Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Parents Fight For Daughter After ‘Pervasive and Egregious’ Violations By Family Court Volunteers

Washington case raises questions about the role of court appointed special advocates.

Illustration by Daiana Ruiz

Parents Fight For Daughter After ‘Pervasive and Egregious’ Violations By Family Court Volunteers

Washington case raises questions about the role of court appointed special advocates.


Denise Estabrook, a retired nurse, signed up to be a court appointed special advocate (CASA) in 2012 as a logical next step in a life of volunteerism. She had gone on a medical mission to Guatemala; she had supported an African child through a church; and at home in Snohomish County, Washington, she decided to volunteer in the child welfare system. Her role would be to monitor a child’s life in foster care, and to file reports and testify to the court on what was in the best interests of the child.

The next year, she was assigned to Apple (not her real name), a newborn baby who had been removed from her parents because, according to court documents, she was “at risk for neglect.” Apple, who is Black, had just been placed with a white foster family when Estabrook, who is also white, was assigned to the case. A social worker later testified that Estabrook assured the foster mother, who had been looking for a child who was at low risk for being returned to their birth parents, that she had nothing to worry about when she took in the baby girl in 2013. Estabrook told her that the birth parents had lost children to social services before, that they had a history of failing to complete the services required to get their kids back, and that they wouldn’t do what was necessary to get Apple back.

But Estabrook also actively helped prevent Apple from being returned to her parents, their lawyers now allege. Over the next two years, a Superior Court judge later documented, Estabrook and other people in the program fed the foster mother confidential information about Apple’s biological parents and actively tried to limit their visits.

In doing so, the lawyers say, Estabrook went beyond her role as a court advocate and sabotaged the family’s chances of reuniting. But it wasn’t just Estabrook. Because of what the judge called “pervasive and egregious” violations in the program, the case is now pending before Washington’s Court of Appeals, which is considering a reversal of the termination of Apple’s parents’ rights.

Regardless of the outcome in Apple’s case, her story brings to light just how much influence a volunteer can have in deciding the direction of a vulnerable child’s life.

An ‘untouchable role’

The CASA program began in 1977 in the next county over from Snohomish—King County, home of Seattle. A judge there felt he didn’t have enough information to make good decisions in child dependency cases, and enlisted the help of volunteers. The program has since exploded, with more than 85,000 volunteers working in programs connected to CASA across the country, although the role of CASAs, also called volunteer guardian ad litems or VGALs, can be drastically different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

The program’s racial demographics also vary somewhat, but CASAs are overwhelmingly white and middle class, in stark contrast to the children they serve, who are overwhelmingly from working-class or poor backgrounds and are disproportionately children of color. This disconnect can lead to questionable decisions made on behalf of children, argues Tara Urs, a family court attorney in King County, in a 2015 CUNY Law Review article she co-authored, “However Kindly Intentioned: Structural Racism and Volunteer CASA Programs.”

The article argues that the role of CASA volunteers as trusted and unbiased advisers to the court gives them outsize power over families’ futures. “CASA programs have carved out a unique and in some ways untouchable role in child welfare decision-making nationwide,” the article explains.

Critics say that’s what may have happened in Snohomish County. In a 2016 ruling on a post-trial motion, Superior Court Judge Anita Farris said Estabrook used her personal email address to send the foster mother unredacted police reports detailing prior bad behavior by the parents, as well as information on Apple’s siblings, including their full names and the names of those who adopted them.

Rather than facilitate visits between Apple and her biological parents, the judge said, Estabrook and the foster mother seemed determined to make them more difficult. According to court documents from Apple’s parents’ termination trial, Estabrook helped Apple’s foster mother craft an extremely restrictive list of foods that the biological parents were made to follow if they were to be allowed to visit with Apple. She wasn’t allowed to eat “hundreds of healthy foods,” the judge noted, including eggs and most starches. The list was explained as medically necessary, although no doctor had seen or approved it and Apple was later found later to have no allergies to the foods on the list. She did, however, have a potential allergy to cashews, a food that wasn’t on the list. According to testimony by the CASA program coordinator, Estabrook also attempted to attend Apple’s mother’s parenting class, a confidential group meeting, and was asked by two different program coordinators to leave.

To say that I’m disappointed in the program would be an understatement. I’m appalled by the things that I’ve seen that occurred on this case.Anita Farris, Superior Court Judge

Estabrook died in 2015, yet the problems continued. In a ruling the following year, Farris found that the supervisor who took over the case from Estabrook hid evidence regarding the allergy test results and unauthorized communications between the CASA and the foster mother from the parents’ attorneys, and lied repeatedly on the stand. After Apple’s mother’s attorney filed a complaint against the CASA supervisor, the judge found, the program retaliated by complaining about the attorney’s firm to the Office of Public Defense. And one program coordinator attempted to surreptitiously record the attorneys’ private conversations in the courtroom, the judge said.

“To say that I’m disappointed in the program would be an understatement,” Farris said, during her original 2015 ruling. “I’m appalled by the things that I’ve seen that occurred on this case.”

Apple’s mother had fought for her, attending parenting classes and scheduled visits with the child. But Apple’s mother had allegedly been abused by Apple’s father and Farris wasn’t convinced that he was keeping his distance. Based on that concern, she found that their parental rights were properly terminated, but lambasted the CASAs involved. Not only did they break the rules, she said, but they “created an appeal issue that will render any verdict less securely permanent for this child.”

The case is in appeals court, with Apple’s parents seeking to reverse the termination ruling. Still, it has been five years since they lost custody of her—the entirety of the girl’s life. Her parents’ attorneys argue that the termination would not have gone through if Estabrook wasn’t working against their clients from the outset.

A social worker who worked in Snohomish County at the time of Apple’s case, who asked not to be named for fear of affecting the worker’s current cases, said the CASA program was impeded by its homogenous makeup, where the volunteers’ instincts and opinions, which were heavily influenced by their own backgrounds, often went unquestioned. “The [volunteers] came with a set of values and beliefs around families and family roles that were sometimes rigid and certainly weren’t as diverse as the clients we were servicing and sometimes were conservative and damaging,” the social worker said. “A lot of support was given to foster parents, and it didn’t seem there was that same level of support to the birth parents.”

Ida Keeley, the Snohomish County CASA program manager who came on to direct the program a year ago, said the court administration made an internal decision to review and assess the program after Judge Farris’s rulings. The assessment resulted in “changes to the organizational structure, additional policies and procedures, and increased training both for staff and volunteers,” Keeley said in an email. “There is also ongoing recruitment in our communities of color and underrepresented communities in order to have a volunteer base that represents the children in care.”

A child’s ‘best interests’

The Snohomish County CASA program is just half an hour from the headquarters of the National CASA Organization, but despite the high-profile comments by Judge Farris, the national organization issued no public statement and took no action against the county’s program.

When the CASA speaks, the ordinary skepticism is gone, because they don’t stand to gain or lose.Tara Urs, family court attorney

Susan Stoltzfus, communications director for the National CASA program, said in an email that the national organization supports the local programs through training, volunteer recruitment materials, and technical assistance. Another communications officer noted that the demographics of CASA volunteers (who are 79 percent white and 72 percent age 40 or over) “align, for the most part, with U.S. trends in volunteerism” and that the program is working to diversify its pool of participants. And although Stoltzfus said member chapters “must adhere to certain standards and requirements to maintain affiliation,” she did not respond to repeated requests for information on the specific standards and compliance policies in place.

“We don’t manage or direct the local program activities,” Stoltzfus said in her email. “That all happens at the local level. If the program is a nonprofit, they have their own board of directors. If the program is publicly administered, then the government (usually a county) provides the oversight.”

In many jurisdictions, CASAs are considered parties to the child welfare case—even in states where the child herself is not considered a party. Typically, in order to be a party in a case, one has to have a sufficient connection to the proceedings to demonstrate a stake in the outcome. CASAs are an exception to this, explained Urs, the co-author of the law review article, and their perceived neutrality can lead a judge to give more weight to a CASA’s point of view. When a parent’s lawyer speaks, for example, the judge hears the argument while understanding that the law requires that attorney to zealously represent their client. “But when the CASA speaks, the ordinary skepticism is gone, because they don’t stand to gain or lose,” Urs said.

The issue is compounded in states where children aren’t always entitled to attorneys in dependency proceedings. In Washington, only children ages 12 and up, or children whose parents’ rights have been terminated for six months and who still haven’t been adopted are given attorneys. Otherwise, the volunteer CASA is assigned to represent the child’s “best interests,” but that can be different from what the child wants. If those interests diverge, the CASA is the one who issues reports and often takes the stand on behalf of the child; in places where children don’t get attorneys, that may mean their wishes aren’t taken into account at all. CASAs are not bound by attorney-client privilege, and are considered agents of the court. In some places, like Snohomish County, the program is run out of the court itself.

Lawyers and social workers told The Appeal they must consider a CASA’s feelings and impressions, while navigating already complex and high-stakes situations. “As a parent’s attorney, it’s hard to advise your client about what to do with a CASA,” Urs said. “It’s really helpful to get the CASA on your side, but they’re not trained social workers.”

A 2004 study conducted on behalf of the national CASA organization found other issues as well. Researchers found that CASA volunteers spent less time on cases involving Black children than those involving white children, and that the average time spent on each case is around three hours a month. It also found that children assigned CASA volunteers were less likely to be reunified with their parents. A small follow-up study by a Snohomish County CASA volunteer, published in 2014 as a capstone project for a master’s thesis, found children assigned a CASA were more likely to be placed outside the home.

The former Snohomish County social worker said she has noticed that trend. “On more than one occasion, the barrier I had to returning a child home was the CASA,” the social worker said. “Some see their role as facilitating adoption, and that cannot be the role. If that’s your concern—saving the child from their birth parents—if that’s where you’re coming from, you should not be a CASA.”

House of Cards

‘Cold case’ playing cards were just introduced into Delaware prisons in hopes of producing tips on unsolved homicides—but critics warn that informants cultivated behind bars can be dangerously unreliable.

"Cold case" playing cards distributed in the Delaware Department of Corrections.
Video still via 47 ABC/Illustration by Anagraph

House of Cards

‘Cold case’ playing cards were just introduced into Delaware prisons in hopes of producing tips on unsolved homicides—but critics warn that informants cultivated behind bars can be dangerously unreliable.


In August, the Delaware Department of Corrections (DOC) introduced “cold case” playing cards into the state’s four prisons in hopes of cultivating information about unsolved homicides. Each card features a victim’s photograph, brief details of the crime, and the number for an anonymous tip line for incarcerated people to call. The cards are modeled after the “Most Wanted” deck of cards created by the Pentagon in the spring of 2003 which were emblazoned with the identities of 52 Iraqi regime leaders that troops were meant to pursue, kill, or capture. They are distributed in prisons and jails in at least 17 states including Connecticut, where officials say that they have led to several arrests.

Delaware DOC spokesperson Jayme Gravell said the cards were introduced because prisoners may have either heard or were told about an unsolved homicide in prison, or perhaps they even witnessed a crime before being incarcerated. After looking at the faces of the victims on the cold case cards, she said, they can call in to the tip line with information.

But jailhouse informant testimony is notoriously unreliable. Law professor Samuel Gross, a founder of the National Registry of Exonerations, has estimated that nearly 50 percent of wrongful murder convictions involved perjury by someone such as a “jailhouse snitch or another witness who stood to gain from the false testimony.”  Lauren Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and the author of Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, cautions:  “You need to be very careful about incentives; I think everyone should think about that [false testimony] when utilizing these cards.”

Critics argue that the cards perpetuate a culture of prisoners informing on one another which will inevitably lead to even more incarceration. “They’re asking prisoners to participate in their own incarceration and to basically help find other prisoners to keep inside of prisons for a very, very long time,” said Kim Wilson, a prison abolitionist who has two sons incarcerated at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware, “You’re asking prisoners to police each other, to turn each other in and it basically makes everyone a suspect. … It just seems like a bad idea from beginning  to end.”

They also note that the cards come at a cost—$1.50 per deck at the commissary—to a population already struggling with high costs of basic needs like telephone calls (a 15-minute call costs 60 cents while inmates make as little as 25 cents per hour). “That the playing cards are one more thing to be purchased inside is a cruel irony,” said Dan Berger, an associate professor at the University of Washington and an author of Rethinking the American Prison Movement. “One would think if such efforts were premised on securing long-delayed justice that they would be freely available. To ask prisoners to pay a fee in order to snitch on each other is a fitting, tragic irony of how prisons make use of predatory capitalism.” The Delaware DOC sells roughly 8,000 packs of cards each year, according to Gravell.

The cards are arriving in Delaware prisons just over a year and a half after incarcerated people in the state issued a list of demands that included better treatment, improved food, and access to rehabilitative and educational programs in the wake of an uprising at Vaughn that lasted more than 18 hours and claimed the life of a corrections officer. Gravell said there are now more programs and food options; security cameras have also been installed, and an inmate advisory council has been established. Wilson, however, countered that there has not been an increase in the requested education and rehabilitation programs. Instead, she said, prison officials have focused on technological upgrades such as video cameras and reading tablets. Wilson adds that as the Delaware DOC asks incarcerated people to purchase the cards and help solve cold cases, the state is considering sending hundreds of prisoners out of state because of staffing shortages. Governor John Carney’s administration will make the decision on the transfer within the next six weeks, Gravell said.

In Connecticut prisons, police have received tips from roughly 770 people—mostly prisoners—since its DOC started selling the cards in November 2010, Mike Sullivan, chief inspector of the state’s Cold Case Bureau, told The Appeal. Of those, Sullivan says there have been about 100 in which he “can tell they’re telling the truth.” Sullivan also emphasized that while prosecutors do not rely solely on jailhouse informant testimony to support their cases, prisoners will be expected to testify if they want to receive rewards for their information.

Some victims’ advocates and even an expert on unsolved homicides praise the cards for their promise of bringing justice to cold cases. “It’s self-funding, it doesn’t require a whole lot of resources, you’re not burning valuable time of detectives working really old cases so if it does generate tips it’s a very wise use of very minimal resources,” said Thomas Hargrove, who is the founder of the Murder Accountability Project, an organization that uses data to help document unsolved homicides. “I really don’t see a downside to this.”

But problems with jailhouse informants plague prosecutions across the country, including Orange County, California (where more than 140 cases may be tainted by the sheriff’s illegal use of inmate informants and withholding evidence gleaned from them) and New Orleans (where a death sentence was overturned in part because the district attorney’s office did not disclose its deal with a prolific jailhouse snitch). “I think you have to be skeptical of somebody [calling in tips],” said Jonathan Sills, a Connecticut defense attorney. “Somebody could certainly see the card, could maybe know something about the incident—but not everything—and then stretch the truth a little. Certainly you can have people who could just outright fabricate information about a particular incident. And if they had this information beforehand, why are they only calling it in after being incarcerated?”

More in Explainers

The Appeal Podcast: Why Police Accountability is as Elusive as Ever

With Appeal staff reporter George Joseph.

Maddie McGarvey/Getty Images

The Appeal Podcast: Why Police Accountability is as Elusive as Ever

With Appeal staff reporter George Joseph.


“Police accountability” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in conversations about criminal justice reform. But how do we make sure police officers who break laws or department rules are held to account? The reality––even four years after Ferguson––is that little progress has been made in creating structures that discipline police officers for bad behavior. Our guest, Appeal reporter George Joseph, has been doing deep dives into police discipline in cities across America. The findings? A system that still routinely protects its worst offenders.

The Appeal is available on iTunesSoundcloud and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Twitter.

Transcript:

Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal Podcast. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can follow us on social media, Twitter @TheAppealPod,or go to Facebook and see The Appeal magazine’s general Facebook, where our show posts there, and of course you can always subscribe to us on iTunes. The term police accountability is one that gets thrown around a lot in criminal justice reform circles. How do we make sure that police officers who break department rules and even the law are held accountable? The reality, even four years after Ferguson, is that little to no progress has been made in creating structures that discipline police officers for bad behavior either on a federal or local level. Our guest, The Appeal’s, George Joseph, has been doing deep dives into police discipline in a number of cities for months. The findings, the system that still routinely protects its worst offenders.

[Begin Clip]

George Joseph: Some of these police leaders had over ten plus complaints like numerous taser incidents, mace incidents, that kind of thing. So even at the leadership level, people are learning that doing that kind of aggressive activity doesn’t actually hurt you, in fact either it won’t count against or it may have and help you. If that’s the way they came up and came to be the leaders of the department, why would they suddenly turn around and say, I’m going to discipline you for doing exactly what I did when I was in your position?

[End Clip]

Adam: Hi George. Welcome to The Appeal.

George Joseph: Hey, thanks for having me back.

Adam: So, um, you have been on this beat for about a year, probably longer and you recently wrote an article in the Appeal entitled, “Just 6% of Columbus Police Officers Account for Half of All Force Reports.” Force reports, for those who don’t know, is a sort of complaint about use of force. This is of course not just an issue with the Columbus Police Department. This is a broader national issue. Can you start us off by explaining why so few police officers account for so many of the complaints and to what extent do most police departments, and if you want to zoom in on Columbus, go ahead, why so many police departments have such a totally limp and useless complaint process?

George Joseph: So what we saw in Columbus, as you mentioned, was that there are 6 percent of officers who account for half of all the use of force investigations, so that both includes citizens complaining about force incidents or alleged forced incidents, as well as and this is the majority of the data set, um, officers self reporting their own use of force incidents. So if I tase someone, as an officer, I report it to the chain of command, they investigate me, find that I was perfectly justified and then uh, we go forward. So in Columbus, despite this very small group of people who are accounting for so many complaints, we found that in 99 percent of cases the officers were justified by the department. Their actions rather within policy or the citizen complaint was deemed to be unsustained. And the legal questions about why police departments so often find police not to have done anything wrong, we can see from grand juries all across the country is that even when an officer shoots someone, as long as they say they felt endangered or threatened, pretty much anything can be justified. But what we can say very clearly is that there are concrete reasons for why this concentrated group of people is generating all these complaints and it actually gets, it’s not about like a bunch of psychopaths who are part of one unit cause all the problems. It’s a structural material problem. It’s that certain units and police departments are being encouraged to do the most aggressive types of police work. Jumping out of cars in plain clothes, guns blazing, trying to get guns, trying to grab drugs, stopping people aggressively in poor neighborhoods where if you see a guy with a gun running at you, you may also pull out a gun, and so this obviously leads to escalated situations which result in shootings, beatings, and killings. And in Columbus, what we noticed was in some of the cases, some of the officers with thirty, forty different complaints had been officers who had experience in what is known there as a summer strikeforce, which is one of these plain clothes surveillance units that goes to poor mostly black neighborhoods, jumps out at people and tries to get guns. And as you mentioned across the country, police departments have similar units. They’re considered more prestigious than regular kind of patrol work. And as a result, people aren’t being sanctioned for this activity because it’s what they’re supposed to be doing and they’re rewarded for it.

Adam: Let’s cite one case that you reported on in general. It happened about two years ago, a Columbus police officer, um, there was someone who called in an armed robbery. They said that they, that they, um, were robbed for about $10 and told the dispatcher that they didn’t want to really mess with it. The cops responded to the complaint. They spotted three teenagers, um, two of whom escaped. And one was a 13 year old named Tyre King was shot while fleeing by an officer named Bryan Mason, who himself was white. The quote unquote “suspects” were African American. Now, not surprisingly, it was revealed that Mason had in his nine year career, 47 reports involving force, uh, and  four of those reports stem from previous shootings, which he had shot at a suspect, two of them resulted in death. That’s a lot of complaints. And now so what I want to do is I want to try to tease out the difference between someone who’s just involved in a lot of high risk episodes with those who are, who are, you know, maybe not violent sociopaths or psychopaths as you put it, but people who are maybe have an itchy trigger finger or maybe people who are more susceptible to escalation we’ll say, we’ll put it, we’ll put it in those terms, beyond the kind of material reality of them just being involved in more aggressive policing, because obviously this is also a policy issue. It’s, it isn’t just about the moral failing of a police officer. What are the mechanisms though for let’s say the five, ten percent who do have an itchy trigger finger, who are kind of, who view themselves as being John Wayne or is there any kind of mechanism for any meaningful oversight and I know that different cities are different or different cities have way better oversight. But specifically in Columbus, I mean these numbers are basically just rubber stamp. Police department, of course, investigates itself, finds out nothing happened. If Florence, our producer, did something wrong and there was not and The Appeal Podcast investigated itself, I would unlikely find her guilty because we work together. We’re all friends. Specifically in Columbus, can you talk about what those mechanisms are, what the oversight mechanisms are, if they even exist?

George Joseph: Well, it’s like many police departments across the country. The investigations will be led by an internal affairs bureau which has the power over, you know, who they choose to interview, how they choose to judge certain pieces of evidence and like you said, if the system justifies officers 99 percent of the time, literally, I’m not being hypothetical, then clearly it’s not even worth filing a complaint and officers within the department who we spoke to said citizens don’t lie 99 percent of the time. Why would the officer be punished when you’re telling them this is what good police work is? Which gets to kind of the problem of what police leaderships ask officers to do and there’s this strange kind of discourse emerging now where the police chiefs will kind of be seen as the more moderate, more reasonable, more rational types compared to the grunts at the bottom. The chiefs are, they wear lots of brass and they’ll be on panels at Google and all that kind of stuff, but they are the ones making the rules about what cops are supposed to do to get promoted and what happens when a cop does something that is violent. And so what was interesting to us was looking at some of the top commanders in the department, including one of the deputy ops, like one of the top among the top five, and then some of the district sub commanders. And what we found was even at that level, uh, some of these police leaders had over ten plus complaints, like numerous taser incidents, mace incidents, that kind of thing. So even at the leadership level, people are learning that doing that kind of aggressive activity doesn’t actually hurt you in fact either it won’t count against you or it may even help you, if that’s the way they came up and came to be the leaders of the department, why would they suddenly turn around and say, uh, I’m going to discipline you for doing exactly what I did when I was in your position?

Adam: Right. And this obviously gets to the broader issue amongst reformists, which is to what extent can you even really reform police from an activist standpoint, from people you’ve talked to in the community, people who are trying to work on having more accountability, a conversation that’s obviously been heightened, uh, very much since, since Ferguson. What are the actual good reform tools that police departments can use, if any at all? And then as a followup to that, what are the sort of bad reforms, like what are the reforms you don’t think do a lot of good, what are kind of just window dressing?

George Joseph: There is this problem, uh, with the public wanting the police to not do the bad violent things that we see on TV and that college protests, but then at the same time wanting them to quote unquote “get guns off the streets,” clear the corners so that old ladies can walk out of their houses. Like that’s the kind of thing you’ll hear if you go to a city council meeting or a public community affairs meeting, that’s what some people in the community are asking for. I’m not saying that’s all of them, but certainly a significant amount of them. And so what do you do with that situation? It’s difficult because the very thing you’re asking them to do, grabbing guns from people as police the only way to do that is through these really aggressive methods. I’m not an expert in community models for addressing gun violence. I know a lot of people do work on that area and do delve into that area, but there are probably alternatives to discouraging young people from carrying and using guns beyond jumping out of cars and grabbing them and taking the gun and thinking that that will change their trajectory in terms of gun use down the line. Um, and I don’t think police pulling a couple hundred guns off the street every year has ever really made a big dent in the gun supply market.

Adam: Like you said, this is the sort of, for lack of a better word, the kind of special forces of the police. Right? And to have a bunch of, you know, juiced up white guys with wrap around Oakleys and monster tattoos, jumping out of cars, probably not a good formula for reducing violence and preventing African Americans from being shot by the police. Right?

George Joseph: Well, let me point to the example of Saheed Vassel in that regard, um, who was recently shot and killed in New York. He had numerous, hundreds of interactions with police in his neighborhood before. These aren’t all quote unquote “community policing” interactions. These were a lot of tickets and citations for basically being a person out on the street with mental issues, but they knew who he was and didn’t necessarily think that he was going to go kill someone because everyone on the block knew him. The police knew him in his precinct. The people who ended up shooting him were these plain clothes officers who responded to a call, which is unusual because they’re not generally supposed to do that and came to the scene immediately, didn’t know who he was, saw what they thought was a gun and started shooting. So could that have been avoided if a patrol officer who knew him had responded first? Uh, it’s impossible to say, but it certainly seems much more likely.

Adam: Right. So there’s this kind of strikeforce mentality necessarily leads to more violent encounters.

George Joseph: I mean, the data shows that certainly.

Adam: You reported earlier this year in May about the wildly disproportionate amount of plain clothes police officers involved in violent altercations and fatal shootings. You found out that in the NYPD plain clothes officers make up 6 percent of the force, but account for 31 percent of fatal shooting incidents between the years 2000 and 2017. This is something we see elsewhere as well. Can you talk to us about why plain clothes officers are more likely to be violent? Is it similar to this sort of task force mentality you talked about earlier?

George Joseph: Yeah, it’s quite similar and it’s very striking that, I mean there are different examples. In New York, there’s a lot more fatal incidents. It’s a much bigger city. But just speaking generally about police violence, you see in the same time period roughly 2000 to 2017, in Columbus, 6 percent accounting for half of force incidents. In New York, 6 percent accounting or roughly 6 percent accounting for a third of incidents involving police fatal police shootings. And so like you said, yes, there are similar dynamics at play. In the NYPD article you’re referring to we looked at the NYPD’s plain clothes unit, which has been around for awhile and has always caused controversy because they’ve been behind some of the major police killings in recent New York history and not too different from the summer strike task force in Columbus, they drive around in cars, they don’t focus necessarily on one patrol beat, they don’t necessarily respond to calls generally. They’re out there speeding, going as fast as possible to try jump out at people who may have a gun and oftentimes there’s racial profiling involved in that. People who aren’t dressed in a very fancy way on the street corner, they go out and grab them and do shake downs and you know if you do that, maybe one out of ten times you’ll find a gun and you will be, or I don’t, maybe even less than that frankly, but you’ll get that short term gain of the gun that you found that you now bring to your supervisor and they take a photo and post it on Twitter.

Adam: They love to do that. They love to do that.

George Joseph: Right. They’ll layout the two pistols on the table.

Adam: They got roasted once. There was a police department who had a gun that it appeared like it was from the 1920s.

George Joseph: (Laughing) I think I saw that yeah.

Adam: Do you remember that? And people were like, ‘you caught Dillinger?’ No, they loved doing that.

George Joseph: But what about all the times that you kind of just profiled someone and came up short because you’re pretty much just randomly going after people who you think are, basically look like they’re up to no good. I mean, it’s going to make people hate you in a way.

Adam: It’s a total numbers game. You go to certain locations and you, and we talked about this when you were on the show before about how if you target certain populations, you will invariably find more crime disproportionate to the amount of crime that actually happens. These police departments aren’t raiding, uh, you know, the Sigma Chi house to look for sexual assault. They’re going after certain populations for very specific reasons because they, mostly because they can and when they’re looking to get convictions because they don’t have money for lawyers and so on and so forth.

George Joseph: In New York, it’s literally a numbers game in that officers allege that they are under a quota system. The NYPD denies it and yet all these recordings come out every few years with supervisors saying, ‘you haven’t given me your numbers for the month,’ and so officers are under pressure to go and, and make those kinds of felony arrests by finding a gun on someone or getting drugs. And so it’s in the nature of what policing is, is meant to be right now.

Adam: On the topic of plain clothes policing, last year in Baltimore, we have a little bit of an A/B test here because Baltimore, they disbanded their plain clothes police force, which is extremely rare. Uh, and really creates an interesting test case. Can we talk about what the logic to that was? Obviously I think the plain clothes police department in Baltimore was a uniquely uniquely corrupt, but has there been any data or any kind of analysis of how it’s affected the policing itself?

George Joseph: That’s a good question. I mean, certainly in Baltimore, beyond plain clothes officers accounting for a lot of violence, there is also a lot of just straight up corruption. So that was controversial because they went a little bit beyond the kind of things they were required to do, but ironically now Baltimore city leadership has talked about bringing them back so it doesn’t seem like anything has really changed and obviously Baltimore has a lot of murders, a lot of shootings and people seem to not feel like taking them away really fixed anything. Yet on the other hand, while they were there, they didn’t really seem to fix anything either.

Adam: Well, what about the plain clothes concept? Is policing led to or correlated with the corruption of the Baltimore Police Department? Because I mean the Baltimore Police Department, I mean for those who don’t follow these things, it makes the NYPD look like the Osmond family, sort of notoriously corrupt in a way that is pretty brazen. Do we have any indication as to why there was a correlation there between plain clothes and corruption? Because I mean plain clothes and violent interactions, you can sort of see, okay, well they don’t see that they’re a cop and they pull their gun out, but was that kind of best of the best elite mentality also given the perception that they’re above the law?

George Joseph: That’s a really good question. I haven’t studied the issue enough to talk about how the kind of plain clothes mentality bleeds into police corruption. But from an intuitive perspective it seems like when you start to dress up like someone who’s like a bad guy and you deal with people in a much less official way and off the books way and you start working your sources and kind of going into this underworld, for lack of a better term, you can sometimes lose yourself in it because not everyone who’s a drug dealer is putting their money in a bank account and like keeping good records for the IRS. So there’s a lot of temptations out there.

Adam: Yeah. They have a habit of not filing their taxes.

George Joseph: Yeah. And they don’t file drug, uh, purchases. Um, there’s a lot of temptations in a city like Baltimore. I mean, in New York you don’t probably have that to the same degree because there is honestly not the same degree of underground economic activity happening. But in cities like Chicago and Baltimore, that activity is happening and the city’s responses to send swarms of police there, and then you get these units that effectively become their own gangs, literally dealing drugs and selling people, that kind of thing.

Adam: You’ve done a lot of investigations over the years into spying of protest movements. What is the difference, if there is any, between plain clothes policemen and undercover policemen?

George Joseph: I think it’s just whatever the police PR person happens to feel like that day.

Adam: Okay. There was an incident in Oakland in 2014 were to CHP officers, California Highway Patrol, which is the state police in California, pulled their guns out on protesters after there was an incident where someone spotted them or alleged that they were cops and they pulled their guns out and it was a huge incident because (a) why were they there?  (b) The Oakland Police didn’t know they were there and their first response was to go full Charles Bronson and vanish their weapons and this confluence of undercover versus plain clothes, and they kept insisting these cops were not undercover. They were just plain clothes, but they looked like protesters, they were like doing chance. Is this a distinction do you think actually matters? And to what extent do you think the use of plainclothes to infiltrate activists is something that you see as more common or it’s more, it’s kind of a go to because they’re sort of already off the books?

George Joseph: Well, we definitely know it’s common because at the same time that, uh, you referenced the incident in California we obtained documents showing how the NYPD was sending quote unquote “undercovers” or plain clothes, whatever words you wanna use, um, people who you wouldn’t know are cops and are pretending to be protesters at Black Lives Matter demonstrations all across the city. And these demonstrations were documented over and over again in the police logs as peaceful, nonviolent, etcetera, etcetera. Yet they were not only attending the protests but also following them on social media, passing around pictures of activists and somehow obtaining access to organize your group texts. I’m not exactly sure how that happened, but we have documents from lawsuits, uh, which we published in The Guardian a few years ago showing that. Um, so it seems to be that all across the country police feel it’s very important to spy on protests about police violence. I mean, I think it probably makes sense why they want to do that.

Adam: Yeah. Um, so before you go, just want to ask you a sort of 30,000 foot question, have you seen in your years writing about this topic, do you see any meaningful change? We’re about the four year mark since Ferguson, in your mind, have these movements beared meaningful fruit and what kind of tactics do you see as working and not working?

George Joseph: My sense is that after these huge rebellions and protests took place in 2014 and people saw that they did mass protests and the cities would get shut down and then the National Guard would come in and this happened all over the country, obviously, Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte. All over the place. They’re still wasn’t the political power to necessarily indict officers or the willingness from county DAs to do so and to do so in a way that would actually get convictions. Now, some people obviously don’t think convicting police officers is really the answer to these problems and I think that’s true and that it doesn’t really address the issue systemically, but it does reflect how little power the public has to hold officers accountable by the general ways that we expect other members of society to be held quote unquote “accountable.” And I feel that since that kind of heyday of the Black Lives Matter movement, a large part of the reason that people aren’t protesting on the streets in massive numbers for regular police violence, that is still happening and has not changed since the news stopped covering it is because they see that the protests, um, without any sort of significant political power don’t really lead to any change. Um, so I think that with this movement to focus on DA races and starting to take more power in terms of urban politics, there’s a possibility that that could change in the near future. But I’m generally an optimistic person.

Adam: Yeah. Well, yeah I think the, I think the pivot to DAs is driven largely by necessity with an understanding that there’s just more democratic control over that, uh, and that police departments are always going to kind of be like, you know, the CIA or the military, they’re kind of a permanent state in a lot of these cities, like they’re not, you know, the police run the security for Bill de Blasio, you know, how much can you really push back against people who run your security all day? Uh, you know, he actually thought they were spying on him in his 2013 campaign, there’s no evidence of that, but he thought they were. So the very fact that he thought they were is somewhat chilling. So yeah, I think that’s, um, I think that’s interesting. I really appreciate that perspective and I really want to thank you for not giving me false optimism. (Laughs)

George Joseph: (Laughs)

Adam: We try to play it straight here. So I appreciate that.

George Joseph: Well, thanks Adam. Appreciate it too.

Adam: Thanks so much George.

George Joseph: Okay talk to you later.

Adam: Thank you to our guest George Joseph. Great as always. This has been The Appeal Podcast. Remember, you can follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod and you can subscribe to us on iTunes just look for The Appeal Podcast and of course you can follow The Appeal magazine’s main website at The Appeal on Facebook. This show has been produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much and we’ll see you next week.

 

More in Podcasts