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Cy Vance’s Double Standard

Wikimedia Commons, user Saffie 55

Cy Vance’s Double Standard

If you’re facing criminal charges in Manhattan, it appears you might be able to get out of that jam with the right campaign donations. And if you don’t have that kind of cash? Expect to face jail time and fines, even for the lowest-level offenses.

This is the transactional possibility suggested by a series of high-profile prosecutions Manhattan district attorney, Cy Vance, Jr., has dropped in recent years. While powerful people in entertainment, real estate, and politics avoided prosecution, Vance’s office pursued thousands of charges for prostitution, loitering, and turnstile jumping, among other “quality of life” offenses. Not coincidentally, the people most likely to face those kinds of charges — low-income people, people of color, trans people, and immigrants, to name just some — are not likely to have well-connected attorneys and deep pockets.

This double-standard is at play in the thwarted investigation into Harvey Weinstein. The powerful Hollywood producer has now been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault by multiple women in the entertainment industry, with more allegations still coming forward. One of those women, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, reported Weinstein to the NYPD in March 2015, and even volunteered to help them try to catch Weinstein on the record. You can hear that tape for yourself: not only does Weinstein admit to groping Battilana, he states he was “used to that.” And he continues to attempt to intimidate her, all while being recorded with NYPD listening in.

Even with the tape, Battilana’s account, and the NYPD’s own account, District Attorney Vance declined to prosecute.

In the same year Vance dropped the Weinstein case because — as his office now claims — the NYPD didn’t have enough evidence of criminal intent, the NYPD made arrests for 326 prostitution-related offenses in Manhattan, which also ended up in Vance’s office. A few of these were for “loitering for the purposes of prostitution,” a charge usually used against women of color (cis and trans) on the street. A few more arrests were for “unauthorized practice of a profession,” typically a charge women in massage parlors face. Most charges were for prostitution.

Some of these prostitution charges are likely the result of sting operations where police pose as customers, deceiving their targets into agreeing to or actually having sexual contact with them. Some officers, like Officer Michael Golden, have repeatedly had sex with the women they arrested. This conduct is not permitted, but Vance’s office declined to prosecute Golden for multiple sexual encounters with women in prostitution investigations.

In a typical prostitution case, it is the officer’s word prosecutors rely on. They continue to use preprinted forms that prompt the arresting officer to document the attire the accused was wearing, or if the neighborhood they were in was an area known for prostitution — by which they mean, an area where police repeatedly arrest people for prostitution. For example, in Manhattan, sex is probably being sold at the Tribeca Grand Hotel, which is where the NYPD caught Weinstein on tape in his own attempt at quid pro quowith an actress. But that’s not policed the same way as Hell’s Kitchen is, the fifth most-policed neighborhood for loitering-for-prostitution of all five boroughs.

What New Yorkers charged with quality of life offenses lack is what Weinstein had when facing potentially far more serious charges: the power to get out of it. Most New Yorkers aren’t the son of former police commissioners, like Greg Kelly, who was accused of sexual assault in 2012, and who Vance chose not to prosecute. In that case, as in the allegations against Weinstein that Ambra Battilana Gutierrez brought to the NYPD in 2015, it was the woman who told police she was assaulted who ended up smeared in the press.

There’s another apparent factor in who Vance chooses to prosecute: campaign contributions. Not long after Vance dropped the Weinstein investigation, he received a $10,000 donation from Weinstein’s lawyer. Vance’s communications director says the lawyer, David Boies, wasn’t representing Weinstein in the 2015 criminal case. However, Boies was a major Vance donor. Between Boies, his son, and his partners, Vance received $182,000 in donations, according to the International Business Times.

All this has prompted reporters and political observers to ask questions about what looks like Vance’s pay-for-play, which appears even stranger given that Vance is currently running unopposed for his third term as Manhattan District Attorney. Democrat Vance has also taken donations from Marc Kasowitz, an attorney for the Trump organization. In 2012, Vance’s staff say they had a strong felony fraud case against Donald Trump, Jr. and Ivanka Trump. But after a visit from Kasowitz, Vance overruled his staff, and the investigation was dropped. Vance says he has returned these funds. But overall, Kasowitz contributed $50,000 to Vance.

On balance, these might seem like small political donations. But the women accused of selling sex in Midtown hotels and on Hell’s Kitchen streets are probably not in the habit of, nor have the ability to make, such contributions. In and out of the revolving door of prosecution they, along with thousands of other New Yorkers, remain.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

Salt Lake County DA under fire after finding fatal shooting by police justified


Salt Lake County DA under fire after finding fatal shooting by police justified

Salt Lake County, Utah residents are experiencing déjà vu. Their District Attorney, Sim Gill, announced last week that he would not bring charges against the police officer who fatally shot Patrick Harmon in the back. The announcement comes just over a year after Gill declined to bring chargesagainst the officer who shot then 17-year-old Abdi Mohamed, a choice that attracted outrage from some community members. On Sunday, roughly 150 people gathered to protest his latest decision.

“[Gill] is not going to justify one more murder in this city, is he?” Lex Scott, an organizer with Black Lives Matter, asked the crowd. “We’re coming for your job, Sim. We’re coming for justice, Sim.”

Harmon, a 50-year-old black man, was stopped by police on August 13th while riding his bicycle. Police told Harmon they stopped him because he didn’t have a red rear taillight on his bike, and moved to handcuff him after learning of multiple open felony warrants for his arrest, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Harmon allegedly pled with the officers not to take him to jail, then broke into a run.

Footage from three body cameras released last week shows what appears to be Officer Clinton Fox shooting Harmon in the back at close range after Fox yells “I’ll f — -ing shoot you.” Fox contends that at some point Harmon turned back toward him and pointed a knife. (A knife was recovered at the scene, according to Gill.)

“Officer Fox said that in 10 years of law enforcement and two military deployments, it was the scariest situation he had ever been in,” reads part of the DA’s report finding the shooting was legally justified.

On Tuesday afternoon, two days after community members called for his resignation, Gill announced that he had asked the FBI to review the incidentand his office’s finding that deadly force was justified, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. In a letter to the FBI obtained by the paper, Gill explained that “given the seriousness of the case and the considerable public interest in the matter, all issues must be completely examined to preserve the public’s trust in the criminal justice system and ensure the right measures are taken in this case.”

In June, Gill’s name appeared alongside other district and county attorneys in the state on an editorial in The Salt Lake Tribune entitled: “Utah prosecutors need no additional oversight.” The op-ed argues that the term “prosecutorial misconduct” is “cliché” and “misleading,” and notes that “creating new disciplinary committees and regulations to further constrain all prosecutors will not serve the public good.”

Protesters who rallied outside the city’s Public Safety Building on Sunday called for Gill to resign, and for body camera footage to be released within 24 hours of all police-involved shootings. Failing to charge Fox is seen by the groups protesting as part of a broader pattern in which police aren’t held accountable by Gill’s office.

Frustration over that lack of accountability is heightened by what groups like Utah Against Police Brutality and the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter say is clear racial discrimination. In Utah, black residents comprise just 0.7 percent of the population, but 9.3 percent of the state’s adult prison population. Latino and Native American residents are also overrepresented in the state’s prisons and jails.

Harmon’s niece, Alisha Shaw, told The Guardian that her uncle’s death was clearly the result of racial profiling.

“Why do we have to fight so hard for justice?” Shaw asked. “All we want is to be treated equal as a black person instead of being profiled and looked at as if we were a threat.”

Utah Against Police Brutality has organized a sit-in at Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s office on October 17th before a City Council meeting to demand “a new ordinance to make sure that cops cannot withhold body cam footage from the public.”

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No Backlog: Why the Epidemic of Untested Rape Kits Is Not a Symbol of Insufficient Police Budgets But Instead a Failure to Investigate Rape

No Backlog: Why the Epidemic of Untested Rape Kits Is Not a Symbol of Insufficient Police Budgets But Instead a Failure to Investigate Rape

A sex crimes detective with the Memphis Police Department will keep her job despite leaking confidential investigative files to the family of a rape suspect, the Commercial Appeal reported last week. Before Detective Ouita Knowlton became the subject of a criminal investigation, she was the supervisor of the DNA Unit, which was formed in 2014 to investigate long-neglected rape cases involving untested rape kits.

A rape kit contains physical evidence collected from the body of a rape victim. In addition to using DNA to identify an unknown perpetrator, the results from testing can be used to corroborate or refute statements from the victim or suspect.

Law enforcement encourages victims to submit to forensic examination as soon as possible after an assault to maximize the chances of evidence recovery. Exams, which typically last four to six hours, can be invasive, painful, and traumatizing for victims. The evidence collected varies depending on what happened during the assault, but rape kits generally include swabs, test tubes, microscopic slides, and evidence collection envelopes for hairs and fibers. The victim is swabbed for any biological matter that may contain the perpetrator’s DNA (e.g., skin, saliva, semen). The examiner photographs any bruising or other injuries and collects the victim’s clothing. The rape kit and other crime scene evidence, such as bedding, is transferred to law enforcement to log into its evidence facility. Then it is sent to a crime lab for DNA testing to solve the case.

But instead of sending rape kits to crime labs, police departments nationwide have often stashed rape kits wherever they could find space: in evidence warehouses, precinct closets, squad car trunks, some in environments with DNA-degrading high heat and moisture.

In 2009, a Human Rights Watch report exposed over 12,000 untested rape kits in law enforcement storage throughout Los Angeles County. That same year, inquiries by the Cleveland Plain Dealer about the failure of law enforcement to stop serial rapist and mass murderer Anthony Sowell spurredthe city’s police department to announce plans to process over 4,000 untested rape kits of its own. Also in 2009, after the FBI took control of the Detroit Police Department property room, officials revealed over 8,000 rape kits in police storage had never been submitted to a lab. In 2013, the Memphis Police Department admitted it had failed to test over 12,000 rape kits. In 2014, a New Orleans Police Commander who had been lauded in 2011 for testing at least 800 unprocessed rape kits revealed the department had failed to submit more than 400 rape kits collected since 2011. In 2017, the Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney’s office admitted at least 555 rape kits collected by Detroit Police since the 2009 public outcry weren’t tested until 2015, a fact that was never announced to the public.

In response to public criticisms, law enforcement blame their failure to submit rape kits on a lack of funding for DNA testing. But according to the National Institute of Justice, additional factors include victim-blaming beliefs by police, no written protocol for submitting kits to the lab for testing, high turnover in police leadership, and lack of community-based victim advocacy services.

It’s worth noting that today’s DNA technology has not always been available to law enforcement. In 1994, Congress authorized the National DNA Index System (NDIS), but modern DNA forensic analysis was not widely used until the late 1990s. Until at least the early 2000s, use of DNA databases was not common across the nation.

But when authorities began uploading DNA profiles from convicted offenders and arrestees and from missing persons and unidentified remains, they still failed to submit rape kits to labs for DNA testing.

Ohio Public Defender Tim Young, whose office has appealed convictions based on Cleveland’s neglected rape kits, told the Plain Dealer a false narrative has taken hold in the public imagination. “We’ve had DNA testing since the mid-1990s,” he said. “They (law enforcement) were dilatory in not using it. It’s a continuation of broken police culture that places the police first, not the victims, the defendants — or justice.”

Indeed, research at Michigan State University analyzed 1,268 police reports associated with Detroit’s untested rape kits. A report released in 2015 found “most cases were closed after minimal investigational effort.”

And even with advances in DNA technology, police solve fewer rapes than they did in the past.

Nationwide, the clearance rate for rape has declined sharply in the past decade, from 51% in 1995 to approximately 40%, where it has remained stable since 2005. In some cities the clearance rate for rape is in the single digits. During this same time period, clearance rates for murder and aggravated assault barely changed.

“Clearance” is a common way to measure an agency’s success in fighting crime. There are two types of clearance: arrest and exceptional clearance. The latter occurs due to circumstances outside law enforcement’s control, such as when the suspect dies or the victim stops cooperating. In these cases, despite being considered cleared, the suspect is never arrested, charged, or referred for prosecution.

Of the 111,241 rapes known to law enforcement in 2016, only 36% were cleared. And since the FBI counts exceptional clearance in the same tally as clearance by arrest, clearance rates likely overestimate how many rapists police are putting behind bars.

Untested rape kits are not indicative of underfunded police departments. Instead, they are symptomatic of a police culture that does not properly investigate sexual assault or take victims seriously.

Meaghan Ybos is the founder and executive director of People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws in Memphis, TN.

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