Wednesday, August 24, 2016

"Threatened" Cops & Closing Private Prisons

Daniel K. Harris shot & killed by police; why?
There are many people around the world including me who are waiting to hear some kind of official statement to explain what could have possibly motivated a North Carolina state trooper named Jermaine Saunders to pull out his sidearm and fatally shoot an unarmed 29-year-old deaf man named Daniel Kevin Harris after a brief pursuit last Thursday.

Personally I have a huge amount of respect for members of law enforcement and the risks they take to keep us safe.

But there are a lot of people who are getting tired of some members of law enforcement making the ambiguous and unprovable claim that they "felt threatened" as some kind of blanket excuse that's thrown out after the unjustified use of deadly force against someone who isn't actually physically threatening anyone.

Granted, Harris did fail to pull over for suspicion of speeding on I-485 near Charlotte, NC early last Thursday evening before taking an exit and driving for seven miles until arriving at his house.

But how could he have heard the state trooper's siren if he's deaf?

One witness from the neighborhood where Harris, a father, lived says Harris exited the car and gunshots were heard about ten seconds later.

NC Trooper Jermaine Saunders
Was the state trooper, who is African-American, pissed off or in some kind of heightened emotional state because Harris didn't pull over?

Did the trooper mistake Harris using sign language as some kind of insult or gesture of disrespect and just fire his weapon?

When police forces and courts allow officers who use unjustified deadly force to simply absolve themselves of any responsibility for taking a human life based on a claim that they felt threatened, it undermines public trust in law enforcement.

It has the effect of adding to the perception of a cover up of the truth, or a "Blue Curtain" descending to shield officers who were in the wrong from responsibility for their actions.

That same deep sense of public mistrust was evident in Milwaukee, Wisconsin earlier this week when Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel announced that he would not authorize the release of police body camera footage that might shed light on the shooting death of 22-year-old Sylville Smith two weeks ago on Saturday August 13th.

An incident that sparked two days of public unrest and rioting.

Wisconsin AG Brad Schimel 
Schimel's claims that releasing the body camera footage would "undermine the integrity" of the investigation are familiar to those who've heard those same words used before video is released showing unjustified shootings in graphic detail.

In more cases than not, the whole "undermine the integrity"-thing is practically code for "you will flip out when you see this video".

So that's not generating any public trust in the police investigation in Wisconsin either.

Nor does the fact that AG Schimel admitted that the investigation is being led by (wait for it...) ex-Wisconsin police officers who now work for the State Department of Justice.

As those two cases clearly demonstrate, progress in curbing the unjustified police use of deadly force by some members of American police departments is going to be measured in incremental steps.

That said there's no question that a lot of progress has been made in terms of more in-depth media coverage of questionable officer-involved killings in the U.S.

Exposure that's been helped by the internet, social media and the explosion in the use and availability of cell phone and CCTV video - so here's to technology.

The chance of convicting a law enforcement professional for the unjustified killing of a civilian may be slim, but at least we're now seeing more cops face actual charges.

Speaking of progress in the reform of America's justice system, there was some good news as well in the past couple weeks.

Deputy AG Sally Yates
Last Thursday Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced that the Department of Justice will end the troubled and controversial practice of housing federal prisoners in prisons run by private corporations is positive news for advocates of efforts to end mass incarceration

An analysis of private prisons versus federal correctional facilities shows that prisons run by private corporations don't actually save the government money or operate more efficiently.

The report by the U.S Department of Justice - Office of Inspector General, a scathing 78-page report titled, 'Review of Federal Bureau of Prisons' Monitoring of Contract Prisons' shows that there's much higher traffic of contraband amongst inmates and violence against inmates taking place in private prisons than in federal facilities.

Eight times the number of contraband cell phones were found in private prisons versus facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons; and higher rates of violence between inmates, and against both inmates and guards in privately run facilities.

Medical care, educational, and job training programs were all inadequate or nonexistent, and of poor quality, sanitation issues (including sewage) were found to be lacking in a number of privately run prisons.

As a result of the Obama administration and Justice Department (coupled with Congressional, state and local politicians, judges, lawyers and activists) efforts to reform fundamentally flawed and racially biased drug sentencing laws, some 25,000 inmates have left the federal prison system.

Where are Americans incarcerated? (Prison Policy Initiative) 
A trend that is expected to continue in coming years.

This trend represents an important step in ending mass incarceration in America.

But it must be taken with a grain of salt.

The vast majority of the more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S, are housed in state and local prisons and jails.

Mass incarceration is taking place on the local and state level.

Take a few minutes to go to the Prison Policy Institute Website and take a closer look at the details of the pie chart (pictured above) showing where prisoners and detainees are housed in U.S. prisons.

As the chart shows, federal prisons only hold about 211,000 of the approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in America.

The dismantling of mass incarceration and the use of privately run prisons will only come when state and local jails follow suit; and that's a steeper hill to climb considering the number of state legislatures dominated by majority Republican politicians enamored with the idea that private industry can do anything better than government can.

Obviously complaints about medical care, food service and housing or overcrowding are issues in some federal prisons as well.

But there's an inherent and dangerous contradiction in having financial profit as the motivation for running a correctional facility; because rehabilitation and inmate care is not the primary goal.

Cutting costs to make money is.

That doesn't add up for the Americans incarcerated in prisons, or for the communities where they will eventually live when they get out if there's no meaningful rehabilitation taking place during the time that they are locked up in the institutions that house them.

In announcing the ending of federal contracts with for-profit prison companies, in this case, the Department of Justice has lived up to its name.

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