Posted 12/19/08

WHO’S GUARDING THE HENHOUSE?

While Madoff pulled off the heist of the century, who was watching?

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  The widow was in disbelief.  Her entire trust fund of $29.2 million wiped clean, she had only fond memories of that “lovely” and “thoughtful” New York financial magnate, an honored member and occasional visitor to the ultra-exclusive Palm Beach country club, founded a half-century ago to accommodate those whose ethnicity kept them from getting in anywhere else.

      Bernard L. Madoff’s business occupied three floors of Manhattan’s Lipstick Tower.  On the eighteenth and nineteenth floors platoons of traders chugged away buying and selling securities.  But the real action was on the secretive seventeenth floor.  That’s where the former NASDAQ chairman and his assistant, Frank DiPascali, ran an exclusive investment business that earned their well-heeled clients returns of ten to twelve percent year-in and out, as predictably as the tick-tocking of a fine Swiss watch.

     On December 11, 2008 two FBI agents appeared on Madoff’s doorstep and asked whether he had an “innocent” explanation for the improbable accusations leveled against him by his sons, both principals in the brokerage side of the house.  That’s when the Baron of Wall Street soulfully admitted, “there is no innocent explanation.”

     Investigators were stunned.  Of the seventeen-plus billion that should have been in client accounts only three-hundred million remained.  Madoff said that everything else had been lost in a decades-long Ponzi scheme in which principal from new suckers was used to pay existing investors.  Now that the economy had tanked and withdrawal requests were skyrocketing the jig was up.  Madoff’s best guess of the total loss?  Fifty billion, or twice what GM and Chrysler are pleading for to avoid bankruptcy.

     Madoff’s victims are everywhere.  Big losers in Southern California include L.A.’s Jewish Community Foundation, down $6.4 million, and Steven Spielberg’s Wunderkinder, a charity to which the acclaimed director reportedly contributed $1 million per year.  Many Hollywood notables used money managers who invested with Madoff.  One, Stanley Chais, faces a multi-hundred-million dollar lawsuit for failing to do due diligence.  A respected philanthropist who served with Madoff on several charity boards, Chais complains that he, too was snookered.

     In the East the roster of victims includes the Elie Wiesel foundation, named after the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor, which lost $37 million, and the JEHT foundation, which supports a host of non-profits including Cardozo law school’s famous Innocence Project.  (JEHT was wiped out and closed its doors.)   Yeshiva University, where Madoff was treasurer of the Board of Trustees and director of the business school, got whacked for a cool $100-125 million.  Many New York real estate projects financed or secured by funds entrusted to Madoff are also imperiled.  But by far the biggest losers are several externally-owned “feeder funds” that had Madoff manage their assets.  One, the Fairfield-Greenwich Group, lost $7.5 billion.  Another, Ascot Partners, lost $1.8 billion.

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     And that’s not all.  Madoff’s tsunami also swept through Europe, leaving banks from Spain to Great Britain to Switzerland reeling with losses totaling billions.

     How could it happen?  All along there were whispers that it was a con game.  As early as 1999 a respected Wall Street executive concluded that Madoff’s sterling results were bogus and turned him in to the S.E.C.  Most who suspected something was amiss guessed, it now seems incorrectly, that Madoff’s unusually consistent performance was due to “front-running.”  If he knew what securities the brokerage side of the house was about to buy, he could acquire them for his investors first, thus temporarily increasing their value.  Then when the brokerage placed its bid he could sell the stocks at the inflated price, generating a tidy profit for his clients and a commission for himself.

     That’s insider trading and illegal as heck.  It would have required his sons’ help, but so far it seems that they’re in the clear.  In an interview for a 2001 article, “Madoff Tops Charts; Skeptics Ask How”, Madoff denied any improprieties.  He attributed his success to a unique system of hedging stock purchases that sharply reduced the effects of market fluctuations.  Why didn’t he set up his own fund and really rake it in?  Um, he was happy working for commission and didn’t want to bother.

     Shift gears to the violence-ridden decades of the eighties and nineties when LAPD was recovering ten-thousand guns a year.  Many were recently purchased.  It turned out that some licensed retailers were making big bucks pushing guns out the back door.  How could that be?  Dealer records were rarely reviewed.  And even when inspectors showed up they never compared the books against distributor invoices, allowing unscrupulous sellers to accumulate large quantities of unrecorded guns for illegal resale.

     No, guns aren’t stocks but the principle is the same.  Decades of deregulation have taken the bite out of the dog.  In recent Congressional testimony, former S.E.C. Chairman Arthur Levitt complained that politicization and budget cuts curtailed enforcement and demoralized employees.  In what the New York Times characterized as a “mea culpa,” Christopher Cox, the S.E.C.’s current head, angrily accused these same employees of ignoring a decade of warnings about Madoff.  Rather than investigate they simply “relied on information voluntarily produced by Mr. Madoff and his firm.”  Like the ATF inspectors, they accepted the books at face value.

     What else might they have done?  They could have verified how much capital Madoff really held.  Or they could have visited “Friehling & Horowitz,” the obscure auditing firm responsible for examining his books.  Private financial researchers who did so ran into a middle-aged accountant and a secretary working out of a tiny office in remote New City, New York.  That was one of the many reasons they advised their clients to steer clear of Madoff.

     No one in the S.E.C. has the power to arrest.  That’s why an FBI agent signed the criminal complaint.  In contrast with ATF, DEA, Customs and Immigration, which house regulatory and criminal investigation functions under the same roof, the FBI and S.E.C. work separately, creating a distance that inevitably inhibits the free exchange of information.  Had it been otherwise a savvy agent might have learned of the scheme before it turned into an international catastrophe.  In any case, we would be far better served if our battalions of highly-paid auditors and special agents spent their time aggressively ferreting out crime rather than picking up the pieces after the fact.  It’s simply not good enough to put up a fence after a fox cleans out the henhouse.

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You Think You’re Upset?     Catch and Release     Fighting the Wall Street Mob

Who’s Guarding the Henhouse? (II)

RELATED ARTICLES

Click here for the NY Times home page on the Madoff scandal

Congress, whistleblower blast the SEC:  NYT     Ordinary people lost big:  LA Daily News

Mini-Madoffs popping up everywhere:  NYT     Whistleblower feared for life:  NYT

Victims speak out:  Time Magazine  LA Times    Congress quizzes regulators:  NYT

In-depth report:  NY Times    Effects on charities:  Jewish Daily Forward


Posted 11/2/08

CRIME-FIGHTING ON A BUDGET

When money’s tight can we afford specialized units?

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  In many areas the prolonged downtrend in crime and violence has come to an end.  At this writing Pittsburgh is well on its way to posting its worst murder record in a decade, with the number of homicides already equaling all of 2007.  In Chicago, a city stunned by the recent brutal murders of actress Jennifer Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew, murder’s gone up nearly fifteen percent.  As for the nation’s great crime-reduction success story, New York City, its murder rate (430 killings so far in 2008) is nine percent higher than at this time last year.  Even the celebrated home of Operation Ceasefire is under siege; although Boston’s murder rate is slightly lower than in 2007, its proportion of victims under eighteen (67 so far in 2008) remains three times that of five years ago.

     What can police do?  There are three approaches to reducing crime and violence:  uniformed patrol, selective enforcement, and a community model.

  • Adding patrol officers seems the simplest solution.  Unfortunately, budgets are tight and cities across the country are actually losing officers.  New York’s force, the country’s largest, has dropped to levels of the early nineties.  Due to their limited tax bases smaller cities have been particularly hard hit.  By the end of 2008 Vallejo (Calif.), population 120,000, will have lost sixty officers from its once-robust complement of 150.  At the opposite end of the U.S. Pontiac (Mich.), a city of 66,000, is making do with only 65 cops, a ratio of .98 officers per 1,000 population, less than half the national average of 2.4.  As one might expect, crime has gone through the roof.

    Just how important is patrol?  Many years ago an experiment in Kansas City “proved” that random patrol had no effect on crime.  The study has since been severely criticized because actual differences between beats -- some were left alone, in others random patrol was eliminated, and in others it was increased -- were far too small to expect a difference.  Moreover neither citizens nor crooks had been informed of what was going on.
     
  • Can cops be used more effectively?  That’s the promise of selective enforcement.  Problem areas can be flooded with uniformed officers to augment regular patrol and help tamp down crime.  Teams of plainclothes and uniformed officers can be assigned to watch drug-dealing hot spots and stop and frisk gang members.  Gun-carrying felons can be targeted with Federal prosecution.  Such strategies are credited with steep reductions in homicide in Baltimore.  Hoping for similar results, Chicago is assembling a 150-officer task force to go after armed gangsters.

    But not everyone’s sold.  For the last nine months a gang squad and roving teams of officers have made hundreds of drug arrests and seized numerous guns in selected areas of Cleveland.  Crime’s reportedly dropped like a rock.  Yet the police union president claimed that the improvement isn’t due to proactive enforcement but to random fluctuations in crime -- “the luck of the draw.”  Some citizens are also skeptical.  As the co-chair of a Cleveland group noted, pulling officers from patrol -- what was done to staff specialized teams -- can leave some neighborhoods floundering.  That’s why Boston’s police commissioner recently disbanded an eighty-officer surveillance task force and put them back in uniform.  “Clearly in Boston the amount of visibility in the street is a great concern to the community, and we want to make sure we increase that.”

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  • Some claim that cops alone can’t make the difference.  Boston’s Operation Ceasefire is probably the best-known example of a community-wide response to gang violence.  Troublemakers were brought in for face-to-face confrontations with police and probation officers, who promised to arrest them at the slightest misstep.  ATF was called in to stop gun trafficking, the DEA to dismantle drug operations.  But it wasn’t all enforcement.  Social agencies and church and community groups were very much a part of the effort, steering gang members to jobs, training and substance abuse treatment.

    For several years results seemed spectacular, with reductions in homicide of as much as 61 percent.  By 2000, though, the gang problem had come back and violence was up.  What happened?  Participants admitted that after an initial success the program lost steam, its complex structure proving exceedingly difficult to maintain over the long haul.  A 2007 attempt to implement Ceasefire in Cincinnati stalled relatively quickly, apparently for much the same reason.  Meanwhile hopes are high for a new Ceasefire program in Pittsburgh.

     Policing is at heart a crude tool, a way to apply force to achieve desirable social ends.  Beyond putting cops on the street and locking up offenders we don’t really know what works.  In any case, as crime goes up and citizens feel less secure, strategies that reduce already sketchy beat coverage, in effect robbing Peter to pay Paul, may not be the best approach.  It may not be sexy, but helping traditional patrol and detectives become more efficient and effective by studying and adjusting how they work and deploy seems by far the most promising approach.

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Posted 7/13/08

INTRUSIONS “HAPPEN,”
GOOD POLICE WORK DOESN’T

Home intrusions by homicidal strangers may be more common than police imagine

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  When Patsy Ramsey told officers that she found a ransom note on the stairs that morning, claiming that her daughter had been kidnapped and demanding $118,000 for her release, eyes rolled.  It was the day after Christmas 1996 in Boulder, Colorado.  Instead of enjoying the holidays John and Patsy Ramsey were dealing with the abduction of their six-year old daughter, Jon-Benet.  Later that day, when a thorough search of the home turned up the child’s body in the cellar, they became the prime suspects in her murder.

     Within days the D.A. announced that the parents were under an “umbrella of suspicion.”  Why?  Mostly because the victim was found in her own home and there were no signs of forced entry.  (Not that there had to be, as the house had unsecured windows and one unlocked door, but still...)  And the $118,000 mentioned in the note happened to be the exact amount of the bonus that John Ramsey recently received.

     For the next three years authorities pressed for the parents’ indictment.  Finally in 1999 a Grand Jury said no.  Police washed their hands of the case.  Disgruntled officers left the department.  Among them was former detective Steve Thomas, who in 2000 co-authored In JonBenet: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation, a book that suggested the mother accidentally killed Jon-Benet while disciplining her, then tried to cover it up.  (He, his co-author and publisher later settled an $80 million libel suit filed by the Ramseys.)

     His wasn’t the first book on the case.  One year earlier Stephen Singular wrote Presumed Guilty – An Investigation into the JonBenet Ramsey Case, The Media and the Culture of Pornography.  Drawing from his knowledge of the porn industry, he proposed that Jon-Benet’s death was an accident that happened while one of her parents -- probably the father -- was having her pose for pornographic pictures.

     Finally in 2001 came the parent’s book, The Death of Innocence, which assembled the profile of an intruder from information gathered by lawyers and private eyes.  Intrigued by their work, the new D.A., Mary Keenan, hired retired detective Lou Smit to take a fresh look.  His opinion?  The cruel way in which Jon-Benet was murdered (strangled with a garrote, then bashed on the head) and the presence of male DNA on her underclothes indicated that the crime was committed by a sadistic pedophile who was familiar with the Ramseys and knew about the husband’s bonus.

     Smit’s conclusion -- that it was an intruder -- was supported by a recent announcement that matching DNA has been found in a second location on Jon-Benet’s underwear, a place that her attacker would have had to grab to undress her.  Although the DNA profile has yet to identify a suspect, it ruled out all family members, so the indefatigable D.A. (now known as Mary Lacy) wrote the family an official apology.  John Ramsey was happy to be exonerated.  His wife Patsy would have been equally pleased; she died from cancer in 2006.

     Boulder police now face restarting the investigation from scratch.  All the chief would say is that they’d consider it.

     Two years after Jon-Benet’s murder a startlingly similar incident took place in Escondido, California.  On the morning of January 21, 1998 the body of Stephanie Crowe, 12, was discovered in her room.  She had been stabbed to death.  There were no signs of forced entry and none of the family members said they heard anything.  Four days later police brought in her 14-year old brother, Michael.  After a relentless six-hour session he confessed.  Police then picked up a friend, Joshua Treadway and gave him even harsher treatment.  He not only confessed but implicated a third boy, Aaron Houser.  (Houser maintained his innocence throughout.)

     But in the Crowe case there was another suspect.  Hours before the murder Richard Tuite, a 28-year old schizophrenic with a criminal record was reported wandering near the Crowe residence.  Police were called but didn’t find him.  The next day patrol officers encountered Tuite at a laundromat and brought him to the police station.  They took his clothes, which seemed stained.  Detectives, who had already focused on the boys, pooh-poohed any connection and didn’t bother sending anything to the lab.

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     Six months later a judge threw out all of Crowe’s confession and most of Treadway’s, ruling that both teens had been coerced.  Still, he held the boys for trial as adults.  He also ordered, on behalf of the defense, that the items taken from Tuite be examined.

     In January 1999, as jury selection for the boy’s trial got underway, analysts reported that Tuite’s shirt was spattered with Stephanie Crowe’s blood.  Charges against the boys were dismissed.  Tuite’s case was taken over by the Sheriff’s Department and State Attorney General.  In May 2003 he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to thirteen years.

     How did Tuite get in the residence?  Through an open garage and an unlocked laundry room door.  (For a detailed account of the Stephanie Crowe case, up to the boys’ clearance, click here.)

     Now consider the chilling case of Vicki Wegerle.

     It was September 16, 1986 in Wichita, Kansas.  Bill Wegerle was driving home for lunch when his wife Vicki’s car passed him going the opposite direction; strangely, she wasn’t at the wheel.  Bill Wegerle found her in their house, strangled to death with a nylon stocking.

     Police found no sign of forced entry.  Wegerle immediately became the prime suspect.  Word spread and people started to whisper.  Their two children, who had been at school when the crime occurred, were mercilessly harassed by classmates.

     Bill Wegerle was never charged, and neither was anyone else.  With the investigation stalled, the family’s life, made miserable enough by the loss of a wife and mother, was upended for nearly eight years.  Then in 2004 a copy of Vicki’s driver license and photographs of the crime scene were anonymously mailed to a Wichita newspaper.

     One year later police arrested Dennis Rader, the “BTK” killer, a 59-year old married man and church deacon who had brutally murdered ten Wichita-area women between 1974 and 1991.  After being out of the limelight for many years Rader had resumed taunting authorities, sending letters and leaving victims’ belongings in public places.

     Rader’s DNA was matched to scrapings from Vicki Wegerle’s fingernails.  He said that he got in her house by pretending to be a telephone repairman.  (For Rader’s description of how he murdered Vicki click here.)

     It’s not just living with someone that can get you in trouble.  On August 12, 1989, Warwick, Rhode Island police discovered the body of Vicki Cushman, a single 29-year old woman in her ransacked apartment.  She had been choked and her skull was crushed.

     On a table detectives found an unmailed letter she wrote begging her lover to come back.  It was addressed to Scott Hornoff, a married Warwick cop.

     Hornoff was interviewed.  He at first denied the affair, then an hour later admitted it.  Detectives believed him and for three years looked elsewhere.  Then the Attorney General, worried that Warwick PD was shielding its own, ordered State investigators to take over.  They immediately pounced on Hornoff.  Their springboard?  Nothing was taken; the killing was clearly a case of rage. Only one person in Warwick had a known motive: Hornoff, who didn’t want his wife to find out about the affair.  And he had initially lied.  Case closed!

     Hornoff was tried and convicted.  His motion for a new trial was rejected.  And there it would have ended, except that in November 2002, thirteen years after the murder and six after Hornoff reported to prison, a local man walked into the Warwick police station and confessed.  He was Todd Barry, a jilted lover.  Providing details that only the killer could have known, he said he broke into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment and killed her in a drunken rage.  It turned out that Barry’s name had been in Vicki Cushman’s Rolodex all along.

     Hornoff was freed.  Barry got thirty years.  But nothing’s really ended for Hornoff, who is still picking up the pieces of a shattered life.

     Stranger-intrusion killings are relatively infrequent.  But police don’t investigate “overall” -- they  look into individual crimes, each of which is unique.  Even when it turns out, as in the last example, that the victim and killer knew each other, it’s possible to go terribly wrong.

     What’s the moral?  Don’t just look where the light shines.  And be very, very skeptical about what you think you know.  Here’s how ex-cop Hornoff puts it:  “After what I saw, there could be 10 witnesses to a crime and unless I saw it myself it would be very difficult for me to accuse anybody, and even if I did, that person would have to convince me that they didn't have a twin.”

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Posted 4/6/08

THE GANGS OF L.A.

To rid a city of gangs, look to the basics first

    Nero has become synonymous with deadly inaction in the face of crisis, which is precisely why his name springs to mind as one considers the Los  Angeles City Council and its dangerous fiddling over control of the city's anti-gang programs...(Tim Rutten, “That Deadly Gang in City Hall,Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2008)

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Now that our home-town paper has joined Controller Laura Chick’s campaign to transfer control of gang programs from the self-dealing City Council to the self-serving Mayor, it seemed a good idea to turn on the ol’ time machine (L.A. Times historical on Pro-Quest) and check out the gains we’ve made during the last century and a quarter of anti-gang crusading:

    Last night between 11 and 12 o’clock Officers Whaling and Steele, together with the private watchman on the beat, made a round-up and captured seven of as tough youngsters as there are in the city, five of whom were white and two colored.... (“Youthful Hoodlums,” Aug. 3, 1889)

    More than forty robberies here, in Long Beach and in the Big Bear Lake district were said by the police to have been admitted in signed confessions obtained yesterday from members of the “baby bandit gang” who were rounded up on Monday.... (“Baby Bandits Admit Crimes,” Aug. 6, 1924)

    Chief of Police Parker yesterday ordered additional police into duty to combat juvenile gangs, as detectives in the latest gang slaying faced the “silent treatment” from witnesses....Meanwhile more youth gang crimes were reported here. (“New Crimes by Youth Gangs Bring Boost in Police Force,” Dec. 16, 1953)

    Three cars filled with Watts area youth drive 40 miles to Pacoima, stop a carload of unknown boys and blast them with a shotgun.  The attackers roar away before police can get to the scene.  Five carloads of boys from Pasadena cruise into South Los Angeles, fire a shot and toss a gasoline-filled bottle at a group of boys.... (“Cars Give Teen-Agers Range and Speed in Crime,” July 5, 1961)

    After declaring that youth gang violence had reached “epidemic proportions,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess announced a new crackdown Thursday on juvenile crime.  He told a Hall of Justice news conference that a special 50-man team of veteran officers has been assembled.... (“Pitchess Opens War on Youth Violence,” Dec. 19, 1975)

    Los Angeles police are conceding that traditional patrol practices are no match for the continual wave of violent street gang crime in the East Valley, including Sunland-Tujunga.  The LAPD’s Valley Bureau has asked the department to create a 28-man unit that would specialize in breaking up gangs and arresting members.... (“Special Patrol Urged to Curb Youth Gangs,” Nov. 12, 1978)

     Flash forward thirty years:

    Scores of marchers walked through a section of the South Robertson area of Los Angeles with banners calling for an end to gangs and guns and urging other locals to join the fight against crime.  But just days later, residents [were] shaken by fresh bloodshed in two separate shootings that left a 37-year-old resident dead and a transient wounded. (“Two Shootings Unnerve L.A. Neighborhood,” April 3, 2008)

    Los Angeles police shot and killed a man Wednesday afternoon in Wilmington after he fired at them several times, authorities said, with one of the rounds from his gun ricocheting off an officer's protective vest and grazing his body...Officers had intended to arrest the man, David Sedillo, 26, who authorities said was in a street gang and was wanted for threatening law enforcement officers' lives.  (“Suspect is Shot, Killed,” April 3, 2008)

     Gangs are an endemic fixture of urban life.  (If you think they’re only a problem here, check out Paris, whose suburbs regularly explode in riots set off by encounters between besieged cops and the young underclass.)  Try as we might, it seems impossible to shake off the cycle of poverty, ignorance and hopelessness that leads youth astray.  We’ve become so desperate that when a smart cookie like the City Controller comes along and promises that we can reorganize our way out of the swamp we snap at anyone who stands in the way.  How dare the City Council disagree!

     Well, simmer down.  What Controller Chick proposes, placing all gang programs under a “czar” working out of Hizzoner’s office, sounds suspiciously like that oh-so successful Federal model of Homeland Security.  Really, if all it took to rout gangsters was bureaucratic reshuffling, wouldn’t every city across the U.S. from Alameda to Washington already be doing it?  Are our elected officials really so venal that they’d let the killing continue just so they can hang on to pet projects?

    We actually know a lot about gangs and crime.   For example, we know that if you’re reading this post you probably live in a place where it’s safe to walk at night.  Crime, particularly gang crime, is a matter of place.  Demographics do matter.  Gangs arise in areas beset by poverty and its correlates:  unemployment, violence, drug-dealing, single-parent households, illiteracy.  The values that form in this witches’ brew are passed on between generations, accounting for the persistence of behavior that bedevils outsiders and even gangsters often find self-defeating.

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     What’s to be done?  Nothing can happen until residents of gang-infested areas feel free to go about their business without fear of being killed or extorted.  Anyone who’s been exposed to the perverted mentality of gang leaders and “shooters” (triggermen, an influential few within each gang) knows just how difficult a task this is.  It’s a job for police, who must respond in sufficient numbers -- and here quantity is important -- to restore the salience of conventional controls.

     Where society is profoundly disorganized schools wind up being the best place -- often the only place -- for transmitting and promoting positive values.  But schools often take on the character of their communities, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.  In areas where the neighborhood is the problem we must help transform educational institutions into oases of peace and learning.  Tough-love policies and a willingness to exclude disruptive students are key to creating an atmosphere of safety and tranquility where those who are inclined to learn, can.  Many students would also be better served through quality vocational education rather than conventional curricula that leaves them without a marketable skill even if they somehow manage to hang on until graduation.

     Prisons are the place of last resort.  Yet they too can help.  Creating “prisons within prisons” -- secure places where inmates disposed to better themselves receive intensive educational and vocational training -- can go a long way towards breaking the cycle of release and re-incarceration that besets our correctional system.  Naturally the same goes for community corrections.

     There are other valuable approaches.  Still, until the basics are attended to, local programs of the kind that L.A.’s “gang czar” might oversee are unlikely to provide significant relief.  (If you don’t agree, do your own Pro-Quest search and report back.)  Getting upset about who’s in charge of what doesn’t count is a silly distraction.  It’s like fiddling while Rome burns.

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Posted 2/10/08

THERE’S NO EASY SOLUTION

The domestic arms race has made police work exceedingly risky

    “The actions of those officers were appropriate, and they're not to be criticized in any way.”

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  That’s how LAPD Chief Bill Bratton laid down the law to the Los Angeles Times when a reporter asked whether the shooting death of a SWAT officer and the grievous wounding of another might have been averted had the team not acted so hastily.

     While the question may have come too soon, it’s one eminently worth asking.  Only moments before SWAT arrived patrol officers were already set to barge into the home of a resident who called 911 and told dispatchers that he had shot and killed his family.

     Why did SWAT rush in?  After the 1999 Columbine massacre departments around the country supplanted conventional “surround and call-out” doctrines with “active shooter” strategies that endorsed making a quick entry, by patrol officers if necessary, when doing so might save lives.  Without doubt, the new approach has worked.  Prompt response by Kansas City patrol officers is credited for minimizing the toll of an April 2007 shopping center shooting spree that left one officer wounded and two citizens dead.  More recently, officers burst into a packed Missouri city council meeting and shot dead a crazed gunman who had killed two cops and three city officials, probably saving several others from the same fate.

     Swift action can work miracles.  But all bets are off if the element of surprise is missing and the perpetrator has had time to prepare; for example, as in Los Angeles, where the shooter positioned himself behind stacked mattresses and waited for officers to burst in.  Active shooter strategies were not intended for barricaded suspects, and there is no doubt that despite Chief Bratton’s testy response LAPD will be carefully reviewing its policies to help prevent a repeat tragedy.

     Information is naturally the key.  But how can officers know whether someone really is lying in wait?  How much time must lapse before it’s considered too dangerous to rush in?  Newfangled technology is hardly the answer.  Dropping in microphones, sending in a robot -- all these are uncertain tools that take a lot of time, time that those already threatened or bleeding to death don’t have.

     There is another, equally serious issue -- gun lethality.  According to Federal gun manufacturing records, less than twenty percent of handguns made in 1973 were high-caliber, meaning .357 and above for revolvers and 9 mm. and above for pistols (not including .38 revolvers and .380 pistols, which are considered medium caliber.)  On that year only one-third of newly-manufactured handguns were pistols, a significant point since these can potentially hold more rounds than revolvers and are much quicker to reload.  Over the next quarter-century things dramatically changed.  By 1998 fifty-eight percent of handguns produced were high-caliber, and by 2006 the figure was a stunning sixty-five percent.  On that year three-fourths of handgun production was reserved for pistols.

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     Wound severity is a function of ballistics (see, for example, De Maio’s Gunshot  Wounds,” 2d. Ed., p.59).  As caliber and velocity increase, the energy that a bullet can transfer to tissue soars: 

Ballistics of commonplace pistol ammunition

Caliber

Muzzle velocity
(ft.-sec.)

Muzzle energy
(ft.-lbs.)

(Low) .25

760

64

(Mid) .38

975

264

(Hi) 9mm

1220

334

(Hi) .40

1135

403

     Critics claim that firearms manufacturers purposely racked up their products’ lethality as a marketing ploy, much as auto manufacturers increased sales by building ever-larger SUV’s.  Racing to keep from being outgunned, officers now routinely carry high-capacity .40 and .45 caliber pistols.  (A .40 caliber pistol was one of the two handguns that the Missouri killer used when he burst in to the city council meeting.  He stole it from the body of a police sergeant he had already murdered.)

     What does this mean to the cop on the street?  Even when medical care is promptly available, as during the incidents in Los Angeles and Missouri, the arms race has made gunshot wounds far less survivable.  Of the 26 officers shot and killed in 2006 while wearing body armor, nineteen were wounded in the head and neck, critical areas where differences in the lethality of a projectile can determine whether a victim lives or dies.  Increases in lethality can help explain why, while the national murder rate has steadily dropped since the early 1990’s -- sixteen percent between 1997 and 2006 -- the number of officers feloniously killed by firearms has fluctuated.  According to the FBI, 68 were killed in 1997, falling to 41 only two years later, then rising to 61 in 2001.  Substantially fewer officers -- 46 -- were shot and killed in 2006.  But in 2007 the count went way up again, with an estimated 69 officers killed by gunfire.

     There’s no snappy ending here.  Considering the lethality and ubiquity of firearms, it’s a wonder that officers keep stepping up to the plate.  And considering our bizarre love affair with guns, the future promises only more dead cops.

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Posted 12/28/07

OF HOT-SPOTS AND BAND-AIDS

Intensively policing troubled areas isn’t a lasting remedy

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  In 2005 L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca bemoaned that a scarcity of resources was limiting his ability to battle gang murders in Compton, which the LASD serves under contract.  With nearly half his patrol deputies committed to contracts with other cities and his countywide gang squad seriously understaffed, the Sheriff was reluctant to shift officers to a “hot spot” lest problems pop up elsewhere.  But when year-end stats revealed that murders in Compton were sharply higher while those in nearby LAPD areas were way down, Baca flooded the city with homicide detectives, gang investigators and deputies from unincorporated areas.

     After a couple months of success the impromptu task force was disbanded.  As one might expect, Compton promptly reverted to its old habits.  When a July 2006 weekend of violence left four dead and others wounded, Baca sent back the extra troops, and that’s where they remain.  Compton is getting a lot more police coverage than it pays for, and no one’s apologizing.

     There is no question that hefty, localized increases in police coverage can dampen violent crime.  That’s why N.Y.P.D. recently decided to assign an entire academy graduating class of 914 recruits to its mobile field force, doubling it to nearly 2,000 so that it can start flooding troubled areas in Brooklyn.  This flexibility is made possible by its superiority in numbers, in turn made possible by what New York City officers get paid (hint: it’s a lot less than L.A.)  Except for wealthy communities, high salaries are invariably accompanied by low patrol densities, so sustaining a police “surge” (thing Baghdad) can be difficult.  Just how expensive is it to police SoCal?  West Covina, a typical middle-class community, estimates salary and benefits for a single officer at $125,000 per year.  Since four officers are required for 24/7 coverage (three plus one for days off), that’s $500,000 for one cop around the clock, not including a vehicle, gas, equipment or support services!  If officers work in pairs figure a cool million per year, per patrol car.

     How does hot spot policing work?  It’s simple: stop as many suspicious vehicles and pedestrians as possible.  Under the “Terry” doctrine officers can frisk anyone they reasonably suspect is armed.  Since the Supreme Court’s ruling that the underlying “reason” why a cop stops a car is immaterial, traffic laws are applied to the hilt.  Everything from a “white light to the rear”, to a missing expiration year sticker, to a five-mile per hour speeding violation is used to justify stops.

     But searching a vehicle or going beyond a pat-down requires more than suspicion -- it calls for either consent or probable cause.  And that’s where the troubles begin.  Pressured to show results, officers have fudged observations, falsified reports and abused suspects.  Other than for Rafael Perez, the cocaine-stealing officer who originally blew the whistle, the Rampart scandal was never about cops lining their pockets -- it was about officers lying, cheating and planting evidence to justify arrests and cover up acts of brutality, including some terrible use-of-force mistakes.

     Can intensive policing make a lasting dent on violence?  Yes, if officers remain indefinitely.  Otherwise, no.  Surges usually happen in areas -- like Compton -- that are poor and socially disorganized.  That’s why it’s nearly impossible to “fill in” behind departing officers with community-based initiatives, as those require the active involvement of citizens who aren’t afraid to testify and help police.

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     Hot-spot approaches may also have a natural life-cycle.  If limited to a narrow time frame aggressive enforcement is likely to be accepted, even welcomed.  But policing is not a precise instrument.  Unless officers proceed with exquisite care, innocent persons will inevitably get caught up in the dragnet, and as the inevitable confrontations and misunderstandings pile up citizen support is likely to diminish.

     Is there a better solution than the hot-spot band-aid?  Probably not.  Ideally, law enforcement resources would be distributed according to crime problems, not citizens’ ability to pay.  Unfortunately, American policing has from inception been highly fragmented, thus dependent on local funding.  Extreme situations like L.A. County’s, where the Sheriff’s budget is overwhelmed by jail needs and contracts prevent sending deputies where they are most needed, only emphasize the structural defects of a criminal justice system that, no matter how unintentionally, best serves the interests of wealthy communities.

     Don’t believe it?  Go visit Beverly Hills P.D.  Don’t get lost in their headquarters, which wags have dubbed the Taj Mahal.  Wind your way through rows of detective desks to the crimes against persons squad.  (Try not to do it on the day when they have their one murder a year.)  Tell them Compton needs help.  Then oink back!

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Posted 12/4/07

TO DISCOVER THE TRUTH

When kids tell tall tales the consequences can be grave

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Jim Amormino was stunned.  "In 28 years in law enforcement, I have never had a 4-year-old make up a story like this."  The Orange County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department spokesman was referring to an incident last month where a “spiky-haired man with a dragon tattoo” reportedly tried to snatch a kid playing in a park.  Eight sheriff’s cars and a helicopter later, the victim admitted that the man she described was a TV character.  She made the whole thing up to get back at her mother for leaving her alone in the playground.

     Last March OCSD deputies fanned out in another dragnet when a 12-year old Aliso Viejo girl reported that a man tried to abduct her at knifepoint.  Hundreds of leads were checked before the girl admitted that she lied to justify missing her school bus.  Amormino admitted that on average his agency received one such a report a month, usually from kids who are trying to get out of trouble.

     “He grabbed my hair and then he started pulling me.  And that's when I screamed. I tried to go away, and then my friends were trying to help me, and that's when he started choking me.”  After spending eight months in jail, Eric Nordmark went to trial in January 2004 for sexually assaulting three Garden Grove (Calif.) teens.  But on the second day one of his accusers tearfully recanted.  They made it all up.  Their motive?  To avoid being punished for coming home late.

    In March 2006 a 12-year old Buena Park elementary school student told police that she was sexually assaulted in a school restroom.  An examination revealed some minor injuries.  The girl gave a detailed description of the event and even helped prepare a composite sketch of the assailant.  Days later she admitted making the whole thing up.  Why?  Who knows?

     Sometimes kids are encouraged to lie.  In January 2006, after spending seven months in San Bernardino County (Calif.) jail, Christopher Fitzsimmons was released when DNA tests proved that he did not rape the 4-year old girl who accused him of assaulting her in a park.  Defense investigators discovered that the girl’s mother, an acquaintance of Fitzsimmons, had accused others of raping her daughter, including two after his arrest.

     In 2005 Kyle Sapp publicly apologized.  Two decades earlier he was one of dozens of children who swore that the owner and employees of a Manhattan Beach (Calif.) preschool forced them to commit numerous sex acts.  None of it was true.  Police and psychologists were sure that something  happened, so the kids told them what they wanted to hear.  “I felt everyone knew I was lying. But my parents said, ‘You're doing fine.  Don't worry.’ And everyone was saying how proud they were of me.”

     Fortunately, that case fell apart and the only two defendants who went to trial were acquitted.  But other endings haven’t been so tidy.  Consider the case of John Stoll, freed in May 2004 after serving eighteen years for allegedly leading a cabal of Bakersfield (Calif.) child molesters.  The last of forty-six defendants in a string of put-up cases, Stoll’s luck turned during two tearful, in-court recantations, including one by a 26-year old man whose false testimony as a child sent his own mother to prison for six years.

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     Or how about the Wenatchee (Washington) child sex ring?  In 1995 forty-three adults were arrested for sexually abusing sixty children.  Eighteen were convicted, some on thousands of counts.  Most were poor, rural people; several were mentally handicapped.  But all the stories were lies, implanted by police and psychologists who isolated the children in a juvenile facility and pressured them to talk. Years later one remembered being told that “my parents did things to me and to my sisters...When I disagreed and said they were wrong, they said I was lying. I had to remember. I had to talk.”  Some defendants served several years in prison before being exonerated.  In 2001 the city and county were ruled negligent and forced to pay compensation.  Awards went as high as $3 million.

     Eager to resolve immediate problems, to cover up being late for school or to get rid of a pesky detective or psychologist, children may not realize the harm their lies can cause.  Young people are particularly susceptible to manipulation and pressure.  Unsophisticated, dependent and eager to please, they don’t realize that authority figures may not have their best interests at heart.  And whatever they say can always be taken back, right?

     Wrong.  Consider the case of three West Memphis (Ark.) teens who were accused of murdering three Cub Scouts in 1993.  Under relentless interrogation, one of the accused, a developmentally disabled youth, confessed and implicated two friends.  Although there was no physical evidence connecting them with the brutal crimes, his confession -- which he quickly recanted -- led to their convictions.  They’re still in prison.  (DNA recently tied a victim’s father and the father’s friend to the scene.  A Federal habeas hearing is pending.  For another example check out the blog entry on the Stephanie Crow case.)

     Criminal investigators shoulder a tremendous burden.  Their job, as I frequently admonish my students, is not to “collect evidence”, or “collect evidence beyond a reasonable doubt”, or any such simplistic formulation.  It’s to discover the truth.  And that’s a distinction well worth remembering.

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Posted 11/23/07

LOVE YOUR BROTHER -- AND FRISK HIM, TOO!

Aggressive patrol strategies have costs other than money

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Brushing aside concerns by the retiring police commissioner, Philadelphia’s mayor-elect Michael Nutter announced that officers in the City of Brotherly Love would be implementing a “stop, question and frisk” campaign to combat a soaring murder rate, in 2006 nearly four times that of New York City (27.7/100,000 v. 7.3/100,000).

     Nutter, who will take office on January 7, was elected on a platform that makes fighting crime the top priority.  His police-centric emphasis contrasts sharply with an initiative by outgoing chief Sylvester Johnson and other community leaders to flood Philly’s most dangerous neighborhoods with citizen patrollers.  (Two-hundred members of the "10,000 Men: A Call to Action" movement are due to begin their duties this Thanksgiving weekend.)

     Stop-and-frisk is nothing new.  Cops have been detaining and questioning citizens since there was a police.  But its roots as a legally-sanctioned strategy trace back to 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Terry v. Ohio that the Fourth Amendment allows officers to detain and frisk persons if there is “reasonable suspicion” that they are armed and about to commit a crime, a much less stringent standard than the probable cause requirement for conducting a search or making an arrest.

     Rulings after Terry allow officers to make investigative stops and temporarily detain anyone they reasonably suspect may have committed or is about to commit a crime, whether or not they might be armed.  (See, for example, U.S. v. Arvizu).  Reaching the “reasonable suspicion” threshold requires more than a guess -- it calls for the presence of objective, articulable facts that a reasonably well-trained officer would find compelling.  Once they detain someone officers remain bound by the Constitution, so searching for anything beyond a weapon requires probable cause, and interrogation calls for Miranda.

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     On its surface, Mayor-elect Nutter’s violence reduction approach seems like an ideal application for stop-and-frisk.  But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.  Even if he follows through with plans to declare “crime emergencies” and impose curfews, his officers will still have to obey both the Constitution and Terry.  Anti-crime campaigns place police, from the chief to patrol, under enormous pressure.  Imagine what might happen when it is possible, as in the case of investigative stops, to count the number of times that a particular technique is applied.  Will officers be encouraged to do quality work or just rack up the numbers?  Will they pull over cars and stop pedestrians willy-nilly or only when there is reasonable suspicion?

     And it’s not just a question of what’s legal.  Whether or not aggressive policing is done by the book, a heavy hand can erode the bonds of trust and confidence between citizens and police.  When he was asked about a stop-and-frisk campaign, the present chief said, “While I’m the police commissioner, I’m not going to do it.”  Well, soon there will be a new sheriff in town, who will do it.  Let’s hope it’s done right -- legally and with restraint -- so that the besieged city can finally live up to its ambitious slogan.

UPDATE (6/30/17): According to the Federal monitor overseeing the settlement street stops in NYC plunged from 191,851 in 2013 to 22,563 in 2015. The racial gap among those stopped has also narrowed.

UPDATE (2/4/17): A court settlement now bars NYPD from stopping, frisking and arresting alleged trespassers “hanging around” private apartment buildings, without reasonable suspicion they were committing a crime. Prior settlements covered the same activities at city subsidized housing.

UPDATE (1/24/17): New York settled a Federal lawsuit for issuing “hundreds of thousands” of groundless summonses during its discontinued stop-and-frisk campaign. Its bill? Up to $75 million.

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Posted 10/28/07

WHO RIOTED IN MAC ARTHUR PARK?

Bratton, who wasn’t there, moves swiftly to censure those who were

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Within hours of the May Day melee at MacArthur Park, Chief Bratton warmed the cockles of every plaintiff’s attorney in town when he spanked L.A.’s finest, publicly refusing to “defend the indefensible.”  Videotapes clearly showed Metro officers firing rubber projectiles and whacking away at ordinary citizens whose most heinous crime was assembling for a picnic.  A few newsies got a full dose of equal treatment, a big no-no considering that LAPD’s rough handling of the media during the 2000 Democratic Convention led it to enter into a consent agreement allowing reporters safe access to police lines.

     Then came the LAPD’s own report, which took commanders to task for failing to anticipate problems and coordinate and control the response.  LAPD agreed that its crowd control techniques were poor, the decision to disperse overbroad if not totally unnecessary, the order -- done from a helicopter! -- inaudible, the force used likely excessive (ka-ching!) and training inadequate.

     Now, to admit one or two little mistakes is one thing, but LAPD’s mea culpa (click here), which runs to more than one-hundred pages, so broadly indicts the agency’s management and training functions that one must wonder whether anyone at Parker Center has ever cracked open a book on policing.  In a flurry of activity, Chief Bratton promptly relieved a Deputy Chief of his duties and reassigned a Commander “pending the action of personnel complain investigations.”  The only thing apparently not being investigated is the Chief’s decision to attend an entertainment industry function rather than be present to oversee his department’s response to the largest planned demonstration in the City this year.

Click here for the complete collection of strategy and tactics essays

     Only days ago, in an update to the report, LAPD brass informed its lapdogs at the Police Commission that the department is zeroing in on twenty-six officers for using excessive force.  But the LAPPL claims that Bratton misconstrued his own department’s use-of-force policies, which the union insists are so broad that it’s perfectly OK to fire rubber bullets at demonstrators and slug them with batons to move them along.

     Meanwhile, dozens of claims alleging police-inflicted injuries are themselves moving through the L.A. City Attorney’s bureaucracy, many extensively documented with medical records and videotapes.  And when it comes time for the plaintiffs to present their case, guess who’ll be their number one witness?  Chief “I wasn’t there” Bratton himself!  Rest assured that he’ll be in the same sparkling uniform that he wore to that important Hollywood function while his troops were preparing to do the “indefensible” at Pico-Union.

     Ka-ching!

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