This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: The New York Times reports from Rikers Island, where a number of recent inmate deaths – ten this year alone, at least five of those by suicide – have brought renewed attention to brutal conditions inside the notorious jail complex. Since its opening in 1935, Rikers has long been characterized by dysfunction and violence; but the contours of today’s crisis, the NYT reports, were shaped by the coronavirus, which has infected more than 2,200 Department of Correction employees so far, leading to widespread staffing shortages. With so many staff members out sick, and with the incarcerated population increasing, conditions at Rikers deteriorated, creating a snowball effect that quickly spiraled out of control. New York City Council candidate Tiffany Cabán, who toured the facility with a group of elected and soon-to-be-elected officials earlier this week, described the horrors she observed there in a Daily News op-ed, writing: “For seven hours on Monday, I bore witness to the deadly conditions on Rikers Island. What I saw is beyond anything I experienced as a public defender.” On Tuesday, New York Magazine reports, Mayor Bill de Blasio finally stepped in, announcing a new five-point plan designed to alleviate the crisis by imposing new penalties on corrections officers who don’t show up for work; hiring contractors to accelerate repairs; and speeding intake procedures to reduce overcrowding in the notoriously packed jail. De Blasio also called on Governor Kathy Hochul to sign the Less Is More Act, which would limit incarceration for technical and non-criminal violations of parole. Data shows that the majority of detainees on Rikers Island, and in the city’s jail system at large, have not yet been tried and are presumed innocent. And a piece from the New Republic also centers on Rikers, examining the ongoing crisis through a decarceral lens. While Mayor de Blasio and the correctional officers’ union say the current crisis is a matter of understaffing, the piece argues, “no number of guards” will solve the underlying problems with the jail. The piece points instead to decarceration, arguing that the pandemic offered a roadmap: last year, the city dramatically reduced the number of people held at Rikers in response to COVID-19, a push mirrored in local jails around the country. As Cabán wrote in her op-ed, “There is a way to end this crisis: Release people from jail.” “The only thing stopping those in power,” she added, “is political will.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A piece from the New Yorker centers on the “forever trial” at Guantánamo Bay. Last month, when the US withdrew from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years, President Biden spoke of the need to end “forever wars.” But Biden still presides over a remnant of the war on terror that might be called the “forever trial”: the prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – the alleged mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks – and four other defendants, which reconvened at Guantánamo earlier this month for the first time since the pandemic began, and which has, for years, been a “spectacular exercise in futility.” A piece from ABC News examines another lasting legacy of the war on terror, this one closer to home: the continued militarization of US police departments. In major metropolitan areas across the country, “ubiquitous surveillance” and a “tragic cycle of police-involved killings” continue to animate the debate over US law enforcement. Many of the most controversial policing practices can be traced back to 9/11, when local governments were “flooded with a surge of money, technology and new crime-fighting strategies – on top of a new mindset that assigned local cops to the front lines of the global war on terror.” And Reuters reports from Minneapolis, where policing has changed dramatically in the year since George Floyd’s death. In the months that followed, few cities wrestled more with the question of what American law enforcement could and should look like. Officials floated attempts to overhaul, shrink, or even abolish the city’s beleaguered police force – so far, with no success. In the interim, Reuters found, Minneapolis police officers imposed “abrupt changes of their own,” adopting what amounts to a “hands-off approach to everyday lawbreaking in a city where killings have surged to a level not seen in decades.” Now, with the city “engulfed in violence,” citizens are asking: “Where are the police?”.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from Wired recounts the real-life story of “the search for a missing boy.” One morning in May of 2020, 3-year-old Dylan Ehler vanished from his grandmother’s home in rural Nova Scotia. For days, police investigators and search-and-rescue volunteers trawled the area, finding only Dylan’s little rainboots submerged in a nearby creek. As the search dragged on, and word of Dylan’s disappearance spread, thousands of “Internet detectives” descended on Facebook groups dedicated to discussing details of the case. But this “web sleuthing” quickly spiraled out of control, snowballing into a “dystopian fun house of rumor and speculation.” In an essay for GQ, the novelist Ottessa Moshfegh reflects on 9/11, recalling a fateful chance encounter on a New York City street. On the afternoon of September 10, 2001, just as Moshfegh was emerging from a long period of depression, she met a young artist selling paintings on the sidewalk and felt an instant connection between them. When the two met again, years later, he shared his memories of that day and the next, events that would permanently alter the course of both their lives. And a piece from the LA Review of Books recounts a terrifying true story of mistaken identity. Between April 1984 and August 1985, Richard Ramirez, AKA the “Night Stalker,” terrified California over a year of murders, rapes, and child abductions. At the time, 25-year-old Arturo Robles followed news of Ramirez’s crimes closely from his home in East LA. But when Robles himself was mistaken for the killer, he was unwittingly swept up in one of the bloodiest and most notorious crime sprees in California history.
In culture/true crime: A piece from The Guardian explores the rise, fall, and now the return of controversial reality show Cops. Cancelled by Paramount Network during last summer’s protests, the series, which had long faced criticism for “valorizing” police brutality, has recently been revived by Fox Nation, Fox News Media’s subscription-based streaming app – a “sadly predictable sign of a too-brief cultural reckoning.” A piece from the Atlantic explores the enduring popularity of so-called “cozy mysteries” and the “fascinating, inoculated world of crime without gore.” The “cozy” genre hinges on “making murder palatable, even soothing” for readers, with a battery of “inoffensive female sleuths” handily solving nondescript, often bloodless crimes. In today’s pop-cultural landscape, their popularity can feel unexpected, antiquated, “a relic of a bygone era.” But their quaint, comforting blandness, the piece argues, speaks to the same underlying impulse as more lurid, explicit true-crime fare: an urge to “regain control over the violence we see mirrored in the real world.” And IndieWire reviews Attica, a new documentary about the 1971 Attica Prison riot. At the time, the riot became a “rallying cry against overzealous policing,” an historic flashpoint in the burgeoning movement for “prisoner rights.” But with the death of each participant, the exact events at Attica – the largest, and bloodiest, prison rebellion in US history – have begun to fade from view. Reconstructing and re-examining those events through the lens of the current moment, Attica “gives voice to the silent wronged, and illuminates a disaster that still speaks to America’s present-day racial struggles.”