While members of Congress spar over how much of the big health care law they can kill, on a much smaller scale, the U.S. Justice Department has its own case of a federally funded effort that won’t go away, at least so far this year, no matter how hard lawmakers try.
Obamacare is this year’s most prominent example of a federal program that virtually refuses to die.
While members of Congress spar over how much of the big health care law they can kill, on a much smaller scale, the U.S. Justice Department has its own case of a federally funded effort that won’t go away, at least so far this year, no matter how hard lawmakers try.
It’s called the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training Program, or SLATT, and is s “dedicated to providing critical training and resources to our nation’s law enforcement, who face the challenges presented by the terrorist/violent criminal extremist threat.”
Back in 2015, The Crime Report wrote that the legislators who control the DOJ budget had voted to eliminate the training. At the time, a spokesperson for then-Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the committee that handles DOJ appropriations, said “tough decisions had to be made among many deserving programs.” (Fattah himself didn’t do very well, either. He was sentenced last year to a 10-year prison term on corruption charges.)
SLATT didn’t make the cut, both in 2015 and in the two years that followed, despite support from the Obama administration.
So it’s something of a surprise to find that not only is the SLATT website still alive, registration is ongoing for law enforcers to sign up for instruction in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Oregon and Washington and “registration [is] opening soon” for Georgia, Maine, Mississippi and New York.
How did that happen?
The program is so popular with law enforcement organizations that the Justice Department defied Congress, finding money internally to keep SLATT going.
Part of the explanation is the amount of money involved: by the time it died on paper at the U.S. Capitol, SLATT was getting only about $1 million a year. Within the Washington, D.C. Beltway, that is such a small amount buried in the DOJ budget of about $31 billion) that officials were able to come up with enough funds to keep SLATT going–at least for a while.
It turns out that the annual appropriations law for DOJ allows officials to spend up to three percent of money Congress provides the department for anticrime grants for “training and technical assistance.” For the current year, $480,000 was found in that pot to pay for SLATT.
Asked about the anti-terrorism training several weeks ago, a career DOJ employee said the funds were expected to run out by September 30, the end of the current federal spending year, and SLATT would come to a quiet end.
Since SLATT began back in 1996, it has spent more than $45 million training more than 146,700 law enforcement professionals. Beyond that, a “Train-the-Trainer Workshop” has trained about 3,500 law enforcement trainers, who in turn have provided instruction to about 270,000 more law enforcement officers. Congress provided $2 million for SLATT both in fiscal years 2012 and 2013.
The job of running SLATT has been contracted to the Institute for Intergovernmental Research (IRR), a Tallahassee, Florida-based firm that is headed by Rick Gregory, a former police chief in Provo, Utah and New Castle, Delaware.
Gregory says local police officers typically are offered a two-and-one-half day training session covering such topics as terrorism ideologies, domestic terrorists including “sovereign citizens” and anarchists, and international terrorism, and intelligence and information sharing among law enforcement agencies.
Police groups are enthusiastic about SLATT. The International Association of Chiefs of Police says that although large police departments have the capacity to train their own officers about terrorism, there are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the U.S. Most of them have only 25 or 30 employees, who without SLATT probably would not be exposed to terrorism issues.
James W. Baker, director of advocacy for the IACP and former director of the Vermont State Police, says that all police departments should be briefed on the latest information on spotting and dealing with terrorists because “it could happen anywhere.”
After the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, nearly 80 “fusion centers” were created around the U.S., where law enforcement officials from different geographical areas in a region gather to analyze information on terrorist threats.
Mike Sena, a California Department of Justice official, heads the National Fusion Center Association, which represents the centers nationwide. Sena told The Crime Report that “it’s a shame” and “disturbing” that funds may run out for the police training. “We’re not asking for a whole lot,” he said, alluding to the relatively small cost of the program.
Now the question is whether the administration of President Trump, who has made both fighting terrorism and supporting local police a high priority, will keep SLATT going despite an apparent lack of interest in Congress.
The White House sought no funds for SLATT in the appropriations bill now being considered in Congress.
A Justice Department spokesperson would not offer an explanation for the administration’s lack of public support given its stances on terrorism and policing. Still, the official wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions will come to SLATT’s rescue in the next two months and in the process please the administration’s backers on U.S. police forces.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.
Texas criminologist William Kelly’s new book calls for a top-to-bottom transformation of a justice system that recycles thousands of Americans without offering them a way to change the behavior that sent them behind bars. He explains his recipe for “disruptive innovation” in a conversation with TCR.
Kelly, a University of Texas-Austin sociology professor, has long been one of the country’s toughest justice critics. In this book, he offers a plan for top-to-bottom transformation of the system, in collaboration with federal judge Robert Pitman and psychiatrist William Streusand.
A key “disruptive innovation” of the book’s title would include reforms to rein in the charging powers of prosecutors. Kelly recommends the creation of independent panels of clinical experts that would screen offenders and recommend to prosecutors who ought to be diverted to treatment.
“There is nothing about punishment that changes the underlying conditions, disorders and deficits that the majority of criminal offenders bring into the justice system,” Kelly says. Arrestees with mental illness, substance-use disorders, homelessness and other problems churn through the system and into prison, where the underlying issues that led to a lawless life are ignored.
In a conversation with TCR Contributing Editor David J. Krajicek, Kelly explains why he believes the system should incorporate more carrot and less stick for offenders and how the Trump administration’s approach threatens to make things worse. He also suggests that the public already has a more sophisticated view of how to fix the system than our political leaders.
The Crime Report: What is the impact of the country’s justice policy failures?
William R. Kelly: The short financial and statistical answer is that over the past 45 years, we have spent $1 trillion on the war on crime, $1 trillion on the war on drugs and have accomplished a recidivism rate of 65 percent. Nearly all of this effort has focused on trying to punish crime out of people, based on naïve conceptions of criminality such as “hanging around with the wrong people” and “making bad decisions.” The evidence is quite clear that crime has much more complex origins and correlates.
What we have accomplished is a nearly perfect recidivism machine, placing all of us at the unnecessary and avoidable risk of criminal victimization, and wasting extraordinary amounts of money.
TCR: You refer to “the culture of American criminal justice.” What are its key characteristics and how do you change it?
Kelly: It is squarely based on the “tough on crime” mantra. This has dictated the decisions of legislators, prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials. The focus over the past 45 years has been driven by retribution and misguided assumptions that punishment deters re-offending. The question that has been routinely asked is how much punishment does this offender deserve. A more productive question for many offenders is how do we reduce the likelihood a particular offender will reoffend…
We need to provide clear incentives to motivate changing how we think about crime and punishment. Cost-benefit analyses conclusively show that behavioral change through clinical intervention like mental health and substance use disorder treatment is much more effective and cost efficient. The financial advantages should motivate legislators and local government officials. Reducing recidivism should be an incentive for prosecutors, judges, public defenders, and probation and parole officers, who will benefit from reductions in caseloads. Then there is the greater good of enhanced public safety, something we incorrectly assume the justice system already does.
TCR: You say the facile American view of crime and punishment got us here. Have voters grown more sophisticated, or are reform-minded pols still at risk of being Willie Hortoned?
Kelly: Public opinion data demonstrate that much of the public has a more nuanced view of crime and punishment than many legislators, prosecutors and judges. The public believes that the purpose of corrections is to rehabilitate offenders and therefore reduce recidivism. Many have moved beyond “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”
Unfortunately, many policymakers, elected officials and some segments of the public still seem to be holding on to the idea that criminals are just bad people deserving maximum punishment. I’m sorry to say that Willie Horton is alive and well…There appears to be a reluctance to really embrace meaningful, comprehensive criminal justice reform.
TCR: You write, “We have arrived at the nadir of politics and policy.” Did you write that before or after Donald Trump’s election?
Kelly: I wrote that before Trump was elected when I incorrectly believed that we had already reached bottom. Who would have thought that anyone with any sense of history and even a superficial exposure to the evidence would run as the law-and-order candidate and resurrect the war on drugs?
TCR: How do you demonstrate that “tough” and “dumb” are synonyms when it comes to criminal justice?
Kelly: You focus on the enormous financial waste that the justice policy has produced. While there will be endless debates about what’s right or just and who deserves what, it is pretty hard to ignore the bottom line. A recent study estimates that the criminal justice and collateral social costs of tough on crime is $1 trillion per year. And it’s hard to reconcile 65 percent recidivism.
TCR: Who’s to blame for the state of “correctional malpractice” you say we are in?
Kelly: First and foremost, elected officials who have blindly championed “tough on crime” policies to their political benefit, but to the detriment of public safety and the prudent use of tax dollars. State legislators and Congress have provided the mechanisms for tough on crime—mandatory sentences, restrictive parole release laws, and an ever-expanding criminal code that seems to make criminal justice the go-to system for just about every social ill.
But the culpability of elected officials goes well beyond that. The vast majority of offenders in the criminal justice system have a substance-use disorder, 40 percent are mentally ill, and 60 percent have had a least one traumatic brain injury often leading to neurocognitive dysfunction…The decision to not properly fund public health, schools and social welfare agencies has created problems that by default are managed by the criminal justice system.
Criminal justice reform means much more than merely reforming the criminal justice system. It requires massive changes to and investment in a variety of collateral institutions.
TCR: Your book articulates and recommends a scientific approach to justice reform. Yet science is out of favor in Washington and many state houses. Is there a scientific path forward?
Kelly: Yes there is, but I am afraid that we need to disguise it for some, by minimizing the science and emphasizing the public safety benefits and cost savings.
TCR: You note an overlooked data point: The country has 21 million people with substance-use disorders, the world’s third-highest rate. What explains this particular American exceptionalism?
Kelly: It is largely a result of the lack of public substance abuse resources, including inadequate treatment capacity and insurance coverage. Much of it can be attributed to the failure of the war on drugs and the belief that we can either punish or threaten substance abuse out of people. Criminalizing substance abuse rather than treating it as a public health problem has led to the failure to provide adequate funding for treatment.
Unfortunately, the picture is bleaker. The majority of substance abuse and mental health treatment in the U.S. is paid for by Medicaid. Current versions of repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act call for substantial cuts to Medicaid. That does not bode well for a problem that is crippling the country, the economy, communities, families, and the justice system.
TCR: You write that we have used an absurdly simplistic approach (lock ‘em up) for a boundlessly complex problem. Explain briefly the research on co-morbidity among inmates.
Kelly: The vast majority of offenders in the criminal justice system have clearly identifiable disorders, deficits and impairments. Many have more than one disorder, known as co-morbidity or co-occurring disorders. For example, the majority of offenders with a mental illness also have a substance-use disorder. Neuro-cognitive problems are often co-morbid with mental health and substance abuse. It does not require a clinician to appreciate that “lockin’ ‘em up” does nothing to alleviate these conditions and in fact typically exacerbates them.
When we do attempt to address these problems–diversion to a drug court or a mental health court–our focus is on just one crime-related condition. Our correctional treatment and rehabilitation efforts typically ignore co-morbidity.
TCR: What do the rest of us in a presumably civilized society owe these damaged people?
Kelly: I don’t think it’s so much what we owe them, but what do we owe ourselves: lower crime and recidivism, lower risk of being victims of crime, and lower cost of criminal justice. We have the tools to accomplish these things, but making it a political priority has been elusive.
TCR: You compare the U.S. system to those of Germany and Holland; it doesn’t stack up well. You cite one lesson we can learn from those countries: “If you treat inmates like humans, they will act like humans.” How is it possible that we don’t know that already?
Kelly: In order to justify our draconian and dysfunctional reliance on punishment, we need to think of criminals as “not like us” in fundamental ways, as deserving retribution and harsh punishment. Punishment is what we have been told is the only thing “these people” will understand.
Our Western allies have better outcomes for those they incarcerate because they focus on preparing offenders to be released and live crime-free, productive lives. Our approach often is to de-humanize prison inmates and emphasize punishment over rehabilitation. We do little to facilitate successful reentry into society.
Psychological research confirmed a long time ago that, in most cases, incentives work much better than punishment for changing behavior. This is another example of the disjuncture between scientific evidence and criminal justice policy.
TCR: Your key recommendation is an “unprecedented expansion” of diversion away from court toward intervention and treatment. Describe the panel review process you suggest.
Kelly: Traditional criminal prosecution, conviction and punishment are entirely appropriate for many offenders. For example, violent offenders and chronic, habitual offenders probably need to be separated from society through incarceration in the interest of public safety. For many others, such as non-violent offenders and many drug offenders, we have a much better chance of reducing recidivism by diverting them and mitigating the factors that are associated with their criminality. One of the key issues here is making good decisions about who to divert and who to prosecute.
We developed the concept of independent panels of clinical experts to facilitate better decision-making, both in terms of who should be diverted and what treatment or intervention will decrease the probability of recidivism. Offenders often have complex clinical needs that require the special expertise of psychiatrists, psychologists and clinical social workers who can assess and diagnose, determine the risk of re-offending, and make recommendations to prosecutors.
The goal is to divert appropriate individuals away from traditional prosecution to situations where their risk can be supervised and managed and where they can receive adequate treatment and intervention.
TCR: And this is the “disruptive innovation” of your book title?
Kelly: The panels are part of it. Implementing this concept will require a substantial shift in how prosecutors do their jobs, as well as how we think about crime and punishment. In effect, this requires changing the criminal justice culture.
We also argue that all levels of government need to address major deficiencies in public health, a fundamental consideration in assuring adequate capacity and expertise for intervention and treatment. The bigger picture is that criminal justice reform requires disruptive innovation of collateral institutions, such as public health.
TCR: And how might it be greeted by prosecutors, who hold all the power right now?
Kelly: This will not be easy. However, reasonable incentives for prosecutors should be recidivism reduction, in turn reducing caseloads.
The primary reasons that prosecutors’ caseloads are so large and unmanageable relate to the failure to reduce recidivism.
TCR: You say these changes will force us to redefine success in our justice system. How so?
Kelly: Success should be measured by recidivism rates, something directly related to performance of criminal justice. As it stands now, there really is no accountability. Everyone involved in criminal justice–legislators, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and corrections officials–should all be held responsible for recidivism reduction. That would also be a disruptive change.
TCR: Tell me about the process of partnering with Robert Pitman and William Streusand in this book.
Kelly: I wrote the book, but both Pitman and Streusand played very important roles in devising solutions. For example, Pitman, a former U.S. Attorney who is now a federal judge, brought his knowledge and expertise to the task of developing statutory and procedural details for how the expert panels would fit into the roles and responsibilities of prosecutors, defense counsel and judges.
The input of Streusand, a psychiatrist, was crucial in the development of the clinical protocol for the expert panels and assessing offender dysfunction, as well as the discussions about fixing public health.
TCR: You were going through a serious health crisis while writing this book, as you point out in the introduction. I hope you are doing well. I wonder if that diversionsomehow informed the book’s content.
Kelly: Thank you. I am in complete remission and feel very blessed. To be honest, it could not have worked out any better. I was diagnosed in early March of 2016, when I had a rough draft of one chapter written. I was so fortunate that I had this project to distract me from the reality of being pretty sick and going through some difficult chemo. It was also fortuitous that I had two collaborators who are very good friends and played important roles in my recovery.
I’m not sure that being sick informed the content, but I suspect it influenced the tone. If I sound impatient at times in the book, it is probably a result of being confronted with the reality that life is short.
David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek), a contributing editor with The Crime Report, has been writing about criminal justice since the 1970s. He welcomes readers’ comments.
David Muhlhausen, an adjunct at George Mason University and an advocate of empirical research on justice issues, has testified before Congress on policing and prisoner reentry issues. He succeeds Nancy Rodriguez to head the National Institute of Justice, the DOJ’s research arm.
David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation has been named director of the National Institute of Justice, the U.S. Justice Department’s research arm, the White House announced. He succeeds Nancy Rodriguez of Arizona State University, who had been NIJ director since early 2015.
Muhlhausen, a research fellow in empirical policy analysis at Heritage, has “championed using rigorous, empirical research to formulate and evaluate government policies,” the White House said.
Muhlhausen has testified frequently before Congress on the efficiency and effectiveness of various federal programs.He has been called most often by the House and Senate Committees on the Judiciary to discuss how to improve policing strategies, prisoner reentry programs, and other criminal justice programs.
In a 2015 report, Muhlhausen said that, “Since the 1990s, the Justice Department has poured significant funding resources into prisoner reentry programs. To date, however, we do not know enough about what works in helping former inmates safely and successfully reintegrate into society.”
He criticized one study that declared reentry programs effective because it “compares offenders volunteering for services with less motivated offenders not volunteering for services. For the Boston Reentry Initiative, program administrators carefully selected inmates for participation, and the evaluation compared these preferred inmates with inmates not selected for participation.”
Muhlhausen favors studies based on the technique of randomly assigning participants in programs being compared. In the case of prisoner reentry, he said, failure to use random assignment did not “account for individual differences that affect program outcomes. This failure leaves open the possibility that the underlying differences between the groups of former inmates receiving and not receiving reentry services, not the program, caused the observed impact.”
He wrote in the Washington Times that his “review of evaluations of prisoner re-entry programs that use random assignment — the gold standard of evaluation designs — shows that the programs tend to produce, at best, mixed results.”
An advocate of the death penalty, Muhlhausen contends that capital punishment deters criminals. He also has been critical of the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services program (COPS), writing in 2013 that “the COPS program has an extensive track record of poor performance and should be eliminated,” adding that its grants “unnecessarily perform functions that are the responsibility of state and local governments.”
He holds a doctorate in public policy from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a bachelor’s degree in political science and justice studies from Frostburg State University. At George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, Muhlhausen has taught program evaluation and statistical methods to graduate students for 11 years.
The NIJ directorship formerly required confirmation by the Senate but the job now can be filled by the White House without a Senate vote.
This report was prepared by Ted Gest, Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments welcome.
Financial journalist Jesse Eisinger argues in a new book that federal agencies like the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission are “broken” systems that allow corporate bosses to evade the criminal consequences of wrongdoing. He explains why in a conversation with TCR.
When Pulitzer Prize-winner Jesse Eisinger covered capital markets for the Wall Street Journal and Conde Nast Portfolio in the early 2000s, he began to see early hints that the subprime market bubble was close to bursting. When the inevitable crash happened, he probed further into the roots of the disaster for ProPublica. His exploration of what he terms “bad behavior” has now turned into a book that bluntly takes the federal government to task for not prosecuting the financial skullduggery that seemed hard to miss at the time.
Like the book’s title, “The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives,” Eisinger doesn’t mince words. In a conversation with TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie, he explains how the “culture” of prosecution at the Justice Department has subtly changed as “hot-shot” government lawyers look forward to lucrative careers as white-collar defense attorneys, why he thinks the Obama Administration accentuated the shift, and why the DOJ should consider hiring lawyers who are older and come from more diverse backgrounds.
The Crime Report: What drove you to write the book?
Jesse Eisinger: (When I moved to Pro-Publica) we did a series of stories about bad behavior from the banks in the lead-up to the financial crisis. Misleading investors about CDOs [Collateral Debt Obligations]. It was sort of excavating the big short trade, where people were secretly betting against these structures. And what we found was a hedge fund that had secretly gone to investment banks to have them make these mortgage securities, and then secretly was betting against them. Sometimes the investment banks knew.
We found a lot of other (bad) behavior in this CDO market, which were bundles of bundles of mortgages, very complicated instruments, and we thought it was obvious that there was going to be a huge crackdown coming. And then really nothing happened. No criminal investigations. My book is not a criminal brief, making the case for prosecutions of some individuals. I’m not a lawyer, that wasn’t the task I set before myself. But I set out to explore why this (prosecutions) isn’t happening. And one of the reasons it’s not happening is that they didn’t really even look. If you don’t look, you’re not going to find crimes.
It started to dawn on me that the Department of Justice and the SEC were broken institutions when it came to corporate white-collar (crime) enforcement. In the wake of the financial crisis, I started to see other examples in the tech world, in the pharmaceutical world, in the industrial world, in retail— Walmart, Google, Pfizer— companies that were making mistakes, admitting to wrongdoing, (even) criminal wrongdoing, but no senior individuals were being charged. I realized that this is a broken system, and I thought this really needed some kind of true examination from a historical perspective. I wanted to figure out— how did this evolve?
TCR: One of the large themes in your book was that zealous DOJ prosecutors in the early 2000s actually created the market for white collar criminal defense (or ‘Big Law’), and the two almost evolve into a single entity in some senses. You write that it is now almost a forgone conclusion that a young prosecutor will end up in a lucrative private firm.
JE: That’s a really big part of the problem, and I wanted to do trace how it came to happen. When you had these big white-shoe law firms in the 1950s, 1960s, they didn’t do criminal representation for their corporate clients. That was done by boutique (firms) that specialized in criminal law. In fact the criminal bar was kind of looked down upon by the white-shoe firms at that point.
Today, there’s a seamless world, where prosecutors– mostly young— in the Southern District and Main Justice, the hottest shots from the Department of Justice, almost all go to white collar criminal defense work after their stint at the DOJ. Essentially, the DOJ is being treated like a training ground for future criminal defense lawyers.
The people at the Southern District and now in Main Justice are the best of the best of the best. They have gone to the best high schools, to get into the best colleges, to get into the best law schools, to get the best clerkships, and then they’ve gotten these very competitive jobs as prosecutors. They’re pleasers. They’re not free spirits, they’re not entrepreneurs particularly— they’ve taken a relatively safe path to be lawyers. They are straight arrows— admirable people who want to do public service. It’s not the ‘bro’ culture of Silicon Valley. But they’re kind of rigid in their thinking.
(But when) you’re in the prosecutorial role, it’s a completely different incentive. You need to be a displeaser, you need to seek to deprive people of their liberty when they’ve done something wrong. And when you’re going up against corporate criminals, you’re going up against the sons and daughters of your professors or the parents of your classmates. There’s a sort of elite affinity where they just don’t look at well dressed, articulate, well-dressed bankers from Goldman Sachs, and see a criminal.
TCR: You write that in fact, these young prosecutors have to become “class traitors.”
JE: Yeah. (Robert) Morgenthau was a traitor to his class. But these [current] people are not, by and large, and it takes an enormous effort for them to overcome that, and I just don’t think they can.
TCR: When you get into the Obama period, those are really the “scorched earth” chapters. But did this shift have roots in the Enron and Andersen prosecutions of the early 2000s?
JE: The point of those [Enron/Andersen] chapters is that it is the most recent high-water mark for corporate prosecutions– but it is also the beginning of the undoing. And they have success prosecuting the top executives from Enron, and they also end up prosecuting the top executives from Worldcom, Adelphia, Tyco, Global Crossing. They bring the top executives from Health South to trial. So they really do most of the big marquee corporate scandals of the age, they manage to prosecute the executives.
Prosecutors will say those were easier, more obvious crimes, or those were inevitable, or it was obvious that they were going to get the Enron guys because that was a total fraud— but in fact, I don’t agree with any of that. I don’t think it was inevitable that they were going to prosecute those people. And especially I think that getting the two heads of Enron, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, was extremely difficult. They had to work for years at it. They got a little lucky, they worked very hard. They had very good strategy. They didn’t have any direct evidence against them, so they had to flip people, work your way up the way you need to do it if you’re prosecuting the mob. And they did.
What happens, bizarrely, is that the lesson from the Arthur Andersen prosecution becomes unlearned, or the Department of Justice learns the entirely opposite lesson from it— which is that we should never prosecute another large company again, because we throw people out of work. There are collateral consequences–either systemic disruption of the markets (we see that later in the financial markets) or we see people being put on the street, unemployed. I don’t think that’s proper for a prosecutor to think about.
We don’t think of the collateral consequences of putting an embezzler in prison, or a murderer in prison, or the thief of a television in prison. But we do think about it with a corporation.
TCR: Although reformers do talk about that when it comes to street level crime, it’s one argument for reducing sentences, punishment, etc— you’re hurting families, you’re hurting society, the economy [mass incarceration].
JE: My argument is, in a nutshell, we should put fewer of a certain kind of person in prison, and more of another kind of people in prison— basically, fewer young black men and more older white men, to be overly simplistic about it.
I think putting (an executive) in prison for three to five years is something they need to refocus on. They need to go back to prosecuting individuals, and they need to seek sentences— but they shouldn’t seek draconian, insane sentences. One of the problems is that they prosecute so few individuals that they throw the book at them. They overcharge them, they invest so many resources and time into it and then they want to get some extraordinary prison sentence out of it— 18 years, 30 years.
TCR: Is that what happened when former acting Attorney General Sally Yates came in, and tried to bring the focus back to prosecuting individuals rather than just settling with companies?
JE: Yes. It was too early to see whether the Yates memo was taking effect, and now under (Attorney General Jeff) Sessions it seems highly unlikely that they’ll do that. So I’m extremely skeptical that they’ll be tougher on corporate criminals than the Obama administration, and the Obama administration was extremely light-handed. But we have to see. What’s going to happen I think in the Sessions case is that they’ll get a few low-level individuals, but they’ll not even do the corporate settlements, so that settlements will come way down.
I think the fact that we don’t prosecute criminal executives in this country undermines the sense of justice for the person on the street. I think that they see this as a rigged system, and it is a rigged system. It’s rigged in the favor of these criminals who can commit crime with impunity as long as you’re in a certain position in a corporation.
TCR: Why was there so much political fear and meddling from the front office during the Obama administration?
JE: Before we get to timidity, there are a few things to point out. One is that the resources have shifted, so that there are fewer people in the FBI who are really trained in this. The SEC was hollowed out in the second half of the Bush administration, and so it was suffering, morale was really in bad shape. Those are two sort of structural problems that the Obama administration had going into the financial crisis, that they couldn’t really do anything about. So that’s sort of step one.
Step two is after a decade of focusing on settlements, there has been an erosion of talent. Erosion of skill, especially trial skill. They do fewer trials, and this is happening across the criminal justice system. The problem with doing fewer trials, especially in the corporate white collar space, is that your skill set erodes, you become very scared of trials, they seem very difficult to do, you’re going up against defense attorneys that have done a lot of these cases and had trials, so you’re enormously intimidated by the prospect of having to persuade a jury.
So it’s not just timidity: I think they have lost the ability to prosecute these cases.
TCR: Effectively, this has cut out the public?
JE: It has cut out the public, because the public cannot see the evidence— they don’t have an airing of the wrongdoing, and public airing of wrongdoing is an enormously beneficial thing for a society. The sense that no one was held accountable, there’s no debate— fueled the rise of Donald Trump. I mean, Donald Trump talked about Goldman Sachs owning politicians.
Of course, then he installs Goldman Sachs executives in the White House and gives it over to the bankers and corporations— but he tricked his supporters into thinking that he was somehow their champion, by attacking corporations for not being held accountable.
TCR: In the book, you make a strong call for diversity in the justice department.
JE: Part of the solution is more diversity— and I don’t mean just the way the phrase is used in terms of gender diversity or racial diversity. What I’m talking about is class and geographic and professional diversity. You want to break the grip that the elite law schools have on feeding the Department of Justice’s elite offices. Go to Wisconsin, go to Minnesota. Go out of Virginia and go to Georgia tech. Go to the West Coast, go to Montana.
The other thing is that you need age diversity. There’s a culture at the Department of Justice, if you’ve worked there for six or eight years or longer, then you’ll start to be looked down upon, like you’re a “lifer.” What we should do instead is get some people who are sick and tired of corporate law at age 52, and 55, who know where all the bodies are buried, and want to spend the last ten years of their careers serving society, and doing public service. They’re not trying to burnish their resume, you want them to be sick and tired of it.
And then I think you need plaintiffs’ lawyers, you need advocates, you need consumer lawyers— you don’t just want defense lawyers, or future corporate defense lawyers to go become prosecutors. And if you break that mold, you’ll start to help the culture.
I think they need to do many more trials. They need to seek lower sentences, so that any one single trial isn’t invested with all this importance. The other thing that they need to do is to focus on individuals, and somehow allow prosecutors to work on cases that don’t come to fruition very quickly, that build slowly and quietly,
TCR: How many prosecutors, and former prosecutors, did you speak to in the course of writing this book?
JE: Probably well over a hundred— dozens and dozens.
TCR: What insight did you get into how an irascible, tough white-collar prosecutor shifts to representing corporate criminals? What did people think that they were doing? How did they describe it?
JE: Well, it’s a real mix— from people who weren’t that interested in being prosecutors, they were always interested in making a lot of money and being defense lawyers, but this was a way to burnish their resumes. There are some people on the opposite spectrum, who feel a little bit rotten about it, but they felt like they had no choice because they needed to support their family.
And also they had no choice because in their careers, they had to keep moving. They had been conditioned to always be succeeding,
TCR: When it comes to financial crime, why is ignorance of the law a defense?
JE: It’s very hard to understand. In street crime, you don’t have to prove mens rea, because you’re essentially supposed to know that drug dealing is wrong, or murder is wrong, or recklessly driving a vehicle is wrong. And so that’s all implicit— it’s part of the law, but it’s implicit. But in white collar law, and this is the most difficult thing— you have to demonstrate that… so, mens rea is not just special to white collar law, corporate law. But the problem is that when you’re dealing with accounting, or securities, things like that, you have to show that not only was the accounting wrong, but you knew it.
And it makes some sense, I think. You don’t want to throw people in prison for innocent mistakes. The problem is, it makes it so difficult to actually prove a crime that they become wary of it and they don’t even try.
TCR: And this further insulates executives?
JE: Executives have an enormous amount of insulation, and they also get to rely on the experts— they rely on legal counsel, they rely on accountants, and you have to break that. And the way you break that is you need to pick your cases of accountants and lawyers and investment bankers who are giving advice to these executives, who turned out to be criminal. And because of that, you put these professional classes, these professions… the law, accounting, auditing, on notice. And there’s a real deterrent effect.
Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor (Content) of The Crime Report. This interview has been condensed and edited for space. Readers’ comments are welcome.
In a farewell interview before stepping down after 13 years as president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Jeremy Travis predicts the fear-mongering rhetoric about crime from the current administration won’t slow down reforms at the state and local levels. “The American people are smarter than that,” he says.
Local and state politicians can overcome the tough-on-crime rhetoric coming from Washington if they take advantage of the still-viable left-right consensus on justice system reforms, as well as the groundswell of public support for those reforms, says Jeremy Travis, the departing president of the John Jay College of Justice in New York.
Travis, one of the country’s most forceful advocates for reducing prison populations, acknowledged that fear-mongering has ratcheted up in the aftermath of the election, buttressed by the early efforts of President Donald Trump’s administration to reverse some of his predecessor’s moves to reduce prison overcrowding and promote policing reform.
But, he said, “I think the American people are smarter than that.”
Entrance to main campus, John Jay College
Travis, who has served as head of the National Institute of Justice and as a senior official in New York City’s government, steps down next month after 13 years at the helm of the country’s preeminent academic institution for criminal justice.
He said those who worry that justice reform will go backwards under Washington’s current leadership are losing sight of the momentum for change already underway in states and cities across the nation.
“A number of states continue to be every bit as serious as they were before the election about reducing levels of incarceration,” he said, noting that a handful have already seen incarceration numbers drop by 20 percent in the last decade.
And despite spikes of violent crime in some cities, such as Chicago, many others are experiencing a continued decline.
“New York is on track for another record year (of crime reduction),” Travis said.
Fears that bipartisan support for reform is weakening are also misplaced, added Travis.
“After the election, a number of us received calls from colleagues on the conservative side of the spectrum who said we’re still on, we’re still committed to reform,” he said, calling the sustained level of support from both sides “unprecedented.”
“The left-right consensus still holds,” he maintained.
Travis’ tenure as the fourth president of John Jay was marked by the college’s emergence as a major influence on policy changes both federally and locally.
Over 14,000 undergraduate and graduate students attend John Jay
Under his leadership, John Jay faculty led a major study on the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk strategy that influenced a court ruling curtailing the practice, and began a pioneering effort to reduce gang violence in cities across the country under the National Network for Safe Communities.
Travis also chaired a landmark study by the National Academy of Sciences on mass incarceration.
More recently, Travis, 69, was give the “Disruptor/Innovation” award by the city’s Tribeca Film Festival—an honor that he said recognized the college’s emerging role as an advocate for innovative, evidence-based justice reform.
Travis said the success of John Jay, one of the senior colleges of the financially strained City University of New York (CUNY), with over 14,000 students, proved why publicly financed higher education was important to the future of New York and America.
“When we talk about issues like income inequality, upward mobility, the integration of immigrants, the City University of New York is at the center,” he said. “My hope is that these successes will point the way towards a different financing model for public higher education.
“The future of our city depends on the success of CUNY.”
Incoming John Jay President Karol Mason
Travis will resume his research and activism on criminal justice issues, with appointments at the CUNY Graduate Center and Harvard, but he said the college will be in good hands under his designated successor, Karol Mason, whom he termed a “friend.”
Mason, former head of the Office of Justice Programs at DOJ, is going to bring to John Jay a new level of excellence, relevance and engagement,” Travis said.
The complete televised interview with President Travis by Crime Report editor Stephen Handelman can be seen here. The Crime Report is published by the college’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice. Readers’ comments are welcome.
A debate over jail expansion in New York’s rural Dutchess County reflects the issues driving the spike in U.S. jail populations, and the arguments about how to address it.
New York’s Dutchess County, a leafy place of winding country roads, farms, and old mansions overlooking the Hudson River, is a haven for New York City professionals seeking a quieter country life and cheaper housing. But it has a grimmer side.
Unemployment and urban blight plague its small communities and, like many other rural jurisdictions around the country, it is facing growing problems of substance abuse and drug addiction.
The evidence is tragically visible in the Dutchess County jail, located in the county’s largest city of Poughkeepsie, which recorded a 50 percent increase in detentions between 1997 and 2016.
The 400 or so people currently held behind bars are straining the small facility (capacity 250), a solid-brick structure built in the 1980s located in a residential neighborhood near a golf course.
The overcrowding persuaded Republican county legislators last year to approve a $192 million bond issue to build both a new 596-bed jail and a new sheriff’s office.
Not everyone believes building a bigger jail is the answer to the county’s social problems.
Joel Tyner, a Democratic legislator in the county for the past 14 years, argues that taxpayers’ resources that could be better used to fund innovative strategies such as treatment counseling and alternatives to incarceration.
“We shouldn’t be arresting all of these people,” he says.
The debate over the Dutchess County jail is a microcosm of similar arguments across the U.S. heartland, where job losses, youth unemployment, economic underdevelopment—and the spreading opioid epidemic—fed the anger that helped elect President Donald Trump last fall.
The spike in jail detentions in rural areas like Dutchess is one of the key factors driving America’s increasing numbers of incarcerated individuals, according to a recent survey and report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety + Justice Challenge.
Some 30 percent of the 2.2 million people behind bars are in the nation’s 3,000 county jails, and rural areas have experienced the biggest increases, according to the Vera study.
The jail populations that have experienced the largest growth are in small counties, with populations under 250,000. Dutchess County’s population, which has grown from 280,000 to 297,000 since 2000, is just slightly above the sample.
Vera report co-authors Ram Subramanian and Jacob Kang-Brown trace the rural jail increase to two principal factors: more people awaiting trial, and the increased use of jail beds for individuals detained by other local governments or who are being held at the request of federal authorities (for alleged violations of immigration laws).
In Dutchess, there are no individuals held under Immigration and Customs Enforcement “detainers” (even though experts estimate as many as 60,000 undocumented immigrants work in Dutchess and nearby countries)—and authorities say there are no plans to use the new jail for those purposes.
But there has been an increase in the numbers of individuals awaiting trial—many of them detained for minor drug offenses. Dutchess County jail housed 278 individuals awaiting sentencing in 2016, making up more than half of the total.
Moreover, up to 80% of the people held in Dutchess county jail suffer from some combination of mental health issues and substance abuse, according to the Dutchess County Criminal Justice Council.
Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro
Defenders of the jail expansion in Dutchess County argue that increasing the number of beds will in fact help authorities address the behavioral issues that brought individuals into trouble with the law in the first place, while ensuring public safety.
“The current jail house was (not) built with the idea of restoring inmates’ lives,” said Marcus Molinaro, the County Executive and the main driving force behind building a new jail.
“I can find no legitimate reason to maintain the current county jail unless you think the warehouse model should be used going forward, which I don’t.”
The county’s District Attorney, William Grady, who was reelected in 2015 on a tough-on-crime platform, contends that it is too “risky” to free detainees awaiting trial.
“A drug-dependent individual who commits crimes to subsidize his habit is a risky person to have let go free in the community,” said Grady who predicts that the county’s jail population will grow even larger in coming years because of the influx of New York City residents seeking cheaper housing.
“Programming to treat those people is obviously most appropriate, but [they have] to wait for admittance to these programs by being held in jail,” he told The Crime Report
But legislators like Tyner and Francena Amparo, another county Democrat who was elected in 2011, say the county’s existing treatment facilities and programs, such as the Youth Bureau, which provides counseling and other services to at-risk youth, are in fact facing budget cuts.
“It’s pretty clear that substance abuse and mental issues are not being addressed enough,” Amparo said. “There aren’t enough rehabilitation facilities and clinics for those individuals, and they’re going to end up in jail at some point.”
Robert Wright, director of Nubian Directions, a youth-training program based in Poughkeepsie, said that school dropouts often end up getting caught in the criminal justice system.
“We’re seeing a lot of kids drop out of high school here and unfortunately many of them end up in jail,” Wright said.
The debate in Dutchess is also in some ways a reflection of a polarization in the political climate nationwide, where advocates of “tough on crime” measures now feel empowered by a federal government that is placing renewed emphasis on punishment.
Some local critics point out that Dutchess County Sheriff Adrian “Butch” Anderson, whose website describes him as a “cops’ cop,” was such a prominent and vocal supporter of Donald Trump during the last campaign that he was named to the President-elect’s transition team. The Trump/Pence ticket narrowly won the county last November with 58,163 votes (the Clinton/Kaine ticket got 56,874).
Candidate Donald Trump and Sheriff “Butch” Anderson. Photo courtesy Anderson website
But critics of the Administration’s approach to justice argue that hardline strategies are especially counter-productive in smaller communities.
The Vera report, for instance singles out the five-fold increase in pretrial detainees since 1970 —from 82,900 people in 1970 to 462,000 in 2013, as a significant driver of the jail increase.
Cherise Fanno Burdeen, CEO of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, says many of those people don’t need to be in jail at all.
Economic factors—namely inability to afford bail—rather than criminal risk, are the main reasons why the pretrial population is so high, she says, adding that many rural jurisdictions could take a cue from urban areas that have begun to move away from the money bail system.
“Places like [Washington] D.C. don’t use money bail at all,” she told The Crime Report. ”They release about 95 percent of people pretrial. So it works and we know it works.”
At the same time, she argued, authorities should also reduce the number of arrests by issuing citations or summonses in lieu of arrest.
Detention in jails, she said, should be restricted to those at the “highest level” of risk to the community.
“We should be able to identify and detain those people lawfully instead of saying ‘million dollar bond’ and then being scared when they make it,” she said.
Nevertheless, in places like Dutchess County, attempting to implement these solutions can only happen if all the local players agree.
“A community would be better served by investing in community-based solutions (but) each county is going to be unique in its own way,” acknowledged Vera co-author Jacob Kang-Brown.
But he added: “Once enough places try solutions, they will then be able to land on what’s most effective, based on frequent experimentation.”
Such a consensus seems unlikely in Dutchess County, at least for now.
While the New York State legislature has earmarked about $550,000 for a “youth services and crime prevention study” in the county, according to a document by the county’s criminal justice council, no additional funds appear to have been set aside for creating new programs.
Tyner, the Dutchess County legislator, says he hasn’t given up trying to change the county’s criminal justice priorities.
“I’m trying to wake up my fellow democrats and activists who can help,” he says.
“It’s not too late.”
Eric Jankiewicz is a New York-based writer and a contributor to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.
In the final installment of our series following the NYPD’s newest class of cadets, The Crime Report looks at the challenges of American policing, the debate over whether less-aggressive strategies will make our cities safer, and whether new cops can learn to smile.
Daniel Bavuso, a rookie officer with the New York Police Department (NYPD), made his first arrest a few weeks ago. Responding to a domestic violence dispute between two men, he engaged both in conversation and stayed calm.
When he brought a suspect for booking into New York’s 10th precinct, covering the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea and Clinton, he was still on friendly terms.
“We basically spent the entire time together just talking,” said Bavuso. “Bare bones, we’re all people and, despite what happened, he really wasn’t a bad guy.”
Bavuso’s low-key approach didn’t come about by accident.
Two months earlier, Bavuso was part of the Spring graduating class of the New York Police Academy, which was among the first to be exposed to NYPD’s new training model. The 645 graduates—men and women who successfully passed a grueling course that mixed standard weapons and police instructions with lessons in de-escalation and community policing—were meant to be the new face of America’s largest police force.
The March 30 2017 New York Police Academy graduating class. Photo by NYC Mayoral Photography Office
And, as they were told by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill at the March 30 graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden, that face had to be smiling.
“You gotta practice,” said O’Neill, as he looked out at the serious faces of the new graduates.
They were, he thought, too serious.
“When you’re out there on patrol, I don’t want the people you meet to see those faces.”
Though meant as an ice-breaker, O’Neill’s comments reflect the evolution of police culture occurring in New York and across the nation. Seeking to rethink the aggressive tactics exemplified by the controversial deaths of Freddie Gray and Eric Garner as a result of police actions, police departments in cities such as Miami, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh are rethinking the way they train officers to practice community policing.
The concept isn’t new of course, but while many law enforcement managers pay lip service to community policing, few have considered how to make it a self-sustaining strategy that is embedded in daily police practice.
Two years ago, when O’Neill was Chief of Department—the highest uniformed position in the NYPD—he tweaked the concept by encouraging cops on the beat to become problem-solvers. Called “Neighborhood Policing,” the pro-active strategy was meant to promote greater confidence and trust and—by implication—enlist neighborhood residents as partners in promoting public safety.
In a way, this was a throwback to more traditional views of the “neighborhood cop,” before police retreated behind patrol cars and bristling technology.
Translated into the new training philosophy of the NYPD, it required cops to see themselves not just as uniformed “enforcers” of the law, but as approachable, respectful human beings.
“What count more than anything are your character and your professionalism and how you’ll behave on the streets, in housing projects, and in the subway,” O’Neill told the graduating cadets.
Over the past year, The Crime Report was granted unprecedented access to a company of 25 recruits as they went through their six months of training under the new NYPD guidelines. We sat in on classes and reality-based training scenarios, and asked the new recruits, who were also among the most diverse entering class the NYPD has had, what they thought of it all.
The principles of de-escalation, conflict resolution and open communication with communities were integrated into every step of the process which turned raw recruits into rookie police officers, along with the traditional instructions in weapons training, law and police procedure.
Police veterans caution that no amount of training, no matter how advanced or precise, can fully prepare new cops for the realities of the job in a policing environment that is increasingly troubled.
“[Officers] definitely are under a lot more scrutiny than those of us that came on 25 years ago,” Tracie Keesee, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Training, who previously served as a senior officer with the Denver Police Department, said in a recent interview.
Today, in a world where there is a camera on every phone, police are keenly aware that everything they do is subject to second-guessing. That awareness, according to some researchers and even former FBI chief James Comey, has led some cops to become over-cautious in going after criminals. Others argue the evidence to support that is inconclusive.
But in New York, the level of scrutiny and transparency is only set to increase following the implementation of the NYPD’s court-ordered body camera pilot program which began in April. New officers will have to navigate a now-hyper-exposed professional environment, even as they put into practice skills that were originally never seen as part of a police officer’s job.
“They have to learn how to balance and do a lot of things that weren’t necessarily in the policing realm decades ago,” said Keesee.
In dealing with mentally troubled individuals, for example, officers will need to learn how to step away from situations that might otherwise result in fatal use of force.
The challenge for the new recruits—and for the NYPD—is to ensure that the techniques and strategies learned during training will not be abandoned once they face the realities of the streets.
The NYPD’s Field Training Program, which pairs two new Police Academy graduates with an experienced field training officer for a further six months, is an attempt to make the lessons stick. Under the guidance of these veterans, the new officers will learn to navigate the real demands and dangers of a job that they have only just been exposed to and that, until now, had only been studied.
As recruits in the academy, they were told where to go, what to do, when to eat. Their lives were regimented and regulated around a curriculum that mirrored the experience of an everyday college. There were no life or death situations to face, no real conflicts, and no surprises.
As NYPD Lieutenant Robert Tilwitz, Squad Commander of the Recruit Training section of the academy, points out, the change they face upon graduation is definitely a culture shock.
“When you go from that environment to the street, your day changes in a half of a second,” said Tillwitz in a recent interview. “You have to make life and death situations without the support of an Academy staffer. It’s not easy.”
The Field Training Program introduces new officers into the actual day to day experience of policing before they are partnered up and assigned to their own precincts. During the process, the officers become familiar with the three basic “tours,” or shifts, that police have to work: Midnights (11:15 pm-7:50 am), day tours (6:30 am-3:00 pm), and a final tour (4:00 pm-12:00 am).
They spend two months on each shift.
For the 10th Precinct’s Daniel Bavuso, now working through his second stint of field training, the push for neighborhood policing practices is felt from the moment he starts out on patrol each day.
“De-escalation is 100 percent the most important thing,” said Bavuso. “You want to use everything you learned in the academy.”
When first approaching a scene, no matter what they’re coming into, Bavuso and his fellow rookie officers were taught to remember Rule #1: Don’t escalate. Their Field Training Officers remind them constantly that whether they have to make an arrest or not, every person must be treated with respect.
This sort of empathy is considered the key to both improved community relations and good police work.
“Sometimes bad things happen,” said Bavuso. “And, unfortunately, as a police officer you encounter people at the worst times of their life.
“But treat them with respect and they will treat you with respect.”
The non-confrontational way that Bavuso handled his first arrest is a testament to the training he received at the Police Academy. The challenge is whether he will continue to follow Rule #1 as he is exposed—and affected by—the cynicism and distrust that are the everyday experiences of cops on the beat.
The Best-Case Scenario
During their time at the academy, the officers were constantly told to pursue what was called the best-case scenario: talking someone into cuffs. The hope is that, if the same type of interaction could be repeated again and again by officers in every community, trusting relationships between police and those communities could be reestablished.
Whether making an arrest or not, how police officers are perceived by the public at large is key to reestablishing trust. At the NYPD, officers on patrol are now required to interact with their communities whenever and however possible. Under the models of policing that were once standard in New York and other cities, they may have simply driven around neighborhoods in their cruisers, or stood sentry on a corner; now, officers are encouraged to get out of their patrol cars, and engage in productive and respectful conversation with the public.
Frank Straub, Director of Strategic Studies for the Police Foundation, and a former police chief in Spokane and Indianapolis, says this is the foundation of all efforts to reform American policing in the 21st century.
“Each of those individual transactions between a police officer and a community member has the opportunity to move the pendulum in the right direction and build respectful relations,” he said.
A 31-year veteran of law enforcement, Straub believes that a focus on improving these one-to-one encounters will help shift law enforcement away from the aggressive and combative tactics of the past. And it begins with training.
“I think, not just in the NYPD, but in American policing in general, we got into this cycle of training that really focused on having to win every situation,” said Straub.
As Straub sees it, this aggressive and victory-oriented training cycle is a result of a “war” narrative that is prevalent throughout criminal justice and policing communities in this country.
Politicians and media sources alike constantly advertise the “war” on drugs, the “war” on crime, and the “war” on terrorism. But this military rhetoric, say police experts, only exacerbates the feeling of distrust for police among the most troubled communities.
It also creates an “us versus them” mentality among police themselves, who are inclined to view such troubled communities as a hostile camp. That’s partly because many young officers are exposed for the first time to conditions that are outside their comfort zone: neighborhoods afflicted by poverty, high violence, unemployment and urban underdevelopment.
“Officers graduating are going to go into those challenged neighborhoods and there is going to be this underlying tension,” said Straub.
This tension is further exacerbated by the fact that people of color too rarely see themselves represented among the ranks of officers on patrol throughout their neighborhoods. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, minority officers only represent 27.3% of the national police population, with smaller departments serving less than 2,500 being 84.4% white.
Acknowledging that they can’t police the people without also representing them, the NYPD is attempting to meet this challenge head on by recruiting men and women who reflect the diversity of the city.
Of the 645 officers that graduated in March, 21% were born outside the United States, representing 39 different countries, and speaking 53 different languages. In practicing neighborhood policing, these officers will ideally be better able to listen to, work with, give instruction to, and empathize with, the diverse population of New York than any group that has come before them.
Will It Make a Difference?
However, while many in the policing community are optimistic that the steps the NYPD and other departments across the country are taking to improve their policing methods will mend the rifts between police and their communities, skepticism is widespread.
“Community policing is one of the biggest vacuities you can think of,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a retired and decorated NYPD officer who now serves as professor of Law and Police Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
O’Donnell believes community policing has become little more than a slogan used as a political device, rather than an actual tool for constructive change. He goes even further by suggesting that community policing practices can make officers ineffective by promoting and insisting on a culture of conflict avoidance, and creating an environment where those officers must constantly fear punishment for simply doing their jobs.
“The whole policing conversation, especially at the NYPD, revolves around blame,” said O’Donnell in a recent interview with TCR.
“There’s no incentive for doing affirmative police work; there’s every incentive to avoid police work.”
According to O’Donnell, the deck is stacked against new officers who join the force because they are attracted to the notion of going into difficult situations and taking on problematic scenarios, often at risk to themselves. Today, he said, these officers often find that their biggest problems are within the organization itself.
In a 2016 poll conducted by New York’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, an overwhelming majority of the respondents said that they feel unsupported by their department, and worry that they might be demonized and condemned as “bad cops” for engaging in any sort of conflict whatsoever.
For O’Donnell, this means that officers are now choosing to be “present,” in the most technical sense, but are otherwise checked out when it comes to performance.
“They don’t want to be involved,” said O’Donnell. “They’re not going to take a risk.”
Daniel Bavuso (right) and friends at NYPD 10th precinct. Photo by Isidoro Rodriguez
The uncertainty creates a palpable tension among officers both new and old alike. On patrol at the 10th precinct, Bavuso noticed that, among some of the experienced officers, there is a general hesitation to respond to situations where de-escalation just doesn’t work.
That hesitation is rooted in a fear of punishment.
“There are times where you want to deescalate, but you can’t,” said Bavuso. “There’s definitely a feeling that cops are afraid to confront that. There’s a sense of ‘oh my god, I might get in trouble for this.’”
In a job as hands-on as police work, hesitation could make the difference between life and death and, as O’Donnell points out, officers today are less likely to put themselves in harm’s way if they feel their department doesn’t have their backs.
However, for Straub, the solution to this problem is in the training itself.
While he admits that there is a general reluctance among police officers to engage in volatile situations, he also feels that this concern is largely based on some of the high-profile incidents that have occurred and the observed reactions to them. According to Straub, some of those incidents resulted simply from police misconduct and poor decision making—both the result of inadequate training.
“You look at the Walter Scott shooting, and the fact that (former South Carolina police officer) Michael Slager just pled guilty to federal civil rights violations,” said Straub. “That’s an admission that he didn’t follow policy and procedure, and use-of-force policy and procedure, in his interaction.”
Straub strongly believes that when officers stray from the policies and procedures taught during their training, and when they act disrespectfully, they put themselves in a situation where they aren’t protected.
“If you follow policy and procedure, if you act in a respectful manner, at the end of the day, complaint or no complaint, charge or no charge, you’re going to prevail,” said Straub.
Nevertheless, skeptics like O’Donnell argue that the de-escalation and conflict-resolution practices of community policing yield little in the way of concrete results, and may be even detrimental to good police work.
Many point to Chicago which, like New York, has focused on community policing. But the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS), has had debatable success over the years, and exists today as little more than a patchwork of programs throughout the city, according to a 2016 examination by the Chicago Reader.
Last year alone, the city suffered 762 murders, the worst number in two decades.
“Community policing is essentially a political device,” said O’Donnell. “It’s all things to all people. But what is delivered?”
According to a 2016 article by The Intercept, many in New York are asking the same question.
They remain concerned that the NYPD’s Neighborhood Policing program is merely distracting from issues that require serious reform, such as last year’s blocking of the Right To Know Act and the easing of restrictions on the use of Tasers. At the same time, current and former members of the policing community, like O’Donnell, think the program is a waste of misplaced resources, especially when considering the amount of community interaction and dialogue that is required for its success.
“Devoting a lot of officers to just walking around is not a good use of resources,” said O’Donnell. “They’re not solving crimes.”
But something seems to be working. The New York Timesrecently reported that crime rates in New York City have continued their decades-long decline, and both Keesee and Straub maintain that community policing and solving crimes goes hand in hand.
Looking ahead: Photo of NYPD graduating cadets by NYC Mayoral Photographer
“I don’t understand how community policing would distract or inhibit you from doing real police work,” said Keesee. “The community is a part of your real police work; you provide service to a community.”
Whether making arrests, identifying persons that threaten neighborhood safety and stability, doing targeted gang enforcement, or doing aggressive domestic violence enforcement, these activities are helped, rather than hindered, by doing this against the context of respect and community engagement, she argued.
Straub agrees. He cites as an example the police department in Evanston, Illinois where the stop- and-question techniques that have aroused controversy elsewhere are widely used with relatively little pushback from the community. The reason: officers have engaged the community to reach a consensus of who needs to be targeted by these techniques.
The community, in fact, helps the police identify those individuals that are carrying guns and engaged in drug dealing.
“With community involvement, they’re able to use aggressive policing techniques because the community and the police are co-producing public safety,” said Straub. “They’re using community policing, and they’re using it well.”
Incorporating that point into the training of a young officer at the beginning of his or her career will pay off for years to come, supporters maintain.
It will be another couple of decades before Bavuso qualifies for retirement, but his training has already helped him internalize the concept that earning trust among the people he protects is necessary to doing his job well.
“Some people like cops, some people don’t,” he says. “And there’s not much you can really do about that.
“But you can try to shape their experience—and maybe change that experience for the better.”
Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff writer for TCR. His most recent report in his series on NYPD training is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.
An experimental project aimed at helping local jurisdictions examine–and correct–mistakes in the justice system will soon be expanded to up to 25 cities and counties. The expansion of the Sentinel Events program amounts to an endorsement by the Justice Department of a major Obama-era reform initiative.
For those wondering whether any meaningful justice reforms are likely under the Trump administration, here’s one encouraging—but little noticed—development.
Last week, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research arm of the Justice Department, announced it was seeking proposals to provide “technical assistance” to scale up its six-year-old pilot Sentinel Events Initiative (SEI) to as many as 25 cities or counties around the country.
The dry language of the announcement belies its significance.
The project, according to the NIJ, is aimed at the “development, implementation and routinization of non-blaming, forward-looking, multi-stakeholder reviews” that are intended to “identify systemic weaknesses” in the administration of justice.
Translation: the NIJ wants to help justice systems at the local level explore ways to examine the mistakes that often trigger outraged headlines—a wrongful conviction, a police shooting, a crime committed by an individual under justice supervision—with the objective of identifying (and correcting) the flaws or missteps that produced those tragic events.
Such mistakes are usually not one-off errors, but indicators (“sentinel events”) of deeper and more entrenched problems or patterns of behavior.
Each of the sites selected for the expanded program will identify an event or set of events for examination, and conduct an exhaustive review of what led to it. Similar reviews already occur in many forms around the country, whether through Conviction Integrity Units established by prosecutors or police civilian complaint boards.
The difference is that all the institutions or agencies which have played a part in the individual event as well as, in some cases, representatives of communities affected by the event, will conduct this exhausting and often wrenching self-examination together.
In a system like ours, which is built in silos—jails, courts, cops, prosecutors, public defenders, all pursuing their separate ends—that’s a transformative idea.
The Crime Report has been covering the Sentinel Events process since it was launched in 2011 and then expanded in 2014 as a pilot project in three cities—Baltimore, Philadelphia and Milwaukee—along with a short booklet called “Mending Justice”, a collection of essays by leading criminologists and practitioners under the imprimatur of then-Attorney General Eric Holder.
The premise is simple. When awful things happen, it’s easy—and tempting—to blame an individual (the cop who fired the gun, the over-eager prosecutor who failed to introduce exculpatory evidence). But such finger-pointing is almost always guaranteed to ensure the same mistake will occur again, in one way or the other.
That’s why the worlds of aviation and medicine, for instance, have long since introduced processes to discover the root causes of tragic mistakes like an airplane crash or a bungled surgery. By getting everyone who had a stake in the decision-making into the same room, the smaller errors or oversights that led to a tragedy can be identified and, possibly, corrected.
Applying this to U.S. justice isn’t easy. Our “system” is a really a set of institutions in towns and cities across America that cooperate in widely diverse political and socio-economic environments. And many of the key players are either reluctant or too time-challenged to engage in the kind of self-examination that might result in meaningful changes.
“As justice system professionals, we are deceiving ourselves if we think our decisions and actions are infallible,” Holder observed in his forward to “Mending Justice.”
The pilot “Beta” projects in the three cities have demonstrated, however, that given a chance, prosecutors, public defenders, sheriffs, police chiefs and any of the other players at local levels, are in fact open to sitting down together and figuring out what went wrong.
The initial responses were enough to persuade the powers-that-be that the idea is worth taking to the next stage by expanding it to more cities.
Last week’s announcement, appealing for applicants for the $1.6 million in funding made available to support technical direction, was not a foregone conclusion, given the impression created by our new leaders that any ideas produced under the former administration were, by definition, scrap-able.
Eric Holder supported this? Forget about it.
But Washington’s green light for this makes sense when you think about it. “Sentinel Event Reviews” are targeted at the critical actors in our federal system, where most “justice” gets done: states, cities, jails, police departments. That happens to conform to the prevailing ideology of empowering local authorities, and lifting the heavy hand of Washington: No federal consent reviews here.
And it, like many of the most forwarding looking justice reform ideas currently under discussion around the country, not only builds on bipartisanship; it requires it.
A good illustration of that came last week, when a small group of people came together at NIJ headquarters in Washington to discuss the Sentinel Review process so far. They included police chiefs, mayors, district attorneys, community advocates, police union officials, public defenders and even crime victims. They were Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives; and they came from every corner of the country.
The one thing they had in common was frustration: For all their good intentions, the systems they were operating in or managed as professionals continued to produce bad results. A loss of community confidence and public trust and, just as significantly, a reduction in public safety (or perceptions of it) was inescapable.
The meeting was held off the record to allow the participants to speak freely—and they did. At times they employed the same rhetoric we’re more accustomed to hearing from angry protesters.
“So many times I’ve seen prosecutors (ignore) their moral compass,” said one, who explained the sheer burden of caseloads led not only prosecutors but judges, public defenders and others to overlook details in the rush to judgment that has driven mass incarceration levels in the U.S.
As part of the meeting, the attendees participated in some model “Sentinel Event” reviews to become comfortable with the practice.
And some of the critical issues at the heart of the tragedies that have made ugly headlines became apparent:
The drawbacks of the current justice “culture” in which decisions, and the responsibility for making them, are kicked down the line;
The ease with which small inaccuracies in record-keeping and failures in communication can produce fatal mistakes.
The key to the process is that there is no single template or model for how to conduct these examinations. It’s up to each jurisdiction to decide who gets to sit in the room, and how to apply the lessons learned.
A lot of issues will need to be worked out. How transparent should the process be? What role does the media play? Will Sentinel Events reviews allow the “bad apples” in the system to escape blame for what they did? Will they co-opt community activists who are determined to hold accountable the individuals or institutions responsible for errors?
How will they affect disciplinary measures or the rights of those seeking damages for misconduct in lawsuits?
The jury is still out. But supporters of the concept assure those worried about taking a “soft” approach to official misconduct that a Sentinel Event Review is not intended to remove individual accountability.
What’s clear at least from last week’s announcement is that the decision to scale up the Sentinel Events concept provides evidence of a willingness to think differently about our justice system.
And worth watching.
Stephen Handelman is executive editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.
The cards are a popular cost-saving device for many jails and prisons, but a California lawsuit aims to end what prisoner rights advocates say amounts to sanctioned theft.
For inmates around the country, release from local jail or state prison comes with a comparatively small amount of money earned from jobs inside their correctional facility, plus any money they had when they were originally booked and funds that friends or kin sent them.
But instead of getting what’s due them in cash, inmates released from what observers say is a growing number of detention facilities now get their money returned on a plastic debit card that inmates cannot refuse.
Just how many released inmates receive the fee-based cards is unclear, but a California federal lawsuit aims to stop the practice, which some prisoner rights advocates liken to sanctioned theft.
The lawsuit, filed March 28 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, alleges that Gainesville, Ga.-based First Century Bank, which issues its debit cards through the Carlsbad, Calif.-based Numi Financial, and Stored Value Cards Inc., effectively imposed fees on inmates using their own money, without their prior consent.
Each card includes weekly service fees of up to $2.50, a $2.95 fee for each completed transaction, and a 95-cent charge for every declined transaction.
The suit names, as lead plaintiff, Anthony Oliver, of Savannah, Ga., who was released from Chatham County Jail in Georgia in December 2016 after three months in custody. According to the suit, he was given a Numi Financial debit card with access to the funds in his inmate trust account. But he allegedly wasn’t informed of the fees he might incur from using the card, or given paperwork detailing the terms associated with the account.
Oliver is asking for an unspecified amount of damages, plus “restitution of monies gained through the allegedly unlawful conduct, and injunctive relief barring Numi Financial from continuing the practice complained of here.”
The attorneys for the plaintiff, James Tabb of San Diego and Eugene Turin of Chicago, declined to comment on the case. But advocates are already trying to recruit inmates for a nationwide class-action effort.
Carrie Wilkinson, senior litigation paralegal at the Lake Worth, Fla.-based Human Rights Defense Center, and director of its Prison Phone Justice Campaign, is one of them. In an interview with The Crime Report, she said First Century is just one among several banks profiting from the debit cards, which purportedly minimize the amount of time that correctional institutions staffers devote to processing cash in and out of inmate hands.
“It’s being sold to jails as a way to reduce staff cost, cut down your bookkeeping or accounting because you don’t have to give people money when they get out of jail; you just give them one of your nifty debit cards,” Wilkinson said.
In a similar class-action suit last spring, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania awarded $446,822 to inmates released from federal prisons between May 2012 and October 2016. The suit, against JPMorgan Chase, claimed that federal inmates were given debit cards by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to access their funds upon release without being informed of the fees they would have to pay.
JPMorgan’s contact with BOP was a scheme “to exploit one of the most vulnerable groups imaginable—releasees from federal corrections facilities,” according to the suit, which named former prisoner Jesse Krimes as the lead plaintiff.
“Every cent counts for federal releasees who are coming out of prison without an immediate means of income.”
The California lawsuit further raises the stakes for banks and credit card companies involved in the practice. Partly because jails and state prisons operate with widely varying rules and levels of transparency across the country, the precise number of facilities that issue the cards is unknown.
But of 33 state correctional systems responding to a 2014 Association of State Correctional Administrators survey, 17 said they issued the debit cards and started doing so as long as five years before the survey was conducted. Eleven of the responding correctional systems reported that the cards carried user fees.
Such fees are often not only an inconvenience, but a net loss, for those who’ve been incarcerated.
In the JPMorgan complaint, one unidentified federal prisoner was quoted as saying, “I left prison with $120. Because of the fees, I was only able to use about $70 of it.”
Prisoner advocates charge the fees amount to officially sanctioned theft.
“It’s widely understood that high-fee debit cards are an exploitative way to pay low-wage workers, and there is a fair amount of litigation about that,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Framingham, Mass.-based Prison Policy Initiative.
Several years ago, he added, a few journalists began asking whether inmates were similarly exploited by being forced to use those cards.
In a 2013 announcement of Numi’s partnership with California’s Central National Bank of Enid, bank president R.S. Baker Jr. claimed debit cards “improve efficiencies” for taxpayers, municipalities. He added that individuals “transitioning out of the facilities will reap savings in costs and in convenience.”
In the same announcement, Brad Golden, CEO of Numi, which also provides cards for those in work-release programs and for paying jurors their daily stipend for completing jury duty, declared, “Together, CNB and Numi will expand their portfolio of product offerings and continue to deliver cost saving financial solutions.”
But such remedies hardly benefit those who are leaving detention, said Wilkinson, of the Florida Human Rights Center.
“If you get released from a jail at 6 a.m. and, you’ve got a prepaid card in your hand, you can’t get on a bus with that,” she said.
“And once you activate the card, you’re done. They give you the terms and conditions … and that often includes an arbitration agreement.
“You’re just kind of stuck.”
The Crime Report Contributing Editor Katti Gray covers criminal justice and health, mainly, for a variety of publications. She welcomes your comments.
Keir Bradford-Gray, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, believes it will. In a conversation with The Crime Report, she argues that the work of local jurisdictions and community groups in developing problem-solving courts, diversion programs and other reforms will be hard to reverse.
Philadelphia has been a focal point of U.S. justice debate in the past several years, with attention centered on court reforms. One of the leading reform voices has been Keir Bradford-Grey, chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, an independent, nonprofit corporation which has represented indigent criminal defendants since 1934. Bradford-Gray was in New York this week to speak at a conference to introduce journalists to Measures for Justice, a free data portal launched in May aimed at collecting statistical information on the justice system at the county level. Data is now available from 300 countries in six states, with more expected in coming years.
In a chat with TCR editor Stephen Handelman, Bradford-Gray explained why data remains a critical tool for understanding how the justice reform operates at the grassroots level, and why she believes the bipartisan reform movement will continue despite the revival of “tough-on-crime” rhetoric by the current administration.
The Crime Report: Over the last few years there has been a bipartisan movement on justice reform that has gradually abandoned the old “tough on crime” metric. Do you see evidence of that in Philadelphia?
Keir Bradford-Grey: Yes, there are incremental changes that I see every day. It has became politically popular to talk about changing the way we do things in the criminal justice system, [and it is now ] a household discussion about how the criminal justice system exacerbates issues, that nothing really changed, everything stayed the same. We talked about reform, but the practices and the policies generally stayed the same. We would pick out outliers in our system and place them in a diversion program, say we were working on reform, where 90% of the people in the system were still going through the same types of systems.
So it is really helpful that these discussions are taking place, that we are being more data-driven, more policy-driven, more research-driven. And it does help when it comes to the political forces that are trying to become re-elected, like the DAs, the mayor, all those people who are responsible for making sure that our justice system is doing what it is supposed to be doing. It creates a better platform.
TCR: Do you see the results on the street level? Do you see more public safety, more understanding, and less of a tough on crime mentality? Is it showing itself in more public safety?
KBG: That is a really good question, and that is something I think we have yet to understand. What does contribute to public safety? Every day, we see violent crime being touted on the news, but we don’t know what’s happening to those who are in our systems, or were in our system, or no longer are in our systems, who are charged with non-violent offenses.
Are they better off by leaving them alone? Or are they better off by bringing them into contact with the criminal justice system and giving them diversionary services? These are the things that I have yet to understand, and I would love for someone to do research around that.
TCR: Justice in this country is done at the retail level, whatever the feds will say, or what they’d like to see. But there’s now an overall political climate, where it’s being suggested that things are worse rather than better, that we need to be tough on crime again. Are you seeing manifestations of that in Philadelphia?
KBG: Various jurisdictions in Pennsylvania do see that. There are people trying to pull back on the problem-solving courts, saying that we still have recidivism; so why put so much effort into problem-solving courts. And you know, problem-solving courts look at the case and the individual, and put a lot of wrap-around services for that person to go through over a period of years.
One factor influencing (the revival of tough on crime rhetoric) is the fact that people attribute certain costs associated with helping those who are more vulnerable in our society as a waste of money. Of course you can say we were doing just that by locking them up in jail without them having a real chance of rehabilitating. But that rhetoric has been moving up in some areas in Pennsylvania. Not necessarily in Philadelphia, where we have a higher urban area and understand social issues. But you can see that in areas where crime is looked at as a drain on society, and (the public) would much rather spend the money locking people up rather than giving them the tools that they need to actually rehabilitate.
TCR: But cities and towns, and state legislatures can resist. We’re seeing some evidence of pushback to the new climate in places like Wisconsin, Missouri and California for example.
KBG: Yes, that’s encouraging, especially in the larger cities, who kind of reject (President) Trump’s policies in terms of criminal justice issues– or I should say, the policies of our new Attorney General. I think what’s been happening in those cities is that a lot of work has been done by policy groups, social justice organizations, and civil rights organizations, to really show the effect of what we’re doing in our justice system. And people have taken that, and used it as more of a political platform and tools to become re-elected. So these things will stay. When you have smaller, more rural areas, that’s not the discussion.
TCR: In the area where you specialize, are we seeing real progress in fulfilling the constitutional right to defense, particularly among people who don’t have the money to pay for it?
KBG: Well, I honestly think we can do a lot more, but we are moving the needle. So I can always applaud progress
TCR: How do you measure progress?
KBG: Narrowing the net of the justice system. If we’re looking at offenses or actions in the appropriate light, in making sure that we’re not doing one thing to one group of individuals that we are not willing to do to another. We see it with the heroin and opioid epidemic: a lot of funding, a lot of money has gone to not putting those people in custody, and not arresting them, but diverting them directly to treatment and giving them opportunities to relapse, or whatever—to crawl out of these habits. When we don’t see that for another segment of society, that’s when i think we need a lot more in the area of reform, because it’s not that we’re saying that these people are going to create an extreme danger to our communities; we’re just saying that we’d rather handle them this way– and that way has a generational effect. It will never overcome that poverty cycle.
This is an abridged and slightly edited version of a video interview conducted By Stephen Handelman, executive editor of The Crime Report. The Measures for Justice conference for journalists mentioned above was organized by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report. A partial clip of the video is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.