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ACLU Asks Michigan Police to Explain Use of Cellphone Device

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By T. Kelly, Special to the NNPA from the Michigan Citizen –

DETROIT -- The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is questioning the Michigan State Police's use of devices that capture information from cellphones. Called "extraction" devices, the technology can access information “that many people consider to be private, to be beyond the reach of law enforcement and other government actors," said Mark Fancher, an ACLU attorney.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU is seeking information about the police use of the devices. The ACLU filed its first request in 2008, said Fancher, and have continued since with a series of requests.

Once we knew the MSP indeed had the devices and were using them, we followed up to discover under what circumstances the devices were used, Fancher said.

MSP have responded that it will cost a half a million dollars to gather the information and are refusing to provide it without the money.

"This should be something that they are handing over freely, and that they should be more than happy to share with the public -- the routines and the guidelines that they follow," Fancher said.

He noted that the MSP listed duplication costs as one of the main costs, yet when asked to produce documents, the MSP told the ACLU there were none.

The ACLU said the devices could violate Fourth Amendment rights.

The ACLU is also concerned that since generally law enforcement has more frequent contact with communities of color, whether the devices were being used disproportionately in communities of color.

"There is great potential for abuse here by a police officer or a state trooper who may not be monitored or supervised on the street," Fancher said.

The national ACLU has asked similar questions about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's use of devices to gather information from travelers' computers and cellphones.

Louisiana Agencies Failed to Register Minority, Low-Income Voters Under Voter Registration Act

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Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com –

New Orleans, LA –The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. (LDF), Project Vote, and New Orleans attorney Ronald Wilson filed a complaint in federal court on behalf of the state conference of the NAACP and several private individuals, alleging that Louisiana is disenfranchising minority and low-income voters by failing to offer them the opportunity to register to vote as required by the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

“By failing to comply with the National Voter Registration Act, Louisiana is denying minority and low-income voters across the state equal access to the ballot box,” said Dale Ho, Assistant Counsel with LDF’s Political Participation Group.

The NVRA requires public assistance agencies that provide services to low-income residents to offer their clients the opportunity to register to vote with every application for benefits, renewal, recertification, or change of address transaction. The complaint cites evidence showing that Louisiana agencies are failing to carry out their responsibilities under this law.

Despite consistently high numbers of participants in Louisiana’s food stamp and Medicaid programs, voter registration applications originating from public assistance agencies have been surprisingly low. As of 2008, voter registration applications originating in these agencies had dropped 88 percent since 1995, despite increased participation in public assistance programs. The complaint also cites the results of agency investigations and interviews of public assistance recipients showing widespread non-compliance.

“Registration at public assistance agencies is important for reaching populations that are less likely to register through other means, including low-income residents, minorities, and persons with disabilities,” says Nicole Zeitler, director of the Public Agency Voter Registration Project at Project Vote. “By ignoring this vital law, Louisiana is denying this right to thousands of its residents every year.”

“Of course, we would have preferred to resolve this matter absent the need for litigation,” said New Orleans attorney Ronald Wilson. However, continued Wilson, “the State’s refusal to make the changes required to bring it into compliance with federal law, left us with no other alternative.”

In recent years, similar lawsuits in other states have resulted in tremendous increases in voter registration numbers. For example, the number of clients registering through public assistance agencies in Missouri and Ohio has increased more than tenfold following settlement of NVRA lawsuits in those states.

Racial Discrimination in the Inland Empire

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Like a Throwback to the Past, Black Officers have Alleged Racism in the Banning Police Department, which May Trigger Legal Action

By Yussuf J. Simmonds, Special to the NNPA from the Los Angeles Sentinel –

Where is Banning, Calif.? It is hardly discernible on the map, but recent allegations of racial discrimination within its 33-member police department may bring this obscure town, east of the city of San Bernardino of about 30,000 residents, into the spotlight and public's consciousness.

Several of the town's former police officers have written to those in charge asking for an apology and damages of $1.5 million for each officer for having been discriminated against and fired from the police department.

The town has about 2,000 African-American residents and presently, there are none in the police department; they have all been fired.

According to ABC News, Greg Herrington is a former Banning Police officer who said he was fired for insubordination. Along with other African-American officers, he is claiming that they all have been systematically removed. He said, "The biggest thing that we want to see is just some justice, and some equality, that we've all suffered through, and we had to suffer for years at the Banning Police Department."

Attorney Rupert A. Byrdsong, of the law offices of Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt, sent a seven-page letter to the city manager on behalf of the dismissed officers and said that he has not filed a legal claim against the city or Police Department, but delivered the letter to the city manager outlining their concerns. Byrdsong said, "This is something that has to stop; here we are in 2011 and these things are still going on." In addition, he has invited them to sit down and discuss the issues and problems.

The above-mentioned letter contained information on three officers - Marcus Futch, Herrington, and Allen Eley - and it provided a brief overview of the alleged different treatment received between African-American and White police officers. It also stated in part: "There are other African-American officers who have been mistreated because of their race and even White police officers for associating with African-American officers. We are informed and believe that the BPD is well aware of other instances of different treatment experienced by African-American officers.

"... The problematic issue with the BPD is that it treats white officers more favorably than the African-American officers. Indeed, the BPD has an institutionalized philosophy to punish African-American officers for manufactured or trumped-up infractions while allowing white officers to repeatedly commit egregious acts with impunity in violation of both BPD policy and California law. For example, a white officer was involved in a high speed vehicle pursuit. During the pursuit, the officer collided into city property while pursuing the culprit. However, the white officer should have never initiated this pursuit because he had a civilian ride-a-long for his shift. The civilian was inside the vehicle during the pursuit and collision. This act was an egregious violation of departmental policy. The white officer was never placed on administrative leave and his traffic collision was investigated as a collision. The damage was very costly and no discipline was imposed on the officer..."

The letter gave the city seven (7) days to respond. The public statement from Banning's police chief, Leonard Purvis, stated it's a personnel matter and "...We've had to terminate some officers for severe misconduct and we're committed to that. If we have officers who aren't following policy and procedure, and are violating the law, we're going to hold them accountable."

Attorney Robert H. McNeill Jr., one of the managing partners of the law firm, told the Sentinel, "Rupert Byrdsong, of Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt, is pursuing action against the city of Banning and its police department on the grounds of racism with respect to employment, for terminating police officers wrongfully in violation of their constitutional rights."

A lawsuit seems inevitable.

Obama Launches Black Outreach Program in Communities Nationwide

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Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –

The Obama administration will reach out to African-Americans in coming months in a campaign to tell Blacks about what Obama is doing for them.

A week after announcing his 2012 campaign, Obama sent Black senior White House advisors into African-American communities across the U.S. to share stories about how the administration is working to enhance their quality of life.

“We're taking the White House on the road,” Michael Blake, Obama’s director of African-American Outreach, told BlackAmericaWeb. “There are a lot of positive and transformational initiatives to help the African-American community that people are not aware of.”

Through the program, the administration looks to reach more than one million African-Americans and hold 100 events in Black communities across the country throughout the rest of 2011. A new web site detailing the president's outreach to these communities has also been created.

Blake has already appeared at Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University, in Atlanta, Ga., and in Black communities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He also plans to travel to San Jose, Calif. and Chicago, Illinois.

“We're crisscrossing the country and taking our stories directly to people about how the African-American community is benefiting from the Obama administration,” Blake told BlackAmericaWeb. “We're literally going to people's homes and have direct conversations. We're getting out of D.C. and approaching our efforts from a community level.”

The outreach comes at a time when unemployment remains high, especially among Blacks, and three months after the president singled out job creation as a central target of the administration’s domestic policy.

According to a White House news release, the president’s proposed fiscal year 2012 budget would provide a $50 billion investment in infrastructure in an effort to use transportation spending—airport improvement, highway building, and high-speed rail development—to jump-start job creation.

Also, his budget proposal calls for funds to go to entrepreneurs to start businesses and create jobs in inner cities. The plan would also continue the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit and Renewable Energy Tax Grants, which accelerate growth in the “green” industry and allow employers to hire more workers.

Obama spoke about his plans to stimulate job growth at a recent National Action Network Gala.

“We are going to keep fighting until every family gets a shot at the American Dream,” Obama said, according to a White House transcript. “That's our North Star. That's the last thing I think about when I go to bed at night--the hopes and dreams of people who work hard every single day, look after their families, take care of their responsibilities, and just need a little bit of help to make it.”

Critics Question Effectiveness of U.S. Civil Rights Commission

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By Kenneth J. Cooper, Special to the NNPA from America’s Wire –

WASHINGTON - Halfway through his term, President Barack Obama is moving to wrest control of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from Republican appointees, but questions are being raised about its future and its ability to create a better America for victims of discrimination.

Due to what critics say is its unworkable structure, the commission has been largely ineffective in addressing civil rights issues, even with the recent addition of three Democratic members. An appointee of former president George W. Bush serves as the panel’s staff director, and Bush or Republican congressional leaders chose a majority of its members.

Commissioners unanimously elected a recent Obama appointee, Martin Castro, the new chairman on March 11. A Mexican American, Castro is president of Castro Synergies, based in Chicago. Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican appointee, is vice chairman.

Still, critics have been pressing for adjustments that could end partisan gridlock while expanding the mission. “The commission of the 21st century can’t be the commission we had 50 years ago,” says Wade Henderson, president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Leadership Conference Fund.

The federal commission was created a half century ago to be an independent, bipartisan monitor empowered to investigate civil rights issues, publish reports, and advocate for fairer treatment of all citizens. But, civil rights leaders say that under Bush, the panel strayed far from its original mission, ignoring such major developments as treatment of Black residents of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina while instead focusing on conservative ideological issues that reflected Bush administration positions.

Obama designated Castro as chairman and can designate a staff director, who can take office only with the support of a commission majority. A Democratic congressional appointment is also pending, which would give the panel the full complement of eight members, split evenly between Republican and Democratic appointees.

The main civil rights lobby in Washington contends that those steps would still fall short of making the commission an effective body that, in the past, helped to shape the contours of such major legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination Act of 1978 and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has called for a legislative makeover that would require Senate confirmation of appointees, reset the membership at an odd number to avoid partisan deadlock and expand the commission’s oversight to include gay rights and domestic obligations under international human rights treaties. Those pacts include guarantees not specified in federal law, such as the right to a quality public education.

Mary Frances Berry, a former chairwoman who wrote a 2009 book about the commission, endorses the proposal for new legislation but says the advisory panel is not worth preserving in its current form.

“It is sort of useless, to tell you the truth. What is it good for?” asks Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “I don’t see any change occurring until the statute is changed.”

Henderson also criticizes the commission’s performance in recent years but does not support scrapping it soon.

“There have been some who think it’s better to put it out of its misery and defund it,” Henderson says. “I’m not a supporter of that. If we would kill the Civil Rights Commission, it would never be recreated.”

Lenore Ostrowsky, the commission’s spokeswoman, says the panel and its staff are working on reports about disparate impact in student disciplinary actions by schools, age discrimination in the workplace, disparities in health care, the legality of requiring workers to speak English on the job and sex discrimination in liberal arts college admissions, including whether they have favored men.

Henderson and Berry concede that new legislation to revamp the commission is unlikely to pass Congress soon since conservative Republicans dominate the House. Henderson maintains that the panel can be reformed from within if the Obama administration can compromise with at least one Republican appointee on a new staff director and general counsel, now that his choice as chairman has been installed.

Obama took a first step in January, naming two new commissioners: Castro and Roberta Achtenberg, a prominent advocate of gay rights and former Clinton administration official. Commissioners are appointed for a term of six years.

In December, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, appointed Dina Titus, a Democratic congresswoman from Nevada who had lost a bid for a second term in November. She has been an advocate for people with disabilities.

Including those members, Republican appointees hold a 4-3 majority on the commission. Thernstrom, a Republican who is an adjunct scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, was acting chairwoman until Castro’s election.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has praised the Obama appointees as “eminently qualified.” Henderson interprets selection of Achtenberg, in particular, as a signal that Obama supports extending the commission’s mandate to include gay rights.

“The fact that he chose someone openly gay for that seat is a sign he acknowledges the mission needs to be expanded,” Henderson says.

Berry, however, was less impressed with Castro and Titus. She suggests that their appointments resemble political patronage because Castro is from Obama’s home state and Titus is from Reid’s. “That’s what you do with commissions that you don’t care about,” Berry says.

On Jan. 7, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi nominated Michael Yaki, a San Francisco lawyer, for a second term on the commission, a Pelosi spokesman said in an e-mail. Yaki, a former senior adviser to Pelosi, is from Pelosi’s home state, California. His nomination awaits action by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. A spokesman said in an e-mail on Feb. 28 that Boehner’s office was “still working through the appointment process.”

Henderson and Berry support making civil rights commissioners subject to Senate confirmation, as they were until the 1980s, in an effort to assure that nominees are qualified individuals of stature.

“It prevents the appointment of political hacks with no substance and qualifications,” Henderson says.

Berry says the 1983 compromise legislation that split nominating authority between the president and Congress, with Senate confirmation no longer required, “led to the decline in the stature of the people on the commission.” She acknowledges that reinstating Senate confirmations runs counter to Reid’s push to reduce the overall number of nominations on which the chamber must vote.

The panel lost its previous independence and bipartisan cooperation during the Reagan administration and again under George W. Bush, Berry writes in her 2009 book, “And Justice for All: The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America.” The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights draws the same conclusions in its 2009 proposal for revamping the commission, titled “Restoring the Conscience of a Nation.”

The current staff director, Martin Dannenfelser, was a Bush administration official and, before that, a staff member at the conservative Family Research Council.

Curtiss Reed Jr., chairman of the Vermont advisory committee until the commission ousted him in December, criticizes Obama for leaving Dannenfelser in place and says he “should have been replaced the day after Obama was inaugurated.”

Henderson says Obama has not had certain votes on the commission to ratify a replacement for Dannenfelser.

Thernstrom was elevated from vice-chair to chair when the term of Gerald A. Reynolds ended in December. She declined to comment about prospects for Obama installing new leadership.

The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment on Obama’s plans for designating staff director.

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