This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: In light of the recent mass shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, Colorado, a piece from the Atlantic asks, “Is America’s great crime decline over?”. After decades of decline, violence is once again on the rise in the US. In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, gun deaths reached their highest point in US history. In an interview with the Atlantic, sociologist Patrick Sharkey illuminates this recent increase in violence, the relationship between poverty and crime, and the importance of embracing nuance and complexity over easy solutions. A piece from the New York Times centers on the fight for gun control, while a piece from the Washington Post focuses on the Atlanta spa shootings and Georgia’s new hate-crimes law. Last week, the shooting deaths of eight people – six of them Asian-American women – at three Atlanta massage parlors triggered vigorous national debate over whether or not the mass killing amounted to a hate crime. This fraught conversation, taking place amid a national surge in anti-Asian violence, has potentially significant implications for the prosecution of the 21-year-old suspect. Until last year, Georgia was one of a small handful of states that lacked its own hate-crimes law. That changed after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a “Black man shot dead after three White men pursued him while he was jogging.” The uproar prompted the state legislature to act, and the spa shootings give prosecutors the first high-profile chance to put the new law into action. And a piece from the New Republic by Melissa Gira Grant focuses on race, sex work, and policing in the wake of the Atlanta shootings. According to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s office, the shooter described his targets as “an outlet,” telling officers he “blames the massage parlors for providing an outlet for his addiction to sex.” “This,” Grant writes, “is the uncomfortable truth yet to be faced after the shootings: Massage businesses have long been subject to eliminationist sentiments, which manifest in community vigilantism, in police raids, and in airless policy debates disconnected from the reality of the women who do massage work. The extraordinary violence of last week… is continuous with that status quo, one that would rather eradicate massage businesses than regard the workers there as worthy of rights, of dignity, of belonging.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from USA Today focuses on race, extremism, and policing in the wake of the Capitol riot. Out of 324 arrests made in connection with the riot, 43 are military veterans or current or former first responders. At least four police officers and three former officers face federal charges; two have been fired, one resigned, and one was suspended without pay. The charges have reignited concern among lawmakers and law enforcement officials about the extent of extremists’ infiltration. As Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) told USA Today, “A street alliance among right-wing paramilitary forces, law enforcement and demagogic politicians has been a hallmark of fascism for a century… Off-duty cops beating up on-duty cops to overthrow an election is a nightmare scenario for America.” A piece from Just Security takes a deeper dive into the failure of American law enforcement to police white nationalism. In the wake of the Capitol insurrection, the acting chief of the Capitol Police testified before Congress about her agency’s response, acknowledging that law enforcement agencies tasked with protecting the Capitol had been aware that armed “militia groups and white supremacists organizations would be attending” and that there was a “strong potential for violence.” Nevertheless, the Department rejected requests for additional support; as a result of this deliberate under-response, Capitol Police officers were “no match for the tens of thousands of insurrectionists (many armed) attacking the Capitol.” But while this candid admission of failure might have been a “refreshing change from a system allergic to accountability and truth,” it would be a mistake, the piece argues, to frame these failures as an aberration in policing practices: “Rather, the underpolicing of white racial violence and white supremacy is a foundational component of policing in the United States” – a feature, not a bug. And a piece from Esquire focuses on a policing scandal in Mount Vernon, New York. The city of Mount Vernon, on the northern edge of the Bronx, was once the proud center of Black culture in very white, very affluent Westchester County. But the city fell on hard times, and its law-enforcement officers responded with increasingly aggressive policing, or worse. For years, Mount Vernon’s narcotics unit, a specialized team of the detective division, reigned with impunity, fabricating crimes, planting evidence, and using excessive force, including strip and cavity searches that violated the department’s own protocols. Then one of the unit’s own officers, disgusted by what he had seen and fearful for his safety, started covertly documenting the abuse.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from Guernica Magazine takes a deep dive into the world of illegal finch smuggling. The chestnut-bellied seed finch – in its native Guyana, the towa-towa – is at the center of a highly profitable underground trade that culminates in Queens, New York, with a series of elaborate, secretive competitions known as “birdsport.” In recent years, federal authorities, alarmed by the threat of avian disease as well as the links between finch trafficking and other forms of crime, have clamped down on the trade, jailing smugglers and investigating the networks that support them – but, with champion finches selling for as much as nine thousand dollars, their efforts have only driven this lucrative industry further underground. A piece from the Marshall Project recounts a story of wrongful conviction and one woman’s obsessive quest for justice. The saga began in 2015, when bestselling author Sara Gruen received a letter from California’s Pleasant Valley State Prison. The sender, a man named Chuck Murdoch, praised Gruen’s work, detailing his personal connection to her novel Water for Elephants and how much the book had meant to him. As Gruen learned more about Murdoch’s “twisted legal saga” – sentenced to life without parole for first-degree murder, Murdoch’s trial had been marred by “mercurial witnesses, the suppression of crucial evidence, and a judge who seemed motivated to secure Murdoch’s conviction” – she became increasingly invested in his case. Over the next six years, Gruen’s casual investigation would bloom into a “frenzied obsession,” costing Gruen her health, her relationships, and almost all of her money. Now, Murdoch’s fate – and, in many ways, Gruen’s – rests with the Los Angeles County Conviction Review Unit. And a piece from New York Magazine examines policing and extremism after the Capitol riot in one small New England town. David Ellis, age 60, began the morning of January 6 in the southwestern New Hampshire town of Troy, where he is chief of police. From there, he drove nearly two hours to Boston, then boarded a bus bound for Washington, DC. After listening to his president speak, Ellis wandered down Pennsylvania Avenue, taking in the scene. It was there, standing outside the Capitol building as his fellow Trump supporters scaled the walls, that Ellis met, and spoke to, a reporter from New York. His words would soon upend the little town he has looked after for three decades, snowball into the statehouse, and roil New Hampshire politics. A clash over one unexpected question — “what to do about the lawman who was closer than he should have been to an insurrection?” — has “raised others about the viciousness of our politics and how much the Trump years have warped us.”
In culture/true crime: BuzzFeed reviews the Netflix documentary “Operation Varsity Blues.” When news of the college admissions scandal broke in the spring of 2019, most of the public’s initial fascination was predictably fueled by the biggest celebrity names. But “Operation Varsity Blues” aims its critique higher than these celebrities, exposing the larger college admissions industry – a system already rigged in favor of the most privileged – as a kind of scam unto itself. The New York Times reviews “Luz,” a new film about “love in and out of lockup.” The film follows a relationship between two men from the minimum-security prison where they first meet as bunkmates to their lives on the outside, as they navigate the challenges of reentry while struggling to preserve a connection forged in and by confinement. And the New Republic reviews the HBO docuseries “QAnon: Into the Storm.” The film centers on a deceptively simple question: Who is “Q,” the anonymous figure at the heart of QAnon, an “equally ridiculous and frightening movement of people who think that the US government is controlled by a cabal of child-eating pedophiles”? Methodically documenting the rise of disinformation, twenty-first-century conspiracy theories, and the QAnon cult, “Into the Storm” is a “revealing but occasionally grueling encounter with a dark side of American culture that our political class is still struggling to understand.”