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In the face of an overdose epidemic, the Bronx DA rejects a harm reduction strategy and Governor Cuomo chooses inaction


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: In the face of an overdose epidemic, the Bronx DA rejects a harm reduction strategy and Governor Cuomo chooses inaction

  • New York agency declines to help trans woman allegedly harassed by law enforcement

  • St. Louis County is profiting off the ‘muni shuffle’ long after Ferguson protests

  • Another chance at freedom for Henry Montgomery

  • No sanctions against prosecutor who failed to disclose exculpatory evidence in capital case

  • Body camera footage shows man trying to surrender when cops kick him in the head

In the Spotlight

In the face of an overdose epidemic, the Bronx DA rejects a harm reduction strategy and Governor Cuomo chooses inaction

Last May, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to open four pilot overdose prevention centers in the city. The centers, also known as safer consumption spaces, would be opened, initially for one year, in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. The plan was drafted in response to pressure from harm reduction advocates, the City Council, and the grim death toll from overdoses—1,487 in New York in 2017 alone, averaging one every six hours. In 2017, for the seventh year in a row, overdose deaths climbed in New York. [William Neuman / New York Times]

Today in Albany, drug policy activists, service providers, and parents who have lost children to overdoses converged on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office in an act of civil disobedience. Cuomo signaled support for pilot programs while running for re-election in the fall but has taken no action since then. Jasmine Budnella of VOCAL-NY told the Daily Appeal that since last year, both New York City and Ithaca have been waiting for the state Department of Health to approve the pilots.  Across the state there were over 3,000 deaths in 2017. Overdose deaths have increased 200 percent in less than a decade, while Cuomo has been governor. [Jake Offenhartz / Gothamist]

Philadelphia, Seattle, and San Francisco have all announced plans to open safer consumption spaces. Plans in San Francisco were suspended after a veto by former Governor Jerry Brown, motivated in part by concerns about federal prosecution. [German Lopez / Vox] The Department of Justice, while Jeff Sessions was still attorney general, had indicated that it viewed overdose prevention centers as illegal under federal law. But Cuomo has not said that his failure to act is tied to the position of the Justice Department.

The New York City health commissioner has said that according to estimates, the four pilot centers could save 130 lives a year. [Jordan Kimmel and Daniel Yardin / Gotham Gazette] There are approximately 120 safer consumption spaces operating around the world, though there are none operating legally in the United States. [Sarah Holder / City Lab] (There have been reports for many years of sites operating underground. [German Lopez / Vox])

The city’s plan, which also requires the support of district attorneys and city council members in each borough, may have run into another obstacle: Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark. When the city’s pilot plan was announced, Clark said she was “open-minded on the matter” and needed more information. (Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez announced their support immediately.) [William Neuman / New York Times]

Of all the boroughs, the Bronx has been hit hardest by the overdose epidemic. In 2017, 363 residents died of overdoses, the most of any borough and the highest rate of overdose deaths. Two neighborhoods in the South Bronx had rates more than double the city average—44 and 46.2 deaths per 100,000 residents compared to 21.2 per 100,000 citywide. [New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene]

On Sunday, Clark made comments that suggest that she is opposed to the centers. Appearing on a radio show, Clark said she thought it was “a little dangerous to set up places where people can shoot up safely [when] you don’t know what it is that they’re taking,” and that “government should not be involved in taking on that type of liability.” [Tamar Lapin / New York Post]

Budnella said this position is consistent with others Clark has taken. “DA Clark has a history as a prosecutor who prioritized criminalization over the lives of Bronx residents,” she said. “Her rejection of a public health tool that has saved countless lives and seen no overdose deaths means that those increases will continue in the Bronx.”

Kassandra Frederique of Drug Policy Alliance told the Daily Appeal, “I think a better question to ask is, why we keep asking DA Clark and other law enforcement officials what are appropriate interventions in a health crisis? The Bronx is in crisis … and overdose prevention centers are a tool that we must use immediately.”

Citywide, the 2017 statistics show an accelerating death rate for Black, poor, and older New Yorkers. The rate of overdose deaths among Black New Yorkers surpassed that of white and Latinx New Yorkers, for the first time in 11 years. Black New Yorkers also had the largest increase in overdose deaths from 2016 to 2017.  Overdose rates among white New Yorkers, in contrast, declined. The rate of overdose deaths in “very high poverty” neighborhoods is more than double than in “medium and low poverty” neighborhoods. And while overdose deaths are most common among those aged 35 to 54, the largest increase was among those 55 to 84.  [New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene]

Keith Brown, director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center, told the Daily Appeal in an email, “We already know from research in other countries, as well as here in the U.S., that these spaces [overdose prevention centers] do exactly what they’re designed to.” He drew a parallel between the “refusal to accept scientific evidence” and the resistance of prosecutors and other public officials during “the fight to get syringe exchange and naloxone in NY and the rest of the US.” Claims “that crime would increase, and that we would be encouraging more people to use more drugs” were common then too. “Now that we have decades worth of proof that none of that was true, and…these programs are accepted as a crucial part of the public health infrastructure.”

Brown also pointed out that, “the exact reason DA Clark cites…that she ‘think[s] it’s a little dangerous to set up places where people can shoot up safely [when] you don’t know what it is that they’re taking,’ is actually one of the primary reasons we need these spaces.” He said overdose prevention centers can offer supplies, referrals, prescriptions, medication, screenings, “and most importantly, a taste of humanity and care for people who are marginalized and traumatized.”

Stories From The Appeal

 

DeAnna LeTray [Photo courtesy of DeAnna LeTray]

New York Agency Declines to Help Trans Woman Allegedly Harassed By Law Enforcement. She is suing the Division of Human Rights for saying it’s not authorized to investigate her complaint. [Emma Whitford]

St. Louis County Is Profiting Off the ‘Muni Shuffle’ Long After Ferguson Protests. A new proposal to abolish small police forces seeks to end the cycle of debt and incarceration. [Teresa Mathew]

Stories From Around the Country

Another chance at freedom for Henry Montgomery: In the 2016 decision Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court expanded its previous ruling in Miller v. Alabama and made its ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth retroactive. Hundreds have been released from prison following the Montgomery decision. But for Henry Montgomery, the plaintiff in the case, relief has been slower. He was resentenced in 2017 to life with the possibility of parole, with the judge begrudgingly acknowledging, “He’s been a model prisoner for 54 years, he’s been a mentor and, by all appearances, he’s been rehabilitated.” Yet, last year, Montgomery, now 71, was denied release on parole. (Our Feb. 21 newsletter looks at the near-absolute power that allowed this denial, despite Montgomery’s record of rehabilitation and achievement.) Now, in an unusual move, the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole has accepted his request for reconsideration and a three-member panel of the board will rehear Montgomery’s case. [Grace Toohey / The Advocate]

No sanctions against prosecutor who failed to disclose exculpatory evidence in capital case: Alfred Dewayne Brown spent nearly 10 years awaiting execution before the phone records establishing his alibi were found in a police investigator’s basement.  The Harris County district attorney’s office dismissed the charges against Brown in 2015. At the time, the prosecutor who had tried Brown’s case, Dan Rizzo, said he had no knowledge of the phone records and officials said the failure to turn them over was “inadvertent.” But when newly elected District Attorney Kim Ogg discovered an email from the investigator to Rizzo, with the records attached, she referred Rizzo to the State Bar of Texas for failing to turn the exculpatory evidence over to Brown’s lawyers. Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle reported that the state bar has closed its inquiry, finding no just cause to proceed with disciplinary sanctions against Rizzo. A special prosecutor, appointed by Ogg last year, is still investigating the handling of Brown’s case. [Keri Blakinger / Houston Chronicle]

Body camera footage shows man trying to surrender when cops kick him in the head: Miami police officers who placed Ravon Boyd under arrest told Internal Affairs investigators that when they reached Boyd, he had his hands under his body and they feared he was reaching for a weapon. But the Miami Herald reports that the body-worn camera footage it has obtained shows something very different—Boyd with his hands in the air as the police approach and one kicks him in the head. The video is blank for 25 seconds, when one of the officers covered his camera, right before Boyd was handcuffed. The video was turned over to Internal Affairs two years ago. The head of Internal Affairs told the Herald that “It’s very difficult to tell conclusively if Boyd is struck or not.” The officer “said he was kicking at a black object. We kind of took that at face value.” Internal Affairs cleared the officer of any wrongdoing. Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel, which oversees the police, is now examining the case. [Charles Rabin / Miami Herald]

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