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by Peter Moskos

February 23, 2014

We Got Another Kingpin! (13)

"El Chapo, Most-Wanted Drug Lord, Is Captured in Mexico."

“This is an absolutely huge get."

“Big strike."

“A landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States.”

So don't believe the headline, "Drug kingpin’s bust may have no effect." Or the nay-sayers: "It’s bad news for Mazatlán. “He was keeping the peace."

We win! (for the thirteenth time and counting...)

Baltimore, oh baby!

I was in Baltimore for a sociology conference. Sure, I ate 5 crab cakes at four locations in three days. (Let's just settle this debate once and for all -- ha! -- Faidley's is still the best, if you don't let the army of junkies outside Lexington Market get you down. Plus what other place sells crabcakes, oysters, and frozen friggin' Muskrat?! -- but only in season from Jan 1 to March 15...)

Thursday night I hiked down Eastern Ave from Dundalk Ave to 500 W Pratt (about 65 blocks). I passed my old apartment (now above a barber shop on the 4900 block of Eastern Ave). Saw good ol' Xenophone and ate his delicious food at Ikarus. Saw a lot of Spanish on the street. Had two cocktails at Bad Decisions (what could possible go wrong?) The city was looking good. This time was probably the longest I've been away from Baltimore since I worked there, and it was the first time I left thinking the city was better than the last time I'd seen it.

But that was Thursday. Now it was Friday night, and I had nothing to do and was feeling lonely.

Nothing to do on a Friday night in Baltimore? Text a cop, get picked up at 11:30pm at your hotel, and then have a fabulous night out in the Eastern District. Hey, at least I'm a cheap date.

I was thrilled to still see a few good people I worked with. It's hard to believe it's been 13 years since I policed those streets.

It was a quiet Friday night. Just a few calls. One big party broken up. But there was not a single gunshot to be heard. I spent the night shooting the shit with a friend. Good times. Almost makes me wish I was still on the job...

But speaking of shooting, I was there just a few hours after one of my academy-mates shot some dumb-ass who pulled a [BB] gun out on him. It was a good shooting. [update]

He (the cop I know) is doing OK. As to the dumb-ass, I would like to ask him, as he recovers in his tax-payer funded Hopkins hospital room with police guard, "so what exactly were you hoping for as you pulled out a gun from your waistband? Please describe the ideal situation, as you hoped to see it at the time, where drawing down on a cop with a BB gun was going to end favorably for you."

The day before, a city Sargent and a couple of other-county cops were arrested for soliciting prostitutes in Baltimore County. Here's a good Baltimore-area rule: if she has all her teeth, she ain't a ho. (Also, if the doesn't jump in your car, she's probably a cop).

My friend whom I rode with, I had forgotten, was involved in a police-involved shooting the previous year (and has been shot at a few times, too). My friend also mentioned how two women in his academy class have killed themselves. And talking to another guy in my academy class, we figured that after 14 years there are probably about half of the original 50 of our class left (history will probably not look back on our class as, well, on of Baltimore finest).

By our very rough and incomplete account: one was killed on duty (car crash). Another was shot and forced to quit. Two were fired. At least one quit before getting fired. One can't testify in court. Two or three transferred to other departments (at least one of whom was subsequently fired). Perhaps eight out of the 50 total are out on permanent medical (most of which were very legit). And a few (including me) just quit. And these were the ones we knew about.

On the plus side we do have a couple sergeants, a lieutenant, and a homicide detective. Still, all in all, I don't think history will look back at our class of 99-5 as, well, one of Baltimore Police's finest.

It was great to go down memory lane with old friends. The memories from 14 years ago are surprisingly vivid. I remember the good times (funny who the bad times fade over time) from just 20 months on the job more than in the 14 years in academia since then...

At 6am I was getting tried. Take me home, I said. And then back in my overpriced hotel I drifted off to sleep as dawn lit up the (rehabbed) Bromo Seltzer tower.

Lookin' good Baltimore, looking good.

February 19, 2014

Civil trial in shooting of Jonathan Ayers begins

Remember Jonathan Ayers? Probably not. But you should. In 2009 he was an shot dead by police in what was one of the worst police-involved shooting in American history. Seriously.

It didn't become a national scandal.

It wasn't even big news.

But there was so much wrong. So much police did wrong -- tactically and morally -- it's hard to get one's head around how messed up this shooting was. It should be a case study of what not to as a police officers.

To refresh your memory, Reverend Ayers was driving along and picked up Kayla Barrett. Barrett was a drug addict Ayers had known for years through his priestly duties. This time Barrett was being watched by undercover police. Ayers said some nice words and gave her "all the money he had on him": $23. 

Ayers then went to buy gas (probably with a credit card), and after paying inside, got back in his car. At this point he was bum-rushed by mean looking men with guns. Ayers had no idea they were cops. Nor did bystanders also said they thought they were witnessing a robbery. Ayers tried to drive away from his attackers and in doing so backed his car up into deputy, Chance Oxner, who, like a fool, put himself into a position where a car could back up into him. After Ayers starting going forward and driving away, shots were fired at Ayers car. Ayers was shot and killed by a police officer. The officer who killed Ayers was not certified to carry a gun. According to the paramedic who treated Ayers, Ayers asked, "Who shot me?"

Brian Rickman, the district attorney, failed to convince a grand jury to bring charges against any of the officers involved. Rickman may have not been trying to hard as he was close friends (like pallbearer close) with the unit's commanding officer, Kyle Bryan.

[Distraction: Police first tried to justify the shooting by discrediting Ayers. Police threatened to arrest Barrett if she didn't admit she was having an affair with Ayers. Barrett first told police what they wanted to hear, but then quite convincingly recanted:
“I'm an addict,” 26-year-old Kayla Barrett admitted Tuesday, saying that Ayers was ministering to her on the day of his death. “I've known him awhile - about six or seven years,” she said, calling him “a pastor and a friend.” She said that, over time, Ayers had been lecturing her and trying to get her to straighten out her life and to get off drugs. “I've been doing drugs for nine years,” Barrett said, noting that she is addicted to cocaine - “crack, basically.”
Barrett said she asked Ayers if he could help her out with the back rent, and that he gave “all the money he had on him” - $23. “His last words to me were I didn't owe him anything,” Barrett said. “Probably 15-20 minutes after that I could hear the shots.” Responding to allegations she has heard, she said, “No, we did not have sex - I'm not capable,” referring to her Aug. 22 miscarriage.

“He [Ayers] doesn't have any part in any kind of drug activity,” Barrett insisted. “He's never solicited me for prostitution. I don't do that.” “I've never been charged with prostitution,” she said. Barrett said Ayers knew her fiancé and stopped to talk to him or her whenever and wherever he saw them and that he had stopped by the motel in the past. “He had been by there before,” she said. “He knew my fiancé also. I didn't see him very much - about every two months.”
The issue of their relationship is irrelevant to the shooting, but I do think it's worth pointing out that Ayers was actually a priest doing priestly good. Police eventually admitted that Ayers was not doing anything illegal and was never part of their investigation. Absurdly, Harrison later testified that Ayers was free to leave if he did not wish to respond to questions when police approached his car. Anyway...]

As I previously wrote:
It's the totality of the situation that bothers me. It's not just that they were shooting at a car driving away (though that bothers me too). It's everything. It's choosing this location to stop and question the man. It's using plainclothes officers to do so. It's coming with gun drawn. It's putting yourself behind a car that just might want to get away. These are all bad choices. Had the police just make one good choice, none of this would have happened.

I blame the officers for the bad choices they made: 1) approaching Ayers armed, 2) approaching in plain clothes, 3) not making in clear they were police, 4) approaching Ayers when he was in his car and yet 5) not doing a normal car stop, 6) placing themselves in harm's way behind the car, and 7) shooting at a car driving away (in a gas station, no less).

Hey, we all make mistakes. And I'll always give police the benefit of the doubt. But when you make that many mistakes and you end up killing an innocent man, I think you should be punished.
Turns out that Billy Shane Harrison, the officer who killed Ayers, didn't (and doesn't) actually have police powers. He let his firearm training lapse. Oops (and from TV news).

Maybe if this drug officer had had proper training, oh, I don't know, he could have figured a better tactical way of stopping an innocent man for questioning without causing a situation where a good man gets killed while trying to get away from armed men he didn't know were police!
Now we don't need to get into another debate about the shooting. But all you fools (I mean folks) who think this killing was somehow justified, ask yourself this: Can you imagine any police-involved shooting that isn't justified? (short of cold-blood premeditated murder--which this was not.)

It's one thing to say, "Cops sometimes make mistakes. And sometimes a whole bunch of dumb-ass mistakes. And sometimes they comes together and, well, sorry. But mistakes aren't crimes and we always need to give police the benefit of the doubt." OK, fair enough. But if you go beyond that and think that all police-involved shootings are justified, then why even have this discussion?
Well now, a civil trial has begun, four-and-a-half years later.

There are a lot of names here and it's confusing because they're all tied together, but that's part of the tragedy. Here's the cast of characters (and do correct me if I'm wrong).

Jonathan Ayers (killed) was shot by Billy Shane Harrison. Who may have not been certified under Georgia law to carry a weapon at the time. Brian Rickman was the district attorney and friend of Kyle Bryant (who has since died of natural causes). Bryant was the commander of the drug task force that included Harrison and Oxner.

Lt. Edwin Wilson was a training officer who said he had trained Harrison, but didn't. Wilson was appointed by Sheriff Randy Shirley. Shirley, who has been reelected, later fired Wilson after Wilson was arrested and charged with a felony for lying about Harrison's firearm training.

I'm going to quote hotrod's (slightly edited) comment from a previous post. And many thanks to hotrod for this update, or else I would not have know the latest.
This case is still, in my mind, the gold standard for a buffonery-driven police-involved shooting. The three cops did NOTHING right. When they were left with a body on the ground (actually a surgical ward), the whitewash began.

As others have noted, everything was driven by the totality of circumstances. And to take a hard look (not necessarily a criminal charge) at the totality of circumstances, you have to take a very hard look at Kyle Bryant, the commander of the alphabet soup task force and THE DRIVER OF THE SUV that tried to box in Ayers.

Kyle Bryant was hired in mid-2009. Brian Rickman, the local DA, said in referring to Bryant - "I put my reputation on this - (he's) as good as you will ever find." (That was in the Clayton (GA) Tribune o/a April 16 2009. The URL has gone dead, but I guess someone in the area could do the legwork if they really wanted.)

(Sidenote - why is a DA this closely involved in LE hiring? Honest question.)

Kyle Bryant died Nov 25th, 2012, apparently of natural causes.

Note that Brian Rickman was one of the pallbearers.

I sincerely hope that Kyle Bryant is at peace. I'm playing with rhetorical fire a little bit in mentioning his death, and I note it here only to point out how close he appears to have been with Brian Rickman.

Consider that between the time he staked his reputation on Kyle Bryant being as good as they come and the time where he was honored as a pallbearer, Brian Rickman was able to summon up enough objectivity to be the only non-civil law voice Abbie Ayers and her baby had to speak for Johnathan Ayers.

Awesome. Just awesome. Good job Mr. Rickman.

Jonathan Ayers is dead. Abbie Ayers a widow, and her son never met his father. Kyle Bryant is dead. I can't imagine the aftermath of a police-involved shooting, particularly THIS police-involved shooting, did anything for his quality of life in his last couple of years. Billy Shane Harrison, who hadn't done his training, is no longer a cop. Chance Oxner has gone in the space of a few years from being a task force commander (Bryant's predecessor) to a burglary investigator (check the Habersham County Sheriff's website). The training officer handpicked by Sherrif Randy Shirley, Edwin Wilson, was charged with a felony, fired, and apparently got a plea with no jail time.

But the two sheriffs (Shirley of Stephens County and Terrell of Habersham) and the DA on watch (Rickman) during this absolute grade-A freak show have all been reelected, and it took more than four years to get this case to trial.
Update (Feb 23, 2014): Jury awards widow $2.3 million. And I guess that is that.... The end.

February 11, 2014

Flogging on Sunday Night Safran

This is the best radio show you've never heard of (unless you're Australian, in which case it might just be the best radio show). Where else do you get a smart-alec Jewish boy from Melbourne and an (almost) 80-year-old Catholic priest shooting the shit? (pardon my language, Father Bob.) I was on it last week. I really love being on shows I know and enjoy.

I first heard about John Safran at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney last November. Actually, I had heard of his black-faced experience in Chicago's Wiener Circle, where I've eaten a few hot dogs in my days. Was what he did racist? Certainly as an American I wouldn't do what he did. But, as to an Australian doing it? As the Pope said, who am I to judge? Certainly his intentions were good and the end result interesting (in a gonzo-journalism black-like-me kind of way, which I rather enjoy as a TV viewer).

Anyway, that was five years ago.

Meanwhile I'm on my flight back from Sydney and start reading Murder in Mississippi by John Safran. It was in my swag bag coming back from the festival in Sydney. (Alas, the book isn't available yet in the US, but eventually it will be.) It's a great book. Safran conducts some fine investigative journalism while delving into the murder of a white supremacist. Sometimes you need an outsider to appreciate the oddities of one's own culture. On the same flight I happen to be listening to podcasts of his show, Sunday Night Safran, as recommended to me by an Australian friend (when I asked about some Australian culture I wouldn't know about, but should, like in the same way he listened to This American Life and Radio Lab).

Turns out Safran (pronounced with two strong A's that sound odd to the American ear, like the ass in, er, sassafras) is one smart and thoughtful Aussie. (It also turns out that in the course of researching his book, he spent some time with Yolande Robins, my 7th-grade history teacher and now dear family friend, who returned to Vicksburg, Mississippi to run the family funeral parlor.)

Listen to the show. Download the podcast, expand your cultural horizons, and don't worry, we do speak their language (though with the occasional stumble).

(And the techies out there might be impressed, as was I, at the pretty good audio quality, albeit with a slight delay, that came with skype and my new fancy microphone.)

February 3, 2014

Too *few* stop, question, and frisks? Perhaps...

Bill Bratton was just quoted in the Post saying that the NYPD is conducting too few stop and frisks.

Who would have thought that the shameful practice of mass stop, question, and frisk would ever end? Actually, I did (though I was two years too quick to predict its gradual demise). I knew there was internal pressure from up high in the NYPD to reduce quota-based stops. But nobody I know, certainly not me, expected the stops to completely stop! For that, we can thank not just the stop and frisk lawsuit but the absurd over-reaction of the PBA.

We're down to 3,000 stops a month. That's 36,000 stops a year. Back when the NYPD conducted almost 700,000 stops a year (in 2011), I said that most of these stops were quota (er, "productivity") driven, not needed, and bad police work.

More recently I wrote:
We now know that all these stops were not needed. Throw out that bathwater! But be careful, because there is baby somewhere in that murky water. Surely some of these stop are needed. You know, the stops based on officers' reasonable and honest suspicion.
We need to ensure we don't let "stop and frisk" give a bad name to good police officers using discretion legally stopping (and questioning, and sometimes frisking) suspects.

So is there a "right" number of stop, question, and frisk? I hate to quantify individual acts of police discretion (doing so is what got us into the stop and frisk mess). Bratton pointed out that stops should be "based on what officers are seeing and what they are reacting to. There is no number that you want to project toward." But on a city-wide macro level, I think it's fair to expect a certain number of proactive stops conducted by the NYPD en masse.

Based on my intuition (and the "hit rate" for white people stopped, I suspected that an 80 percent reduction in stops would have no adverse effects (and much positive impact on police morale and police/community relations. Cut stops 80 percent and what's left, the remaining 20 percent, might actually serve an essential crime prevention purpose.

An 80 percent reduction from the peak would have been about 11,000 stops a month. (Put another way, this is less than one stop per month per patrol officer. Of course that number is just an intuitive guess. Perhaps the ideal number of stops is half or twice that.) But no matter how you look it, 3,000 stops per month is to low. To paraphrase a politically incorrect sign in the police station in which I used to work, "Unlike the citizens you police, you are required to work for your government check." Police officers (and the PBA) would be wise to remember that.

February 1, 2014

Greek Americans correction

In the just published Greek Americans, I wrote that when multiple identities are listed and Greek is one of them, Greek is listed first "two-thirds of the time." This is wrong. The actual number is 60 percent (which is still significant, but it's not two-thirds).  I regret the error.