Why William Bratton Is the Wrong Man to Lead the New York Police Department
The New York Times is reporting that New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has chosen William Bratton to succeed Ray Kelly as commissioner of the New York Police Department. This will be Bratton’s second stint in charge of the NYPD; he also ran the department during the Giuliani administration, and received much credit for the substantial drop in the city’s crime rate during his tenure. Since then, Bratton has gone on to command the Los Angeles Police Department, work in private industry, serve as a criminal justice commentator on NBC, and, weirdly, be named a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. (Bratton narrowly beat out de Blasio’s second choice for the job: Sir Archibald Whitworth of Sussex.)
Bratton will be expected to keep the city safe while simultaneously renewing New Yorkers’ confidence in a police department that has been sharply criticized in recent years, most often for its divisive stop-and-frisk policy. (De Blasio has promised to reform stop-and-frisk, and this will be one of Bratton’s most important jobs.) There are plenty of reasons to think that Bratton’s up to the task. He has a reputation as a brilliant tactician and a lifelong innovator, a leader who’s good with organizational management and unafraid to delegate authority. He’s also an ambitious self-promoter who thinks very well of himself. That doesn’t really bother me: If hustlers and narcissists were disqualified from holding public office, then every city hall in America would be empty. But there are a couple of other, more substantial reasons why I think it’s valid to question whether Bratton is really the best man for the job.
For one thing, Bratton is a hard-core technocrat—in recent years, he co-founded a company called Bratton Technologies that, as far as I can tell, built some sort of social network for law enforcement officers. More significantly, in the 1990s Bratton developed and deployed CompStat, the crime statistics program that, by tracking arrest, summons, and complaint data citywide, was supposed to help the NYPD recognize patterns, evaluate its tactics, and better allocate its resources. Since then, many other police departments have adopted similar programs.
There’s nothing wrong with compiling good data on crime, and in acting on that data. But CompStat meetings too often become poisonous affairs where commanders are berated and embarrassed in front of their peers if they fail to show sustained statistical improvement in their precincts. If all that matters are the numbers, then managers will do whatever it takes to make those numbers look good, regardless of whether the tactics they use to do so are actually good for the community. This is the sort of mentality that leads police departments to impose arrest and summons quotas and artificially downgrade crime reports. This is exactly the mentality that leads to stop-and-frisk excess. We can expect Bratton to tout the uses of programs like CompStat. It remains to be seen whether he’ll want to curb the abuses, or whether he’ll be able to even if he wants to curb them.
Bratton also loves the “broken windows” theory of policing. Loves it, regularly defends it, would probably marry it if our laws allowed him to do so. And that might be a problem. As I’ve written before, adherents of the “broken windows” theory believe that a disorderly city is a dangerous city, and that taking a hard line on quality-of-life violations can help prevent more serious crimes. Under Rudy Giuliani’s direction, Bratton implemented broken-windows strategies in New York in the 1990s, and, lo and behold, the crime rate dropped. Bratton and Giuliani naturally saw this as a validation of these broken-windows tactics, but there’s plenty of reason to believe that other factors—like the end of the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic, for one thing—played a far greater role in dropping the city’s crime rate.
One of the main problems with broken windows is that it gives bad cops an excuse to harass poor minorities who have the misfortune to live in relatively dangerous neighborhoods. Most people who live in dangerous neighborhoods aren’t criminals; they’re regular, honest people who can’t afford to move elsewhere. But by confusing urban decay for moral decay, broken windows encourages cops to treat all poor people as guilty parties. A close cousin to broken-windows policing is “zero tolerance policing,” in which cops actively arrest people for small infractions in hopes that this will then lead to bigger things. The city becomes safer by getting potential felons off the street, someone arrested for drug possession rats out his dealer—those sorts of things. Broken-windows strategies and zero-tolerance policing strategies go hand in hand. But, as I wrote last month in an article about an out-of-control zero-tolerance program in Miami Gardens, Fla., zero tolerance can also lead to serious civil rights abuses when overzealous beat cops disregard or misunderstand what the program was meant to accomplish.
Since leaving the NYPD in 1996, Bratton has continued to defend broken windows, which strikes me as a serious handicap for a man who will be expected to engender good will in New York’s minority neighborhoods. And it makes him a very weird choice as the man expected to lead the department out of the civil-rights-violating stop-and-frisk era.
Watch the Video That Precipitated Aaron Swartz’s Downfall
Eleven months after Aaron Swartz’s suicide, a video has been discovered that records one of the moments that led to his downfall. Kevin Poulsen at Wired’s Threat Level blog has obtained security camera footage from 2011 that shows Swartz entering a wiring closet in the basement of MIT’s Building 16. Police used this footage to help identify Swartz as the mysterious person who had been auto-downloading millions of academic journal articles from the JSTOR database. This set in motion the events that ultimately led to Swartz’s arrest, indictment, and, many believe, his death. While the video isn’t the most dramatic material, it still adds context and details to the story of Swartz’s downfall. It’s worth watching if, like so many people worldwide, you remain interested in Swartz’s life—and how and why it came to such an abrupt, unnecessary end.
When examining Swartz’s life, people tend to see what they want to see. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston saw Swartz not as an innovator or a data liberator, but as a selfish thief, someone who put his own desires ahead of laws that protect private property and, ostensibly, the public interest. To them, and to the people who initially investigated the JSTOR incident, this footage likely helped crystallize what had been an abstract offense, helping to legitimize the notion that there is very little difference between a hacker and a burglar. As Poulsen writes at Wired, “Looking at the video, it’s easy to see what MIT and the Secret Service presumably saw—a furtive hacker going someplace he shouldn’t go, doing something he shouldn’t do.” This is the thinking of the U.S. attorneys: Accessing a closet without explicit permission is the same thing as accessing a database without explicit permission. Bulk downloading is the same thing as burglary.
But that’s far from the only way to see it. Last month Swartz’s friends and collaborators convened a worldwide Aaron Swartz Hackathon, where interested parties on five continents gathered over the course of a weekend to remember Swartz, discuss his legacy, and attempt to honor that legacy by working on various projects related to open data, free culture, and other causes in which Swartz believed. In a speech at the Hackathon’s opening ceremony at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, open-government advocate Carl Malamud—who, in 2008, worked with Swartz to download a significant portion of the federal court system’s PACER database—characterized bulk downloading as an act of civil disobedience against unjust and outdated statutes that, by restricting the public’s access to data, clearly work against the public interest. Invoking Gandhi and Rosa Parks, Malamud urged Hackathon attendees that they, too, could help galvanize social change through careful, deliberate, sustained acts of defiance:
Change comes from movements, when many people begin working towards a common aim. When we question authority, we do so to put them on notice, but also to educate ourselves. If we all stand together, we can tell the authorities “you can govern us, but only so long as we remain the governed.” That is the basis of civil disobedience. That takes time and patience.
Some have suggested that prosecutors wanted to make an example of Aaron Swartz. It’s become increasingly clear in the 11 months since his death that they succeeded, just not in the way they intended.
The Dumb Criminal’s Guide to Committing Malfeasance in the Social Media Age
Two Maryland men have pleaded guilty to threatening a pair of Anne Arundel County judges, in a sort of modern, sub-moronic Strangers on a Train scenario. As Pamela Wood at the Baltimore Sun reports, Zachary Mitchell and Justin Ferrell were tripped up by Facebook postings in which they discussed how great it would be if each man killed the other man’s judge. “I’ll hit ur judge and u hit mine lol,” Mitchell wrote to Ferrell; “real tlk I was tthinkin we should do that,” Ferrell replied. The cops discovered the incriminating postings, as they tend to do, and now Mitchell and Ferrell will spend the next three years in prison. ROFLMAO.
These sorts of social media indiscretions seem to happen all the time lately, and they’re so, so dumb. Mitchell, Ferrell, and plenty of other people might still be free if they had only followed some basic, common-sense rules about how to comport themselves online. Here’s what you need to know if you’re going to commit crimes in the social media age.
Realize that everything is public. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus: If you ever post anything on a popular social media service—I know, I know, Google Plus isn’t popular—you have to assume that investigators will be able to find it. Law enforcement officers regularly monitor social media, and they are getting very good at discovering things that you might not want them to see or hear, and at inducing social media providers to cooperate with them. Don’t trust any social media service’s privacy settings; don’t think that you’ve successfully limited a posting to just your friends; don’t expect that you’re ever truly anonymous online. Because you shouldn’t, you haven’t, and you’re not.
Just because you say “LOL” doesn’t mean the cops will think you’re making a joke. Mitchell and Ferrell claimed they were just joking, a claim undermined by the fact that Mitchell allegedly went ahead and tried to buy a gun to proceed with the hit. But even if he hadn’t done so, his postings would probably still have drawn police attention. It’s hard to convey humor online, and it’s easy to take everything someone says literally. On account of that, it’s probably best to avoid joking about criminal activity entirely, even if your joke is both preceded and followed by a line reading “DISCLAIMER: THIS IS JUST A JOKE.”
Resist the urge to unburden your soul on your Facebook wall. It might feel good to expiate your sins by letting your Facebook friends know that you have committed a horrible crime, but all you’re really doing is sabotaging the defense lawyer you will inevitably need when cops discover your confession and arrest you. After a Florida man named Derek Medina allegedly killed his wife earlier this year, he posted a photo of her corpse on Facebook, along with a message reading “Im going to prison or death sentence for killing my wife love you guys, miss you guys takecare Facebook people you will see me in the news.” He has been charged with first-degree murder, and has pleaded not guilty. To his lawyer, I say: Good luck with that.
Assume that everyone is a narc. You might think that your friends are cool, and that they won’t rat you out if, for example, you post a Facebook status update boasting about your drunken-driving exploits. But how many of your social media contacts are actual real-world friends? Maybe 20 of them, I’d bet; the rest are casual acquaintances, distant relatives, or people you met once at a party. If you think all of these people are sufficiently loyal to you that they’ll keep your wanton illegality a secret, you’re absolutely wrong. There will always be someone who sees your incriminating message, thinks “I don’t really know this guy,” and forwards it on to police. So just assume that all of your friends are going to do that, and keep your stupid braggy mouth shut.
You cannot hire a good hit man online. This would seem so obvious as to not be worth mentioning, except that people keep making this mistake, under the misapprehension that professional contract killers build their businesses by responding to random Facebook postings and Craigslist ads. You can’t hire an assassin the same way you’d hire someone for a short-term catering job. Any hoodlum dumb enough to accept your proposition will be a reckless amateur who will likely bungle the job. But 99 times out of 100, the respondent will be a cop who wants to arrest you. Pay attention, people! I really don’t want to say this again.
The Knee Is One of the Five Worst Body Parts to Bite
At the end of every month, I scour the LexisNexis and Factiva news databases for stories about the criminal exploits of people who are allegedly high on the dissociative drug phencyclidine, or PCP. Urban legend maintains that a dose of PCP—also known as angel dust—can give you superstrength, or make you hunger for human flesh. These are exaggerations. That said, PCP can lower a user’s inhibitions in newsworthy fashion. To wit:
PCP is back in style. Hooray? A new government study found that emergency room visits for PCP-related incidents rose by more than 400 percent between 2005 and 2011. “This report is a wake-up call that this dangerous drug may be making a comeback in communities throughout the nation,” said the director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which performed the study. This is certainly bad news for communities throughout the nation, but it’s great news for crime bloggers who write monthly columns about PCP-addled weirdos.
World’s worst houseguest. When New York man Dennis “Bam” Hill decided to visit Philadelphia before Thanksgiving, it was only natural that he would stay with his friend Darryll Martin. But Martin’s generosity was flouted when, according to police, Hill became enraged late one night and threatened to kill Martin’s young daughters with some kitchen utensils. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, Hill was under the influence of PCP when he grabbed the girls with his “gargantuan mitts” and threatened their lives with the forks and the knives. Martin tried to reason with his friend, but that didn’t work, so he whacked him with a baseball bat, which did work. This should serve as a warning to all of us to avoid having houseguests, especially houseguests named “Bam” with gargantuan mitts.
Hellcab. When I’m feeling aimless and desperate, I like to drink a case of beer and cry myself to sleep. When Bronx man Robert Mizell was feeling “aimless and desperate” this fall, he allegedly pulled a gun on an NYC cabbie and demanded that the driver take him to Albany. We’ve all got different ways of coping, I guess. Mizell, who was indicted for the crime last month, made it as far as Tarrytown before the cabbie escaped; the Journal News reports that Mizell had “smoked PCP-laced marijuana” before embarking on the voyage. I’d like to briefly note that the Journal News article about this incident was written by Erik Shilling, a friend and former roommate of mine. I’m thrilled to see that Erik and I have both fulfilled our dreams of writing about whacked-out PCP users for a living. We made it, buddy!
I bite your knee, sir! This month’s naked-guy story comes from Manchester, Conn., where, according to Jesse Leavenworth at the Hartford Courant, cops found a naked, disoriented man named Jarees Robinson standing on a street corner. (According to police, Robinson later admitted that he had taken PCP.) After he was brought to a local hospital, Robinson became aggressive, allegedly going so far as to bite a police officer on the knee. Not to be a Monday-morning quarterback, but if this story is true, then Jarees Robinson could really use some lessons in biting. The knee is one of the top five worst body parts to bite: It’s not very fleshy, it’s hard to get to, and the person being bitten will likely retaliate by smashing his knee into your mouth, thus causing you more pain than you yourself delivered. If Robinson finds himself strung out on the mean streets of Manchester, he needs to go for an arm. And, just in case you were wondering, here are the other four worst body parts to maliciously bite: elbow (even less fleshy than the knee), armpit (hair gets in the way), foot (usually protected by a shoe), and teeth (redundant).
Please don’t Scream. An Allentown, Pa., teenager named Javier Humberto Toro was sentenced to between 10 and 20 years in prison after he was convicted of robbing three convenience stores while hopped up on a variety of illegal drugs, including PCP. To conceal his identity, Toro wore the same sort of scary mask used in the Scream films, probably hoping that police would end up pinning the crimes on Matthew Lillard. “He is truly a danger to society,” the judge said of Toro, likely worrying that the publicity surrounding his crimes might convince Wes Craven to make another horrible Scream movie.
PCP Story of the Month. According to police, a Dallas woman named Reshonda Fields smoked some PCP this November and went on a destructive joy ride that ended when her car smashed into a pole and caught on fire. Fields allegedly told the cops that “she had fun driving erratically,” which I’m sure she did. But a closer look at the situation reveals that Fields might deserve our sympathy instead of our scorn.
“I just had a bad day. My kids are testing me. My baby’s father won’t make him mind,” Fields said after she was arrested, according to NBCDFW.com. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to hurt nobody. I really don’t.” At one point or another, every mother has been pushed to the breaking point by her kids’ misbehavior and her partner’s apparent indifference. Sure, most women don’t proceed to allegedly smoke PCP and wreak havoc on the roadways, but, hey, not everyone can afford a trip to Rancho Relaxo. Fields is currently facing several criminal charges. What she really needs is a hug.
Previous Months in PCP: This Probably Isn't What They Meant When They Promised Us Flying Cars; This Is What Happens When You Hide Liquid PCP in Your Shoe; An Alleged PCP User Was in an Ambulance. It Crashed. Here's What Happened Next; The Guy Who Allegedly Had the Drug in His Sock and Asked Cops “Am I Dead?”; Firetruck Follies and the World’s Worst Sandwich; Car Crashes, Delusions of Divinity, and a Big Night in Monroe, La.; Naked Guys, Car Chases, and Big Jugs of Sweet Tea (That Are Full of PCP).
$10,000 Reward in Stolen-Whiskey Case Won’t Actually Buy You Much Whiskey
The Associated Press reports that Kentucky authorities are now offering a $10,000 reward for information that could help them catch the bandits who stole 74 cases of expensive, limited-edition whiskey from a Frankfort distillery this October. Sixty-five cases of Pappy Van Winkle 20-year-old bourbon went missing from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, along with nine cases of 13-year Van Winkle Family Reserve rye whiskey.
Investigators initially focused on a local man who allegedly tried to sell large quantities of Pappy Van Winkle 20-year to a liquor store. But the man is no longer a suspect, and authorities are now hoping that the reward money might help them turn up some better leads. The local sheriff, doing an admirable job as hype man, stressed to the media that $10,000 in reward money could make for “a heck of a Christmas.” You know what else would make for a heck of a Christmas? Seventy-four cases of rare and delicious whiskey.
It’s highly unlikely that the thieves stole the whiskey for drinking purposes, given that Pappy Van Winkle 20-year can fetch a handsome sum on the secondary market. A bottle was listed at $900 on Craigslist this weekend—at that price, $10,000 wouldn’t even buy 12 bottles of the stuff.
Though the 20-year started out as a niche drink meant for serious whiskey enthusiasts, it soon became popular among wealthy philistines who believe that expensive things taste better. These people snatch up the 20-year as soon as it is released each year, and its retail scarcity thus inflates its black-market and online-resale value. That’s where the stolen whiskey went, you can bet on it. And the publicity surrounding the theft will only help raise the whiskey’s profile and push resale prices higher. Oh, those clever whiskey thieves! And for those who love Pappy Van Winkle, those higher prices might make for a very sad Christmas indeed.
The Presidential Candidate Who Shot and Killed a Girl When He Was 12
There are few modern historical figures I admire more than Adlai E. Stevenson, the thoughtful and self-aware mid-century politician best known today for being a perennial presidential also-ran. Stevenson was the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956—he lost both times to Dwight Eisenhower, just in case you fell asleep in your high school history class—and he narrowly missed out on the 1960 nomination when the Democrats instead tapped John F. Kennedy. Stevenson initially refused the 1952 nomination; at the time, he was governor of Illinois. “I just didn't feel that I had any God-given powers to figure out the solution to coexistence with the Soviet Union and all our other tremendous problems,” he explained later. Stevenson had none of the pathological self-assurance that infects so many other politicians. He was keenly aware of his own flaws and limitations, and openly admitted those limitations in disarming fashion. He was a good writer and a modest man, and he lived in Libertyville, Ill., a 12-minute drive from where I grew up. I like him a lot.
But, until yesterday, I wasn’t aware that Stevenson had a terrible tragedy in his past, something that likely played a part in making him the man he grew up to become. In December 1912, the 12-year-old Stevenson unintentionally shot and killed a 15-year-old cousin-of-a-cousin named Ruth Merwin when a rifle he was handling unexpectedly discharged. As Noel F. Busch tells it in his 1952 biography of Stevenson, Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, the future politician’s sister was holding a party when a military-academy student in attendance was urged to perform the military manual of arms. Adlai Stevenson fetched a rifle, which the student examined for safety before performing the drill. Unfortunately, the student wasn’t completely thorough in his examination, and one shell remained in the rifle. A few minutes later, when Stevenson took the gun and attempted to mimic the older boy’s performance, the gun suddenly discharged. Here’s Busch:
The bullet entered Ruth Merwin's forehead. She fell dead, on the carpet in the hall. The elder Stevensons returned a few minutes later.
"What boy did this?" Lewis Stevenson asked.
"I did," said Adlai. Then he went up to his room and lay down on the bed.
At an inquest the next day, he was cleared of all blame for the accident. The account of the inquest published in the Pantagraph mentioned that “Adlai Stevenson, prostrated with grief, was unable to be present.”
That’s the official story. But in his thorough 1976 biography, Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, John Bartlow Martin tells a different tale. An anonymous eyewitness whom Martin interviewed claims that “Adlai took the gun from the other boy, pointed it at one of the girls, Ruth Merwin, and pulled the trigger.” This, honestly, sounds more believable than the other story, and more in line with what we know about how unintentional child shooting deaths generally happen. Guns do not often discharge on their own, even old and rusty guns. But it’s entirely plausible that a 12-year-old boy, equally intrigued by guns and girls, might pick up a gun and point it at a girl, hoping to throw a scare into her. It’s just as plausible that, hoping to avoid further tragedy, the family might close ranks and insist that the gun accidentally discharged.
If this had happened in 2012 instead of 1912, I would almost certainly be writing about how Stevenson’s parents ought to face criminal charges over Merwin’s death, for neglecting basic gun-safety protocols like “don’t leave a loaded rifle unsecured in the attic.” But you can’t realistically apply modern standards to the early-20th-century world. We do know that, for years thereafter, guns were barred from the Stevenson home. And for the rest of his life, Stevenson remained silent about the incident—not even mentioning it to his wife—until a Time reporter broached the subject during an interview in 1952.
But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t affected by it. Most of Stevenson’s biographers have speculated on the effect the shooting may have had on Stevenson’s life. In his 1966 book Adlai Stevenson: Citizen of the World, Bill Severn notes that some of Stevenson’s friends “thought his whole character was changed by it, his feelings deepened and strengthened in a desire to always do what was right.” John Bartlow Martin suggests that Stevenson’s residual guilt over the incident “may explain his self-doubts and his protestations of unworthiness,” as well as his lifelong habit of “turning triumphs into disasters, honors into burdens, as unconscious penance for his deed.” At the very least, we can say that Stevenson carried the memory of Ruth Merwin with him until he died. In 1955, Stevenson wrote a letter to a woman he had never met, whose son had unintentionally killed another child. His advice was heartfelt and brief: “Tell him that he must live for two.”
Previous coverage of child shootings:
A Guide for Reporters: How to Write about Unintentional Child Shootings
A New Study Shows Why It’s So Important to Reduce Child Gunshot Injuries
Gun Safety Laws Are Pointless If Nobody Bothers to Enforce Them
There Are Way More Unintentional Child Shootings Than Anyone Thought
California's Strict New Access Prevention Law Won't Do Much to Stop Child Shooting Deaths
Trigger Locks, the Dubiously Effective Safety Measure that Gun Control Advocates Love
Another “Accidental” Shooting. Another Child Dead. Another State Claims, Wrongly, That No One Is at Fault.
Is It Ever Really an Accident When a 4-Year-Old Shoots and Kills His Father?
Why Would Anyone Steal an Enormous Passenger Ferry?
As multiple Seattle-based sources have reported, a man named Samuel K. McDonough checked “steal a ferry” off his bucket list on Sunday, allegedly scaling a fence at a Seattle dock, starting up the 132-foot Victoria Clipper IV, and sending it out into beautiful Elliott Bay, where it drifted for several hours before a SWAT team clambered aboard and put an end to the madness. (The SWAT team only intervened after talks between McDonough and a police negotiator hit a standstill, and I would love to know exactly where the talks went wrong. “I told you to call me Commodore McDonough. This phone call is over!”) McDonough last made news in 2012, when he was convicted of felony indecent exposure after masturbating in front of two female baristas at a local coffee stand. His alleged exploits this Sunday were less disgusting, but ultimately just as fruitless; reports indicate that McDonough was unable to master the ferry’s steering mechanism, and the ship just ended up spinning around in circles.
The Associated Press notes that, in the wake of Sunday’s incident, the ferry’s owner is “talking with the Coast Guard and a maritime consultant to review its security and block any other would-be pirates.” This is probably justified—“build a higher fence” would be my first recommendation—although I doubt that we’re going to start seeing a wave of ferry thefts. As every professional vehicle thief knows, there really isn’t much you can do with a stolen passenger ferry. You can’t hide it, or repaint it, or bring it to some seedy maritime chop shop. It has little to no black-market resale value. You can’t use it to lead cops on an exciting high-speed chase, because the cops’ watercraft will surely be faster than yours. About all you can do is drift along the water, maybe blowing your horn every now and then. Stealing a ferry is probably the least lucrative form of vehicle theft that exists.
It is also probably one of the most enjoyable. If you don’t really care about speed and/or profit, then “ferry” has to be on any list of “Top Three Fun Vehicles to Steal,” right after zeppelin and time machine. You’re out on the water in a huge ship, cruising around at a reasonable speed, waving to the folks on the shore. What could be better? Sure, you’re not going to make any money from your crime, but can you really put a price on the pleasures of joyriding upon the waves in a massive boat that you probably don’t know how to steer? No. No, you cannot.
"You've Got the Wrong Guy," Claim St. Louis Arrestees. Often, They're Telling the Truth.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has been doing some great work lately reporting on the number of mistaken-identity arrests in that city. Robert Patrick and Jennifer S. Mann report that local police have wrongfully arrested about 100 people over the past seven years; lawyers suing the city suspect the true number might be much higher. People have been wrongfully arrested for a variety of stupid reasons: because their names are similar to the people actually being sought; because of clerical errors; because their name was given as an alias by the real suspect; and so on. Some of the wrongfully arrested have lost jobs over the mistakes. Some have done extended and unnecessary stints in jail. One man, “concerned about passing down wrongful-arrest problems that have jailed him for weeks, hesitated to give his newborn son his name. He explained, ‘I don’t know how far this could go.’ ”
What’s most aggravating, according to the Post-Dispatch, is that nearly all of these wrongful arrests could have been avoided if officers had simply paid attention to the fingerprint discrepancies between the people they sought and the ones they arrested—or if, like other police departments, St. Louis equipped its officers with mobile fingerprint readers that can verify a person’s identity on the spot. And sometimes, officers don’t even have to examine the fingerprint data to realize they’ve arrested the wrong person:
A vehicle theft warrant should have gone out for William Lamont Willis, who has only eight fingers. Instead, William Earl Willis, who has all 10 digits, was charged and arrested at least three times, despite multiple fingerprint comparisons.
He was one of several individuals with physical differences that authorities could easily have noticed; a permanently closed eye, for instance, or someone’s own name tattooed on his arm.
On the other hand, the tattoo could’ve been a devious trick designed to throw the cops off the scent, right? Right? Anyway, you’ve probably already guessed that most of the people being wrongfully arrested are poor and black. Many of them have criminal records of their own, which just compounds the problem. Cops are already prone to distrust suspects who claim they have been arrested in error; they’re even less likely to believe the excuse when it comes from arrestees with existing rap sheets. To be sure, cops hear “You’ve got the wrong guy” just about every single day, and it’s rarely true. But there’s no excuse for failing to rectify the error when they do arrest the wrong guy.
The fact that mistaken-identity errors are allowed to linger for so long uncorrected is a clear indication of pass-the-buck management—of the city’s failure to establish protocols that would hold specific people responsible for getting these things wrong. The Post-Dispatch has done a great job establishing that St. Louis has a wrongful-arrest problem, and that it largely comes down to systemic indifference. St. Louis officials have vehemently disputed the paper’s reporting on this matter, even though, as the paper’s editor has written, “no one in an official capacity has directly detailed any specific factual errors.” Rather than playing damage control, the city should just swallow its pride and fix the problem that the Post-Dispatch has so ably documented.
No, This Woman Was Not Performing Satanic Rituals and Sexually Abusing Preschoolers
The Austin American-Statesman just published a story on the case of Fran Keller, a Texas woman who, in 1992, was convicted along with her husband of sexually abusing several children. Keller was freed on Tuesday; her husband will probably be freed sometime next week. Both have served 21 years after being convicted of crimes that almost certainly never happened. The charges against them, which centered on the allegation that they were performing Satanic rituals, were so outlandish that they ought to have been questioned from the start.
Though it seems ridiculous today, in the 1980s and early 1990s, many Americans were convinced that Satanic rituals presented an immediate threat to the nation’s children. Religious zealots and dubiously qualified psychotherapists insisted that Satanists had hatched a worldwide conspiracy targeting innocent children, often in preschools and day-care centers, and a credulous nation listened. A 1987 Geraldo special on the topic drew a record audience, with Geraldo Rivera asserting that American Satanists had built “a highly organized, very secretive network. From small towns to large cities, they have attracted police and FBI attention to their Satanic ritual child abuse, child pornography, and grisly Satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town.” (Rivera later apologized for his role in feeding the frenzy.)
The Satanic panic led to several criminal cases. By subjecting suggestible children to leading questions, investigators were often able to elicit answers that appeared to validate the Satanic ritual abuse charges. Several of these cases came to trial. The Kellers’ was one of them. Today, the allegations against the Kellers seem like the products of active young imaginations, nothing more. Here’s the American-Statesman:
The children also accused the Kellers of forcing them to watch or participate in the killing and dismemberment of cats, dogs and a crying baby. Bodies were unearthed in cemeteries and new holes dug to hide freshly killed animals and, once, an adult passer-by who was shot and dismembered with a chain saw. The children recalled several plane trips, including one to Mexico, where they were sexually abused by soldiers before returning to Austin in time to meet their parents at the day care.
The only physical evidence of abuse in the case has been discredited; the doctor who originally testified that he found tears in one 3-year-old girl’s hymen that were “consistent with sexual abuse” now believes that hers was a normal pediatric hymen. “Sometimes it takes time to figure out what you don’t know,” the doctor testified this August during an appeal hearing.
That is undoubtedly true. But it shouldn’t take 21 years to figure out that outlandish claims of ritual Satanic abuse are not rooted in reality. And it shouldn’t take 21 years to successfully challenge a case that shouldn’t have been brought in the first place. “A 21st century court ought to be able to recognize a 20th century witch-hunt and render justice accordingly,” the Kellers’ attorney wrote in his appeal. It’s to our shame that the witch hunt ever happened in the first place.
Note: Tuesday, Nov. 26 marked the one-year anniversary of Slate’s crime blog, and, thus, the one-year anniversary of my tenure as Slate’s crime blogger. (Gifts and well-wishes can be sent care of Slate’s New York offices.) I began the year with a piece about erotic cannibalism, and I close it with this piece about ritual Satanic abuse. The rest of the year was sorely lacking in stories of lurid horror-crime, but I think it was a good year all the same. Thanks for sticking with me thus far!
Another Day, Another Murder Plot Foiled By an Accidental Butt-Dialing
Name: Larry Barnett
Alleged crime: Conspiracy to commit murder.
Fatal mistake: Letting the intended victim in on the conspiracy.
The circumstances: Larry Barnett, a used car dealer in Jonesboro, Ark., had a problem: He owed a former employee a lot of money. Rather than pay what he owed, Barnett allegedly decided to solve the problem by having the employee killed. (World’s worst boss?) So Barnett allegedly contacted a hit man, and the two began discussing various details about the target, like where he lived, and why he needed to die. In the middle of this discussion, according to police, Barnett somehow accidentally called the intended victim, who proceeded to eavesdrop on Barnett’s plan. Four out of five murder plots are foiled in exactly this fashion. When will criminals learn?
Put yourself in the former employee’s place for a minute. You’re sitting at home, maybe eating some chips, when the phone rings. Oh, great, it’s my old boss Larry! Maybe he’s calling about the money he owes me. I’d better not let this call go to voicemail! And then you pick up to allegedly find that Larry is actively trying to have you killed—and not for the first time. According to KAIT8.com, “the target overheard that Barnett had attempted to have him killed once prior but ‘they couldn't get the job done,’ ” probably because the assassin slipped on a banana peel.
According to KAIT8.com, the alleged target went to the police. (And not a moment too soon, either: He returned later to find his house had been burglarized and his gas stove “tampered with.”) The cops arrested Barnett, and afterwards were very confused about how something as dumb as this could happen. “I’ve been here now for 25 years and I’ve never recalled a time when a subject has accidentally, if you will, ‘butt-dialed’ someone they’re either trying to commit a crime against or the possible victim of the crime,” a local cop told the media.
How he could have been a lot smarter: Much like the last dumb-criminal butt-dialing story I featured in this space, Barnett’s troubles could’ve been avoided if he would have remembered to lock his keypad, or keep his phone in one of those little cases you clip to your belt. Yes, those little cases look lame, but they could come in handy during your next murder-for-hire plot.
How he could have been a little smarter: Butt-dialed a competing hitman in hopes of sparking a bidding war that might drive down the price of the murder.
How he could have been a little dumber: Intentionally dialed his intended victim to inform him of the murder plot, out of some misguided sense of fair play.
How he could have been a lot dumber: Butt-dialed the target, butt-dialed the police, and butt-dialed a local TV news crew, and then butt-conferenced them all in to the dumbest group chat in the history of the telephone.
Ultimate Dumbness Ranking (UDR): Oh, butt-dialing, God’s gift to Dumb Criminal columnists. This particular story is very, very dumb, but it’s more an accident than anything else—a very dumb accident that could have been avoided, but an accident nevertheless. And I have to give Barnett credit for allegedly being competent enough to hire an actual hit man, rather than an undercover cop posing as one on the Internet. Still, this was dumb. 8.5 out of 10 for the alleged butt-dialer.
Previous Dumb Criminals:
The Guy Who Allegedly Tried to Rob a Gun Shop with a Baseball Bat
The Three Guys Who Accidentally Butt-Dialed 911 Mid-Crime
The Alleged Burglar Who Fell Asleep on a Bear Skin Mid-Burglary
The Alleged Disability Insurance Scammers Whose Frauds Got Caught on Camera
The Pimply Guy Who Stole a Bunch of Bus Transfers
The Guy Who Tried to Outrun the Cops on a Very, Very Slow-Moving Moped
The Drunk Driver Who Boasted About It on Facebook
The Guy Who Gave the Cops an Absolutely Terrible Fake Name
The Job Candidate Who Told the FBI about His Child Porn Stash