This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A piece from NBC News surveys the state of criminal justice and police reform. The death of George Floyd in police custody last May has galvanized lawmakers across the country along partisan lines: while Democrats in many states have proposed measures to reform police use-of-force and disciplinary policies, Republicans have focused on cracking down on demonstrators. The disparate approaches “seemingly point to a deeper impasse playing out in American politics”: as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle hold tight to their party line, finding common ground becomes increasingly impossible. A piece from Mother Jones focuses on gun control under a Biden administration. Last week, top White House officials held virtual meetings with leaders of some of the nation’s largest gun violence prevention groups – a welcome sign of progress for gun control advocates, who had begun to worry that amid a pandemic, impeachment trial, and the ongoing recession, their issue might have slipped off the administration’s to-do list. But to some, the meetings seemed tone-deaf: “none of the White House’s early invites were extended to the leaders of Black-led gun violence prevention groups who focus on addressing everyday gun violence — even as an alarming spike in shooting deaths has devastated communities of color.” And the Los Angeles Times reports from California, where, 80 years after the state created separate incarceration facilities to spare teenagers from being locked up alongside adults, Gov. Gavin Newsom has pledged to begin the shutdown of its long-troubled and frequently violent youth prisons. The planned dismantling of the Division of Juvenile Justice, or DJJ, comes after “years of scandal and mistreatment of young offenders, which spurred multiple reform efforts and more than a decade of state court oversight that ended in 2016.” The shutdown mirrors larger changes taking place across the country: “embracing rehabilitation over punishment and confinement close to home, rather than in isolated state facilities.” Longtime critics of the youth prisons have called their pending closure – which comes just two decades after California voters passed Proposition 21, intended to get tough on juvenile offenders by sending them to adult prisons and jails – a “transformational event.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the New York Times looks at American policing in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. At least 30 police and other law enforcement officers from around the country attended the “stop the steal” rally in Washington, DC, that preceded the riot. Thus far, three have been arrested on federal charges related to breaching the Capitol, while many more now face internal investigations. Their involvement has “brought to a boil questions that have been simmering for years: How many law enforcement officers nationwide subscribe to extreme or anti-government beliefs, and how, precisely, can agencies weed them out?” A piece from ProPublica goes inside the failures of Capitol Police. In interviews with ProPublica, 19 current or former officers describe how failures of leadership and communication leading up to Jan. 6 allowed rioters to get dangerously close to members of Congress and put hundreds of Capitol cops’ lives at risk. And a piece from the New Yorker goes inside the Washington, DC police force with Georgetown Law professor Rosa Brooks. Five years ago, Brooks, who has spent much of her career observing the relationship between violence and law enforcement, decided to train as a reserve police officer. She participated in training courses, and, from 2016 to 2020, patrolled the District of Columbia for twenty-four hours each month. In a new book, she documents her time as a reserve officer and presents a larger critique of contemporary policing, starting with the ways cops are trained to anticipate violence: “What do you have to believe,” she writes, “to make the level of police violence in this country make sense if you’re a cop? The answer is you have to believe that it’s shoot or be shot, and that is what many cops believe.”
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from the Atlantic unwinds the long, complex history of “felony murder” laws. In 2005, 36-year-old Anissa Jordan was involved in a botched robbery that left one person dead. Although she wasn’t at the crime scene, and hadn’t directly participated in the robbery attempt, Jordan was charged with first-degree murder and given a sentence of to 27 years to life. She was convicted under California’s “felony murder” rule, a legal doctrine widely applied in the US but dimly understood outside the legal profession. In many states, felony murder allows prosecutors to charge a defendant with first-degree murder “even if that person had no intent to kill — and even if that person is not alleged to have struck the fatal blow.” And a piece from the Intercept explores the recent controversy over Poetry magazine. For its February 2021 issue, “The Practice of Freedom,” Poetry featured work by people who are or have been incarcerated, their families, and others working in or around the carceral system. Included in the magazine was a poem by Kirk Nesset, a former English professor who spent more than six years in federal prison for possessing and distributing child porn. The debate over Nesset’s inclusion – when the issue was released, a Change.org petition demanding that the magazine remove Nesset’s poem and “apologize to [his] voiceless victims” gained thousands of signatures – speaks to “the moral tension at the heart of prison abolitionism”: how do we balance mercy with accountability? And what happens when our capacity for mercy is strained?
In culture/true crime: A piece from the New Yorker, from 2016, focuses on James Ridgeway, the hard-hitting investigative journalist and justice reform advocate who died this week at 84. In his six-decade career as a reporter, Ridgeway exposed and drew attention to all kinds of corruption and malfeasance in American public life. But his longest and most fervent crusade was his last: a decade-long effort, in what might otherwise have been his retirement years, against solitary confinement. Since founding the website Solitary Watch in 2010, Ridgeway exchanged thousands of letters with inmates held in solitary across the United States. In recent years, he could often be seen pushing a walker to his local post office in Washington, DC, to collect letters from prisoners. The New York Times reviews the Netflix docuseries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. In 2013, 21-year-old Elisa Lam mysteriously disappeared from downtown LA’s infamous Cecil Hotel. Although Elisa was eventually found and her death ruled an accident, her story continues to fascinate amateur “web sleuths,” who pore over elevator surveillance footage and obsessively rehash the details of the case. In Crime Scene, these sleuths – and the questions they raise about the nature of truth and mass speculation and, more generally, the ethics of true crime – play a central role. And Texas Monthly highlights the Vox podcast “Chicano Squad,” which recounts the fascinating story of the county’s first all-Latino homicide squad. Created in Houston in 1979, the Chicano Squad’s mission was twofold: to help the department close a growing number of unsolved crimes in Houston’s barrios; and to mend its broken relationships with the city’s communities of color. With limited resources and no prior detective training, the Chicano Squad faced scrutiny from all sides. But by the end of 1979, the group had cleared forty homicides; slowly, they began to earn back the community’s trust. Drawing parallels to present-day discrimination against Latinos and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, “Chicano Squad” offers a fascinating window onto the generations-long struggle for police reform.