This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A piece from The Marshall Project highlights one city’s experiment with police reform. Last year, officials in Olympia, Washington decided that they would not always send police officers to handle routine, nonviolent incidents involving residents with mental illness or addiction. Instead, the city dispatches unarmed, non-uniformed “crisis responders” to diffuse the situation and connect the individual with help or social services. Police officials support the program because it allows their officers to focus on violent crime, while justice reformers say it reduces the chances of police brutality. In a New York Times op-ed, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin outlines the role of local prosecutors in implementing and enforcing meaningful police reform. A piece from Politico focuses on California, where voters will soon weigh a ballot initiative to impose stricter sentencing and parole laws. After years of rollbacks, supporters of Proposition 20 had seen November as an opportunity to reimpose harsher crime laws – and, with property crimes on the rise, believed voters would be receptive. But then came the coronavirus, which has drawn attention to inmates – disproportionately people of color – packed into prisons and jails; and the killing of George Floyd, which launched police brutality and systemic racism into the national spotlight. Even as supporters of the measure reshape their message to fit the current mood, they now face an uphill battle in November, and the conversation around criminal justice in California – a state with a notoriously punitive past – has noticeably changed. And the New York Times reports from New Jersey, where lawmakers are considering landmark legislation that could reduce the state’s prison population by as much as 20%. The bill – the first legislative initiative of its kind in the US – would apply to inmates sentenced for violent crimes, and could free as many as 3,000 prisoners months before their release dates.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: This week, CBS reported that the federal Bureau of Prisons reached a grim milestone: 100 inmate deaths from coronavirus. Since the pandemic began, more than 10,000 federal inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. A piece from the Brennan Center examines the procedural hurdles and tough legal standards preventing incarcerated people from seeking relief in federal court. In a piece for the Washington Post, a journalist incarcerated at California’s San Quentin State Prison recounts his own experience of contracting COVID-19. The ongoing outbreak at San Quentin has affected more than half of the prison’s population, including nearly one quarter of those on death row; to date, eight death row prisoners have died from complications related to COVID-19, comprising half of the prison’s total fatalities. A piece from Slate highlights the role of California’s Democratic attorney general, Xavier Becerra. Becerra is often heralded as a “hero of the left” due to his numerous legal battles against the Trump administration; but back home, he has fought to keep prisoners on California’s overcrowded death row, sending his deputies into court to uphold death penalty convictions – including those involving egregious prosecutorial misconduct, false testimony, and racially biased arguments.
In complex crime storytelling: The Marshall Project constructs an “oral history” of the execution of Daniel Lewis Lee – the first federal execution in the United States since 2003 – as told by prison inmates and staff, the families of Lee’s victims, and the reporters selected to cover his death. And the Washington Post recounts a tense police encounter in a poor, racially-segregated neighborhood of Huntsville, Alabama. Thomas Parker, a white patrol officer with the Huntsville Police Department, had just completed a mandated de-escalation training when he received a call: a Black woman, clearly mentally ill and armed with a gun, was ranting and slamming doors at an apartment complex. This type of call was not unusual; as funding for psychiatric services has been slashed, police departments across the country are fielding more mental health calls, with de-escalation seminars standing in for trained social workers or crisis response teams. These calls are among the most likely to end in violence: in Alabama, police have fatally shot at least 26 mentally ill people since 2015. Four of those shootings happened in Huntsville, which spends $51 million a year on police and $800,000 on behavioral health programs; three of the victims were Black. These statistics were top-of-mind for Parker as he arrived at a scene of chaos, with cell phone cameras recording his every move. After many tense moments and a series of split-second decisions, the call ended peacefully, with no shots fired and no one hurt. It was, in the end, a routine call, and an example of the type of policing fraught with peril for both cops and the communities they serve.
And in culture/true crime: A piece from BuzzFeed reflects on the past, present, and future of true crime. As Americans grapple with the legacy of systemic racism in our legal, political, and cultural institutions, the problems with true crime – from its “unbearable” whiteness to its uncritical faith in and reliance on the criminal justice system – have become clearer and harder to ignore. The piece calls for a broader rethinking of the way we tell true-crime stories – and of whose true-crime stories get told. A piece from the Chicago Tribune focuses on the world of crime fiction. In a field historically dominated by white authors and protagonists, the current moment presents unique challenges – and opportunities – for crime writers of color seeking to diversify the genre. And the New York Times highlights five true-crime podcasts that focus on racial justice, including “Somebody,” a seven-part investigation into the mysterious 2016 death of 22-year-old Courtney Copeland. What sets the show apart is its host, Shapearl Wells, who is Copeland’s mom.