TBR News August 10, 2015

Aug 10 2015

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. August 10, 2015: “The strong personality and outspoken expressions of Donald Trump are infuriating the American liberal press and delighting a public fed up with chattering, treacherous and corrupt American politicians. If one believes the media, no one likes Trump and he will surely fail but reliable political polls show that Trump is way ahead of his rivals in popularity. This is known to the media but they will not mention it, choosing instead to downplay his messages and claim that his run for high office can never succeed. A motion picture that speaks ill of illegal immigrants that the media calls “our brown brothers” will be trashed with equal mendacity, even though millions of Americans are flocking to the theaters. We also see constant references to the superior intellect of the African originated Neanderthal man. This entity did indeed spring from the loins of an erect monkey but he was replaced by the Cro-Magnon man, the father of us all. In the main, the small of mind and weak of spirit always hates a superior entity and squeals “equality” and “brotherhood” whenever possible.”

Solitary Confinement: Punished for Life

August. 3, 2015

by Erica Goode

New York Times


In 1993, Craig Haney, a social psychologist, interviewed a group of inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, California’s toughest penal institution.


He was studying the psychological effects of isolation on prisoners, and Pelican Bay was among the first of a new breed of super-maximum-security prisons that states around the country were beginning to build.


Twenty years later, he returned to the prison for another set of interviews. He was startled to find himself facing some of the same prisoners he had met before, inmates who now had spent more than two decades alone in windowless cells.


It was shocking, frankly,” Dr. Haney said.


Few social scientists question that isolation can have harmful effects. Research over the last half-century has demonstrated that it can worsen mental illness and produce symptoms even in prisoners who start out psychologically robust.


But most studies have focused on laboratory volunteers or prison inmates who have been isolated for relatively short periods. Dr. Haney’s interviews offer the first systematic look at inmates isolated from normal human contact for much of their adult lives and the profound losses that such confinement appears to produce.


The interviews, conducted over the last two years as part of a lawsuit over prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, have not yet been written up as a formal study or reviewed by other researchers. But Dr. Haney’s work provides a vivid portrait of men so severely isolated that, to use Dr. Haney’s term, they have undergone a “social death.”


Sealed for years in a hermetic environment — one inmate likened the prison’s solitary confinement unit to “a weapons lab or a place for human experiments” — prisoners recounted struggling daily to maintain their sanity. They spoke of longing to catch sight of a tree or a bird. Many responded to their isolation by shutting down their emotions and withdrawing even further, shunning even the meager human conversation and company they were afforded.


If you put a parakeet in a cage for years and you take it out, it will die,” one older prisoner said. “So I stay in my cage.”


In recent weeks, the use of prolonged solitary confinement, a practice that has been widespread in the United States, has received unprecedented levels of attention.


President Obama, who last month became the first president to visit a federal prison, questioned whether “we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time.”And in a Supreme Court ruling in June, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing about solitary confinement, noted that “near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.”


In 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit in federal court against state officials on behalf of Pelican Bay inmates who had spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement, claiming that their prolonged isolation violated their Eighth Amendment rights. The parties are now in settlement negotiations, said Jules Lobel, the president of the center and a constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.


Dr. Haney and several other expert witnesses retained by the plaintiffs’ lawyers prepared reports in the case, copies of which were obtained by The New York Times.


Dr. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, interviewed 56 prisoners who had spent 10 to 28 years in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit, or S.H.U., including seven men he had interviewed in 1993, eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit and 41 randomly selected inmates. For comparison, he also interviewed 25 maximum-security inmates who were not in solitary.


The inmates landed in prison following convictions for serious, often violent crimes. Paul Redd, 58, murdered a competing drug dealer; Gabriel Reyes, 49, was found guilty of burglary and sentenced under California’s three-strikes law. The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Todd Ashker, 52, was convicted of second-degree murder, burglary, assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a deadly weapon.


But most were placed in the isolation unit not because of their original crimes but because they were deemed to be gang members or gang associates, under California’s policy at the time. The state corrections department said that such long-term confinement was necessary because of gang killings in the prisons and attacks on staff members and other inmates.


Prison administrators say there are some inmates so violent or unmanageable they must be kept apart from other people. But consigning inmates to solitary for years — or even decades, as California has done — is viewed by an increasing number of top corrections officials around the country as unnecessary and ineffective, and some human rights groups have called it torture.


Many of the inmates Dr. Haney interviewed talked wistfully about mothers, wives and children they had neither touched nor spoken to for years — prisoners in the isolation unit were not allowed personal phone calls and were prohibited from physical contact during visits. Some had not had a single visitor during their years in solitary.


I got a 15-minute phone call when my father died,” said one inmate who had been isolated for 24 years. “I realized I have family I don’t really know anymore, or even their voices.”


Another prisoner described placing photographs of his family facing the television in his cell and talking to them while he watched.


Maybe I’m crazy, but it makes me feel like I’m with them,” he told Dr. Haney. “Maybe someday I’ll get to hug them.”


Some prisoners became so disoriented they began to question their own existence.

Another inmate said that the hour or so he had spent in the interview was “the most I’ve talked in years.”


The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, citing the continuing litigation, declined to comment on the lawsuit or on the reports of Dr. Haney or other expert witnesses for the plaintiffs. But since the lawsuit was filed, the department has moved many inmates who had been in isolation at Pelican Bay for more than a decade to other settings. All but two of the 10 inmates originally named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are now in other facilities, according to Jeffrey Callison, a department spokesman.


In an interview, Dr. Haney said that he was especially struck by the profound sadness that many of the inmates he interviewed seemed to carry with them.


The weight of what they had been through was apparent on them and in them,” he said.


They were grieving for their lost lives, for their loss of connectedness to the social world and their families outside, and also for their lost selves,” he said. “Most of them really did understand that they had lost who they were, and weren’t sure of who they had become.”


There Is No Other Reality’


An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners in the United States are held in solitary confinement, according to prison experts. Most spend 23 or more hours a day in their cells, allowed out only for showers, brief exercise or activities like medical visits.


Prison experts say the use of long-term isolation escalated in the 1980s and 1990s, when many states, dealing with gang violence and overcrowding caused by stiffer sentences, built super-maximum-security facilities intended to house “the worst of the worst.”


In recent years, however, a growing number of states — driven by lawsuits, budgetary constraints and public opinion — have begun to reduce the number of prisoners in isolation. Prison consultants called in by state systems to assess the risks posed by the prisoners in solitary have often found that only a small minority require such restricted confinement.


Pelican Bay, when it opened in 1989 in a remote area near the Oregon border, quickly gained a reputation as one of the most severe penal institutions in the nation. The sprawling complex houses more than 2,700 prisoners, more than 1,000 of them in solitary confinement.


Other California prisons also have isolation units. But Pelican Bay’s S.H.U. was designed to minimize human interaction. The windowless, 7.6-feet-by-11.6-feet cells were built to face concrete walls. Doors opened and closed electronically. Corrections officers spoke to the inmates through intercoms.


Although prisoners could communicate with other inmates by shouting through steel doors perforated with little holes, or the ventilation shafts, they otherwise had little interaction.


If you go to Corcoran, there’s a window; if you go to Tehachapi, there’s a window,” said Joseph Harmon, 51, a former gang leader who spent eight years in isolation at Pelican Bay after five years in solitary confinement at other prisons.


At Pelican Bay, there is no other reality,” said Mr. Harmon, who said he was sent there after a violent attack on another inmate but eventually renounced gang activity and became a pastor in Stockton, Calif. “It was a tomb. It is concrete tomb.”


Gang members make up a significant portion of the inmates in solitary confinement around the country, in most cases placed there for acts of violence or disruption.


But until recently in California, any prisoner deemed to be a gang member or an associate of gang members, regardless of the prisoner’s behavior, was sent to Pelican Bay or one of the state’s three other security housing units for an indefinite period.


The state’s gang policy shifted after several hunger strikes by inmates at Pelican Bay and other prisons and criticism by civil rights groups. The corrections department now uses different criteria to place inmates in isolation, and it has created a program that allows them to eventually work their way out.


Mr. Callison, the department spokesman, said that 1,081 inmates were currently housed in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay for indefinite terms. Of those, 34 have been there for more than 10 years and 28 for more than 20 years; in 2012, there were 308 inmates in the security unit who had been there for more than a decade. Most of those longtime inmates have entered the step-down program, Mr. Callison said.


Civil rights lawyers, however, have criticized the department’s program, saying that it takes too long to complete and that inmates are still held in isolation unnecessarily.


In a report prepared for the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the suit, James F. Austin, a corrections consultant, called the department’s revised procedures for assigning inmates to isolation “grossly inadequate.”


The step-down program, Dr. Austin added, was “flawed in its basic structure and needs to be significantly revised.”


Just Give Me the Death Penalty’


In 1993, the prisoners Dr. Haney interviewed reported high rates of psychiatric complaints like depression, irrational anger and confused thinking, and stress symptoms like dizziness and sweating hands.


When he returned to Pelican Bay, he expected that over two decades, those men would have adjusted to their circumstances.


But the inmates, Dr. Haney found, still had many of the same symptoms. “The passage of time had not significantly ameliorated their pain,” he wrote.


For comparison, Dr. Haney also interviewed 25 randomly selected maximum-security inmates at Pelican Bay who were not in solitary confinement.


While 63 percent of the men in solitary for more than 10 years said they felt close to an “impending breakdown,” only 4 percent of the maximum-security inmates reported feeling that way.


Similarly, among the prisoners in isolation, 73 percent reported chronic depression and 78 percent said they felt emotionally flat, compared with 48 percent and 36 percent among the maximum-security inmates.


In depositions prepared for the Pelican Bay lawsuit, the inmates in long-term solitary also described having anxiety, paranoia, perceptual disturbances and deep depression.


One plaintiff, Mr. Reyes,said he had severe insomnia and that in the silence of the isolation unit, he sometimes heard a voice calling his name and cell number. Other times, he said, “I just see spots, just little things move.”


Mr. Redd, said that his dreams were often violent but that they became that way only after coming to Pelican Bay.


I didn’t even have dreams,” he said. “I didn’t even have thoughts of looking up at the top of my bunk and you see cracks on the bunk and say, ‘Hey, man, if they got a little earthquake, this wall, this top bunk is going to fall down on you.’ You know, you start getting a little nervous thing.”


Locked in his cell, Mr. Redd said, he often plunged into despair.


It’s not to the point where you want to commit suicide,” he said, “but sometimes, I’m at the point that I’d be wanting to write the judge and say, ‘Just give me the death penalty. Just give me the death penalty, man.’ ”


Studies have found that suicides among prisoners in solitary confinement, who make up 3 to 8 percent of the nation’s prison population, account for about 50 percent of prison suicides. Cutting and other forms of self-harm are also more common in isolation units than in less restrictive settings.


Mr. Redd, who spent more than 11 years in Pelican Bay, has now been moved to a treatment facility at the State Prison at Corcoran.


But other inmates’ experiences suggest the effects of his incarceration at Pelican Bay are likely to linger.


Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and an expert on prison mental health issues, found in interviews of former Pelican Bay inmates conducted for the lawsuit that even years after their release, many still carried the psychological legacy of their confinement. They startled easily, avoided crowds, sought out confined spaces and were overwhelmed by sensory stimulation.


They become very impaired in terms of relating to other people,” Dr. Kupers said.


Lonnie Rose, 64, was convicted of drug possession and sentenced under California’s three-strikes law. He was released in 2013 after eight years in isolation. At Pelican Bay, he said, he had worked hard to stay healthy.


I was pretty much resigned to spend the rest of my life in that cell,” he said. “But what we do is make the best of a bad situation. I studied, I exercised; one day turns into another.”


Still, he said, he has difficulty in crowds, and his obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which worsened in solitary, have persisted.


Everything has to be just so,” he said. “Being in a concrete box for a long time makes you even more O.C.D.”


Mr. Harmon, the former gang leader who was released from Pelican Bay in 2010, said that even five years later, he does not like people touching him.


As a pastor, it’s hard,” he said. “People come up and want to touch you, they want to hug you.”


Mr. Harmon is married now and said he had put his past life behind him. But a few times a month, he is seized with the urge be alone in a small, silent space. He tells his wife, “Don’t talk to me,” and retreats to the bedroom.


It’s just something that takes over my being,” he said.


Mr. Harmon said he thought he deserved to be in solitary confinement for a time.


There are violent men in prison, and I was one of them,” he said. But, he added, “I’m against long-term mental torture.”


He compared an inmate in long-term isolation at Pelican Bay to a dog kept in a kennel for 10 years.


Let that dog out of that cage and see how many people it bites,” he said. “I don’t understand why people can’t understand that concept. It’s simple.”


Training Officers to Shoot First, and He Will Answer Questions Later

August. 1, 2015

by Matt Apuzzo

New York Times


WASHINGTON — The shooting looked bad. But that is when the professor is at his best. A black motorist, pulled to the side of the road for a turn-signal violation, had stuffed his hand into his pocket. The white officer yelled for him to take it out. When the driver started to comply, the officer shot him dead.


The driver was unarmed.


Taking the stand at a public inquest, William J. Lewinski, the psychology professor, explained that the officer had no choice but to act.


In simple terms,” the district attorney in Portland, Ore., asked, “if I see the gun, I’m dead?”


In simple terms, that’s it,” Dr. Lewinski replied.


When police officers shoot people under questionable circumstances, Dr. Lewinski is often there to defend their actions. Among the most influential voices on the subject, he has testified in or consulted in nearly 200 cases over the last decade or so and has helped justify countless shootings around the country.


His conclusions are consistent: The officer acted appropriately, even when shooting an unarmed person. Even when shooting someone in the back. Even when witness testimony, forensic evidence or video footage contradicts the officer’s story.


He has appeared as an expert witness in criminal trials, civil cases and disciplinary hearings, and before grand juries, where such testimony is given in secret and goes unchallenged. In addition, his company, the Force Science Institute, has trained tens of thousands of police officers on how to think differently about police shootings that might appear excessive.


A string of deadly police encounters in Ferguson, Mo.; North Charleston, S.C.; and most recently in Cincinnati, have prompted a national reconsideration of how officers use force and provoked calls for them to slow down and defuse conflicts. But the debate has also left many police officers feeling unfairly maligned and suspicious of new policies that they say could put them at risk. Dr. Lewinski says his research clearly shows that officers often cannot wait to act.


We’re telling officers, ‘Look for cover and then read the threat,’ ” he told a class of Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs recently. “Sorry, too damn late.”


A former Minnesota State professor, he says his testimony and training are based on hard science, but his research has been roundly criticized by experts. An editor for The American Journal of Psychology called his work “pseudoscience.” The Justice Department denounced his findings as “lacking in both foundation and reliability.” Civil rights lawyers say he is selling dangerous ideas.


People die because of this stuff,” said John Burton, a California lawyer who specializes in police misconduct cases. “When they give these cops a pass, it just ripples through the system.”


Many policing experts are for hire, but Dr. Lewinski is unique in that he conducts his own research, trains officers and internal investigators, and testifies at trial. In the protests that have followed police shootings, demonstrators have often asked why officers are so rarely punished for shootings that seem unwarranted. Dr. Lewinski is part of the answer.


An Expert on the Stand


While his testimony at times has proved insufficient to persuade a jury, his record includes many high-profile wins.


He won’t give an inch on cross-examination,” said Elden Rosenthal, a lawyer who represented the family of James Jahar Perez, the man killed in the 2004 Portland shooting. In that case, Dr. Lewinski also testified before the grand jury, which brought no charges. Defense lawyers like Dr. Lewinski, Mr. Rosenthal said. “They know that he’s battle-hardened in the courtroom, so you know exactly what you’re getting.”


Dr. Lewinski, 70, is affable and confident in his research, but not so polished as to sound like a salesman. In testimony on the stand, for which he charges nearly $1,000 an hour, he offers winding answers to questions and seldom appears flustered. He sprinkles scientific explanations with sports analogies.


A batter can’t wait for a ball to cross home plate before deciding whether that’s something to swing at,” he told the Los Angeles deputy sheriffs. “Make sense? Officers have to make a prediction based on cues.”


Of course, it follows that batters will sometimes swing at bad pitches, and that officers will sometimes shoot unarmed people.


Much of the criticism of his work, Dr. Lewinski said, amounts to politics. In 2012, for example, just seven months after the Justice Department excoriated him and his methods, department officials paid him $55,000 to help defend a federal drug agent who shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old in California. Then last year, as part of a settlement over excessive force in the Seattle Police Department, the Justice Department endorsed sending officers to Mr. Lewinski for training. And in January, he was paid $15,000 to train federal marshals.


If the science is there, Dr. Lewinski said, he does not shy away from offering opinions in controversial cases. He said he was working on behalf of one of two Albuquerque officers who face murder charges in last year’s shooting death of a mentally ill homeless man. He has testified in many racially charged cases involving white officers who shot black suspects, such as the 2009 case in which a Bay Area transit officer shot and killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, at close range.


Dr. Lewinski said he was not trying to explain away every shooting. But when he testifies, it is almost always in defense of police shootings. Officers are his target audience — he publishes a newsletter on police use of force that he says has nearly one million subscribers — and his research was devised for them. “The science is based on trying to keep officers safe,” he said.


Dr. Lewinski, who grew up in Canada, got his doctorate in 1988 from the Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities, an accredited but alternative Cincinnati school offering accelerated programs and flexible schedules. He designed his curriculum and named his program police psychology, a specialty not available elsewhere.


Invalid and Unreliable’


In 1990, a police shooting in Minneapolis changed the course of his career. Dan May, a white police officer, shot and killed Tycel Nelson, a black 17-year-old. Officer May said he fired after the teenager turned toward him and raised a handgun. But an autopsy showed he was shot in the back.


Dr. Lewinski was intrigued by the apparent contradiction. “We really need to get into the dynamics of how this unfolds,” he remembers thinking. “We need a lot better research.”


He began by videotaping students as they raised handguns and then quickly turned their backs. On average, that move took about half a second. By the time an officer returned fire, Dr. Lewinski concluded, a suspect could have turned his back.


He summarized his findings in 1999 in The Police Marksman, a popular magazine for officers. The next year, it published an expanded study, in which Dr. Lewinski timed students as they fired while turning, running or sitting with a gun at their side, as if stashed in a car’s console.


Suspects, he concluded, could reach, fire and move remarkably fast. But faster than an officer could react? In 2002, a third study concluded that it takes the average officer about a second and a half to draw from a holster, aim and fire.


Together, the studies appeared to support the idea that officers were at a serious disadvantage. The studies are the foundation for much of his work over the past decade.


Because he published in a police magazine and not a scientific journal, Dr. Lewinski was not subjected to the peer-review process. But in separate cases in 2011 and 2012, the Justice Department and a private lawyer asked Lisa Fournier, a Washington State University professor and an American Journal of Psychology editor, to review Dr. Lewinski’s studies. She said they lacked basic elements of legitimate research, such as control groups, and drew conclusions that were unsupported by the data.


In summary, this study is invalid and unreliable,” she wrote in court documents in 2012. “In my opinion, this study questions the ability of Mr. Lewinski to apply relevant and reliable data to answer a question or support an argument.”


Dr. Lewinski said he chose to publish his findings in the magazine because it reached so many officers who would never read a scientific journal. If he were doing it over, he said in an interview, he would have published his early studies in academic journals and summarized them elsewhere for officers. But he said it was unfair for Dr. Fournier to criticize his research based on summaries written for a general audience.While opposing lawyers and experts found his research controversial, they were particularly frustrated by Dr. Lewinski’s tendency to get inside people’s heads. Time and again, his reports to defense lawyers seem to make conclusive statements about what officers saw, what they did not, and what they cannot remember.


Often, these details are hotly disputed. For example, in a 2009 case that revolved around whether a Texas sheriff’s deputy felt threatened by a car coming at him, Dr. Lewinski said that the officer was so focused on firing to stop the threat, he did not immediately recognize that the car had passed him.


Inattentional Blindness


Such gaps in observation and memory, he says, can be explained by a phenomenon called inattentional blindness, in which the brain is so focused on one task that it blocks out everything else. When an officer’s version of events is disproved by video or forensic evidence, Dr. Lewinski says, inattentional blindness may be to blame. It is human nature, he says, to try to fill in the blanks.


Whenever the cop says something that’s helpful, it’s as good as gold,” said Mr. Burton, the California lawyer. “But when a cop says something that’s inconvenient, it’s a result of this memory loss.”


Experts say Dr. Lewinski is too sure of himself on the subject. “I hate the fact that it’s being used in this way,” said Arien Mack, one of two psychologists who coined the term inattentional blindness. “When we work in a lab, we ask them if they saw something. They have no motivation to lie. A police officer involved in a shooting certainly has a reason to lie.”


Dr. Lewinski acknowledged that there was no clear way to distinguish inattentional blindness from lying. He said he had tried to present it as a possibility, not a conclusion.


Almost as soon as his research was published, lawyers took notice and asked him to explain his work to juries.


In Los Angeles, he helped authorities explain the still-controversial fatal shooting of Anthony Dwain Lee, a Hollywood actor who was shot through a window by a police officer at a Halloween party in 2000. The actor carried a fake gun as part of his costume. Mr. Lee was shot several times in the back. The officer was not charged.


The city settled a lawsuit over the shooting for $225,000, but Mr. Lewinski still teaches the case as an example of a justified shooting that unfairly tarnished a good officer who “was shooting to save his own life.”


In September 2001, a Cincinnati judge acquitted a police officer, Stephen Roach, in the shooting death of an unarmed black man after a chase. The officer said he believed the man, Timothy Thomas, 19, was reaching for a gun. Dr. Lewinski testified, and the judge said he found his analysis credible. The prosecutor, Stephen McIntosh, however, told The Columbus Dispatch that Dr. Lewinski’s “radical” views could be used to justify nearly any police shooting.


If that’s the sort of direction we, as a society, are going,” the prosecutor said, “I have a lot of disappointment.” Since then, Dr. Lewinski has testified in many dozens of cases in state and federal court, becoming a hero to many officers who feel that politics, not science or safety, drives police policy. For example, departments often require officers to consider less-lethal options such as pepper spray, stun guns and beanbag guns before drawing their firearms.


These have come about because of political pressure,” said Les Robbins, the executive director of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. In an interview, Mr. Robbins recalled how he used to keep his gun drawn and hidden behind his leg during most traffic stops. “We used to be able to use the baton and hit people where we felt necessary to get them to comply. Those days are gone.”


Dr. Lewinski and his company have provided training for dozens of departments, including in Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Milwaukee and Seattle. His messages often conflict, in both substance and tone, with the training now recommended by the Justice Department and police organizations.


The Police Executive Research Forum, a group that counts most major city police chiefs as members, has called for greater restraint from officers and slower, better decision making. Chuck Wexler, its director, said he is troubled by Dr. Lewinski’s teachings. He added that even as chiefs changed their use-of-force policies, many did not know what their officers were taught in academies and private sessions.


It’s not that chiefs don’t care,” he said. “It’s rare that a chief has time to sit at the academy and see what’s being taught.”


Regardless of what, if any, policy changes emerge from the current national debate, civil right lawyers say one thing will not change: Jurors want to believe police officers, and Dr. Lewinski’s research tells them that they can.


On a cold night in early 2003, for instance, Robert Murtha, an officer in Hartford, Conn., shot three times at the driver of a car. He said the vehicle had sped directly at him, knocking him to the ground as he fired. Video from a nearby police cruiser told another story. The officer had not been struck. He had fired through the driver’s-side window as the car passed him.


Officer Murtha’s story was so obviously incorrect that he was arrested on charges of assault and fabricating evidence. If officers can get away with shooting people and lying about it, the prosecutor declared, “the system is doomed.”


There was no way around it — Murtha was dead wrong,” his lawyer, Hugh F. Keefe, recalled recently. But the officer was “bright, articulate and truthful,” Mr. Keefe said. Jurors needed an explanation for how the officer could be so wrong and still be innocent.


Dr. Lewinski testified at trial. The jury deliberated less than one full day. The officer was acquitted of all charges.


Kitty Bennett contributed research.


Alabama officer kept job after proposal to murder black man and hide evidence

Secret recording played for local officials, in which police officer says resident ‘needs a god damn bullet’, resulted in $35,000 payout to prevent man from suing

August 4, 2015

by Jon Swaine in Alexander City, Alabama

The Guardian


A police officer in Alabama proposed murdering a black resident and creating bogus evidence to suggest the killing was in self-defence, the Guardian has learned.


Officer Troy Middlebrooks kept his job and continues to patrol Alexander City after authorities there paid the man $35,000 to avoid being publicly sued over the incident. Middlebrooks, a veteran of the US marines, said the man “needs a god damn bullet” and allegedly referred to him as “that nigger”, after becoming frustrated that the man was not punished more harshly over a prior run-in.


The payment was made to the black resident, Vincent Bias, after a secret recording of Middlebrooks’s remarks was played to police chiefs and the mayor. Elected city councillors said they were not consulted. A copy of the recording was obtained by the Guardian.


This town is ridiculous,” Bias, 49, said in an interview. “The police here feel they can do what they want, and often they do.” Alexander City police chief Willie Robinson defended Middlebrooks. “He was just talking. He didn’t really mean that,” he said in an interview.


Within months of the recording, Middlebrooks was the first officer to respond to a controversial fatal shooting by a colleague of an unarmed black man in the city. He was closely involved in handling the scene and gave a key account of what happened to state investigators. His fellow officer was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing and both men continue to police the city of about 15,000 people about 55 miles north-east of Montgomery.


Middlebrooks, 33, made the threatening comments to Bias’s brother-in-law during a May 2013 encounter at his home, which Bias was visiting. Police came to the home after they discovered an unleashed dog.


A lawsuit from Bias that the city paid to settle before it reached court stated that while Bias remained inside the house and out of earshot, the officer remarked to Bias’s brother-in-law, who is white, that he was tired of “that nigger” being released from jail.


Middlebrooks had arrested Bias on drug charges earlier in the year and Bias had been released on bail after paying a bond, according to Bias and his attorneys.


Middlebrooks expressed his frustration. “Something’s going on with that fucking lawyer he knows, and that fucking … the judge or something,” he was recorded saying.


Middlebrooks allegedly went on to say “the police were going to pull [Bias] aside on a routine traffic stop and [Bias] would get killed”. According to the lawsuit, which has since been filed to court in a separate ongoing case against the city, this prompted the brother-in-law to retrieve a voice recorder that Bias had been carrying around with him in an attempt to monitor alleged harassment by police, and then return to the conversation with the officer.


On the recording, Middlebrooks is heard suggesting Bias had been behaving threateningly towards his relatives. The officer said if he were in the same position, he would “fucking kill that motherfucker with whatever I had in that fucking house”.


And before the police got here, I’d fucking put marks all over my shit and make it look like he was trying to fucking kill me. I god damn guarantee you,” Middlebrooks said. “What would it look like? Self fucking defence. Fuck that piece of shit. I’m a lot different from a lot of these other folks. I’ll fucking tell you what’s on my fucking mind.”


Middlebrooks also mocked the brother-in-law for allowing Bias to get the better of him. “That motherfucker right there needs a god damn bullet,” he said. “And you fucking know exactly what I’m talking about. The way he fucking talks to you? Like you’re a fucking child? Like he’s your … Are you his bitch or something? He talks to you like that.”


Robinson declined to make Middlebrooks available for an interview. Reached by telephone and asked whether Middlebrooks could discuss the incident, his wife said: “We’re not interested in making any comment about that, thank you,” and hung up. Middlebrooks subsequently said in a text message that he did not wish to comment in detail.


The officer did say he had been cleared by a state inquiry into the incident and referred the Guardian to the state bureau of investigation (SBI) and Larkin Radney, the city attorney for Alexander City. A spokesman for the SBI, however, said: “We have no record of us investigating this case.” Radney said: “I really don’t know what he’s talking about.”


During the interview at his office, Robinson said Middlebrooks “was disciplined” when the recording came to light, but declined to elaborate. Asked if the officer was ever suspended from patrols, Robinson repeated: “He got disciplined.” When it was put to him that some agencies might have terminated the officer’s job, the police chief said: “I don’t know what other departments do, but I made that call, and I’m going to live with that.”


Robinson tried to stress that Middlebrooks was in fact proposing that the brother-in-law carry out the killing. “He wasn’t saying that he was going to do that,” said the police chief. “He was talking about the man doing it himself.”

The police chief said he opposed the decision by city authorities to pay Bias the $35,000 sum, which was confirmed by several people familiar with the case. The chief said he believed they should have opposed the legal action publicly. “I wish we’d went to court. I wish we had,” he said. “It’s a whole lot different if you hear both sides.”


Radney, the city attorney, said the lawsuit was passed immediately to the city’s insurers, who made the decision to settle with Bias and pay him. “The city didn’t ask me to get involved,” he said. Bias said the settlement stated that the city did not admit any wrongdoing.


Eric Hutchins, an attorney for Bias who also represents the Alabama branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said the incident “requires an immediate investigation” by state officials.

In a letter to Tallapoosa County district attorney E Paul Jones and Alabama attorney general Luther Strange, Hutchins said the officer’s remarks were not only “unprofessional and inappropriate” but also could amount to a criminal offence.


Sources familiar with the case said investigators for the attorney general had made preliminary inquiries. A spokeswoman declined to confirm the status of any inquiry. “Our policy is to not confirm if we may or may not be investigating something,” she said.



City councillors in Alexander City said they had not been told about the case or the payment to Bias. One councillor, Tony Goss, said he was “absolutely flabbergasted” to learn of the details while another, Sherry Ellison-Simpson, said: “This alarms me.”


This is absolutely unbelievable,” said Goss. “Thirty-five thousand dollars is a lot of money and our city council is being left out of deliberation.” While stressing he had not heard the recording, Goss said: “If an officer is recorded saying something like that, there are potential grounds for termination.”


During the May 2013 incident, Bias was given a citation for the illegally unleashed dog at the home, he said, even though police were told that the animal belonged to his brother-in-law. Bias was also blamed by Middlebrooks for an illegal electricity connection the officer had found at the property. Bias, who insisted he was not responsible for this offence either, was warned by the officer that he would be fined.


Bias alleged in his lawsuit that at the time he was being repeatedly harassed by city officers, including Middlebrooks. In an interview, he claimed he was singled out both because he was black and because he was in a relationship with a white woman. The 49-year-old, who has a criminal record and has spent time in prison, said for some two years he had been targeted with an “exorbitant number of traffic tickets, citations and concocted city code violations”.


Robinson denied Bias was unfairly targeted by his officers. “I don’t care if you’ve got a record or not; we’re gonna treat you just as fair,” he said. “And I expect my people to do that, and if they don’t they have to deal with me.”


Robinson was deputy chief at the time and was involved in handling the fallout from the incident after promptly being played the recording by Bias himself. He initially suggested that Bias should take no action against Middlebrooks, according to Bias, who said he also played the recording to Alexander City mayor Charles Shaw on the same day. A spokeswoman for Shaw declined to make him available for interview.


Middlebrooks was at the time attached to the department’s crime interdiction task force. He had been among officers who received a letter of commendation from the department in November 2011 and a citation award in April 2013 for helping to reduce property crime. He is known locally to be a keen hunter, and served as a judge in a regional wild game cook-off last year. He served in the marines overseas during his early 20s.


In 2005 he married Eva Edwards Middlebrooks, who is now the Republican revenue commissioner of the surrounding Tallapoosa County. The couple has two children. Edwards Middlebrooks referenced her marriage to the police officer while touting her local connections during her successful election campaign for the position last year, but according to public records they divorced in April 2013.


In March last year, Middlebrooks was the first Alexander City officer to arrive at the scene when officer Tommy Maness shot dead Emerson Crayton Jr as Crayton drove his car out of a parking space at the Huddle House restaurant in Alexander City following an argument with staff over his late-night food order.


Maness said he was forced to fatally shoot Crayton because the 21-year-old turned his car’s wheels towards the officer as if intending to use the vehicle as a weapon against him. A Tallapoosa grand jury declined to bring charges against the officer following an inquiry by the Alabama state bureau of investigations, in which Middlebrooks played a prominent role.


Attorneys for Crayton’s family have filed a federal lawsuit against Maness and the department, alleging the 21-year-old was wrongfully killed. They argue Crayton was unnecessarily shot by Maness while attempting to drive away. The lawsuit from Bias that the city paid to settle was filed as part of the Crayton case as alleged proof of a pattern of wrongdoing by the city.



No matter what platform you use, it’s all under surveillance’

August 4, 2015



All platforms are completely encompassing surveillance machines and Microsoft is probably just catching up here, releasing its Windows 10 operating system, Chris Kitze, founder of ‘Unseen’ encrypted internet server, told RT.



After the release of Microsoft’s new Windows 10 operating system, several tech bloggers have warned that its privacy settings are invasive by default. After signing a lengthy service agreement of 12,000 words the user is affectively giving the system access rights to its private information, including location history, text messages and any information shared via them, personal contacts and calendar notes about plans for exact dates, among other things.


According to the agreement, this data can be stored and preserved if the company considers it necessary.


RT: Given the snooping abilities of the latest Windows version, is it an all-encompassing surveillance machine?


Chris Kitze: Sure. They are all completely encompassing surveillance machines. It doesn’t matter what platform you are using – it’s all under surveillance. That’s the issue. So Microsoft is probably just catching up, they were a few steps behind.


RT:There is a huge amount of data being snooped on and stored by the system. What might it be used for?


CK: It can be used for anything. I think the main purpose is actually ad targeting, that’s an innocuous purpose and ad-targeting works. That’s why people use it. What they are looking for is actual usage, behavior. If you type a message “I’m going to Cleveland next week” or “I’m traveling to Paris” next thing you are going to get hit by a bunch of ads for hotel rooms in Paris or maybe some kind of a dinner out.

RT: How easy can the data gathered by Windows 10 be compromised and used by say criminals?


CK: You hit it right on the head. The real risk is the compromise of the data and what it gets used for… Let’s say you have some kind of a medical condition and for whatever reason you don’t want your boss to know about it and if someone breaks in they could hold you hostage. They could break in, get this information and say “Guess what, we will send it to your boss unless you send us some bitcoins or some money.” That’s just one application. You’ve got the other things which are how can it be used by governments, by other entities. The problem is that once the data is stored in a place like that – it’s out of your control.


RT: If we go back to the case of Edward Snowden’s disclosures over NSA snooping, general public is quite against snooping. Why is Windows pushing instead of protection of data actually quite the opposite?


CK: You are correct. They generally don’t like it when they are surveilled but if you look at their actual behavior, most people don’t care. They just say “Well, I’m not doing anything wrong and therefore ok, whatever I’ll just go along to get along.” Very few people are actually taking the hard look at it and saying “What do I need to do?” Most of those people are people who either have relatives who came from formerly communist countries and they understand what the downside is. The other people are people who have businesses with sensitive information. I mean businesses really need to up their security. I think if this Windows 10… once people really know what’s going on a lot of businesses may decide not to use Windows and switch to something like Linux.


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.


Windows 10’s pre-installed settings are privacy-intrusive by default, so changing those setting is just a matter of self-respect – and also a message to Microsoft.


Following the release of Microsoft’s new Windows 10 operating system, experts pointed out that it has little care for privacy, collecting on factory presets all available information about you, be it your location history, text messages and any information your share via them, personal contacts and calendar notes about your plans for exact dates, among other things.


Microsoft collects information about you, your devices, applications and networks, and your use of those devices, applications and networks,” says the Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions nearly all of us accept without reading. “Examples of data we collect include your name, email address, preferences and interests; browsing, search and file history; phone call and SMS data; device configuration and sensor data; and application usage.”


What is this all about? The first thing coming to mind is targeted ads bombardment as well as selling undesired services.


We will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to,” the document says.


However, all is not lost. There are a number of steps you take to protect your privacy.


Immediately after installing the new system on your computer, you can deactivate most of the shameless default settings you would never turn on yourself if anybody bothered to ask your opinion.


Here is exactly what you could do first if you don’t want to feed your personal data to Microsoft corporate databases “voluntarily”:


– Read Terms and Conditions. For real.


– Turn off some of the default presets in the newly installed system (Settings – Privacy), as tech news outlet BGR suggests.


– Disable sharing your internet connection over Wi-Fi, it’s a bit too generous an invitation for everybody out there (Path: Start Menu / Change Wi-Fi settings / Manage Wi-Fi settings / turn off all the boxes you want to keep for yourself).


– Windows 10 syncs your machine with Microsoft servers by default, so things like web browser history, Wi-Fi network names with passwords, mobile hotspot, apps you install and favorites you choose are potentially being stored on their servers forever. This data “sharing” should be deactivated – in Settings.

Other Windows 10 features to be aware of:


– Windows 10 also generates a unique Microsoft ID for each and every user on a particular device. This ID can be used for targeted advertising – and it could end up with third parties, be it apps or ads developers, and they will all come to your laptop to sell what they think you need.


– By default, Windows encrypts the drive it is installed on automatically, generating a BitLocker recovery key that is backed up in the Microsoft OneDrive online account. This is also done automatically, so beware of this feature when your device encryption is on.


– All updates from Microsoft require collection of basic information about apps installed and networks you’re connected to.


– If you choose to use the Cortana Search Assistant, you should know that this feature will use any personal information it can get to tailor your online experience.


If you open a file, we may collect information about the file, the application used to open the file, and how long it takes any use [of] it for purposes such as improving performance, or [if you] enter text, we may collect typed characters, we may collect typed characters and use them for purposes such as improving autocomplete and spell check features,” the Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions users accept says.


Windows 10 does contain a great deal of extremely handy and helpful features that can really make your web surfing and data management easier than it is now. However, this comes at a price of certain loss of privacy, which could be involuntary.


But if you have the slightest suspicion that you’d better keep your life a private undertaking – you should go to the Windows 10 Start Menu and disable anything that looks inappropriate for public sharing.


The problem is that even if you ask Windows 10 to stop collecting your data, will it really listen to your plea?


Special Report: Multitude of local authorities soak Illinois homeowners in taxes

August 5, 2015

by Tim Reid and Selam Gebrekidan



Mary Beth Jachec lives in a three-bedroom house in Wauconda, a village of 14,000 in Illinois, 45 miles northwest of Chicago. Her semi-detached brick home is unassuming. Her tax bills are not.


The 53-year-old insurance manager gets a real estate tax bill for 20 different local government authorities and a total payout of about $7,000 in 2014. They include the Village of Wauconda, the Wauconda Park District, the Township of Wauconda, the Forest Preserve, the Wauconda Area Public Library District, and the Wauconda Fire Protection District.


Then there is Wauconda Road and Bridge, not to be confused with Road and Bridge, Wauconda Gravel, or with Wauconda Special Road Improvement and Gravel unit – all three of which have imposed separate taxes on her and the village’s other homeowners.


Those three road entities come under the auspices of Wauconda Township. Officials there struggled to explain exactly what they each do, and why three separate taxing bodies are needed. The Wauconda Township Highway Commissioner, Joe Munson, said: “They are all for road maintenance.” So why three? “I don’t know why,” Munson said. “It’s always been that way.”


Jachec, looking at her property tax bill, is dismayed. “It’s ridiculous,” she said.


A lot has been said about the budget crisis faced by Illinois – the state government itself is drowning in $37 billion of debt, and has the lowest credit ratings and worst-funded pension system among the 50 U.S. states. But at street level, the picture can be even more troubling.


The average homeowner pays taxes to six layers of government, and in Wauconda and many other places a lot more. In Ingleside, 55 miles north of Chicago, Dan Koivisto pays taxes to 18 local bodies. “I pay $271 a month just to the school district alone,” he said. “And I don’t have children.”




The state is home to nearly 8,500 local government units, with 6,026 empowered to raise taxes, by far the highest number in the U.S. Texas – whose population is more than twice that of Illinois – is second highest with about 5,150 local government units. Florida, with a population 54 percent greater than Illinois, has just 1,650, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


Many of these taxing authorities, which mostly rely on property tax for their financing, have their own budget problems. That includes badly underfunded pension funds, mainly for cops and firefighters.


The Illinois authorities range from those typical across the nation, such as school and fire districts, to the unusual: for example, districts that raise taxes solely for the purpose of killing mosquitoes, lighting streets or maintaining cemeteries.


A Reuters analysis of property tax data shows that the sheer number of local government entities, and a lack of oversight of their operations, can lead to inefficient spending of taxpayer money, whether through duplication of services or high overhead costs. It leads to a proliferation of pension funds serving different groups of employees. And there are also signs that nepotism is rife within some of the authorities.


There is no central repository of data on the size and geographical boundaries of the local government authorities. The state comptroller does not audit the annual financial reports the local governments submit to it, said Rich Carter, a spokesman for the Comptroller’s office.


The state’s revenue department does keep data on property taxes collected by counties, but does not track taxes on individual properties. This makes it virtually impossible to systematically determine how many taxing districts overlap on parcels of land, or how much tax residents in a particular area pay unless they are individually surveyed. Because of these gaps and omissions, it is difficult to assess whether multiple layers of government lead to higher taxes.


On average, Illinois’ effective property taxes are the third highest in the U.S. at 1.92 percent of residential property values, only behind New Jersey and New Hampshire, according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation. (New Hampshire, unlike Illinois and New Jersey, doesn’t have a state income tax or a state sales tax.)


Critics of both the high taxation and the state’s governance structure say that it takes too much of a toll on homeowners, discouraging people from either coming to the state or staying in it. Illinois saw net migration of 95,000 people out of the state last year, the greatest in its history and second only to New York, according to U.S. Census data. It is unclear how much, if any, of that exodus might be due to high taxes.


In many Illinois cities and towns, high taxation still isn’t enough to keep up with increasing outlays, especially soaring pension costs, and some services have been cut. For example, in the state capital Springfield, pension costs for police and fire alone will this year consume nearly 90 percent of property tax revenues, according to the city’s budget director, Bill McCarty. Since 2008, Springfield has cut 11 percent of its police force, closed three libraries, and tapped into other funds to pay pensions, McCarty added.


Sam Yingling, a state representative who until 2012 was supervisor of Avon Township, north of Chicago, has become an outspoken critic of the multiple layers of local government.


Yingling said when he left the township three years ago, the township supervisor’s office had annual overheads from salaries and benefits of $120,000. He claimed its sole mandated statutory duty was to administer just $10,000 of living assistance to poor residents. Lisa Rusch, the current Avon Township supervisor, disputed the welfare figure, saying her office provides between $50,000 to $70,000 in emergency and general assistance.


Yingling also criticizes the township for its road program. In its budget for the current fiscal year, more than $1.4 million has been appropriated for road and bridge maintenance. Bob Kula, Avon Township’s highway commissioner, says the township maintains just under 13 miles of roads.




The large number of local governments is a legacy of Illinois’ 1870 constitution, which was in effect until 1970. The constitution limited the amount that counties and cities could borrow, an effort to control spending.


So when a new road or library needed building, a new authority of government would be created to get around the borrowing restrictions and to raise more money. Today, for example, there are over 800 drainage districts, most of which levy taxes.


A succession of Illinois governors over 20 years has called for a reduction of the number of government units, but made little progress, partly because of Byzantine regulations. To dissolve one of Illinois’ 1,432 townships, for example, state law stipulates that three-quarters of voters in every township in that county must vote to approve.


When that state’s newly elected Republican Governor Bruce Rauner established a commission to address the problem of local government, the group quickly discovered that the taxing units continue to proliferate. The net number of local government units increased by 148 between 1998 and 2015, the governor’s office reported last month.


“You could probably get by with half as many,” said Bill Brandt, the recently retired chair of the Illinois Finance Authority, which funds economic development projects. “But knocking out a local government is easier than it sounds. It requires legislation, and a lot of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle come from local government.”


And it isn’t only the number of authorities that is a concern. Illinois has about one sixth of America’s public pension plans – 657 out of almost 4,000.


Local authorities in Illinois are mandated by law to keep the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, with 400,000 local government members, fully funded. They had to contribute $923 million in 2014, up from $543 million in 2005.


However, there is no such requirement for the local pension funds. The result: Many of these funds throughout the state are woefully underfunded, and some have less than 20 percent of what they need to meet obligations.


Pension costs have been going up and up, so pension contributions have been going up and up, and property taxes are the single largest source of revenue to pay for them,” Brandt said.


Townships alone provide a striking example of duplicated and costly services.


Cook County is the largest county in Illinois and second largest in America, with Chicago in its borders. There, property tax assessment and collection is done at the county level. But most of Cook County’s 30 townships have elected and salaried property tax assessors. They neither assess nor collect property taxes, said Louise Muszynski, an assistant in the Cook County assessor’s office.


They do work,” Muszynski said. “They help people at a local level to understand their bills, and help them with appeals.”


Northfield Township’s road district raised almost $1.4 million in property taxes in the last fiscal year – even though it contains parts of seven cities. Each of those cities has a government that provides road maintenance services, yet Northfield Township maintains its own network of 29 miles of roads, as well as sewers. It has six plow trucks and other equipment, and a full-time workforce of seven, said Wally Kehr, the township road district foreman, who earns more than $110,000 a year, according to the main Illinois pension database.


We give a better service to local people than if the cities provided it,” Kehr said.


In a rare instance of local government consolidation, officials in DuPage County, west of Chicago, managed to pass legislation in 2012 giving them the power to cut waste. Since then, they have abolished defunct sanitary and fire protection districts, cut duplicate staff and reduced benefits. Officials estimate savings to taxpayers of $100 million over 20 years.




The multiplicity of local governments also affords opportunity for nepotism. Looking at the database of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, the main pension system for local government workers, Reuters identified nearly a dozen instances where husbands employ wives, mothers employ daughters, and fathers hire sons.


In Collinsville Township, in southwestern Illinois, the elected Highway Commissioner, Larry Trucano, employs his son James as a laborer, earning $71,000 a year, plus pension and health benefits, according to the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund database. An official at Collinsville confirmed that James was employed by his father. Four telephone calls to Larry Trucano went unanswered.


In Venice Township, Andrew Economy, the township supervisor who earns $46,300 plus pension – he also runs a local auto repair and tow service – employs his wife, Debra Economy, as administrator. She earns almost $62,000 plus pension.


Andrew Economy said his wife does the jobs of two employees who retired in 2003 and 2008, and does them efficiently.


In the Village of Rosemont, population 4,000, which services Chicago’s O’Hare Airport with hotels and a convention center, eight relatives of Mayor Bradley A. Stephens are village employees, including the police chief.


“Rosemont has never made an apology for the people they hire,” said Gary Mack, a village spokesman. “The mayor holds any employees who happen to be related to him to a much higher standard than others.”


(Reporting by Tim Reid in Los Angeles and Selam Gebrikadan in New York; Editing by David Greising and Martin Howell)




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