Political MoJo

St. Louis County Police on Tamir Rice Killing: "Kids Will Be Kids?"

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 2:19 PM EST

Update 12/5/2014: Chief Jon Belmar of the St. Louis County Police Department posted a message on Facebook apologizing for officer Aaron Dilks' previous post, calling it a "misguided communication strategy."

On Thursday morning, the St. Louis County Police Department took the ill-advised step of deciding to weigh in on the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by a Cleveland police officer last month, with a Facebook post titled, "Kids will be Kids?"

The post, which the Guardian reported was written by officer Aaron Dilks, urged parents to sit down with their kids and warn them about the dangers of playing with an Airsoft gun. That's the toy gun Rice had in a Cleveland park when 26-year-old rookie officer Tim Loehmann fatally shot him just seconds after pulling into the parking lot. The tragic incident was caught on surveillance video.

"If the type of gun is in question...the Police will respond as though it is a real gun until it can be confirmed one way or the other," the post said. It provided instructions for children to follow if they find themselves in a similar situation to Rice: "Do not run away. They need to no longer have the gun in their hands, throw it away from them."

That may well be reasonable advice. But the timing of the post, replete with tone-deaf headline, was horrible: Not only did Rice's death come just days after a St. Louis grand jury declined to indict officer Darren Wilson in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, but this post came within hours of a Staten Island grand jury deciding not to indict the NYPD officer whose choking of Eric Garner led to Garner's death. After all the controversy surrounding its tactics in Ferguson, how could the St. Louis County PD fail to realize that any pronouncements that could be construed as absolving police of the Rice killing would inflame a volatile situation?

The Facebook post, blasted by critics on social media for being insensitive, was removed by late Thursday morning, as was a St. Louis County PD tweet that had promoted it.

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This Pro-Hillary Cowboy Anthem Will Make Your Ears Bleed

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 11:56 AM EST

The 2016 presidential election's stupid season has begun. Sure, it's only been a month since the midterms, but a bevy of super-PACs are already boosting Hillary Clinton's nascent presidential campaign. Three new pro-Hillary groups have been established in the past six weeks, the Washington Post's Matea Gold noted Thursday.

One of those new super-PACs is Stand With Hillary, which debuted by releasing a truly horrendous pro-Hillary country anthem. In the video—which leans heavily on shots of barns, tractors, and construction workers—a bearded cowboy croons about his desire for Clinton to run for president one more time. "Now it's 2016," he sings, "and this time I'm a thinkin', guys put your boots on and let's smash this ceiling," at which point a pane of glass with 2016 written on it is literally smashed with a sledgehammer. Oy vey.

"Don't matter if you're living across this great land in a red or blue state," he sings. "Cuz our American dream is at stake and there's some hard choices that need to be made. We're needing a leader who is tough and ready, who's got vision." It's left unsaid whether this cowboy favors Clinton for her hawkish foreign policy views, her support of fracking, or her thoughts on parental leave laws.

But purely as a piece of music, this is rubbish. If you want a better country song, try some Blake Shelton. And if you want a song to serve as the soundtrack to Clinton's presidential rerun, it's never a bad time to revisit the 2008 classic "Hillary4U&Me":

The US Government Deported 438,000 People in 2013. 83 Percent Never Got a Hearing.

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 6:30 AM EST

The past couple of weeks have been filled with stories of relieved immigrants: Undocumented parents of American citizens, children who arrived in the United States years ago, and other immigrants without papers can step out of the shadows now that Obama has issued an executive action granting relief to 5 million undocumented residents. (Read more details on the president's plan here.)

But a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union underscores a troublesome pattern that has received far less attention: Of the 438,421 people deported in 2013, 83 percent received a summary removal, meaning that they were sent to their country of origin by US officials without a hearing. And according to the ACLU's research, many of these removals were illegal: Asylum seekers, unaccompanied kids, and others who may have qualified for relief routinely have been turned away.

Until the mid-'90s, virtually all immigrants at risk of being deported went through an immigration hearing before a judge. But, partly in response to immigration court backlogs, a 1996 law called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act changed that, extending the ability to issue deportations to immigration officers—the same people who arrest and detain immigrants. Since 2003, the number of immigrants deported by officers without a trial has tripled; in fiscal year 2013, according to the ACLU, some 363,000 deported individuals "did not have a hearing, never saw an immigration judge, and were deported through cursory administrative processes where the same presiding immigration officer acted as the prosecutor, judge, and jailor." 

In theory, the current law prevents immigration courts from being completely inundated while also providing safeguards; officers are to ask individuals if they fear for their lives in their home countries and are seeking asylum, and those who do are to be referred to an officer with asylum training. But according to the ACLU's findings, these protocols aren't often followed: Of 89 interviewees who received summary removals, only 28 percent were asked in a language they understood if they feared persecution upon returning home. Of those, 40 percent answered "yes" but were still summarily removed. An estimated 95 percent of Mexican unaccompanied children have been turned back before seeing a judge.

The ACLU report also documents stories of immigrants for whom expedited deportation was particularly devastating. Below is an excerpt:

Braulia A. and Hermalinda L. were gang-raped and shot after being deported to Guatemala; Braulia's son, who joined her in Guatemala after her deportation, was murdered by the same gang that raped and shot her. Nydia R., a transgender woman who actually had asylum status when she was (twice) deported without a hearing, was attacked by men who raped her and tried to cut out her breast implants; she was then kidnapped and sex-trafficked in Mexico. Laura S. told border officials that she was afraid of her abusive ex-partner; her pleas ignored, she was deported and was murdered by him within days of her removal to Mexico.

As Sarah Mehta, an ACLU human rights researcher and an author of the report, put it, "Almost every location that we went to across the northern and southern borders had the same stories: of people not knowing what their rights were when they got deported, given a form to sign that they didn't understand, often in a language they didn't know, and essentially pushed across the border. The stories of coercion—of mistreatment, of people being threatened with indefinite detention, of people losing their children—those stories also were not just a one-off."

No one, the ACLU included, seems to be able to provide a realistic solution to the immigration court backlog; it's undeniable that if all those requesting asylum were given a trial, the system would be further clogged.

But Obama's recent executive action makes no mention of eliminating illegal summary removals—in fact, it focuses on continuing the "surge of resources" to the border. According to the White House Press Office, "The President's actions increase the chances that anyone attempting to cross the border illegally will be caught and sent back."

Rep. Peter King Blames Chokehold Death on Eric Garner's "Obesity"

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 9:18 PM EST

Following the announcement Wednesday that a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict the NYPD officer who placed Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that Garner would not have died if he hadn't been so "obese."

"If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died from this,” King said. "The police had no reason to know he was in serious condition."

The city's medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide and attributed it to the use of a chokehold by officer Daniel Pantaleo. Garner had repeatedly exclaimed "I can't breathe" during the arrest, as seen in the video recorded by bystanders. Nevertheless, King questioned whether Garner had pleaded for help, telling Blitzer, "The fact is, if you can’t breathe, you can’t talk." He added: "I have no doubt if that was a 350-pound white guy, he would have been treated the same."

King also suggested recently that President Obama invite Darren Wilson to the White House to thank the former Ferguson police officer for doing his job.

(h/t Mediaite)

A Texas Grand Jury Recently Cleared 2 White Cops Who Beat a Black Woman in Jail

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 7:28 PM EST

In another recent case involving a grand jury, white cops, and a black civilian, a grand jury in the east Texas town of Jasper, about two hours from Houston, chose last month not to indict two police officers for the brutal beating of Jasper resident Keyarika Diggles. Diggles had been arrested and jailed in May 2013 over an unpaid $100 parking ticket (which, it turned out, she had been paying in installments.) As you can see in the surveillance video below, at some point officers Ricky Grissom and Ryan Cunningham grab Diggles, slam her head on the counter, pull her hair and drag her across the floor by her feet:

According to the Texas Observer, the officers proceeded to drag Diggles into a dark "detox cell," where her lawyers said she spent hours before being strip-searched by another officer. Here's more from the Observer on the aftermath of the attack:

Diggles settled a civil rights lawsuit against the city and the officers last December for $75,000. And less than a month after the incident, Jasper’s city council voted to fire Cunningham and Grissom. That alone was a stronger response than many allegations of police brutality get, and Jasper Mayor Mike Lout said the council would work with the district attorney to consider criminal charges against the officers. Lout and other city leaders stressed that the Diggles case wasn't a sign of some deeper racial divide in the city, but an isolated incident with the perpetrators swiftly punished.

"We are shocked by the failure of the prosecutor to get an indictment," said Cade Bernsen, Diggles' attorney. "I'm wondering what investigation was done because the video speaks for itself."

According to records obtained by the Observer, Cunningham was hired to join the Jasper County Sheriff's Office in September.

Grand Jury Doesn't Indict Staten Island Cop in Death of Eric Garner

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 2:47 PM EST

Update 12/3/2014: Attorney General Eric Holder reportedly told New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio the Department of Justice will conduct a federal investigation into Eric Garner's death, following a grand jury's decision not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. 

A Staten Island grand jury has declined to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.

The "no-bill" decision comes despite the fact that Pantaleo was caught on camera putting Garner in a chokehold during his July 17 arrest.

Cell-phone video of Garner’s July 17 arrest shows Pantaleo wrestling him to the sidewalk on Bay Street, with the white cop’s arms wrapped around the neck of the black suspect.

On the ground, Garner was heard repeatedly yelling “I can’t breathe!” as Pantaleo and other cops held him down and handcuffed him.

The Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”

Police union leaders denied that Pantaleo used a chokehold — which is banned by the NYPD — and blasted the autopsy as part of a “political” witch hunt.

The fact that this video exists, that the cop saw it being recorded, that the grand jury watched it and then still declined to indict, should chasten anyone who thinks body cams will be a cure-all for police abuse.

Read about the science of implicit prejudices and what we can do to better train police.

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Tea Partiers Ignore Michele Bachmann's Call for Rally Against "Amnesty"

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 12:23 PM EST
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Tea Party Patriots cofounder Jenny Beth Martin (left) in front of the Supreme Court in 2012

On November 20, minutes after President Barack Obama delivered a speech explaining his executive action on immigration reform that would protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) took to Fox News and called on tea partiers everywhere to come to Washington to protest.

Bachmann, the head of the House tea party caucus who is retiring from Congress in weeks, implored the audience to help her fight the "amnesty." She urged them to "melt the phone lines" to congressional lawmakers. And she declared she would be leading a protest on Capitol Hill. "I'm calling on your viewers to come to DC on Wednesday, December 3, at high noon on the west steps of the Capitol," she proclaimed. "We need to have a rally, and we need to go visit our senators and visit our congressman, because nothing frightens a congressman like the whites of his constituents' eyes…We need the viewers to come and help us."

The next day, the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest remaining tea party groups, sent out an urgent survey to its members. The email, signed by cofounder Jenny Beth Martin, said the group—which has worked closely with Bachmann in the past to organize other rallies at the Capitol—was trying to determine whether such a rally would be a good use of its resources. The email asked these "patriots" to indicate whether they would respond to Bachmann and come to Washington to protest the president's actions on immigration. Apparently, the answer was no. The Tea Party Patriots did not sign up for this ride.

With the tea party not heeding Bachmann's call, her "high noon" rally was downgraded to…a press conference. So on Wednesday, Bachmann appeared on the Capitol steps—joined by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)—and spoke to a passel of cameras and about 40 protesters. Here's a picture of the crowd:

tiny protest
Stephanie Mencimer

What happened to her big protest? Bachmann's office did not respond to a request for comment. A TPP spokesman said in an email that the "gathering in Washington is not a Tea Party Patriots event per se, but we are fully in favor of it and have encouraged our supporters in the area to come out if they can."

The lackluster response to Bachmann's high-noon call is a far cry from five years ago, when the congresswoman made a similar appeal on Fox for a protest against Obamacare. She asked for tea partiers to hit Capitol Hill and tell legislators "don't you dare take away my health care." And the fledgling tea party movement responded enthusiastically. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity dispatched dozens buses full of activists—29 just from New Jersey. FreedomWorks, then headed by former House majority leader Dick Armey, organized more. Glenn Beck promoted the event. Thousands of people showed up, as did the entire GOP House leadership. The momentum generated from that rally helped the GOP in the 2010 midterm elections.

Bachmann, after a failed run for the White House, is spending her last days on the Hill writing listicles for BuzzFeed. And even before her final day as a congresswoman, Bachmann, with this non-rally, seems a has-been.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 2, 2014

Tue Dec. 2, 2014 10:49 AM EST

Bulgarian and Serbian soldiers participate in a peacekeeping drill with US Marines, wearing riot gear. (US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Derrick Irions)

The Obama Administration Wants to End Racial Profiling "Once and for All"

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 9:35 AM EST

Speaking at the same Baptist church where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday announced he would soon unveil a plan to end racial profiling "once and for all."

His speech comes just one week after a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The decision sparked massive demonstrations in the St. Louis suburb and throughout the nation, with protestors demanding justice for Brown. Wilson has since resigned from the force.

Holder said the events that followed Brown's death "are truly national in scope and threaten the entire nation."

"In the coming days, I will announce updated Justice Department guidance regarding profiling by federal law enforcement," he said before a packed Ebenezer Baptist Church. "This will institute rigorous new standards—and robust safeguards—to help end racial profiling, once and for all. This new guidance will codify our commitment to the very highest standards of fair and effective policing."

Protesters chanting “no justice, no peace” briefly interrupted Holder's announcement. They were escorted out and Holder commended their "genuine expression of concern and involvement."

Also on Monday, President Barack Obama introduced a proposal to equip police officers with body cameras.

 

Court Blocks Texas From Executing Mentally Ill Convict—for Now

| Mon Dec. 1, 2014 7:09 PM EST
 
Scott Panetti in an old mug shot

Update 12/3/2014: Less than eight hours before Scott Panetti was scheduled to die, a federal appeals court ordered a stay of execution in order to “fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue." Panetti's lawyers responded in a statment: "Mr. Panetti's illness, schizophrenia, was present for years prior to the crime, profoundly affected his trial, and appears to have worsened in recent years. Mr. Panetti has not had a competency evaluation in seven years, and we believe that today's ruling is the first step in a process which will clearly demonstrate that Mr. Panetti is too severely mentally ill to be executed."

Today the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted 7-0 against recommending clemency for Scott Panetti, a severely mentally ill death row inmate who is now infamous for having represented himself at trial wearing a purple cowboy suit.

Panetti, first diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978, was convicted of capital murder after he shaved his head, donned camo fatigues, and shot his in-laws in 1992 in a psychotic rage. But today, not even his victims think he should be executed. His ex-wife has said publicly that she believes he is deeply sick and should be spared. In the past month, a host of prominent conservatives and evangelicals have joined with death penalty opponents, mental-health groups, the European Union, the nation of Bulgaria, a former Texas governor, libertarian cult figure Ron Paul, and myriad others who have called on the board and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to spare Panetti. But even that wasn't enough to sway the governor-appointed board.

Scott Panetti
A more recent shot of Panetti
Texas Department of Criminal Justice

The decision means that Panetti's last real hope of avoiding execution on Wednesday lies with the US Supreme Court. Texas law doesn't give the governor independent authority to commute a sentence unless the pardons board recommends such a move—although Perry could order a one-time 30-day delay. Every Texas court that has heard Panetti's appeals in recent weeks has ruled against him, despite powerful dissents from conservative Republican judges.

With the execution less than 48 hours away, Panetti's lawyers have filed two petitions with the high court asking the justices to halt the execution and review the case to determine whether executing the mentally ill violates the Eighth Amendment. They also argue that Panetti hasn't had a mental competency hearing in seven years, and that his mental state has deteriorated significantly during that time. (He now apparently believes there's a listening device implanted in his tooth, for instance.)

 

This is a similar issue to the one that won Panetti a reprieve in 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that he hadn't been afforded due process in assessing his competency to be executed. (A previous Supreme Court ruling bans use of the death penalty on people who can't understand the nature of their punishment.) The 2007 decision gave Panetti the right to a hearing on his mental competency, but it didn't do him much good. Even though Panetti still believed he was going to be executed for preaching the Gospel, and despite the fact that all but one of the doctors who testified in the hearing believed he was seriously mentally ill, the lower courts green-lighted his execution anyway. The Supreme Court denied his last appeal of those decisions this past October, clearing the way for his December 3 execution.

The Supreme Court hasn't been especially sympathetic lately to arguments about mental illness and the death penalty. Last year, it refused to block the execution of another seriously mentally ill inmate in Florida, John Ferguson, who went to his death believing he was the prince of God. But Panetti's pro bono lawyers, Kathryn Kase and Greg Wiercioch, argue that public opinion on the issue is changing, and that the law needs to change with it. They cite a new poll showing that nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose executing someone with a serious mental illness. They also reference new research showing that juries and judges today are far less likely to choose death for a mentally ill defendant than they were 20 or 30 years ago. In 11 former and current death penalty states that allow for a "guilty but mentally ill" verdict, there hasn't been a death sentence imposed on a mentally ill person in at least 20 years.

The Supreme Court petitions also seem clearly targeted at Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was the swing vote in Panetti's favor in 2007, and who is somewhat fond of citing international law in his opinions. Panetti's lawyers emphasize that executing the mentally ill is considered a major human rights violation by most other civilized countries. We'll soon know whether these arguments are proving persuasive, as Texas is moving full steam ahead for Panetti's lethal injection. The high court will have to act quickly one way or another.

The following infographic was created by the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit group that seeks to fix the flaws in the death penalty process and ensure fair representation for capital defendants:

TexasDefender.org