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Investigating Houston Police Department Police Brutality

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By ReShonda Tate Billingsley, Special to the NNPA from the Houston Defender –

The investigation into alleged police brutality by the Houston Police Department is heating up as community and political leaders call for swift justice, and one congressional leader is going so far as seeking federal intervention. The issue has even garnered the attention of national civil rights leaders.

The Houston Chapter of the NAACP is among those civic and community leaders asking for stiffer penalties for the accused officers, more transparency in the justice system, and a civilian review board to investigate claims of police brutality.

“There is a problem with police brutality and use of excessive force that will no longer be tolerated,” said Rev. D.Z. Cofield, president of the Houston chapter of the NAACP.

Cofield hosted a townhall meeting at his church, Good Hope Baptist, where hundreds of people attended to protest against the videotaped beating of 16-year-old burglary suspect Chad Holley.

Caught on Tape

Authorities said police suspected several young men of breaking and entering, and then fleeing the scene in a pickup truck. After a short chase, police caught Holley, then an Elsik High School sophomore, near a self-storage facility on Cook Road and allegedly handcuffed him on the ground and began hitting and kicking him.

The controversial tape shows several Houston Police Department officers punching and kicking Holley, who was later convicted. The video showed one officer delivering at least seven kicks to Holley while another officer punched Holley five times. Holley is not seen on tape struggling with the officers or resisting arrest.

Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represents one of four officers indicted, said the release of the tape has him considering whether to request a change of venue for the trial. Seven police officers were terminated in connection with the incident. Four officers were also charged in connection with the incident

Former officers Andrew T. Blomberg and Drew Ryser were indicted on official oppression. Former officer Phillip Bryan and Raad M. Hassan were indicted on official oppression and violation of the civil rights of a prisoner.

For months, rumors swirled as to exactly what was on that video, which had been recorded on a surveillance camera at a nearby storage facility. An employee of that facility, Cindy Paxton, gave the video to activist Quanell X. Paxton was later fired.

“You had a right to see that tape,” Quanell X said. Quanell X decided to release the tape after he obtained a copy as part of a defamation lawsuit filed against him by one of the officers.

Initially, Mayor Parker didn’t want the tape released. She, District Attorney Pat Lykos, and Police Chief Charles McClelland said they wanted to keep the tape from airing before the trials of the charged officers to ensure fair trails. A federal judge also banned the tape from being released to the public.

Mayor Parker has since apologized for her initial reaction. “There is no explanation for what in fact, is criminal behavior,” she said.

A community enraged

Since the release of the tape, community leaders have taken their complaints about police brutality to Houston City Hall.

“After the event, not one single officer filed a report of excessive force upon any other officer,” said Randal Kallinen with the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice.

Many of those protesting want the officers involved to face charges of aggravated assault instead of the official oppression charge some have received.

Seeking Justice

The issue is garnering national attention, with both Rev. Al Sharpton, of the National Action Network, and Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, pledging their support. Locally, political leaders say it is an issue they will definitely address.

U.S. Rep. Al Green has already requested that the U.S. Department of Justice review the incident to ensure fairness and transparency.

“We are shocked and we are dismayed,” Green said. “We are outraged at what occurred. That video speaks for itself, and because it speaks for itself, we want the Justice Department to review it and make a determination as to whether or not charges should be brought. There may be civil rights violations.

Parker said, while she apologized for trying to keep the video from being made public, she does think the city is properly investigating.

“The city acted swiftly and appropriately throughout. We notified the appropriate investigative agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, nine months ago. The FBI is the entity responsible for gathering information related to possible civil rights violations and forwarding that information to the U.S. Department of Justice.”

The FBI is monitoring the state prosecution of the case, but said if they were to launch their own investigation, they wouldn’t do so until the officers were tried in state court. That is standard procedure. District Attorney Lykos says her hands are tied.

“The Police Integrity Division of the Harris County District Attorney's Office conducted an independent and thorough investigation into the allegations. The investigation included trips to the crime scene, interviews with witnesses (including Chad Holley, his mother and another relative), and careful examination and reviews of surveillance videos and medical records. As part of the investigation, medical records were subpoenaed and obtained from West Houston Medical Center, the Juvenile Justice Center and Ben Taub Hospital,” she said in a statement.

Lykos stated that the investigators and prosecutors conducted a meticulous investigation, including a frame-by-frame analysis of the surveillance video. That evidence was presented to a Harris County Grand Jury to determine which charges, if any, should be filed against the officers. Grand jury proceedings are secret by their very nature, and the law does not allow public discussion of them. However, in order to indict the officers for a felony offense, there would have to be a finding that a deadly weapon was used in the commission of the offense, or that the assault caused serious bodily injury.

It’s that discrepancy that Rep. Reynolds hopes to change. “I strongly believe that the actions of the police officers should be subjected to a review that is equal to what would be expected of every citizen within the state of Texas. I truly believe that this has brought attention to a legislative loop hole that I am committed to change,” said State Rep. Ron Reynolds. “That discrepancy holds our police officers to a lesser standard when it pertains to police brutality. It is a standard that allows police officers to use excessive force and only face misdemeanor charges, but if a civilian strikes an officer it is a felony. The District Attorney's Office has brought (via indictment) misdemeanor charges against four of the officers shown in the video. The explanation for this is that in order for felony assault charges to be filed, a deadly weapon must be used during the assault and/or the victim must have suffered serious bodily injury,” he said.

On June 23, 2010, the Grand Jury indicted the four officers for Official Oppression. Two of them were also indicted for Violating the Civil Rights of a Prisoner. On each charge, the officers face up to one year in the Harris County Jail and up to a $4,000 fine. Trial is pending in each case.

Pride vs. Policy: Who Wins and Loses When More Choose Multi-racial Option?

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By TaRessa Stovall, Special to the NNPA from Thedefendersonline.com –

The growth of multi-racial people and their assertion that their Census choices should reflect their presence in the population is presenting an interesting quandary. After decades of loosely-organized lobbying by multi-racial people (and sometimes their families) nationwide, both the 2000 and the 2010 Census included a “Some Other Race” option to capture people who did not identify with single-race or ethnic group categories provided on the form.

While official figures haven’t yet been released, The New York Times January 30 story, “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above,” reported that, “Multiracial and multiethnic Americans (usually grouped together as “mixed race”) are one of the country’s fastest-growing demographic groups. And, experts expect the racial results of the 2010 Census … to show the trend continuing or accelerating.”

The latest statistic comes from a February 8th Washington Post article which states that, “Preliminary census estimates also suggest the number of multiracial Americans jumped roughly 20 percent since 2000, to over 5 million … based on fresh government survey data, [which] offer a glimpse into 2010 census results that are being released on a state-by-state basis beginning this week.”

Pew Research Center data suggests that one in seven new marriages are between spouses of different races or ethnicities, based on 2008 and 2009 statistics. “The crop of students moving through college right now includes the largest group of mixed-race people ever to come of age in the United States; and they are only the vanguard: the country is in the midst of a demographic shift driven by immigration and intermarriage, ” The New York Times stated.

“According to estimates from the Census Bureau, the mixed-race population has grown by roughly 35 percent since 2000,” The New York Times reports. It’s not clear how much that growth is due to more multi-racial people being born or the increase in those who take advantage of the multi-racial option on the Census form.

“We’re working to figure out what are the ways in which we can further move forward so people can find themselves on the questionnaire, find themselves and their community to have a portrait of themselves,” said Nicholas Jones, Chief of the Racial Statistics Branch of the U.S. Census Bureau.

“There was no option for multi-racial people to respond to the Census until 2000,” Jones said, when there were 57 combinations of race tabulated, with white and black the most common. “Up until 2000, if you checked more than one box, only one would be tabulated,” he said.

Progress or Problems?

The issue of who checks multi-racial is a matter of policy as much as pride. Census data is used to determine a wide range of government activities; they include determining the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives and creating voting districts for Congress, state legislatures, school boards and city councils, to the allocation of billions of dollars of funds to communities for schools, roads, hospitals, senior centers, and other services.

“Pessimists say that a more powerful multiracial movement will lead to more stratification and come at the expense of the number and influence of other minority groups, particularly African-Americans,” according to The New York Times.

Every time the Census has been performed—even before there was a multi-racial option– the Census Bureau has failed to fully count Blacks and other people of color. During the 2000 Census, an incredible 628,000 Blacks, and a total of 1 million people of color, were not counted. In contrast, the 2000 Census double-counted the non-Hispanic White population by approximately 2.2 million. Communities that were under-counted in the 2000 Census lost more than 4.1 billion dollars in federal and local funding.

Official multi-racial designations—boxes to check—bring their own set of challenges. “This issue has come up recently in the context of our education cases, particularly desegregation cases that are in the enforcement stage,” said Kimberly Liu, Assistant Counsel, Education Practice Group, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF).

“The federal scheme has changed recently to account for the increased existence of multi-racial persons in America,” Liu explained. In 1997, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a federal agency, revised the standards for federal data on race and ethnicity. Among the changes, OMB required federal agencies to allow individuals to identify themselves as more than one race, a reaction to increasing numbers of multiracial children and the desire to capture this increased diversity in a measurable way.”

“The new methodology was used on the Census 2000 questionnaire, and all federal agencies were supposed to adopt the new standards by January 1, 2003. So in sum, for federal purposes, school districts have to allow students to identify by more than one race,” Liu said. “The difficulty is that many of the remedies for our desegregation cases rely on single-race categories to monitor compliance. For example, let’s say 20 years ago, a court found that a school district was operating a segregated school system. In order to determine whether that school district is properly desegregating, the court would check on what percentage of black students and what percentage of white students are in each school. That was an easy calculation when students identified as a single race. But now the question has become how do you count a student who identifies as both black and white for purposes of this remedy?”

There are other considerations as well. “For criminal justice purposes, the thing to remember is that perception will dominate reality,” said Christina Swarns, Director of the Criminal Justice Practice Group at LDF. “So no matter what ‘box’ a person checks or what their racial heritage actually is, people are likely to be treated by law enforcement based on the way that they look. If they look black, they will be treated like they are black. If they look white, they will be treated like they are white. Thus, darker skinned people (even if half white/Asian/Latino/Indian/etc.) will continue to be subjected to a disproportionate number of stops, searches, seizures by the police; will continue to face harsher sentences in court; and will continue to be excluded from the opportunity to participate in jury service in disproportionate numbers.”

The complexities of the movement toward embracing and acknowledging multi-racial identity based on “and” rather than “either/or” will challenge our nation’s policies and politics for the foreseeable future. The biggest challenge is human nature vs. institutional efficiency. “I think it’s really important to acknowledge who you are and everything that makes you that,” Laura Wood, vice-president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association at the University of Maryland told The New York Times. “If someone tries to call me black I say, ‘yes—and white.’ People have the right not to acknowledge everything, but don’t do it because society tells you that you can’t.”

TaRessa Stovall is Managing Editor of TheDefendersOnline.

Black Juveniles Tried as Adults at Alarming Rate in Missouri

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By Kenneth J. Cooper, Special to the NNPA from Thedefendersonline.com –

Despite an unusual state law requiring judges to consider racial disparity when deciding whether to try juveniles as adults, Missouri prosecutes a disproportionate number of Black youth accused of serious crimes in regular courts, where they can be sentenced to prison alongside hardened criminals.

In recent years, African-American teenagers have faced trials in adult courts at a rate three to four times higher than their proportion of Missouri’s youth population. They were defendants in 57 percent of such prosecutions in 2008, the latest year statistics are available, even though they make up only 14 percent of state residents between ages 12 and 17.

One possible reason for “the high amount of disparity,” the wording of a free legal clinic at Washington University in St. Louis that defends lower-income juveniles, is that Missouri does not require juvenile judges to hold a probable cause hearing before transferring a case. Nor do a dozen other states, including California and Maryland, and also Washington, D.C. The nation’s courts have a long history of meting out harsher punishment to African Americans when judicial discretion is relatively unfettered.

Juvenile courts in those 13 states and the nation’s capital could be violating a Supreme Court ruling, Kent v. United States, which states judges must determine, before transferring cases to adult court, that they are strong enough to secure a grand jury indictment. That 1966 decision requires that such criminal complaints against juveniles must have “prosecutive merit” and “measure up to the essentials of due process and fair treatment.”

Mae Quinn, the legal clinic’s co-director, suspects that Missouri prosecutors actually have an incentive to take weak cases into adult court, where young defendants can feel pressured to accept a plea bargain. Even though probation is often the result, she says the threat of prison time represents a form of punishment in itself.

“That’s actually the perverse reality for some of these cases,” explains Quinn, a law professor at Washington University and co-director of its Civil Justice Clinic. “This is a case that was weak, and no one screened it for probable cause in a significant way.”

Quinn and law students in the clinic represent young defendants in St. Louis County Juvenile Court, whose jurisdiction is separate from the city of St. Louis. The county is 22 percent Black, according to latest census estimate, and encompasses a number of predominately Black suburbs.

Last fall, the clinic focused on challenging Missouri’s loose system for certifying juveniles to be tried as adults. Alexandra Rieck, a third-year law student, researched and wrote a “user’s guide” on that part of the state juvenile code and the racial disparity it has permitted.

“I did not find comparable data about racial disparity in certification for other states, because I believe that Missouri is one of the only states, if not the only one, to have a requirement about ensuring there is no racial disparity,” Rieck says.

Missouri law requires juvenile judges to consider 10 factors when making those decisions, such as the severity of the alleged crime, any personal injury done, and the defendant’s age and record. Racial disparity is the tenth factor. The user’s guide published in December concludes that proof of disparity “should weigh against” prosecuting a juvenile as an adult.

The state has some evidence of the racial disparity. The Missouri Division of Youth Services has published statistics showing that Black youth were defendants in nearly half of the cases tried as adults during an eight-year period ending in 2008.

The disparity has been generally on an upward trend, from a low 33 percent in 2001 to a high of 57 percent in 2008. Black youth faced the possibility of going to prison with adults about 400 times during that time.

The state agency warns on its website that the numbers reflect a count of cases, not children prosecuted as adults, because more than one court may have tried the same youth using a different identifying number. Annual figures for each court show St. Louis City, which is 48 percent Black, has treated juveniles as adults most often, followed by St. Louis County. Together, those two courts have tried about 70 percent of the cases statewide.

Last fall, Washington University’s clinic succeeded in getting cases dismissed against two youth who faced the possibility of punishment as adults. In one case, the law students convinced the prosecutor to drop the charges “for lack of evidence,” Quinn says, and in the other, “after a full-blown hearing and rehearing on this probable cause issue, the court decided to dismiss the charges entirely—and it ’s very unusual.”

In the user’s guide, Rieck encourages other juvenile defenders in Missouri to raise the lack of a probable cause requirement to increase pressure for changes in the juvenile code.

Her research found at least 12 states besides Missouri and D.C. do not have a statute or court precedent requiring juvenile judges to assess probable cause before transferring a case to adult court. They include: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, is a freelancer based in Boston. He also edits the Trotter Review at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

Sudan Seeks Debt Forgiveness Before Independence for the South

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

Sudanese authorities hope to unload much of the country’s $38 billion foreign debt before Southern Sudan becomes independent in July.

Sudan has been barred from taking new loans from the World Bank since 1993 because of unpaid obligations on the old loans. This could leave the south, one of Africa’s poorest regions, ineligible to borrow from the bank.

A region the size of Texas with just 30 miles of paved roads, Southern Sudan has no steady power supply, large farms or factories. Half of its eight million people live on less than $1 a day and need food aid, according to the U.N. Money earned from oil extraction makes up 98 percent of the budget.

Of the $38 billion owed, $20 billion is interest, payable to lenders in England, the World Bank and affiliated institutions, Arab oil-producing states, the U.S. and other countries.

Meanwhile, the U.S. lost no time in coming to the aid of the new South Sudan. An electrification project in the village of Kapoeta, funded with U.S. aid, has installed power lines, electricity poles, and street lamps not far from rusting tanks and shot-up buildings.

The Kapoeta project is one of many USAID initiatives in the region. Another top project is the funding of a $200 million highway from Uganda to Juba, the southern capital of newly independent southern Sudan.

"The development needs of Southern Sudan are absolutely enormous," Barrie Walkley, the top U.S. diplomat in Southern Sudan, said at the opening last week of the electricity project. But, Juba activist Lorna Merekaje urged caution towards the incoming flood of American dollars.

"It is a great support to Southern Sudan but it needs to be managed well because if people are not careful then we end up implementing the donor agenda and not the agenda of the people."

President Zuma Gets Calls for Jobs on Twitter and Facebook

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

In a novel experiment with social media, South African President Jacob Zuma urged users of Facebook and Twitter to send input for his State of the Nation speech slated to take place later this week.

"How can we improve the lives of all South Africans? This is your platform, the president is listening," Mr. Zuma, known informally as “JZ” asked on social networking sites.

Hundreds of tweets and Facebook entries responded. Feedback ranged from “create jobs”, “fix potholes” to “end corruption” and “improve the schools.”

Zuma was told to get rid of the shacks in which 1.8-million South African families still live, and to crack down on graft and poor government services. "JZ - all we need is just water & electricity, the rest is fine. Our area is more than 30 yrs without Electricity," one citizen pleaded. "Jobs is what we NEED, I have a diploma and I'm unemployed".

This being an election year, Zuma is under pressure to show that earlier promises have been fulfilled. Unofficial estimates put the percent of workers without jobs at 40% or higher.

Meanwhile, newly-appointed labor minister Nelisiwe Oliphant outlined proposed rules intended to bring South Africans “decent work.” One rule would eliminate “labor brokers” or “temporary employment services” that provide short-term contracts, which Zwelinzima Vavi of the labor federation COSATU said “have condemned so many to new slavery by human traffickers."

Also proposed are new rights for unions, improved unemployment benefits and the criminalization of employer actions that defy the new rules.

Zuma’s speech will be broadcast live on television, on radio, on big screens and streamed live on Parliament’s website.

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