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Blog: Arresting Matters

Arresting Matters: Issues Involving Justice, Community Safety, and Corrections

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Beyond Ferguson

Posted by Chas Williams on September 29, 2014 at 8:05 PM Comments comments (0)

This is the first in a series of monthly columns where I usually analyze Corrections Policies and Practices. But, the uproar in Ferguson, Missouri over the death of 18 year old Michael Brown by a local police officer demands our attention. So, I will depart from my usual format. This tragedy was spawned in a crucible of fiery protest and volcanic emotion but I believe a phoenix can rise from its ashes. That is, we could achieve positive and lasting benefit as a result of lessons gleaned from this horrible incident. And, consistent with our theme, these benefits will have a lasting effect on local and national justice practices.


There is precedence for this hope. In the aftermath of a similar incident 2 ½ years ago, the Trayvon Martin Foundation was formed. This group has proven to be much more than a vessel for contributions to his grieving family. It has fostered programs of victim assistance, gun violence awareness, entrepreneurship training, youth mentoring and leadership nurturing activities. Both parents have become symbols of how to experience an ugly, violent act and turn it into an opportunity to change the conditions that caused it. This is among the purposes of the foundation.


Still, their conscious efforts at social change may be dwarfed by the unintended education that America experienced in the aftermath of this tragedy. During this period of constant media bombardment when we focused inadvertently on the reality of life for young Afro-American males, something significant happened. Although it was not a central legal matter in the trial of George Zimmerman, the underpinning philosophy of “stand your ground” laws came under scorching scrutiny as a means to avert responsibility for homicide.


The main proponent of this approach is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying organization that pushes nationwide legislation at the state and local level on behalf of its corporate membership. One of its ambitious goals has been to put “stand your ground” laws on the books of every state. It does this by bringing influential state officials to lavish conventions to “educate” them in model laws whose language is inserted directly into local statutes, sometimes unedited.


As a result of the linkage of “stand your ground” to the death of Trayvon Martin, a legion of companies became very nervous about their support of these efforts. By December 2013, such companies as Walmart, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Kraft and McDonalds withdrew financial support for the organization. This turned into a funding hemorrhage large enough to cost the organization one-third of its annual budget! This has significantly slowed the adoption of “stand your ground” laws across the country. Could a similar spate of unanticipated policy shifts happen as a result of events in Ferguson? Let’s consider some of the major policy and social changes that have already occurred.


(1) Community Policing has been resurrected from its policy exile and is being touted as a new approach embodied by the appointment of Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson. He is an Afro-American born and raised in the area, named as titular head of the local police supplanting the chief, who is white. Oh, did I mention that Ferguson, Missouri is 67% Black and the police force is only 7% Afro-American? One concept of Community Policing is to have a prominent front line enforcement unit that reflects the make-up of the community and conducts its business foremost as community servants responding to residents’ needs. This tends to diffuse the feeling of hostility toward these authorities before it starts. The poisonous enmity between the police and citizens has been a long standing problem in communities with similar demographics to Ferguson across America. Community Policing is a proven antidote.


(2) Claire McCaskill, as Chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Sub-committee of the Senate represents Missouri. She is convening hearings on supplying military weaponry to local police departments solely at their discretion. Ferguson police were dressed in camouflage and body armor, carried military assault rifles and arrived in armored vehicles. Their entrance into Ferguson could not be distinguished from an invading army. This is the polar opposite of Community Policing. Senator McCaskill is questioning three government agencies who are primary suppliers of this equipment: The Justice Department, Homeland Security and The Pentagon. Unnoticed since 1997, the Pentagon program alone has provided over $5 Billion in military hardware to local police at little or no cost, which includes items like grenade launchers and bomb proof vehicles. Although the Pentagon directly provides armament, Justice and Homeland Security provide grants that pay for billions more. In fairness, not all these grants are for armament. Some funds are for training or paper clips. Meanwhile, back at the scene, the police generate the second largest source of revenue for the city of Ferguson: court fines for traffic tickets! Do they really need this type of armament to catch speeders?


(3) A new dialog has been opened on how the media portrays young men of color and correspondingly how any alleged perpetrator is presented to the public before guilt is established. It is no secret that negative images are used to mold public opinion. Recalling Trayvon Martin, it became a violent controversy to simply don a “hoodie” sweater in public. The insidious effects of negative racial stereotyping are vivid in the 1943 Los Angeles ordinance that outlawed “zoot suits”. These colorful and outrageous outfits were only worn by Black and Latino residents whom authorities viewed as automatically outlaw. Although unconstitutional, the provisions were supported by police action. Similar attitudes still exist in much subtler forms. In a growing movement demonstrating remarkable sense of presence, young people of color, through social media, started a campaign that asked: “If They Gunned Me Down…” (#iftheygunnedmedown). This question wondered aloud how minority youth would be characterized if memorialized in the media. They posted images of themselves in two contrasting poses; one as stereotype and one as a positive role model, in counterpoint to their expected portrayal. This is an example of a nascent self-awareness that has lead to conscious action challenging the stereotypes that underpin cultural intolerance. It vaguely echoes the “I’m Black and I’m Proud” slogan of the 1960’s in its self-assertion. Participation has already spread way beyond Ferguson. I should note and correct one bad rap against the County Prosecutor who was blamed for the leaked surveillance tape of Michael robbing a convenience store within a short period before his death. The release of that tape helped fuel the “If They Gunned Me Down” movement but it was Police Chief Thomas Jackson who was responsible for releasing the tape on August 15. Dorian Johnson, the original eye witness who made the initial statement “he had his hands up” was also accused in the robbery. He corroborated the convenience store robbery through his attorney, further validating the tape. Sadly, it was not relevant to the incident because the police officer who stopped them was not aware the robbery occurred.


(4) The recent controversy has caused Ferguson and other jurisdictions to add body cams to standard issue police uniforms. The Ferguson department has been issued body cameras that record the activity of the officer and stores the data in the digital cloud. There are few studies on the use of this technology across the country, but most experts agree on two things. The first is that the technology will be adopted by 80% of police departments by 2020. The second is that it may not have made a difference in the Michael Brown shooting because we can never know what it would have shown. From a single camera angle, some footage is still not definitive.


Michael White, a University of Arizona researcher, gives the cameras only lukewarm praise and cites a lack of research among the concerns. Some police departments despise them as “intrusive” while others credit them with a more trusting relationship with beat officers (as an aid to Community Policing?). Either way, most sentiments are summed up by White referring to the discrepancy between police and eye witness reports in this case. He says “We don’t know which account is accurate…But I couldn’t help but think what would’ve happened if the officer was wearing a body-worn camera?”


All these issues are now exposed. I see that as hope. Between the lines and beyond the headlines, I see optimism in the actions and awareness raised by this incident. It has additional implications for policy action on the local level. Our justice community in my hometown has recently begun crafting a policy to deal with an issue also raised by Ferguson. The Arch City Defenders is a group of attorneys who provide pro bono counsel to indigents in the greater Saint Louis community. They produced a white paper based on their experience observing 60 different courts and evaluating them on fair and constitutional treatment of defendants. Thirty of these courts had incidents of bad practices. In their study “three courts, Bel-Ridge, Florissant, and Ferguson, were chronic offenders and serve as prime examples of how these practices violate fundamental rights…”


This institutionalized response across the justice system including judges, bailiffs, clerks and prosecutors constitutes a dragnet in Ferguson that disproportionately affects its minority population. According to Huffington Post, the Missouri Attorney General reported that in 2013, 86% of police stops and 92% of police searches were of Black people. Arch City Defenders conclude:


Overall, we found that by disproportionately stopping, charging and fining the poor and minorities, by closing the Courts to the public, and by incarcerating people for the failure to pay fines, these policies unintentionally push the poor further into poverty, prevent the homeless from accessing the housing, treatment, and jobs they so desperately need to regain stability in their lives, and violate the Constitution.


A toxic by-product of this policy is the high percentage of jail occupants incarcerated for minor traffic offenses because they cannot pay the fines levied to release them. The jail population in our state is experiencing a similar disproportionate percentage of traffic offenders filling its bed space.


A future paper by this group examines remedies for this dilemma. Its proposals include installing public defenders in every court, levying fines based on defendants’ income, consolidating municipal courts and developing alternative approaches to fines and jail time. Our local jurisdiction is facing a similar problem in our rural court system. There is scant bus service and young people begin operating cars and machinery on private property at an early age. Many are apprehended for driving without a license numerous times until revocation occurs. They then have jail or prison time and emerge with no license and many barriers. We have reason to believe this is wide spread across the country.


We are facing this problem by convening a united front of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, prison intake officials, furlough operators and private service agencies to craft a comprehensive program model. The model includes elements of community supervision in lieu of incarceration; mandatory community worklines to clear fines; identity restoration and re-licensure services; and, standardized assessment and re-employment services. This effort is purely in the planning phase at this writing with the input of all stake holders being the key to success. The action here is similar to efforts being made across America to solve problems common to the overpopulation of our jails and prisons. Anything happening in your neighborhood that helps this effort?


We will return in a month with another post. Sources for this column came from: USA Today, 9/06/2014; New York Daily News, 8/12/2014; The Trayvon Martin Foundation; Jacob Slocumb (Columnist), 8/22/2014; Time Magazine; Huffington Post, 8/19/2014; Arch City Defenders, Municipal Courts White Paper.

Arresting Matters

Posted by Chas Williams on September 24, 2014 at 3:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Life in the third millennium is proving to be more tumultuous globally than any time in history. Or so it seems. Crisis in the Middle East, War in the Balkans, Contagion in Africa, Financial Meltdowns worldwide and Immigration Inundation at home all support theories of rampant disorder. Or have we simply reached a point on our planet where everyone is in contact with everyone else across the globe, on such a micro level, that these events are magnified beyond our ability to affect them?

 

What has happened to the kidnapped girls in Africa; the efforts to suppress gun violence; the incarceration crisis in our prisons? These issues are no less important now than when they first entered the news cycle, yet they are pushed from the front pages as if they were passing fads. Someone needs to continuously monitor these issues and report on progress (or regress!) in these areas. I am sworn to that task. I have chosen Corrections and Incarceration as my field of concentration due to the outsize impact that policies and procedures in this arena have on all our lives.

 

I am both a lifelong student and 25 year practitioner in the field of Corrections Consulting. Beginning as a designer of vocational programs and progressing through roles as operational manager for residential treatment, curriculum designer and program director for cognitive skills programs, and as director of a community based transition service agency, my concern remains for quality control, consistency of service provision and use of effective practices in our field.

 

I intend to discover, uncover, investigate and explain some of the most provocative issues we face as our country grapples with the enigma of reducing prison populations without increasing crime rates. The core philosophy of this coverage rests in the medical pronouncement: “First Do No Harm”. I endeavor in my work to promote those solutions that produce the least amount of displacement to the least number of people. This may sometimes lead to disagreement over policies or their implementation with those who generally support these principles and those who don’t.

 

I will always stick to the facts and cite references when appropriate and available. I accept disagreement but reject name calling and ad hominem arguments. We may not always agree on the importance or gravity of the issues I raise, but I am sure you will find them “arresting matters”.


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