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Starving The Beast: Chicago’s Fight Against Police Expansion is Everyone’s Fight

Joshua Lott/Getty

Starving The Beast: Chicago’s Fight Against Police Expansion is Everyone’s Fight

On November 7th, Chicago’s City Council voted for the city to buy a 30-acre plot of land where a new $95 million dollar police and fire academy will be built. However, intense opposition against the academy — including an impassioned speech by Chicago’s own Chance The Rapper — has come to symbolize a broader battle by youth activists to curtail police power.

Brianna Hampton-Murff, a 17-year old senior at Chicago’s Intrinsic High School, says that the proposed academy, which includes a shooting range and even a swimming pool, “seemed to be a secret.” Her group, Assata’s Daughters, which provides resources and political and educational programming for young Black girls in Chicago, found out about the project relatively late in the process. Still, they were able to launch an organizing effort earlier this year to protest the academy in part through social media using the #NoCopAcademy hashtag.

The campaign does not simply oppose the creation of another police academy (Chicago already has one), it also calls for the funding of services and programs that Chicago youth say they actually need. This type of disinvest-reinvest approach isn’t new. Youth and grassroots organizers across the country have launched like-minded efforts. Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition spearheaded the “LA for Youth” — or the 1% campaign — in 2012 to demand that city officials redirect $100 million (about 1% of the law enforcement budget) to youth programs. Similarly, in 2015, New York City activists (myself included) fought the increase of over 1,000 extra officers to the NYPD under the #NoNewNYPD hashtag and called for funding community needs instead — the Safety Beyond Policing campaign.

Hampton-Murff lives on the west side of Chicago, close to where the academy would stand. She notes that the fight over the academy is the result of lingering frustration from the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, a young black man who was killed by Chicago police in 2014. Over a year after the shooting, video of McDonald being shot 16 times sparked protests, a Justice Department investigation and led to the eventual ouster of the police superintendent. After that, Hampton-Murff says, “we decided enough was enough.”

The man behind the academy plan is Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel, a Democrat, came under scrutiny after it became known that he’d seen the McDonald video months before it was released and tried to keep it from the public. He has defended the new academy by claiming it will be an “investment” in Chicago’s economy. #NoCopAcademy activists have countered by arguing that money for the academy, which is assumed to be partly funded through the sale of city land to developers, should instead be spent on public education.

In 2013, Emanuel oversaw the largest round of school closures in American history. Benji Hart, an activist with the Chicago BTGNC Collective, a network of Black trans and gender nonconforming people, notes that community members “understand that it is unjust to spend millions on the irrefutably-racist Chicago Police Department while schools and clinics are constantly closing.” He says that support for the campaign, which has included train takeovers, “has been surprisingly sweeping.”

While anti-police brutality organizing often centers around protests in response to specific tragedies or efforts to criminally charge brutal cops, a challenge to public spending presents a straightforward question about priorities. Bloated police department budgets — like Boston, where cops are tops in public salaries, or Baltimore, where overtime spending has doubled, and of course New York, where the police budget (over $5 billion annually) tops the GDP of some countries — already point to the answer: politicians love to spend money on police. In fact, even when police departments are demonstrably abusive and discriminatory, like the Chicago Police Department, “reforms” can mean even more spending for training, or “community policing.”

For Hart and others, #NoCopAcademy builds power to challenge policing’s budget superiority. “So much of what we imagine to be politically possible,” he says, “is predetermined by what we believe to be attainable through the electoral system.” The campaign, he explains, “flips this paradigm on it its head” and reaches beyond Chicago politics by highlighting “long-term visions for a just world” by placing “the power for that envisioning back in communities’ hands.”

That, of course, is no easy task. Chicago, unlike other urban cities where violence has plunged, saw record shootings and murders in 2016 (though those numbers have declined this year). The knee-jerk reaction to rising crime is often to pump more money into cops. Indeed, President Trump often points to Chicago as a symbol of big cities overrun with violence in need of an aggressive law enforcement response.

Hart points out that that Trump, who he says is “devoted to cutting social services and upping funding for law enforcement,” is only a sliver of the problem. After all, it’s not Trump that Chicago activists are fighting, but an Obama-endorsed Democrat who has been described as part of the local “resistance” to Trumpism. In fact, Mayor Emanuel, even after the McDonald controversy and a critical DOJ report, has mirrored Trump on criminal justice, swelling the Chicago police ranks. The city, already deploying the most cops per capita in the country, last year committed to adding 1,000 more cops.

Debbie Southorn, a member of the War Resisters League, a #NoCopAcademy group, connects police expansion to a militaristic mindset at the national level: “It’s no coincidence that police spending in departments across the country continue to rise, alongside the largest boost to military spending in years that the Senate approved earlier this year.” Chicago police certainly deploy resources like an occupying army, disappearing thousands at Homan Square, a controversial CPD “black site”, as well as attempting to predict criminality with an orwellian “heat list” of likely offenders as well as what is by early accounts a flawed and racially-biased gang database.

Juanita Tennyson, a 19-year old Assata’s Daughters leader, says several of her friends have been killed by police and that she doesn’t want more cops in Chicago. “More resources need to be put in the community,” she says. “More money needs to be spent on the reconstruction [of] communities.” Mental health clinics and hospitals with trauma centers are desperately needed, organizers say. In fact, organizers say, addressing many of Chicago’s widespread, unmet social needs would help alleviate crime. “We want somewhere for children to go, to be productive with their time,” Hampton-Murff says.

Whether or not Emanuel’s police academy is eventually built, Chi-town activists have made it clear that having more “‘trust”’ in an ever-growing police force — a common talking point of elected officials and criminal justice think tanks — isn’t what Chicago needs. “‘Trust”’ between the public and police didn’t unearth the tragic McDonald video. “‘Trust”’ didn’t help recently exonerate 15 men framed by Chicago cops. Community members in Chicago, particularly young people, want money dedicated to the police department to be rerouted into programs that will uplift the community that its officers target.

Tennyson says residents are “tired of the mistreatment of their communities by a force being paid to ‘protect’ them.”

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.

After Deadly Vice Sting, Advocates Say End to Prostitution Arrests Is Long Overdue

40th Road in Flushing, Queens, where a woman leapt to her death while fleeing NYPD Vice officers last Saturday.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

After Deadly Vice Sting, Advocates Say End to Prostitution Arrests Is Long Overdue

A 38-year-old woman, Yang Song of Queens, New York, died at New York Presbyterian Hospital on Sunday, one day after falling three stories from an apartment window in nearby Flushing. Little has been reported about Song beyond the New York Police Department’s assertion that she was a sex worker, and fell while officers from the Queens North Vice Enforcement Division attempted to arrest her.

The Saturday incident took place at approximately 7:30PM at 135–32 40th Road, inside an apartment above a ground-floor Cantonese restaurant and second floor massage parlor, King Spa. NYPD told The Appeal that Song was inside the apartment with an undercover officer who’d solicited a sex act as part of a broader vice investigation into the location. She pushed him out of the apartment, they said. The officer had already called for backup when police stationed outside on the sidewalk saw Song fall, sustaining head and body trauma. No arrests were made that night. The NYPD’s Force Investigation Division, assigned to deaths in custody, is currently investigating.

Song’s death comes seven months after the NYPD pledged to arrest fewer people on prostitution charges — part of a larger initiative to build trust, particularly in immigrant communities, even as President Trump’s immigration policy stokes fear of deportation. Song had been previously arrested in Queens on September 27, 2017. Her case was referred to the Queens human trafficking court, which handles prostitution-related cases. Her next court date was scheduled for December 1.

Scott Heins

“What went through our heads when we heard about what happened,” Leigh Latimer, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society who represents clients charged with prostitution, told The Appeal, “is that likely this individual had experienced some police contact before and was very fearful of contact with the NYPD.”

“The Asian community [in Flushing] is tight,” she added. “Feeling like the police are going to do whatever they think they have to [to] make an arrest, of course this is going to scare people.”

Susan Liu, associate director of women’s services at Garden of Hope, a Flushing-based nonprofit that provides shelter, translation services and immigration assistance to massage parlor workers, canvassed the street where Song fell on Monday with her colleagues. Liu says that many of her clients are Chinese immigrants in their 30s and 40s, with a language barrier and narrow job prospects. Some engage in sex work — under duress, Liu believes. Others are masseuses. Many fled domestic abuse or financial difficulties in their home country.

“There are people who we talked to on the street and they are saying they would rather jump than be arrested,” Liu told The Appeal. “It’s very sad to hear that. And among these women who work at massage parlors there are many who are trafficking victims… and I personally just don’t feel that it’s fair to criminalize victims.”

Over the past decade, the NYPD has made thousands of prostitution arrests. In 2014, there were more than 1,700. Raids on massage parlors also spiked in the years leading up to the NYPD’s February pledge to curb them.

“We saw a huge increase in arrests and operations going on in massage parlors in Queens between 2015 and the beginning of 2017,” Latimer said, adding that there have been many arrests for prostitution and unlicensed massage in the area around where Song fell.

Both New York 1 and the New York Post report that the Saturday arrest attempt was part of a massage parlor investigation, though police did not confirm this to The Appeal. A man who answered the phone at King Spa Wednesday declined to comment on the incident but said the business is limited to the second floor.

According to a 2017 report from the Urban Institute and the Legal Aid Society, arrests of Asian-identified people in New York City charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution increased by 2,700 percent between 2012 and 2016.

“And among these women who work at massage parlors there are many who are trafficking victims… and I personally just don’t feel that it’s fair to criminalize victims.”

In recent months, according to Latimer, prostitution-related arrests have declined. Legal Aid represents the majority of defendants in these cases in the city, and Latimer reports that they represented 25 individuals arrested on prostitution-related charges in February 2017. That’s a 50 percent drop from February 2016.

In March and April 2017, arrests declined again into the single digits. But in May, the arrests were back up, and again in June (the most recent data), when Legal Aid reported 19 prostitution-related arrests in Queens.

“Raids are a traumatic event… just mentally harmful,” Jenna Torres, a community organizer with the Red Umbrella Project, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of sex workers, told The Appeal. Unlike Liu, Torre argues that not all sex workers are trafficking victims. “Police are rough, and really treat supposed victims as criminals.”

Compounding that trauma is the fear of what might follow an arrest. The Queens District Attorney’s Office established its human trafficking intervention court back in 2010, where some prostitution-related cases are diverted, like Song’s was, and defendants are mandated to social services. The Urban Institute recently surveyed roughly 1,400 defendants, many of whom reported dissatisfaction with diversion. What the service providers offered, including counseling and immigration assistance, did not match with what most reported they need: employment, housing, education and healthcare.

President Trump’s immigration enforcement mandate has also raised the stakes related to such arrests. Since June, plainclothes Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have used the Queens trafficking court to identify individuals for immigration detention. One attempted detention made headlines, but four more defendants in the same Queens court were detained by ICE, according to Legal Aid.

Scott Heins

While the NYPD’s sanctuary city policy limits cooperation with ICE outside courtrooms, these federal agents can access the NYPD’s fingerprint database, which is fed by broken windows policing and prostitution arrests alike. For this reason, Legal Aid argues that decriminalizing the sex trade would make New York City safer for their clients.

Sanctuary for Families, an organization that provides court-mandated services, is strongly opposed to decriminalization. They have been major supporters of the NYPD’s new trust-building initiative, arguing that the NYPD can and should focus its resources on arresting pimps, sex workers’ customers, and traffickers while protecting women engaging in sex work.

Judy Harris Kluger, Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families, expressed dismay about Song’s death in a statement Monday, while doubling down on her group’s position that men who buy sex should be targeted by law enforcement.

“The tragic death of the woman who jumped from a third-floor window rather than face arrest on prostitution charges raises an important question,” she stated. “Why is the NYPD still targeting women in prostitution instead of the men who buy them?”

The Queens District Attorney and the Mayor’s Office refused to comment on Song’s death to In Justice Today, deferring to the NYPD. The NYPD also did not comment.

Meanwhile, “the ladies are still fearful of law enforcement, yes,” Liu, of Garden of Hope, said Tuesday. “I don’t know how to make them feel differently.”

“This tragedy should make everyone take seriously the impact of being criminalized and policed, whether because of engagement in sex work or immigration status”

Recently, Liu has been trying to introduce herself to massage parlor workers without the intermediary of the NYPD. This involves a lot of pavement pounding with volunteers. Building trust is slow going.

It’s “like a catch 22,” Liu said. “Without the [diversion] court many, many ladies would not find people to help them. But before they get help, they have to go through law enforcement — the arrest — and I just feel like that’s a big price to pay.”

“This tragedy should make everyone take seriously the impact of being criminalized and policed, whether because of engagement in sex work or immigration status,” added Kate D’Adamo, sex worker rights’ advocate and former policy advocate at Sex Workers’ Project in New York. “As long as criminalization and policing of the sex industry continues, the fear, isolation and vulnerability that policing fosters will thrive.”

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For Victims of Corrupt Chicago Police, An Unusual Taste of Justice

Fifteen men had their tainted convictions vacated by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, but this isn’t the norm when it comes to prosecutors.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

For Victims of Corrupt Chicago Police, An Unusual Taste of Justice

Fifteen men had their tainted convictions vacated by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, but this isn’t the norm when it comes to prosecutors.

Former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts had a pretty sweet deal going for himself. For years, he and other officers tasked with policing a housing project on the city’s South Side routinely demanded cash from drug dealers in exchange for protection from arrest, and framed residents of the housing project by planting drugs on them. His reign of extortion drew to a close when he and another officer were arrested in 2012. Watts served 22 months in prison after his sentencing, and is now a free man.

Yet for years, Chicago law enforcement leaders did nothing to heal the lives that Watts and his cohort tore apart with their abuse of power. Some of Watts’ victims went to jail or prison, serving sentences secured by illegally obtained evidence. Once they were released, they couldn’t find work thanks to their wrongful criminal records.

In mid-November, 15 of those men made headlines when Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx vacated their tainted drug convictions, all of which were tied to Watts and his cohort. The Conviction Integrity Unit in Foxx’s office determined that the convictions were based on false testimony and planted evidence — but only after Joshua Tepfer of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago petitioned a judge in September to clear their names. The vacated convictions have been described as a first-of-its-kind “mass exoneration” in Cook County by wrongful conviction experts.

“Everyone knew…if you’re not going to pay Watts, you’re going to jail,” 36-year-old Leonard Gipson, one of the 15 men, told reporters. “That’s just the way it was gonna go.” Gipson was convicted multiple times based on charges brought by Watts, and at one point spent two years in jail because of him.

Tepfer began representing men convicted on charges brought by Watts and his co-conspirators and investigating their cases when Foxx’s predecessor Anita Alvarez was still in office. When Foxx took office in 2016, Tepfer said her office cooperated with him as he pursued relief for people charged by Watts. By December 2016, three convictions tied to Watts had been vacated. During that petitioning process, Tepfer obtained a spreadsheet from the DA’s office identifying “at least 1000 arrests during an eight year period that led to at least 500 convictions” in which Watts and his fellow officers were involved. After realizing the breadth of the misconduct, Tepfer moved to have several cases consolidated this year — those of 15 men who had already served their time, but still had a conviction on their record. But Foxx’s office pushed back throughout October and early November, arguing that procedurally, each case should be handled separately. As Tepfer prepared for a hearing scheduled for Nov. 16, he assumed until the day before the argument that it would be dedicated to the litigation against the consolidation.

“They called me the morning before and said they’d be dismissing all [of the] convictions,” said Tepfer. “I didn’t think I was persuading them at all, but it appears that they concluded they couldn’t have faith in these convictions either.”

The media jumped to praise Foxx for vacating the illegally-obtained convictions. But the spotlight on Foxx illuminates just how rare it is for prosecutors to dismiss charges or vacate convictions premised on police officers’ fabricated testimony, corruption, or illegal behavior.

“It is extraordinarily uncommon what [Foxx’s office] did, and they should be applauded,” Tepfer told In Justice Today. “The reality though, is that it should be done all the time. When there’s intentional and systemic law enforcement misconduct across cases, you have to go back and look at all those cases.”

“As a prosecutor’s office, inasmuch as we fight for public safety, we also recognize that we have to right wrongs and be willing to do that,” Foxx told the Tribune following the exonerations.

Not everyone agreed with Foxx that the fight for public safety entails righting past wrongs. Police officers took Foxx’s exonerations as a challenge. The day after her office announced the convictions would be vacated, she was chastised in a public letter from Kevin Graham, president of Chicago’s police union, for “pander[ing] to the powerful anti-police movement in the city” and creating a “level of mistrust among police officers” that will discourage them from testifying. The letter could be read as a threat: without the testimony of officers, Foxx may struggle to secure future convictions.

But Graham’s letter fails to explain why vacating falsely obtained convictions would threaten law enforcement officers. If police and prosecutors’ goal is to protect and improve public safety, as is so often stated, then getting abusive police who frame innocent people off the street would seem to be in their interest. That the working relationship between DAs and police could be compromised by exonerating innocent people suggests that more is at play in Graham’s anger than the alleged quest for safety and justice.

Though Foxx’s actions are rare, she isn’t alone. A new generation of prosecutors shares Foxx’s commitment to vacating convictions or dropping charges based on police’s bad behavior. In July, 34 drug and gun charges were dismissed by Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s office after news surfaced that the charges relied on testimony from officers who allegedly planted drugs at a crime scene. In August, DA Gurbir Grewal of Bergen County, New Jersey dropped 8 cases brought against 17 defendants, all of whom were charged based on faulty, illegal police work. The same month, DA Kristen Barnebey of Aransas County, Texas made the surprising announcement that her office would no longer take cases brought by a local police department until its officers were better trained and educated, as In Justice Today’s Carimah Townes reported. These prosecutors appear to recognize that police misconduct isn’t just the police’s problem.

Tepfer of the Exoneration Project is investigating dozens of other casesinvolving the officers who worked with Watts, and WGNTV notes that as many as 7 other officers involved in their cases are still on the job. Foxx’s office has said it will continue to cooperate with Tepfer and review convictions based on charges from the indicted officers.

“These are not the only people this happened to,” said Tepfer. “These guys were working a decade with impunity. This is certainly not the end of it, and I’m working on bringing them more cases very, very soon.”

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