This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: This week, amid ongoing protests, lawmakers around the country continued to implement police reforms. In Minnesota, the governor endorsed a package of sweeping changes, including proposals to revamp oversight and disciplinary procedures and fund community groups that could act as alternatives to police. Reform legislation in Washington, DC will expand civilian oversight, make it easier to fire officers, and tweak rules governing the use of deadly force. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh declared racism a “public health crisis,” announcing plans to reroute $12 million in police overtime spending – 20% of the department’s overtime budget – towards social programs and services. In New York, the NYPD will disband its infamous “anti-crime” units, plainclothes teams that target violent crime and have been involved in some of the city’s most notorious police shootings. San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin moved to ban prosecutions based solely on the testimony of police officers with a history of “serious misconduct.” And on Tuesday, President Trump announced an executive action on policing, unveiling steps to incentivize local police to bolster training and to create a national database for tracking misconduct.
Trump’s plan was swiftly panned by Democrats and liberal groups as falling far short of the sweeping changes needed to address an ingrained culture of systemic racism and brutality. The New York Times Magazine presents a discussion between activists and policy researchers on different pathways to reform. A Los Angeles Times editorial highlights the movement to “defund the police.” In a piece for the New York Times, activist and organizer Mariame Kaba reiterates the call to “abolish the police”; and a piece from New York Magazine outlines why police abolition is a useful framework for conceptualizing reform. And finally, a piece from High Country News focuses on Eugene, Oregon, where a long-running program offers a successful model for nonviolent, community-based alternatives to police. The CAHOOTS program – Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets – employs trauma-informed mental health professionals, trained in harm reduction and de-escalation techniques, as first responders to crises involving substance abuse or mental health, taking police out of the equation entirely in situations that can often lead to violence.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: The New York Times reported this week that even as coronavirus cases have plateaued nationwide, new cases in prisons and jails across the country have soared in recent weeks. Over the past month, the number of prison inmates known to be infected has doubled to more than 68,000. Prison deaths tied to the coronavirus have also risen, by 73% since mid-May. A piece from The Marshall Project outlines how the Bureau of Prisons’ slow and incomplete pandemic response turned federal prisons into “death traps.” Reason reports that the number of inmates held in solitary confinement in prisons and jails across the US has skyrocketed over the last few months, increasing by nearly 500% over pre-pandemic levels. Prior to COVID-19, the number sat at around 60,000; since the pandemic reached American shores, at least 300,000 people have been put in solitary confinement. And a piece from the New Yorker focuses on Cummins Unit, a state penitentiary in rural southeastern Arkansas and home to one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the country.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the New Yorker focuses on the controversial “felony murder” charge, wherein “a person who unintentionally causes a death while perpetrating a crime may be punished as harshly as one who intentionally commits murder.” Felony murder charges are most often brought in robberies that accidentally result in death – and have long been criticized by criminal-law reformers and critics of mass incarceration. The conversation around felony murder was complicated last week by the announcement of upgraded charges – including a second-degree felony murder charge – against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer implicated in George Floyd’s death. The piece outlines the long and troubled history of the “felony murder” charge, attempting to make sense of the charges against Chauvin from a criminal justice reformer’s point of view. And a piece from the New York Times focuses on Marty Goddard. In the 1970s, Goddard led a campaign to treat sexual assault as a crime that could be investigated, rather than a “feminine delusion.” She began a revolution in forensics by envisioning the first standardized rape kit, containing items like swabs and combs to gather evidence, and envelopes to seal it in. The rape kit is one of the most powerful tools ever invented to bring criminals to justice; Goddard’s work revolutionized the way law enforcement and the criminal justice system treat sexual assault. Yet her name, and her story, are still mostly unknown. In many ways, Goddard and her invention shared the same fate: both were “enormously important, and consistently overlooked.”
And in culture/true crime: A piece from The Marshall Project highlights “The Writing on the Wall,” a traveling art installation that projects writings by currently or formerly incarcerated people onto buildings and landscapes. The exhibition seeks to amplify the voices and perspectives of incarcerated people and to share their stories with those on the outside. A piece from The Atlantic focuses on Gordon Parks, Life magazine’s first black photographer. Cinematic, intense, and exquisitely composed, paired with prescient and incisive commentary, Parks’ pictures revolutionized what a “crime photo” could look like. But they also exposed and spoke to issues that remain as relevant today as they were in 1957: “the trip-wire tension between race and law enforcement, the relationship between poverty and mass incarceration, the gulf between what we see and what we think we see.” And another piece from The Atlantic focuses on Cops, which was recently cancelled after 32 seasons on the air. Cops billed itself as reality TV, but in many ways the show was propaganda: the longest-running prime-time show in the US, it was filmed in partnership with local police forces and edited to portray a skewed, amped-up version of law enforcement from a “cop’s-eye” point of view. Cops has long faced accusations of racism and classism in its portrayal of policing, but what finally damned the show – along with mainstream America’s prevailing image of the “hero cop” – was actual documentary video: “If Cops is a simulacrum of American police work, polished and cut and spliced into a hollow replica, the videos of police officers killing Alton Sterling, Philando Castile… Eric Garner, George Floyd, and too, too many others are indubitably real.”