Living the News

courtesy of Narrative.ly  Illustration by Josh Simmons

courtesy of Narrative.ly
Illustration by Josh Simmons

Once when I was a sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, I went to the bank to deposit a check and found myself in the middle of a bank robbery. I was off duty, in plain clothes, and had left my gun in the car.

I hadn’t gone to the bank as a cop intent on arresting bad guys. I was just an unassuming customer—with bad timing. Now I knew what a robbery victim felt. I talk more about this in my book “Way, Way, Up There: My Odyssey from Cotton Picker to Top Cop.”

Veteran journalist Jocelyn Y. Stewart experienced a similar kind of turnaround. Instead of reporting about another senseless act of violence, she found herself speaking at a press conference asking for the public’s help to find the killer of a loved one.

Jocelyn wrote about this experience recently in the online magazine, Narrative.ly. Here’s the beginning of her story, “Grief Has No Deadline.”

* * *

To be a reporter in a city like Los Angeles is to understand the redundancy of crime.

Bullets strike—and then strike again. A young life ends—and then another. Grieving parents wonder how to survive the aftermath, when birthdays and Christmas mornings arrive and their child is gone.

The reporter who covers the crime won’t be present for the aftermath. The reporter will move on to the next story. Such is the reality of big city reporting. For years, that reporter was me. At the Los Angeles Times for nearly two decades and then as a freelance writer, I experienced the “on-to-the-next-story” life.

Then one sunny afternoon, I found myself at the 77th Division of the Los Angeles Police Department for a press conference about a twenty-two-year-old man who’d been fatally shot while driving in South Los Angeles early in the morning of April 21, 2012.

This time the tearful relatives standing before the cameras and the reporters were mine. The victim wasn’t somebody else’s child. He belonged to us. Kendrick LaJuan Blackmon, a.k.a. Lil Bit. My nephew.

At scenes like this, for so long my place had always been among the reporters, asking the questions, gathering facts and taking down quotes before rushing off to make deadline. Now I stood on the other side of the podium watching the journalists scribble notes as we pleaded for the killer to come forward.

This time there would be no moving on to the next story. I wouldn’t write about this for the next day’s paper. I would live it for years to come, because grief has no deadline.

* * *

There is a time of night when a phone call almost always means some kind of trouble, some news that will make your heart sink.

On April 21, 2012, at about two a.m., my house phone rings and awakens me from sleep. The voice on the other end is my niece, Shanae.
“Jo?” she says.
“What’s wrong?”
“They shot Lil Bit!”

In one motion, I am out of bed, dressed, and in my car on the freeway, headed to South Los Angeles. At that hour the freeway transition road is empty except for my car. This part of the freeway is elevated, so high you can see miles and miles of city lights, neon signs and billboards. All of it sits beneath you, seemingly peaceful, even surmountable. This is a good place to talk to God.

Not Lil Bit. Please Lord. Let him live.

To read the full story click here: http://narrative.ly/unsolved-mysteries/grief-has-no-deadline/

Jail or Yale: The Cost is Nearly the Same

Photo courtesy of JYS

Photo courtesy of JYS

It costs nearly as much to house an inmate in a New York City jail as it does to educate a kid at an Ivy League School, according to a Washington Post article published yesterday.

New York spends $167,731 per inmate annually—about the amount parents will pay in tuition fees for four years of education in the Ivy League.  That breaks down to $460 a day.  However you slice it, the number is astounding.

Experts point the finger of blame at Rikers Island. This 400-acre island is home to 10 correctional facilities and thousands of employees. It’s expensive to run for a variety of reasons.  To read the entire Washington Post article, click here.

One alternative is to replace Rikers Island with neighborhood jails located next to courthouses. But that politically unpopular plan was foiled by opposition from residents who live near courthouses. In the meantime, the price tag for incarceration in New York jails continues to skyrocket. And the loud opposition one might expect is not there.

Martin F. Horn, a former city correction commissioner, told the Washington Post:  “My point is: Have you seen a whole lot of outcry on this? Why doesn’t anything happen?” Horn said of the $167,731 annual figure. “Because nobody cares.”

“That’s the reason we have Rikers Island,” he said. “We want these guys put away out of public view.”

Keep in mind that we’re not talking about prison.  This is city jail. The population includes people who are awaiting trial. That means New York City is spending Ivy League money not only on hardened, violent criminals, but on drug addicts and small time criminals. At least some of the inmates will be found not guilty and will be released, or the charges will be dropped.

We all should be concerned with public safety. But numbers like this beg obvious questions.  Isn’t there a better way? Why is the public OK with this kind of outlay of funds? Isn’t there a better way to spend this money?

Think about it: If New York City spent an average $167,731 a year to educate a high school student, or to re-train a laid-off laborer, or to feed, clothe and house a poor family, or to eliminate the digital divide, what would the public say?

Think of what organizations like Black Girls CODE, Girls Who Code, Hidden Genius Project, Year Up and others dedicated to STEM education could do with such abundance. How many disadvantaged youth would grow up to become computer programmers or engineers because of their experiences in groups like these? (Click on the name of the organization to go to their website and learn more about the great work that they do.)

But you can imagine the outcry—which is why the silence now is so loud.

Guns in the Hands of Children and the Mentally Ill–A Recipe for Violence

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A recent string of violent incidents has forced the nation to again question the roots of violence.

• In Slaughter, Louisiana, an 8-year-old boy played the violent video game Grand Theft Auto, then shot his 90-year-old grandmother in the back of the head, killing her.

• In the Washington, D.C., area a former Navy reservist, who was known to play violent video games for hours, and had displayed signs of mental instability, walked into a navy yard and shot and killed 12 people. The New York Times reported that Aaron Alexis was armed with an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol.

• In Chicago, four young men were charged in the shooting of 13 people who had gathered to watch a basketball game. The injured included a three-year-old.

Last week on its first day of release, Grand Theft Auto V, generated a whopping $800 million in retail sales worldwide. The success of the GTA franchise is unparalleled—and its makers are unfazed by the critics who see a link between violent video games and gun violence. Millions of people have played some version of Grand Theft Auto and have not committed homicide.

Yet, the killings continue. The link between video games and violence may be debatable, but in my mind one point is painfully clear: children and crazy people should not have access to guns.

This is a simple concept that many people can agree on and accept. But when it comes to enacting the laws and policies that would transform that concept into reality, the gun lobby pulls out…the big guns. Any attempt to modify gun laws meets with derision, scare tactics, a campaign to paint gun control as an attack on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the American way, and your personal safety.

And the killings continue.

The idea that more guns in America equals a safer America simply does not wash. One horrific event after another proves that more guns have resulted in more accessibility. When even eight-year-olds and the mentally ill can access guns something is terribly wrong.

This may come as a surprise to some of my brothers of the badge, but I believe it’s time to have serious discussions about responsible gun ownership and about limiting access. It’s time to talk without the rabid rhetoric and scare tactics. As a nation we are innovative enough and brave enough to create a way to keep guns away from those who should not have them, while maintaining access for others. After all, working together to resolve our problems is really the American way.

Troubled Youth…and an Old Typewriter

UnderwoodA century ago the Underwood typewriter was high technology. It was the latest, the best, the “must have” device for anyone in the business of communicating.  Talk to the average kid today and most have never even seen an actual typewriter—and they certainly haven’t used one. The typewriter for them is a relic of a long ago past.

Our methods of communications have advanced at break neck speeds; our social policies concerning troubled youth have not. By comparison, over the years we have crawled toward more effective and humane policies; and our slow pace has cost us lives that could’ve been saved. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the U.S. still leads “the industrialized world in the rate at which we lock up young people.”

“In every year for which data are available, the overwhelming majority of confined youth are held for nonviolent offenses. In 2010, only one of every four confined youth was locked up based on a Violent Crime Index offense (homicide, aggravated assault, robbery or sexual assault).”

“40% OF JUVENILE COMMITMENTS AND DETENTION ARE DUE TO technical violations of probation, drug possession, low-level property offenses, public order offenses and status offenses (activities that would not be considered crimes as adults, such as possession of alcohol and truancy). This means most youth are confined on the basis of offenses that are not clear threats to public safety.”

Since 1995 the overall picture has started to improve. From a peak in 1995, the rate of youth in confinement dropped by 41% in 2010.  But we still have a long way to go. Huge disparities exist between the confinement rates of youth of color in comparison to their white peers. The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports:

“African-American youth are nearly five times as likely to be confined as their white peers. Latino and American Indian youth are between two and three times as likely to be confined. The disparities in youth confinement rates reflect a system that treats youth of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, more punitively than similar white youth.”

Imagine what would happen if we as a nation addressed the problems of youth with the same creativity, innovation, resources, interest and drive that took us from the Underwood typewriter to the iPhone. How would our policies look? What would our youth confinement rate be then?

America’s Juvenile Justice System: Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

justice2David Tyrone is 15-years-old. He’s an average student, who attends school regularly, and secretly dreams of becoming an artist. David knows gang members—it’s hard to live in his neighborhood and not know them—but he doesn’t belong. He’s not sure the gang life is for him. One day after school, David accepts an invitation to ride with his friends to the mall. That evening he and his friends are arrested for joy-riding. David is sentenced to time in a juvenile detention center. Inside he’s a target. When people ask him where he’s from, his answer, “nowhere,” is never good enough. In juvenile detention, you have to be from some gang. Inside you need protection—or else. David gravitates toward the gang members from his neighborhood. They protect him. They school him. By the time he’s released from juvenile detention, David is changed. Now he’s a bona fide gang member. Now he’s got “creds” (a reputation). It’s almost certain that he’ll return to juvenile detention for some crime or another.

David Tyrone is not a real kid, but this dilemma is very real. Scenarios like this play out every day in cities across America. It’s time to ask ourselves the question: do our juvenile justice detention centers deter the proliferation of juvenile gangs and the attendant gang violence or do they inadvertently serve as recruitment centers for gangs?
As our detention centers become more crowded and violent, many offenders who were incarcerated for non-gang related offenses are drawn into gangs for protection They quickly realize that inmates/youth who are not affiliated with any gang set are easy prey for gang members from any of the different warring sets. The basic tenet of our juvenile justice system is rehabilitation. With the overcrowding, staff shortages and the increasing tensions between warring gang factions, more time is being spent on safety issues and less on rehabilitative efforts. Part of the problem is this: some kids simply do not belong in juvenile detention.

To really appreciate this dilemma, an at least cursory examination of the gang infrastructure is needed. Think of the gang hierarchy as an inverted triangle. At the top and larger part of the triangle are the “wanna-bees” (hangers on who are flirting with the idea of becoming a gang member) and new gang members. The second tier and second largest group are the mid-level members. The last group, which is the smallest and most dangerous, is composed of “shot callers.” Very little of consequence occurs in a gang set without the knowledge or direction of the shot callers. Unfortunately, our juvenile justice system sometimes treats these categories of youth the same. Distinguishing between the groups can mean the difference between saving a kid from a life of violence and pushing him down a treacherous path.

We can be doing a lot more than institutionalizing youth, especially the wanna-bees and new gang members. To effectively impact the issue, more attention/efforts must be focused on prevention. “At risk” youth and wanna-bees must be identified and programs instituted to steer them to more productive lifestyles. We owe it to our future to focus on creative ways to save youth, rather than lock them up. I submit that the gang issue cannot be arrested away. More than 30 years of strenuous enforcement has proven that. It must be dried up by dealing with at-risk youth before they become caught up in the gang culture.

This week attorney general Eric Holder announced fundamental changes in federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. Holder made this comment during his speech:

“Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities. And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.”

Our juvenile justice system is exacerbating the problem. The big question is, do we have the resolve to devote the energy and resources to correct the problem? Or do we stand idly by and allow these misguided youth to develop into menaces to society?