The month before Kim Gardner was sworn in, I published an article that made the following prediction: "Make no mistake, if Ms. Gardner proves to be a fair prosecutor, there will certainly be those that will attempt to distort her statements, vilify her actions and generally discredit her. There is a private prison system that stands to lose millions of dollars under a non-oppressive system."
The oppression of African-Americans is big business. Police officers often earn six figures annually, judges, prison food service, prison guards, probation officers, tech companies that supply ankle monitoring systems, and a multitude of others make their living and profits because of the continuing oppression of others. Take away the oppression and their income is taken away. Oppression and racism are big business, and always have been!
Article by Jeremy Kohler
After the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the months of protests that followed, the city of St. Louis was forced to reckon with its Black residents’ longstanding distrust of its police and courts.
Kim Gardner emerged as a voice for change. A lifelong resident of St. Louis, she had diverse professional experiences, having worked as a funeral director, a nurse, a lawyer, and a state legislator. When campaigning for circuit attorney, the city’s top prosecutor, she focused on the disproportionate frequency of arrests and police officers using force against St. Louis’ Black community.
“We need to change decades of old practices that left many in our community distrustful of the criminal justice system as a whole,” she told The St. Louis American, the city’s Black newspaper, just days before her decisive primary victory in August 2016 that all but sealed her general election win.
In the last decade, prosecutors in other major American cities also campaigned on promises of systemic reform: Kim Foxx in Chicago, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco.
Yet, much like Gardner, these prosecutors have faced resistance from the police and the unions that represent rank-and-file officers. They’ve been accused of being soft on crime and have even been met with political maneuvers aimed at derailing their initiatives. Several have been targeted by efforts to remove them from office or pare away their powers.
Boudin lost a recall vote and was removed in June 2022. And Krasner, criticized for his reduced emphasis on prosecuting minor crimes, was impeached by the state legislature in November, although a state court threw out the result.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has removed elected prosecutors in Tampa and Orlando. He suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren over Warren’s refusal to prosecute offenses related to abortion and gender-related health care. He suspended the state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, Monique Worrell, because he said she wasn’t tough enough on some serious offenses.
Georgia recently became the first state to establish a commission with the authority to discipline and even remove local elected prosecutors. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp framed the law as a way to check “far-left prosecutors.”
Gardner, who was reelected in 2020, stepped down in May of 2023 while facing both a lawsuit from the state attorney general that sought her removal and a separate attempt by the Republican-led legislature to curtail her authority. Gardner’s mismanagement of her office played a significant role in her downfall. Reform-minded lawyers who she personally hired had departed. And while judges fumed about prosecutors failing to show up for court, Gardner was moonlighting as a nursing student.
“For every progressive prosecutor who’s managed to stick it out, there’s one who’s either been recalled or driven out,” said Lara Bazelon, a University of San Francisco law school professor who volunteered on Boudin’s campaign and serves as chair of the commission he created to review inmates’ claims of innocence. “So it’s a real mix of success and cautionary tales.”
She added: “If the police are against you, or literally out to get you, you’re probably not going to be able to last in that job.”
Foxx, elected in 2016 and reelected in 2020, announced in April that she will not seek a third term next year, though she said it was not because of resistance from the police. In an interview, Foxx said that even before she took office, the Chicago police union felt threatened by her assertion that Black lives matter and that the criminal justice system could be more fair, particularly to communities of color.
It was a signal, she said, “that I was not one of them.”
“The reality is we were offering something very different to what was traditionally viewed as the law-and-order approach to prosecution,” Foxx said. “I think it was surprising to folks that prosecutors could be elected addressing these issues.”
R. Michael Cassidy, a law professor at Boston College and an expert in prosecutorial ethics, said the Ferguson unrest emphasized the need for change in how police and prosecutors work. He said some prosecutors have failed to manage their relationships with police; prosecutors depend on the officers to bring them cases and to testify in court, but they must conduct oversight of the police as well.
Foxx pushed back against any assertion that she didn’t manage her relationship with police. She pointed to a popular Chicago police blog that often refers to her as “Crimesha” — “a play on the word ‘crime’ and what I believe to be a racist insinuation about me being Black with the name ‘-esha.’” The blog has also sexualized her last name by adding a third X and has insinuated that members of her family are connected to gangs.
“From the moment we came into office, we reached out to our partners in law enforcement, and what we saw was there was a segment of them who were never going to be satisfied with me in this role because I said ‘Black lives matter,’ because I said ‘We need police accountability,’ because I said that we had a criminal justice system that overly relied on incarceration that targeted Black and brown communities,” she said.
She said that she, Gardner, and other prosecutors “have been faced with an unprecedented level of hate and vitriol” from the police.
“That,” she said, “is the story.”
Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara and other union officials did not respond to requests for comment. But Catanzara told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2020 that the union’s complaints about Foxx were based on her job performance. He said she was a “social activist in an elected law enforcement position” who was unwilling to “faithfully do her job.”
But as property crime rates climbed in San Francisco, Boudin came under increased scrutiny.
Cassidy said Boudin and other like-minded prosecutors have been scapegoated for isolated incidents or temporary spikes in crime statistics, as if they alone are responsible. In some cities, that has swung public opinion against them.
Boudin said the claims were unfair and largely the product of police resistance to his reforms.
“We’ve seen, on body-worn camera footage, police officers telling victims there’s nothing they can do and, ‘Don’t forget to vote in the upcoming recall election,’” Boudin said in an interview.
Boudin said he and other local prosecutors have found “there is absolutely zero accountability for these officers who engage in explicitly political acts of sabotage or dereliction of duty.”
A spokesperson for the San Francisco police union declined to comment.
Some prosecutors have held onto their positions despite challenges to their power. In November, veteran public defender Mary Moriarty was elected county attorney for the jurisdiction that includes Minneapolis in the first election since the death there of George Floyd. The same night, Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot was reelected by a nearly 20-point margin in spite of calls by a police union for his ouster over his plan not to prosecute certain low-level offenses.
In August 2022, Sarah George, the incumbent state’s attorney in Vermont’s Chittenden County, which includes Burlington, secured her seat with a 20-point victory in the Democratic primary over Ted Kenney, a challenger backed by the police.
George had introduced a variety of reforms, including eliminating cash bail and declining to prosecute cases where evidence was obtained during noncriminal traffic stops, like those for broken taillights. The Burlington police union called her actions “disastrous” and Kenney argued that the approach made streets less safe.
George, too, has seen police body camera video of officers blaming her for crime. In one video, which she provided to ProPublica, the Riverfront Times and NPR, an officer from a suburban police department tells a couple that officers can’t do anything about a crack house in their neighborhood. He then implores them to vote for Kenney because of George’s “super-progressive, soft-on-crime approach where we arrest the same people daily and they get out the same day.”
George said that, with some crime investigations, the police are “not really doing the work that we need to do on the case, and then blaming us for the case not being filed.”
The Burlington police union declined to comment. The chiefs of police in Burlington and Winooski, the suburb where the video was taken, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Gardner, too, often faced criticism from police for her reluctance to prosecute cases based on arrests alone. In one notable instance in 2019, she dropped child-endangerment charges against two daycare workers who were captured on video as they appeared to encourage toddlers to box using toy Incredible Hulk fists.
The police union called for her ouster, writing on Facebook: “The first rule of toddler fight club is … that you prosecute the sadistic promoters of toddler fight club.”
In comments made before her resignation, Gardner noted that she had been careful not to file criminal charges in cases where she did not feel there was enough evidence. “What they want me to do is make it look like this job is easy,” she said. “We can’t make things fit and people don’t like that. That’s not what justice is about.”
Richard Rosenfeld, a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, was one of several researchers who pooled data from 65 major cities and found “no evidence to support the claim that progressive prosecutors were responsible for the increase in homicide during the pandemic or before it.”
Indeed, Chicago’s murder rate fell during Foxx’s first years in office, rose during the first years of the pandemic and has been falling this year, city crime statistics show. Philadelphia’s murder rate was in steep decline this year after a precipitous rise that started in 2020. And most categories of crime were in retreat in St. Louis at the time Gardner resigned, while violent crime was up in San Francisco a year after Boudin’s exit, according to statistics.
Acknowledging that the St. Louis police commonly blamed Gardner for crime trends, Rosenfeld, a veteran observer of policing in St. Louis, said, “Case not proved, is what I would argue there.”
Republished with permission from Propublica under license.
"Dogs have served as instruments of violence in incidents dating back to the days of slavery, and as recently as the Black Lives Matter protests." – Mauled – When Police Dogs are Weapons
Four white Granite City, IL police officers allowed a police dog to maul a law abiding unarmed black teenager while conducting a traffic stop, then they lied about what happened in the official police report.
Devondrea Williams was in the back of a truck his cousin was driving with a friend when police pulled them over around 2:30 a.m. Monday, July 19th. Williams said police never explained why they were pulling them over. According to Williams, police asked for his information and asked him to get out of the truck. Before Williams could comply an officer grabbed his arm and several other officers pushed him against the truck.
Williams explained, “and then I see the dog out of the corner of my eye and then the dog bites me.” The teen said he was bitten by the dog four or five times. When the dog latched onto the teen’s leg and would not let go, officers finally tased the animal in order to get the K-9 to let him go. Williams told KMOV after he was bitten by the animal, “I ain’t never screamed like that a day in my life.”
Regeana Canada, who lives close to where the incident took place, saw police lights and filmed the encounter on her phone. She said the dog was latched onto Williams for eight or nine minutes.
Granite City Police Capt. Gary Brooks provided an account of what transpired to KMOV in a statement, “Officers conducted a traffic stop of a vehicle with some of the individuals involved in the incident. At this time, officers attempted to continue to gather facts to ascertain what exactly had taken place,” the statement said. “During the traffic stop, an individual obstructed the investigation and resisted arrest. They were taken into custody with the assistance of a police K-9. This investigation is still ongoing and as a result, no further information can be given at this time regarding this matter.”
Canada, however, refuted the captain’s claims of resistance. “No, he did not resist arrest at all,” said Canada.
Why wasn't the dog under anyone's controlled and allowed to run free? Regardless, why would it take police officers more than 8 minutes to stop their dog from attacking an innocent person? I can't imagine a situation where a private citizen watches their dog mauling someone for eight minutes and not being arrested. It's way beyond time to abolish qualified immunity for police officers. The officer responsible for that dog needs to be fired and any officers who lied need to be fired and prosecuted!
Under Illinios law, 720 ILCS 5/26-1(a)(2-10) , filing a false police report falls under the Disorderly Conduct statute. According to 720 ILCS 5/26-1(a)(4), a person commits disorderly conduct when he knowingly transmits to the police department a false report that a crime has been committed knowing at the time of the transmission that there is no reasonable ground for it. The penalty for such an offense is a Class 4 felony punishable by 1-3 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Under Illinois law pursuant to 720 ILCS 5/31-1, a person who knowingly resists or obstructs the performance by one known to the person to be a peace officer, firefighter, or correctional institution employee of any authorized act within his official capacity commits a Class A misdemeanor. According to 720 ILCS 5/31-4(a) and (b) a person obstructs justice:
“when, with intent to prevent the apprehension or obstruct the prosecution or defense of any person, he knowingly commits any of the following acts:
Destroys, alters, conceals or disguises physical evidence, plants false evidence, furnishes false information; or
Induces a witness having knowledge material to the subject at issue to leave the State or conceal himself; or
Possessing knowledge material to the subject at issue, he leaves the State or conceals himself.”
Remember the actor Jessie Smollett? On February 20, 2019, Smollett was charged by a grand jury with a class 4 felony for filing a false police report. Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr. set Smollett's bail at $100,000 and he had to surrender his passport. On March 8, Smollett was indicted on 16 felony counts of "false report of offense". After completing 16 hours of community service and forfeiting his $10,000 bond, charges against Smollett were dropped on March 28.
At the time of publication, it was unclear whether Granite City police officers have body cameras. Granite City does has a Private Video Surveillance Camera Registration program. The Granite City Police Department signed an agreement with Amazon's home surveillance equipment company, Ring, in 2020 to gain special access to the company's Neighbors app. Someone should check to see if any other private video exist.
Court.rchp.com editorial note: Behavior by other police departments can provide insight into our local police force. A state audit released four months ago revealed that about 1,200 police officers were paid around $14 million in overtime pay; which averages more than $11,600 per officer. Eight employees doubled their salary using overtime, and an additional 99 earned at least an extra 50% of their base salary with overtime. Keep those figures in mind as you read the following article.
by Joshua Kaplan and Joaquin Sapien
One summer night in 2015, a community college student was driving home through East New York in Brooklyn when two women on a street corner waved for him to stop.
He thought they might need help, so he pulled over and cracked his window. But the pair had something else in mind. “Do you want to have some fun?” he recalled one of them saying. “Whoa, no thank you!” he responded, and drove off, laughing to himself. It was like something he’d seen only on TV.
The 21-year-old, who is Black, made it a few blocks before police yanked him out of his car and began to search him. Terrified and unsure of what was happening, he insisted they had the wrong guy. Officers yelled at him to “shut the fuck up.”
The women were undercover police officers. He was under arrest for patronizing a prostitute. The police put him in a van, where he sat handcuffed for hours as it filled with other Black and brown men.
It was one of the New York Police Department’s biggest stings since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, the direct outcome of a strategy he and top cops have touted in recent years to combat human trafficking: Officers should arrest “the true criminals” like “johns” and “pimps,” while making sure people forced into prostitution get the help they need to get out.
On the ground, the reality has been different from the rhetoric. Teams of NYPD officers have descended on minority neighborhoods, leaning into car windows and knocking on apartment doors, trying to get men and women to say the magic words: agreeing to exchange sex for money. These arrests are based almost entirely on the word of cops, who say they are incentivized to round up as many “bodies” as they can.
Some of their targets were selling sex to survive; others were minding their own business. Almost everyone arrested for these crimes in the last four years is nonwhite, a ProPublica data analysis shows: 89% of the 1,800 charged with prostitution; 93% of the 3,000 accused of trying to buy sex.
Of the dozens of cops, lawyers and other experts ProPublica interviewed for this story, not a single one believes arrest figures for patronizing a prostitute accurately reflect the racial makeup of those who buy sex in New York City.
“I know for a fact that white men are the key demographic,” said Meredith Dank, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who, along with her colleagues, has interviewed more than 600 young people who trade sex in the city. In one study, 65% said their main clients are white.
People living paycheck to paycheck lost their jobs over crimes they swore never happened. But facing multiple court hearings and the threat of jail time, they took quick deals to move on with their lives. A former officer who worked undercover told ProPublica she participated in false arrests. Others acknowledged the system could let them slip through.
The problems became clear in interviews with 36 current and former officers and dozens of defendants, prosecutors and defense attorneys; weeks of observing court proceedings; and a review of hundreds of pages of sealed court records.
ProPublica delved into the work of one officer, identified in official documents as Undercover 157, whose cases are replete with allegations of false arrest and sexual misconduct that were never aired in court. Defense attorneys filed complaints with the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD almost three years ago, which still considers it an “ongoing matter.” In a statement, the NYPD defended the undercover officer as a veteran “with approximately 1,800 successful buys and no complaints against him at the NYPD or with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.” (The department later clarified this meant no active complaints.)
Even for a department accused in recent months of acting with impunity, those policing New York’s sex trade appear to operate in an extreme vacuum of accountability. The CCRB, originally created to investigate police misconduct against communities of color, does not address allegations of false arrest and is still trying to gain authority to examine those involving sexual abuse.
In the rare instances when defendants sue, the cases are often settled before officers have to testify.
Since 2014, the city has paid more than a million in taxpayer dollars to at least 20 people who claimed they were falsely arrested in prostitution or “john” stings. Last year, it paid $150,000 to five young Latino men who said they were laughing off a proposition when they were arrested and $20,000 to a West African taxi driver who said in a sworn deposition that he was walking home when a woman asked if he’d walk down the block with her. He told ProPublica he thought she was afraid of walking alone, so he agreed. He was then arrested.
The undercover officer in his case netted 10 arrests in three and a half hours the night she encountered him, earning her four hours of overtime pay.
Eighteen current and former officers who policed the sale of sex in New York City said overtime has motivated them for years. The hours add up over the drive to the precinct, the questioning, the paperwork. “You arrest 10 girls, now the whole team’s making eight hours of overtime,” retired Sgt. Stephen Antiuk said.
“That’s what it was all about, making money, from the lieutenant to the sergeant on down,” retired Detective John Kopack said. “You want to eat? You guys want to make some money tonight? Make some arrests, do what you got to do.”
The NYPD did not respond to ProPublica’s detailed questions about overtime or the specific incidents in this story. Sgt. Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokeswoman, said the department “maintains heightened vigilance and robust oversight over all of its undercover operations.” NYPD spokesman Al Baker said police shifted their prostitution strategy in 2017, leading to fewer arrests of sex workers, more of “johns” and a greater focus on “pimps.” He noted that selling sex is still illegal and the department “deploys officers where residents report crime” without consideration of race or ethnicity.
As New York City’s crime rate fell to record lows in recent years, the NYPD continued to draw criticism for its outsized presence in minority neighborhoods, arresting tens of thousands of Black and Latino people on minor, nonviolent infractions. This dynamic inspired calls over the summer to “defund the police,” a slogan that depicts the department as an occupying force, disproportionately ensnaring people of color in the criminal justice system.
The statistics for arrests involving the sale of sex reflect a particularly stark example of this trend.
While complaints about prostitution have long been scattered across neighborhoods of all races, arrests for buying sex are not. ProPublica found that in majority Black and Latino areas, police have arrested over three times as many alleged sex buyers as in whiter neighborhoods despite comparable complaints about prostitution and arrests of alleged sex workers in each.
Michele Alexander, who is Black, sometimes worked undercover out of a precinct in Jamaica, Queens, before she retired in 2012. “When are we going to Manhattan?” she recalls asking her supervisor, after working too many sex buyer stings where the men all looked the same. “Negroes aren’t the only ones who buy vagina.” As punishment, she said she was reassigned to an early morning tour monitoring a Manhattan subway station.
Paul Lichtbraun, a retired captain who oversaw vice in Manhattan and the Bronx until 2017, said his unit often focused on buyers, but when it received complaints about prostitution inside high-end Manhattan hotels, they’d only go after sex workers. “If I start arresting their paying customers, [the hotel’s] going to ask me to leave,” he said. “Are there always people who get off in this world? Of course there are.”
Then, there is the community college student, stopped in a majority-Black neighborhood in Brooklyn that saw more buyer arrests in the past few years than all of Manhattan and Staten Island combined. Refusing to take a plea deal, he trekked to and from court for seven months. The prosecutor ultimately dropped the charges.
The young man sued for false arrest and won a $15,000 settlement. But he lost something more fundamental, his ability to trust.
“When I see people on the street, asking for a jump or whatever, I just keep going,” he told ProPublica. “Can you imagine if it was really two girls on the corner waving for help? You just lost one guy who would stop.”
Whether police target sex workers or their clients, operations look much the same. Field teams of anywhere from eight to 16 officers are dispatched with the aim of securing verbal agreements of sex for money.
They often start with community complaints called “kites.” When there are none to follow, there are “strolls” or “tracks,” dark stretches in industrial sections of East New York or along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens where sex is bought and sold, noon and night. Massage parlors can be easy targets; words need not be spoken. Money lands on a table, there is a gesture in the motion of manual sex, a subtle nod in return.
Sometimes, no money is involved at all. “There has to be an exchange of a benefit,” said former Sgt. Louis Failla. He told the story of an undercover who once “made a deal with a crack prostitute on the street for a hamburger and fries from McDonald’s.” He always found it “humorous,” he said, “what these women would do just to get a few dollars.”
Current and former undercover officers told ProPublica there’s an art to convincing their targets they aren’t cops. Some dirty their fingernails or rub newspaper on their knees to make it look like they’ve been providing oral sex on the street. One said that if a woman insisted he touch her breasts, he would do so, but he would never squeeze.
Sometimes, officers go in to arrest a woman and find she’s completely naked. Antiuk, the retired sergeant, laughed while describing the perks of the job. “The undercover can have a nice, cold beer and watch a girl take her clothes off — and he’s getting paid for it.”
Once the deal is made, the undercover signals that it’s time for the arrest. While backup officers can sometimes hear the incriminating conversations through a wireless device, they are not required to record. Some teams have come in after getting a signal from the undercover officer, having heard nothing of the exchange.
That trust can be exploited.
Jazmia Inserillo, who retired as an NYPD officer in 2016, told ProPublica she participated in false arrests as an undercover officer without her backup team listening in. Sometimes, a young man would stop to flirt but hadn’t agreed to pay for sex before he was arrested. Once, a man pulled up and told the undercovers, “I know you the police,” she recalled. “And because he’s just talking, they just give the signal.”
Twice, men were clearly lost and stopped to ask for directions. “You’re not lost. You know what you came here for,” Inserillo remembers her partner saying one night. “What do you want, you looking for a blowjob?”
The man said he was looking for a street but couldn’t find it in the dark. As the three went back and forth, Inserillo remembered her partner lifting her back leg and leaning into the car, a signal to a backup team to initiate an arrest. “This girl puts her foot up while I’m in the middle of talking to him about cross streets,” Inserillo said.
“And I look up at my lieutenant trying to signal no. But he didn’t really understand because we didn’t have a signal for no.”
She said she’d brought up another bad arrest to a supervisor, but he ignored it.
John Hart, who was her lieutenant at that time and is now a deputy chief, told ProPublica no one in his unit ever mentioned false arrests to him. Inserillo later filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against a different superior officer over an unrelated incident, saying she endured retaliation for reporting him. She won a $112,500 settlement.
The department has had the equipment to covertly record agreements between undercover officers and targets for at least 20 years, but it does so inconsistently. Some officers told ProPublica their supervisors required them to record; others said they never taped a single arrest.
“Almost none of these cases ever go to a courtroom, so that’s the reason recording was not a priority,” said Lichtbraun, the retired captain. “In vice, they weren’t always recorded. Frankly, they very often were not.”
In 2016, a civil rights attorney asked a federal judge for an injunction that would forbid the department from making buyer arrests without recording them. Gabriel Harvis was representing a Black man arrested outside of a post office after being propositioned while getting a package from the trunk of his car. The man insisted he declined the sex offer, sued for false arrest and won $85,000. But the case settled before the injunction could be considered.
Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors there did not know operations were sometimes recorded until ProPublica contacted them earlier this year. The office has handled more than 2,000 prostitution and patronizing cases since 2015.
Now that the office is aware of the recordings, Yaniv said, “we sometimes use and disclose them in cases we prosecute — those against pimps and traffickers. As in every case, if the police account raises questions or if we receive any information alleging problems with the arrest, we investigate further.”
The NYPD did not answer questions about when officers make recordings or why they choose not to. “For obvious safety and evidentiary reasons, the NYPD never discloses specifics of our tradecraft or investigatory methods in undercover cases.”
One officer, known only as Undercover 157, has developed a reputation among defense attorneys for the stories they hear about him from their clients. In multiple cases, the defendants said they never agreed to sell sex for money and thought the man with the confident smile and well-kept dreadlocks was courting them for a date.
One woman told her lawyers he had been texting her for days when she got into his car one cold, winter afternoon after he offered to drive her to the pharmacy to get asthma medication for her daughter. She said he took her to a hotel parking lot instead, near the shelter where she was staying, and offered her $100 for oral sex. She said she declined at least twice but was arrested anyway.
A young man thought the stranger was interested in him when they locked eyes out in East New York. They traded numbers and, for three straight days, exchanged heated, flirtatious messages that made no mention of money. When they met for a hook-up, his sexting companion asked if he wanted to get something to eat first. He declined; the man shoved a fistful of dollars at him, saying, “Here, take this to eat later.” Then a squad car pulled up.
In early 2018, these stories along with four others were submitted in two letters from the Legal Aid Society to the NYPD inspector general. “These incidents demonstrate a serious lack of training, protocol and supervision of Undercover 157, the units he is working with, as well as the supervising officers’ abandonment of any duty to review his arrests or monitor the outcomes of his arrests,” the letter said.
In addition to the letters, ProPublica obtained records of arrests made by Undercover 157 between 2015 and 2019 from more than 80 sealed court cases.
Seventeen women complained to their attorneys of inappropriate touching or worse. One said he penetrated her vagina with his finger, then washed his hands before officers arrived. Another said she performed oral sex on him and was arrested the next time she saw him. A third said she was in “only panties” as they danced and smoked marijuana for about 15 minutes and that he touched her vagina. A fourth, who sells sex to support her heroin addiction, told ProPublica he asked her to get completely naked and grabbed her buttocks. “He didn’t have to go to that extent,” she said.
The records show just how difficult it can be to investigate such claims. Only three of the complainants agreed to meet with the inspector general. Nearly three years later, Legal Aid is still waiting for the inquiry to conclude.
None of these allegations were ever aired before a judge. In New York City, prostitution cases are processed in Human Trafficking Intervention Court, which is supposed to help rather than punish people in the sex trade. But it functions a bit like a conveyer belt, where defendants quickly agree to counseling sessions to provide “exit strategies” out of the sex trade. If they complete them and avoid arrest, their charges are dismissed and cases are sealed.
Three former prosecutors who worked in the court told ProPublica they juggled so many cases that even if an arrest seemed flawed, they were unlikely to report it.
Cases against people accused of trying to buy sex in New York City fly through misdemeanor court at a similar clip. They almost always end with plea deals for more minor offenses like disorderly conduct or are simply dismissed. From 2015 through 2019, the court processed more than 4,100 of these cases. Only one person took his to trial. He won.
Two defendants have tried to force Undercover 157 to answer for his arrests in recent years.
In 2017, a woman accused of prostitution made the rare decision to take her case to trial. Undercover 157 was announced as the first witness. But on the day he was set to testify, prosecutor Abraham Jacob Jeger revised his initial offer: If the defendant was not arrested for six months, the charge would be sealed and dismissed, no counseling necessary. The detective never had to take the stand.
In an emailed response, Jeger said he and his supervisors made “a cost-benefit analysis and decided that it was not worth revealing this undercover’s identity” to those in court. He referred further questions to the Queens District Attorney’s Office, which said it could not comment on sealed cases.
In a 2018 case, Jillian Modzeleski, an attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, filed a unique legal motion called a Gissendanner, which would allow the defendant access to Undercover 157’s disciplinary records if a judge found them “relevant and material” to the case. She cited the pattern of false arrest allegations against him and his fellow officers.
Before a judge could rule on the motion, the Brooklyn DA dropped all charges. The DA would not comment on cases in this story because they are all sealed.
The NYPD also declined to discuss the detective’s cases. “We do not speak about ongoing investigations or matters in litigation. We are making only a slight exception in your case by noting that the narrative, as you presented, is not entirely accurate,” said Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell, referring to an extensive summary of the false arrest and sexual misconduct allegations in this story. “We are unable to comment further.”
The department initially said Undercover 157 was an officer “with no complaints.” But the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau had indeed gotten one in November 2014:
An undocumented woman from China reported that the detective undressed her and touched her breasts and vagina at an informal massage parlor in Queens. She told investigators that when the backup team arrived, they handcuffed her and walked her through the massage parlor naked. She said she begged them to let her get dressed, but they refused. One took a photo of her.
ProPublica spoke to three attorneys involved: Lauren Hersh, who helped set up the meeting with investigators; Rosie Wang, who interpreted and kept notes; and Leigh Latimer, who represented the woman on the prostitution charge and spoke with her again last week. Court records identify the undercover officer behind her arrest as 157.
Wang said the investigators asked the woman to pick the detective out of a photo array. It had been a year since her arrest and she was unable to do so. Five months later, IAB got in touch to set up a second interview. The woman declined, saying she was tired of revisiting the traumatic experience. The department, which confirmed its investigation when ProPublica asked about it, said it closed the complaint without disciplining him.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services later granted her legal status as a trafficking victim, finding that she had been forced into sex work at the massage parlor.
ProPublica reporters were unable to learn the name of Undercover 157 to investigate him further, but they spoke with four former cops who worked with the detective. All were skeptical about the allegations. One said the detective was regarded as a “superstar” because of how good he was at convincing people to engage. But another, who trailed him as a “ghost” on dozens of arrests, said the detective rarely used a radio and usually texted or sent a signal through another wireless device instead. He said he couldn’t hear what transpired between Undercover 157 and his targets. “I was a ghost with no ears.”
After months of reporting, ProPublica was able to listen to a recording of an operation in which the defendant claimed she was falsely arrested by Undercover 157. It was made in late 2018, after the Legal Aid complaints and attempts to bring the detective to court. The audio evidence refuted her story, but it raised other questions.
Her attorney had no idea the recording existed; it was never shared before the woman’s case was sealed and dismissed. “The fact that these secret tapes exist means that the NYPD has broken the law by concealing evidence,” said Modzeleski, her attorney. “This revelation demands an investigation.” The department did not answer questions about the recording or whether it will investigate the failure to turn it over.
The recording offers a rare window into how such arrests unfold.
In October 2018, Undercover 157 knocked on the door of an East New York apartment six weeks after someone complained that the woman inside was selling sex. The 27-year-old single mother had lived there for eight months after years of instability and stints in a shelter. Through the door, he tried to convince her to do business.
“Excuse me,” she replied, “I said no. I do not know you. I have children here. No.”
In the recording, she could be heard saying ‘no’ or ‘bye’ or telling him to leave 12 times. At one point, the conversation went silent and she seemed to step away. His loud knocking resumed. “Yo!” he called out. She replied, “Stop knocking on my door.”
He persisted, feigning exasperation until she gave in. It’s unclear from the recording who brought up money first, but eventually, she asked him how much he had. He increased his offer until she agreed to let him in, raising the cash in front of her peephole at her request.
An infant could be heard crying in the background as he asked for anal sex. She told him she didn’t want to be hurt. “Are you going to be rough?” she asked.
She checked on the baby, who was now screaming. Then came another knock on the door, a banging this time.
The backup team stormed in. One shouted at her to get on the floor. She was so panicked, she said, she urinated on herself.
At least five cops were involved in the arrest. She was charged with prostitution and endangering the welfare of a child. The city’s child welfare agency removed her children and she lost custody for two months.
Almost every officer interviewed for this story said their work did little to reduce the amount of sex sold in New York City, improve the lives of those selling it or help catch criminals who force people into it.
At best, officers said, low-level prostitution arrests can temporarily assuage community complaints about noise and public sex acts, but the trade just reemerges elsewhere. “If you’re always putting a team of 10 detectives and some bosses on a corner once a week, it’s just a waste of funds,” retired Detective Efrain Collado said.
He joined vice to gain investigative experience and make a positive impact, but he became disillusioned during repeated assignments to arrest women outside three large homeless shelters near vice’s Brooklyn North headquarters.
It felt like he was kicking desperate people when they were down. “It’s a waste of time,” Collado said. “A revolving door.”
Several current and former officers described vice as a neglected stepchild within the department. With only sporadic attention from the top brass and limited opportunities to pursue traffickers, they said it draws rookies looking to make detective and keeps washouts no one else wants.
“We’re considered bottom feeders — put us in the back room in the basement,” said Antiuk, the retired sergeant. “The morale goes to a point where it becomes how many arrests are we going to make and how much overtime are we going to get. You didn’t give a shit about some of these girls.”
Former Det. Ludwig Paz is serving a prison sentence of up to 12 years for running a prostitution ring involving as many as eight locations. He recruited several officers, including his former vice partner, to help protect it. Failla, the former sergeant, was fired last year after he was implicated in the scheme; he said he was an unwitting participant, passing on intel Paz used to protect his operation.
It was the latest in a long line of scandals involving the NYPD and the sex trade. Officers have been caught exploiting or protecting the trade about once or twice a decade going back to the 1972 Knapp Commission, which found that bribes from brothel operators and other criminals were widespread in the department and that a number of locations offered half-priced sex to police in exchange for protection.
Two competing measures are being discussed by state legislators, aiming to end prostitution arrests and the trouble that surrounds them.
“Full decriminalization” would remove criminal penalties for buying or selling sex. Supporters argue that sex for money is a victimless crime so long as the transactions take place between two consenting adults. They say laws primarily impact poor people of color and only make life for sex workers more dangerous.
Kopack, who worked on trafficking investigations and street-level enforcement, echoed the sentiment, saying the threat of prostitution arrests can make life easier for traffickers, because those they exploit are less likely to seek help. “They get the shit beaten out of them, but they know if the cops come, they’re going to get arrested.”
The “Equality Model” would keep penalties in place for buying sex but decriminalize selling it. Proponents believe that while sex workers should be treated as victims, not criminals, the government should still aim to abolish the sex trade, which they say can too easily lead to rape and other abuses. If buying sex is legal, they argue, more men will do so, which would increase trafficking.
Trafficking, sex with minors and various forms of coercion or promotion would remain illegal under either policy. The full decriminalization bill is stuck in New York Senate and Assembly committees. Lawmakers who support the “Equality Model” say they plan to introduce counter legislation in the next year or so.
De Blasio hasn’t taken a position on whether the law should be changed, but he had to confront the issue after the 2019 death of Layleen Polanco.
The 27-year-old transgender woman had been arrested for allegedly agreeing to perform oral sex on an undercover officer and then failed to show up at the court designed to help sex workers, resulting in a bench warrant. She was arrested on a separate charge and sent to Rikers Island because she couldn’t afford the $500 bail set for having missed appearances on the prostitution charge. She had a seizure in a solitary cell and died.
Seventeen corrections officers were disciplined after a report showed how guards left her unattended while she needed medical attention. Her family sued and won a $5.9 million settlement. Decriminalization activists, members of the LGBTQ community and public officials like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blamed the death on a system that targets and traps people who are already poor and marginalized.
When a reporter from The City, a local nonprofit news organization, asked de Blasio about the case in September, he made news with his response: “To the question of whether sex workers should be arrested, my broad answer is no.”
In response to questions for this story, de Blasio’s spokeswoman Avery Cohen did not take a position on the criminalization of sex work or respond to questions about racial disparities in enforcement. She underscored that sex workers are no longer “the key targets of arrest” and said, “Whether it’s through state legislation or through city policy, we are working to end exploitation and aid survivors of human trafficking. The NYPD Vice Unit will conduct itself in a way that reflects this goal.”
Prostitution arrests began to decline in 2017 when New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill promised to shift resources toward traffickers and buyers. “Make no mistake, this is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world, but the NYPD will not allow it to fester,” he said, announcing the addition of 25 vice officers to “conduct initial screening in trafficking cases.”
But two officers who worked in vice at the time told ProPublica that the promise belied the way it was carried out. The department sent its least experienced officers, so-called white shields who occupy the lowest rank. According to the two officers, the new additions went after sex workers and their customers, not traffickers.
A separate anti-trafficking unit, which had fewer than 10 members, regularly had to turn down leads. With the unit short on personnel, Collado said, even experienced anti-trafficking detectives like himself had to focus mostly on “low-hanging fruit” rather than genuine trafficking networks. Arrests where the top charge is sex trafficking have increased only slightly in recent years, peaking at 55 in 2018, according to city data on violations of New York state law.
“There are no resources and there is no real investment,” said Anila Duro, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a member of the federally funded Human Trafficking Task Force at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, citing conversations with current officers.
Baker, the NYPD spokesman, countered that assessment, defending the department’s emphasis on trafficking and portraying vice as a unit of dedicated officers doing meaningful work. He confirmed that the 25 investigators were white shields but said they were “specially trained to investigate complaints of human trafficking and to conduct enforcement and build strong cases.” He said the move increased vice’s staffing to 114, but it’s now down to 96 because the department has had to respond to other pressing matters, like upticks in violent crime, protests and the coronavirus pandemic. Since April, there have been just 22 arrests for prostitution and 87 for patronizing.
He also emphasized the work of two federal partnerships dedicated to trafficking, one with the FBI, which includes nine NYPD officers, and another with the Department of Homeland Security, which he said has seven. He said that the vice human trafficking unit still includes nine officers. Combined, that equals 25, which he said “represents a stable commitment to the vision articulated in 2017.”
Baker said there have been over 4,500 emergency calls regarding prostitution since 2016 and there are approximately 30 “tracks” that “generate complaints routinely from residents.” He sent statistics showing that prostitution-related arrests overall have decreased, but that those of “pimps” now account for a larger proportion, from 8% in 2015 to 12% in 2019. As evidence of the department’s anti-trafficking work, he pointed to severalbusts from recent years, including the arrest of a man last week for allegedly trafficking underage girls across county lines.
Collado said his experience in vice’s anti-trafficking unit did not reflect a real commitment to pursuing criminals who force people into prostitution. He said that in his two years on the unit ending in 2018, he only got to work on one serious investigation. It stalled, partly because it was left only to him and one other detective. The case involves dozens of women. He said his partner is still working on it, two years after Collado retired.
“You’re not going to get traffickers the way they’re doing it,” Collado told ProPublica. “Change has got to come from the top.”
This year, amid a national outcry over police violence, the conversation turned to reducing budgets as a way to force reform. Overtime pay might be a place to start cutting, according to advocates and even some officers.
“When people are screaming, ‘Defund the police,’ I got no problems with that because they are wasting fucking money,” said Sgt. Steven Lee, who briefly worked as an interpreter during prostitution arrests and positioned himself as a whistleblower in a recent state Assembly race.
Units that involve a lot of arrests, like vice and narcotics, are known destinations for overtime pay. “It’s called collars for dollars,” said Failla, invoking a term for a practice that has dogged the department for decades. “The more bodies you put in the van, the more overtime there was.”
Elizabeth Velazquez, who retired in 2019, said she started doing “john” stings early in her career to supplement an otherwise modest salary. “That was the point of doing the operation,” she said. “I was a single parent. I needed to pay my mortgage.”
Many officers told ProPublica their colleagues have come to rely on padded paychecks to support lifestyles they otherwise could not afford. They may buy houses or cars on take-home pay that could shrink if they make fewer arrests.
Some squeeze all they can out of overtime because it factors into pension payouts, often based on the years in which they took home the most money. It can pay dividends for the rest of their lives.
The city has pledged to reduce police overtime spending and abuse in recent years, but data and documents suggest limited success. Detectives can still easily add 30% to their salaries through overtime. A typical third-grade detective makes almost $35,000 a year in extra pay, atop an average base salary of $97,000.
In the last three fiscal years, the city has budgeted over $600 million a year for overtime. The department exceeded that figure by at least $100 million each year.
In an interview, one high-ranking NYPD official described overtime as an instrument to encourage all sorts of arrests, used by supervisors under pressure to produce numbers. “Take away overtime and show me how much loyalty you have left.”
Another said that in units like vice, this can discourage officers from launching more complicated investigations that might have more long-term impact. “They go for the low-hanging fruit. Easy collars,” he said. “That’s where they make their money.”
As pressure mounted to reduce police funding following protests this spring, de Blasio and the City Council agreed in June to cut the overtime budget by more than half. Even so, the city’s Independent Budget Office estimated that in fiscal year 2021, the NYPD will spend almost as much on overtime as it usually does, overshooting its budget by $400 million. That’s more than the city Health Department spent in fiscal year 2019 on emergency preparedness, addiction treatment, communicable diseases, immunizations and HIV prevention combined.
The NYPD did not respond to questions about what it’s doing to reduce overtime spending.
Antiuk, who retired three years ago, told ProPublica he is still “living off the royalties from back in the day,” referring to the vice overtime that boosted his pension. In his last 18 months on the job, records show, he made about $85,000 in extra pay.
He laughed as he remembered comparing his wages to those of a “really pretty Spanish girl” he had arrested.
“I make more money than you,” he recalled her saying to him in a hotel room. To which he replied: “Oh yeah? Well, you must be rich, because I’m doing really well.”
That was about all there was to show for his three years helping run vice in the Bronx, Antiuk said.
“I’ll tell you the truth straight up, man. It was a joke.”
About the Data
To help understand how the New York Police Department’s priorities changed over time and which demographic groups were most affected by the policing of prostitution, we analyzed NYPDdata, looking at arrests where the top charge was either prostitution or patronizing a prostitute in the third degree. (Patronizing a prostitute in the first or second degree is a felony charge involving a minor, and those arrests are uncommon. We also restricted our analysis of court data to cases where prostitution or third-degree patronizing was the top charge.) We analyzed the race of people arrested on these charges between October 2016 and September 2020.
Then, using public data on the number of prostitution-related 311 and 911 calls in each police precinct, we compared those complaints to the number of arrests in each precinct. (We restricted our analysis to the period between July 2017 and December 2019, in order to reflect the department’s strategic shift in early 2017 and avoid the possibility of the coronavirus pandemic muddling results). We found that the number of prostitution arrests was indeed strongly correlated to the number of complaints in a given area. Patronizing arrests, however, were only loosely correlated with complaints.
We factored in the racial demographics of each precinct using statistics prepared for us from census data by Measure of America, a program of the Social Science Research Council. We then conducted what’s called a regression analysis, which let us hold one factor constant and then see if the precinct’s demographics are tied to the number of patronizing arrests. We found that demographics did make a significant difference. If we compared precincts with a similar number of complaints, the precinct with a higher percentage of Black and Latino residents usually had significantly more buyer arrests. Similarly, when we compared precincts with a similar number of arrests for prostitution, the same pattern was evident — the neighborhood with a larger Black and Latino population had more arrests for people buying sex.
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.
Running on progressive platforms that include ending mass incarceration and addressing police misconduct, candidates defeated traditional “law-and-order” prosecutors across the country.
Elected prosecutors – often called state’s attorneys or district attorneys – represent the people of a particular county in their criminal cases. Their offices work with law enforcement to investigate and try cases, determine which crimes should be prioritized and decide how punitive to be.
After decades of incumbent prosecutors winning reelection based on their high conviction rates or the long sentences they achieved, advocates for criminal justice reform began making inroads into their territory a few years ago. They did so mainly by drawing attention to local races and funding progressive challengers.
She won, becoming the first Black woman to serve as state’s attorney in Chicago. It was also the first high-profile sign that this progressive prosecutorial approach was working.
Her victory was followed by the 2017 election of Larry Krasner as district attorney in Philadelphia. Krasner, a former civil rights attorney, had never prosecuted a case when he ran for office – a move that the city’s police union chief called “hilarious.”
But Krasner’s campaign platform – addressing mass incarceration and police misconduct – responded to a city saddled with the highest incarceration rate among large U.S. cities, nearly seven out of every 1,000 citizens. Krasner won with 75% of the vote.
In Detroit, Karen McDonald won her race for Oakland County prosecutor by promising “common-sense criminal justice reform that utilizes treatment courts and diversion programs, addresses racial disparity, and creates a fair system for all people.”
“I think people are starting to realize, ‘Why don’t I know who my DA is?‘” said Gordon McLaughlin, the new district attorney for Colorado’s Eighth Judicial District, who campaigned on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. “It’s brought criminal justice into the main conversation.”
One prominent issue on voters’ minds is how prosecutors’ offices choose to handle police violence.
Gascón vowed to hold police accountable for officer-involved shootings. During the campaign, he pledged to reopen high-profile cases, including two where people were shot for not complying with an officer’s directions.
Mass incarceration and cash bail
Progressive prosecutors are likely to have the most impact by diverting people away from the criminal justice system in the first place.
Many have been motivated by what they see as “the criminalization of poverty” – a phenomenon in which the poor compile criminal records for minor offenses because they cannot afford bail or effective legal counsel.
Alonzo Payne, the new district attorney for San Luis Valley, Colorado, was outraged that poor people were forced to stay in jail because they couldn’t afford to post bond.
“I decided I wanted to bring some human compassion to the DA’s office,” he told the Denver Post.
Reforming the cash bail system and reducing mass incarceration is a goal shared by all of the newly elected prosecutors this election cycle, including Jose Garza, an immigrant rights attorney, in Austin, Texas.
It seems that progressive policies are here to stay in some of the nation’s largest cities, but reformers didn’t enjoy success everywhere.
Nonetheless, progressive prosecutors are increasingly winning races – and staying in power – by using the criminal justice system in more equitable ways.
Worrell, in Orlando, is a good example. She ran the Conviction Integrity Unit in the district attorney’s office, investigating innocence claims from convicted defendants.
Her reform message resonated a lot more with voters than the message of her opponent, Jose Torroella, who pledged to be “more old-fashioned” and more “strict.” Worrell won the race with nearly 66% of the votes.
“Criminal justice reform is not something people should be afraid of,” Worrell said. “It means we’re going to be smart on crime, rather than tough on crime.”
Wendi C. Thomas is a black journalist who has covered police in Memphis. She learned during a police surveillance trial that the Memphis Police Department spied on her and three other journalists. One officer admitted to spying on her. She’s on a long list of prominent black journalists and activists who have been subjected to police surveillance over decades.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Aug. 20, 2018, the first day of a federal police surveillance trial, I discovered that the Memphis Police Department was spying on me.
The ACLU of Tennessee had sued the MPD, alleging that the department was in violation of a 1978 consent decree barring surveillance of residents for political purposes.
I’m pretty sure I wore my pink gingham jacket — it’s my summer go-to when I want to look professional. I know I sat on the right side of the courtroom, not far from a former colleague at the city’s daily newspaper. I’d long suspected that I was on law enforcement’s radar, simply because my work tends to center on the most marginalized communities, not institutions with the most power.
One of the first witnesses called to the stand: Sgt. Timothy Reynolds, who is white. To get intel on activists and organizers, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, he’d posed on Facebook as a “man of color,” befriending people and trying to infiltrate closed circles.
Projected onto a giant screen in the courtroom was a screenshot of people Reynolds followed on Facebook.
My head was bent as I wrote in my reporter’s notebook. “What does this entry indicate?” ACLU attorney Amanda Strickland Floyd asked.
She, he replied, used to write for The Commercial Appeal. In 2014, I left the paper after being a columnist for 11 years.
It’s been more than a year since a judge ruled against the city, and I’ve never gotten a clear answer on why the MPD was monitoring me. Law enforcement also was keeping tabs on three other journalists whose names came out during the trial. Reynolds testified he used the fake account to monitor protest activity and follow current events connected to Black Lives Matter.
My sin, as best I can figure, was having good sources who were local organizers and activists, including some of the original plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the city.
In the days since cellphone video captured white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd, a black man, residents in dozens of cities across the country have exercised their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality.
Here in Memphis, where two-thirds of the population is black and 1 in 4 lives below the poverty line, demonstrators have chanted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”
The most recent protests were sparked by the killings of Floyd and of Breonna Taylor, a black woman gunned down in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March. But in Memphis, like elsewhere, the seeds of distrust between activists and police were planted decades ago. And law enforcement has nurtured these seeds ever since.
A Long History of Spying
In the mid-1960s, the MPD launched a domestic intelligence unit to spy not just on activists, but also on teachers’ meetings, a college black student union and labor organizers. That included Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to stand in solidarity with underpaid and mistreated black city sanitation workers.
The police surveillance wasn’t conducted just with wiretaps and long lenses, but with snitches planted within local organizations, including spies planted by then-Mayor Henry Loeb, an anti-union segregationist, among sanitation workers who wanted to join a union.
In the iconic photo taken just moments after a gunman shot King on the Lorraine Motel balcony, several people are seen pointing in the direction from which the bullet came. Crouched over King’s body is a man holding a towel to the gaping wound on King’s face. The man, rarely identified in photos, is Marrell “Mac” McCollough, a Memphis cop who was assigned to infiltrate a militant activist group hated by Memphis police. There’s no evidence he was involved with King’s assassination.
Some, including members of King’s family, have long speculated that the assassination was not the work of a lone gunman but orchestrated by federal law enforcement agencies (the FBI famously monitored and harassed King). Both a U.S. House committee independent review in 1979 and a Department of Justice review in 2000 found no basis for this. Still, in 2002, the National Civil Rights Museum, which sits where the motel was, added to its permanent exhibits “Lingering Questions,” which contains hundreds of pieces of evidence, including the bullet plucked from King’s body. One of the questions (that the exhibit does not definitively answer): “Was the Memphis Police Department part of the conspiracy?”
In 1976, the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging it had violated residents’ First Amendment rights by maintaining records that “contained unverified information and gossip which related exclusively to the exercise of lawful and peaceful activities,” and, according to the complaint, “served no lawful or valid law enforcement purpose.”
A judge agreed and in 1978 signed the Kendrick consent decree, the first such decree in the country, which barred law enforcement from surveilling protesters for political purposes.
Many of today’s protesters know about that ruling, because in 2017 the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging that police were violating the consent decree by again illegally spying on residents who were exercising their First Amendment rights.
In 2016, protesters had a series of high-profile demonstrations including a May protest at the Memphis Zoo, a spontaneous protest against police brutality in July in which hundreds blocked traffic on the Interstate 40 bridge and a December “die-in” in the mayor’s front yard. After those, according to the lawsuit, the city started a blacklist of residents barred from City Hall without an escort.
It contained the names not just of those who had been arrested at demonstrations, but many who had not, including the mother of Darrius Stewart, a black teen police shot and killed in 2015 following a traffic stop, and a white grandmother who’d made it through a security blockade outside Graceland while black protesters were held back.
Reynolds’ sleuthing made up a good part of the joint intelligence briefings, which were shared with law enforcement agencies and some of the city’s largest corporations, such as FedEx and AutoZone, at the businesses’ request. (Facebook told the MPD it violated the social platform’s terms of service by creating fake accounts and impersonating others.)
In court, the city argued that the surveillance — videotaping demonstrations, using social media collators to sweep up posts about police and Black Lives Matters supporters — was necessary to protect public safety.
But while joint intelligence briefings and internal reports were ostensibly to keep track of potential threats, they were littered with unfounded rumors, misidentified photos of activists and surveillance reports of events that posed no clear threat, such as a black food truck festival.
And while it’s true that the pen is mightier than the sword, there’s nothing about me that screams threat, unless critical reporting on public policy and public officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland, counts.
In 2017, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism covered the anniversary of the bridge protest, but when I tried to get an interview with the mayor, I was rebuffed.
“Objectivity dictates if the mayor does one on one interviews,” wrote Ursula Madden, the city’s chief communications officer in an email. “You have demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.”
I replied that I was disappointed and asked her to point me to any errors of fact I’d made in my coverage. She did not respond.
I’ve worked as a journalist in Memphis for the last 17 years. I’ve never been a victim of police brutality, but few of my interactions with police have inspired confidence.
In 2014, while I was at The Commercial Appeal, a reader threatened by email to rape me after a column I wrote about Confederate Gen. Nathan B. Forrest. I reluctantly reported the threat to police, but the investigation felt lackluster and no suspect was ever identified.
It nagged at me, and years later, when I tried to learn more about what steps the detective assigned to my case had taken, department officials refused to share any information, even the details of their interview with me.
In July 2015, I covered the demonstrations that followed Stewart’s death by police. I interviewed the teen’s father and posted the video on Instagram.
A few days later, a cousin I hadn’t seen in years stopped by. He wanted to take a quick tour through downtown Memphis. It was dark and rainy. He’s black with long locks and a beard.
I wanted to be a good host, but before I left the house, I tweeted my hesitation: “My cousin is in town for work, leaving tomorrow. He wants to see Downtown. My 1st thought: Do I want to risk an encounter w/ police?”
My fear was not without cause: Less than two weeks earlier, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, had been forced out of her car by an aggressive Texas cop who’d stopped her for failing to signal while changing lanes. A dashboard camera video caught her arrest and three days later, she was found dead in a jail cell. Authorities said she died by suicide.
I was thinking about what happened to Bland and what had happened to Stewart, who had been shot to death by police following a traffic stop the same month.
Just a few miles from home, flashing lights filled my rearview mirror. I pulled over, heart pounding.
I hit record on my cellphone and placed it on the dashboard. You can’t see the officer’s face in the video, which I still have, but you can hear our voices over the windshield wipers. The officer, who was black, asked for my license. I handed it to him and asked why I’d been stopped.
He said my driver’s side headlight was out, but when he leaned over to tap it, he said it was back on.
“I’m not trying to be Sandra Bland tonight,” I told the officer.
The Memphis officer said he was trying to be a nice guy. “You think I want to stand out here in the rain?” he can be heard saying on video.
“Ms. Thomas,” he said, reading my license. “Ms. Wendi Thomas.” I wondered if he recognized my byline. I offered to show him what I had just tweeted but he declined. “Your headlights are working now,” he said. “You be safe, OK?”
“Yeah, but what happens when somebody else pulls me over?” I asked.
“I don’t know what somebody else is gonna do,” he said, “but I know that if you do the right things, if you’re doing the right things, then nothing else can happen but good.”
I now wonder if the police had been following me. The police department did not answer questions for this story.
But at the time, I was paralyzed by fear and wanted to avoid being pulled over again.
I took side streets home.
Why Were You Following Me?
After Reynolds left the stand after naming me as someone he had followed, the judge took a short recess. I headed outside the courtroom and saw Reynolds headed to the elevator.
I followed him. When the doors closed, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I asked: Why were you following me on social media?
Although it was chilly in the courtroom, Reynolds was sweating. He said he couldn’t talk about it.
Two days after Reynolds’ testimony, I filed a public records request with the city of Memphis, asking for all joint intelligence briefings, emails or other documents that referenced me or any of the three other journalists that the MPD was following on social media.
Four hundred and thirty three days later, the city produced the records — and I still don’t understand what would make police see me as a threat worthy of surveillance in the name of public safety.
Contained in the documents: A screenshot of a Facebook post that I made on Jan. 28, 2016, while I was on a fellowship at Harvard University. I’d shared a notice about a grassroots coalition meeting to be held that day.
In a joint intelligence briefing was a screenshot of a tweet I’d been tagged in. The original tweet, which at the time police captured it had 11 likes and one retweet, was itself a screenshot of an offensive image a Memphis police officer had allegedly posted on Snapchat.
In another police email was a February 2017 tweet I sent about an upcoming protest, which had been announced on Facebook. It got two likes.
The city of Memphis is pushing back against the judge’s ruling. Its lawyers have asked the court to modify the consent decree, contending that the city can’t participate in a Trump administration public safety partnership if it isn’t allowed to share intelligence with federal agencies.
My battles with the city of Memphis didn’t end with the lawsuit, unfortunately.
In 2018, I was trying to figure out which corporations had answered the mayor’s call to financially subsidize police operations by funneling $6.1 million to the city through a secretive nonprofit, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.
Strickland wouldn’t divulge the companies’ identities, but he realized that public records I’d requested would. So the mayor’s staff, in conjunction with the Crime Commission and another secretive nonprofit, came up with a plan to release the companies’ names to local journalists before releasing the records to me, I learned through emails released in conjunction with a 2018 public records lawsuit against the Crime Commission.
And this year, I was forced to sue the city after it refused to include me on its media email advisory list despite repeated requests.
The city of Memphis did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
My experiences have shaped the way my newsroom has covered more recent protests, including those in Memphis since Floyd’s death.
A guide on covering protests from the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy notes, “Understand how police use news coverage to surveil black communities. Don’t allow police to use you, or your coverage, to do their jobs.”
We applied these principles to our recent coverage of a civil disobedience training that drew more than 350 people. While we know the names of the people we talked to, if participants weren’t comfortable using their whole name or showing their entire face, we protected their identity.
After all, I know how it feels to know that the police are watching you.
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.
As protests against police violence and racism continue in cities throughout the U.S., the public is learning that several of the officers involved in the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville share a history of complaints by citizens of brutality or misconduct.
A similar pattern holds for misconduct complaints. Officers who are the subject of previous civilian complaints – regardless of whether those complaints are for excessive force, verbal abuse or unlawful searches – pose a higher risk of engaging in serious misconduct in the future.
A study published in the American Economic Journal reviewed 50,000 allegations of officer misconduct in Chicago and found that officers with extensive complaint histories were disproportionately more likely to be named subjects in civil rights lawsuits with extensive claims and large settlement payouts.
During a 2006 roadside stop, Chauvin was among six officers who, in just four seconds, fired 43 rounds into a truck driven by a man wanted for questioning in a domestic assault. The man, Wayne Reyes, who police said aimed a sawed-off shotgun at them, died at the scene. The police department never acknowledged which officers had fired their guns and a grand jury convened by prosecutors did not indict any of the officers.
Tou Thao, one of three Minneapolis officers at the scene as Floyd pleaded for his life, is named in a 2017 civil rights lawsuit against the department. Lamar Ferguson, the plaintiff, said he was walking home with his pregnant girlfriend when Thao and another officer stopped him without cause, handcuffed him and proceeded to kick, punch and knee him with such force that his teeth shattered.
The case was settled by the city for US$25,000, with the officers and the city declaring no liability, but it is not known if Thao was disciplined by the department.
In Louisville, Kentucky, at least three of the officers involved in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor while serving a no-knock warrant at her home – allowing them to use a battering ram to open her door – had previously been sanctioned for violating department policies.
One of the officers, Brett Hankison, is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit alleging, according to news reports, harassing suspects and planting drugs on them. He has denied the charges in a response to the lawsuit.
I am a scholar of law and the criminal justice system. In my work on wrongful conviction cases in Philadelphia, I regularly encounter patterns of police misconduct including witness intimidation, evidence tampering and coercion. It is often the same officers engaging in the same kinds of misconduct and abuse across multiple cases.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that across the nation fewer than one in 12 complaints of police misconduct result in any kind of disciplinary action.
Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, resigned before he was fired from his previous department after they deemed him unfit to serve. A grand jury did not indict Loehmann for the killing, but he was fired by the Cleveland Division of Police after they found he had not disclosed the reason for leaving his previous job.
In the largest study of police hiring, researchers concluded that rehired officers, who make up roughly 3% of the police force, present a serious threat to communities because of their propensity to re-offend, if they had engaged in misconduct before.
These officers, wrote the study’s authors, “are more likely … to be fired from their next job or to receive a complaint for a ‘moral character violation.’”
Analysts agree that this is a useful step, but it does not address underlying organizational and institutional sources of violence, discrimination and misconduct.
For example, in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Department of Justice found that the department had a lengthy history of excessive force, unconstitutional stop and searches, racial discrimination and racial bias.
The report noted that the use of force was often punitive and retaliatory and that “the overwhelming majority of force – almost 90% – is used against African Americans.”
One promising solution might be the creation of independent civilian review boards that are able to conduct their own investigations and impose disciplinary measures.
In Newark, New Jersey, the board can issue subpoenas, hold hearings and investigate misconduct.
Research at the national level suggests that jurisdictions with citizen review boards uphold more excessive force complaints than jurisdictions that rely on internal mechanisms.
In the case of civilian review board in the Newark, the board largely prevailed in the aftermath of the police union lawsuit. The court ruling restored the board’s ability to investigate police misconduct – but it made the board’s disciplinary recommendations nonbinding.
Earlier today I had a conversation with one of my closest friends about looting and fires that took place in Minneapolis. It's easy to talk about peaceful responses to violence that's not happening to you. If George Floyd was your son, father, brother, or husband, how peaceful would you feel?
Tamika Mallory delivers a powerful message about violence prior to former NBA player Steven Jackson speaking about his friend George Floyd being murdered by police.
Individuals have a right to resist and rebel against a tyrannical government and political injustices. Isn't that the example set by our nation's founding fathers? Thomas Paine wrote in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense when struggling to defend rights against tyranny, “it is the violence which is done and threatened to our persons … which conscientiously qualifies the use of arms”. Protesters in Minneapolis have been mostly peaceful, but some have decided, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" Instead of destroying tea, they destroyed buildings including a police station.
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble, and kind:
Beware the day
They change their minds!"
–Warning! from Langston Hughes
On May 19th, in response to excessive force used by Des Peres, MO police against a black grandmother and her son who were falsely accused of stealing at Sam's Club on Hanley Road, I wrote the following response on Facebook.
"Until we do more than just protest, this will never end! Police and even random strangers feel comfortable violating our rights because they don't fear any consequences. As a collective group, we better figure out a way to make them fear us. It's just a matter of time before the next victim is you, your family member, or your friend, but unless there's a video you have almost zero chance at justice."
Less than a week later, the world witnessed the video of a random white woman, Amy Cooper, using her whiteness as an instrument of terror in New York's Central Park and a black man, George Floyd, tortured and murdered in Minneapolis by police.
Floyd is the latest high profile unarmed black lynching victim. Nearly five years ago, the police killing of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis sparked weeks of protests. Now here we go again. I cried as I watched yet another lynching of an unarmed helpless black man. The cop knew he was being recorded, but seemed to have the attitude that as a policeman, no matter what he does, on or off-camera, his badge would protect him.
It's a clear case of murder for anyone that watches the video of Floyd's death. There's no justification! As one of the hero bystanders who tried to save Floyd stated, Chauvin seemed to enjoy it. At what point do we stop peacefully letting them kill us!
Mike Freeman, county attorney for Hennepin County, condemned the actions of white cop Derek Chauvin as "horrific and terrible", but he added there was "other evidence that does not support a criminal charge". When a black Minneapolis cop, Mohamed Noor, killed a white woman in a split-second decision, he was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to 12.5 years. Noor became the first Minneapolis policeman to be convicted of an on-duty killing. There was no video or talk about "other evidence".
There have been so many high profile killings of unarmed black people that go unpunished, it's difficult to keep track of them all, below is a partial list that includes four from St. Louis:
Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Eric Harris, Sam Dubose, Alton Sterling, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Walter Scott, Jordan Edwards, Mike Brown, Mansur Ball-Bey, Terry Tillman, Anthony Lamar Smith.
Chauvin was finally arrested and charged with murder, but not before a police station and more than fifty other buildings were burned. However, most police killings aren't recorded and don't become high profile. When cops lie and no video evidence exists, the cops are believed. It's always amazed me how many black men like Terry Tillman, supposedly point a gun at a cop and get killed before even getting off a shot.
King aptly stated that "riots are the language of the unheard"! King could utter the same words below today and they would be just as meaningful.
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” – Dr. MLK Jr.
The Minneapolis police department has a long history of racism. The violence in Minneapolis is a symptom of racism. Until the disease racism is eradicated from police forces, these destructive reactions will become more common.
The current black police chief, Medaria Arradondo, filed a discrimination suit against the department earlier in his career. Only a tiny fraction of police brutality is captured on video, but that may soon change, as self-driving vehicles, delivery drones, and other technologies all equipped with multiple cameras, become more common, more incidences with be captured on camera.
Hopefully, cities all across American will learn a lesson from Minneapolis. Gone are the days when protest about brutality remains completely peaceful. Modern protesters include revolutionaries within the ranks, some with nothing to lose and no fear. The best protection against violent reactions is no unnecessary violence!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the last time I got a speeding ticket. It was nearly a decade ago and it’s a pretty unremarkable story: I was on my way back to Columbus, Ohio, from a friend’s wedding and was going something like 15 mph over the speed limit. An officer pulled me over, asked me if I knew why he did, walked back to his squad car and returned with a ticket for US$90.
At the time, I didn’t think much about it. I was 22, I was speeding, and that is what happened when you got caught. I didn’t consider the motives of the officer, his law enforcement agency or the financial status of the city he worked for. And I definitely didn’t consider the fact that I was a brown man driving through rural Ohio.
But now that I’m a scholar of public finance, it’s all I can think about. My recent research – and that of others – shows that communities with more residents of color are more likely to rely on revenue coming from traffic tickets and other minor fines.
Fines as revenue
Local governments on average don’t rely all that much on revenue from things like traffic citations, termed fines and forfeitures.
According to data from the Census of Governments, the average city generated about $21 per person from fines in 2012, the last year for which there is national data. For reference, the average city generated about $150 per person from sales taxes at the time.
Why might some communities rely on fines way more than others do? One reason could be higher incidences of crime. Another might be that certain governments make a strategic choice to target passersby via speed traps. It could be a response to budgetary shortfalls or fiscal stress. And still another might be the race of the population or law enforcement agency.
If it’s not clear how or why this could involve race, you should take a look at the Department of Justice report on in Ferguson, Missouri. After Michael Brown, a black man living in a majority-black community, was shot and killed by a white police officer serving in a majority-white police force, the department investigated.
It found that officers in Ferguson were focused on revenue generation, a practice known as “policing for profit.” Police aggressively fined residents, primarily black residents, without much consideration of whether doing so enhanced public trust or safety.
According to the report, “The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”
But was Ferguson an isolated case? And, more generally, what explains the variation in city use of fines? My colleagues – Charlotte Kirschner and Samuel B. Stone, also scholars of public finance – and I set out to find out.
Who relies on fines
In our study, we looked at a representative sample of 93 California cities from 2009 to 2014 to determine what affects how much cities fine residents and rely on fines for revenue.
We examined how fines were affected by levels of crime and public safety, city financial health and budgetary stress, and the racial composition of both the population and the law enforcement agency serving it.
We found no relationship between crime or budgetary stress and fines. However, we did find that cities with larger black populations fine residents more on a per capita basis and are more reliant on fines.
All else equal, our results showed that a 1% increase in black population is associated with a 5% increase in per capita revenue from fines and a 1% increase in share of total revenue from fines.
Furthermore, the cities seemingly most reliant on fines are the ones with the highest percentages of black residents being served by law enforcement that is whiter than its community.
Take Inglewood: In 2010, it was 43% black and 23% white, but its law enforcement agency was flipped, at nearly 40% white and 16% black. The city generated nearly 5% of its revenues from fines, more than double the average city in California.
Despite the similarities to Ferguson, it is really important for me to emphasize that our research isn’t accusing anyone of being racist or intentionally discriminating against minorities – though, to be fair, our results don’t preclude this explanation either. Rather, I’m just highlighting that even seemingly colorblind policies, like a $90 traffic citation for speeding, can have outcomes that are very much not colorblind.
Fixing the problem
Unfortunately, I wasn’t very surprised by our results. Even setting aside the Ferguson case, there’s a lot of research that points in this direction.
Then, elect more ethnic and racial minorities to be mayors or serve on city councils and proactively focus on ensuring meaningful representation in the unelected bureaucracy. Our research demonstrates these changes should alter the distribution of fines, but making them so would probably have other beneficial effects for underserved communities as well.
If nothing else, the next time you get pulled over for speeding – especially if it’s for doing 55 in a 54 – you should ask yourself why it’s happening. It might be a lot less about how fast you were going than you’d think.
While the arrests of the two elementary students in Orlando are not everyday occurrences, they do reflect a body of research that suggests cops in schools – they are formally known as school resource officers, or SROs – can take what would otherwise be a routine school disciplinary situation and escalate it to a whole different level.
I base that assertion on my work as a researcher who has studied school discipline, school safety and the role of school resource officers in elementary schools.
My work sheds light on the potential unintended consequences of school resource officers – as well as ways that school leaders can prevent situations like the arrests that unfolded in Orlando.
A growing presence
School resource officers, who are sworn officers with full arrest powers, are increasingly common in primary schools. Between 2005 and 2015, the percentage of primary schools with school resource officers increased 64%. Now, nearly one in three elementary schools has one of these officers at least part-time.
This trend is set to continue as states like Florida and Maryland passed legislation in 2018 to increase the presence of police to all schools.
What’s increasingly changing, however, is how schools respond to these violent incidents. The presence of police in schools has been shown to increase the likelihood that students are arrested for school misconduct. For example, prior research has found that police agencies that get funding for school police increase arrests of youth under age 15 by as much as 21%. This may be because the presence of police can shift the mindset of schools to one that is more about punishment than it is about teaching students why their behavior is wrong and what they can do to make amends.
In our work, we have found that even when school district policy specifies that school resource officers should not be involved in discipline, many of the officers interpret this policy differently. For example, school resource officers may use their proximity to deter misbehavior, may pull misbehaving students aside to talk or may be present while school personnel interrogate or search students.
School officials have a lower standard to justify a search than law enforcement. Similarly, school officials can interrogate students without providing a Miranda warning – the legally required notice of the right to remain silent or have legal counsel that police must give when they have someone in custody. So, if officers are present during interrogations or searches in schools, it could enable them to bypass legal protections that exist outside of schools.
School resource officers are trained primarily as law enforcement agents. It should, therefore, be little surprise that they sometimes default to responses like arrest.
Keeping school police in check
Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala declined to prosecute the students arrested in Orlando. She said she refuses to “knowingly play any role in the school-to-prison pipeline.”
The local police agency has fired the officer involved, citing violation of their policy requiring supervisor approval of arrests of children below 12 years of age.
While these actions demonstrate a commitment by state and local leaders to avoid repeats of this incident, there are other ways that schools can prevent student misconduct from ever reaching the point of an arrest.
Our work suggests that schools and law enforcement agencies should have clear, mutually agreed upon guidelines for when school resource officers become involved in student misbehavior.
In interviews with school resource officers, we find that many are responsive to district policy that prohibits involvement in discipline. Yet, nationally, around half of schools with school resource officers do not include language around school discipline or arrests in formal agreements with law enforcement. Based on our research, we conclude that school resource officers should only get involved in cases of very serious legal violations such as a weapon or acts or threats of violence and should take into consideration the age of students involved and circumstances of the situation.
Educators need training
We have found that many times, a school resource officer’s involvement in student discipline comes as a result of pressure from teachers and administrators to be involved. For example, in our ongoing interviews with school resource officers and school personnel, we encounter a number of principals and teachers who specifically ask the school resource officer to lecture students on misconduct, be present for disciplinary hearings, and, in some cases, go to a classroom to handle a defiant student instead of leaving that work to the principal.
Instead of asking school resource officers to help out with matters of discipline, in my view, teachers and school administrators should be given training and resources that equip them to respond to student misconduct without relying on school police. In a recent national report, almost 50% of teachers reported having to put up with misbehavior due to a lack of administrative support. Only 6% of teachers thought schools should hire additional police to help with student behavior. Instead, they preferred that resources be put to additional mental health professionals, teaching assistants and social workers.
Similarly, school resource officers should be given training that emphasizes the developmental stages of students and how to respond to student misconduct. As others have noted, training for school resource officers is often limited and varies in length and quality across districts. Nationally, 93% of school resource officers report training for active shooters. However, only about one third report training in child trauma or the teenage brain.
It is critical to keep students safe in school. That said, districts should carefully consider whether police should be in schools and, if present, what role they should play in student misconduct.
A larger percentage of black drivers than white drivers are stopped by police, according to a 2013 report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. A higher percentage of black drivers are searched. And black drivers are much less likely than white drivers to believe police had a legitimate reason for pulling them over.
Researchers have studied interactions between police and motorists to try to understand such disparities as well as the reasons black people are far less confident in local police than white people are. Meanwhile, the nation continues to grapple with the high-profile deaths of several black drivers shot by police in recent years. In September 2016, a black driver was fatally shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma after an officer found his vehicle parked in a street. The officer was prosecuted, and a jury acquitted her in May 2017. Also in 2016, a black driver in Minnesota was shot seven times during a traffic stop and his girlfriend broadcast the aftermath on Facebook Live. The officer involved in that shooting has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.
A new study uses body camera footage to examine differences in how police communicate with black and white drivers during traffic stops.
Study summary: A group of Stanford University researchers sought to determine whether there are differences in the way police officers speak to black people and white people during routine traffic stops. The team, comprised of scholars from the university’s linguistics, psychology and computer science departments, analyzed transcripts from 183 hours of body camera footage taken by police officers in Oakland, California in April 2014. (Oakland is a racially diverse city, where about 40 percent of residents are white and more than 30 percent are black.) The authors examined the language and phrases used by officers during 981 traffic stops, 682 of which involved black drivers and 299 of which involved white drivers.
Police officers spoke less respectfully to black people than to white people during traffic stops. Officers were more likely to use informal titles with black drivers and formal titles with white drivers.
White drivers were 57 percent more likely to hear a police officer use phrases that were considered the most respectful — apologies, for example, and expressions of gratitude such as “thank you.”
Black drivers were 61 percent more likely to hear officers use language considered to be the least respectful, including commands for drivers to keep their hands on their steering wheels.
Disparities remained even after the researchers controlled for the race of the police officer, the severity of the offense for which a driver was stopped and the location of the traffic stop.
Officers tended to use more formal language when interacting with older drivers and women.
Officers tended to use less respectful language with all drivers while performing searches.
The National Conference of State Legislatures tracks legislation on body cameras and provides a searchable database of state laws on body cameras. As of April 2017, five states — California, Florida, South Carolina, Nevada and Connecticut — require at least some law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of civil and human rights organizations, created a scorecard to evaluate the body camera policies in place at 50 major police departments nationwide.
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics gathers data on traffic stops and surveys U.S. residents every several years about their experiences with police.