This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A New York Times op-ed, by Charles Blow, asks, “Can America reform policing and fight crime at the same time?” Last week, the CDC released provisional data suggesting that between 2019 and 2020, the US saw its biggest increase in the rate of homicides in modern history. As the Guardian pointed out, the burden of this increase fell disproportionately on Black women and girls, at least four of whom were murdered every day. The data came just days after a study in the Lancet revealed that deaths from police violence in the US have likely been undercounted by more than half – and that Black people were 3.5 times as likely as white people to be killed by police. During the pandemic, Blow writes, “Black people are suffering disproportionately from both state violence and community violence.” The question for America is “whether it can sympathize with people suffering through trauma and design solutions that address it in a holistic way.” And the Washington Post reports from Albuquerque, New Mexico, on a “bold experiment” to remove police from mental health calls. In one of the “most tangible shifts in public safety” since George Floyd’s death last spring, New Mexico’s largest city has established a new category of first responder. Now, 911 calls involving mental health, substance abuse, or homelessness – which would otherwise have been handled by armed police officers – will instead go to the freshly established Community Safety Department, whose members wear street clothes and lean heavily on their de-escalation training. If the experiment proves successful, it could offer a model of reform to other cities nationwide that are attempting something similar.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: A ProPublica investigation goes inside one Tennessee county’s “war on Black children.” Judge Donna Scott Davenport oversees a juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee, with a “staggering history” of sending innocent Black children – some as young as eight years old – to jail. Among cases referred to juvenile court, the statewide average for how often children were locked up was 5%; in Rutherford County, it was 48%. In some cases, the crimes they were accused of didn’t even exist. A story from HuffPost examines the state of the COVID-19 pandemic in US prisons and jails. During the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people have been placed in “medical isolation,” often held for weeks or months in tiny, dirty cells with few basic services. Prison officials have defended the tactic, claiming such quarantines are the only way to practice “social distancing” in cramped, overcrowded facilities. But incarcerated people say that “medical isolation” is no different – or even worse – than punitive solitary confinement, describing their conditions as “modern-day torture.” And the New York Times reports from Rikers Island, where the pandemic, and a subsequent staffing emergency, have taken a brutal toll, producing an atmosphere inside the jail of “sheer lawlessness.” In some units, the Times reports, detainees have seized near total control, or else roam freely around the facility. The dysfunction isn’t limited to the incarcerated: jail guards have participated in beatings and even supplied weapons to prisoners. 12 people incarcerated on Rikers Island have died this year alone.
In complex crime storytelling: A tragic and terrifying story from New York Magazine explores the hunt to catch a serial killer in a Brooklyn public-housing complex. Until recently, the Carter G. Woodson Houses – an east Brooklyn public-housing development reserved for seniors – were a refuge, a “place of peace” in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Then, beginning in 2015, elderly tenants started dying in brutal, mysterious ways. For years, residents lived in a state of constant terror, even as police and city leaders turned a blind eye to their concerns. Then, this January, an arrest was finally made. And a piece from the New Yorker goes inside the “troubled-teen industry” and its shadow penal system. Teen Challenge, a Christian organization with more than a thousand “treatment” centers across the US, advertises itself as a place where young adults with “life-controlling issues” – such as drug use or mental health – can seek practical and spiritual guidance. But advocates and former residents say that what Teen Challenge calls “discipline” seems more like abuse. Efforts to create national safety standards that would hold adults accountable for misconduct against their young charges have repeatedly failed.
In culture/true crime: A piece from the New Yorker tackles the “long American history” of “missing white woman syndrome.” In an interview with staff writer Helen Rosner, true-crime scholar Jean Murley discusses the Gabby Petito case, the aesthetics of true crime, and “what’s behind our fascination” with a certain kind of victim. The Guardian reviews On These Grounds, a “shocking” new documentary about police brutality within the US public school system. The film examines several high-profile cases of police violence against Black children and teens, locating what can seem like isolated incidents within the larger context of a culture that “invites a racially biased criminal justice system into a similarly biased school system.” The Guardian calls On These Grounds an “expansive, insightful, and infuriating” film. And the Marshall Project highlights “Oh, Mother of Mine,” a short documentary and photography project by “visual anthropologist” Anna Rawls. The project, completed during the pandemic, explores the “systemic barriers mothers face” in the carceral system, the generational impacts left by their incarceration, and the “healing that continues for mother and daughter even after their release.”