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Houston Police Chief Who Called Michael Bennett ‘Morally Corrupt’ is Quiet on Police Brutality

NFL defensive lineman Michael Bennett
Jeffrey Beall / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Houston Police Chief Who Called Michael Bennett ‘Morally Corrupt’ is Quiet on Police Brutality

On Sept. 6, 2017, then-Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett penned a letter describing, in excruciating detail, how Las Vegas police officers physically assaulted him while investigating shots fired in the area of the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight. According to Bennett, officers ordered him to the ground, placed a gun to his head, threatened to blow it off, and jammed a knee into Bennett’s back. “Las Vegas police officers singled me out and pointed their guns at me for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he wrote. Bennett’s letter sparked another massive national conversation about racial profiling and police violence towards people of color.

Shortly thereafter, a Houston detective started investigating a seven-month-old incident purportedly involving Bennett. Police alleged that in February 2017, while trying to get onto the field at NRG Stadium to celebrate his brother’s Super Bowl win, Bennett shoved past two women, including a 66-year-old paraplegic woman in a wheelchair. According to the police, the women tried to stop Bennett from getting on the field, but he forced his way past them while shouting expletives, spraining the 66-year-old’s shoulder.

Police did not start their official investigation that night, or the next night, or even the next. They did not search for or talk to Bennett, even though they could have easily found him taking photos and giving interviews on the field. They did not take pictures of the complainant on the scene. Only in May — four months later and after memories had faded — did the case get assigned to the investigating detective. And only in September, after Bennett went public with his story about the state of policing in America, did the Houston Police Department actually start investigating the case.

Last Friday, over a year after the alleged incident and just before Bennett’s release of his book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable, a Harris County grand jury issued an indictment charging Bennett with “injury to an elderly individual,” a third-degree felony that carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The basis for this potentially long sentence? “[P]ushing her arm and body with his hands.” Bennett turned himself in on Monday, and after being taken to the Harris County jail, posted a $10,000 bond.

Bennett’s supportersincluding Olympic medalist John Carlos and author Cornel West, have accused the police and District Attorney Kim Ogg of charging Bennett because he is a Black man who speaks his mind and regularly brings attention to issues of police brutality.

“Michael Bennett follows the long history and tradition of athlete activism, from working to transform the justice system to advocating for women’s rights,” Mike de la Rocha, co-founder of Revolve Impact, a social justice group, told The Appeal. “Legendary athletes such as Muhammad Ali and John Carlos were disparaged by many in their day for using their platform to speak out against racism and injustice. Unfortunately, the tactics of the past continue today as Michael is being vilified for speaking out.”

And there are serious reasons — even beyond the timing of the investigation and the indictment — for his supporters’ vocal concern.

For one thing, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo held what critics consideredan outrageous press conference on Friday, during which he called Bennett “morally corrupt” and “morally bankrupt.” The Texas Rules of Professional Responsibility require lawyers to refrain from public attacks on “the character” of a potential defendant — lest their statements poison the public perception and a jury pool — and they also require the DA, where “feasible,” to “make reasonable efforts to discourage [law enforcement] from making statements of that kind.” Either Ogg didn’t follow this rule, or Acevedo ignored her. Either way, critics say, the police chief should know better. Acevedo did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Appeal.

Acevedo also misrepresented the incident during his press conference, claiming that Bennett knocked the 66-year-old woman “on her butt.” That description seemed to surprise reporters. And it was false. Moments later, the detective on the case carefully walked back the claim, explaining that the woman sat in an 800-pound wheelchair that did not, in fact, fall or topple over. Bennett instead “pushed her back and kind of strained her shoulder,” the detective said.

Bennett’s supporters say Acevedo’s characterization of him as “morally bankrupt” is not just unfair, but wrong. Bennett runs free sports camps for underprivileged families, his foundation works to combat child obesity, and, in 2017, he pledged to donate all of his endorsement money to aid programs focused on communities of color and women of color.

Acevedo’s comments were particularly striking given that he has refrained from using such harsh language when describing other serious incidents — notably, those involving police use of force. In Austin, where he previously served as police chief, an eyewitness saw officers forcing a jogger to the ground after stopping her for jaywalking. Video then captured her screaming as they forced her, handcuffed, into the police car. But Acevedo was shockingly dismissive of public scrutiny of his officers: “Cops are actually committing sexual assaults on duty, so I thank God that this is what passes for controversy in Austin, Texas.” (He later apologized.)

Nor did Acevedo publicly lash out after several officers in Austin shoved a Black man to the ground and punched him, and then took another Black manto the ground for, again, jaywalking, an incident captured on video that went viral. Instead, Acevedo, at the recommendation of the Internal Affairs Division, eventually dismissed the complaint lodged against the officers. And when other officers got caught making a joke about rape in their police car, Acevedo suspended them briefly but stated that their “participation in an unprofessional and inappropriate conversation,” which he also characterized as “inappropriate humor,” was not reflective of [their] total work performance or work product.”

Acevedo himself has also come under fire. In 2004, he was accused by a female co-worker with whom he allegedly had an affair of taking naked photos of her and then showing them to his co-workers. The woman sued, and the two settled out of court. (Acevedo has claimed this was a smear campaign.)

Acevedo aside, the district attorney’s behavior in this case has also raised concerns that law enforcement is singling out Bennett. District attorneys have enormous discretion. They can always dismiss a case if they decide it’s a waste of resources and the suspect isn’t dangerous — a label that many say obviously fits Bennett given that no one rushed to arrest him for 14 months. Here, the DA could have easily charged the case as a misdemeanor assault, an offense carrying a penalty of up to one year in jail and no more than a $4,000 fine. But instead, Ogg’s office requested an enhanced charge — injury to the elderly — which would result in a felony conviction and up to a 10-year prison term. Her office did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.

There is much about this case that remains uncertain. The public does not have access to the medical records or police report. And critically, the defense is just starting its own investigation — albeit one hampered by the passage of time. But one thing is certain, critics say: This is not a normal case, and like many Black men in the justice system, Michael Bennett is not getting a fair shot.

Can Police Opposition Overturn Parole Reform?

courtesy of Release Aging People in Prison

Can Police Opposition Overturn Parole Reform?

On March 14, Herman Bell learned that after 45 years behind bars, he would soon be released from prison. The 70-year-old former Black Panther was convicted in the 1971 shooting deaths of two New York police officers. Since 2004, he appeared before the state’s parole board seven times; each time, he was denied parole because of the nature of his crime.

“There was nothing political about the act, as much as I thought at the time,” Bell said during his March 1 interview with the parole board. “It was murder and horribly wrong … It was horrible, something that I did, and feel great remorse for having done it.”

Though the parole board said that Bell’s crime “represents one of the most supreme assaults upon society,” two of the three commissioners nonetheless voted to grant Bell parole. In their vote, they cited his age, near-perfect prison record, college degrees, wide network of supporters and, perhaps most significantly, a letter of support from Waverly Jones Jr., the son of one of the slain officers. “The simple answer is it would bring joy and peace as we have already forgiven Herman Bell publicly,” Jones wrote in his letter to the board. “On the other hand, to deny him parole again would cause us pain as we are reminded of the painful episode each time he appears before the board.”

Bell’s parole comes after years of advocacy by formerly incarcerated people, their family members, and activists to change the state’s parole process. In 2011, an executive law directed parole commissioners to assess a defendant’s probability of recidivating rather than basing a decision on the nature of the crime. But in the following years, commissioners continued to hold 10-minute hearings before denying parole based on the defendant’s crime rather than their rehabilitative efforts in prison. That’s what happened to 70-year-old John MacKenzie in 2016 when he was denied parole during his 10th hearing; nine days later, he died by suicide, becoming a symbol of what critics called a “broken” parole system.

Advocates, including formerly incarcerated people who faced multiple parole denials, have pushed to change the composition of the parole board. Because commissioners are appointed by New York’s governor for six-year terms, advocates pressed Governor Andrew Cuomo not to reappoint commissioners with punitive track records; they also urged him to appoint commissioners with backgrounds outside of law enforcement. (Potential commissioners must have a college degree and five years’ experience in criminal justice, sociology, law, social work, or medicine.)

Advocates also pushed for changes to parole regulations, which now require the board to issue individualized reasons for denial.

In June, Cuomo chose not to reappoint three commissioners and appointed six new commissioners. Since then, says Steve Zeidman, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the CUNY School of Law, parole hearings last longer than 10 minutes, commissioners’ questions have focused more on the defendant’s rehabilitation, and release rates have increased. In the following months, parole approvals rose from 24 percent to 37 percent. Two of these new commissioners served on Bell’s parole panel (though only one voted for his release).

Unsurprisingly, the decision to parole Bell has been blasted by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD commissioner, Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Diane Piagentini, the widow of the other slain officer in the case. The PBA, along with several Republican lawmakers, are demanding that Cuomo fire the commissioners who approved Bell’s parole. Cuomo’s office has not returned a request for comment about these demands.

And even though the parole board voted to grant Bell his freedom, they can still rescind his parole should information emerge that commissioners had not been presented. That’s what happened to 58-year-old Shua’Aib A. Raheem who was sentenced to 25 years to life for a 1973 shooting in which one police officer was killed and two others wounded. In 2007, after Raheem was granted parole during his sixth hearing, the PBA fought to allow one of the injured officers and family members of the dead officer to submit victim impact statements. At a rescission hearing, the board rescinded his release. Raheem spent another three years in prison before being released on parole after another hearing in 2010.

Zeidman, however, cautions that such rescissions are rare; he told The Appeal that he can count the number of rescissions he’s seen in his 25-year career on one hand. Opponents can go to court to block Bell’s release, said Zeidman, but they are unlikely to find any relief. Indeed, in December 2017, the New York State Troopers’ Union filed a lawsuit to block the release of 74-year-old John Ruzas, who had been imprisoned since 1975 for fatally shooting a state trooper and had been denied parole 10 times. The judge, however, dismissed the case and Ruzas was released that month.

Still, the backlash about the parole board’s vote on Bell — “Law Enforcement Rages Over Cop Killer’s Parole” blared a New York Post headline the day of the decision — could influence its future decisions, particularly regarding defendants convicted of murder. “The intent behind the pressure is to make people afraid” of granting parole in controversial cases, Zeidman noted. He points to the fallout following the 2003 parole of Kathy Boudin, a former Weather Underground member who participated in a 1981 robbery of a Brink’s truck that left a security guard and two police officers dead. The two commissioners who granted her freedom were not reappointed.

“It sends a message that, even if you follow the law, you’ll be fired if it’s an unpopular decision,” Bell’s attorney Bob Boyle told The Appeal.

Against the backdrop of such repercussions, “what the parole board did [in granting Bell parole] was courageous,” said criminal defense attorney Zeidman. “Most people would say that they just followed the law, and that’s true. But they haven’t been following the law before. And they knew that there was going to be this kind of backlash and this kind of attack.”

Waverly Jones Jr. wrote in a statement to the media that he, too, is concerned by the resistance parole commissioners have faced for their decisions. “Particularly upsetting is the attack on the Parole Commissioners who made the decision to release him,” Jones wrote. “The fact is that Mr. Bell has taken responsibility for his actions, has expressed genuine remorse, is 70 years-old,and has been in prison for 45 years. In these times of increased hate, we need more compassion and forgiveness.”

“There’s been a sea change,” reflected Zeidman. “Whether this [backlash] has the power to stop this in its tracks is what people are afraid of.”

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Black Families Matter: How the Child Welfare System Punishes Poor Families of Color

Credit: Aikawa Ke / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Black Families Matter: How the Child Welfare System Punishes Poor Families of Color

A few days after an argument with her boyfriend led to a 911 call, Ms. L, a mother of two young boys, received an unexpected visit from Child Protective Services (CPS). The caseworker asked her if she used drugs, and Ms. L truthfully responded that she smoked marijuana from time to time. According to Ms. L’s attorney, the admission led to a child neglect proceeding against her in which the state claimed that Ms. L did not properly care for her children. The only evidence presented on the petition was Ms. L’s admission that she smoked marijuana. The court adjudicated her as “neglectful” and implemented a “family service plan,” a combination of ongoing state surveillance and mandatory “services.”

Her family service plan included the following: parenting classes; anger management classes; parenting classes for children with special needs; participation in a drug treatment program; submission to drug testing; submission to unannounced visits from CPS, including full access to the apartment for inspection; and participation in all family court conferences and hearings, regardless of her work schedule.

When Ms. L was unable to comply with all these demands on her time while maintaining her job, her children were taken from her and placed in foster care. The state then added individual and family counseling services to her service plan, along with supervised visits with her children. Ms. L eventually quit her job in order to comply with the plan. Yet, despite her Herculean efforts at compliance, Ms. L still faced termination of her parental rights. Her children have rotated through different foster care placements, and the emotional stress of separation from their mother has taken its toll. The children’s CPS caseworker reported in her notes that the children are “prone to angry outbursts at school,” “lack interest learning,” and “show no concern for their own well-being.”

Ms. L’s story is by no means atypical — millions of families have been forcibly torn apart by the state on similarly flimsy grounds.

The child welfare system claims to be a non-adversarial legal system dedicated to ensuring the well-being and safety of children. This claim obscures the oppressive political role it plays in monitoring, regulating, and punishing poor families and Black, brown, and indigenous families. The mass removal of Black children from their families in some ways parallels the U.S. criminal legal system’s mass removal of Black men and women from their communities. Like prison abolitionists, foster care abolitionists recognize this institutionalized disruption of Black families as a key aspect of the expanding carceral state. They therefore seek to dismantle the current foster care system and replace it with a radically different approach centered on the needs, dignity, and equal humanity of families.

Every day in family court buildings across the country, thousands of people, but disproportionately Black mothers, stand before child welfare officials and family court judges who subject their parenthood to extraordinary scrutiny and vilification. These judges and officials use consequences of poverty, such as several siblings sharing a single room or lack of adequate heat, as evidence of child neglect. Family members who have prior criminal or family court involvement are deemed risks to their children, without any consideration for the well-documented overcriminalization of poor Black communities.

Many of the grounds for removal are paternalistic and arbitrary, as well as racially biased, in nature. Parenting choices, such as whether to co-sleep with an infant or whether to leave an older child unattended at home, are routinely questioned and held against Black mothers in family court. Low-income parents battling substance use problems or mental illness are labeled incapable of caring for their children, while wealthier parents’ access to child care or quality healthcare often insulates them from such judgment. Poverty and marginalization are also often a factor in the minority of family court cases that involve allegations of physical abuse. Parents who succumb to the incredible pressures exerted on them by structural inequality and inflict physical harm on their children are not offered the type of meaningful resources that can strengthen family relationships and prevent future incidences of violence.

Racial disparities exist at every stage of child welfare decision-making. Black families are more likely to be reported to the child abuse hotline and investigated for child abuse and neglect. They are more likely to have cases against them substantiated and to have their children removed from their care. In 2000, Black children represented 36 percent of children in foster care, despite accounting for only 15 percent of the child population. Despite a trend toward decreasing foster care rolls since the early 2000s, Black children still comprise nearly a quarter of the children in foster care, according to a 2016 report. In places like New York City and Chicago, Black and brown families compose virtually all families under supervision and virtually all the children in foster care. Once in foster care, Black children generally receive inferior services and are kept out of their homes for longer periods of time than their white counterparts. Black parents are also subjected to termination of parental rights at higher rates than white parents.

Research shows these racial disparities, resulting in the overrepresentation of Black children in the child welfare system, are not due to a higher incidence of abuse and neglect in Black families as compared to white families. For example, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that despite similar rates of substance use between Black and white pregnant women, Black women were 10 times more likely to be reported to child welfare authorities for substance use during pregnancy. Other studies have found that doctors are more likely to report injuries on Black children as suspected child abuse than identical injuries on white children. Still other studies have found that caseworkers are quicker to perceive Black children as being at risk and in need of removal from their homes.

Black people in America are targeted by the punitive arm of every legal system at disproportionate rates, whether it is Black immigrants for deportationBlack children for suspension in school, or Black adults and youth for arrest and incarceration. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Black families are more commonly targeted for child welfare supervision, child removal, and termination of parental rights. Indeed, we should consider foster care an extension of the same racist carceral regime that includes these other punitive systems.

The history of how racism expanded the punitive practices of the child welfare system is well documented. Since its inception in the late 1800s, the child welfare system has always operated with animus toward people of color. However, after the civil rights movement succeeded in increasing Black people’s access to public assistance, attitudes toward welfare shifted significantly. There was a sharp contraction of the welfare state and a corresponding expansion of punitive measures against welfare recipients, such as denial of benefits after a family reached a certain size (to discourage child bearing), or drug testing of welfare recipients on the assumption that recipients were diverting welfare funds for drugs. Fueled by the disparaging myth of the Black “welfare queen,” Congress replaced the entitlement to welfare with block grants to states in 1996, resulting in fewer familiesreceiving assistance and subjecting recipients to even more oppressive regulation.

The child welfare system paralleled these developments, with funds available for foster care and adoption sharply increasing while the funds available for in-home services such as child care decreased. Then-Congressman Newt Gingrich, one of the most infamous opponents of guaranteed cash assistance, stated that government funds that were supporting poor mothers should instead be used for orphanages and adoption of their children. This sentiment became law in the passage of the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, which created compelling financial incentives for states to reduce their foster care populations by increasing adoption rather than offering cash, food, housing or childcare assistance to families. At the time this law was passed, well over 40 percent of America’s foster care population was Black.

This system inflicts incredible harm on Black families and their communities. Removing a child from his or her home is one of the most violent acts a government can undertake against its people. Yet the child welfare system has operated in this discriminatory and dehumanizing way with too little attention from society. In part, this inattention reflects the success of the system in hiding behind the smokescreen of those rare but highly publicized cases of tragic deaths of children who have come into contact with the system. It also reflects the secretive nature of courts deciding child welfare cases — unlike criminal courts, the vast majority of family courts are closed to the public. And it reflects the success of imagery such as the Black welfare queen in denigrating Black motherhood and normalizing the control and punishment of Black parents and their families.

Like the prison and immigration systems, the child welfare system frays family and community bonds and strains the ability of affected communities to politically organize and resist attacks on their children and families. All are oppressive systems that work together to regulate, punish, and control the most marginalized people, fueled by a racist ideology. We need to link the abuses within the child welfare system with the broader assault on Black humanity and dignity, and amplify the voices of thousands of parents who fight for their families in the halls of family court and in their communities every day.

Dorothy Roberts is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law, Sociology, and Africana Studies at The University of Pennsylvania and the author of Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty and Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. Lisa Sangoi is an attorney and Soros Justice Fellow at the NYU Law Family Defense Clinic. The views expressed in this column are their own.

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