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The high price of juvenile justice Battle lines are drawn over cost, location of proposed youth detention center

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment

The high price of juvenile justice

Battle lines are drawn over cost, location of proposed youth detention center

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Nov. 2018 issue of The Reader

 

The Reader - November 2018

 

As Douglas County pushes for construction of a $120 million justice complex downtown, conflict and controversy have emerged over greater good and expediency versus accountability to stakeholders.

The 10-story tower courthouse annex would house a combination of county adult and juvenile courtrooms, judges’ chambers, public defender and probation offices and related facilities. The juvenile justice element is getting the most attention because a four-story youth detention center containing 48 to 64 beds would connect to the annex. Services and programs for juveniles and families would be onsite. A parking garage would also be built.

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners is charged with approving or denying the project. A majority of the seven-member board supports it. The project’s two vocal opponents, commissioners Jim Cavanaugh and Mike Boyle, take issue with its scale and location as well as the mechanism to pay for it and the private nonprofit created to oversee it. They’ve called for a reset to halt the project to review alternatives, including scaling it back.

Meanwhile, the county seeks to acquire a nearly century-old brick building at 420 South 18th Street, raze it and then build the complex. When owner Bob Perrin refused to sell last summer, the county began eminent domain proceedings, only to have a court order the county to back off pending further hearings.

“There are obstacles we’re going to have to overcome now and we’re working through those,” said commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson, who champions the project. “I hope in the end we’ll be able to come to a resolution. It (eminent domain) isn’t a popular thing to do or use, but we can’t go forth really without that (building).”

Cavanaugh sees things differently.

“With the court having stopped eminent domain for now it allows us that chance to step back and take a deep breath and look at alternatives that exist and that will work,” he said. “We have been proposing specific alternatives, which include construction of a juvenile justice center courthouse on land we own adjacent to the (current) courthouse and refurbishment of the (existing) youth center on 42nd Street. We would add a courtroom facility to the youth center to allow proximity.

“Kids will have access to outdoor activities on a campus that looks more like a school than a correctional center with numbers significantly lower than those proposed for the $120 million project.”

There’s broad agreement the current courthouse is past capacity and long overdue for expansion.

“We have been trying to jerry-rig judges into cubbyholes and all kinds of things to try and make this thing work   without having to do what we know we needed to do 20 years ago, which was to build an annex facility,” said Ben Gray. an Omaha City Council member who served on the city-county building commission driving the project and now chairs the nonprofit overseeing it. “So this was not fast-tracked or anything like that.”

“It’s nothing new,” Borgeson said. “What is new is that we actually have a conceptual plan that puts the center across the street from the existing courthouse-civic center.”

She said other locations, including the old Civic Auditorium site and MUD property, were considered.

There’s less agreement on the need for a new detention center and how many youth it should serve.

Proponents tout the efficiencies of a one-stop shop. The current center near 42nd and Woolworth would be replaced by the new one, thereby putting detainees in close proximity to the justice system and to services supporting their transition back into society.

“Hopefully, this one-stop shop being imagined will be built based on the input of what kids, families and community providers who work with them say they need,” said LaVon Stennis-Williams, a county Operation Youth Success initiative committee member. Her ReConnect Inc. serves families of current and former incarcerated. “Programs that can keep kids from being detained are underutilized. That has to be factored in.”

She said a proposed partnership among the county, University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University to bring more psychologists and psychiatrists onsite “is going to be a game-changer in terms of getting the assessments done on children quicker.”

“Then we can look for services that will keep kids at home,” she said. “On any given day, most of the kids detained are there awaiting placement and professional assessment, not for their underlying offense. You’ll remove maybe two-thirds of your population with the right professionals engaged and looking for alternatives to detention. There are opportunities in the community to put those things in place.”

Gray, who has a long history working with at-risk youth, said the new center will utilize “best practice policies for getting kids in and out and served quickly and assessing what their real needs are.”

“We want to change the trajectory of how we’re doing things by enhancing service at the county level for our kids and families,” Borgeson said. “A lot of details are being worked out in terms of the internal guts of the buildings and how they’re going to look and operate.”

Some observers express concern the new detention center will house fewer youth (68 max) than the current average detainee population of 70 to 80 and less than half the existing capacity (144).

“It doesn’t make sense why we’re reducing capacity when the average daily population has been steady for years and the county has not produced any projections on how they will reduce the number of kids in detention,” community activist Brian Smith said.

“That is a valid concern,” Stennis-Williams said. “But if we’re moving towards juvenile justice reform we should applaud reducing the number of beds – just so long as we do not have any notion of shipping kids to other jurisdictions when we run out of bed space. We need to address why we’re detaining the number of kids we are and what we’re detaining them for.”

Opponents question another number – the price tag. It would be the largest capital construction project in Douglas County government history. Funding would come through bonds issued by the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission and likely require a county property tax rate increase. Mayor Jean Stothert said she wants no city taxpayer money used for its construction.

The 501C3 formed to develop and manage the project – Douglas County Unified Justice Center Development Corp. – is based on a model UNMC used to construct its Buffett Cancer Center. The nonprofit would have the ability to solicit private philanthropy to fund the project.

“We have some ideas, but we have to have a more concrete plan before private donors will jump on board,” Borgeson said, “and that’s what we’re trying to get at.”

Critics assert a lack of transparency and due diligence in the process that created the nonprofit, whose board is comprised of various elected and appointed officials.

 

Jim Cavanaugh

 

“We don’t need a private corporation to head up construction. We’re perfectly capable doing it ourselves,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s a better, cheaper, smarter way to go, and we’re doing that right now with the 2016 public safety bond $45 million construction project voters overwhelmingly approved after months of public hearings and discussions. It’s refurbishing a large county office building to consolidate some county services, including a new state-of-the-art 9/11 center, a satellite office for the Douglas County Treasurer to serve western Douglas County and West Omaha, headquarters for our emergency services and environmental services, plus the crime lab and sheriff’s department spaces.

“We are also refurbishing the county correction center downtown. We’re installing in all fire stations in the city new alert systems. All this new construction and equipment is administered by the public property division – on time, on budget and no tax increase.”

He dislikes the apparatus behind the juvenile justice project because, he said, “It’s not accountable to the people.”

“Handing to a private corporation concocted behind closed doors by private entities control over the expenditure of $120 million of tax dollars without any vote of the people, without public access, hearings or discussions, and without any public bidding process, is wrong. It’s a top-down, cart-before-the-horse approach to what should be a well-thought-out, strategic, decision-making plan in public,” Cavanaugh said.

“I’m calling for the process to result in a bond issue that would be voted on by the public.”

He suspects the slated downtown location is more about accommodating lawyers and judges than serving kids.

 

juvenile justice

 

County officials selected a troika of Omaha power players – Burlington Capital, Kiewit Construction Corp. and HDR – to manage and build the project without apparently other potential players considered or asked to submit bids. It strikes some as back-room, sweetheart deal-making and incestuous political maneuvering. The Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission is investigating a conflict-of-interest complaint brought against some officials sitting on multiple boards involved in the project’s governance.

“It seems like HDR, Kiewit and Burlington Capital have been preselected for this program with no competitive bids,” said watchdog Smith, whose Omaha Public Meetings has convened forums on the topic. “There’s no explanation of where that $120 million number came from and why this 501c3 is going to manage it using the Double A bond borrowing status versus the county’s Triple A bond status.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Smith and others point out that HDR has pitched doing a mega-justice complex for more than a decade.

Cavanaugh sees “real estate development, sales and construction” interests as “the driving forces behind a lot of the private discussions by a lot of private players in the way the thing has been designed and put forward.”

“When they (the building commission) originally brought it to us in private,” Cavanaugh said, “I said we immediately should go public and have some discussion on this. But for months there was no public discussion. Finally, I started holding hearings in the Administrative Services Committee simply because it was clear something of this magnitude needed to be discussed in public. You can’t do a $120 million project like this without public discussion and a public vote really.”

 

By Ben Gray
By Ben Gray
By R Justice Braimah
By Elizabeth Lynn Welch

Project advocates concede it could have been a more open process.
By R Justice Braimah
By Elizabeth Lynn Welch

“I think some things could have easily been done in a public session,” Gray said, “but there were some concerns about prices going up and other things like that which made it more or less a better proposition to do it in executive session so as to try and preserve and not create any additional burden for taxpayers.

“So it was necessary in the beginning to start this effort in a sort of quiet way to get things started and get people on board and get things moving in the right direction. Now you can argue back and forth whether we should have done it sooner or not. We debate that among ourselves even. But at the end of the day it is what it is and we’re here now and we are telling the story that needs to be told.”

 

Said Borgeson, “We should have done a better job of coming out sooner with the conceptual plans, and what our thoughts are on that I can’t go back and change that, but what I can change going forward is what we’re doing and that is a monthly update at the board meeting of where we are – good and open conversation about the programs and gaps we have in the programs.”

 

Mary Ann Borgeson

 

She said she’s heard from constituents who support and oppose the plan, but she adds, “Once people really listen to what the end result is they may continue to disagree with how we got there but they’re supportive of what we’re trying to do because it’s such a need.”

ReConnect’s Stennis-Williams thinks what should be the main focus has been obscured by the conflict.

“I believe some of the arguments are mere distractions when what’s lacking are quality services for our kids.

The county needs to separate the issue of having a new courthouse, which is badly needed, from the issue of renovating, redesigning, reimagining youth detention,” she said.

“When you’re talking about formulating even the design of this detention center, parents’ voices need to be first, not secondary. I don’t care where it’s built, if we get it, how much it costs. My concern is what’s ultimately going to go inside the building. What is disturbing to me is that most of the people advocating for or against it have not sat down and talked with parents to see what they really do need. Most people on either side of the issue do not serve kids or represent that parent voice of having a system-involved child. Instead of reducing the argument to sticking points, talking points, we need to throw down deep enough to see how we keep kids from even getting system-involved. That is what needs to be upfront.”

 

 

The historic building owned by Bob Perrin that stands in the way of the proposed justice cener project

 

For Omaha architect Perrin, who owns the four-story, 40,000-square-foot, industrial-style building at 18th and Howard impeding the project, his property is no side issue. He rejected the county’s $900,000 offer for it, declaring it’s not for sale because he has plans to convert it into offices or condominiums.

His attorney, David Domina, filed suit against the county’s eminent domain attempt, and a judge enacted a temporary restraining order. The suit maintains the county lacks jurisdiction alone to obtain the property and contends the City Council and county building commission must also OK seizing the building.

Perrin has led various Omaha preservation efforts. He’s also previously challenged efforts to seize his holdings. He won a nearly $2 million settlement over land he owned coveted by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents for a University of Nebraska Medical Center expansion.

Gray openly suspects Perrin’s motives in bucking community progress interests. “He wants a better price for his property. That’s what this whole thing is about.” Perrin flatly refutes the assertion and says he simply wants the right to retain his property for what he deems a better public use. He added that he only broke even in his lawsuit against the university.

Gray questions the current structure’s historical integrity. “Because the building is old doesn’t make it historic.”

 

The area designated for the justice center.

 

The Omaha Planning Board has unanimously approved the 1920 building for local landmark status, on which the Council must vote. Landmark status would not guarantee the building from being taken by the county.

Several individuals and groups have expressed support for saving the building and criticized the city’s poor preservation track record.

Gray counters that two historic buildings – the courthouse and former downtown public library – are being preserved rather than razed for the project.

The county’s aggressive pursuit of the building became the public flashpoint for the project.

“The project had been behind the scenes with Cavanaugh the only one yelling and getting no attention at all until they started to take my building and I resisted,” Perrin said. “I feel like all the commissioners were in a dark room with their clothes off and I walked in and turned the lights on.”

He believes the industrial building, which housed early auto dealerships and more recently U.S. Corps of Engineers testing labs, is a diamond in the rough that should not be sacrificed for a project that could be built elsewhere.

“They’re disrespecting the history of our city. They’re wanting to demolish something that’s really important that we didn’t even know we had.”

He and other project detractors question placing a juvenile detention facility and justice center so close to the county’s adult prison.

Cavanaugh, who calls the planned center “a cellblock,” said, “It’s the wrong place to put children. Putting them   downtown within close proximity of the adult jail is exactly the wrong message we want to send these children.”

Critics say the project would impose a chilling effect on the area’s redevelopment.

“They’re wanting to do the wrong thing with the site by putting in things with uses that would degrade the value of neighboring properties,” Perrin said.

“It doesn’t make any sense why we would put a detention center in an already very fragile part of downtown,” Smith said.

Backers claim the project will revitalize the Flatiron District, though they don’t say how.

Lost in all of this, some assert, is what youth and parents say they want and need. Project advocates contend their actions are in the best interests of kids and families. Others call for more input from parents with youth in the system.

“It’s disturbing that the people most affected by this have the least voice,” Smith said.

 

ReConnect Inc.

Lavon Stennis-Williams

 

“We have gotten so comfortable excluding the voice of parents that we proceed as a matter of course now without getting them involved,” Stennis-Williams said. “There needs to be a direct effort to reach out to parents. We have to meet them where they’re at to intentionally get them involved in this conversation.

“We have not done a good job of getting them engaged. We’ve become comfortable speaking for parents using all these different surrogates. I’d like to have it come from a closer experience than from people looking at it from a policy standpoint. These families and kids are suffering. There are things we can do, that we can fix that we’re not putting proper attention on because we’re still arguing on issues that have nothing to do with what’s best.”

She wishes Perrin’s building fight never entered the fray.

“I think the effort to locate the center downtown and the fight to preserve the building standing in its way has become a polarizing situation keeping the parties from talking to each other. Instead, they’re talking at each other,” she said. “When you get engaged in that argument you lose sight of the kids and they need to be our foremost purpose.”

Smith is alternately a realist and idealist when projecting the outcome of this fight.

“The pessimist in me says the county is going to bulldoze their way through this first part of their plan, which is a real estate acquisition, and then maybe involve people in a meaningful way in the conversation about the actual design and programming of the facility. So the first part may be a loss. But the second part may highlight the fact people want engagement and explanation in the process.

“The optimist in me holds out hope the city, the mayor, the planning department, the city council will step in early enough in this process to prevent the demolition of the Perrin building and force some meaningful change in the way this process is planned out.”

Cavanaugh believes all is not lost.

“I think you’ve seen movement by some of my colleagues. Commissioner Boyle is now on board with stop eminent domain, right-size the project and put it on the ballot. I think others on the board are taking another look at this to maybe open it up to the robust public discussion that it needs.

“This is going to be a big issue going forward obviously because there’s so much money involved, and it’s now gotten people’s interest.”

Meanwhile, Borgeson, Gray and Co. are confident their plan will prevail in the end, with or without a vote of confidence or approval from the public.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com

Unequal Justice: Juvenile detention numbers are down, but bias persists

March 9, 2018 3 comments

Unequal Justice: Juvenile detention numbers are down, but bias persists

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appears in the March 2018 issue of The Reader ( https://thereader.com/ )

Juvenile justice reform in Neb. has long been a hot topic of debate, study and legislation.

A labyrinth of statutes, jurisdictions, agencies and rules makes navigating the system difficult. Youth committing even minor offenses can face detention, probation or diversion depending on who they intersect with in the system. Child welfare professionals seek rehabilitation. Prosecutors push accountability.

Different philosophies, policies and competing interests can lead to unnecessary confinement, Lives get disrupted. Slow case processing can keep kids in an-in-system limbo awaiting adjudication.

A major Douglas County juvenile justice reform initiative, Operation Youth Success, uses a collective impact model to try and improve system coordination and communication for desired better youth outcomes. Its stakeholder players span law enforcement officials and judges to educators and service providers.

“A work group is working specifically trying to cut times kids are detained and the time it takes cases to get through court,” said OYS director Janee Pannkuk. “We’re collecting data on where are those bottlenecks.”

Extenuating circumstances aren’t always acknowledged.

“There’s so many things that influence why a kid makes a decision,” Pannkuk said. “We’ve had kids shop lift because they needed hygiene products or candy bars, so it was more a child welfare issue – but then it became a criminal justice issue. For it really to be effective it needs to work at an individual level. We’re talking about a macro system trying to operate at a micro level. A lot of times big systems don’t respond well to the individual piece.”

“It’s so easy for others to judge families,” Douglas County Youth Center director Mark LeFlore said. “I’m not saying families aren’t responsible but there’s shared responsibility. You just can’t put it all on the family. Families in a lot of cases are doing their best and they need to be recognized for their efforts, not minimized.”

“A youth makes a mistake and it has a ripple effect on families. In some cases that individual helps support the family by working or is directly responsible for younger siblings while the parent works. With that individual out of the house, it changes the dynamics and families struggle with those changes.”

When youth are detained without cause, said UNO Justice Center director Roger Spohn, “you’re probably going to make this kid worse rather than better.”

If that youth is an African-American male in Douglas County, then his contact with the system is on average longer and harsher than for his white counterparts.

Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) plagues the state’s juvenile justice system.

“If you’re on an unlawful absence warrant or if you’re a runaway you’re going to stay twice as long in detention as a non-minority for the same charge,” LeFlore said.

“It’s not working equally or equitably for all of our different youth,” Voices for Children in Nebraska analyst Juliet Summers said. “The best example of that is youth in detention. We’ve cut our detention numbers statewide almost in half but the disproportionality has gone dramatically up. We need to figure out what we’re doing systemically that is not supporting particular groups of youth in receiving the same positive outcomes.”

LeFlore agrees bias persists.

“We’re going to have to change the conversation, do a better job understanding how this is occurring and have some coming together of those involved in the decision-making process to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do differently?'”

“We’re finding we need to dig a lot deeper, especially when it comes to Disproportionate Minority Contact,” Pannkuk said. “We have to have the data to make sure it’s not assumptions or anecdotes but facts.”

Spohn said while OYS “has had some real wins – reducing arrests in Omaha schools and bringing good training to School Resource Officers” – they’ve had less success with DMC.

Observers applaud the recent hire of A’Jamal Byndon as Douglas County’s first DMC Coordinator.

“That’s a big accomplishment,” said LaVon Stennis-Williams, who with LeFlore co-chairs the DMC committee for Operation Youth Success.

But DMC issues extend statewide, said Juvenile Justice Institute director Anne Hobbs.

“Different parts of the state have different battles they’re fighting. In Douglas County, it’s African-American youth disadvantaged, but in other parts of the state it’s Native American youth and Hispanic youth.”

Another large effort charged with reform is the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative launched in 2011.

“We now have seven years of initiatives and we’re no closer to bringing a more compassionate, effective, fair system to our kids than when we first got started,” said Stennis-Williams.

No one system touch point is the answer.

“I was of the mindset that if we did everything better at the Youth Center it would effect the overall numbers in juvenile justice,” LeFlore said. “We added significant programming, levels of education, extra teachers, brought in community providers, surveyed the students, got recognized as a facility of excellence. Despite those efforts recidivism has gone up, minorities coming back into the system continues at a high rate. I see the same young people coming back over and over.

“The challenge is how do we address the needs ofyouth on a pathway into the juvenile justice system to systematically change that pathway. One thing for sure – it’s going to take more than the Youth Center. It’s clear not one segment alone is enough to change the numbers. It’s going to take all of the players.”

UNO’s Justice Center recently released a report recommending a needs assessment to work alongside the risk assessment adopted a few years ago.

“In Douglas County, I believe great strides have been made in proper assessment of youth to determine levels of risk to reoffend,” said center director Ryan Spohn. “These assessments are then used to prevent  the unnecessary juvenile justice filings or detentions of low and medium-risk youth.

“A lot of these youth are high needs youth, with problems in the home or at school. They may have come out as low or medium risk but there are needs that need to be addressed or the next time they come to the attention of authorities they may be higher risk. Alternatives to Detention providers don’t know youthneeds in the absence of an assessment, so they aren’t identified, at least not in an evidence-based fashion.

“Even if needs are identified, there’s not a funding source or formal entity or agency for addressing those needs. I think that’s a shortcoming of our system. Iowa has a Child in Need of Care program targeting high need status offenders. The idea is that this is a high needs youth, so let’s assess for needs and address them before they become a delinquent.”

The center also recommends training for any professionals involved in the system. Spohn said, “They’ll be better outcomes for youth if everybody’s on the same page and has the same definition of things.”

Similarly, he said, “sharing information across systems only makes sense, particularly if our goal is to help this youth and their family be better.”

“More information about their situation is a good thing, When we interview youth and family who’ve been through the system we often find nobody asked what they thought the causes were or what could be done about this. Youth Impact Initiative has been successful for Crossover Youth in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. The initiative brings that youth and family together with professionals from both sides. The prosecutor’s there, too, and with that information they’re able to find a better solution like diversion.”

Spohn believes JDAI has been less than successful in keeping some low and medium risk youth out of detention – which is the whole point of the thing,” adding, “We still probably do have youth that end up in detention that shouldn’t be there.”

“It’s really important we reserve incarceration for the kids who scare us, not for the kids who just make us angry or irritate us,” Summers said. “It in itself can be so harmful, especially to lower risk youth.”

“The success rate is much better if they’re at home with their family. It’s more cost effective, too,” Pannkuk said.

“Any funding that can go towards prevention and intervention rather than punishment and detention, which is incredibly expensive,. would be a smarter way to spend the dollars we have,” Spohn said.

LaVon Stennis-Williams, Executive Director of ReConnect, Inc.

 

Stennis-Williams witnesses the fallout through the Reconnect Success diversion program she runs.

“When I see kids come into my program, I see the system failure. When I go to the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility, I see the result of that failure.”

Equity is paramount.

“Every youth should be given every opportunity. It shouldn’t be because of where you live or the color of your skin or whether you’re poor or not,” LeFlore said.

Stennis-Williams and LeFlore want more diversity among juvenile justice professionals.

“A diverse staff allows you to learn from the beauty of diversity and understand the cultural issues and situations,” Stennis-Williams said.

She and LeFlore also advocate for legacy and current system families to have more voice and agency at the table. “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” she said. “We have to create a genuinely inclusive environment that welcomes to hear the frustrations folks are having,” LeFlore said.

“You really can’t get systems change without community involvement and engagement and getting people around the tables and having honest conversations,” Summers said.

Pannkuk said OYS endeavors to move to “a customer service as opposed to system-driven approach.”

Though statutes require Douglas County youth be provided legal counsel, Summers said in much of Neb. “there can be incredible differences in the access kids get to this constitutional right for an advocate.”

LeFlore said minus counsel youth and families often lack the ability to make informed choices.

Wherever reforms happen, Spohn said, there’s a cascade effect.

“It’s not like if there’s a change in one level of juvenile justice it doesn’t impact the other levels. All these systems are interconnected. Any progress in one part may look like we’ve taken a step back in another part because the kids don’t just disappear – they’re just addressed by different stages of the system.”

“There’s been some small gains but not enough to make the impact we need to reform our system,” Stennis-Williams said. “These kids and families are suffering. It’s time for Douglas County to step in and take ownership of juvenile justice reform.”

She wants the county “to create an office of public advocacy to look at the numbers and then drill down to see what’s causing it and then make recommendations.”

 

Juvenile Justice Center’s Anne Hobbs said progress has been made but added, “It’s just hard to see because we’re in the middle of the stream.” She said more uniform best practices would net more progress.

“There’s a ton of diversion models and programs and every county attorney runs them just a little bit differently. We need to figure out what works in Nebraska. To do that you need all the programs to use the same definitions, agree to the same terminology and then enter data into a system and then you’ll get results from across the state on the same program types.”

Her center built, with the Nebraska Crime Commission, a statewide evaluation system that does just that.

“We’re able now to evaluate all those programs across the entire state using the same scoring mechanism. As a state we’re now counting things the same way and, as ridiculous as it sounds, in Douglas County there’s now agreement on certain race and ethnic categories.”

Spohn is cautiously hopeful but rues the system’s local, siloed nature makes it resistant to widespread change.

“One frustration is getting people to listen and learn as opposed to rebut,” Pannkuk said. “The bigger frustration is just the complete complexity of the system. The devil’s in the details. You’ve got multiple large entities trying to figure out how best to serve the uniqueness of one individual. But they’re trying, they’re all really trying.”

READ Cheril Lee’s companion piece “Juvenile Justice Advocacy working to help local youth at this link:
https://thereader.com/news/juvenilejusticeadvocacy-working-to…
EXTRA CONTENT

Losing a son to the juvenile justice morass 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Eulice Washington speaks for many when she critiques the juvenile justice system. The Omaha mother of four has a 26 year-old son, Anthony Washington, serving time in adult corrections but his contact with the criminal justice system began at 14.

She feels she lost her son to the system despite her best efforts to keep him out of it. Her family’s “extremely torturous journey” started earlier, when Anthony began getting in trouble. Skipping school. Acting out. Hanging with a bad crowd. She was concerned enough to try and find prevention-intervention assistance.

“I reached out to get some help because I saw something was about to happen I was trying to prevent. I went to probation officers, police officers, different programs, his school. I asked what can we do so he doesn’t go this route. They told me to my face, ‘We can’t do anything unless he’s in trouble. We don’t have any of those resources.’ It was like a child can’t be helped until he’s already in the door with the law.”

Having worked in human services, she knows other parents with kids in the system share “the same story” and “as parents we’re judged for not doing our job.”

Anthony’s problems with the law stemmed from Illegal possession of firearms. robbery, making terroristic threats. He yo-yo’d between detention centers in Omaha and Kearney. Then he entered Boys Town, but he ran away. It became a revolving door in and out of facilities.

She lost faith in the system.

“We just have lockup and demeaning of our children. The kids land in the system and they get pushed through and they’re right back in the system again. It’s like a recycling bin. They don’t get the help they need. They don’t learn social-life skills. They get hardened.”

Worse yet, she feels the system dismisses parents.

“Your child gets locked up and it’s like you don’t have any information because the people aren’t communicating with you. That’s not going to work. We all have to work together for the best of the individual.”

Today, her son, who served time at Tecumseh, is on work release in Lincoln. His mindset is much improved.

“Very focused. He’s hungry for more and to do better. It’s like so much regret of a wasted childhood. He’s just ready to live a life .”

At his May parole hearing she hopes he gets paroled to Colorado Springs so he can make a fresh start there away from the negative environment he’s known here.

Washington doesn’t want other youth and parents to go through what her family’s endured. She said it’s vital youth and parents be given a voice in the system.

“We have to hear their needs and wants so we can figure out how to help them. As parents, you must be there every step of the way. Don’t let the system discount anything. Get the right answers, show up and use your voice to speak up.”

Whatever you do, she tells parents, don’t ignore signs of delinquency.. Demand community-based help. More support exists now, she said, than 12 years ago. She doesn’t wish any family experiences what she did.

“I have grandsons who don’t know their uncle. They just know him by the phone. ‘When you coming home, Uncle Tony?’ they ask. ‘Soon.'”

Crime and punishment questions still surround 1970 killing that sent Omaha Two to life in prison

March 30, 2016 4 comments

The Omaha Two.
Rice and Poindexter.
Black Panthers.
Larry Minard.
House bombing.
Cop killers.
Those loaded words and names were burned in my memory beginning when I was 12-13 years old and living in North Omaha. The same rhetoric that played a factor in one of this city’s most debated cases also engendered fear and suspicion in what was then the mostly white neighborhood my family resided in at 45th and Maple. Omaha’s most infamous cop killing happened in 1970 when Larry Minard died from a homemade bomb that exploded while he responded to a phony 911 call. Black Panthers David Rice and Edward Poindexter were found guilty by a nearly all white jury. Rice maintained his innocence until his death earlier this month. Poindexter’s never wavered about his own innocence. Supporters point to discrepancies in testimony and evidence used to convict the men. When Rice and Poindexter exhausted most of their appeals by the end of the ’70s and were still only in the first decade of their life sentences, I had graduated Holy Name High School and started at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, but I still lived at home. The neighborhood had become racially mixed. At the end of the ’80s I was still living at home in that same neighborhood which by then had become mostly black. It was around that time that I first became aware of factors not originally known or reported during the Rice-Poindexter trial that cast doubt on the men’s guilt and conviction. In the last decade or so I have met a number of individuals who believe strongly in the men’s innocence. These supporters are certain the men received an unfair trial and were wrongfully convicted. Some believe the pair were outright framed. One of these acquaintances of mine, Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, got to know the men very well and did extensive interviews with them. She is co-authoring a book about the Omaha Two. New words about the case began to enter my consciousness, such as political prisoners.  Until now, I had never written about the case myself. And in truth this article for the April 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) is not so much about the case as it is about two journalists with Omaha ties who have written about it: Elena Carter, for the first time and quite recently, did an exhaustive piece for BuzzFeed; and Michael Richardson has written repeatedly about it for a decade or more. Richardson is writing his own book about the case from a particular angle involving the complex saga of the FBI’s covert COINTELPRO program and its persecution campaign against the Black Panthers. My small contribution to the vast amount of writing done about the case is largely broad brush strokes contextualized around the personal and professional mission that Carter and Richardson made their reporting. Therefore, I really don’t go into the details of the case. Perhaps I will in a future story.
Ed Poindexter and David Rice in 1970, North Omaha, Nebraska
This is Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa, formerly called David Rice, before they were incarcerated in 1971. we Langa died in 2016.
 
Crime and punishment questions still surround 1970 killing that sent Omaha Two to life in prison

Mondo we Langa’s recent death in prison leaves Ed Poindexter still fighting for his freedom

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When Mondo we Langa died at age 68 in the Nebraska State Penitentiary last month, he’d served 45 years for a crime he always maintained he did not commit. The former David Rice, a poet and artist, was found guilty, along with fellow Black Panther Ed Poindexter, in the 1970 suitcase bomb murder of Omaha police officer Larry Minard. With his reputed accomplice now gone, Poindexter remains in prison, still asserting his own innocence.

Poindexter and we Langa have been portrayed by sympathetic attorneys, social justice watchdogs and journalists as wrongfully convicted victims framed by overzealous officials. The argument goes the two were found guilty by a nearly all-white jury and a stacked criminal justice system for their militant black nationalist affiliations and inflammatory words rather than hard evidence against them. Supporters call them the Omaha Two in reference to a supposed population of American political prisoners incarcerated for their beliefs.

The crucial witness against the pair, Duane Peak, is the linchpin in the case. His testimony implicated them despite his contradictory statements. we Landa and Poindexter dispute his assertions. Today, Peak lives under an assumed name in a different state.

Two writers with Omaha ties who’ve trained a sharp eye on the case are Elena Carter and Michael Richardson. Carter, an Iowa University creative writing graduate student, spent months researching and writing her in-depth February article for BuzzFeed. She laid out the convoluted evidentiary trail that went cold decades ago, though subsequent discoveries cast doubt on the official record of events. Just not enough to compel a judge to order a new trial.

Richardson has written extensively on the case since 2007 for various online sites, including Examiner.com. He lives in Belize, Central America.

Both writers have immersed themselves in trial transcripts and related materials. They visited we Langa and Poindexter in prison. Their research has taken them to various witnesses, experts and advocates.

For Carter, it’s a legacy project. Her father, Earl Sandy Carter, was with the VISTA federal anti-poverty program (now part of AmeriCorps) here in the early 1970s. Richardson, a fellow VISTA worker in Omaha,  says he “came of age politically and socially,” much as Carter did, during all the fervor” of civil rights and anti-war counterculture. Ironically, they did things like free food programs in the black community closely resembling what the Panthers did; only as whites they largely escaped the harassment and suspicion of their grassroots black counterparts.

Earl Sandy Carter edited a newsletter, Down on the Ground, we Langa and Poindexter contributed to. Richardson knew we Langa from Omaha City Council meetings they attended. With their shared liberal leanings, Richardson and Carter teamed to cover the trial as citizen journalists, co-writing a piece published in the Omaha Star.

Elena Carter grew up unaware of the case. Then her father mentioned it as possible subject matter for her to explore. Intrigued to retrace his activism amid tragic events he reported on, she took the bait.

“The more I read about it the more I wanted to look into this very complicated, fascinating case,” she says. “Everything I read kept reinforcing they were innocent – that this was a clear wrongful conviction. Until now, my writing has been personal – poetry and memoir. This was my first journalistic piece. This was different for me in terms of the responsibility I felt to get everything right and do the story justice.”

That sense of responsibility increased upon meeting we Langa and Poindexter on separate prison visits. They were no longer abstractions, symbols or martyrs but real people grown old behind bars.

“It was a lot more pressure than I usually feel while writing, but also a really great privilege for them to trust me to write about them,” she says.

 

Omaha Black Panther Party Headquarters, 3508 N. 24th St., North Omaha, Nebraska

Pictured here at the headquarters of the National Committee to Combat Fascism are Ed Poindexter, Duane Peak and Dorothy Stubblefield. The headquarters of the United Front Against Fascism, formerly the Omaha Black Panther Party and along with the National Committee to Combat Fascism, were located at 3508 N. 24th St. in the Kountze Place neighborhood.

 

She visited we Langa three times, the last two in the prison infirmary, where he was treated for advanced respiratory disease. Though confined to a wheelchair and laboring to breathe, she found him “eccentric, super smart, optimistic, exuberant and still in high spirits – singing, reciting poems,” adding, “He wasn’t in denial he was dying, yet he seemed really determined to live.”

She says, “He was on my mind for a year and a half – it did become highly personal.” She found both men “even-keeled but certainly angry at the situation they found themselves in.” She adds, “Mondo said he didn’t have any anger toward Duane Peak. He saw him as a really vulnerable kid scared for his family. But he did express anger toward the system.”

Richardson, who applied for Conscientious Objector status during the Vietnam War, never forgot the case. Ten years ago he began reexamining it. Hundreds of articles have followed.

“The more I learned, the more I doubted the official version of the case,” he says. “I reached the conclusion the men were innocent after about a year of my research. It was the testimony of forensic audiologist Tom Owen that Duane Peak did not make the 911 call (that drew Officer Minard to a vacant house where the bomb detonated) that made me understand there had been false testimony at the trial. My belief in their innocence has only grown over the years as I learned more about the case.

“Also, my visits and correspondence with both men helped shape my beliefs. Mondo was unflinching with his candor and I came to have a profound respect for his personal integrity. Their stories have never changed. Their denials seem very genuine to me. The deceit of the police agencies has slowly been revealed with disclosures over the years, although much remains hidden or destroyed.”

 

This is Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa. ©2016 Michael Richardson.

Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice) well into their prison terms

 

There are as many conspiracy theories about the case as folks making it a cause. Everyone has a scapegoat and boogeyman. Richardson and Carter don’t agree on everything but they do agree the men did not receive a fair trial due to mishandled, concealed, even planted evidence. They point to inconsistent testimony from key witnesses. They see patterns of systemic, targeted prejudice against the Panthers that created an environment for police and prosecutorial misconduct.

The murder of a white cop who was a husband and father and the conviction of two black men who used militant language resonates with recent incidents that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

Considerable legal and social justice resources have been brought to bear on the case in an effort to have it reopened and retried.

As Elena Carter wrote, “we Langa and Poindexter’s case has penetrated every level of the criminal justice system, from local officials to former governors to the FBI to the Supreme Court.” Yet, we Langa languished in prison and died there.

Carter reported we Langa’s best chance for a new trial came in 1974, “when he filed an appeal in federal district court, arguing the dynamite and blasting caps recovered from his home during a police search for Duane Peak should never have been received in evidence” because the officers who entered his home “had no probable cause Duane was there.” Contravening and contradictory court rulings affecting that decision have apparently had a chilling effect on any judge taking the case on.

She and Richardson surmise no judicial official in this conservative state wants to overturn or commute a convicted cop killer’s sentence.

“Sadly, when you talk to people about a dead policeman and Black Panthers, the conversation sort of stops,” Richardson says.

“I don’t think enough people know about this case,” says Carter. “Why this case hasn’t been taken as seriously as it should perplexes and frustrates me.”

She and Richardson believe the fact the Omaha Panthers were not prominent in the party nationally has kept their case low profile. The Washington Post did report on it decades ago and Carter says, “I feel like that’s the only time a serious national publication had put it out there they could be innocent.” Until her story.

A documentary examined the case. Noted attorney Lennox Hinds has been involved in the defense effort.

Locally, Ben Gray made the case a frequent topic on KETV’s Kaleiidoscope. Other local champions have included State Sen. Ernie Chambers. Then-Gov. Bob Kerrey was prepared to pardon we Langa, but the prisoner refused on the grounds it would be an admission of guilt. Nebraskans for Peace and others keep the case before officials.

“I would say the Omaha Two case shows the critical need for the news media to monitor the police and courts,” says Richardson.

No major exoneration projects or attorneys have adopted the case,

“I’m not entirely sure why that is after all these years,” Carter says. “I don’t know what their reluctance would be looking into this case more.”

Most observers speculate nothing will change unless or until someone comes forward with dramatic new evidence.

Carter hopes “something more could be done for Ed (Poindexter) at this point.” Barring action by the Nebraska Board of Pardons or Gov. Pete Ricketts, the 71-year-old inmate likely faces the same fate as his late friend given the history of denied appeals attending the case.

“Mondo told me he was paying a debt he did not owe,” Richardson says. “Poindexter deserves a fresh look at his case. I believe in their innocence. They were guilty of rhetoric, not murder.”

View Carter’s story at http://www.buzzfeed.com/e6carter/the-omaha-two# and Richardson’s stories at http://www.examiner.com/topic/omaha-two-1.

 

Justice champion Samuel Walker calls It as he sees it

May 30, 2014 2 comments

UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker is one of those hard to sum up subjects because he’s a man of so many interests and passions and accomplishments, all of which is a good thing for me as a storyteller but it’s also a real challenge trying to convey the totality of someone with such a rich life and career in a single article.  As a storyteller I must pick and choose what to include, what to emphasize, what to leave out.  My choices may not be what another writer would choose.  That’s the way it goes.  What I did with Walker was to make his back story the front story, which is to say I took an experience from his past – his serving as a Freedom Summer volunteer to try and register black voters in Mississippi at the peak of the civil rights movement – as the key pivot point that informs his life’s work and that bridges his past and present.  That experience is also juxtaposed with him growing up in a less then enlightened household that saw him in major conflict with his father.  My cover profile of Walker is now appearing in the New Horizons newspaper.

 

 

 

Samuel Walker

Samuel Walker

 

Justice Champion Samuel Walker calls it as he sees it

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the New Horizons

 

And justice for all
You could do worse than label UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker a dyed-in-the-wool progressive liberal. He certainly doesn’t conceal his humanist-libertarian leanings in authoring books, published articles and blog posts that reflect a deep regard for individual rights and sharp criticism for their abridgment.

He’s especially sensitive when government and police exceed their authority to infringe upon personal freedoms. He’s authored a history of the American Ciivil Liberties Union. His most recent book examines the checkered civil liberties track records of U.S. Presidents. He’s also written several books on policing. His main specialization is police accountability and best practices, which makes him much in demand as a public speaker, courtroom expert witness and media source. A Los Angeles Times reporter recently interviewed him for his take on the Albuquerque, NM police’s high incidence of officer-involved shootings, including a homeless man shot to death in March.

“I did a 1997 report on Albuquerque. They were shooting too many people. It has not changed. There’s a huge uproar over it,” he says. “In this latest case there’s video of their shooting a homeless guy (who reportedly threatened police with knives) in the park. Officers approached this thing like a military operation and they were too quick to pull the trigger.”

As an activist police watchdog he’s chided the Omaha Police Department for what he considers a pattern of excessive use of force. That’s made him persona non grata with his adopted hometown’s law enforcement community. He’s a vocal member of the Omaha Alliance for Justice, on whose behalf he drafted a letter to the U.S. Justice Department seeking a federal investigation of Omaha police. No Justice Department review has followed.

The alliance formed after then-Omaha Pubic Safety Auditor Tristan Bonn was fired following the release of her report critical of local police conduct. Walker had a hand in creating the auditor post.

“Our principal demand was for her to be reinstated or for someone else to be in that position. We lobbied a couple mayors. We had rallies and public forums,” he says.

All to no avail.

“The auditor ordinance is still on the books but the city just hasn’t funded it. It’s been a real political struggle which is why I put my hopes in the civic leaders.”

After earning his Ph.D. in American history from Ohio State University in 1973, the Ohio native came to work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He met his life partner, Mary Ann Lamanna, a UNO professor emeritus of sociology, in a campus lunchroom. The couple, who’ve never married, have been together since 1981. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in Paris. They share a Dundee neighborhood home.

Though now officially retired, Walker still goes to his office every day and stays current with the latest criminal justice research, often updating his books for new editions. He’s often called away to consult cities and police departments.

He served as the “remedies expert” in a much publicized New York City civil trial last year centering around the police department’s controversial stop and frisk policy. Allegations of widespread abuse – of stops disproportionally targeting people of color – resulted in a lengthy courtroom case. Federal district judge Shira Scheindlin found NYPD engaged in unconstitutional actions in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In her decision, she quoted from Walker’s testimony about what went wrong and what reforms were needed.

 

 

Counter notes
Walker’s work is far more than an exercise in academic interest. It’s a deeply personal expression of beliefs and values formed by crucial events of the ’60s. The most momentous of these saw him serve as a Freedom Summer volunteer in the heart of the Jim Crow South at the height of the civil rights movement while a University of Michigan student. Spending time in Mississippi awakened him to an alternate world where an oppressive regime of apartheid ruled – one fully condoned by government and brutally enforced by police.

“There was a whole series of shocks – the kind of things that just turned your world upside down. The white community was the threat, the black community was your haven. I was taught differently. The police were not there to serve and protect you, they were a threat. There was also the shock of realizing our government was not there to protect people trying to exercise their right to vote.”

His decision to leave his comfortable middle class life to try and educate and register voters in a hostile environment ran true to his own belief of doing the right thing but ran afoul of his father’s bigotry. Raised in Cleveland Heights, Walker grew up in a conservative 1950s household that didn’t brook progressivism.

“Quite the reverse. My father was from Virginia. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute. He had all the worst of a Southern Presbyterian military education background. Deeply prejudiced. Made no bones about it. Hated everybody, Catholics especially. Very anti-Semitic. Later in life I’ve labeled him an equal opportunity bigot.

“My mother was from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. It was a mismatch, though they never divorced. She was very quiet. It was very much a ’50s marriage. You didn’t challenge the patriarch. I was the one in my family who did.”

Walker’s always indulged a natural curiosity, streak of rebelliousness and keen sense of social justice. Even as a boy he read a lot, asked questions and sought out what was on the other side of the fence.

As he likes to say, he not only delivered newspapers as a kid, “I read them.” Books, too.

“I was very knowledgeable about public affairs by high school, much more so than any of my friends. I could actually challenge my father at a dinner table discussion if he’d say something ridiculous. Well, he just couldn’t handle that, so we had conflict very much early on.”

He also went against his parents’ wishes by embracing rock and roll, whose name was coined by the legendary disc jockey, Alan Freed. The DJ first made a name for himself in Akron and then in Cleveland. In the late 1940s the owner of the Cleveland music store Record Rendezvous made Freed aware white kids were buying up records by black R&B artists. Walker became one of those kids himself as a result of Freed playing black records on the air and hosting concerts featuring these performers. Freed also appeared in several popular rock and roll movies and hosted his own national radio and television shows. His promotion contributed to rock’s explosion in the mainstream.

As soon as Walker got exposed to this cultural sea change, he was hooked.

“I’m very proud to have been there at the creation of rock and roll. My first album was Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. Of course, I just had to hear Little Richard. I loved it.”

Like all American cities, Cleveland was segregated when Walker came of age. In order to see the black music artists he lionized meant going to the other side of town.

“We were told by our parents you didn’t go down over the hill to 105th Street – the center of the black community – because it was dangerous. Well, we went anyway to hear Fats Domino at the 105th Street Theatre. We didn’t tell our parents.”

Then there was the 1958 Easter Sunday concert he caught featuring Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis headlining a Freed tour.

“My mother was horrified. I think my generation was the first for whom popular cultural idols – in music and baseball – were African- Americans.”

In addition to following black recording artists he cheered Cleveland Indians star outfielder Larry Doby (who broke the color barrier in the American League) and Cleveland Browns unning back Jim Brown.

More than anything, he was responding to a spirit of protest as black and white voices raised a clarion call for equal rights.

“Civil rights was in the air. It was what was happening certainly by 1960 when I went to college. The sit-ins and freedom rides. My big passion was for public interest. The institutionalized racism in the South struck us as being ludicrous. Now it involved a fair amount of conflict to go to Miss. in the summer of ’64 but what I learned early on at the most important point in my life is that you have to follow your instincts. If there is something you think is right or something you feel you should do and all sorts of people are telling you no then you have to do it.

“That has been very invaluable to me and I do not regret any of those choices. That’s what I learned and it guides me even today.”

[© Ellen Lake]

Photo caption:

Walker on far left of porch of a Freedom Summer headquarters shack in Gulfport, Miss.

 

Mississippi burning

He never planned being a Freedom Summer volunteer. He just happened to see an announcement in the student newspaper.

“It’s a fascinating story of how so much of our lives are matters of chance,” he says. “It was a Sunday evening and I didn’t want to study, I wanted to go to a movie. I was looking in the paper and there was no damn movie. Instead, I saw this notice that Bob Moses (Robert Parris Moses) was to speak on the Mississippi Summer Project. It sounded interesting. Moses was a legend in his own time. He really was the guiding spirit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”

Walker attended the March ’64 presentation and was spellbound by the charismatic and persuasive Moses, who also led the Council of Federated Organizations that organized the Freedom Summer effort.

“If you heard him speak for 10-15 minutes you were in, that was it, it was over. He was that eloquent. He was African-American, Northern, Harvard-educated, and he could speak in terms that white college students could relate to. It was just our language, our way of thinking.
So it was really just a matter of chance. If there had been a good movie that night my life would have been different.”

Walker applied to join the caravan of mostly white Northern college students enlisted to carry the torch of freedom in the South.

Applicants went to Oberlin (Ohio) College to be screened.

“They didn’t want any adventure seekers. We had to come up with $500 in reserve as bail money in case we got arrested. I had that, so I was accepted.”

He says his father “was absolutely furious” with his decision, adding, “We had fallen out the year before and so this was no surprise.” Meanwhile, he says his mother “was quietly supportive.”

Walker joined hundreds of other students for a one-week orientation at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.

“The training was very intense.”

He learned about the very real risks involved. As Northerners intruding into a situation white Mississippians considered a sovereign state rights issue, the students were considered troublemakers, even enemies. Most whites there held deep resentment and contempt for outsiders attempting to interfere with their way of life and order of things.

“Intellectually we knew the danger, that was explained to us, and we had ample opportunity to bail out. There were some people who were accepted who apparently did not show up. I’m not sure I could have lived with myself if I chickened out.”

In June Walker and three others set out in a station wagon belonging to one of his Eastern compatriots.

“It had New York plates and of course that was a red flag we were outside agitators. We went down through Ala. and then crossed over…I have a vivid recollection of crossing the line into Miss. that morning on this clear soon-to-be hot June day. I was assigned to Gulf Port, next door to Biloxi. Gulf Port was the ‘safest’ area in the state. Not far from New Orleans. Tourism. There’s an U.S. Air force Base down there. So they were accustomed to having outsiders.”

Nothing Walker witnessed surprised him but seeing the strict segregation and incredible poverty first-hand did take him aback.
Volunteers stayed with host black families in humble shanties.

The men in the family he boarded with worked as longshoremen. There were separate white and black locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association and having a union voice gave the black workers some protections many other blacks lacked.

Walker variously went out alone or paired up with another volunteer.

“We would go up these unpaved roads to these shacks and try to convince people they should register to vote. Only 7 percent of potentially eligible African Americans were registered. I was going door to door talking to people and looking them in the eye and seeing the fear. They would say, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am,’ and it was plenty evident they weren’t going to make any effort. They knew we could leave and they knew they were going to be there stuck with the consequences.

“It gave me a sense more than anything else of the human price of segregation and all the terror that supported it.”

While the stated objective was not achieved the initiative helped break some of the isolation blacks experienced in that totalitarian state.

“The goal was voter registration and we registered almost no one. It wasn’t until the Voter Rights Act a year later any progress was made. But we had to do it. The major accomplishment was we established our right to be there. It changed the political-legal climate of Mississippi.”

Temporary Freedom Schools were formed, convened in black churches, homes, even outdoors, as resources to teach literacy, basic math, black history and constitutional rights to youths and adults alike.

Walker personally witnessed no violence and never encountered any direct threat.

“I don’t remember being scared at any point.”

The one glint of intimidation came while going door to door when a white man in a pickup began cruising up and down the road. On another occasion, he says, “we did get some people to go down to the courthouse and march and some people were arrested.”

The danger was real though. Within days of his arrival three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner went missing. Goodman had been in one of Walker’s training sessions. The worst was feared and later confirmed: murder.

Walker says, “When we heard the news three people were missing it came as no surprise and we knew they were dead even though they didn’t find the bodies until 44 days later. We just knew.”

The terror campaign went far beyond The Mississippi Three to include beatings of residents and volunteers and the burnings of dozens of black homes, churches and businesses.

As disturbing as this was it didn’t give him any second thoughts.

“You couldn’t retreat in the face of death. They were not going to chase us out even at the cost of murder. We were there and we were going to stay and finish this.”

 

One of many public protests against NYPD’s stop and frisk policy

 

Police watchdog
Walker was committed enough that he returned to Miss. early the next year and stayed through much of 1966. The experience was foundational to setting the course of his life’s work. “Absolutely, totally and completely. We began to see things through the prism of race.” It also made him aware of disparities in his own backyard. Even today, in the middle of a thriving Midwest economy, he says, “There are really two Omahas.” One of privilege and the other of poverty.

His activism resumed upon returning to Ann Arbor, where he participated in civil rights fundraisers and protests. He actively opposed the war in Vietnam. The military draft was in full swing to feed the war machine. He’d been classified 1-Y for medical reasons.

“On April 3, 1968 I turned in my draft card as part of a mass rally in Boston. Hundreds also did that day in Boston, and I think it was thousands across the country. The cards were all sent to the Justice Department. And that is how I acquired my FBI file.”

Like many activists, he accepts his FBI file as a badge of honor for fighting the good fight in the tumultuous ’60s.

By training he’s an expert in ethnic violence of the 19th century, and he thought he had an urban studies job lined up at UNO in the newly formed College of Public Affairs and Community Service only to discover the position disbanded. Then someone told him the university had received a big criminal justice grant. Walker talked with then criminal justice dean Vince Webb, who hired him.

“I got a job and the job became a career and I never looked back. Pure chance.”

Walker says his urban history expertise translated well to examining the urban racial violence of the 20th century.

“Once in policing my focus gravitated to police community relations.– this wasn’t too many years after the riots – and from there to citizen review of police and then to what I now define my field as – police accountability.

He says policing’s come a long way.

“The world of policing has changed. There’s been some genuine improvement. The composition of police forces is very different in terms of African-Americans, Latinos and women. Police thinking in the better departments is much more responsive to their local communities. The reform impulse has really come from the community, from the ground up, from people complaining about incidents, people lobbying city councils and mayors. Lawsuits, even if they don’t succeed, raise the issue and create a sense there’s a problem that needs correcting. At various points along the way the better police chiefs say, ‘Yeah, we have a problem here.'”

Walker says the control of deadly force is a good example.

“There were some police chiefs who said, ‘We can’t just send our people out there with guns and no instructions,’ which we used to do prior to ’72. They’d get hours and hours of training on how to clean the damn thing and no instructions on when you should shoot and when you should not shoot. It was, ‘Use good judgement.’ That was it. The fleeing felon rule was in effect, so if an officer saw someone he believed had committed a felony, a burglary let’s say, even though the person was unarmed, that officer could shoot to kill and could in fact kill that person within the law. There’s been a whole change there because of the community policing movement.”

In his work Walker says, “I’ve learned much more about how police departments work internally in terms of holding their officers accountable. That’s my expertise.”

In the case of the NYPD’s overly aggressive stop and frisk policy he says officers were required to have a reasonable suspicion someone had committed a crime or was about to. The overwhelming number of detentions were of people of color and Walker says “well over 80 percent of the time there was no arrest nor a ticket, so the officers guessed wrong. They had a heavy hand.” He says one of the main rationales officers put down in their reports was “high crime neighborhood,” which Walker found inexcusable. “A neighborhood is a place, not a behavior. It’s where you live, it’s not what you’re doing. They were making you a criminal suspect for living where you live.”

He says the most common reason given for stops was “furtive movement,” which he found far too ambiguous.

“It was a runaway profiling policy. This went on for 14 years and sparked several lawsuits. The police commissioner and the mayor did not listen to the complaints and protests. They dug their heels in and didn’t look at the evidence.”

He says his “fairly straight forward testimony” recommended a new policy on how to conduct stops. better training, a mid-management accountability system and a broader early intervention system with a computerized data base to track officer performance. He laid out remedies enacted in other police departments.

 

 

He believes the case could encourage legal challenges of profiling in other states but he cautions, “The difference is the NYPD turned it into a massive program, which is more easily challenged. In most departments, it is used, but not on a massive basis and a matter of official policy. This makes it far more difficult to challenge.”

(NOTE: Last fall a federal appeals court blocked the ruling that altered the NYPD astop and frisk policy and removed Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case.)

He says. “Theres a very real connection between Miss. in 1964 and being on the witness stand in New York in 2013 and race is the connection. It’s the lens through which I saw that and understood it.”

In this pervasive video and social media age police incidents are increasingly captured on camera and shared with the masses, as happened with some Omaha incidents. Walker says despite the prospect the whole world may be watching alleged police misconduct still occurs “because the habits are so deeply engrained that among some officers this is just second nature. Officers label someone a bad guy, so he’s not worthy of respect, and they do what they want.”

At its worst, he says, problematic attitudes and behaviors become systemic, accepted parts of police culture. The longer they go unchecked, without consequences, the more engrained they become.

“If it happens on the street, who’s to know,” he says. “Changing a large department after it has declined and certain habits have become engrained is a serious challenge. You need clear policies of all the critical incidents – deadly force, use of physical force, domestic violence, high speed pursuits. And then the training has to be very clear as to what those policies are. The supervision is really the critical thing. Everybody knows on the street supervision is where it’s at. A sergeant over 8 to 10 officers – that’s the heart and soul right there. When there’s some incident a sergeant has to say, ‘I don’t like the way you handled that, I don’t want to see it again.'”

He says no police department should feel itself immune from oversight.

“We know what the problems are, we know what to do. There are experts on particular subjects around the country and they can come in and help with things like use of force and domestic violence policies.”

He says police reform efforts should include public forums where all players can express their views. City governments, community groups and police departments can draw on best practices for policy guidance.

 

 

 

His work in words
The second edition of his book The New World of Police Accountability just came out in December. “I had to redo the whole thing, so much had changed in just a few years and my understanding of things had changed. It’s an exciting challenge to stay current.”

He says his his book The Police in America has been the best selling textbook on policing since it came in 1983. “I did a textbook on the police because there wasn’t a decent one.”

He did the book The Color of Justice with two colleagues. “It was really the first decent textbook on race, ethnicity and criminal justice. A lot of people wonder how is it there’s this huge racial disparity on who goes to prison. It’s a lot more complicated than people think. First, we’ve got some basic social inequalities. The short version of it is there’s a racial bias in policing. Then when you get to plea bargaining and sentencing and probation that’s accentuated a little further and so the end result is the accumulation of these incremental things .”

He says his book In Defense of American Civil Liberties is “probably the best thing I’ve done.” It took him five years. “I learned so much from it just about the history of this country. I knew some of the tent poles of major controversies – the Japanese American internment, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate – but it was a very rewarding experience and I still get inquiries from people based on it 24 years later.”

His new book Presidents and Civil Liberties reveals some surprises and contradictions in the records of Oval Officer holders.

With his national reputation Walker could have moved long ago to a bigger university but he says “being involved in the community is very much a part of my life and so that’s a reason for staying.” His involvement includes spending much of his free time seeing movies at the downtown art cinema Film Streams, where he annually curates a repertory series. Then there’s the extensive collection of vinyl records, album cover art, sheet music and political posters he’s accumulated. An exhibition of his jazz album covers by illustrator David Stone Martin showed at UNO, which also hosted a display of his political posters.

He’s a devoted fan of jazz, R&B and folk music Duke Ellington is a favorite. He and Mary Ann are also known to drop everything to go see Bruce Springsteen in concert.

Though the university and city he came to 40 years ago are “much transformed,” he’d like to its see leaders strive for higher standards.

As the events in Miss. 50 years ago are never far from his mind and inform so much of who he is and what he does, he’s proud to relive them. He attended a 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Jackson and a 40th anniversary of the orientation in Oxford, Ohio. In June he’ll return to Jackson for the 50th anniversary of when freedom rang.

 
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