Domestic Abuse: Puerto Rico’s Women in Crisis

A dedicated network of psychologists, advocates and shelters has emerged to cope with the rise in domestic violence victims since last year’s Hurricane Maria. The challenge is complicated by the slow pace of reconstruction and the lack of government resources.  

Alba, 36, is a skinny woman who looks younger than she is.

Her body is covered with tattoos. In the middle of one breast, a drawing represents, “los golpes de la vida” (the hard knocks of life); another on her ankle ties her to her sister forever; on her arm, another recalls the cancer that killed her father.

On her back are a number of butterflies—symbols of the fragility that marks her life.

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, it left Alba’s house, located in the countryside surrounding Cayey, a small community on the southeast of the island, severely damaged and without electricity.

But Alba (at her request her full name is withheld to protect her identity) suffered more than house damage as a result of the storm.

Puerto Rico

Alba (left), a victim of domestic violence and Luz, her legal intercessor, during an interview at the Hogar Nueva Mujer in Cayey. Photo by Mirko Cecchi

“In the midst of all our desperation,” she recalled. “My partner and I argued even more violently; he left, and I tried to take my life.

“I cut my veins and took some pills.”

She woke up in the hospital. After treatment for her injuries, Alba returned home with her two children, aged 18 and 7, from a previous relationship. There was no trace of her partner until Dec. 22, when six shots, fired in the dark, hit her car parked in the street, and pockmarked the outer wall of the room where the boys slept.

“I knew it was him because the day before, he must have seen my ex-husband come to bring a present to my children, and he must have done so out of jealousy,” she said.

Four days later, Aurora won a protection order from a judge and, on a friend’s suggestion, moved to Hogar Nueva Mujer (New Women’s Place), a women’s shelter in Cayey.

She joined hundreds of other women who have fled abusive spouses or partners since the hurricane, reflecting what women’s advocates on the island have called an “astronomical” increase in domestic violence.

According to John Jay College Prof. Jodie Roure, who works with human rights and women’s organizations in Puerto Rico, the number of 911 calls skyrocketed from 211 in the immediate aftermath of the storm to 889 the following month—with some 1,747 calls received through November, 2017.

In an earlier interview on Criminal Justice Matters, Roure said, “the lack of access to food and electricity has exacerbated stress” in many families hit hardest by the storm, and contributed as well to a number of “murder-suicides” related to domestic conflicts.

The problem has not abated.

Alba is one of 223 victims of domestic violence that Hogar Nueva Mujer assisted between September 2017 and February 2018—36 more than those recorded in the same period between 2016 and 2017. Like some of the other victims of violence, she didn’t use 911 to call for help—relying instead on a friend’s recommendation—which suggests that the number of women fleeing abusive relationships after the hurricane may be even larger.

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Vilmarie Rivera, director of the center for women victims of domestic violence, Hogar Nueva Mujer. Photo by Mirko Cecchi.

Vilmarie Rivera, the director of Nueva Mujer, said the center has increased its security protection as it tries to cope with the rise in demand for its services.

“We had to ensure that no volunteer was actually an attacker, but it was also a good time to allow the victims to approach us, with any excuse,” said Rivera, who noted that some women come just to take advantage of the laundry, to pick up medicines, or obtain food for their families.  In that period the center had the only electricity generator in the area.

Nueva Mujer—which works primarily on the housing problem by supporting victims of violence in finding a home and starting new independent lives—is one of eight shelters for Puerto Rican women active before the hurricane, and one of five that did not have to suspend the activities because of the damages suffered.

It helped find Alba a new house, and put her in touch with entrepreneurship courses that will help her build a new life. One of her goals is to open a small cosmetic business.

“I knew they would help me,” she says. “But I did not imagine so much.”

Rivera, like all gender-related activists on the island, believes that violence against women after the hurricane has increased further, but the actual numbers are still hard to obtain.

Vilma González, director of Coordinadora Paz Para las Mujeres (Peace for Women Coordinating Center), says the most recent data on domestic violence provided by Puerto Rico’s Office of the Women’s Advocate comes from 2016.

“I sent a message requesting the cases divided per month in 2017 but they have not answered,” said Gonzalez.

Rivera says there are other challenges as well.

“There’s no protocol (by the government) to address the danger which women faced,” she said in an interview.

As a result, many women have stayed with abusive partners “because they have not seen an alternative.”

Like Jodie Roure, Rivera blames the increase in domestic violence on economic hardship caused by the storm.

“Women have lost their jobs and men counted on that salary, plus many men were also unemployed,” she said. “Despair brings nervousness, anger, frustration.”

*“The hurricane has demonstrated the total failure of the system and has brought out inequality: Poverty in Puerto Rico has a woman’s face, but there are no public policies for them.”

In Vega Alta, a small town on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, Hogar Ruth (Ruth’s Place) has been active since 1984. Despite the lack of funds and supplies, and the damage caused to the building by the hurricane, it has never stopped providing shelter to the victims and their children.

“Today we have 21 guests, divided into 8 rooms,” explained coordinator Damaris Feliciano in an interview last month.

“During the hurricane we were 42. The women who knocked on our doors were not only victims of violence but pregnant girls or women with newborn babies who did not want to stay in the insecure and unhealthy camps organized by the government in schools or in gyms.”

Hogar Ruth dealt with 182 cases of domestic violence between October and December 2017, almost three times the number of those helped in the same period in the previous year (63).

Katalina (a pseudonym), who arrived at the shelter on Oct. 11, 2017, was one of them.

She moved to the island seven years ago, following a Puerto Rican man she met in her native country, Ecuador, with a newborn in her arms.

“As long as he came to visit me, everything was fine but as soon as we got here, he changed,” Katalina recalled. “He treated me as if I were stupid, as if I was always wrong, and also spoke badly to the child.

“The house where we lived was not a decent place to raise our daughter but I was here alone; I did not know who to ask for help and he kept us like prisoners.”

The hurricane and its aftermath somehow gave Katalina the courage to escape her situation.

“After seven years, I could not stand it anymore, and when Maria came, it was really too much,” she recalled. “One day I accompanied him to his sister’s house, she saw me cry and although we did not get along very well she handed me the number of a judge.”

After hearing Katalina’s story, the judge issued an order of protection—one of the 442 issued throughout Puerto Rico between September 20 and mid-October 2017. She and her child were then escorted by police to her house, where she was then helped to pack up her belongings and move to Hogar Ruth.

Hogar Ruth, as a transitional emergency hotel, shelters women for a maximum of 90 days before moving to their new home. But Katalina’s partner violated the order by going to her daughter’s school, and the shelter considered it safer to postpone their transfer.

Meanwhile, other institutions are using federal grant money to pay for psychological counseling to victims of domestic violence.

puerto rico

Cynthia Garcia Coll of Albizu University, San Juan. Photo by Mirko Cecchi.

Cynthia Garcia Coll, a psychologist and professor of human development at Albizu University in San Juan, received $400,000 from the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) program to provide psychological and legal assistance to domestic violence victims at the university’s clinic.

The university, which describes itself as the “first professional school of psychology in North America and the Caribbean,” set up a clinic to house the program in January, 2018, staffed by 16 advanced psychology doctoral students, four supervisors, two lawyers, and two legal intercessors who prepare victims of domestic violence for court testimony.

“After the hurricane, our project has taken on an even more important meaning,” said Coll.

During its first three months of operation, the clinic has worked with 14 women affected by the hurricane.

“We call them victims of victimization facts,” said Coll. “Domestic violence is often just one of the problems to be treated, and just one of the factors that has led people to find themselves in their specific situation.

“If [these] factors are not addressed, the risk of recurrence is very high: women often go from one violent relationship to another, and the epilogue can be tragic.”

In the absence of good data, one woman has begun to chronicle those tragedies on her own.

Carmen Castello

Carmen Castellò operates her Facebook site on murdered or disappeared Puerto Rican women out of her apartment.

Carmen Castelló Ortiz, a former social worker, devotes a good part of her day to registering cases of missing women or victims of femicide.

Puerto Rico

A gallery of the women who have disappeared in Puerto Rico since the hurricane, prepared by Carmen Castellò, administrator of the facebook page, Seguimiento De Casos. Photo by Mirko Cecchi

The computer in her small apartment in one of the island’s towns holds dozens of folders where she archives cases she finds in newspapers. The information includes photos of the victims, data reported by the police, and a brief summary of events which she then publishes on her Facebook page “Seguimiento De Casos (Tracing of Cases).”

In the aftermath of the hurricane, Ortiz has recorded a number of heart-rending stories, such as a 78-year-old woman who was murdered.

“For me, they are like family,” Ortiz said, as she scrolled through the faces of the women whose tracks have been lost. “I do not know if I could survive if one of my loved ones disappeared.”

But information and details are still hard to get. The island’s Public Security Department released in mid-October a list with 33 other missing women.

Gonzalez of Coordinadora de Paz Para Mujer fears that behind these numbers there may be human trafficking.  But  Puerto Rico’s overworked police force—which experienced a walkout earlier this year over complaints of missing overtime pay—has not been able to investigate further.

That has left Carmen as the missing women’s sole voice.

Claudia Bellante

Claudia Bellante

“I want to keep the attention, encourage the police to work more and better, so these women are not forgotten,” she says.

But the work of Puerto Rico’s advocates for women may only have just begun. The next hurricane season in the Caribbean begins in less than two months.

Claudia Bellante is an Italian freelance journalist who writes on Latin America. She has published articles in Internazionale, El País, The Caravan, and Rhythms Monthly. Photos by Mirko Cecchi at  Readers’ comments are welcome.


One Man’s 22-Year Search for Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

steve fishman

Steve Fishman in the studio (courtesy Panoply Media)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

oscar michelen

Courtesy Panoply Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

calvin buari

Calvin Buari (courtesy Panoply Media)

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

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

TCR: What was your role in the reinvestigation?

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

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

myron beldock

Myron Beldock (courtesy Panoply Media)

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

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

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

TCR: What was your role with the new witnesses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Los Angeles Hunts for Police Chief with the ‘Right Stuff’

A chief of police is one of the nation’s toughest jobs today. Choosing the right one may be even tougher. As Los Angeles scouts a replacement for Charlie Beck, other cities might pick up some pointers.

When Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck retires in June, he’ll leave to his successor the best police department in the city’s history—one that’s no longer the hated, pugnacious symbol of repression it once was, or a primary instigator of the class and race volatility that once made the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) infamous throughout the world, and ignited two of the bloodiest American riots of the 20th century.

The principal reason for the old LAPD’s notorious reputation was myopic, insular leadership, sometimes megalomaniac and self-servingly driven, sometimes stubbornly, existentially dead, and deadly racist in its intent and execution. This was particularly true of those who led the department in the half century between 1950 and 2002.

As the Los Angeles Police Commission and Mayor Eric Garcetti begin the selection of a new chief, the rest of the country should be carefully watching.

First, because the dramatic demographic, economic and social changes experienced by Los Angeles over the past half century are shared by many other urban centers across the nation. That includes: growing homeless populations, too-high crime rates, and large immigrant populations living in daily dread of being deported.

Such issues may differ in detail from place to place. But regardless of a city’s size or special challenges, it is dangerously easy to slip back into the repressive policing reviled by so many Americans today.

All it would take to undo much of the trust and goodwill earned by the LAPD over the past 15 years, for example, is a string of controversial incidents in one of its volatile divisions that could provoke a riot—if it’s badly handled by a new chief without the “right stuff.”

Searching for a chief with the right stuff begins with selecting someone with the right temperament and experience. In Los Angeles, that means someone with a cosmopolitan understanding of their city’s extraordinarily diverse population, and a keen awareness of how each police division needs to be individually policed to meet the expectations of today’s politically aware and vocal city dwellers—especially communities of color.

But it also means understanding what went wrong—and right—with previous appointments. The history of Los Angeles police chiefs from the 1950s through the 1990s is replete with examples; and is also the story of most American police leaders of that era.

Mostly white men, they were stubbornly resistant to change and innovation; and, unable to conceive of anything beyond the big stick to reduce crime. They either wouldn’t—or didn’t know how to—accommodate the cultural and political transformations unfolding during their watch.

Take, for instance, the LAPD’s Bill Parker.

Chief from 1950-1966, he was a police leader who seemed ideal for the challenges of his time. The major issue facing Parker in 1950 was the LAPD’s historic, on-the-take corruption. A true, innovative reformer he brought the endemic dishonesty and abasement of his department to an immediate and impressive end—a step the police in New York and Chicago didn’t take until decades later.

But by the 1960s, Parker had grown old, imperious and autocratic. He was unable to tolerate dissenting opinions or criticism. Most disconcertingly, Parker’s racism was hard to miss. Once, he denounced all those “wild tribes from Mexico” pouring into his city that had to be contained. (Los Angeles Times, 1/29/59)

To deal with them—and most especially to control black Angelinos—he devised the intrusive, often brutal “occupying force” policing strategy in black L.A. that became the department’s hallmark.

As the city’s African American newspaper, The Sentinel put it: “Hardly a day passes without…physical evidence of beatings [in the black community by LA cops.]…led by a chief who has shown an unbelievable contempt for our Negro and Mexican American communities.” (Los Angeles Sentinel, 8/17/61)

All of which led to both the 1965 Watts’ Riots and set the stage the 1992 L.A Riots. Parker, in short, embodied being an exemplary chief for his time and place, as well as the kind of disaster that can happen when he or she is not.


Ed Davis

L.A. Police Chief Ed Davis (1969-1978). Photo via Wikipedia.

Ed Davis, chief from 1969-1978, and later a California state senator (1980-1992), shared Parker’s world view and many of his most egregious leadership qualities. But the bullying manner in which he dealt with conflict and adversity should be a red flag to anyone choosing a new chief. Smart, big and mean, Davis utterly, uncompromisingly, believed the LAPD should be accountable only to him. His response to any perceived criticism was high-decibel public bombast.

To take one example, when a local TV reporter decided to investigate a raft of bad LAPD shootings, Davis ordered the reporter’s head-shot photo placed on all targets at the police academy shooting range, and stickers with the last name of the reporter pasted on patrol-car rear bumpers reading, [Wayne] “Satz Sucks.”

As Davis’ immediate predecessor, LAPD Chief Tom Redden who served briefly 1967-1969, later pointed out: “When Ed Davis fought with everybody, the cop on the street thought he could fight with anyone, too.”

And that’s what L.A. cops did over the ensuing decades. They copied his behavior and, in the process incited trouble and anger.

Daryl Gates

L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates (1978-1992). Photo via Wikipedia

Daryl Gates, chief from 1978-1992, possessed just about every red-flag quality to avoid in a new chief. He was stubborn, unwilling to compromise, and displayed an arrogance so profound that he refused to listen to, or work with, civilian oversight entities or leaders in black or brown communities. He saw his troops as his only constituency and would defend them no matter how outrageous their behavior—which inevitably encouraged abuses of police power.

Nor did he care that L.A.’s politics, culture and demography were dramatically changing; or that vast numbers of Angelinos felt impotent to change the department and had come to fiercely hate it.

With Gates as chief for 14 years, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots were almost inevitable.



Watts 1965. Photo by beth noe via Flickr

Willie Williams left his post as Philadelphia Police Commissioner to succeed Gates. The former Philadelphia Police Commissioner, Williams, who served from 1992 to 1997, was chosen because he was an outsider—the first in 40 years—and most explicitly, because he was African American. But he possessed none of the qualities needed to be the new reform chief of a riot-torn city.

Willie Williams

L.A. Police Chief Willie Williams (1992-1997). Photo courtesy LAPD

He arrived knowing no one and trusting no one, and made no allies. Incurious and inept, he lacked the skills and energy to gain acceptance within the department or to reform it.

Unceremoniously dismissed five years after being hired, Williams represented a missed opportunity for meaningful reform. The Williams lesson should be a warning to Los Angeles commissioners currently examining new applicants—as well as to other cities experiencing a change in senior police management.

  • Thoroughly vet your candidates;
  • Avoid choosing a chief because he or she is a symbol. (The job’s too big and important for that.)


Bernard Parks

L.A. Police Chief Bernard Parks (1997-2002). Photo via Wikipedia

Bernard Parks, who succeeded Williams in 1997, was also ill-suited for the job. Smart, and knowledgeable, the 32-year LAPD veteran knew his city, and was highly regarded by his own black community, downtown politicians and department insiders. But like his predecessors, he thought he could run the LAPD as his own private fiefdom, and treat critics and the press with disdain.

He also had a quality that must be avoided in a new chief.

He was imperious—headstrong and authoritarianSo thoroughly did his inappropriately harsh and indiscriminate discipline and top-down management alienate his troops, that they lost confidence in him. Parks never got it back, and thus could not continue as an effective leader.

The lesson was clear to Charlie Beck, who served under Parks as an ambitious young officer (and inherited his seat a decade and a half later). “The way a chief treats his cops is the way that they will treat the community,” Beck later told me. “If you treat cops like fools, or if you’re over-dependent on harsh discipline, that’s what they’ll learn [and act out] on the street.”

Bill Bratton

L.A. Police Chief Bill Bratton (2002-2009). Photo by Policy Exchange via Flickr

Beck’s immediate predecessor, Bill Bratton, changed the paradigm. As chief from 2002-2009, Bratton was confident, reform-minded, and willing to listen. In L.A. he followed his playbook as New York Police Commissioner in the 1990s. He recruited smart people and encouraged his field captains to freely innovate, and to tailor their strategies according to each individual division’s needs.

He made the LAPD a thinking organization, not one that was glued to an antiquated police manual, and afraid to take the initiative.

The clear lesson: A confident but flexible, innovative chief is a must.

Finally, Charlie Beck.

Charlie Beck

L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck (2009-2018). Photo by Scott L. via Flickr

Los Angeles and other cities in search of new leadership would do well to look at Beck as a model. Since he took over from Bratton, Beck used his strong interpersonal skills to forge ties with the opinion-makers and lever-pullers in communities, and with political groups throughout the city.

His political intelligence was manifest in how he worked successfully both with a liberal police commission and a conservative police union to reinforce and expand the behavioral/cultural changes begun under Bratton. During his tenure, all patrol cars and officers were equipped with cameras. The department’s shooting policy was also altered to include training officers to avoid the use of lethal force when possible by de-escalating tense situations.


L.A. Police Chief (2018-?). Image by mohamed mara via Flickr

His big-picture managerial skills also extended to dealing with his troops. He got buy-in from the rank and file for his reforms by treating all LAPD officers with the same respect he expected them to show when dealing with the public. By modeling his collegial working style and measured responses in controversial situations, he exemplified how his officers should deal with conflict.

Bratton and Beck have given Los Angeles an important gift: a police department that once notoriously defied progressive reform for decades that’s become a model for the nation.

Joe Domanick

Joe Domanick

The next Los Angeles police chief will need to have Beck’s extraordinary political skills, Bratton’s confidence and openness to change, and some of the strong-willed management skills (without the arrogance) of their predecessors.

The goal of L.A.’s police commission—as well as reform-minded police oversight bodies throughout America—should now be to avoid at all costs a new chief that could set the clock moving backward.

History has shown how difficult it is in policing to get things right.

See also: The LAPD’s Charlie Beck: A Chief for a Transformed City

Joe Domanick, Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, and West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report, is the author of two books on the LAPD. Newspaper references above can be found in his first book, “To Protect and to Serve: The LAPD’s Century of War on the City of Dreams,” published in 1994. His latest book, “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing,” is now out in paperback. Joe welcomes readers’ comments.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Court officials, however, disagree. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Court Watch NYC

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

Photo by Court Watch NYC

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

Photo via Court Watch NYC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was a depressing case.” 

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

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

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


Why Jail is No Place for the Mentally Troubled

For lack of alternatives, thousands of mentally ill individuals are trapped in the justice system. In a conversation with TCR, Alisa Roth, author of “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” says change will only happen when we reexamine our attitudes towards mental illness.

In her career as a journalist, Alisa Roth has written about people in what she calls “forgotten communities,” such as immigrants and the poor. But when she began focusing on the mentally ill trapped in the U.S. justice system, after a friend’s brother was locked up, Roth discovered what she came to realize was the most forgotten community of all.

“I can’t think of a group that’s more reviled and more misunderstood,” she told TCR. In a discussion with staff writer Isidoro Rodriguez about her new book, “Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness,” Roth, a former Soros Justice Fellow, describes how jails and prisons have become the nation’s principal institutions for treating mentally troubled individuals, and suggests that strategies for developing more humane, treatment-oriented alternatives have to begin at the state and local levels.

The Crime Report: What was the catalyst for writing this book?


Courtesy Basic Books

Alisa Roth: I can’t think of a group that’s more reviled and more misunderstood than people with mental illness who are in the criminal justice system. We talk about the issue of race in the criminal justice system, we talk about the issue of poverty in the criminal justice system, but we don’t talk about mental illness. These three intersect and overlap, but we can’t think about global reform without addressing the mental health question.

As I mention in the book, I have a friend whose brother developed a severe mental illness and committed a horrible crime. As I was thinking about this whole system, it kept coming back to him. If we as a society can allow him to see an alternative outcome, and not spend the rest of his life in prison, we can allow that for other people who have done less morally or criminally complicated things.

TCR: Through the process of this book, what hurdles did you have to overcome?

AR: I chose two of the most closed systems to look into. The criminal justice system is extremely closed in terms of access, in terms of data, and in terms of information. Likewise, the mental health care system is bureaucratic and complicated. So just figuring out where treatment is being provided, and who should be providing that treatment is difficult.

Then there’s the whole health care aspect. People are not allowed to, or are unwilling to, share information about treatment. And there’s the stigma question in both systems. There is still shame attached to having a mental illness or having a family member with mental illness. We march for breast cancer or AIDS, but we don’t want to talk about mental illness and we don’t want to admit it. So, getting people to open up and say “yes, I do have this issue” or “yes, my child does have this issue and these are the struggles we are going through,” is very difficult. I am very grateful to all the people who were willing to share their stories with me.

TCR: How did dealing with this affect you, and how do you move forward after seeing what you have seen?

AR: I feel a great responsibility and duty to share these stories and spread them. I have the means to tell the world about these horrible situations, whether it’s the really awful abuses or just the day-to-day low-level abuses of being locked up with a mental illness. So, I feel privileged to share that.

Keeping that in mind was a way to mitigate the awfulness of it, but it’s traumatic reporting. I had a lot of nightmares about jail and prisons. I have a lot of friends who work in this universe, so it was great to be able to compare notes and talk about what we have seen. It is traumatizing and exhausting, but I kept thinking that I got to walk out of there at the end of the day, and I needed to take advantage of that to tell the world about how bad the problem is.

TCR: One of the subjects in your book is the practice of solitary, and you note that it is still in effect despite being considered a form of torture by the United Nations. Why do you think it is still being practiced in the U.S.?

AR: There are a lot of pieces that go into this answer. Unfortunately, we have abandoned the notion of reform and rehabilitation in our criminal justice system. We’ve moved back to the punitive notion. In some measure we think that people who are locked up in jail or prison deserve what they get. There is a dehumanizing aspect to the whole criminal justice system, and solitary confinement is part of that. If we don’t think of somebody as a full human being, then it becomes easier to do something really awful to them. If you think of this person as your brother, or our uncle, or your husband, it’s much harder to lock them in a box 23/7.

There’s also the fact that so many of us don’t know what goes on in the criminal justice system. The system as a whole is so abstract for such a large portion of our population, that we just don’t think or know about it. People have no idea that there are tens of thousands of people locked in solitary confinement on any given day. In a lot of places and for a very long time it’s just been how it’s done. It’s a very easy solution to put someone who is being unruly or difficult out of sight and out of mind. I think it speaks to a larger issue: We take people with mental illness, we lock them away, someplace we don’t need to see them. If we put them in jail or prison we don’t need to see them or step over them on our way to Starbucks in the morning. Solitary confinement is a reflection of that. But it makes everything so much worse.

Alisa Roth

Alisa Roth. Photo by Matthew Spence

TCR: Your book also criticizes the dangerous mistakes made by judges, and attorneys, who have no experience with the mentally ill. One example is your story of Jamie Wallace, a young boy suffering from mental illness and multiple physical disabilities, who eventually killed himself in prison due, in part, to a judge’s inability to understand his circumstances. How do we increase awareness and understanding of mental illness so that we may better avoid tragedies such as this?

AR: As awareness of the problem of large numbers of the mentally ill in the criminal justice system grows, judges and attorneys are more attuned to it. It’s not that people don’t know it’s there, but it’s as much as about changing attitudes as anything else. I talk to a lot of judges and I’ve said “Hey, in a lot of cases you’re being asked to make what’s effectively a medical decision and you’re not a doctor; you’re a judge. ‘

The best answer I heard, and it makes sense to me to a degree, is the judge who that’s what he does all the time. He takes the best information he can get and makes a decision based on that. So, he’s not making a medical judgement, per se; he’s taking the information that the psychiatrist, the therapist, and the attorneys give him and using that to make a decision. Jamie Wallace’s case was particularly egregious. He was so young, so sick, and had a developmental disability on top of it. I found it heartbreaking to think that the judge couldn’t see a way to understand. And the judge was playing very much by the rules.

Jamie Wallace was failed by the system at every level, over and over again. A forensic psychiatrist who read about him said he should never have been declared competent or even been standing in that courtroom. The judge made an awful decision, but he also made a mistake in letting him even be in that courtroom that day. You have to wonder how it would have been different if he had been wealthier, or his parents had been more educated, or if he had been in a different state.

TCR: Jamie Wallace’s story is an example of the mistakes that can be made as a result of the disorganized bureaucracy of the criminal justice system. At a time when so many are pushing for better training within that system to fix the problem, and others are fighting to keep the mentally ill out of that system entirely, which do you feel is the better option?

AR: In an ideal world, we would be able to keep everybody with a serious mental illness out of the criminal justice system. In an ideal world, we’d be able to keep a lot of people without a mental illness out of the criminal justice system. We lock up a lot of people very easily. I think that diversion is absolutely critical, but in order to make wide scale diversion possible, we can’t just look at this little tiny piece of the problem. We have to remember that we are operating in a very large ecosystem, not just of criminal justice but also of mental healthcare. We need to see wide-scale reform of both these systems so that people aren’t getting to the point where they’re so sick.

You see people in jail and prison who are sicker than a lot of people you see in psychiatric hospitals. We need to be catching the diseases earlier and treating them earlier. It’s great to train the cops to not arrest people, but if you don’t have some place for the cops to take them that’s not jail, they’re still going to wind up in jail. That’s what happened in San Antonio when they created their crisis center system. [They realized] you can train cops as much as you want, but they’re still going to take people to jail if there’s no other option. The other part of it is, as long as we are going to have people that end up in the criminal justice system, we have to make sure that when they’re there, they’re getting the treatment that they need and not just being warehoused in prisons.

TCR:A popular talking point now is de-institutionalization, starting when the majority of state-run mental health hospitals were closed during the 1960s. However, your book insists that there were other, more important, causes for the problem. Can you expand on that?

AR: De-institutionalization is a fabulous talking point. It has this very neat narrative: Dorothy Dix found people locked up in jail; realized this was not the place for them; they weren’t getting the treatment they needed; wardens were saying they couldn’t handle this; she pushed for the creation of the asylum system; everything was great until it all went to hell and we had to open up the doors and let everyone out. Then, without treatment, people were ending up in the criminal justice system. And it has a very neat solution: if this is how we got there, then all we have to do is treat the mental illness and we’ll get people out of the criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, it’s way more complicated than that. Even when you look at the heyday of institutionalization, during the middle of the last century, there were a lot of people in institutions, but it was not the majority. There were still a lot of people living at home or elsewhere, or getting treatment in the community. The population in institutions tended to be older, white, female, and very heavy on people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The people now locked in the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly young, male, and not white.

I think we also have to look at the story of mass incarceration. We’ve started locking up way more people than we ever did…and when you cast such a big net, of course you’re going to pull in a lot of people with mental illness. When you break it down even further and look at co-occurring substance use disorders, a very large majority of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system have a co-occurring substance use disorder. So, if we’re arresting tons of people for drug possession, drug use, drug selling, drug dealing, it makes perfect sense that we’ll pick up people with mental illness.

Using policing tactics such as “broken windows” and “stop and frisk,” allowed us to lock up huge amounts of people [and] made it easier to arrest people with mental illness. I think that the story of mental illness in the criminal justice system is as much a story of mass incarceration as it is of de-institutionalization. The one piece of the story that is important, even if we don’t quite tell it right, is that we do have a severe lack of mental health care in the community and we have made it extremely difficult to get treatment for mental illness. But it’s not that everybody was getting treatment in a hospital and now they can’t get it, we just don’t have that and we’ve never had it.

TCR: How can we get people to start viewing mental illness seriously?

AR: I think we’re starting to move in that direction, very slowly. We’re seeing more people acknowledging an issue with depression or anxiety. We’re still not seeing a lot of actors come up at the Oscars and mention that they have schizophrenia, but I think it’s becoming more socially acceptable to talk about these things. We know that people can change, and society can change. There was a time that people didn’t talk about HIV or cancer, and now we wave flags for it. We need to get over the fear and stigma [attached to] mental illness in our society. The narrative in the media and in politics that links mental illness and violence is very damaging. And it’s hard to get over that stigma when every time something bad happens somebody is out there pointing a finger at mental illness.

TCR: Are tools such as Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), deescalation and community policing having a positive effect on the problem?

AR: Like so many things in criminal justice, there is not a ton of data or evidence-based research to show one way or another. The data in places such as Miami or San Antonio show that these things work. Miami says that it’s cut the number of officer-involved shootings. In San Antonio, the system has prevented them from expanding the jail. People who study policing say that CIT is just good policing—-going back to the kind of policing we had before “professionalized” law enforcement. It was the cop walking the beat who knew the people in the community. There’s no reason to run into every situation like it’s a battleground. Police officers always talk about how they see people on the worst day of their lives. That narrative is used sometimes as a reason why you need to be on your guard. But I’ve also heard it used as a reason to be gentle, kind, and thoughtful because they’re there to help.

Getting police to respond in a more thoughtful, more community/medically oriented way, instead of the tough, warrior way, is terrific. The big caveat is that if you don’t have the whole system set up to accommodate this it can only get you so far. You might deescalate a particular situation, but if you don’t have any longer-term solutions, you’re going to be back picking up the same person with no place to go. Often communities think CIT will be a step to solving the problem, but you have to think about how you’re going to divert, what’s the mental health treatment going to be, and how do we make sure we’re not picking people up again next week or next month.

TCR: Does change need to start at a federal level?  And do you see potential for change under the current administration?

AR: The thing about criminal justice is that so much of it happens on such a local level that, on the flip side, a lot of reform can also happen on a local level. If I’m in Manhattan, and get arrested, it could potentially be a different outcome then if I’m in the Bronx or New Jersey. Because it’s so local, I think the federal question is almost irrelevant. Even the laws of involuntary commitment are handled at a local level.  I think with a lot of laws, particularly with HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and involuntary commitment, it really comes down to a very narrow line of navigating between civil liberties and safety for the person and the public.

We obviously don’t want to go back to the time when somebody could have a child committed to a hospital for not being religious enough or dating the wrong person.  On the other hand, I think we’ve made it so difficult to get somebody hospitalized that we’re in this perpetual crisis management mode.  The way it’s set up now is that you really have to be at a crisis point in order to make involuntary commitment possible.  Likewise, with HIPAA, I don’t want my business broadcast all over the place.  On the other hand, the very nature of mental illness means that the person is not, necessarily, capable of making decisions for himself, or even providing the information that the doctors need.  I’ve heard families talk about managing to get their adult child hospitalized, but then not being able to convince the doctor to talk to them about what has or hasn’t worked in the past.  As with any other illness, the more information the clinician has, the better they can treat the problem.

Isidoro Rodririguez

HIPAA is also widely misunderstood. It’s used as an excuse for stonewalling families and other people trying to get information.  I think the more important question, is how do we figure out how to loosen these laws a little bit to make things easier and more effective without throwing all the civil liberties out with it.  As for the current administration, I think this is a big wildcard.  It doesn’t seem to be a big priority except on those occasions when something awful happens and suddenly there’s talk of bringing back asylums and more mental health care.  Between seeing real change at a local level or at a federal level, I have a little bit of hope that at the local level there is potential for reform.

Isidoro Rodriguez, a staff writer for The Crime Report, covers policing and mental health issues. He welcomes comments from readers.


California’s DNA Ruling Helps Fight Crime, Victims Say

Privacy advocates say California’s Supreme Court justices put citizens’ most personal info at risk when they rejected an appeal Monday to strike down a law requiring all arrested individuals to provide DNA samples. Supporters of the ruling say concerns about the law, similar to statutes now in effect in 30 states, are overblown.

Ashley Spence was 19 when she was brutally raped, and almost killed, by an attacker who broke into her apartment at Arizona State University.

There was a pillow over her face the entire time, and afterwards the perpetrator got away, free to commit more heinous crimes.

The case remained unsolved for seven years until one day, the same man was charged with resisting arrest while breaking into another woman’s apartment. He was taken into the police station, and the inside of his cheek was swabbed for DNA. It matched the DNA found in Ashley’s rape kit.

Arizona is one of 30 states and the federal government that authorize the analysis of DNA samples collected from individuals arrested or charged, but not convicted, for certain crimes, reports the The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Privacy advocates say the practice represents a violation of constitutionally protected rights and is part of an escalating trend in business and government to gather personal information. But one of the first major legal tests of the law failed this week in California.

California’s Proposition 69, passed in November 2004, required anyone arrested for a felony–even if they were not charged or convicted–to provide a sample of their DNA, for storage in CODIS, a database that collects federal, local and state forensics.

On Monday, the California Supreme Court, in a narrow 4-3 ruling, rejected an appeal to declare the law unconstitutional.

Spence was relieved. As far as she was concerned, Proposition 69 was how they tracked down the man who brutally assaulted her.

“You can have all the evidence there in the rape kit, but if you don’t have the arrestee’s DNA, you don’t have a match,” she told The Crime Report.

Spence noted that in some states with DNA requirements, a sample is only taken when someone is arrested for a violent crime.

The problem with that, she said, is you don’t know if the alleged perpetrator [of a less violent offense] will go on to commit more serious crimes.

 “If that hadn’t happened to the man who assaulted me, many more women could’ve been raped,” she said.

Source: NCSL

But opponents argue that the DNA-testing mandates are not just personally invasive; they disproportionately affect people of color who are more statistically likely to be hauled in by police on suspicion of committing a crime—even if they are eventually released.

Immigrant advocates, lawyers and civil rights groups say the portable technology used for DNA testing makes authorities more likely to use it on individuals who are already under police surveillance. A wide range of documented and undocumented immigrants have had their personal data entered into the FBI’s massively expanding identification database, according to The New Republic.

That was the stance Justice Goodwin Liu took this week on the Proposition 69 ruling.

“The fact that felony arrests of African Americans disproportionately result in no charges or dropped charges means that African Americans are disproportionately represented among the thousands of DNA profiles that the state has no legal basis for retaining,”Justice Liu stated. 

The more liberal justices in the ruling wanted to strike down the DNA program they said affects thousands of innocent people each year, mainly African Americans.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in California declined to comment.

Mary Ross, president of Californians for Consumer Privacy, said the DNA law should worry anyone concerned about the growing evidence that personal data was no longer private.

Citing the recent disclosures that the personal information of millions of Facebook users was scraped by companies seeking to use it for political campaigns, she said the DNA case was one more example of the need to be transparent about the information being collected and what it was used for.

“There’s a whole industry of businesses who collect information and compile [it] in electronic documents and sell it,” she said in an interview. “You can buy lists of rape victims, stuff that should never be for sale, but it’s all advertised.”

Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar appeared to share this perspective in his dissent from the ruling. He wrote that the majority decision overlooked the importance of “heightened privacy protections” in California’s constitution.

“The DNA Act unlawfully invades people’s reasonable expectation of privacy in their personal genetic information,” he said.

Justice Cuéllar believed the “reasonable” way to go about collecting information that may assist criminal investigations, while protecting the privacy of individuals, is to use less-intrusive means. He used the example of taking fingerprints which gives only a few data points to identify a perpetrator, whereas DNA provides a whole raft of additional and extraneous information, particularly about an individual’s health.

Supporters of the law say such fears are overblown.

The DNA entered into the system being used today is a numerical ID, with only 20 markers of DNA—not enough to reveal one’s race, eye color, hair color or other defining personal characteristics, said Jayann Sepich, founder of DNA saves.

“I wish people took the time to understand and educate themselves on DNA testing,” observed rape victim Ashley Spence.

“If they did, I believe they would feel differently.”

Not only can DNA testing be used to prevent further crimes, but it can help exonerate the innocent, Spence argued.

Jayann Sepich, who lost her daughter Katie to a brutal rape and murder in 2003, makes a similar point. People who are innocent won’t go to prison just because their DNA was taken at the time of a felony arrest, she said in an interview.

But having their DNA on file might prevent criminals from escaping detection long after they committed horrible crimes.

Sepich’s daughter Katie was 22 when she was abducted, raped, killed, set on fire and then dumped in the desert. The man who attacked her had her skin and blood under his fingernails.

But the Sepich family waited three years and three months until they found their daughter’s killer. His DNA had been swabbed too many years after his felony arrest.

“If we had an arrestee law when our daughter was murdered, we would’ve got him in less than 90 days,” Sepich lamented.

John Case, a business lawyer in Los Angeles, said opponents of the DNA law were in effect fighting a losing battle. Consumer privacy is breached every day using websites such as Facebook and Google, he said The Crime Report.

“They’re all putting our privacy at risk,” Case maintained. “Whether that’s being used to target white people, non-white people, people with whatever political viewpoint—those risks exist,” he said.

Supporters of Proposition 69 said DNA offered a crucial way of finding and stopping repeat lawbreakers who posed a danger to society.

“If you’ve committed a crime and you are found guilty, we should be able to get info from you to see if you have committed other crimes, regardless of race” said Betsy Butler, Executive Director at California Women’s Law Center. 

“I don’t know a less invasive way to track criminal behavior,” she contended. “If you haven’t done any crimes you won’t be in the system.”

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


Legislation Alone Won’t Decarcerate America, Warn Advocates

Reducing US prison populations requires a strategy that engages all the players in the justice system, from courts to community residents to the media, a panel at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice was told.

Changing state and federal guidelines on sentencing and bail won’t be enough to reduce America’s prison population, according to two of the nation’s foremost advocates for justice reform.

“It’s going to involve litigation, it’s going to involve organizing, it’s going to involve academia, (and) it’s going to involve elevating and honoring the voices and efforts of those who are most impacted by the system,” says Robin Steinberg, a co-founder of the Bronx Freedom Fund, which has been a prominent player in the movement for bail reform in New York City.

“There is no one strategy that works,” Steinberg, who is now CEO of The Bail Project , a national effort to reduce racial inequities in bail, told a panel last week at the NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“So it’s going to involve the media, it’s going to involve certain communications strategies….whatever leads us to change the narrative.”

Judith Greene

Judith Greene. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

Steinberg’s comments were echoed by Judith A. Greene, a former Soros Senior Justice Fellow and contributor to the new book, Decarcerating America: From Mass Punishment to Public Health, who described how a combination of “organizing, litigation, public education, and ballot measures” was responsible for a 31 percent decline in New Jersey’s prison population between 1999 and 2014—one of the highest decarceration rates in the country.

New Jersey’s effort began with “litigation against a parole board that wasn’t doing its job,” received a boost from a report by the Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) group advocating the elimination of  mandatory-minimum drug sentences, and was reinforced by changes in plea guidelines established by the state attorney general’s office, Greene said.

“Then finally about three or four years ago, about the same time New York dropped the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the state legislature essentially took the last legal legs out from under the drug school zone laws,” she added.

“So it was a combination….they didn’t have ballot measures, but they had organizing, they had civic engagement. And they had an elite body in the state’s highest court pushing to effect major drug reform.”

Speaking about bail reform, Robin Steinberg commented that the Bronx Freedom Fund, founded in 2005, was borne out of frustration “at watching bail get set on clients, and watching our clients get hauled into jail cells and the inevitable plea of guilty…and at some point my co-founder said we should just start a bail fund to bail people out.”

It took the Bronx Freedom Fund two years to find Jason and Joe Flom, the primary investors in their project. The fund finally took off in 2007 and began to bail people out.

“The lawyers in the Bronx Defenders would refer clients that they thought would be eligible for the bail to the Bronx Freedom Fund,” she said. “The [fund] would then do an interview and began to pay bail.”

What the Bronx Freedom Fund learned after being in operation for eleven years “exploded our beliefs” about bail, Steinberg said.

Counter-intuitively, the results of the Bronx Freedom Fund showed that people do come back to court even when their cash isn’t at stake.

“Once we started using donated dollars to pay people’s bail and we began to learn that 96 percent of our clients came back to court even though it wasn’t their money, and they had nothing at stake in terms of the money,” she continued. “[That] kind of exploded our ideas about money being an incentive to bring people back to court.”

Freedom Fund staff discovered that “97 percent of clients held on misdemeanors in The Bronx were pleading guilty, and when we paid people’s bail with philanthropic dollars, what wound up happening was almost half the cases got dismissed,” said Steinberg.

“The majority of the other half of the cases wound up in non-criminal dispositions—which have far fewer collateral consequences.”

The strategy of paying for defendants’ bail utilized by the Bronx Freedom Fund is known as a revolving-bail system.

The panel, titled “Decarcerating America,” was moderated by Nicole Fortier, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice Program.

In another, earlier, example of a multi-pronged decarceration approach, Greene described how New York City evolved from a gang enforcement strategy, which had led to the over-incarceration of youth in poor, minority neighborhoods during the 1950s, to programs involving street workers who could help young people find alternatives to gang involvement.

After reform-minded Mayor John Lindsay was elected in 1966, “the city…. listened to sociologists who said this was a youth problem more than a crime problem, pointing out that most kids who are in gangs are not marauding and shooting people,” she said.

New York began applying a “social intervention” strategy that involved a range of innovative approaches, including hiring former gang leaders as mediators.

As a result, said Greene, New York was able to avoid the kind of gang violence that plagued Chicago and Los Angeles.

Officials in many cities across America still haven’t picked up on the lesson, she said.

“It breaks my heart to see the gang enforcement strategy travel east,” said Greene.

Files for this story were provided by TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Is #MeToo a Movement or a Moment?

With heightened media attention towards sexual misconduct in the workplace, a panel at John Jay College examined how to turn women’s concerns into efforts to produce long-term change. The issue is “shaking and shaping our time,” said New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.

During a time of heightened media attention towards sexual misconduct in the workplace, women have an unprecedented platform to share their stories of abuse.

Time Magazine named these silence breakers ‘person of the year’. Social media exploded with survivors posting #MeToo on their profile pages. Men and women at the Golden Globes paraded in black to show their support for the movement.

But will it all last?

That was the question raised at a panel Wednesday night at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as experts in the field gathered to discuss the future of efforts to curb sexual violence against women.

“Mee too is a moment, not a movement,” said Wendy Murphy, an adjunct professor of sexual violence law at New England Law|Boston.

“It has turned into a hijacked, non-feminist based, media grab.”

Women today may have a new platform to speak about sexual injustices, but the ability of movements like #Metoo and #TimesUp to affect long term change remains unclear.

According to Murphy, violence against women is product of constitutional inequality, and unless you are talking about that, nothing else matters.

“Celebrities are not framing this as a civil rights movement, and my concern is that the people in power are not talking about equal rights,” she said.

Journalist Stephanie Russell agreed, pointing out journalists are under pressure to write stories that fit headlines, rather than make connections to larger, cultural issues.

“Somehow as journalists we need to cover structural inequalities.”

But it’s a lot easier to say this guy did a horrible thing, instead of connecting all the dots, she added.

While sexual violence against women is often thought to be women’s issues, men can play an important in ending systemic abuses of power and privilege as well.

Bryon Hurt

Bryon Hurt. Photo via

Bryon Hurt, filmmaker, published writer and founding member of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), noted that “We need to address boys and men. A lot of young men tend to see sexual violence as individual crimes that were committed by ‘bad men’, as opposed to linking them to a culture of abuse.”

Programs such as Mentors in Violence Prevention open up the conversation to young boys and men, educating them on their responsibility towards ending gender violence.

MVP works with groups and institutions that have been traditionally difficult to engage in gender violence prevention, especially male-dominated institutions such as men’s athletic programs, fraternities, and military organizations.

Still, some boys and men do not want to be included in conversations about rape and sexual assault because they feel they are being targeted and attacked unfairly, Hurt contended.

“We have to be able to shift the lens for them, so they see clearly that these issues affect us as well.” 

One tactic Hurt found successful was asking young men to think of their mothers, sisters, grandmothers and girlfriends in a situation of sexual violence.

“We have to get across that women are human beings. Many boys and men don’t make that connection because they haven’t been forced to. They operate with myths about women that benefit them and give them power and privilege to take advantage of women.”

Whether or not young men participate in the progression of gender equality, women continue to speak out against sexual violence.

“These movements are shaking and shaping our time,” said Kathy Hochul, New York Lieutenant Governor.

Hochul’s mother was a victim of domestic abuse, and Hachul noted that it could have been third generational if her mother hadn’t taken control of her situation, and moved out.

“You can take your circumstance and use it as an excuse, or you can say I am going to help myself and help others,” she recalled.

Now, she is hopeful that women can stand up for themselves.

“Women have control, they don’t have to be victims. When they stand together they can accomplish so much,” she stated.

“We need to feel empowered ourselves, and I think that has happened over the years.”

Megan Hadley is a reporter for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.


PTSD: ‘The Dirty Little Secret of Law Enforcement’

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is now recognized as a serious and sometimes deadly risk for police officers. But experts say law enforcement managers still have a long way to go in addressing the problem.

On a warm early morning in 2007, police officer Mark Dibona was sitting in his cruiser in front of a fire station in Sanford, Florida.

Dibona was taking notes in his police logbook when a woman carrying an unconscious infant approached him, frantically asking for help.

“My baby isn’t breathing!” she said.

Dibona performed CPR but was unable to revive the infant. The three-month-old baby boy died at a nearby hospital.

He blamed himself for the death. In the following weeks, Dibona became withdrawn and started to drink heavily, often with fellow officers after his shift. He spiraled into depression, and was later diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“When I became a cop in 1985, we were told nothing should bother you, just keep it moving,” Dibona recalled in an interview with The Crime Report. “Cops don’t like to show their emotions.”

But when he finally mustered enough strength to approach his supervisor, he received no help.

Instead, he was told to “toughen up”—to “go home and have a beer; the feeling will eventually die.”

Mark Dibona

Officer Mark Dibona. Photo courtesy Facebook.

Dibona added that if he had known “the dirty little secret of law enforcement”—not only the high risk of PTSD, but that he would get little empathy or counseling for the stresses of the job—he might have chosen a different profession.

The “dirty little secret” is no longer hidden. According to studies cited by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), between seven percent and 19 percent of police officers experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, compared to 3.5 percent of the general population.

Some officers have found support and understanding from their families. Dibona, for example, credits his wife for making sure he attends regular counseling sessions. And unlike the experience of their predecessors who were told to “toughen up,” the dangers of persistent and high-level stress are winning some recognition today at senior levels of police departments and law enforcement organizations.

Still, despite local and national programs to help cops cope with severe stress, experts say there is still a long way to go.

“One of the most critical issues in police training is to help police officers deal with mental issues, (yet) stress on the job is stress-management training they do not receive,” said Maria Haberfeld, a political science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who served in the Israeli National Police Force.

“The same way they need to be qualified for firearms twice a year, it has to be mandatory to go to stress management,” Haberfeld said. “It cannot be left to officers alone, because they won’t go. It needs to be institutionalized in the training process.”

Serving in neighborhoods where community residents are openly distrustful or hostile to the police has added a new level of stress, many officers have said. As communities erupt in anger over killings of unarmed civilians, police feel even further isolated.

“I truly think our mental health has taken a backseat to everything that’s going on today,” Dibona said.

Suicide remains a major issue among officers. According to Badge of Life, a police suicide prevention program, an officer commits suicide every 81 hours. Each year, there is an average of 130 suicides.

“The key issue isn’t suicide; it’s mental health,” said Ron Clark, the founder and director of Badge of Life.

A retired cop, Clark also suffers from PTSD and depression as a result of trauma incurred while on duty. Clark realized that coping mechanisms like consuming alcohol and not verbalizing how he felt weren’t helping.

“I saw that I needed help because I would just do things and regret them later,” he said. “I would drink uncontrollably, not realizing that I was emotionally unstable.”

According to John Jay’s Haberfeld, such coping mechanisms have been a part of police culture for generations.

“They talk to each other, they go for a drink, and this is the reason why police officers have a higher rate of alcoholism than other professions because that’s how they distress. It’s sort of a venting process than a coping process,” Haberfeld said.

Laura Usher, NAMI’s senior manager for criminal justice and advocacy, adds the growing awareness of officers’ mental-wellness needs have led to peer support programs in many agencies around the country.

But she added: “It would be a good idea for an annual mental-wellness check to be a part of their fitness training and re-certification. This will help officers get familiar with mental health resources and simply introduce them to the topic.”

Private groups like Badge of Life have similarly pushed for annual mental check-ups for all officers with a therapist of the individual’s choice.

But Dimona says these aren’t enough to address the problem. He echoes the call for mental-wellness training starting in the academy, but believes it should continue throughout an officer’s career—and after.

“It should be mandated in training, in the academy, while on duty, and after retirement,” he said, adding that cumulative, untreated stress is a reason why “a lot of officers die shortly after they retire.”

Tiffany S. Thomas

Tiffany S. Thomas

Dibona now works for the Seminole County Sheriff’s office in Florida, where he supervises nine officers,but the memory of that June morning still haunts him.

“Until this day,” said Dibona, who admits to having contemplating suicide several times before he began counselling, “I can feel the warmth of that baby on my arm.”

Tiffany S. Thomas is a freelance journalist in New York City, with experience in international reporting in Kenya, South Africa, Jamaica and Israel. She welcomes comments from readers.


Three Universities Launch National Database to Track School Shootings

The first of its kind open-source database will collect information on all incidents involving a firearm affecting K-12 students. In a project funded by NIJ, John Jay College, University of Texas at Dallas and Michigan State have partnered to collect and track school shootings in order to come up with prevention strategies.

Three universities have created a national, open-source data base to track school shootings and develop strategies for countering them.

The partnership between John Jay College, the University of Texas at Dallas and Michigan State University, will track fatal shooting attacks that targeted K-12 students or teachers, but also include cases that resulted in injuries but no deaths; domestic violence; workplace violence; as well as suicides on school grounds involving a firearm.

Joshua Freilich

Prof. Joshua Freilich

“The dearth of empirical data on school violence in the United States and the almost complete absence of quantitative data on perpetrators and incidents will be remedied by the production of this database and the analysis of data on the risk factors of school shootings,” said Professor Joshua Freilich, the principal investigator of the project and a member of the Department of Criminal Justice at John Jay College, said Tuesday.

The first-of-its-kind project is supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, which aims to provide a knowledge base about the root causes of school violence, as well as assess strategies for increasing school safety.

“At this crucial time in our national discussion on school violence, John Jay College is proud to be at the forefront of academic research that will support local, state and national efforts to tackle this problem with evidence-based policies and interventions,” said Karol V. Mason, President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.“

The database will include data about all publicly known school shootings that resulted in at least one injury from 1990 to December 31st, 2016.

The database will be made public in the spring of 2019.

The major objectives of the project include:

  • documenting the nature of the problem and clarifying the types of shooting incidents occurring in schools;
  • providing a “comprehensive understanding of the perpetrators of school shootings and test causal factors to assess if mass and non-mass shootings are comparable”; and
  • comparing incidents that involved fatal and nonfatal shooting, with a view to “identify intervention points that could be used to reduce the harm caused by shootings.”

See also: Trump Seeks Shutdown of School Safety Studies.

A release explaining the project can be downloaded here.