This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: Politico reports that more than a month after protests against police brutality and systemic racism in law enforcement erupted nationwide, and with federal policing legislation held up on Capitol Hill, reforms at the state level have also stalled. Although state legislators around the country have introduced scores of police reform proposals, very few have actually become law as legislatures begin to adjourn for the year. In Minnesota, where the protests began, legislators introduced dozens of police-related bills, but thanks to partisan bickering, not one of them passed before lawmakers adjourned their legislative session. Just five governors have signed any of the new reforms into law, and activists say those measures – in New York, Utah, Colorado, Iowa, and Oregon – don’t go nearly far enough. A piece from the Washington Post highlights one of the most significant barriers to reform: police union officials and veteran cops who loudly refuse to help or permit changes to the “culture” of policing. The Guardian focuses on police union contracts, which protect bad officers and obstruct efforts at reform. And a piece from The Atlantic examines the “blue wall of silence” and the insular police culture that prioritizes loyalty to one’s peers over their sworn duties. Even as bad cops evade punishment for wrongdoing, those who stand up to corruption, report negligence or abuse, or decline to comply with bad orders are frequently marginalized, demoted, or fired outright.
With policing reform at the state and federal levels stalled, many activists have turned their attention to city lawmakers, flooding city council meetings with calls to “defund the police.” The Los Angeles Times reported that on Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted to cut hiring at the LAPD, pushing the number of sworn officers well below 10,000 and “abandoning a budget priority once seen as untouchable by city leaders.” Overall, the council’s decision delivered a $150-million hit to the LAPD, much of it coming from funds earmarked for police overtime pay. Two-thirds of the savings will ultimately be funneled into services for Black, Latino, and disenfranchised communities, such as hiring programs and summer youth jobs. And the New York Times reported that this week, city officials in New York agreed to a “grim” coronavirus-era budget that will shift roughly $1 billion from the NYPD’s $6 billion operating budget. The budget has been widely criticized from all sides: activists say the cuts are nothing more than an “accounting gimmick” and do not reflect a “fundamental shift in the nature of policing,” while others contend that police funding should not be reduced at all with gun violence and other crime on the rise. With activists calling for transformative systemic change, while police departments and unions remain stubbornly resistant to reform, the prolonged and messy battle over relatively modest cuts in one of the most progressive cities in the country reflects the difficulty of finding a middle ground.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: Pieces from the New York Times and The Appeal focus on San Quentin, California’s oldest and most widely-known prison and now home to one of its worst coronavirus outbreaks. Just a few weeks ago, San Quentin had no known cases of the virus. But at the end of May, state corrections officials transferred 121 inmates to San Quentin from a heavily impacted men’s prison in Chino, in an effort to reduce overcrowding there. The transferred inmates were not properly tested, and within days the virus had begun to spread. Now, more than 1,100 of San Quentin’s 3,700 inmates have been infected, at least one has died, and officials are struggling to contain a rapidly spreading outbreak at a prison that managed to hold off the virus for months. Amid widespread calls to “defund the police,” pieces from USA Today and the Vera Institute of Justice examine just how much policing actually costs. In 35 of the 50 largest cities in the country, police department appropriations account for the largest share of the budget; in some cities, as much as two-thirds of the overall budget is allocated to police. And a New York Times investigation finds that George Floyd and Eric Garner, whose deaths in police custody in Minneapolis and New York have sparked national outrage over the use of deadly police restraints, are not alone: over the past decade, at least 70 people have died in law enforcement custody after saying the same words: “I can’t breathe.” The majority had been stopped or held over nonviolent infractions, 911 calls about suspicious behavior, or concerns about their mental health. More than half of them were black.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from Politico Magazine focuses on the San Quentin News, a newspaper written and published by inmates at northern California’s San Quentin State Prison. In recent years, prison newsrooms and incarcerated journalists have emerged as powerful voices of reform, shaping the way Americans — and policymakers — on the outside see both prisoners and prisons themselves. A piece from The Atlantic highlights the FBI’s Art Theft Program, a team of federal agents trained in art history and cultural anthropology who work to recover and repatriate stolen art. And a piece from The New Yorker focuses on the case of Billy Joe Wardlow. Wardlow, who is scheduled for execution next week, has spent more than 25 years on Texas’s death row for a crime he committed at the age of 18.
And in culture/true crime: New York Magazine reviews I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a six-part documentary from HBO. The series, adapted from the 2018 book of the same name, recounts true-crime writer Michelle McNamara’s increasingly obsessive investigation of the serial predator known as the Golden State Killer. And the New York Times profiles Liz Garbus, director-producer of I’ll Be Gone. Garbus discusses the difficulty of telling McNamara’s story – she died suddenly in 2016, two years before genetic genealogists would unmask the Golden State Killer’s true identity – and of keeping her voice and her work alive in the film.