A Tale of Two Cities

“As you go about your business today, KNOW that there is no law that orders you to Wear a Mask. Our Governor does not have the unilateral power to make such orders. While I know the HEADLINES over the last couple days (sic) have stated something different, that is because journalism is dead.”

Nevada City Mayor Reinette Senum, after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Californians to resume wearing masks in public

“Wear a mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing, and please be kind to one another…I find it hard to believe that the hill we’re willing to die on is masks; there are so many more important things in the world.”

Grass Valley Mayor Lisa Swarthout, responding to Senum’s comment.

Posted in Coronavirus pandemic, Grass Valley City Council, Mayor Lisa Swarthout, Nevada City Council, Reinette Senum | 2 Comments

Reforms needed before public loses confidence in police

The video images were clear and unmistakable. Nobody could deny what they were seeing, or explain it away.

White Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin had his knee on the neck of black suspect George Floyd, ignoring Floyd’s plea that “I can’t breathe.” Three other cops—two white, one Asian—found nothing unusual or distressing about the situation.

Chauvin’s knee remained on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, every second of it recorded. Chauvin paid no attention to this. Why should he care? A total of 18 complaints lodged against Chauvin—one for every year on the police force—have resulted in just one reprimand.

Officer Tou Thao, one of the three officers who stood by while Floyd died, was previously sued for excessive use of force, an action that was settled for $25,000. Why are people like these allowed to “protect and serve”?

That’s a question asked often by people who study these issues, and the answer is simple: A series of legal rulings and statutory and contractual protections surrounding their employment and discipline protect all but the very worst of bad apples from being fired. The result is heavy legal costs to taxpayers, avoidable deaths, and a crisis of confidence in our law enforcement agencies currently playing out across the country.

The problem is well documented by people such as law professors Kyle Rozema of Washington University and Max Schanzenbach of Northwestern University, the latest to draw attention to the issue in a peer-reviewed study of civilian complaints against the police in Chicago.

“We find that officers with the most complaints—the worst 5% in particular—are by far more likely than other officers to have large civil judgments leveled against them later in their careers,” the authors wrote. “They are also more likely to be cited for dereliction of duty and off-duty misconduct. We estimate that in Chicago the worst 5% of officers account for a third of all civilian complaints. In short, such officers are likely to be bad apples.”

Yet few of these complaints ever result in meaningful discipline. The authors found that just 2% of civilian complaints in Chicago were sustained, the majority resulting in a one-day suspension or less. (The rate is around 1% in Minneapolis.)

The problems don’t end even when bad cops are fired. A Washington Post study estimated that between 2006 and 2017, the nation’s largest departments fired at least 1,881 officers for misconduct, yet 451 were later reinstated—most after arbitration.

The Minneapolis police union has vowed to fight to ensure the officers fired for Floyd’s killing get their jobs back. Lt. Bob Kroll, the union’s president, said he’s “worked with the four defense attorneys that are representing each of our four terminated individuals under criminal investigation, in addition to our labor attorneys to fight for their jobs.”

The crime may seem obvious, but as we learned in the Rodney King case, that doesn’t mean a conviction will follow. Many jurors are reluctant to convict policemen of anything, particularly when it involves a white cop and a black protagonist.

The inability—and in some cities, unwillingness—of police departments to police themselves has led to an erosion of confidence in law enforcement agencies, and now, demands for truly radical changes in how they operate.

Front and center is a demand to “defund” police departments around the country. As is usually the case these days, both sides of the political divide are muddling the debate by coming up with their own definitions of the term in an effort to score political points.

I support defunding if it means taking police funds used to deal with homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse and other quality-of-life issues, and hiring more social and other workers trained to deal with these problems. I oppose defunding if it means cutting the police budget to fund more worthless social programs aimed at minority communities.

In any event, cooler heads—regardless of their race—realize we need police departments. The police are not perfect, but they are indispensible. Looting and increased lawlessness will become a regular occurrence if police forces are weakened to the point where they can’t do their job, and those said to benefit from defunding will suffer the most.

But it is also obvious that change is needed. If police continue to be shielded from all but their most egregious actions by a combination of implied immunity, secrecy surrounding discipline, and the blue wall of silence, the public will eventually lose confidence in our law enforcement agencies. To forestall that day, the following changes need to be considered:

–A Supreme Court ruling known as implied immunity shields police from liability for official acts. We need a federal law that holds officers accountable for violating civil rights.

–The Justice Department provides almost $2 billion a year in grants to state and local law enforcement, conditioned on compliance with federal civil rights laws. That clearly hasn’t worked. Conditions should be tightened to ensure the money goes only to departments following best police practices.

–Police chiefs must be given the power to fire bad officers and keep them off the force permanently. If an applicant was fired by another department or left under a cloud, chiefs should have that information available when making hiring decisions.

–Alternatively, fire the lowest performing 2% of policemen, helping to ensure the most violent, disrespectful and incompetent officers are dismissed each year. At the same time, reward the top-performing 5% of officers.

–Choke holds must be eliminated. Police have plenty of other ways to subdue suspects without putting their lives in danger.

–One of the major irritants of our failed war on drugs is the “no knock” warrants used to justify many police searches in poor neighborhoods. As we saw recently in Louisville, careless application of them can lead to the death of innocent people. It is past time to eliminate them.

–Finally, law enforcement agencies need to tighten their hiring standards, with more emphasis on the mental and emotional stability of applicants. If that means higher salaries, it’s a price worth paying.

These changes will lead to fairer treatment of all citizens without taking away the ability of police to go after the bad guys. It is possible to have social justice and law and order at the same time.

Posted in Government, Law enforcement, Politics | Leave a comment

So much for Trump’s conservative Supreme Court

One of Donald Trump’s biggest selling points for reelection—and a position embraced by the Republican Party—is the conservative makeover of the federal judiciary that has taken place in the last three plus years.

No more legislating from the federal bench, they have promised, but rather a return to the original intent of the authors of the Constitution and the legislators who passed federal laws. Trump’s two conservative appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court are held out as leading examples of this sea change.

Well, Republicans may want to reconsider that selling point now that THEIR conservative Supreme Court ruled Monday that people can’t be fired because they are gay or transgender, and decided today Trump can’t arbitrarily ends the DACA program.

The 6-3 decision on sexual orientation was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the successor to conservative icon Justice Antonin Scalia. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell held that seat open for over a year—blocking Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland—to put Gorsuch in that seat. Nice going, Mitch.

Trump, who brags about “my judges” Gorsuch and fellow conservative Brett Kavanaugh when explaining why he should be reelected, actually sounded subdued when he reacted to the decision.

“I’ve read the decision and some people were surprised but they’ve ruled and we live with their decision,” he said. “Very powerful decision.” (America awaits his next twitter storm to learn what he really thinks.)

Trump’s evangelical supporters weren’t so circumspect. Evangelical radio show host Erick Erickson tweeted: “All those evangelicals who sided with Trump in 2016 to protect them from the cultural currents just found their excuse to stay home in 2020 thanks to Trump’s Supreme Court picks.”

The Federalist concluded that conservatives need to “start picking individuals who vote correctly.”

“It’s disappointing to see Justice Gorsuch lead the opinion for the majority,” said Travis Weber, a vice president of the Family Research Council. “We supported him, based on his originalist record.”

Carrie Severino, president of the Judicial Crisis Network, said, “Justice Scalia would be disappointed that his successor has bungled texturalism so badly for the sake of appealing to college campuses and editorial boards.”  

That also annoyed the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, which wrote that Gorsuch’s reasoning “usurps Congress and distorts the texturalist school of jurisprudence that he claims to follow.” In a follow-up editorial, the board suggested Gorsuch may have been possessed by an alien when he wrote the decision. “We’re available for a legal exorcism upon request.”

The decision was based on two cases where men were fired when their employer found out they were gay, and a third case where a man transitioning to female was fired. The question before the court was simple: Are these actions covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which doesn’t mention sexual orientation.

Gorsuch wrote that the law’s prohibition of work place discrimination based on sex should also be read to cover sexual orientation. “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law,” his opinion said.

Kavanaugh, who voted with the minority, went out of his way to show sympathy with the struggles of gays and lesbians. “They have advanced powerful policy arguments and can take pride in today’s result.”

The majority was also joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, touted as a conservative when appointed to the court. Roberts wrote the majority opinion in today’s 5-4 decision that bars Trump from arbitrarily ending the DACA program.

DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was an executive order issued by Barack Obama that accorded deferred deportation status to over 700,000 individuals known as “Dreamers,” people who were brought to the U.S. before the age of 16 and are either in school, have graduated, are in the military, or have been honorably discharged.

The court didn’t rule on the legality of DACA, just that the Trump Administration failed to follow the law—where have we heard that before?—in ending the program. Trump didn’t hold back on a key element of immigration program.

“These horrible & politically charged decisions coming out of the Supreme Court are shotgun blasts in the face of people that are proud to call themselves Republicans or Conservatives,” Trump tweeted. “…we need NEW JUSTICES of the Supreme Court.”

Given Trump’s track record to-date, that may send chills down the spines of conservatives.

Posted in Donald Trump, Government, Politics, Republican Party, Supreme Court | Leave a comment

‘Woke’ journalism isn’t good for the credibility of newspapers

This post is not intended to denigrate or harm the feelings of any reader who feels afflicted by social injustice, threaten the ability of reporters to do their jobs, or get any editors fired.

I thought I’d better start out with a disclaimer because reporters and editors at various newspapers around the county have suddenly become woke to alleged misdeeds of their publications in coverage of the peaceful demonstrations and criminal behavior that have followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

This is quite a change for our nation’s newspapers, which have traditionally operated their newsrooms as benevolent dictatorships. Editors are always seeking to hire smart, aggressive reporters who aren’t intimidated by authority figures, and have been willing to listen to their suggestions and complaints when it comes to news coverage. But at the end of the day, editors are paid to decide what goes into the newspaper and how it is presented, and reporters have to accept those edicts.

This is on top of the tension present when reporters summit their pristine articles—always fine examples of the journalistic arts—to editors who view these efforts as collections of words that could bring criticism and financial ruin to the newspaper absent the careful vetting of editors. If you don’t think this causes heartburn, you’ve never spent time in a newsroom.

But it appears these traditional safeguards are no longer sufficient as recent incidents at three of the nation’s largest papers has cost two editors their jobs and created turmoil in the newsroom of the third. The old standards are giving way to a new social conscience ethos, which doesn’t bode well for print journalism.

The best known case involved the New York Times, where James Bennett, the paper’s opinion editor, “resigned” in the wake of an opinion piece written by Senator Tom Cotton that outraged liberal subscribers and members of the paper’s editorial staff.

In the article, “Send in the Troops,” Cotton called for deployment of troops as a last resort to quell riots and looting. That prompted a staff protest followed by a sick-out, and a review by management that concluded the article didn’t meet the paper’s standards.

Publisher A. G. Sulzberger said, “There was a significant breakdown in our editing process, not the first we’ve experienced in recent years.” In this instance, the breakdown appears to be that Bennett didn’t review the opinion piece that offended the sensibilities of management and employees. (The editor who green-lighted the article has been demoted.)

Another opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer cost the newspaper’s editor his job. In this case, the offense was committed in a headline, “Buildings Matter, Too,” over a piece that expressed concern that historic buildings in the city could be damaged during protests over the death of Floyd.

That prompted 44 minority employees in the editorial department to sign an open letter to the paper’s editors, complaining their work to gain public trust was “eroded in an instant by careless, unempathetic decisions.” The paper’s editors apologized, saying the headline was “offensive, inappropriate.”

As other people have learned, appearing to mock or challenge the phrase “Black Lives Matter” can be damaging to their well-being and employment prospects. Sacramento Kings TV play-by-play announcer Grant Napier tweeted “All Lives Matter” to former Kings player DeMarcus Cousins. Napier is now the team’s former announcer.

In both the New York and Philadelphia incidents, we’re talking about people expressing opinions the newspaper might not agree with, traditionally a means of broadening the discussion of issues of the day. When newspapers wanted you to know what they thought about an issue, they wrote an editorial. Now, apparently, even commentary has to toe the company line.

The third incident involves the touchy subject of reporters taking a neutral stance when reporting a story. That created a problem at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where a black reporter, Alexis Johnson, said she was barred from covering local protests after the following tweet went viral:

“…horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS…oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate.” (Chesney’s annual concert in Pittsburgh is reported to prompt much debauchery.)

Johnson has declined to speak with media, but one of her colleagues claimed that several articles she proposed were rejected by editors, and that two online stories about local demonstrations were killed. It was reported that black staff photographer Michael Santiago, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has also been removed from coverage of the demonstrations.

I’m a fan of Johnson’s style of humor, but she should have had enough sense to keep that remark in the newsroom. The joke put her editors in a difficult position at a time when newspapers are receiving close scrutiny over how they differentiate legitimate protests from vandalism and looting, with some critics suggesting they are making excuses for looters.

Some of Johnson’s colleagues see this as an attempt to stifle black voices in coverage of events that are exposing the deep wounds blacks have experienced in America. They have a point in an industry where institutional bias has caused many stories like Floyd’s to be underplayed, defended or ignored.

But abandoning the traditional standards and rules that govern the conduct of newspapers and embracing the latest social outrage will make them no better than social media, where news coverage often consists of “news” from unverifiable sources, extremist meddling, agenda shaming and unsourced outrage videos.

If this is the future of American journalism, newspapers deserve to die.

Posted in Media, New York Times, Newspapers | Leave a comment

QUICK HITS: Getting ‘serious’ about protecting customers

–“Businesses are really taking this seriously” when it comes to protecting customers against the coronavirus, Amy Irani, Nevada County’s environmental health director, said in the June 12 issue of The Union. The quote was right next to the picture of a barber finishing a haircut with neither man wearing a mask. That’s a violation of state guidelines.

–People who won’t wear masks or practice social distancing are candidates for Darwin Awards.

–Speaking of which, Donald Trump will hold a rally in Tulsa June 20, where people are expected to be crowded together without masks. The admission tickets say his acolytes can’t sue the Trump campaign if they get the coronavirus.

–The Trump administration is stonewalling attempts to find out who is getting $600 billion in loans from the Paycheck Protection Program. Maybe it’s because it would be embarrassing to admit some of the money has gone to multi-billion dollar wealth management funds, including Carson Group, with $12 billion under management.

–The sale of MAGA gear should spike now that NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag from its races.

–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had a great comeback after a reporter asked if the Democrats are embarrassed because the Ku Klux Klan once embraced the party: “Of course. We’re embarrassed that Donald Trump was a Democrat as well, and for similar reasons.”

Posted in Coronavirus pandemic, Donald Trump, Politics | Leave a comment

Why don’t you tell us what you really think, Peggy

Peggy Noonan, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, best-selling author, speech writer for Ronald Reagan, and long active in Republican affairs, writing about Donald Trump’s “biblical moment” and his supporters, in The Wall Street Journal:

“In all this he gave up the game and explicitly patronized his own followers. It was as if he was saying: I’m going to show you how stupid I know you are. I’ll give you crude and gross imagery and you’ll love it because you are crude and gross people.”

“He is proud of his many billionaire friends and think(s) they love him. They don’t. Their support is utterly transactional. They’re embarrassed by him. When they begin to think he won’t be re-elected they will turn, and it will be bloody and on a dime.”

Posted in Donald Trump, Politics, Republican Party | 1 Comment