Welcome to Crime and Justice News

A daily report on important news nationwide from Ted Gest of Criminal Justice Journalists, plus commentary and research highlights.

 Flight Crews Seek Federal Help With Unruly Passengers

Flying has become so dangerous for crew members due to attacks by violent passengers that airline unions are asking for government help in bringing civility back to the skies. Mandatory self-defense training, an industrywide "no-fly list" for disruptive passengers, and the end of to-go cups for alcohol are the changes airline crews want so they can stop being afraid to go to work, Axios reports. This year saw a sharp increase in bad behavior among airline passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration reported 5,664 unruly passenger incidents and 4,072 "mask-related incidents" through Dec. 14. "It is a much more difficult work environment for a flight attendant than it was two years ago," said Alaska Airlines senior vice president Diana Birkett Rakow. "They didn't become flight attendants so they could be mask police."

Flight unions want to see tougher penalties and a coordinated response to violent behavior that they say puts everyone onboard at risk. If disruptions or defiance of crew instructions keep happening, "we are in jeopardy of missing cues to a coordinated attack or handing tools to those who wish to do us harm," says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. Violent incidents contributed to a shortage of workers during highly publicized operational breakdowns that some airlines experienced this year. As travel rebounded, airlines built pre-pandemic overtime hours into their schedules. Aviation workers were not as willing to work overtime because of unruly passengers and concerns about COVID.

 Gang Myths Debunked; Most Aren't Black Teens

Steven Spielberg's new screen version of 1961's "West Side Story" puts gangs back in the spotlight, with some misperceptions about them. An anti-gang educational video produced by the state of New Jersey uses "Gangs, Guns & Drugs" as its title. It's convenient shorthand in news headlines. Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said of violence in the city, "This cycle is fueled by street gangs, guns and drugs." There's actually more talk of violence in gangs than actual violence, says sociologist David Pyrooz of the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Washington Post reports. Most of the research on gangs comes from interviews with gang members; some were described as "imaginative" when answering researchers' questions about violence and guns. While some street-gang members engage in drug sales, groups at the street level don't have the structure or the capital to run drugs effectively. Gangs aren't limited to youth. Some 401,000 people between the ages of 5 and 17 join gangs every year, yet there are about 1.4 million U.S. gang members. The annual turnover rate is about 36 percent.

Initiation techniques and their dangers are popular media fodder, but there are gang members and gang affiliates who never undergo them. Researchers have debunked many rumors about gang initiation rites. Another myth is that members can't leave their gangs. The "blood in, blood out" stereotype that members leave only upon pain of violence, maybe even death, persists. The truth is that people leave gangs all the time without consequence. Colorado's Pyrooz says a survey found that 91 percent of gang members said they had "just left their gang and did not have to engage in any exceptional means to quit." Although movies suggest that most gang members are minorities, the largest racial group among gang members is White; about 40 percent of gang members are non-Latino White, with the remainder divided among Black and Latino and other minorities.

 Mexican Drug Cartels Infiltrate CA Marijuana Market

Mexican drug cartels are muscling in on the flourishing multi-billion-dollar marijuana industry, illegally growing large crops in the hills and valleys of Northern California.The state legalized marijuana in 2016 for adult recreational use, yet the black market continues to thrive with thousands of illegal grows. Criminal syndicates are cashing in across the U.S. on the "green gold rush," USA Today reports. Banks typically won't issue credit cards or provide banking services to permitted marijuana businesses because recreational marijuana is still illegal on the federal level. That makes it a cash-only industry, ripe for robbers. Mexican drug cartels are undercutting prices of legalized products offered by permitted farmers who follow the rules and pay taxes. They're exploiting workers, robbing and shooting adversaries, poisoning wildlife and poaching water in a state fighting widespread drought and devastating wildfires.

Americans' growing embrace of marijuana gives the cartels an avenue to expand their reach, employing the same vicious tactics they use to push out competitors in the illicit opioid trade. Top cartels are flooding the streets with fentanyl, often pressed into pills to mimic prescription medicine, fueling skyrocketing overdoses that killed more than 100,000 people during the pandemic. The cartels and their drugs also have infiltrated Kentucky, where overdose deaths rose 49 percent in 2020, killing nearly 2,000 people. Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall said there are as many as 10,000 illegal grows in his jurisdiction, a two-hour drive north of San Francisco. He tries to target the worst 100, which is all his small force can handle in a year. "I'm fighting a dragon with a needle," Kendall said.

 Millions Seek Commutation of CO Truck Driver's 110-Year Term

During his sentencing hearing, Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos broke down in tears as he pleaded for a judge to forgive him for a 2019 incident in which he crashed a big rig into a group of stopped cars on a Colorado highway. The collision killed four people, injured six more and started a fire that engulfed several vehicles and melted portions of the highway, the Washington Post reports. "I would have preferred God taken me instead of them," said Aguilera-Mederos, 26. The truck driver insisted the crash was not intentional, saying his brakes failed and he tried his best to avert disaster. A jury convicted Aguilera-Mederos on 27 counts in connection with the incident, including four counts of vehicular homicide, six counts of first-degree assault and 10 counts of attempted first-degree assault.

Judge A. Bruce Jones said during last week's sentencing hearing that he was "not angry" at Aguilera-Mederos but did not have the discretion to impose a sentence under 110 years in prison. Colorado law, he said, permitted him to impose only the minimum prison time for each charge, and "every crime of violence has to be sentenced consecutively ... If I had the discretion, it would not be my sentence," Jones said, not specifying his preference. More than four million people have signed a Change.org petition asking Gov. Jared Polis to grant clemency or commute Aguilera-Mederos' sentence. The petition argues that Aguilera-Mederos did not intentionally cause the deaths and did not deserve a lifelong prison term. It was the fastest-growing petition of 2021. "In all the victim impact statements I read, I did not glean ... someone saying he should be in prison for the rest of his life and he should never, ever get out — far from it," Jones said. "There was forgiveness reflected in those statements, but also a desire that he be punished and served time in prison, and I share those sentiments."

 Capitol Rioter Gets 5 Years for Assaulting Police

A Florida man who used a wooden plank and a fire extinguisher to attack police defending the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was sentenced to more than five years in prison, NPR reports. The 63-month sentence for Robert Palmer by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan is the longest yet for a defendant in the Capitol riot case. Palmer was indicted on eight counts but pleaded guilty to a single charge of assaulting police with a dangerous weapon. On Jan. 6, he was on the front lines as the pro-Trump mob fought police and stormed the Capitol. Palmer threw a wooden plank at officers protecting an entrance on the Capitol's west side. He later sprayed a fire extinguisher at police and then heaved the extinguisher at them. 

After watching a video of his actions, Palmer expressed regret at his sentencing hearing Friday. "I'm really ashamed of what I did," Palmer said. He swore that he would never attend another political rally. In imposing the sentence, Chutkan said it has to be made clear that "trying to stop the peaceful transition of power and assaulting law enforcement officers is going to be met with certain punishment." Before Palmer's sentencing, the longest sentence in the Capitol riot investigation had been 41 months. Jacob Chansley, the so-called QAnon shaman, and former gym owner Scott Fairlamb both received 41 months after pleading guilty to obstructing an official proceeding.

 L.A. TV Viewers Captivated by Police Car Chases

Los Angeles wallows in the drama of live-broadcast police chases. Dozens of times a year, a desperado takes off in a stolen or getaway vehicle, trailed by a line of flashing lights and sirens and, overhead, a squadron of television station helicopters, reports the Washington Post. Airborne videographers zoom in tight at each intersection, as viewers hold their breath at the chance of a violent crash. The copter cameras swoop in as vehicles roll to a stop, out of gas or limping on tires flattened by spikes thrown by police. Los Angeles has all the trappings to make police chases grand events — eight-lane highways, a flat cityscape, a culture of cars. "The freeway basically touches almost everyone's lives. It's central to the [city's] identity," said University of California at Los Angeles Prof. Tim Groeling. "This is where Hollywood is. And the pursuits are a great spectacle," Groeling noted. "I know the telltale sound of multiple helicopters in formation on the freeway, and I'll turn the TV on to see who's doing it this time." Helicopter reporter Stu Mundel thinks the audience appeal is basic: "You've got a good guy. You've got a bad guy. You've got the Greek story of the struggle between good and evil." Motorcyclists have the best chance of getting away; one stopped under an underpass, safe from the cameras, and slipped away in a culvert. Another ditched his cycle at a mall and changed his clothes inside. When he tried to sneak out, copter crews spotted his bright green sneakers.

Through November, Los Angeles police had engaged in 910 pursuits this year. Nearly a quarter ended in injuries or death. In-air reporters defend their work, saying their reports help clear neighborhood streets and minimize the danger to others. "It's journalism," said KABC's Chris Cristi. "At the end of the day, it's informing and telling a story from an objective point of view. And serving the public." Quarter-million-dollar gyro-stabilized cameras, secured under the aircraft, provide mug-shot close-ups from 1,200 feet up. Most pilots no longer talk on TV after a deadly 2007 collision in Arizona involving two TV copters. The stations pay $1,200 to $1,600 per hour for the copters, says Larry Welk, who leases aircraft and pilots to television stations. Welk was the first news copter pilot over the 1994 low-speed pursuit of O.J. Simpson. Television viewers worldwide were spellbound for the hour-long live chase. "It was electric. Everybody was focused on O.J. and this unfolding drama," Welk says. "I think it was a turning point in our consumption of live news. It contributed in a major way to the rise of 24-hour news cycle."

 Chicago Homicide Total This Year Tops 800

By Wednesday, Chicago has seen 812 people die by homicide, five percent more than last year through that date. With two weeks remaining in 2021, the homicide count is already higher than any year since 1996, WBEZ Chicago reports. The homicides, most carried out with guns, began to surge in the spring of 2020 after the pandemic’s arrival. Violence intensified after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. Police Superintendent. David Brown has struggled all year to explain why the shooting surge has persisted. “The diagnosis of what has happened over the last two years is how we get the right prescription,” Brown said, noting that the rates of some other crimes, including robbery and burglary, are way down.

Damien Morris, who heads violence prevention programs for the West Side-based Breakthrough Urban Ministries, said the problem is that defendants get out of jail without sufficient services and there’s a need for funding to add to the city’s 200 street outreach workers — mostly former gang members who use their life experience to quell neighborhood disputes. Experts point out that Chicago’s homicide surge coincides with elevated violence in many other cities. While the causes of gun violence trends are notoriously difficult to pinpoint, Chicago’s current surge seems tied to a few factors, starting with the pandemic. ​​This month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a measure aimed at providing millions of dollars toward community anti-violence efforts. 

 Much State Data on COVID-19 in Prisons Hidden, Incomplete

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, prison systems began publishing COVID-19 data, lifting a tiny corner of the veil of secrecy that usually shields prisons from public scrutiny, says the Prison Policy Initiative. "COVID data dashboards" varied from state to state, but at least tracked the number of active cases, testing efforts, and COVID-19 deaths. The quality and comprehensiveness of the published data varied from state to state, and dashboards were often riddled with inadequacies and confusion. Even as the Delta variant surged in the summer of 2021, the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project reported that a number of states — including those with some of the highest case rates, like Florida and Georgia — had rolled back their publicly available prison data.

With another COVID-19 threat with the Omicron variant, many states have reinitiated data reporting on the number of COVID-19 cases and tests behind bars. Data on COVID-19 vaccinations and booster doses are scarce and incomplete across the nation's prison systems. In July, the UCLA project reported that Many state correctional agencies were failing to regularly update their COVID-19 data, including lags of 58 days in Florida, 40 days in New Jersey, and more than two weeks in Wyoming, New Hampshire, Utah, Mississippi, Alaska, and Montana. Massachusetts and Rhode Island announced that they would no longer be updating their COVID-19 prison data dashboards. A month later, in August, UCLA found that Florida and Georgia had completely removed their COVID-19 data dashboards, while Louisiana drastically reduced its published data to only include active case counts.

 Will Trump Allies Run Out the Legal Clock on Democrats?

On Tuesday night, as the House prepared to hold President Trump's former chief of staff Mark Meadows in criminal contempt of Congress, a federal judge ruled that the Treasury Department could provide the former president's tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee. It was a sign of progress for Democrats, but Meadows could find comfort in the fact that the ruling took nearly two and a half years, reports the New York Times. The twisting saga of that case — with dozens of motions, hearings, lawyer changes and rulings — gives an indication of how House subpoenas of Trump's aides and allies might go as they try to run out the clock on the current Congress and hope for Republican control in 2023, when new House leaders would simply drop the inquiries.

The House's inquiry into the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, a select subcommittee on the coronavirus pandemic and the Ways and Means Committee are all counting on the courts to deliver accountability. Trump's allies — Meadows, Stephen Bannon, Peter Navarro and others — and Trump himself have perhaps a more realistic expectation: that the slowly turning wheels of justice will deliver nothing of the sort. "There are people who believe that they can stall and delay themselves out of the truth, and you know, to a certain extent, they have been rewarded," said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI). "Ultimately, most of us have great faith that justice will be done and the facts will become known. But time is something that works against us, and they know it."

 NYC's Adams Keeping Solitary Confinement at Rikers

New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams called for resurrecting solitary confinement as a tool for combating violence at the Rikers Island jail complex as he named a former internal Correction Department watchdog to run the jail system, reports the New York Times. Naming Louis Molina as the new commissioner, Adams called Rikers a "national embarrassment" and vowed to improve conditions there, in part through the use of "punitive segregation." Adams said, "If you exhibit violent behavior on inmates or correction officers, you must be removed from general population until you get the rehabilitation assistance you need," adding that the punishment would send a message to would-be assailants.

While Rikers has been plagued by years of mismanagement and unrest, the coronavirus pandemic has helped drive levels of day-to-day violence and absenteeism by corrections officers to their highest points in years. Adams reiterated his support for a plan initiated by Mayor Bill de Blasio to close Rikers by 2027 and replace it with four smaller borough-based jails. The mayor-elect stressed that changes to the way the existing jails are run "cannot wait." His comments about solitary confinement marked a sharp reversal in tone and policy from de Blasio, who has said the practice "corrodes the human soul" and sought to end its use in city jails by the time he left office. There are fewer than 70 people in solitary confinement or other punitive housing, out of an average daily population of more than 5,000. Adams's fiery remarks offered yet another example of how the incoming mayor, a former police captain who campaigned as a moderate focused on public safety and the economy, is openly pushing against the grain of some of the most progressive factions of his party, including those who have tried to rid the nation of solitary confinement.

 Bipartisan Senate Group Agrees on Violence Against Women Update

A bipartisan group of senators announced an agreement on a framework to update and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, the closest the law has come to reauthorization since it lapsed in 2019, reports Roll Call. "Every day that goes by without action puts lives at risk, and we will work tirelessly to ensure that this framework becomes law as soon as possible," said Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). The group plans to introduce the bill next month. It would include provisions to expand existing law to bar domestic abusers from owning firearms, a sticking point in the talks for more than a year.

"Our bipartisan agreement enhances and expands services for survivors of domestic violence, including survivors in rural communities, LGBT survivors, survivors with disabilities, and survivors who experience abuse later in life," Feinstein said. The House passed a version of the reauthorization in March in a 244-172 vote that got support from 29 Republicans. Senators negotiated a version of the firearms provisions that expanded the list of misdemeanor crimes that could result in a firearm ban. The new bill would apply the ban only to convictions after the law's passage, the lawmakers said. The National Rifle Association opposed the House version because Democrats expanded the firearm ban. The Biden administration has backed a reauthorized Violence Against Women Act, calling for swift Senate passage after the House passed its bill. First passed in 1994, VAWA enshrines legal protections for victims of domestic and sexual violence. The original bill was championed by then-Sen. Joe Biden and was reauthorized and updated in 2000, 2005 and 2013.

 Schools Ramp Up Security After Tik Tok Bomb Threats

Educators plan to increase security in response to TikTok posts warning of shooting and bomb threats at schools around the U.S. on Friday as officials assured parents the viral posts were not considered credible, the Associated Press reports. School officials in states including Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Montana, New York and Pennsylvania said there would be an increased police presence because of the threats. ​​“We are writing to inform you and not alarm you,” Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois, school administrators told parents. “We have been made aware of a nationwide viral TikTok trend about ‘school shooting and bomb threats for every school in the USA even elementary’ on Friday, December 17.” At least a few districts announced plans to close school buildings Friday, including Gilroy High School in northern California. Gilroy police said they had found threats on social media not to be credible, but school officials said final exams scheduled for Friday, the last day before winter break, would be postponed to January out of an abundance of caution.

​​The posts follow a disturbing trend that has had students acting out in response to social media challenges. In September, students across the U.S. posted videos of themselves vandalizing school bathrooms and stealing soap dispensers as part of the “devious licks” challenge. In October, students were challenged to slap a teacher, prompting the National Education Association to call on the leaders of Facebook, Twitter and TikTok to intervene. The Michigan State Police, among law enforcement agencies responding to the posts, said it was unaware of any credible threats. Internet companies such as TikTok are generally exempt from liability under U.S. law for the material users post on their networks, thanks in large part to the legal “safe harbor” they are given by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

 NYC Choice Shows How Few Women Rank High in Policing

The appointment of Keechant Sewell, the Nassau County, N.Y., chief of detectives, to lead the huge New York City Police Department calls attention to the scarcity of women in top law enforcement positions, CNN reports. Women make up about 12 percent of sworn law enforcement positions nationwide, and only three percent of executive level positions, says Kym Craven of the National Association of Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE). The association was established in 1996 by six female police leaders to support women in the field. NAWLEE takes part in the 30x30 initiative, a coalition of police leaders, researchers, and professional organizations aiming to increase the representation of women in police recruit classes to 30 percent by 2030 and ensure that policing culture and policies support omen throughout their careers. Over one hundred agencies have committed to the initiative.

Sewell, who will be the NYPD's third Black commissioner and the first non-white male in more than 30 years, will take the reins of an agency that has largely excluded women from its top ranks in recent years. It was somewhat of a surprise move as Sewell was not on the list of rumored names that included former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best and current NYPD Chief of Patrol Juanita Holmes. With Sewell's hire, New York Mayor-elect Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, delivered on his pledge to hire the first woman to lead the department, choosing a woman who grew up in a public housing complex in the Queens borough and rose through the ranks inside the police department in neighboring Nassau County on Long Island. "If I wanted someone to just keep doing what we've always done, I would've picked some of the leading police heads throughout the country so they can do what we've always done," Adams said. "I needed a visionary. I needed someone that was ready to transform our department and that's what I've found."

 Louisiana Houses Growing Group of Geriatric Inmates

Louisiana is increasingly charged with watching over geriatric prisoners. Recent legislative reforms aimed at lowering the U.S.'s leading incarceration rate had reduced the state's penalties for drug and other non-violent crimes. They largely kept in place stiff sentences for people convicted of murder and other violent crimes, after prosecutors and sheriffs balked, reports the Marshall Project. The result is a state prison population that has rapidly aged, contributing to a steady rise in prison medical costs, even as incarceration levels fall steeply. Much of that money is spent to care for geriatric prisoners, who pose little risk of committing new crimes. Total medical spending for state corrections eclipsed $100 million last year. That's an increase of about 25 percent from 2015.

The state population of incarcerated people peaked above 40,000 a decade ago, and remained just under 36,000 when the 2017 reforms passed. The population now is about 27,000. Those reductions, primarily affecting younger defendants facing shorter prison terms, helped Louisiana drop a hair below Mississippi as the nation's top per-capita jailer in 2020, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics figures. In 2015, the typical incarcerated person in Louisiana was just over 36 years old. Today, the typical prisoner is nearly 41. Those in prison for life pull up the curve. The typical Louisiana lifer today is a 52-year-old Black man who has been locked up for a little over two decades. Over 80 percent of Louisiana lifers are men over the age of 40. "We just got rid of the cheaper ones," said Edward Shihadeh, a Louisiana State University sociology professor who developed the state's assessment tool for its incarcerated population. Shihadeh said. He described the rise in medical costs for elderly prisoners as "exponential" in their later years, with virtually all of it borne by the state.

 6 CA Men Arrested for Targeting Asian Women in Robberies

The California smash-and-grab robbery crew knew who they were after: elderly Asian women who, they figured, didn’t use banks and were carrying large amounts of cash. They surveilled Asian grocery store parking lots, stalked women to make sure they were alone, used cars to pin victims’ vehicles, smashed car windows if necessary, and snatched purses, shopping bags or other valuables within reach. Then they bolted. “These victims … were being essentially hunted,” Marisa McKeown of the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office in California told the Washington Post. Attacking on a near-daily basis, they used their tactics to great effect over a year-long period stretching from October 2020 to September 2021. A six-man crew committed more than 70 robberies, burglaries and thefts in San Jose alone and at least 177 in cities throughout the San Francisco Bay area. 

Police have arrested the six men: Anthony Robinson, 24; Cameron Moody, 27; Derje Blanks, 23; Hassani Ramsey, 24; Clarence Jackson, 21; and Malik Short, 21.They generally scored between $500 and $2,000 in each of their robberies and, McKeown said, collectively stole cash and belongings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen is pursuing hate crime enhancements, a legal mechanism in California that allows for harsher punishment. Rosen said the alleged robbers shouted racial slurs at several of their victims — and the terror they caused didn’t stop with the people they attacked. “It also affects people in the Asian American community who were not targeted, because it makes them fearful that they might be next,” Rosen said.


Any opinions expressed or positions taken here on Crime and Justice News are those of their respective
authors and should not be construed to be the opinions of ASU or any of its sub-units or programs.