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The LAPD Has a New Surveillance Formula, Powered by Palantir

LAPD officers line up in front of protestors.
Lucy Nicholson / Pool / Getty Images

The LAPD Has a New Surveillance Formula, Powered by Palantir


Los Angeles Police Department analysts are each tasked with maintaining “a minimum” of a dozen ongoing surveillance targets for future targeting, using Palantir software and an updated “probable offender” formula, according to October 2017 documents, obtained through a public records request lawsuit by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and given exclusively to The Appeal.

These surveillance reports identify “probable offenders” in select neighborhoods, based on an LAPD point-based predictive policing formula. Analysts find information for their reports using Palantir software, which culls data from police records, including field interview cards and arrest reports, according to an updated LAPD checklist formula, which uses broader criteria than the past risk formula the department was known to have used. These reports, known as Chronic Offender Bulletins, predate Palantir’s involvement with the LAPD, but since the LAPD began using the company’s data-mining software in September 2011, the department claims that bulletins that would have taken an hour to compile now take “about five minutes.”

Los Angeles police argue that targeting “chronic offenders” in this manner helps lower crime rates while being minimally invasive. But the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a community-based alliance that has advocated against increased LAPD surveillance efforts since 2012, paints a different picture of the Chronic Offender Bulletin program. The group calls it a “racist feedback loop” in which police surveil a set number of people based on data that’s generated by their own racially biased policing, creating more monitoring and thereby more arrests.

Field interview cards, for example, which provide information for the predictive checklist, often result from on-the-street racial profiling, argues Jamie Garcia, the lead organizer on the Predictive Policing campaign with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. “When we look at LAPD stops, the black population is completely overrepresented,” said Garcia in a phone call. The directives, she says, direct officers “to find these people and to basically harass them…. If you’re constantly being surveilled, constantly being harassed, the chance of something going wrong … The next thing you know, you’re a chalk outline.”

Legal scholars have noted that the institutionalization of risk formulas like the LAPD’s Chronic Offender program checklist can exacerbate existing patterns of discrimination by oversampling those already discriminated against, generating even more biased data that justifies further discrimination.

The LAPD declined The Appeal’s request for interview, and did not provide answers to written queries about the program. In an email to The Appeal, Palantir spokesperson Lisa Gordon confirmed that Palantir is used in the creation of Chronic Offender Bulletins, but stressed that the software does not automatically generate the reports and that the selection and vetting of people on these lists are part of “a human-driven process.”

How Pre-Crime Investigations Begin

The target identification process starts with a LAPD analyst looking for “probable offenders” by surveying police records. According to the LAPD documents, analysts deploy Palantir’s file-organizing software to conduct “work-ups” of these individuals, looking for records that add points to their predictive risk scores, which are based on factors, such as whether they are on parole and their number of police contacts in the last two years. Below is an image of one of these “work-ups,” generated a few months before the department adopted Palantir, which The Appeal found online, completely unredacted, in a May 2013 LAPD presentation.

An example of a research “work up” template created by an LAPD analyst to organize data points for the department’s predictive “chronic offender” formula.

Adding up points based on police stops and other criteria outlined in the formula, an analyst would then create “at a minimum” 12 Chronic Offender Bulletins for high-scoring individuals, and identify five to 10 others as potential “back ups” for the target list. The 12, ranked by highest point values, are then referred to officers to ensure the targets are not already in custody or being tracked. As the documents state explicitly, these targets are, at this point, legally “not suspects but persons of interest.” A “person of interest” has no defined legal meaning, but can simply mean someone who might have knowledge about a crime.

Critics claim that this essentially creates a cycle where anyone who has any history with the criminal justice system can now be subjected to increased surveillance for the foreseeable future, even if they’re not suspected of having any connection to a recent crime. On the redacted work-up above, which the LAPD confirmed as authentic in an email, the individual had been stopped twice in a single day on four separate occasions during a six-week period. All these stops would count as points in the predictive formula, making him a higher priority for the surveillance program.

Though the LAPD claims such reports are “for informational purposes only and for officer safety,” the report information is then fed to an internal LAPD database “for tracking and monitoring purposes,” according to the 2017 documents. Armed with this data, such as where target offenders have been stopped and what tattoos they have, special LAPD units are sent out to “engage” targets with specified tactics, such as checks for outstanding warrants or illegal gun seizures, which may lead to arrests.

Sarah Brayne, a University of Texas at Austin assistant professor of sociology, who conducted field research with the LAPD in 2015, says that officers are keenly aware that the bulletins did not give them reasonable suspicion or probable cause. “The language used when I talked with officers was, “Go talk to them, and you might catch them doing something, but there’s currently no PC [probable cause].”

Though the LAPD documents do not explicitly state that those on the list must be arrested, they suggest that once an individual lands on a Palantir-powered bulletin, police are supposed to continue monitoring the individual until he or she is in custody. According to a released PowerPoint presentation, for example, officers are expected to ask themselves “how many chronic offenders have been arrested” in the previous two weeks and what their strategies are for “outstanding offenders.”

Every week, analysts too are supposed to determine whether the individuals on their target lists “are active or in custody,” and then replace those who have been captured with so-called “back-ups,” other individuals scored as high-risk, creating new targets for police to engage.

Individuals can be removed from the surveillance list if they have not had any police contact for two years, says Brayne, but the program’s underlying logic is to incapacitate those determined to be the main drivers of crime.

Given the amount of scrutiny and routine contact that officers are instructed to pursue for people on the bulletin list, avoiding all police contact is not realistic, says Josmar Trujillo, an anti-gang policing activist in New York. “If you live in a community of color in America, you don’t have the choice of having these contacts,” said Trujillo in a phone call. “Oftentimes, you can be stopped just for being around certain people, whether it be car stops or stops of groups on a street, so this predictive policing idea that you have to earn your right not to be on the list is cruel because to avoid law enforcement for years — that’s not possible.”

Perverse Incentives?

The LAPD’s expectation that analysts have a minimum of a dozen targets on deck is possible thanks, in part, to the departments’ use of the software from Palantir, the controversial tech firm founded by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel. As Craig Uchida, an LAPD consultant and research partner, told Wired, before Palantir was brought on board, LAPD analysts could not make enough surveillance bulletins to keep up with officer stops. At the time, he recalled, cops were stopping around 100 people daily in the South LA neighborhood the program was first implemented in, bringing in too much data for analysts to efficiently process.

The documents also suggest that LAPD brass have become more committed than in years past to fulfilling the Chronic Offender program’s goals for officer surveillance and “engagement” with those listed. According to the documents, at weekly crime control meetings, specialized units targeting offenders are supposed to give reports on “their progress” to date. Brayne says this is a relatively new development.

“There was definitely tracking of how many arrests, but that was largely to collect data to measure efficacy and make a case for continued funding,” she said.

The expectations, embedded in these predictive policing tactics, worries Garcia, who points out that such incentives could motivate or even force analysts and officers to make unfounded arrests just to check people off their bulletin lists. “So the LAPD is even surveilling itself,” Garcia said.

Brayne, on the other hand, pointed out that during her field work, officers had too many high-point offenders to deal with, not too few.

New Technology, Similar Victims

Activists also argue this predictive policing program could be giving new scientific and legal cover for traditional police practices in poor, non-white communities, viewed by some as racially discriminatory.

“The data is inherently subjective, and it has that implicit bias in it,” Garcia said, claiming that data drawn from raw police interactions necessarily bakes existing biases into the LAPD’s predictive risk models. And Brayne’s ethnographic findings about the culture of the LAPD suggests these concerns may be justified. “They say you shouldn’t create a — you can’t target individuals especially for any race, or I forget how you say that,” said one unnamed officer to Brayne, when asked why the department had shifted to its points-based surveillance system. “But then we didn’t want to make it look like we’re creating a gang depository of just gang affiliates or gang associates… We were just trying to cover and make sure everything is right on the front end.”

The documents also reveal a newer, more expansive version of the LAPD’s points-based Chronic Offender formula than has previously been reported. Older reports have shown that analysts were supposed to count points against individuals for gang membership, being on parole or probation, prior arrests with a handgun, past violent crimes, and “quality” police contacts. This newer version from October 2017 includes most those checkboxes, but expands the gun penalty now counting up five points for “each incident” involving any kind of gun over the last two years. It also counts up five points for each violent crime arrest, whereas the older version just counted five points if an individual had violent crimes on their rap sheet.

The documents were obtained through a public records lawsuit, brought by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition in March, which sought information on a larger LAPD program in which the Chronic Offender Bulletins are used. Since 2011, that program, known as Operation LASER, has targeted Los Angeles neighborhoods with high densities of gun-related crimes, teaming up analysts and officers to target “chronic” offenders and areas. According to a 2017 LAPD grant extension request to the Department of Justice’s Smart Policing Initiative Grant Program, obtained by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, at the time, the department was targeting neighborhoods in South and Central Los Angeles, which are mostly Black and Latino, and planned to expand the operation to more police divisions across the city.

The LAPD has claimed success with the program — between 2011 and 2012, one area where LASER was operating experienced a 56 percent decrease in homicides (according to a 2014 report by the LAPD). But the report was unable to single out whether this was because of the use of Chronic Offender Bulletins or some other unrelated trend. Homicides in Los Angeles had dropped steadily since the early-nineties before leveling out around the middle of this decade.

But residents say these predictives tactics have come with a cost. “I feel like they already know who you are by the time they stop you or give you a citation. They already know your name and who you are hanging out with,” said one member of a focus group convened by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition for a new report it released today, alongside the public records.

Another focus group member elucidated the dangers of constantly focusing police resources on a very specific population: “Because they over-patrol certain areas. If you’re only looking on Crenshaw and you’re only pulling Black people over then it’s only gonna make it look like, you know, whoever you pulled over or whoever you searched or whoever you criminalized that’s gonna be where you found something,” said the participant.

Activists say these testimonies are only their first step in their push for reforms. On June 5, Los Angeles is having its first hearing on data-driven evidence-based policing, says Garcia, where her group plans to push presenters, many of them with deep ties to the LAPD, on what impact this type of profiling can have on their target communities. Garcia wonders, “Where are the hard questions going to come from if you are working with someone to present this information to the community who has every motivation to make the community agree with these programs? There’s a lot at stake.”

Max Rivlin-Nadler contributed reporting to this article

How Walmart is Helping Prosecutors Pursue 10-Year Sentences for Shoplifting

Mike Mozart
Flickr [CC]

How Walmart is Helping Prosecutors Pursue 10-Year Sentences for Shoplifting


It was late afternoon on Dec. 26, 2016 — the day after Christmas, a day when most stores are busy processing the returns for unwanted gifts — when Curtis Lawson entered a Walmart in Knoxville, Tennessee. He had a receipt for $39.57 in purchases made earlier that month. He needed cash. He walked through the store, picking up the same items he had purchased previously — dishwasher detergent, Oral-B refills, and a pair of girl’s jeggings — and put them in a shopping bag. He brought them to the register, returned the items using his receipt, and received $39.57 in cash. Lawson had committed what is known as “return fraud” — pretending to return items that you didn’t buy.

When Lawson walked into the Walmart empty-handed, Walmart loss prevention officer Robert McAuley decided he looked suspicious and watched him on the security cameras. He watched Lawson pick up the clothes and return them at the Customer Service desk. McAuley immediately detained Lawson, who admitted right away that he had stolen the items, and Lawson was eventually charged with shoplifting and criminal trespass. What came next was a startling encounter with a local criminal justice system heavily influenced by a big box retailer’s desire to reduce shoplifting and a prosecutor’s penchant for punishing those who are more unlucky than dangerous.

Lawson had at least three outstanding warrants, most of which were related to traffic violations, including a DUI. Lawson’s attorneys admitted that Lawson had a drug addiction and sometimes shoplifted to support his habit, but noted that he had never been accused of being a threat to anyone’s safety. Because of the outstanding warrants, his bail was set at $2,500 total, and he was immediately taken to jail. On January 9, a warrant was issued for Lawson that escalated his shoplifting charge to a felony because, according to the arrest affidavit, Lawson was not allowed to be inside Walmart at all. Therefore his return fraud was a burglary — a felony punishable by up to 12 years of prison. His bail was jacked up to $5,000.

In Tennessee, as in many states, shoplifting items under $1,000 is a misdemeanor. But, in the past few years, the Knox County district attorney’s office has been prosecuting people like Lawson under the burglary statute, which under Tennessee law is defined as “unlawfully and knowingly entering a building without the consent of the owner and committing a theft.”

It turned out that Lawson had been arrested for shoplifting a bra over four years earlier from another Walmart location. That time, Lawson was issued what’s called a “Notification of Restriction from Property” by Walmart loss prevention staff. This piece of paper essentially restricts someone’s access to Walmart by officially “evicting” them from the property forever. The notice informs Lawson that he is “no longer allowed on property owned by Walmart Stores Inc. or in any area subject to Walmart Stores Inc.’s control” and it includes “all retail locations or subsidiaries.” Such documents, according to the loss prevention officer at Lawson’s trial, are regularly issued at Walmarts across the U.S.

Lawson’s attorneys argued that charging their client with felony burglary was not appropriate because the store, rather than being a private residence or a warehouse, was open to the public. Assistant District Public Defender Jonathan Harwell, who has worked on similar cases and represents Lawson, believes that Walmart’s notifications are confusing. They are not consistently enforced: Lawson, for example, had entered Walmart locations countless times since receiving his notification. He’d made returns, purchased goods, and even showed his ID to buy food using his EBT card, all without a problem. There aren’t any “no trespassing” signs around Walmart and no other indication that potential shoppers are being checked when they enter the store. And, most likely, they aren’t. The only people who have access to the notices are loss prevention staff.

The law in Tennessee is confusing when it comes to prosecuting shoplifters on felony charges, so the decision is left to local prosecutors. A case in another county similar to Lawson’s, State v. Danielle Chandria Jensen, was dismissed when the judge decided the felony charge wasn’t appropriate. The appellate court that upheld the dismissal wrote scathingly that “the prosecutor had a strong desire to prosecute all individuals for burglary who had been arrested for shoplifting or theft who previously had been banned from the relevant store, a questionable goal when the harshness of a felony conviction and sentence for burglary is compared to the wrong committed, even for a repeat shoplifter.” The case was vacated by a higher court on a different issue, so the law remains unsettled.

Charme Allen, the Knox County district attorney, vowed after the Jensenappellate decision to keep up-charging shoplifters anyway. When I asked her office about the policy, Deputy District Attorney General Kyle Hixson responded via email: “The District Attorney’s Office prosecutes all business burglaries, whether the victim is a sole proprietor or a corporation, according to the provisions of the state burglary statute. Business burglary prosecutions of this type are not permitted for first-time offenders, as the defendant must be placed on the business’ no-trespass list due to prior criminal activity occurring on the victim’s property. These prosecutions have been a valuable tool to protect businesses from repeat offenders and to ensure that Knox County remains a safe place for businesses to operate.”

Walmart’s trespass notifications are part of the extension of private influence over parts of the criminal justice system that benefit third parties, like retailers. Walmart, in particular, has come under fire in the past for hiring too few employees (a cost-cutting measure), and then relying heavily on publicly funded local police to handle their shoplifting problem. I have previously written about Walmart’s “restorative justice” program, a private anti-shoplifting program in California that a Superior Court judge found to amount to illegal extortion. Around 2008, according to testimony from Lawson’s preliminary hearing, Walmart began implementing the trespass system, which allows them to keep records on who has shoplifted before.

Across the country, more state legislatures are increasing the penalties for multiple shoplifting offenses, a move that has been encouraged by the National Retail Federation, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of retail businesses. The Federation represents the interests of both small businesses — mom-and-pop shops — and big megastores like Walmart and Dollar Store. According to the trade publication Loss Prevention Media, “Legislation has become a primary tool used in combating organized retail crime.”

Little reliable information is available about “organized retail crime,” or about shoplifting in general. The only information out there comes from the National Retail Federation itself. In a 2014 study, the NRF said that shoplifting accounted for 38 percent of shrinkage (all lost inventory), or about $44 billion in losses. A valuation by Forbes estimated that, by these numbers, Walmart loses under $2 billion in shoplifting. The latest studies by the NRF have focused on what they call “Organized Retail Theft,” which an NRF studysays affects “9 out of 10 retailers,” creates a loss of “$726,351 per every $1 billion in sales,” and involves people “exhibiting much more aggression.”

In Tennessee, the push to make penalties for shoplifting harsher came from the Tennessee Retailer Association and the state representative from KnoxvilleJason Zachary, whose profile notes that he is a small business owner. Notes from the legislative sessions indicate that the provision, which would punish retail theft, gift-card fraud, and return fraud more harshly would “increase recurring local revenue by an amount exceeding $20,000 per year.” The retailer’s associations argue that shoplifting hurts local government by decreasing the sales taxes collected. The legislation also allows local law enforcement to keep the value of stolen gift cards as forfeiture money.

Other states are considering similar laws under the guise of preventing “organized retail crime.” For example, in California, the state retailer’s association has banded together with prosecutors and sheriffs to support a bill that would increase the penalties for shoplifting. These lobbyists argue that recent changes to California’s laws have made it difficult for law enforcement to detain and prosecute shoplifters, which is hurting their bottom line.

Lawson was convicted of burglary in March. He is still waiting for his sentencing hearing, but because of the burglary charge, his options for parole or alternative sentencing are limited. A representative from the Knox County DA’s office pointed to Lawson’s long list of felony charges, indicating that he is likely to receive the maximum sentence of 12 years in prison. Lawson’s attorneys in the public defender’s office have noted that these felony prosecutions have increased since the 2014 election of current Knoxville District Attorney Charme Allen, who vowed to crack down on crime and has prosecuted a large number of cases under the state’s gang statute, which was recently struck down by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals for being too broad. In the meantime, it appears that the new law is being used not to prosecute dangerous retail gangs, but rather to penalize those who can least afford it, like Lawson.

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'We Can Make Him Disappear': The Power of County Sheriffs

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Irwin Carmichael and deputies pose in front of an armored vehicle.
MCSO / Facebook

'We Can Make Him Disappear': The Power of County Sheriffs


These days, former Sheriff Jim Pendergraph calls himself an “Old School Conservative,” but not so long ago he identified as a Democrat. This is back in early 2006, when Pendergraph was like most sheriffs — an enormously powerful guy who managed to get around unnoticed. He was 35 years into his law enforcement career and 12 years into his tenure as sheriff of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina when he made the decision to enter his agency into an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Mecklenburg was the first law enforcement official east of Phoenix to enlist in 287(g), a DHS program which allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to delegate federal immigration enforcement to local and state authorities. Essentially, 287(g) deputizes local law enforcement, giving police and correctional officers the power of ICE agents. As so-called 287(g) officers, they“have access to federal immigration databases, may interrogate and arrest noncitizens believed to have violated federal immigration laws, and may lodge ‘detainers’ against alleged non-citizens held in state or local custody.”

This may sound boring or bureaucratic, but the end result is neither — programs like 287(g) make it infinitely easier for undocumented immigrants to be deported. One need only be charged, not convicted, to get referred to ICE and possibly taken away from loved ones. Proponents of 287(g) would have you believe that the only immigrants affected by the program are dangerous criminals. But studies show that, in the past, around 80 percent of people were picked up on misdemeanors.

As a Democratic official, Pendergrass appeared an unlikely participant in the 287(g) program, which had historically been championed by anti-immigration, tough-on-crime conservatives. But Pendergraph was maniacal about his dislike of immigrants, intent on ridding America of them. “We’ve got millions of illegal immigrants that have no business being here … These people are coming to our country without documents, and they won’t even assimilate,” he said in 2006. “Every person we remove from the county is one person you and your family won’t meet on the highway,” he stated that same year. Eventually, Pendergraph dropped the pretense of safety altogether, simply setting up checkpoints in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations and arresting people for violating civil immigration law.

Pendergraph became such an evangelist for 287(g) that, in 2007, the Department of Homeland Security hired him. During his time there, he boasted about how easy it was for local police to ensure deportation of an undocumented resident. “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear.”

Pendergraph hasn’t been sheriff for over a decade, but his successors have been determined to keep their partnership with ICE alive. This includes current Sheriff Irwin Carmichael, who identifies as a Democrat, and yet has refused to end 287(g), a program President Trump supports wholeheartedly.

In Charlotte, the repercussions of this program have been massive. Last year, the sheriff’s department said it had “processed nearly 29,000 foreign-born people in the Mecklenburg jail since the program began. Of those, 15,018 were either deported or “placed in removal proceedings.”


Charlotte’s 287(g) program is just one example of the enormous power sheriffs have over the lives of local residents. The scope of their dominion varies slightly by county, but is almost always wide-reaching. Like other police officers, sheriffs can arrest you, serve you a warrant, write you a traffic ticket. But, depending on the county, they also perform countless other duties, including overseeing discretionary funds, patrolling highways, investigating crimes, and evicting tenants. And, as Charlotte illustrates, it is sheriffs who often decide who gets to call America home.

Perhaps most notably, in most places, sheriffs are also responsible for managing the local jails. This is particularly important because jails have functionally replaced mental health facilities in America and have become “the largest provider of mental health services in the county,” as Alan Greenblatt stated in Governing magazine. Ultimately, the sheriff has a major impact on the lives of those involved in the criminal justice system.

The extent of a sheriff’s power can border on dangerous. In some California counties, the sheriff even moonlights as the county coroner, an example of how sheriffs’ power obliterates any hope of accountability by the public. This is particularly concerning in situations including victims of police misconduct, where “having law enforcement oversee, say, the autopsies of police abuse victims invites abuse and creates an inherent conflict of interest.”

Across most of America, the only thing that could really limit the power of the sheriff is the voter. But that’s not really how it plays out on the ground. “In theory, sheriffs should be highly accountable, since they have to answer directly to voters,” writes Greenblatt in Governing. “But in practice, while a police chief may be lucky to serve three years, it’s not unusual for a sheriff to be around for 20.” As Professor Casey LaFrance told the New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv, “Once you become the sheriff, you’re likely to remain the sheriff until you retire or die.”

This is the main difference between sheriffs and police chiefs. Ultimately, police chiefs are accountable to the body that empowered them, and are subject to shifting political whims. Sheriffs, on the other hand, have no boss outside of the ballot box. They derive their power directly from the state constitution, making it hard to limit the extent of their powers, and they can be removed only by vote or the governor.

That power and independence is concentrated in a startling homogeneous population. According to one study, 95 percent of elected sheriffs are male and 99 percent are white. Nationwide, there are just three Black female sheriffs. Given the narrow demographic, it is perhaps unsurprising, then, that sheriffs tend to be more conservative than the general population, particularly on immigration.

Carmichael fits this mold. In Mecklenberg County, there has long been a tradition of anointed sheriffs who pass the position down to their chosen successor. Pendergraph was succeeded by his chief deputy, Chipp Bailey, also a white man and a Charlotte native who had spent his entire career in law enforcement. Bailey stayed just six years before retiring. Both Bailey and Pendergraph endorsed Carmichael.

Like his predecessors, Carmichael is extremely supportive of 287(g), and relies on limp excuses and nonsensical hypotheticals to justify it. He doesn’t even deny — or seem to care — that most of the people he refers to immigration authorities have committed a low-level crime.

“We’ve got to know who they are, what about if they commit murder in another country?” he said. (Carmichael did not provide any examples of this fear being founded.)

The 287(g) program isn’t the only terrible policy Carmichael has defended. In his first term as Mecklenburg’s sheriff, his record has been essentially barbaric.

In the past, this may not have mattered. But things are shifting now. Sheriff’s races are garnering slightly more attention in a couple places, and dramatically more in a fraction of those. Mecklenburg is part of that fraction.

Carmichael is fighting to win a tough primary on Tuesday, May 8. His opponents, Garry McFadden and Antoine Ensley, are also former law enforcement officers. But on many of the most important key issues, they differ dramatically from Carmichael.

Carmichael has repeatedly defended his decision to put juveniles in solitary confinement. He’s permitted the jail to force children to live in small, windowless jail cells completely alone for 23 hours a day. These kids aren’t permitted visits, library books, or phone access. Many of them haven’t even been convicted of crimes.

In 2016, both President Obama and North Carolina’s state prison system banned solitary confinement for juveniles. But Carmichael wouldn’t budge. That year, more than 110 juveniles in Mecklenburg County’s Jail North were subject to stays in solitary.

“It’s torture,” said retired Mecklenburg County jail official Karen Simon. “It’s abuse. And it’s done at the hands of the government.” Both Ensley and McFadden seem to agree — they have stated clearlythat they are against putting juveniles in solitary.

Carmichael also stopped allowing people to visit their loved ones in jail, instead requiring them to rely on video calls for communication. He called it a safety issue and claimed it was more convenient for inmates.

But critics say that video visits do not compare to the value of in-person visitation. It’s also a significant financial burden. If an inmate wants to make more than two video calls a week, it costs $12.50 — money that goes straight into the hands of GTL, the private corporation that owns the video visitation system.

Ensley and McFadden both say that, if elected, they would allow in-person visits again.

According to the ACLU of North Carolina, Carmichael also refuses to hold law enforcement accountable for wrongdoing, and won’t support“external, independent investigations of misconduct or criminal behavior in the sheriff’s office, such as if a person is killed by law enforcement.” Once again, Ensley and McFadden have both rejected Carimichael’s position and agreed to support such external investigations.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office, Charlotte NC

Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office, Charlotte NC added a cover video.

A promotional video on the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page shows deputies training with high-powered weapons and armored vehicles.

If either challenger is elected tomorrow, it’ll be a major shift — not only in Charlotte, but nationwide. As people become more aware of the power of local elected officials in the criminal justice system, it is increasingly possible that the people in charge may be more aligned with local residents.

Charlotte isn’t the only place with potential. Durham is, overall, even more progressive than Charlotte. But many of the decisions made by Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews have not reflected local political standards. Like Carmichael, he has also refused to stop detaining people for the immigration authorities. The conditions of the local jailhave also been routinely criticized: during Andrews’s tenure, six people have died in the jail he oversees.

Andrews also made the controversial decision last year to prosecute the protesters who toppled a local confederate statue. (No one was injured during the statue’s removal.) Despite the fact that Andrews’s department knew that the protest was planned, they did nothing to stop the protesters. Afterwards, though, Andrews decided to bring serious charges against twelve defendants, “including felony charges for participating in and inciting a riot.” According to The Atlantic, sheriff’s deputies even searched some of their homes.

These are decisions that Andrews has had to answer for in the primary. His opponent, Clarence Birkhead, ran for the position last election and lost to Andrews. But this time, Birkhead has been endorsed by many of the same groups that endorsed Andrews last time. Birkhead has been clear that he wants to reduce incarceration and law enforcement interaction. “Decriminalizing poverty is a priority. Decriminalizing street-level drug dealing is a priority,” he stated at a candidate forum last month.


It’s not just North Carolina. In other counties across the country, regressive sheriffs are being challenged by forward-thinking candidates.

Republican Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones is one of the sheriffs facing opposition. His jurisdiction is decidedly more liberal than he is — almost 59 percent of Sacramento County voted for Hillary Clinton, while less than 34 percent supported Trump. Jones is noticeably out of step with his constituency, and he seems to know it. He’s been smart enough to stay relatively quiet about the intensity of his personal convictions, and until now it seems to have worked — he has largely managed to escape scrutiny and is currently running for a third term.

He often plays the centrist on issues, including immigration. During his failed bid for United States Congress in 2016, he presented a decidedly tempered perspective, declaring that undocumented immigrants “by and large” are “productive members of our community.” “They deserve more than what we are giving them despite the fact that they are here illegally,” he told the Sacramento Bee. “I would advocate for a pathway to legal status for each and every one of them.”

But since Trump’s election, Jones has become increasingly vocal about his real views on immigration. In March, he flew to D.C. to visit the White House, for a roundtable discussion with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Donald Trump, and local law enforcement officials. “There are spectacular failures every single day around California, and I’m sure beyond, of folks that ICE wants as part of their priority, criminals, that are going to go out and at a known recidivism rate and victimize other folks that we’re unable to capture, apprehend and keep detained for deportation,” Jones told Trump.

It’s not just immigration. During his tenure, Jones has been criticized for his department’s regular use of excessive force. The county has paid out millions of dollars because of bad behavior in his department, including $6.5 million last year to relatives of a schizophrenic man who was shot by a deputy in his home in front of his parents, and over $500,000 in a case where “an inmate in the downtown jail vomited blood for hours and died while deputies apparently stood around and did nothing.”

Jones has also been accused of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. In 2016, a former employee accused him of “making unwanted sexual advances.” The accusations were made public in the wake of a $3.5 million settlement granted to four of Jones’s female deputies “for harassment and retaliation” by their superiors.

And, if that weren’t enough, Jones has routinely ignored the concerns of the Black community, and has degraded groups that call for increased accountability for law enforcement. Last year, the local Black Lives Matter chapter wrote the sheriff a letter, expressing their concern regarding a “pattern of violence when engaging Black community members.” The letter provided detailed examples of excessive force and noted Jones’s refusal to provide additional information or explanation for those incidents. It also listed demands, including body camera footage and the disciplinary history of the officers who committed the acts.

Jones’s response was obstinate. “In my opinion, there are far more responsible voices for the African American community here in Sacramento than you; in fact, there is nothing local law enforcement can ever do that will earn your approval,” he wrote to Tanya Faison, the BLM chapter’s leader. “I suspect you will continue to try and subvert [my job] with continued mendacious versions of reality.”

In March, Sacramento city police shot and killed Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed Black man who was trying to visit his grandmother. They supposedly believed he had a weapon. It turned out to be a cell phone. Ten days later, during a protest in downtown Sacramento, one of Jones’s deputies instructed a woman to move. When she didn’t, he struck her with his car, and then drove away without confirming that she was okay.

Jones refused to apologize for the event, and did not express any sympathy for the injured woman. “There’s a high likelihood that he did not even know that he collided with that protestor,” Jones said,despite evidence to the contrary. He also implied the protests weren’t even real. “In many protests that have developed to this scope, there are professional protesters and professional instigators that infiltrate the protests for their own purposes,” he stated.

Despite his repeated failures, Jones has a confidence bordering on hubris. When he announced his intention to run for a third term, Jones seemed to think the election was a mere formality. “Listening to him expound on his succession plan for that office,” wrote the Sacramento Bee Editorial Board, “we wonder whether the lawman-turned-politician remembers that he was elected, not crowned.”

Jones, a burly man in his early 50s, has long fancied himself untouchable, an arrogance that isn’t entirely misplaced. The Sacramento Bee said the race was “shaping up to be little more than a preamble to a coronation.”

But recently, Jones has started to look much more vulnerable. In March, former Chief Deputy Milo Fitch announced that he would challenge Jones in November. “I felt an obligation to run for office because the current leadership of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department cannot deliver what our community needs,” he said.

Fitch proudly describes himself as a criminal justice reformer, and has stated that he would not collaborate with ICE if elected. He also wantsto approach public safety in a way that doesn’t simply focus on punishment, by “assisting inmates with education, job training, and life skills.” He’s spoken out against money bail, and has repeatedly emphasized the importance of eradicating bias and discrimination from the sheriff’s department.

Fitch is gaining significant support, and has garnered some critical endorsements, including from the mayor. He could present a serious problem for Jones, who, until recently, seemed to believe he’d cruise straight to re-election. That he is facing real competition is yet another sign that accountability for sheriffs may be increasing.


Traditionally tough-on-crime sheriffs have been a major contributor to mass incarceration, and policies like the ones Carmichael, Andrews, and Jones have implemented are disturbingly commonplace nationwide. Traditionally, they’ve managed to keep their jobs while pursuing policies that many of their constituents would likely find troublesome.

But now, as people begin to understand the extent of their power, things may be changing. In Charlotte, Carmichael is facing serious community opposition for his continuation of the 287(g) program, among other things. “The current sheriff has said that he believes the program is helping the community, keeping it safe, and he’s not willing to end it,” said Oliver Merino, a local organizer about Charlotte’s participation in 287(g). “We feel like the best way to get rid of the program is to get a new sheriff.”

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