This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A quiz from the New York Times tests readers’ understanding of today’s crime trends. During the pandemic, crime has reemerged as a significant issue in the US, with the murder rate up across the country by more than 20%. But numbers alone don’t tell the full story; context can often be lost amid, and incomplete or misleading data can easily be construed to suit a partisan narrative. Some have attempted to pin a rise in crime on last year’s movement to “defund” the police. Speaking with Maureen Dowd for the New York Times last week, former NYPD and LAPD commissioner Bill Bratton said, “They got what they wanted. They defunded the police. What do they get? Rising crime, cops leaving in droves, difficulty recruiting.” But in reality, as NYU law professor Rachel Barkow points out, “police budgets have largely increased around the country, not decreased, and homicides are up in cities with increased police budgets as well as those that have stayed the same.” In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports in the nation’s 20 largest local law-enforcement agencies, city and county leaders are seeking funding increases for nine of the 12 departments where next year’s budgets have already been proposed. The increases range from 1% to nearly 6%. “One of the reasons we got mass incarceration in the first place,” Barkow writes, “is the media just acting as stenographers for the police… Responsible journalism should mean talking to people who actually study these relationships with rigor to see what’s correlation and what’s causation and what we know.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from Jacobin explores the public-health costs of mass incarceration. Over the past year, US jails, prisons, and ICE detention facilities have become the world’s “most effective incubators” of COVID-19. Nearly 700,000 cases have been documented in US carceral facilities – a figure that is almost certainly a substantial undercount. Although no one knows how high the true number may be, a new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week, shows that mass incarceration hasn’t just created a public health nightmare within US prisons and jails – its impacts also spread through the rest of society. “The pandemic has made clear,” the piece argues, “that a well-funded national program of decarceration is not just an urgent matter of ethics and justice – it is also essential for the public health and safety of everybody.” In a guest essay for the New York Times, Steven Paulikas, an Episcopal priest whose parish includes the Fishkill Correctional Facility in upstate New York, mourns the loss of one of his parishioners to COVID-19. “Witnessing unwarranted suffering is a solemn duty of the priesthood,” Mr. Paulikas writes. “But when one of my parishioners died of COVID-19 in a New York State prison, I felt the need to not only witness but to also tell the story he no longer can – the story of a prison system that failed to protect his life and the lives of so many others in its care, subjecting them to confusion, fear and even death.” And a piece from ProPublica explores the case of Eugene Clemons. In 1994, at the age of 20, Eugene Clemons was sentenced to death by an all-white Alabama jury for the murder of a white DEA agent. Even though his trial attorney may have been “grossly negligent” – at Clemons’ trial, his lawyers had presented no defense, declining to call a single witness and completely ignoring their client’s long history of mental illness and abuse – Clemons has remained on death row for nearly three decades. Now, though he may be ineligible for the death penalty, a rigid Clinton-era law could force him to be executed anyway.
In complex crime storytelling: The New Yorker profiles expert “ransomware negotiator” Kurtis Minder. In the past year, a surge of ransomware attacks – whereby hackers use encryption to hold a victim’s information at ransom – has made a disruptive period even more difficult; in December, the acting head of the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said that ransomware was “quickly becoming a national emergency.” For the past year, Minder has been managing the fraught discussions between companies and hackers, helping victims navigate the complex world of cyber extortion. “The people who reach out to me are upset,” Minder says. “They’re very, very upset.” But to him, ransomware negotiation is a kind of high-stakes game; he finds the “cat-and-mouse energy” of outsmarting criminal syndicates, he says, “deeply satisfying.” And a piece from The Verge recounts the true story of a “Kafka-esque policing nightmare.” One weekday morning in mid-2013, 22-year-old Robert McDaniel answered a knock at his door to find two Chicago police officers standing on the front porch. Though police were a common sight in McDaniel’s “crime-plagued” West Side neighborhood, he was caught off guard: he had “nothing remotely violent” on his criminal record, and, to his knowledge, he hadn’t broken any law. But the officers just wanted to talk. They told him that an algorithm built by the Chicago Police Department had predicted – based on his proximity to and relationships with known shooters and shooting casualties – that McDaniel would be “involved in” a shooting. But it wasn’t clear, they said, what side of the gun he would be on. The officers gave McDaniel, both potential victim and potential perpetrator, a warning: from here on out, they would be watching him. At the time, the idea that “a series of calculations could predict that he would soon shoot someone, or be shot,” seemed outlandish. But the visit set a series of gears in motion: this “Kafka-esque policing nightmare” – a circumstance in which police identified a man to be surveilled based on a purely theoretical danger – would seem to cause the very thing it had predicted, in a “deranged feat of self-fulfilling prophecy.”
In culture/true crime: The New York Times reviews this summer’s crop of true-crime books. Katherine Dykstra’s What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl revisits a decades-old cold case; while Glenn Stout’s Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid looks back even further to the Jazz Age, when a pair of married bandits – America’s “original gangster couple” – transfixed the nation. And The Babysitter: My Summers With a Serial Killer recounts author Liza Rodman’s childhood summers on Cape Cod, where she and her kid sister were looked after by the serial killer Tony Costa, mingling elements of memoir with true-crime investigation. Rolling Stone highlights Nevermind Media’s forthcoming podcast “Songs in the Key of Death.” The series will explore the intersection of music and true crime, delving into the real-life stories that inspired classic murder ballads like Bob Dylan’s “Delia.” And a piece from The Atlantic centers on HBO’s Mare of Easttown. The series, whose seventh and final episode aired last week, stars Kate Winslet as Mare, a “scruffy, vape-slurping Delaware County detective” investigating the murder of a local teenage girl. Mare is, in many ways, a stereotypical TV detective: “rude, alcohol-swilling, remarkably observant.” But she’s also guided by an impulse that’s relatively novel in crime stories, which is the “maternal imperative.” The piece interrogates these sometimes complimentary, sometimes contradictory impulses, “to crime-solve” and “to care.