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Sessions scales back federal reform as police-community relations continue to crumble

Sessions scales back federal reform as police-community relations continue to crumble

In what can be seen as a natural extension of Jeff Sessions’ already-evident disdain for Obama-era criminal justice policies, the Attorney General announced Friday that the Department of Justice would scale back its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). The COPS program was known in part for investigating the work of local police departments and issuing reports on problematic practices or broader misconduct. Sessions’ move reflects the Trump administration’s unequivocally pro-police stance, as well as the Attorney General’s clear contempt for federal oversight of local law enforcement.

“The DOJ is basically saying to police departments, ‘You guys are doing a great job, and you’re on your own now,’” former Boston police officer and criminal law professor Tom Nolan told In Justice Today. “Whatever COPS is going to engage in now is going to be a radical departure from what happened under Obama, or even Bush.”

The DOJ’s announcement was vague, promising “technical assistance and support” from the updated version of the COPS Office without specifying what that might mean in practice. It was clear, however, that the program will no longer investigate local police departments and promote reform as it had increasingly done under Obama, and local police administrators will no longer be able to seek reform-based guidance from the DOJ.

“Changes to this program will fulfill my commitment to respect local control and accountability, while still delivering important tailored resources to local law enforcement to fight violent crime,” said Sessions in a statement.

The COPS program was well-received by some of the local departments it engaged with, while other collaborations were less successful. Advocates hailed the Office’s work as a less-intrusive alternative to court-ordered reforms. Darrell Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, an alliance of Chiefs and Sheriffs representing the largest cities in the U.S. and Canada, noted by email to In Justice Today that for the Las Vegas Police Department, the “experience [with COPS] was a good one … It was helpful in making significant changes to their training and investigations of officer involved shootings.” Stephens noted that other departments had a less positive experience, specifically citing San Francisco and Milwaukee.

At Chief of Police Edward Flynn’s request, the Milwaukee Police Department began working with the COPS Office in late 2015 following the fatal shooting of Dontre Hamilton by a police officer. A draft report from the Department of Justice delivered to Flynn in mid-2016 was met with frustration with what Flynn called “factual errors,” and his department had since been collaborating with the DOJ to clarify and finalize the report and recommendations so that it could begin implementing reforms.

Notwithstanding those frustrations, in a letter published following Sessions’ announcement, Flynn lamented the scaling back of the COPS program, noting that it would cut short his efforts to work with the DOJ to improve police-community relations and that his department would never receive a finalized draft. Further, the letter seemed to criticize Sessions’ choice to separate the goals of improving police-community relations and combatting violent crime.

“To separate concerns about violence from concerns about police efforts risks making each discussion disingenuous,” wrote Flynn.

The DOJ’s decision to dramatically scale back the work of the COPS Office comes as fractured police-community relations have once again taken center stage in St. Louis, Missouri. On Sunday night, officers in riot gear chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!” as they boxed in peaceful protesters and arrested roughly 80 people, some of them violently. The arrests included a St. Louis Dispatch reporter who was pepper sprayed in the face after being pinned to the ground.

“We should be concerned about the message that rank and file police officers are receiving — that the Feds are adopting a hands-off attitude pertaining to local law enforcement practices,” says Nolan. “What we saw in St. Louis was a new low.”

Baltimore body camera controversy grows

Flickr user northcharleston. Photo was modified for this article.

Baltimore body camera controversy grows

In the last month, the Baltimore Police Department has been rocked by accusations that officers are staging or “reenacting” the discovery of drugs for the benefit of capturing, after the fact, the seizure of evidence on their body cameras. In response, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has decided to drop the charges in those cases — and possibly hundreds of others linked to the officers involved. Mosby’s decision has prompted a backlash from Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and police union officials, and this controversy is raising substantial issues about the integrity of Baltimore drug enforcement operations and the future of body cameras.

The City of Baltimore has spent millions of dollars in the last two years to outfit officers with body worn cameras. The initiative is part of a program to instill public confidence in law enforcement in the wake of the 2014 death of Freddie Gray. Unlike many cities, Baltimore has a clear set of policies about the use of these cameras: officers are required to turn their cameras on whenever they respond to calls for service or undertake investigatory or enforcement action.

But, as has been clear for some time, this is not happening. In the three cases currently under review, officers failed to have their cameras on as required. This discovery comes on the heels of numerous prior incidents, 62 of which have resulted in low level disciplinary action against officers for failure to follow policy. In the words of Commissioner Davis, “In 2016 we were dealing with some police officers who are [sic] reluctant to use it as our policy required them to use it…some of those arrests from 2016 are now making their way into courtrooms.”

Body camera programs have been adopted by thousands of police departments in the last three years in response to growing concerns about excessive use of force, racial profiling, and other forms of police misconduct, especially in communities of color. The use of cameras raises profound concerns about potential invasions of privacy, but many feel it is worth that invasion if it enhances police performance, reduces frivolous complaints against police, and improves public confidence in the police. Increasingly, however, it appears that the use of these new systems is not furthering these intended objectives.

Time and again, those who appear in body camera videos and feel they have been mistreated by law enforcement are unable to get access to the footage. Video footage has been suppressed by departments in high profile cases, often for years, and criminal defense lawyers often experience long delays in getting access to this crucial evidence — sometimes with the result being that their clients languish in jail for months longer than necessary. I and othershave called for taking control of footage away from police and prosecutors and turning it over to an independent body with clear rules for providing access to those affected by a given incident, without sacrificing anyone’s privacy.

The staging or re-creating of drug seizures by officers in Baltimore for the purposes of recording them on body cameras is a violation of evidentiary rules, body camera regulations, and possibly criminal law. The State’s Attorney was correct in dropping the charges in cases involving these officers. If nothing else, these incidents will make it close to impossible to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt of someone’s guilt when the body camera apparently was turned on after the fact — and when, in some instances, the “staging” was not disclosed in the officer’s probable cause statement. These troubling and unprecedented practices simply cannot promote community trust or confidence in the actions of law enforcement. As State’s Attorney Mosby noted in a statement she issued explaining her actions, these revelations “undermine public trust and create indefensible doubts in the minds of the general public, judges and jurors.”

Chief Davis and police union officials have defended their officers, claiming that the officers were only seeking to document the legitimate discovery of drugs, and that they were doing an important service for the people of Baltimore.

To be sure, there is no evidence that the continual arrest of people for low level drug charges is doing anything to make Baltimore safer or reduce the negative impacts of drugs. Former Baltimore police officer Peter Moskos, in his book Cop in the Hood, describes in infuriating detail the utter futility of this approach. No matter how many times he and his colleagues arrest people for drugs, it has had absolutely no impact on the use or availability of drugs. All anyone has to do is just walk over a few blocks or wait a few minutes for someone else to sell them.

Even more concerning, these are the exact kinds of drug cases that have led to substantial erosions of Fourth Amendment standards protecting us from unreasonable searches and seizures. In his book Unwarranted, law professor Barry Friedman describes case after case where the War on Drugs has led to police practices and judicial decisions that allow for ever greater invasions by police. There is a real risk that body cameras will become a part of this dynamic. Officers in Baltimore should not be allowed to misuse this new technology just because they’re “getting drugs off the streets.”

These revelations make clear that body cameras are not going to be a panacea of improving policing or restoring public trust in the police. Worse, when used as part of this post-hoc “reenactment” manner, they run the risk of deepening public distrust and suspicion. Mosby was correct in responding definitively and unambiguously in rejecting these practices. Policy makers and local police need to follow suit.

Alex S. Vitale is Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and author of The End of Policing. The views and opinions expressed in this article are Prof. Vitale’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.
Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

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Voters opt against candidate with history of misconduct in Ontario County D.A. race

Voters opt against candidate with history of misconduct in Ontario County D.A. race

At the ballot box in Ontario County, New York this week, Republican voters chose candidate Jim Ritts as the primary candidate for district attorney. Ritts won with 55 percent of the vote, beating Kristina “Kitty” Karle, a former assistant prosecutor in neighboring Monroe county. Karle’s loss comes after an appellate court criticized her for prosecutorial misconduct in June.

Ritts, an 18-year veteran of Ontario’s D.A. office, highlighted the fact that he has “never been admonished for misconduct” during his campaign, calling Karle’s record “a big problem” in a Q&A with the Finger Lake Times. Misconduct repeatedly emerged as a central theme during Ritts and Karle’s race.

Karle came under fire after the Fourth Department Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court reversed multiple verdicts in cases prosecuted by the Monroe County D.A.’s office. Most of the cases in question involved the conviction of a former pastor who allegedly repeatedly sexually abused a young boy. (In spite of the misconduct, the court did not ultimately reverse the pastor’s conviction.) Karle later confirmed she was the prosecuting attorney on these cases, the Democrat and Chronicle reported.

According to the court, Karle’s misconduct included inappropriately attacked the character of the defense attorney, presented herself as an “unsworn expert,” misstated evidence presented by a defense witness, and wrongly suggested that an adolescent witness decided against testifying because of “guilt” about the pastor’s actions.

In spite of the appellate judge’s findings, Karle defended her handling of the sexual abuse case, telling the Democrat that although she heard the court, she didn’t “have to agree with it,” and arguing that “if the worst thing people can say about me is that I fight too hard for kids, so be it.”

In an early September debate, she seemed to allude again to her passionate approach to cases involving children when she told the audience that she would “fight for your families and for your children as if they were my own.”

That defense of her misconduct was evidently not enough to sway Ontario voters, whose pick of Ritts seems to signal a preference for a candidate without a record of transgression.

“She claims she argued passionately for victims,” Ritts said of Karle during his campaign, “But breaking the rules and risking the conviction of dangerous predators is unacceptable.”

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