Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
Questions hang over Ohio's investigations into the deaths of John Crawford and Tamir Rice.
Jaeah LeeMay 5, 2015 6:25 AM
A protester holds up a picture of Tamir Rice on December 1, 2014.
While all eyes were on the unrest in Baltimore last week following Freddie Gray's death in police custody, many miles away Gov. John Kasich of Ohio announced a new advisory board intended to improve ties between police and communities across his state. The initiative, one among a few in the country, comes as Ohio authorities continue to face questions about two controversial police killings of black people. Unlike in Baltimore, where six officers were charged on Friday with crimes including manslaughter and murder, none of the officers involved in the recent killings in Ohio has faced criminal prosecution, despite video footage raising stark questions in both cases about the use of lethal force.
A grand jury declined to indict the two officers involved in the fatal shooting last August of 22-year-old John Crawford at a Walmart in Beavercreek, a predominantly white suburb of Dayton. Crawford allegedly brandished a rifle in a store aisle, and when Cleveland police officer Sean Williams and his partner, Sergeant David Darkow, came upon Crawford, Williams quickly fired two shots. The officers later told investigators that Crawford had ignored commands to drop the weapon, which turned out to have been a BB gun for sale on a store shelf. A US Department of Justice review of the case is pending.
"Half a year is an extremely long time" for the investigation to remain unfinished, says an Ohio legal expert.
In Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department continues to investigate the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who'd been playing with a toy gun in a park near his home last November. Responding to a 911 call about someone pointing a pistol that was "probably fake," Cleveland PD officers drove up to the scene, where surveillance camera footage showed one of the officers, Timothy Loehmann, shooting Rice almost instantly upon arrival. The other officer then tackled and restrained Rice's sister when she tried to run over to her dying brother. More than five months since Rice's death, the investigation has not been completed, despite the explicit video evidence and Loehmann's dubious record as a police officer.
"Half a year is an extremely long time," says Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a professor at Case Western Reserve University and a former Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor, especially given the video, the details of the 911 calls, and "the questions raised about Officer Loehmann's fitness for duty."
Lewis Katz, a Case Western Reserve professor specializing in criminal law, feels that "the case is clear-cut." And he says that he expects Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty to bring charges soon. (McGinty is in the midst of a prosecution against another Cleveland officer for a 2012 police shooting in which two unarmed people were killed, a case expected to end shortly.)
Cleveland city attorneys suggested that the 12-year-old Rice was responsible for his own death because he'd failed "to exercise due care to avoid injury."
Shortly after Rice's death, the Justice Department released the findings of a two-year civil rights investigation into the Cleveland Police Department, which revealed a pattern of "unreasonable and unnecessary use of force." Nevertheless, when Rice's family filed a wrongful death suit against Cleveland, city attorneys responded suggesting that Rice was responsible for his own death because he'd failed "to exercise due care to avoid injury." The statement drew outrage; Cleveland's mayor later apologized for the insensitivity and revised the language. City attorneys have since asked to halt the Rice family's lawsuit until the criminal investigation is complete. But Rice's family opposedthe request on Monday, arguing that doing so would risk "the loss of critical evidence" because key witnesses could move away or become less reliable over time.
Following the announcement of murder charges in Baltimore on Friday, civil rights activists called on the Ohio attorney general once again to bring charges against the officers involved in killing Rice and Crawford. "Public pressure seems to have certainly played a role in Baltimore," Hardaway says. "As much as I want to resist the urge to compare what has happened in Baltimore with what has yet to happen in Cleveland," she says, "I'm concerned by the fact that the same transparency is not taking place in Cleveland."
Ohio's new 12-member police advisory board, comprised of law enforcement officials and community members, will set standards governing the use of deadly force and the hiring and recruiting for police departments across the state. But it remains to be seen what changes the board will bring, says Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies the regulation of police. "Typically states haven't exercised a tremendous deal of control over local police agencies," he says, and it's rare for states to step into matters of police discipline.
"Policing is fundamentally local," agrees David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Strengthening ties between police and communities requires building long-term relationships, and "difficult, sustained efforts to communicate and help each other," he says. "Those efforts cannot be done through state-wide rule making, however well intentioned it might be."
Building trust in a community like the one where Rice was killed may be particularly challenging after a plodding investigation, whatever the result. Rice's mother recently moved to a homeless shelter to get out of the neighborhood where her son died. She and her family still await closure, and not only with the legal investigation. "Because it is unknown whether there may need to be an additional medical examination," a family court filing stated, "the body of Tamir Rice has not [been] put to rest."
A protester at a Baltimore PD building on April 21
For many in Baltimore, Freddie Gray's death was shocking but came as little surprise. It was only a matter of time, some said, before Baltimore erupted the way Ferguson, Missouri, did last summer. While no one knows exactly how many Americans die in police custody each year, limited data gathered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics starts to give some sense of scale: At least 4,813 people died while in custody of local and state law enforcement between 2003 and 2009, according to the latest available report, published in 2011. Sixty-one percent of those deaths were classified as homicides.
As I reported last August in Mother Jones, the BJS collects data on what it calls "arrest-related deaths" that occur either during or shortly after police officers "engage in an arrest or restraint process." The agency reports that 41.7 percent of those who were deemed to have been killed by police while in custody were white, 31.7 percent were black, and 20.3 percent were Hispanic. (Others died from intoxication, suicide, or by accidental, natural, or unknown causes.)
But you could be forgiven for suspecting that's not the full picture: There were an estimated 98 million arrests in the United States by local, state, and federal law enforcement from 2003 to 2009, according to FBI statistics. Fifteen states, plus the District of Columbia, did not consistently report deaths in police custody during that period—and Maryland, along with Georgia and Montana, didn't submit any records at all.
In other words, as the turmoil in Baltimore continues, what the data seems to tell us at this point is just how much we still don't know.
How the kids of the Inner Harbor Project are schooling local cops.
Jaeah LeeApr. 28, 2015 3:59 PM
The group's "peace ambassadors"
Since protests sprang up across Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray's death last week and turned increasingly violent on Monday night, cleanup crews and residents—including kids—have been working to repair the city. But long before the protests for Gray there were teens like Diamond Sampson, a Baltimore high school student who three years ago started working with a group of peers on the Inner Harbor Project, an effort to defuse tension between Baltimore's youth and its police.
Sampson says she's felt disheartened by the violence, but she sympathizes with the anger and frustration. Part of why the peaceful protests first spiraled out of control on Saturday, she says, is that some people walking by them shouted, "Black lives didn't matter"—a detail that she feels the media overlooked.
Sampson was one of the first teens to be recruited by Inner Harbor Project founder Celia Neustadt, who grew up in Baltimore and was one of four white students in her own high school class. After going on to graduate from Pomona College, Neustadt returned to the city to start the initiative, with Sampson as her first recruit. Since then, dozens of Baltimore teens have joined and helped conduct "trainings" for the Baltimore Police Department's Inner Harbor unit. They've often walked the harbor—a tourism destination and popular hangout for inner-city teens—as self-declared "peace ambassadors," wearing matching blue T-shirts and watching out for trouble: If a cop and a teen start arguing, they move in to help mediate. The group now has formal partnerships with local businesses and the police.
The current unrest pains Neustadt: "I know kids who saw the protests as an opportunity to, as my kids say, 'act a fool.' They thought this was an opportunity to take out anger on the city without consequences. Our work is front and center right now. There are so many young people in this city with nothing to lose."
In the days to come, the Inner Harbor Project's members are planning to use their social networks to try to stop agitators and recruit future youth ambassadors. In conversations with friends, Sampson says there's been talk about human rights for black teens and even a new civil rights movement. Whether or not that takes shape, she adds, "there's something going on, greater than our generation can realize."
"I just kept speaking in English really loudly so I didn't sound like a huge foreign freak."
Jaeah LeeApr. 28, 2015 6:30 AM
#GoodMuslimBadMuslim cohosts Zahra Noorbakhsh and Taz Ahmed.
Zahra Noorbakhsh was 12 and attending Farsi school in California when a teacher told her that if she didn't start wearing the hijab, her mother might burn in hell. So she tried it. But a trip to Blockbuster proved mortifying: "Everyone was staring at me and I just kept speaking in English really loudly—'Hey, Dad, I want to get Monster Truck Bloopers!'—so I didn't sound like a huge foreign freak."
"Everybody was like, 'Oh, you're going to get death threats.' No, actually just a lot of essays and wiki links from atheists telling me I'm confused."
That's one of the tales she revisits with cohost Tanzila "Taz" Ahmed in their new podcast, #GoodMuslimBadMuslim. Comedian Noorbakhsh befriended Ahmed, an activist and writer, on a road trip promoting Love, InshAllah, an anthology about the secret love lives of Muslim American women. They began teasing each other about which one was "the bad Muslim," took their discussions of cultural mores to Twitter, and later began recording them.
The resulting monthly podcast is a fun, sassy exchange, part Wayne's World, part Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. You might catch the ladies issuing a fatwa against bacon, inventing cheesy Muslim pickup lines ("You've hijacked my heart"), and sharing tips on how to survive your "conservative, gun-toting, libertarian" in-laws. But jokes aside, they address the uniquely confusing contradictions of how Muslim American women are expected to behave. Noorbakhsh prays but drinks and eats pork, and admits to having had sex before her marriage—to an atheist. Ahmed won't touch booze or pork, but she seldom prays, and recalls her parents berating her for wanting to dye her hair pink and go to punk shows.
Just four episodes in, the podcast is earning press attention (NBC News called it "side-splitting") and praise from listeners looking for fresh voices. "For women from these backgrounds to be talking openly about private subjects is a big deal," notes the Iranian-born comedian Maz Jobrani, who once had Noorbakhsh on stage as a guest performer. ("I totally bombed," she recalls.)
The timing is apt, too, as horrors committed in the name of Islam fuel new resentments. Noorbakhsh, a self-declared "loudmouth," points out that unabashed conversations are key to busting stereotypes. With her comedy act and now the podcast, "everybody was like, 'Oh, you're going to get death threats.' No, actually just a lot of essays and wiki links from atheists telling me I'm confused. And celebratory email! So I'm doing a lot of reading, not a lot of dying."
Our ongoing investigation of gun violence, which costs the United States at least $229 billion a year, includes data on the the economic toll for individual states. Wyoming has a small population but the highest overall rate of gun deaths—including the nation's highest suicide rate—with costs working out to about $1,400 per resident. Louisiana has the highest gun homicide rate in the nation, with costs per capita of more than $1,300. Among the four most populous states, the costs per capita in the gun rights strongholds of Florida and Texas outpace those in more strictly regulated California and New York. Hawaii and Massachusetts, with their relatively low gun ownership rates and tight gun laws, have the lowest gun death rates, and costs per capita roughly a fifth as much as those of the states that pay the most.