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News in Brief

California: California AttorneyGeneral Xavier Becerra announced on February 20 that he will not appeal a landmark decision on excessive bail. This decision came a month after the First District Court of Appeal ruled on a case involving 64-year-old Kenneth Humphrey, who had bail set at $350,000 for stealing a bottle of cologne and $5 from a neighbor. The court agreed with Humphrey’s counsel that the bail was excessive, and ordered judges in the state to renounce the conventional bail schedule for criminal offenses. This comes after a statewide push to end the money bail system as discriminatory to the poor. “Bail decisions should be based on danger to the public, not dollars in your pocket,” stated Becerra. Opponents of the effort for change argue that monetary stakes ensure that people will show up in court, and that bail-bond firms provide criminal-justice accountability at no cost to taxpayers.

Florida: Former police officer Michael Eugene Williams was sentenced on January 29 to life in prison for paying a Texas woman to sexually abuse her three-year-old daughter and send him photographs and videos. Williams asked the mother to send him videos of the child performing sexual acts on the mother and others, and the mother sent over 50 videos and pictures. Williams pleaded guilty in June 2017 to sex trafficking of a child, and the mother pleaded guilty to two counts of production of child pornography. The mother received 60 years in prison. A search of Williams’ home revealed hundreds of child pornography images and videos.

Illinois: A growing scandal in Chicago involving corruption in the police force has escalated. A former Chicago police tactical team accused of shaking down drug dealers and framing south side residents is now being inspected. At least 15 of its officers are now assigned desk duty. Last November, convictions of over a dozen men who had been arrested by Sgt. Ronald Watts and his team were thrown out by Cook County prosecutors. All of these men asserted that they had been framed in their arrests, and prosecutors agreed. Anthony McDaniels, another man who claims he was framed by Watts’ crew, has a petition pending before the Conviction Integrity Unit, which identifies 23 additional individuals who say they were also set up by Watts or his team. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit is reviewing each of these matters.

Kansas: In Olathe, Kansas, police officers have asked family members who have loved ones with special needs to use stickers that label the individual as a “special needs person” to warn officers that they “may not respond to verbal commands.” These stickers were created by the Take Me Home program, which was developed to give police a database of emergency contact information and descriptions of individuals with special needs, and are free to local residents for use on their cars or house windows. Police are putting the burden on family members to label those with special needs in order to prevent officers from murdering innocent people who have cognitive conditions. This initiative comes two years after Joey Weber, 36, was shot and killed during a traffic stop in which he did not understand what to do. Weber was unarmed and showed no signs of threatening behavior. Although the stickers may help police officers think before they shoot, there is still a glaring lack of training in how to deal with people who have psychiatric illnesses, which leaves officers unable to de-escalate situations before resorting to violence.

Louisiana: In 2016, Henry Montgomery challenged his life sentence at the Supreme Court and won. This ruling gave him and hundreds of other individuals who had been sentenced to life without parole  the opportunity to have their sentences reduced and ultimately be released. Since this decision, more than 1,300 people have won release from prison, but Montgomery will not be one of them. Montgomery was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17 after he murdered a police officer, and although he has shown many signs of change and improvement while incarcerated, the Louisiana parole board denied his request for release. A huge factor in this decision was the opposition of the victim’s daughter and grandson. He is now 71 years old, and cannot apply for another parole hearing for two years. So although his win in the Supreme Court allowed thousands of others to be freed, Montgomery will remain incarcerated.

Maryland: After widespread abuse of overtime, the Baltimore Police Department will now mandate fingerprint scans when officers clock in and out of shifts. Last year, the department spent $44.9 million on overtime, going drastically over its $16 million budget. During the ongoing corruption trial for Baltimore police, it was revealed that an informal overtime system was set in place, in which officers would be rewarded with off-the-books time off for bringing in large hauls of guns or drugs. So far, six former officers have pled guilty to federal racketeering charges, while other officers are still fighting the charges. The money being put towards overtime could benefit other areas of the city that arguably need it more, like schools, housing, and parks and recreation.

Michigan: Michigan lawmakers have decided to pull the plug on a 14-year-old driver responsibility program that imposes massive fees on traffic ticket recipients. Under this program, a driver who accumulates seven points (violations) on her or his license is billed $100 a year, plus $50 for each additional point. When someone cannot afford to pay a driver responsibility fee, he or she loses the driver’s license, which can prevent individuals from getting to job interviews and jobs, training programs, or school. This takes away sources of income, leaving violators unable to pay the fees that continue to accrue. The 317,000 drivers who have failed to pay their fees will have their debts forgiven on September 30, although each will still need to pay a fee of $125 to get the driver’s license restored. On average, each owes $1,900, for a total of $630 million. Analysts believe the state will lose $20 million as drivers who receive tickets between now and October 1 will opt not to pay fees and instead have debts forgiven.

Michigan: City leaders in Saginaw, Michigan have ordered local businesses to install video cameras in their shops and turn over footage to police upon demand. Businesses with “characteristics which may tend to increase the risk of criminal activity in their premises” must install and pay for a minimum of three surveillance cameras, which must be in operation at all times. These businesses will be subject to inspections of their surveillance systems whenever the chief of police pleases. If a crime occurs, the business will be required to hand over the footage to the police. This is seen as a way for the police to “snoop” on the citizens of Saginaw, given that crime has significantly decreased in the past decade, making the implementation of such intrusive surveillance questionable.

Minnesota: While engaged in a learning activity at a special education public school in Maplewood in early February, a third-grader reached into the school liaison officer’s holster and discharged his loaded gun. It seems that this gun’s trigger guard should have kept it from being fired while in the holster, but the child’s small finger was able to do so. No one was hurt, and the public was assured by the school district that a thorough investigation will take place. However, in the wake of yet another calamitous school shooting and the President and NRA’s call to arm school staff with guns, the incident again calls into question the safety of any guns in the school setting: Even when carried by properly trained and authorized personnel, do guns pose risks that outweigh their potential benefits in places like schools?

Missouri: A man was arrested on February 19 for pretending to shoot an officer. Otis Campbell approached an officer’s patrol vehicle, raised his arms up, and said “pow, pow, pow.” The officers then pursued Campbell on foot as he ran away, eventually catching him in the 1400 block of Wilkes Boulevard in Columbia, Missouri. Campbell now faces possible charges, including fourth degree assault and resisting or interfering with an arrest.

Nevada: A Las Vegas police officer was arrested on February 8 after he barricaded himself in his house for 11 hours. The officer, Bret Theil, was indicted the day before by a grand jury on several charges related to the sexual assault of a minor family member. To avoid being arrested for the sexual abuse of a family member from August 2005 to January 2007, Theil barricaded himself inside his home and claimed he was suicidal, eventually causing the SWAT team to be dispatched to the site. Theil has been booked into the Las Vegas City Jail on six accounts of first-degree kidnapping, five counts of lewdness with a child under 14, six counts of sexual assault against a child under 14, four counts of sexual assault against a child under 16, four counts of sexual assault, and two counts of child abuse or neglect. His bail is set at $1 million.

New Jersey: A retired Fort Lee police officer, Richard Michael Gato, 70, has been charged with attempted murder following a shooting on February 8 that left a Toms River man with a bullet wound to the chest. The victim, Robert Oleynick, went to Gato’s home in search of a friend but ended up in a physical altercation with Gato that ended in Gato allegedly shooting Oleynick. Gato was charged with possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose as well as the attempted murder charge, which came after authorities reviewed a home video that captured the entire event. Oleynick was airlifted to Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, where he was reported to be in stable condition.

New York: Since the beginning of 2016, the Manhattan district attorney has allowed the NYPD’s legal bureau to prosecute some cases in court, which goes against the usual process in which the police department makes an arrest and the DA decides whether or not to prosecute. According to leadership in the NYPD, allowing the police to act as prosecutors can help avoid “frivolous lawsuits” by persuading protesters to admit their guilt in exchange for having the charges against them dropped. This would protect police from future civil rights lawsuits alleging that certain arrests were illegal. Most commonly, police are using this discretion to target protestors. However, protesters are fighting back. Arminta Jeffryes and Cristina Winsor, both arrested while protesting, kicked off a movement that challenges this arrangement, claiming, “It is surely unfair if the prosecutors are concerned about protecting their employer and co-employees from civil liability, rather than solely concerned about achieving justice for the people who elected the District Attorney to accomplish that objective above all else.” When Jeffryes took her case to court, the police who were questioned openly admitted to arresting her to send a message to the other protestors, a clear violation of the First Amendment.

New York: For decades, the NYPD has made it extremely difficult for people it arrests to retrieve their property, resulting in many people giving up and never getting their items back. The NYPD reported over $6 million in revenue in 2013 from seized cash, civil forfeiture, and property that were sold at auction and a balance of $68 million in seized currency in any given month in 2013. On February 9, the NYPD and the Bronx district attorney finally agreed to amend the rules for property seizure. This settlement stemmed from a lawsuit filed against the police department and the city in the Southern District of New York for persistent theft from the city’s low income communities. This settlement will make significant changes to the way the NYPD handles these processes. The NYPD must also provide annual reports on the amount of property it seizes each year. The first of these reports is due in September, 2018.

North Carolina: Davidson County Sheriff Grice says his officers “know that they’re not going to be employed with me if they violate the law.” Yet one of his deputies, Deputy Jeff Athey, did not respect the law on February 6. He robbed a bank in Rowan County, armed with a gun, and demanded money from the clerk. He was caught just five minutes later by Rowan County deputies as investigators said he drove off in a silver Mustang. Athey was arrested and immediately fired from the sheriff’s department. Sheriff Grice says Athey’s action were a shock because he’d given no prior indicators.

Ohio: In Newcomerstown, Ohio, a police officer by the name of Bryan Eubanks shot himself and framed an innocent man in order to receive workers’ compensation on April 11, 2017. His plan did not succeed, and his lies were uncovered. Eubanks’ charges include inducing panic, making false alarms, tampering with evidence, forgery, and workers’ compensation fraud. As he began to contradict both his own and witness accounts, Eubanks confessed to his lies. After being found guilty in February 2018, Eubanks was sentenced to just 90 days in jail, 500 hours of community service, and a $2,500 fine.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma City police authorities have a record for arresting licensed street performers. This has led to some street performers not bothering to purchase licenses, knowing they can be arrested either way. This was the case for Ryan Dalee Strader. On November 15, 2016, Strader was approached by four police officers who told him he could not perform there. They said he was panhandling and soliciting money from passersby, so they asked him to leave. When he started to walk away, he turned back to ask them where he could exercise his First Amendment right to sing. The officers immediately arrested him for obstruction of justice and gave him a ticket for soliciting without a license. In court on December 7, 2016, he was found guilty of these charges. Strader no longer sings in Oklahoma, though he’d been originally hired as a street performer by the Oklahoma City Arts Council.

Virginia: A former police officer in Richmond, Virginia was sentenced to life in prison for sex crimes against a child. Forty-one-year-old Charles Church was charged with sexual penetration and sodomy of a victim under the age of 13 and two counts of obstruction of justice. He was charged in July, 2017 after being accused in May 2017. During the three-day trial, DNA evidence was used to prosecute Church. Defense claimed the DNA found on the victim’s underwear could have come from being in the same laundry basket, rather than sexual contact. Charles Church was found guilty and will spend the remainder of his life in prison.

Wisconsin: From 2007 to 2015, traffic and pedestrian stops in Milwaukee tripled from 66,000 to 196,000. Expert evidence and new data have shown that the majority of these stops has been performed without reasonable suspicion, and they have disproportionally involved Black and Latino people. Opposition to these practices by Black and Latino residents has been prevalent for years, and now evidence has confirmed that the city’s stop-and-frisk program is indeed unfairly driven by factors such as race and ethnicity. A police stop-and-frisk is only supposed to occur if the officer has reasonable suspicion that a person is armed and dangerous, yet in Milwaukee and many other cities in the U.S. this is not the case. Traffic and pedestrian stop rates in Milwaukee are both more than six times higher for Black people than for whites, and Black people are far more likely to be searched during routine traffic stops for drugs or weapons even though searches of Black and Latino drivers are 20 percent less likely to lead to the discovery of drugs than searches of white drivers. Proponents argue that these programs help decrease crime, but when a federal court in New York City struck down the stop-and-frisk program, there was a 98 percent drop in police stops with no corresponding increase in crime. This evidence from NYC will hopefully guide Milwaukee towards a better program that is free of racial bias and unreasonable suspicion. 

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