This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: Pieces from Bloomberg and Rolling Stone focus on Minneapolis, where, in the immediate aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, a veto-proof majority of city councilmembers pledged to dismantle the police department root-and-branch and replace it with new systems for public safety. Instead, the council voted this week to trim just 4.5% from the police budget in 2021, a move that will not change the number of cops on the street. Both pieces examine how, in the course of the last six months, vows to “reimagine public safety” devolved into yet more incremental change. A piece from The Atlantic also centers on the movement to “defund the police.” Since May, when the ambiguous phrase – both policy demand and “snappy slogan,” progressive rallying cry and conservative lightning rod – was jettisoned into the cultural mainstream, “the national conversation about police reform has devolved into a never-ending argument over words.” And a piece from the New York Times explores the impacts of this summer’s racial justice protests on the burgeoning “progressive prosecutor” movement. Recent months have seen the election of reform-minded DAs in reliably blue urban areas like Chicago and Los Angeles; but also in Texas, Florida, Ohio, and deep-red south Georgia. Many of these candidates won by framing their races as referendums on police reform, racial justice, and mass incarceration.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A new study by the Prison Policy Initiative highlights the role of mass incarceration in spreading COVID-19. Researchers found that the number of new COVID infections over the summer of 2020 was greater in areas with larger and more concentrated incarcerated populations – not just among those working or confined in detention facilities, but also among those who simply live nearby. All in all, the authors estimate that “mass incarceration led to 560,000 additional COVID-19 cases nationwide in just three months.” “No Way Out,” a multi-part investigation by The Marshall Project and WFAA, examines the spread of COVID-19 through the Texas prison system over the last nine months. Their report shows how a lackluster response by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice allowed the disease to spread, exacerbating existing outbreaks and putting inmates, prison staff, and surrounding communities at risk. And a new analysis by The Marshall Project and AP News reveals the full extent of the pandemic behind bars. They found that one in every five state and federal prisoners in the US has tested positive for COVID-19 – a rate more than four times higher than the general population. As the pandemic enters its tenth month – and as the first Americans begin to receive a long-awaited COVID vaccine – at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected, and more than 1,700 have died.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the New Republic asks, “What do Black people really think about the police?”. In 2020, widespread protests put law enforcement – especially the idea of “defunding” police and reinvesting that money into social services – at the forefront of the fight for racial justice. But at the same time, the “defund” movement has brought to light a puzzling contradiction, in which “the broader Black community evinces a distinct disapproval of the police while simultaneously voicing the desire to see a more persistent police presence in its communities.” A piece from the Independent focuses on “the rise of the podcast detectives.” Using the wealth of information and resources made available by the Internet, citizen detectives step in to fill the gaps left by law enforcement and the criminal justice system, taking it upon themselves to investigate or reinvestigate the most horrific of crimes. But these citizen detectives “exist at two uncomfortable intersections: between crime and entertainment, and between content and real life,” and the things they say – the theories they share, the information they uncover – can have a very real and often unanticipated impact on those whose lives were touched by crime. And, in a piece for the New York Times, journalist Elizabeth Breunig recounts her experience of witnessing a federal execution. Alfred Bourgeois was put to death last Friday at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute – the tenth federal execution this year. His was “the kind of offense often adduced in advocacy for capital punishment: cruel, senseless, depraved.” Breunig writes that even as a fervent opponent of the death penalty, she understood the impulse to “erase from the earth every trace of [such] a crime.” The essay grapples with these feelings, and the immutable conflict between emotion and belief: “I began to think I wouldn’t know with certainty what part of me was being honest about capital punishment until I saw it for myself.”
And in culture/true crime: The New York Times reviews “Finding Yingying,” a new documentary from MTV about the search for Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar from China at the University of Illinois who went missing in the summer of 2017. Filmed in the “dread-filled” first days of the search, “Finding Yingying” follows Zhang’s family, back in China, as they grapple with an “unfathomable horror: the disappearance and probable death of a loved one who was living far away.” Though the subject matter is unavoidably grim, director Jenny Shi – a former classmate of Zhang’s in their shared hometown – captures the family’s ordeal with compassion, humanity, and grace. The New Yorker highlights “The Parameters of Our Cage,” a collaboration between the photographer Alec Soth and an incarcerated man named Christopher Fausto Cabrera. In January, Soth received a kind of fan letter from the Minnesota Correctional Facility where Cabrera is currently serving out a twenty-six-year prison sentence. He wrote back, and, in the months that followed, the two developed an unusual, touching friendship built on their shared love of art. And, in a piece for Current, Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, the incarcerated co-producer and -host of Ear Hustle, discusses his experience of putting together a podcast from inside San Quentin, being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, catching and fighting COVID-19, and covering the pandemic behind bars.