Ferguson Leads TCR’s Top News Stories of 2014

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We may never fully learn what happened when Michael Brown Jr. and Darren Wilson confronted each other on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. on August 9.

But what we do know galvanized the nation.

Wilson, 28, an officer with the Ferguson Police Department, was in his patrol car on that hot midsummer afternoon when he stopped 18-year-old Brown and a friend who were walking down the middle of the street. According to Wilson’s testimony to a St. Louis County grand jury, later made public, Brown cursed and punched the officer while he was still sitting in the car, and grabbed his gun. Wilson, who kept his hand on thegun, fired two shots.

The teenager ran away, with Wilson in hot pursuit. Then, said Wilson, Brown turned and charged at him with an “intense look” on his face. He fired the remaining rounds of his gun as Brown came closer—the last shot, he believed, killed Brown at a distance of about 8-10 feet. “The demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone…he fell on his face.”

The whole episode, he recalled, was over in “less than a minute.”

The sequence of events continues to be under dispute. Did Brown have his hands up, offering to surrender, when he moved back towards the officer—as some witnesses originally suggested? Was Brown, who was patrolling alone in what he called an “antipolice” neighborhood, justified in fearing for his life? Or did he react in anger and fear out of all proportion to the danger?

As Wilson described it, he followed the training he had received in the police academy regarding the use of force. Explaining why he decided to chase the teenager, Wilson said he suspected that Brown was involved in the theft of a box of cigarillos from a nearby convenience store. He’d heard the call on his police radio and saw cigarillos in Brown’s hand when he stopped him. Wilson believed he needed to keep Brown under scrutiny until other cops arrived and, interestingly, he feared that Brown might pose a danger to other officers.

But his story would never get a chance to be tested in an open courtroom..

On November 24, the grand jury decided, after a nearly three-month investigation, that there was no probable cause to hand down an indictment against Wilson. Brown was African American, and unarmed. Wilson is white. And for an overwhelming majority of TCR readers who chose this as the most important criminal justice story of 2014, the jury decision was a graphic example of a justice system stacked against America’s poor communities of color.

“I believe (Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney) did a disservice by essentially conducting a full blown trial in secret without the right of confrontation,” wrote Matthew Mangino, a former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pennsylvania and a TCR commentator—an opinion shared by many readers who said it underlined a deeper systemic problem: a largely black urban neighborhood aggressively policed by a largely white police force with few roots in the community and a justice system that appears to privilege law enforcement.

However Wilson justified his actions, the decision not to go forward with a public trial—the essence of American justice—cast a “light upon racial inequality that woke up a lot of people who can no longer deny its existence,” commented reader Tiffany W.

It was a wake-up call indeed. The protests that erupted in Ferguson following the shooting were met with a heavy police response that shocked many Americans who were too young to remember the confrontations of the 1960s and 1970s—and things only got worse. After the grand jury announcement, Ferguson exploded with several days of violence that left some local businesses burned to the ground. Now, demonstrators across the country took to the streets to protest not only the shooting and the grand jury announcement—but the police response to the protests.

The marches were still going on when news of another grand jury decision dropped: New York cop Daniel Pantaleo would not be indicted for the chokehold death of Eric Garner, another young African American, whom he was trying to subdue after stopping him for selling untaxed cigarettes on the street.

That decision came after we had already listed our candidates for the year’s Top Ten news stories, but it did not stop several readers from adding it to their own lists. As TCR’s West Coast Bureau Chief Joe Domanick pointed out, the Garner decision arguably was an even more poignant and telling illustration of the issue at the heart of the Ferguson story: “the growing resentment (against punitive policing) in poor black and Hispanic communities.”

Thus, the Garner incident, not to mention the numerous officer-involved shootings that occurred during the year (such as the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, who was carrying a disturbingly realistic but fake Airsoft gun), belongs properly to this year’s most important criminal justice story as well.

So, of course, does the extraordinary national reaction, which has brought tens of thousands of Americans into the streets over the past month—in actions ranging from stopping highway traffic and blocking access to holiday shoppers to “die-ins” by New York City Council members. The protests have been largely peaceful and, remarkably—in contrast to the racially polarized protests of decades ago—they have united a predominantly younger demographic that spans the racial and ethnic divide.

The protests are sure to percolate through 2015. While many law enforcement authorities say critics don’t understand the tensions and the fears that accompany modern policing, the shooting of Michael Brown has fueled what some call the most important civil rights movement of our era—to eliminate the racial inequities that make the justice system dysfunctional in too many communities.

“Hopefully,” comments reader Luis Yudice, “it will spur conversations about national politics and policies that have impacted police practices.”

That conversation has already begun—at both the federal and local levels—on issues ranging from the role of grand juries and “broken-windows” policing to racial bias in law enforcement.

And every American will have a stake in it.

The Rest of the List

Ferguson represents both a tragedy and an opportunity. It was possibly no coincidence that the other stories on our list underscore a growing national awarenesss of the need to confront, as we put it in our original invitation to readers, the “long-festering issues” of fairness and equity that have overshadowed our principal institutions of justice.

While it’s sobering to note that some of the issues we spotlighted, such as gun control and cyber-security (which preoccupied readers in past years) received fewer votes this year, despite some dramatic developments in 2014, our list suggests a greater degree of optimism than we’ve seen in the four years we’ve been compiling these year-end surveys.

Needless to say, any “Top Ten” list is highly subjective. So we have included at the end some stories not on our original list which were “write-ins” proposed by readers. And for those of you who did not take the opportunity to vote, we continue to welcome your comments.

As TCR readers, you belong to the country’s most informed and influential audience for criminal justice. We’re proud to serve this community—and we look forward to your continued support in 2015.

From all of our staff and contributors, we wish you a happy, healthy and safe holiday season.

Here’s the rest of our 2014 list. (We’ll publish next week our readers’ choice of the 2014 Criminal Justice Newsmaker of the Year—so stay tuned!)

2. Californians Pass Proposition 47

In November, California voters overwhelmingly approved a proposal to reduce the classification of most non-serious and nonviolent property and drug crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor. The vote also called attention to a number of similar efforts across the country to rewrite sentencing codes. These efforts reflect a growing national movement to reverse or reform sentencing policies that were based on the notion that harsh punishments, even for relatively low-level offenses, deter crime—a notion that research has called into question. It was the choice of nearly half of TCR readers who completed our survey.

Among the most interesting elements of the Prop 47 initiative were the requirement for a “thorough review” of criminal history and risk assessment before sentencing; and the creation of a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund, where savings from the measure will be deposited. Initiative backers say the savings could amount to as much $250 million a year. California has historically been at the forefront of justice reform in the states, with programs like justice realignment. But, as TCR Washington Bureau Chief Ted Gest notes, the central question remains whether the California vote will “serve as a model for states to reduce excessive imprisonment or prove to be another example of tinkering on a much bigger problem?”

3. Beginning of the End in the War on Drugs?

In March and April, Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed a series of groundbreaking efforts to address the draconian treatment of drug offenders that has characterized our long-running (and largely unsuccessful) “War on Drugs.” He called for the reduction of sentences for federal drug offenders and persuaded President Barack Obama to consider granting clemency to federal inmates serving long sentences for low-level drug crimes. These moves tied California Proposition 47 in TCR readers’ assessment of the year’s key criminal justice developments.

While this by no means suggests that the federal drug law enforcement efforts are softening, it’s an indication that widespread calls from left and right for re-thinking the hardline approach begun in the 1970s are making headway. However, a few readers remained skeptical. Gray Buckley, for example, wondered whether the federal moves amount to just “more of the same—looking good” initiatives that are often “counterproductive.” Still, most of you appeared to agree with the (anonymous) reader who suggested that it signaled a “long overdue” reform of our approach to the serious national problem of substance abuse.

4. Rethinking Crime and Punishment

In May, a panel convened by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences unveiled its long awaited report on the Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration. At 464 pages, the report was a doorstopper, but its message was simple: 40 years of “tough-on-crime” crime policies have marginalized several generations of Americans—most of them African-American or Latino. The report compiled research from a number of disciplines to suggest that the effect on crime rates was minimal. “That evidence gives us great confidence in making recommendations to the states and the federal government that they should review the mandatory minimums, the truth in sentencing statutes that keep people in prison longer, the three strikes-and-you-are-out reforms,” wrote committee chair Jeremy Travis. (Full disclosure: Travis is president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, one of the sponsors of The Crime Report.)

There have been many similar studies drawing the same conclusion, but as reader Colin Ross noted, the NRC report “stood out because it came as such an authoritative endorsement of the crucial insight that the overuse of incarceration is a social ill in its own right, and that we have the resources and ideas to get it under control while still driving crime rates down even further.” The real question remains the extent to which our political leaders at all levels can muster the will and support to act on the report’s recommendations. We’ll be watching this closely in 2015.

5. Rethinking Punishment, Take Two: Rikers Island

In August, Manhattan United States attorney Preet Bharara made headlines around the country with the release of a report on the treatment of juvenile offenders at New York City’s Rikers Island facility, the nation’s largest jail. The report accused jail authorities of fostering a “deep-seated culture” of violence against the young people, many of whom were still waiting for their day in court, and warned that a federal lawsuit would be forthcoming if changes were not made.

The report which unearthed what The New York Times described as a “chamber of horrors” detailed a regime of systematic and brutal punishment for comparatively minor disciplinary offenses that presented “no threat to the safety or security of staff or other inmates.”

More than 40% of TCR readers considered this a key story of 2014—not merely because the Rikers case showed how little systematic attention is paid to the administration of jails around the country, although they are the first and often only experience of the justice system for thousands of Americans who have brushes with the law; but because it brought to light the counterproductive approach taken by corrections authorities to juvenile offenders. What’s the optimistic takeaway? Aside from the fact that some of the Rikers jailers implicated in the abuse have lost their jobs, the report contributed to the growing momentum for a national overhaul of juvenile justice.

6. Rand Paul and Cory Booker Find Common Cause

Despite simmering ideological warfare, criminal justice reform is one of the few issues that have won consistent support on both sides of the aisle. The “Right on Crime” initiative launched in 2010 and supported by over 70 of the country’s leading conservatives, was an early indication of the trend. But when Republican Senator Rand Paul (KY) and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (NJ) teamed up to introduce the REDEEM Act in July, which is aimed at removing the barriers in many states to the reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals, the bipartisan dynamic received a new boost.

One reader judged that the partnership “may represent the most significant federal hope to get movement on criminal justice reform.” While that may be overly optimistic (the REDEEM Act has gone nowhere so far), it represents another important step in the battle to shift public opinion away from the all-too-common reflexes of fear and vengeance that have characterized the national approach to justice. “The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record,” said Paul in introducing the Act, adding that the “broken” justice system “has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration.”

7. The Feds Focus on Campus Sex Crimes

The federal government’s announcement in May that 55 universities and colleges were under Title IX investigation for their failure to adequately handle allegations of campus sexual assault and harassment was tied with the Booker –Paul alliance in readers’ assessments. Reader Stephen Tibbetts commented that he found it hard to believe that it has taken so long to address the issue, adding “now they can’t ignore it any longer.”

The colleges under scrutiny include some of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions, including Harvard, Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley. Although questions have been raised about recent sensational reporting on individual incidents, such as the Rolling Stone account of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, the issue now appears squarely—and finally—on the nation’s radar.

8. Task Force on 21st Century Policing

In a direct response to the uproar over the deaths in Ferguson and New York, President Obama announced on December 1 a Task Force on 21st Century Policing. While the 90-day panel, co-chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, will join other federal efforts in examining racial profiling, it is also intended to review the changing face of U.S. law enforcement. The sight of armored vehicles used in America’s war theaters, for example, was one of the disturbing images left by the protests in Ferguson, Mo.

While many police authorities argue that concerns over “militarization” of law enforcement reflect wide misunderstanding of the threats police actually face, the gap between civilians in many U.S. communities and law enforcement has widened. As TCR Contributing Editor David Krajicek notes: “A half-century after America was shocked by the images of Bull Connor using police dogs and fire hoses on protesters, we were aghast to see militarized police personnel in armored vehicles pointing live weapons at demonstrators.”

The stockpiling of surplus military material would probably not have aroused so much concern, if it were not wedded to accusations that police in some of the poorest urban neighborhoods now operate as a virtual occupying force, with little transparency and an apparent free hand to pursue aggressive policies. At the same time, Obama announced a $263 million program to help police departments improve community relations, of which $74 million will be spent towards the purchase of 50,000 body cameras for officers (with local jurisdictions paying half the cost). The challenge of addressing police accountability and improving trust, he explained, was “not a problem just of Ferguson, Missouri (but) a national problem.”

While critics say such steps must be linked to a re-examination by local jurisdictions of law enforcement strategies such as “quality of life” policing, one-third of our readers felt the feds’ involvement significantly raised the profile of the issue. As reader Kevin G. Collins put it, a step-up of federal intervention into state and local policing and criminal justice policy “could change the system.”

9. Ricky Jackson Wins His Freedom

After spending 39 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Ricky Jackson was freed from an Ohio prison in November. Readers tagged this as the most telling example of an increasingly influential and effective movement to reverse wrongful convictions. The release of Jackson “epitomizes just how far prosecutors acted to destroy any credibility of the U.S. criminal justice system,” commented reader David V. Baker. The story was also a top pick among TCR staff, including Contributing Editor David Krajicek and TCR Managing Editor Cara Tabachnick. “We continue to see examples of astonishing wrongful convictions, often against black men,” wrote Krajicek, who listed other notable examples from 2014, such as Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, mentally challenged North Carolina brothers wrongfully convicted in 1984 of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Tabachnick noted that the exoneration movement was only one piece of what has become a larger effort of prosecutors to examine potential cases of injustice, using new tools such as Conviction Integrity Units.

10. A Botched Oklahoma Execution

The state of Oklahoma was one of several states arguing that the Constitutional ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishment” did not apply when lethal drugs were employed to execute offenders on death row. That proved horribly wrong, when a triple-drug “cocktail” given to convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett left him writhing and groaning for 43 minutes in full view of spectators before he finally died. A second execution scheduled the same day was quickly postponed, but the ugly incident raised anew questions about the morality of the death penalty.

It was not just the “botched execution in Oklahoma” that made this a key story for TCR columnist Matthew Mangino, but the fact that capital punishment continues to be applied in a disproportionate and discriminatory way. As an example, he cited Texas’ efforts to put convicted killer Scott Panetti to death despite medical judgments that Panetti is mentally ill and unable to distinguish right from wrong. In early December, the 5th Circuit Federal Appeals court in New Orleans granted a stay just hours before his scheduled execution. The case is expected to be heard by the Supreme Court. Panetti would have been the 11th person executed in Texas in 2014.

What Else?

Some readers thought we missed some other key stories in our initial selection. The more compelling ones include:

  • Popular votes in Oregon, Alaska and Washington DC expanded the number of jurisddictions that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana (pot legalization made our Top Ten list last year);
  • The U.S. sponsorship of a World Health Assembly resolution on the importance of public health approaches in the prevention of violence, particularly against women, girls and children;
  • Reader Virginia Z. Hall spotlighted the California Supreme Court’s refusal in April to review a lower court ruling that struck down a local ordinance restricting the activities and movements of sex offenders who have been released into the community. According to Hall, the decision represents a victory for those seeking fairer treatment of the more than 750,000 registered sex offenders nationwide who face homelessness and joblessness even after they are no longer judged a threat to their communities;
  • The movement to fight mass incarceration got a huge boost in November with the announcement of a $50 million grant to the American Civil Liberties Union to spearhead an eight-year campaign to lobby for reform of U.S. incarceration policies;
  • TCR’s Krajicek and Domanick both spotlighted a story that effectively disappeared from the national political agenda in 2014: the effort to strengthen gun control. Optimists thought the 2012 Sandy Hook school killings (our top story of that year) would prompt serious change. But the real action came on the right, with the spread of ‘stand-your-ground” laws and broadened ‘right to carry’ laws in many states (See Georgia).

In many respects, 2014 was a milestone year for criminal justice. Even while the continued low crime rates have pushed day-to-day issues of public safety largely off the national political agenda, long-simmering questions about the fairness of the justice system—once largely confined to discussions among advocates and criminologists—have received mainstream attention.

“Criminal justice reform (ranging) from arrest decisions, to pretrial incarceration and alternatives, to sentencing structures and incarceration models, is the most significant and impactful topic for the coming century,” observed a TCR reader.

It remains to be seen whether that sense of urgency continues through 2015.

And it goes without saying that the media will play a crucial role. “Stories that focus on reforms have a positive impact,” said the same reader. “I’m kind of tired of the typical ambulance chasing.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Stephen Handelman is Executive Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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