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New Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner Hits Reset on the Office’s Troubled Conviction Review Unit

New Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner Hits Reset on the Office’s Troubled Conviction Review Unit

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is bringing much-needed change to the city’s notoriously ineffective conviction review unit (CRU). The district attorney’s office confirmed to The Appeal that Patricia Cummings, former head of the Dallas County district attorney’s conviction integrity unit, has joined the Philadelphia DA to lead the the office’s review of old cases for evidence of wrongful convictions.

Cummings — a former defense lawyer, prosecutor and lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law — took over the position on February 1 and is nationally recognized for her work on behalf of the falsely imprisoned.

“Patricia is one of the top experts in the country on innocence and exoneration,” said Krasner’s spokesperson, Ben Waxman. “She has a tremendous record of standing for justice throughout her career. Larry is thrilled that she has joined the office and he expects her to make a huge impact in her new role. “

Cummings takes the helm of an office that has been dogged by criticism for being a conviction review unit in name only. For three years following its establishment in April 2014, the CRU was part of the DA’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) unit, which represents the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the appeals process. This caused criminal justice advocates to question its independence and its commitment to pursuing just outcomes.

During that period, it had just one part-time staff member — veteran homicide prosecutor Mark Gilson. His office considered dozens of petitions but did not oversee a single exoneration until 2016. In one case, Gilson even pursued the retrial of an inmate, Anthony Wright, whose murder conviction had been thrown out based on exculpatory DNA evidence.

Gilson was one of 31 old-guard prosecutors fired by Krasner just days after he took office.

Last year, former DA Seth Williams (who was given a five-year sentence on federal bribery charges in late 2017) announced changes to the CRU, including separating it from the PCRA unit and adding three additional full-time staffers. However, under Williams’ direction, the unit limited itself to cases based only on inmate innocence, refusing to hear those in which procedural misconduct played a role in convictions.

Dallas County is credited with launching the nation’s first conviction integrity unit, in 2007, and to date has overseen 28 exonerations, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Philadelphia’s CRU has handled just four in the past four years.

According to a published biography, Cummings worked in Williamson County, Texas, as a prosecutor of juvenile offenders before transitioning into criminal defense.

Prior to taking over Dallas’ conviction integrity unit in 2015, Cummings was perhaps best known for her successful effort to free Michael Morton, who was released from prison in 2011 after nearly 25 years, when DNA evidence cleared him in the murder of his wife. She was instrumental in getting a law passed in Texas, known as the Michael Morton Act, that requires prosecutors to open their files to defendants and keep records of the evidence they disclose.

Cummings has remarked publicly on the need to revisit convictions based on flawed forensic techniques. In 2015, she helped free Steven Mark Chaney, who was convicted of murder in 1987 based on now discredited bite-mark analysis.

She has also spoken of the responsibility of prosecutors to review cases in which innocence is not the primary consideration.

“There may be sometimes you’ve convicted somebody and it was wrong,” she told the Dallas Morning News in 2015. “You may not be able to prove that they’re innocent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t deserve the relief. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t try to correct the wrong.”

In Portland, A Mother Sues For Answers About Why The Police Killed Her Son

Crystal Maloney

In Portland, A Mother Sues For Answers About Why The Police Killed Her Son

On the morning of February 9, 2017, 17-year-old Quanice Hayes knelt on the ground in front of heavily armed Portland police officers as they yelled instructions at him. “Stay down on your knees,” they told him. “Move towards us.” A police dog barked. Hayes, who was unarmed, reached down toward his waistband. Why? We’ll never know — Officer Andrew Hearst shot him in the head with an AR-15 rifle and Hayes died instantly.

In the days that followed, police officials painted a sinister portrait of the African-American teenager in local media: He was on the run after a string of robberies, they said at the time. A fake gun was found a few feet away from Hayes, they claimed. A call to 911 allegedly referred to Hayes as armed.

By the time police officers testified in front of the grand jury a month later, they said they were certain Hayes was armed and dangerous as they surrounded him in the front yard of a home where Hayes had been hiding, even after he told the officers, “I don’t have anything on me.”

“There was no doubt in my mind the person that I was looking at had a gun,” Officer Hearst told the grand jury.

Moments before the shooting, Hearst said he told Hayes repeatedly, “If you reach for your waistband, I will shoot you.” Hearst said he grew frustrated.

“We told you to crawl,” he recalled telling Hayes at the time. “How could you have gotten that wrong?”

The witnesses to the shooting who testified in front of the grand jury were all law enforcement officers, and prosecutors from Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill’s office repeatedly played up the danger that Hayes posed, even though officers on the scene admitted that they never saw Hayes with a gun.

Crystal Maloney

“I knew that if he were to get to his gun, I would not be able to react fast enough before he was able to shoot one of us,” Hearst testified. “So it was absolutely a conscious decision on my part to defend myself, my coworkers and any citizen that might be behind me from the threat of him getting that gun out and shooting us.”

The grand jury members had no questions for Hearst after an assistant district attorney completed his questioning. They decided, as in so many other cases across the country where police officers have shot unarmed Black and brown people, not to indict Officer Hearst, who faced no further disciplinary measures for the incident.

Each year, there are approximately 1,000 police shootings in the United States, according to recent research by Bowling Green State University professor Philip M. Stinson. Stinson told The Appeal that since the beginning of 2005, there have only been 84 police officers who have been arrested for murder or manslaughter resulting from an on-duty shooting where the officer shot and killed someone. Of those 84 officers, according to Stinson, only 32 have been convicted of a crime resulting from the on-duty shooting, with the vast majority of those convictions being for a lesser offense than murder, like manslaughter.

Since the grand jury deliberations last year, the Hayes family has been given no further information from the district attorney, city of Portland, or the police regarding Quanice’s death.

So on February 7, lawyers for the Hayes family sent a notice to the city of their intent to sue, charging that Portland is “a city where young Black men are discriminated against at every stage of their interactions with police and the criminal justice system.” The family is requesting information like 911 call transcripts, photographs of the scene, and police reports, evidence that would have come out during a criminal trial but did not emerge during the grand jury proceedings controlled by DA Underhill.

“Families of the victims of police shootings are just so disempowered and frustrated by the process,” said Portland-based attorney Ashlee Albies, who, along with Jesse Merrithew, is representing the Hayes family. “Deep down, many of these families know that they’re not going to get an indictment of these officers, but they still hope for it and when the police talk to the families to do the quote unquote investigation, the families believe it. They need to believe it.”

The families often hope that if the truth comes out, it will help spur reform, Albies said. “At least finding out what went wrong, to try to use that as a leverage point to change policy, to change training, change practices so this doesn’t happen to somebody else and no one has has to go through something like this.”

Last Thursday, a consultant working on behalf of the Portland City Council released a report criticizing the Portland police department for its handling of six officer-involved shootings between 2014 and 2015. In one case, the department allowed officers to view video evidence of an officer-involved shooting scene before speaking to internal affairs investigators. The consultant also blasted prosecutors for asking “leading” questions during one grand jury hearing that seemed intended to portray the shooting victim in a more criminal light.

The Hayes family is crowdfunding $20,000 to help pay for the first part of the lawsuit, which would cover filing fees, some initial depositions, and retaining experts. The family was told by Albies and Merrithew that the lawsuit, even without lawyers’ fees, could cost as much as $150,000.

Terrence Hayes, Quanice’s cousin, has played a large role in advocating for the family’s interests in the case. He said high costs and massive logistical barriers keep families like his from getting basic answers about police-involved shootings and present an enormous obstacle to justice.

“This further establishes to me the system would rather see a poor family spend every last cent of theirs fighting a district attorney with the purse of the county then reveal the truth,” Terrence told The Appeal. “I shouldn’t have to hope to raise some astronomical amount of money in the hope that some information will finally come out. You would think the district attorney would have enough belief in the evidence to release it on their own, to just say, ‘We believe what happened was right and here’s the evidence.’”

Terrence believes the fate of the case was sealed by the flawed grand jury deliberation, where the DA’s office reversed its traditional role in the criminal justice system and actively worked against an indictment.

“When the DA is trying to find someone guilty, they don’t call witnesses who are there to try to prove your innocence,” Terrence said. “That’s just ridiculous. But for police officers, for some reason, fellow police officers, their captains, their trainers, everybody who will continue to fight for the protection of police officers is allowed to make a case on their behalf. The grand jury process was a sham.”

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Countering The NYPD’s Neighborhood Policing Scam

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Stringer, via Getty

Countering The NYPD’s Neighborhood Policing Scam

In New York City, chants of “I can’t breathe” have given way to neatly run press conferences featuring Mayor Bill de Blasio’s boasts about how the NYPD’s “neighborhood policing” program, described as a collaborative crime-fighting strategy, brings the police and community together.

Eric Garner’s killer still on the job and hasn’t faced justice? A horrifying story of rape involving cops from Brooklyn? The biggest police bribery and corruption scandal in over 20 years? For the self-described progressive mayor overseeing the country’s largest police force, inconvenient stories of police abuse take a back seat to a program that is part public relations, part intelligence-building.

Neighborhood policing, in fact, solidifies police power — and it has been done before.

The newest iteration of the “community policing” trope, a popular political talking point often trotted out when police are embroiled in scandal, neighborhood policing calls for “improved communication and collaboration between cops and community.” If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s strikingly similar to the NYPD’s community policing promises from 1994 and even further back, to a failed “neighborhood-oriented” community policing plan launched by former Police Commissioner Lee Brown.

Historically, community policing models in New York have served at least two purposes, both of which benefit cops: rebranding police officers as friendlier and, more importantly, dedicating more resources to them. The 2015 expansion of the NYPD police headcount by 1,297 extra cops — despite record low crime and protests against police brutality — was fueled by a synchronized call for community policing from the City Council, the mayor’s office and the department itself.

So what, if anything, is different about neighborhood policing? Philosophically and rhetorically, not much. Today’s narrative echoes what has been advocated for in the past: officers walkin’ the beat; promises of improved trust and community relations; and, of course, more cops.

In fact, to make things easier, let’s understand neighborhood policing as community policing and community policing as neighborhood policing. As Ace Ventura once said, “Finkle is Einhorn, Einhorn is Finkle.”

There are, however, slightly new names and terms to note. “Build the Block” neighborhood meetings seem new but parallel precinct council meetings the department has overseen for years. These meetings, described as “strategy sessions between local police officers and the people they serve,” are centered around “neighborhood coordination officers” (NCO’s), which are similar to community affairs officers of the past. But with these new names and new programs, will neighborhood policing depart from Broken Windows policing, the low-level, quality-of-life enforcement popularized in the 1990’s?

In short, no. One of neighborhood policing’s goals is to collect community complaints that inevitably lead to Broken Windows-style enforcement. The interchangeability of neighborhood or community policing and Broken Windows is a concept police leaders have actually made clear. In fact, former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, the godfather of Broken Windows, remarked in his memoir that as a Boston cop in the 1970’s, he helped implement a “neighborhood policing plan” that included police responding to community complaints about “the constant irritants, the stuff in their faces everyday: prostitution, graffiti, filth in the street, noisy parties.”

Bratton stepped down from the NYPD in September 2016, but his protégé and replacement, James O’Neill, is leading the “neighborhood policing” charge today. And while boasts from O’Neill and Mayor de Blasio about neighborhood policing are to be expected, it was surprising to hear NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey praise the NYPD’s efforts last week. Sharkey, whose new book, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, has drawn acclaim, was a guest on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on February 1 to discuss crime declines across America. Sharkey specifically lauded New York City’s neighborhood policing program, which he described as a “new form of policing,” as “fascinating”and as a “complete shift” in tactics.

For New Yorkers who’ve been following the latest stream of scandals (like cops threatening students, a cover-up of a police bribery scheme, the killing of an emotionally disturbed senior citizen), Sharkey’s analysis was strange, to say the least. Those controversies aside, thousands of low-level arrests, for things like fare-beating or possession of small amounts of marijuana, continue as the Broken Windows bread and butter of the NYPD. Further undermining both Sharkey’s and the city’s claims of a new policing paradigm, public defenders who represent targets of NYPD enforcement have weighed in on neighborhood policing: “ We don’t see it, so it’s hard to know whether there are any benefits to it,” said Justine Olderman, executive director of The Bronx Defenders in a recent interview.

So neighborhood policing would seem to be a continuation of Broken Windows under a new name. Finkle is Einhorn, again. However, one key aspect of neighborhood policing deserves closer scrutiny: the local NYPD-run meetings which Sharkey cited as “meaningful” efforts “to solve problems” in the community. Build the Block meetings have reportedly been “sparsely attended,” canceled, or served as spaces for residents to complain about low-level offenses, such as double-parked cars. Meanwhile, other unpublicized meetings, which most members of the public cannot attend, provide a point of intelligence gathering for more aggressive future NYPD enforcement actions.

A city worker who spoke on condition of anonymity told me that “N-Stat” or neighborhood-stat meetings, which appear to be based on the CompStat police management meetings made famous by Bratton’s NYPD, are invitation-only and held every few months at police headquarters. N-stat meetings bring together NYPD top brass, NCO officers, city officials and community stakeholders, like public housing tenant association presidents, city-funded nonprofits and even anti-violence organizations. The community members who attend, the worker said, “aren’t there to criticize the system” and routinely pepper the police with various complaints about “crime” in their neighborhoods. In turn, police promise to send more cops in to address it. Oftentimes, the worker said, police encourage community members to provide information on who they believe to be gang members.

Promoted through press conferences and privately funded videos, neighborhood policing sounds an awful lot like community policing efforts of the past and should be vehemently opposed by today’s activist community. The danger of allowing the neighborhood policing line to go unchallenged isn’t that it might fail to achieve its vague goals of improved relations between the police and community at large. It’s that it could succeed in rebranding and masking destructive policing practices, from low-level enforcement to multi-agency anti-gang operations, while deploying more cops and selling the public the illusion of a new form of policing.

Josmar Trujillo is writer and activist based in East Harlem. He organizes with the Coalition to End Broken Windows, a coalition of grassroots groups based in New York. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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