patrol car with less lethal options, such as beanbag shotguns.

Joe Domanick

Meanwhile, Johnson tells me, the commission is conducting a review aimed at expanding the release of videotaped use-of-force incidents to the public. And those body-cameras will be fully deployed by the first quarter of next year.

That isn’t soon enough for activists, who still crowd the police commission meetings, but Johnson isn’t one to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. He’s got three years left on the commission, he says, “and I plan on staying actively engaged in seeing my initiatives through.”

Joe Domanick is West Coast editor of The Crime Report. The original version of the story appeared in Los Angeles Magazine. He welcomes comments from readers.


Abandoned Justice

After a murder conviction is overturned, how eager are prosecutors to reexamine the evidence and find the real killer? A journalist who investigated 263 vacated cases around the nation since 2006 says it happens rarely.

Ninety-two year-old Emma Crapser spent the last night of her life playing Bingo at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, about a half a mile from her Poughkeepsie, N.Y. apartment. Upon her return home, she was murdered, apparently in the course of an intended robbery.

Six years later, in December 1983, a 24-year-old black man named Dewey Bozella was convicted of her murder and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. In May  1990, a judge found that prosecutors had improperly excluded black people from Bozella’s jury and ordered a new trial.

Bozella was convicted again. Then, in 2009, another judge vacated that conviction. This time, the district attorney declined to file new charges and Dewey Bozella found himself, after 26 years behind bars, a free man.

The court’s decision to overturn the conviction was based on its determination that the prosecution had failed to disclose exculpatory information to Bozella’s trial lawyer. This included information that undermined the credibility of key witnesses—like statements that contradicted their court testimony and deals in their own criminal cases—and pointed to the likely involvement of others in the crime.

Among the other suspects were two brothers who ended up going to prison on 25- year-to-life sentences for the robbery and brutal beating of two disabled elderly sisters, Madeline and Catherine King, and the murder of a third, Mary, in their family home about a half a mile from where Crapser had lived, eight months after Crapser was killed.

One of these men also had been implicated in the violent assault in the same neighborhood of yet another elderly woman, Estelle Dobler, carried out two months after Crapser’s murder and for which no one was ever prosecuted.

In its response opposing Bozella’s bid to overturn his conviction, the Dutchess County district attorney’s office downplayed the similarities among these three crimes; (but) in his 2009 decision to vacate the conviction, the judge called them “striking.”

As it turned out, one of the brothers convicted in the King case was released on parole months before Bozella was freed.

In 2015, Dutchess County settled a civil suit with Bozella for $7.5 million. To finance the payout, the county was forced to issue bonds.

[The same year,] 38 years after her murder, the Poughkeepsie Journal asked “Who Killed Emma Crapser?”

The newspaper offered no definitive answer, but the question itself points to a broader issue that tends to be underexplored in the context of wrongful convictions: what typically happens with respect to the underlying crime—and, by implication, [what happens to] the cause of justice and of public safety—when the person found legally responsible for committing it is later determined not to be?

How many murder cases might there be like Emma Crapser’s?

I set out to answer this question, using the National Registry of Exonerations, news reports and court filings, first to identify all of the murder convictions vacated nationwide since 2006 that, like Bozella’s, did not hinge on DNA evidence.  I excluded any case in which the vacated conviction involved a finding that a murder had not been committed (as has happened, for example, in several arson cases charged as murders but later determined to be accidents).

I looked exclusively for murder cases because murder typically has no statute of limitations, and therefore can be prosecuted at any time, even decades after the crime occurred, if new evidence or a new suspect is identified. Finally, I limited my search to the past 11 years on the assumption that it might be easier to get information about relatively recent vacated convictions than those overturned several decades ago.

My research turned up a total of 263 vacated murder convictions that fit this criteria (according to the National Registry, there have been a total of 2,034 known exonerations in the United States since 1989.).

This number does not represent 263 murders, but wrongfully convicted defendants.  In some cases, multiple people were wrongfully convicted for the same murder, while in others one person was wrongfully convicted for murdering more than one person.

Of the 263 people whose convictions were vacated, 161 were black; 65 white, 33 Hispanic and four Native American.

A vacatur is not equivalent to a determination of actual innocence; convictions must be overturned not only when there is a finding of factual innocence, but also when a defendant’s constitutional rights have been violated, regardless of guilt or innocence. In fact, very few wrongfully convicted people are ever able definitively to “prove” their innocence, though in the course of the appeals process many end up presenting evidence that calls their guilt into question.

Here’s what I discovered:

Forty-eight of those who were wrongfully convicted were re-tried after their convictions were vacated, and all were acquitted. Following these acquittals it appears that no new suspects were charged, except in one case where an additional suspect had been arrested outside the county a year before the vacatur, was extradited to the US, and pleaded guilty to the crime a month after the wrongfully convicted defendant was acquitted four years later.

Of the remaining 215 wrongful convictions, prosecutors charged a new suspect in murders related to just 16, or 7%, of them.

Notably, in 11 of these 16 cases it appears in fact that it was the existence of an alternative suspect—typically identified by defense investigators and further investigated by prosecutors—that led to the vacatur and dismissal of charges.

In an additional case, a new suspect pleaded guilty to the crime a year after the exoneration.

As to why no new charges were filed in the murder cases connected to 93% of these wrongful convictions, the answer often depends on who is offering the explanation. Prosecutors, cops and defense attorneys often tend to see things very differently.

That said, I was able to ascertain that the true perpetrators—determined either by credible confessions and/or objective evidence—of murders connected to an additional 24 of these wrongful convictions are either dead or in prison, serving a long sentence for a different crime, sometimes in another state.

While neither outcome represents justice for the victims in the wrongful conviction cases, those murderers are nonetheless “off the streets.”

I also discovered that with respect to murders for which an additional eight people were wrongfully convicted, the true perpetrators appear to be beyond the reach of law enforcement because of immunity or plea deals given to them by prosecutors (these cases tended to involve violence perpetrated by gangs).

In addition, I identified seven cases (and four of the cases in which a defendant was retried and acquitted), in which the person who was wrongfully convicted was convicted along with at least one or more others who, it seems fairly clear, were actually responsible.

While there is reason to believe that in some of these cases not everyone involved was apprehended, someone has been held accountable for these killings.

Then there are the 10 cases in which the underlying crimes were committed so long ago, and the original prosecutions so flawed, that law enforcement seems reasonably to have abandoned any hope of being able to conduct a productive reinvestigation.

This is in contrast to an additional 24 cases I was told by prosecutors were either the subject of an “ongoing investigation” or “open,” though what that means (does open mean active? Are the ongoing investigations targeting new suspects or the original defendant?) remains unclear, as all refused to elaborate. About an additional 48 cases, prosecutors elected to say nothing.

I did learn that 17 people whose convictions were vacated are viewed as actually innocent by the district attorney currently leading the office that originally prosecuted the case (in some instances, a predecessor did not share that view), but it appears that law enforcement lacks any meaningful leads regarding the true culprit. In these cases, both time passed and limited resources appear to be major obstacles to developing such leads.

That leaves 61 cases about which prosecutors or their spokespeople offered statements attributing the lack of new charges in a case to the “erosion” or “insufficiency” of evidence to re-prosecute the original defendant, thus implying that there is no other possible suspect.

In some of these cases, prosecutors stated outright that they believe the wrongfully convicted person to be guilty. I discovered, however, that in just over a third of these cases—like in numerous other cases that prosecutors declined to comment on—there seems to be credible evidence pointing to a different suspect altogether.

Freeing Marty Tankleff

Take the case of Marty Tankleff, who was convicted in 1990 of murdering his parents in their Long Island, N.Y. home and spent 17 years behind bars before his conviction was vacated by an appellate court.

According to Lonnie Soury, a media expert who worked closely with Tankleff’s appellate team, including private investigator Jay Salpeter, “in the effort to free [Marty], we conducted a major reinvestigation of the case that produced significant new evidence that three men committed the murder at the behest of Mr. Tankleff’s father’s business partner.”

Soury says that “the new evidence was turned over to [Suffolk County District Attorney] Thomas Spota,” who “did nothing with [it] other than continue to oppose Tankleff’s bid to overturn his conviction.”

After the Court vacated the conviction, Spota requested that it formally dismiss the charges against Tankleff,  saying that his office could not “reasonably assert that a new prosecution would be successful.” He also said he would ask then-Governor Eliot Spitzer to appoint a special prosecutor to reinvestigate the case.

Asked by e-mail whether Spota’s office had ever looked into these other suspects, a spokesman failed to answer the question, noting instead that then AG-Andrew Cuomo “conducted an investigation” after the DA “requested the Governor appoint a special prosecutor to resolve any residual doubts with respect to the potential prosecution of other individuals the defense claims participated in these murders.”

For reference, the spokesman attached to the e-mail an excerpt from the judge’s decision to dismiss the indictment following Cuomo’s review. That excerpt, however, did not mention that Cuomo—who Soury says [was] given the information developed by Tankleff’s appellate team—had investigated any other suspects and stated only that the “Attorney General’s office… determined that there should not be a reprosecution of defendant.”

For his part, Soury cannot say for certain why the DA failed to take action with regard to these other suspects, three of whom, he says, continue to live “freely and with impunity” in Suffolk County, but adds that “some evidence exists that the leader of the group was a confidential informant to the DA’s office” and that others may have had political connections that protected them from prosecution.

Indeed, in late 2015 federal investigators began looking into allegations of corruption involving the Suffolk County Police Department and Spota’s office. This came on the heels of a 2013 federal probe that led the Suffolk County police chief to plead guilty to federal civil rights and obstruction of justice charges.

But even absent the spectre of outright corruption, experts argue, there is generally little incentive for a prosecutor to reopen a case after a conviction has been overturned.

“To charge a different suspect in the crime is as clear an admission of initial wrongdoing as it’s possible to make,” says veteran defense and civil rights attorney Ron Kuby, who has represented numerous wrongfully convicted people.

“And prosecutors will [admit wrongdoing] only when they are absolutely forced to do so, by a court. And even then, they may acknowledge that there was misconduct, or that the evidence was insufficient or tainted, but rarely do they say, ‘we had the wrong guy and let the actual killer free X number of years.’ It makes them look really bad.”

Getting a prosecutor to go beyond an admission that mistakes may have been made to even consider a defendant’s actual innocence, let alone investigate other suspects, also can be an uphill battle, says Kuby, because prosecutors—like their counterparts on the defense side—tend to become deeply invested in their narrative of the crime.

And, he believes, many also become invested in a view of themselves as being “unfairly tarnished” by “shady defense attorneys” and “soft courts,” which makes it easier to justify inaction.

“It is easier to insist that you’re right and the defense lawyers and the judges were wrong because you don’t have to do any work… [and] can indulge in both self-pity and laziness. It’s a lot easier than going out and finding the actual killer.”

But even in instances where a prosecutor may be inclined to revisit a case, without unimpeachable evidence implicating the new suspect, mounting a successful new prosecution presents challenges.

According to Benjamin Schneider, a former Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, a vacated conviction “may doom a subsequent prosecution for the same offense, because the second defendant will offer the prosecution’s old, discredited evidence—and the fact of someone else’s conviction—to raise doubt about his own guilt.”

The prosecutor “will want to counter that,” Schneider says, by “arguing that reasonable doubt has not been raised by the old evidence, because the old evidence was tainted and the first defendant was set free after years in prison. But the jury will learn that this prosecutor’s office put an innocent person in prison, for this very crime, by using tainted evidence”—not exactly a ringing endorsement of the prosecutor’s credibility on the case.

All of this goes a long way toward explaining why, even when there is much to indicate the original defendant’s innocence and someone else’s guilt, new charges are brought so infrequently in the wake of a vacated conviction.

Where that leaves the loved ones of the victim, not to mention the public at large—which has an obvious stake in seeing the right people held accountable for violent crimes—is another question.

In the case of Emma Crapser’s murder, because the crime itself happened so long ago and Crapser was an elderly, childless woman, it has proved difficult to find anyone who might be an advocate for her today.

Indeed, the nephew who discovered the King sisters after their brutal assault by the same people who may well have been involved in Crapser’s murder months before, died in 1995, at the age of 74.

Of course, there is no guarantee Crapser’s relatives even would believe that Bozella was innocent or, if so, push to get the case reopened.

As Kuby notes, often “these families have at least grown accustomed to thinking the guilty person has been punished,” particularly when the DA’s office “continues to insist that they got the right person.”

It is not unusual, he says, for “the victim’s family and the DA’s office to engage in this synergy of denial that satisfies both their interests.”

But what about the interests of the communities where these crimes occurred?

By definition, those interests are supposed to be represented by the district attorney, the very same entity that, for whatever reasons, botched the case the first time around, quite possibly leaving the community more, rather than less, vulnerable to violence.

In such cases it is typically the DA’s more narrow interests—whether in avoiding revelations of incompetence or wrongdoing; prosecuting only cases they think they can win, or merely curbing the expansion of an already heavy workload—that win out.

And in the absence of a truly neutral body tasked with re-investigating these crimes, we may never learn who killed Emma Crapser, let alone be able to hold the right person accountable for her death—-or those of the many other murder victims whose cases, regardless of their legal status, remain in a kind of limbo in the real world, beyond the courthouse doors.

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story  published July 2 in the Daily Beast. Please click here for the complete version.  The reporting was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Additional support was provided by Hin Hon (Jamie) Wong through the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, as well as a John Jay/Quattrone Fellowship in Criminal Justice Reporting. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Shining a ‘Flashlight’ on Gun Crime

Treating minor gun crimes as future homicides has helped to cut down on violence in Houston, and a key tool for investigators is the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, now much improved from the original program first introduced by the feds in 1999.

Emmett Jolley pulled up to the intersection near his northeast Houston home one spring night 14 months ago when the gunfire began. A hail of bullets riddled his gray Nissan, striking him and a passenger sitting next to him.

The gunman fled moments later, leaving police to pick through the crime scene and bag the shell casings he’d left behind.

Miraculously, Jolley and his friend survived, victims of one of the thousands of gun crimes that plague Houston every year, and one that might easily have gone unsolved in years past.

This time, however, investigators had a weapon of their own—the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN), a revamped ballistics testing program run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The bureau has pumped millions of dollars into the program to help local law enforcement make faster and better use of the federal database, creating joint investigative task forces with police in cities most prone to gun violence.

It gives police the clues they need in just days, not months.

Gun violence leaves a deadly toll in its wake across Houston annually.

More than 400 people died in the Bayou City from guns in 2016, including 259 homicides and 160 suicides. Gunmen committed 5,457 aggravated assaults with a firearm.

And Houston law enforcement leads the state—by far—in the recovery of firearms. Police seized more than 5,400 guns in Houston in 2015, twice as many as in Dallas and San Antonio, according to the most recent federal data.

In years past, slow ballistics testing left dangerous criminals on the streets for weeks or months while investigators waited for evidence.

Since the same firearms often are used repeatedly—even by different people—tracking the gun can identify an active shooter before another crime is committed. In Memphis, for example, NIBIN linked 30 percent of cases to guns that had been used more than once.

“Those are shooters, the worst of the worst,” Peralta said. “NIBIN is our flashlight—it’s not going to be able to see the whole room, but it will give us the ability to focus in on specific things.”

The database allows firearms experts to match high-resolution photos of marks left on bullet casings after being fired. The guns’ firing pins leave a mark unique to each gun, allowing investigators to connect casings fired at different shootings.

Turning NIBIN into the crime-fighting tool agents envisioned, however, didn’t go as ATF leaders initially hoped.

Twenty years ago, ATF equipped hundreds of law enforcement agencies and crime labs with ballistic imaging machines and began compiling photos of casings collected at crime scenes or test-fired from guns seized in investigations.

Whipsawing budgets, disinterest and poor implementation at the local level, however, hampered NIBIN’s impact on helping stop gun crime.

The problems left some gun cases unsolved, giving repeat shooters more time to wreak havoc. Bodies piled up.

“The right answer, late, doesn’t help the investigators any more than the wrong information on time—they need that information quickly,” said Ramit Plushnick-Masti, with the Houston Forensic Science Center, an independent lab that tests casings for the Houston Police Department.

 Speeding up the clock

After an external study four years ago found slow turnaround times were hobbling NIBIN’s effectiveness, ATF pumped millions of dollars into the program, forming task forces across the country with local police agencies.

The agency began urging investigators to collect all shells found at a scene – even if no one was hurt – so they could be entered into the database, increasing the chances of finding future matches.

“The ability to get hits is not linear,” said William King, a Sam Houston State University criminology professor who has studied the NIBIN system.

“The more you put in, the more you produce. The lesson is, everything needs to go in.”

ATF also began encouraging local law enforcement departments and crime labs to test casings more quickly. Treating minor gun crimes as future homicides helps cut down on violence, said Ron Nichols, NIBIN’s former national technology coordinator.

“If we can get timely intelligence to investigators with respect to these different shootings and what is occurring in the streets, there’s potential to get an active shooter off the street before a homicide actually occurs,” he said.

Since its inception, the NIBIN database has produced approximately 75,000 “hits” linking two or more crimes together.

“You only get NIBIN hits off repeat gun use,” King said. “You get them off the street… That’s huge value-added.”

Darrell Stein, the Houston Forensic Science Center Firearms Section manager, demonstrates the a federal database known as the National Integrated Ballistics Identification Network used to track guns.

Lisa Meiman, a special agent in the Denver Field Office, said the agency focuses on links rather than arrest totals, because arrests misrepresent the impact of the system.

“Catching one suspect using NIBIN means solving multiple shootings,” she said.

The Denver office was one of the first where ATF launched a gun crime task force. Houston’s came two years later, in 2015.

In concert with the intelligence center, the Houston Police Department and the city’s crime lab have taken other steps to speed up gun crime investigations.

“We’re looking for a particular gun,” said Art Peralta, Assistant Special Agent in Charge at ATF’s Houston Field Division. “When we find that gun, we’re usually going to find the person responsible for pulling that trigger.”

Using NIBIN, investigators gained a valuable clue in Jolley’s shooting: a ballistics match with a bullet casing from an attempted robbery just three days earlier.

The evidence helped pin the case on 17-year-old Timothy “Dough-Boy Ru” Grimes, an acquaintance who apparently thought Jolley had insulted his girlfriend.

Grimes’ guilty plea earlier this month marked the first conviction in Houston using the retooled NIBIN database, part of a new effort by ATF to help local police get trigger-happy criminals off the street.

In the 18 months since the ATF launched the retooled program, NIBIN has generated dozens of leads that led to 19 arrests. Investigators linked one weapon in another case to six different shootings, and connected another gun to a known drug dealer they say killed a horse.

“We’re going to solve crime sooner, bring criminals to justice sooner, and more often,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo. “When we do those things, we’re going to ultimately prevent future crimes and save lives.”

Two months ago, Acevedo ordered his department to prioritize bullet cartridge testing.

Previously, officers had to wait a week for technicians to test cartridges for latent fingerprints or DNA, but such tests are rarely successful, said Darrell Stein, the Houston Forensic Science Center’s firearms section manager.

The faster turnaround from NIBIN has helped provide better intelligence for investigators, officials said.

“If you get NIBIN hits, and you don’t go and have good people to go out and aggressively pursue what that hit provides in terms of leads, then you might as well not have it at all,” Acevedo said.

“We wanted to speed up the clock.”

Investigators are now getting leads from shootings that took place just 48 hours earlier.

Other local and state departments also are expanding their efforts to beef up their use of the database.

Montgomery County, which currently sends cartridges to Houston’s lab once a week, hopes to acquire a ballistics imaging machine soon. ATF plans to put an imaging machine and deploy two of the bureau’s investigators from Houston to work with San Antonio Police Department.

 Headed to Prison

Grimes walked into a Harris County courtroom earlier this month, a year after his outburst of gun violence in northeast Houston.

His arrest offers a blueprint for how authorities might tackle gun crimes in the future.

After investigators sent the abandoned shell casings off for testing, the Houston Forensic Science Center photographed the cartridges and ran them through the NIBIN database. They learned the shooter had used just one gun – but two types of ammunition – in the attempted robbery and the aggravated assault.

By the time officers identified Grimes and searched his home, the firearm was gone. He said he tossed it into a sewer. They did, however, find a pair of sweatpants like ones they’d seen in surveillance video taken from the attempted robbery.

He eventually confessed, authorities said, telling investigators he had supplied the gun in the attempted robbery and acted as the lookout.

He finally agreed to plead guilty to one count of aggravated assault and another of aggravated robbery.

Jolley could not be reached for comment. Grimes’ attorney, Michael Trent, declined to comment.

But two weeks ago, Grimes trudged to the front of the 183rd Harris County District Court to admit to his crimes, knowing he faced 12 years in prison at his sentencing next month.

State District Judge Vanessa Velasquez peered down at the glum teen.

“Are you pleading guilty because you are?” Velasquez asked him.

His answer was almost lost in the shuffle of the courtroom.


St. John Barned-Smith, a staff writer for the Houston Chronicle, is a 2016-2017 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. The above story was published this week as part of his fellowship project. The full story, along with video material, is available here. Chronicle reporter Matt Dempsey also contributed. Readers’ comments are welcome.