This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A New York Times op-ed focuses on the role of unnecessary arrests in spreading the coronavirus, highlighting the relationship between mass criminalization and incarceration, systemic racism, and public health. Every day, thousands of people across the US are arrested for low-level, nonviolent crimes, processed through crowded jail spaces, and then released back into their communities, where they inadvertently spread the virus. A new study published this week found that this cycle of arrests, jailings, and releases was the single most significant predictor of the virus’s spread: in Illinois, where the study was conducted, one in six cases across the state were linked to people who had been jailed and released from a single facility, Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Of the roughly 100,000 people who cycle through the jail every year, 94% are charged with nonviolent offenses, and approximately 75% are Black. At least 60% of the coronavirus cases connected to the jail were in Black-majority neighborhoods – a reflection of larger national trends that have seen Black and Latino communities around the country both heavily over-policed and disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
In an interview with the Boston Review, sociologist Alex Vitale explains how America’s policing crisis begins with politics: the decision to embrace “neoliberal austerity” and to turn the social problems it creates – from mass homelessness to mass untreated mental illness – over to police. A piece from the New York Times highlights the growing consensus behind calls to “defund the police.” Over the past month, the term – once seen as alienating and “radioactive” and skirted by leading Democrats – has gone from relative obscurity to a household phrase. Recent polling suggests that as people have learned more about the meaning of “defund the police” — widely understood not as the elimination of policing, but rather as a call to reimagine and reduce its role — Americans are becoming increasingly, if cautiously, receptive. But for some activists, the phrase does connote a more radical, transformative vision of change. CNN reported that this week, the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of 150 Black-led organizations, unveiled a sweeping legislative proposal to radically reshape policing and the criminal justice system. The BREATHE Act calls for a “time-bound plan” to close all federal prisons and immigration detention centers, abolish ICE and the Drug Enforcement Agency, ban police departments from using surveillance and military-grade weapons, and reallocate funding from prisons and police towards healthcare, education, and social welfare programs. A piece from New York Magazine breaks down the specific policy proposals outlined in the bill, a “piece of legislation that, even if pie-in-the-sky, lays out a detailed, thoughtful prescription of ideas as they would be realistically implemented that have long been deemed impossible.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A new study from Johns Hopkins and UCLA paints a startling picture of the pandemic’s devastating impact behind bars. Researchers found that infection and death rates are significantly higher within prisons than they are on the outside: compared to the general US population, prison inmates are 550% more likely to contract the virus, and 300% more likely to die. A piece from Politico Magazine outlines how US prisons and jails became “ground zero” for COVID-19. Even as the first wave of infections subsided in most of the country at the beginning of the summer, cases and deaths have continued to climb inside detention facilities – the result of both unsanitary, unsafe conditions and a slow, incomplete, and ineffective policy response. A piece from The Guardian focuses specifically on California, where nearly 5,000 inmates across 35 state prisons have tested positive for the virus, and 22 have died. Six of these deaths, and more than 1,400 infections, have resulted from the ongoing outbreak at San Quentin, by far the hardest-hit prison in the state and home to one of the worst COVID-19 clusters in the country. A piece from Reason explains how the outbreak unfolded over the course of just a few weeks – a public health catastrophe “most likely of the state’s own making” and one that reveals both the depths of state prison officials’ “ineptitude” and the very real, life-or-death consequences of careless policymaking. Finally, pieces from Slate and Mother Jones go inside San Quentin, where inmates describe a “horror movie” of a scene within the prison as the virus continues to spread.
In complex crime storytelling: Pieces from Slate and the New Republic focus on gendered and sexual violence as they fit into the larger conversation around police. In response to widespread calls to “defund the police,” one specific question repeatedly crops up: “What about domestic and sexual violence?” These “what about” questions imply that reducing or reforming the police will leave people – especially women – without vital protection and trigger a “tidal wave” of crime. But in reality, police have never been the solution to gendered violence, and traditional policing often does women more harm than good. Most rape and assault is never reported to law enforcement; of the cases that are, less than 1% are referred to prosecutors, and even fewer result in convictions. Meanwhile, women who do bring their cases to police are often mistreated or disbelieved. And beyond the structural violence endemic to policing, police officers themselves are four times more likely than the average person to commit domestic abuse. Law enforcement and the criminal legal system don’t just fail to help survivors; in fact, these pieces argue, they actively enable and perpetrate harm. After all, it’s under the guise of “fighting crime” that “Black women, trans women, indigenous, undocumented, and poor women have been subjected to a system of violent policing that continually exposes them to gender-based harm at the same time as it hems them into the margins of society.”
A piece for The Atlantic by human rights lawyer and organizer Derecka Purnell recounts her own journey into the theory and practice of abolition. Growing up in a poor neighborhood of St. Louis, where violence was everywhere and 911 calls were the routine, Purnell was once “repulsed” by the idea. Over time, though, she realized that police couldn’t solve the problems in her community: they couldn’t heal relationships, clear environmental toxins from the air, provide opportunities or resources or jobs. And 15 years later, her old neighborhood still lacks quality food, employment, schools, healthcare, and air – all of which increase the risk of violence and reliance on police. As she learned more about the structural and systemic factors underlying her experiences, she eventually changed her mind: “Abolition, I learned, was a bigger idea than firing cops and closing prisons; it included eliminating the reasons people think they need cops and prisons in the first place.”
And two pieces this week focus on ‘60s-era Los Angeles, finding precedents for our current moment of unrest in the city’s long history of resistance to police repression and brutality. The Los Angeles Times looks back to 1969, when residents of Venice Beach, tired of constant harassment and abuse at the hands of the LAPD, organized to secede from Los Angeles entirely and become an independent city with a police force under community control. Though the Venice independence movement ultimately failed, the efforts of Free Venice organizers more than half a century ago show that critiques of traditional policing – and the struggle to envision an alternative – are neither radical nor new. And a piece from Hyperallergic focuses on the Los Angeles Free Press. In the ‘60s, Los Angeles was an epicenter of civil rights uprisings fueled by the “hypocrisy of its liberal establishment”; the mayor, police chief, and paper of record “actively suppressed Black, Chicano, and queer liberation movements throughout the city while promoting a narrative of democracy under siege.” For years, only one newspaper – known as “the Freep” – documented the many incidents of police brutality, drawing crucial connections between racial disenfranchisement and mass unrest.
And in culture/true crime: Rolling Stone reviews Netflix’s new reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, the “OG of TV true crime.” The “profoundly binge-able” original series, which ran from 1987 to 2002, laid the foundations for today’s true crime boom, innovating and popularizing now-common genre tropes. Like the old Unsolved Mysteries, the new series leans heavily on murders and disappearances, exploring cold cases and unsolved crimes; but where the original often veered into corniness, the reboot is “grittier” and more real, delving into topical issues of racism and injustice that its predecessor would never have touched. Texas Monthly reviews Outcry, a new docu-series from Showtime. Over five hour-long episodes, the series tells a troubling, complicated story of wrongful conviction and exoneration in central Texas. The show offers a captivating and introspective look at the criminal justice system, avoiding the worst pitfalls of the true-crime genre by favoring “character and nuance” over “gory detail and sensationalism.” And Huntsville Station, a short documentary from the New York Times, centers on a Greyhound bus station in Walker County, Texas. When inmates are released from the Texas state penitentiary at Huntsville, sent out into the world after months or decades in prison with only a bus voucher and the clothes on their backs, the nearby Greyhound station is often their first stop. The film focuses on this precarious moment of transition, capturing the rush of emotions – excitement and uncertainty, joy and fear – that accompany newfound freedom.