CVIndependent

Wed11132019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

California will soon have a tougher new legal standard for the use of deadly force by police, under legislation Gov. Gavin Newsom signed yesterday, Aug, 19, that was inspired by last year’s fatal shooting of a young, unarmed man in Sacramento.

Newsom signed the legislation amid unusual fanfare, convening numerous legislators, family members of people who have died in police shootings and advocates including civil-rights leader Dolores Huerta in a courtyard at the Secretary of State’s building—used in the past for inaugurations and other formal events.

The governor contends that with Assembly Bill 392 in place, police will turn increasingly to de-escalation techniques, including verbal persuasion, weapons other than guns and other crisis-intervention methods.

“It is remarkable to get to this moment on a bill that is this controversial. But it means nothing unless we make this moment meaningful,” Newsom said after signing the legislation.

He made a point of praising law enforcement, saying the “overwhelming majority are extraordinary and honorable people.” He is planning to attend the funeral today of California Highway Patrol Officer Andre Moye Jr., who was killed by an ex-felon last week in Riverside.

Newsom also noted that the state’s current budget includes an additional $35 million for more police training, including training on ways to better handle severely mentally ill people. He said as many as a third of people shot to death by police are diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or some other serious illness.

“That is a tough assignment for law enforcement,” the governor said. “What’s happening on the streets of California is challenging, and law enforcement is increasingly being called to do social work.”

Kori McCoy, who attended the bill signing, was among various family members of people shot to death by police. His brother, Willie McCoy, was shot Feb. 9 while he slept at a Taco Bell in Vallejo. Six officers fired 55 rounds, hitting him more than 20 times.

“I don’t think this is going to totally change everything, but it definitely is a piece, and we’ll take it,” McCoy said about the legislation.

The law reflects a compromise between civil-rights advocates who want to limit when police can shoot, and law-enforcement groups who said earlier versions of the bill would have put officers in danger.

Under the new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, police may use deadly force only when “necessary in defense of human life.”

That’s a steeper standard than prosecutors apply now, which says officers can shoot when doing so is “reasonable.” One of the most significant changes will allow prosecutors to consider officers’ actions leading up to a shooting when deciding whether deadly force is justified.

“This will make a difference not only in California, but we know it will make a difference around the world,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, the San Diego Democrat who carried the legislation.

The law doesn’t go as far as civil libertarians originally proposed, and courts will need to define what a “necessary” use of force is in future cases. The negotiations led a few early supporters, including the group Black Lives Matter, to drop their support, and major statewide law-enforcement organizations to drop their opposition. After a year of contentious testimony over how to reduce police shootings, the final version of the bill sailed through the Legislature with bipartisan support. 

Newsom’s staff helped broker the compromise, and his signature was not a surprise. In March—after Sacramento’s district attorney cleared the officers who killed Stephon Clark on March 18, 2018, in his grandparents’ backyard after mistaking the cell phone he was holding for a gun—Newsom signaled support for police reforms that “reinforce the sanctity of human life.” And in June, he said he would sign the bill as he praised advocates for “working across their differences” to forge a compromise.

“The bill is watered down; everybody knows that,” Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, told the Los Angeles Times. “But at least we are getting something done. At least we are having the conversation now.”

California police kill more than 100 people a year—at a rate higher than the national average and highest among states with populations of 8 million or more. Most of the people police kill are armed with a gun or a knife.

But when California police kill people who are not armed, the impact falls disproportionately on Latinos and African Americans. Together, those groups make up 66 percent of the unarmed people California police killed between 2016 and 2018, but about 46 percent of the state’s population.

For more on California’s attempt to reduce police shootings, please listen to CalMatters’ Force of Law podcast. It’s available here on Apple Podcasts or here on other podcasting platforms. To read the Independent’s ongoing coverage of police shootings, go hereCalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

To reduce the use of force by California police, two Democrats began with competing approaches.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a firebrand from a liberal San Diego district, aimed to crack down by setting a tougher standard for justifiable police shootings.

Sen. Anna Caballero, a centrist who flipped a red Central Valley district blue, introduced a police-backed vision to reduce deadly force through improved officer training.

Yet as mothers—one African American, the other Latina—both lawmakers have had remarkably similar experiences in one respect: They instructed their teenage sons to cautiously navigate encounters with police, and they ultimately felt the police did not treat their sons fairly.

“It’s a difficult conversation to have,” Caballero said in an interview for Force of Law, a CALmatters podcast following California’s effort this year to reduce police shootings.

“As a woman of color you have to tell your boys … ‘I don’t care what’s going on … You’re going to follow the instructions, and you’re going to do exactly what they say, because they’re not going to know you, and they’re going to see you as a Mexican kid.’”

In the same episode, Weber recalls her son being stopped by police on the campus of San Diego State University, where she was a professor of Africana studies.

“They would go through his car, sit him on the curb,… and then they’d eventually go to the glove compartment and realize, ‘Oh, this truck is registered to Shirley Weber,’” she said. “And immediately, everybody would get nervous, because they knew I was going to call the police … for the campus and say, ‘Why are you still stopping my son, when you haven’t stopped anybody else? He wasn’t driving fast. He didn’t run a light. He was just coming out of the gym exercising, and you stop him.’”

Weber’s bill, now advancing through the Legislature, would declare that police use of force is allowed only when “necessary in defense of human life.” That’s a steeper standard than prosecutors apply now, which says police can shoot when doing so is “reasonable.”

That bill initially faced fierce police opposition, and has been amended into a compromise between law enforcement and civil rights advocates. The American Civil Liberties Union still champions the bill; Black Lives Matter withdrew its support; and police groups shifted from fighting it to being “neutral.”

Now it has become a companion to Caballero’s police-sponsored bill, which would require all law enforcement departments in California to adopt policies stating that officers must carry out their duties, including the use of force, “in a manner that is fair and unbiased.” It also would require basic officer training to include lessons on cultural competency and overcoming bias.

California lawmakers have been wrestling with how to respond following the death of Stephon Clark, a black man who was unarmed when Sacramento Police shot him in his grandparents’ backyard, mistaking the cell phone he was holding for a gun.

But the issue is much broader than one incident: The debate in the Capitol reflects growing concern about the disproportionate toll police shootings take on people of color. In California, 63 percent of the people killed in 2017 were African American or Latino, according to the state Department of Justice. Together, those two groups make up 46 percent of the state’s population.

Nor are Weber and Caballero the only politicians who have shared how profoundly personal the issue is for them. The debate has prompted anguished lawmakers to speak about their own encounters with police or their experiences as former officers, their fears about the safety of their relatives who wear a badge or their worries that their loved ones could be victimized by someone wearing a badge.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Despite speculation about bold moves—in a far-left direction, even for this blue state—Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative Democrats actually landed a budget Thursday that’s surgical about new taxing and spending while still keeping promises to help poor Californians and working families.

Under the $214.8 billion spending plan, the state inched closer to universal health coverage, expanding Medi-Cal to all low-income young adults regardless of immigration status. State lawmakers also charted a course to increase tax credits to the working poor and boost subsidies to middle-income Californians to buy health coverage. There were significant investments in early education and housing, while a portion of the surplus was diverted to pay down pension liabilities.

While Democrats began the year with a surplus of ideas for taxing Californians, only a few strategic levies survived the negotiation process, specifically a fine on individuals who don’t have health insurance under a state mandate. There’s even a little tax relief: Parents, for instance, will get a temporary tax exemption on diapers.

One hitch? The devil is in the details, some which have yet to be worked out. Though Democrats met their deadline for a balanced spending plan, most of the underlying policy to enact the budget wasn’t hashed out—and may not be for weeks. Call it a learning curve: This was the new governor’s first time negotiating with seasoned legislative leaders who know how to count votes. Look for more action in coming trailer bills.

Here’s what you need to know about California’s new budget—including maybe, just maybe, the first steps toward the establishment of a four-year college in the Coachella Valley.

Yes to Health Care for Undocumented Young Adults

The Legislature agreed to the governor’s plan to expand Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income people, to young adults ages 19-25. It’s a step toward offering free health care to all undocumented adults since the state already makes Medi-Cal available to children regardless of immigration status.

The Senate had proposed going further by offering Medi-Cal to undocumented seniors 65 and older. However, none of the leaders backed offering health care to all low-income immigrants.

The state expects an estimated 90,000 young adults could gain coverage when the benefit begins next year. Already, 76,000 have registered for a limited version of Medi-Cal that covers emergency services and prenatal care available to low-income people regardless of immigration status. The price tag for this expansion? About $98 million a year.

It’s worth noting the state also affirmed its commitment to restoring optional Medi-Cal benefits. During the recession, coverage for audiology, optical, podiatry, speech therapy and incontinence creams had been taken away.

Obamacare Lives: A $695 State Mandate to Carry Health Coverage

Starting next year, California will join New Jersey, Vermont and the District of Columbia in requiring residents carry health coverage or face a $695 state penalty—a fine that will go up each year with inflation.

The state individual mandate aims to replace the federal one that Republicans repealed in their effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The administration says California needs to act, because without a mandate, the number of Californians without coverage—10.4 percent in 2016—will go back up. Separately, a study conducted by the University of California estimated the uninsurance rate will rise to 12.9% by 2023, or 4.4 million people, without state action.

Money raised from the penalties, about $450 million over three years, will be used to give bigger subsidies to those who purchase private insurance through the state’s health coverage exchange, Covered California.

Newsom and lawmakers hope to expand assistance to 190,000 middle-income Californians making between $48,000 to $72,000 a year, according to Health Access California, a health advocacy group.

Fear of Recall = Not Many New Taxes

The budget includes a plan to impose a fee—that still needs to be voted on—of no more than 80 cents a month on each telephone line to help digitize the state’s 911 system, which is still analog. The next-generation system would improve call delivery, better location data and incoming text capability.

Other than that and the health-care mandate, lawmakers opted against most of the new taxes proposed early in the session. In fact, California parents and women will get a sales tax exemption on diapers and menstrual products (though only for two years).

Notably rejected, given the state’s current $21.5 billion surplus, was Newsom’s push for a 95-cent tax on most residential water bills to fund-clean-drinking water initiatives in the Central Valley. Instead, the Legislature worked out a deal to clean up toxic water by diverting money generated from big polluters under the state’s cap-and-trade program.

Some environmental groups questioned using clean air money to pay for drinking water, but supporters reasoned that water is being contaminated with arsenic and other toxic chemicals from the heavy use of fertilizers, so it makes sense to draw the $100 million for cleanup from the agriculture industry’s portion of the greenhouse gas fund.

One issue that won’t be resolved this week is whether California will conform its tax code to match federal changes made by Republicans in 2017. Newsom is relying on the projected $1.7 billion increase in net revenue from that to expand the state’s earned income tax credit, the centerpiece of his anti-poverty agenda.

Assembly Democrats in swing districts are skittish about limiting deductions and losses that can be claimed by some businesses. They know the fate of former Sen. Josh Newman, who was recalled from his Orange County seat after voting to raise California’s gas tax. Tax conformity requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass, so the pressure is on.

Paying Debt and Rainy-Day Saving

Lawmakers embraced the governor’s proposal to use some of the surplus to make extra pension payments, a step Newsom says is necessary to tame the state’s $256 billion retirement liability for state workers and teachers.

The Legislature approved supplemental payments of $3 billion to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and $1.1 billion to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System for the state’s portion of unfunded liability.

To relieve school districts across the state, the Legislature will contribute a total of $3.15 billion toward paying down their liabilities and reducing their payroll contribution rates. One difference is where it will go.

Previously, Newsom had all the extra payments going to the teachers' pension fund—a reaction, in part, to teachers strikes that erupted as he took office. Now a portion of that money will be doled out to CalPERS. The change was made in recognition that while teachers are members of CalSTRS, many other school employees from janitors to bus drivers belong in the state’s other public-employee pension fund.

Besides paying down California’s “wall of debt,” as former Gov. Jerry Brown called it, the state is shoring up for a downturn—or in Newsom-speak, “building budget resiliency.” The new budget carries a roughly $20 billion reserve from several rainy-day funds. This amount, while hefty, would be easily wiped away in a downturn. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state would need as much as $40 billion to cover the budget in a moderate recession.

Big Spending on Housing

With new commitments topping $2 billion, the budget represents the most important action the governor has taken so far on housing and homelessness. The lion’s share will target the state’s homeless population, including $650 million in grants for cities and counties to build and maintain emergency shelters, and $100 million for wrap-around care for the state’s most vulnerable residents. Another $500 million will go toward quintupling the size of the state’s affordable housing financing fund, plus hundreds of millions earmarked for cities to update their often outdated housing plans.

While lawmakers and Newsom have agreed to cut big checks, it’s not clear who’ll get the money, and with what strings attached. Big-city mayors and lawmakers want homelessness grants directed towards the state’s largest 13 cities, while Newsom wants to spread out the money to include counties.

Newsom also wants to deny transportation funds to cities not building enough housing. As of Thursday, lawmakers were still negotiating a scaled-back version of the proposal. Another Newsom proposal that speeds construction of homeless shelters by sidestepping environmental laws also remains unresolved.

Lending a Hand to Working Families

Expanding California’s earned income tax credit has quickly become one of Newsom’s signature anti-poverty programs, because it gives a cost-of-living refund to low-income working families. Lawmakers are poised to triple the program from $400 million to $1.2 billion to provide a $1,000 refund for families with children under 6 and expand income eligibility from $24,950 to $30,000.

Anti-poverty advocates had wanted Newsom to include undocumented workers who file with individual taxpayer identification numbers instead of Social Security numbers. That proposal did not make the final version of the budget. Still, the administration estimates the current expansion will increase the number of beneficiaries from 2 million to 3 million households.

The budget also will make it easier for low-income families with children to qualify for assistance, increasing the CalWORKs asset limit to $10,000 and the motor vehicle exemption to $25,000—changes that will allow people to save and hang on to cars that can get them to work.

And parents of all incomes will get a longer paid family leave to care for new babies—eight weeks, up from the current six weeks, starting in July of next year. The goal will be to boost the benefit to 90 percent of most wages, up from the current maximum of 70 percent.

The K-14 Kids Did All Right

As required by law, the lion’s share of the budget goes to public schools, with nearly $102 billion in state money to be pumped into California classrooms and community colleges, plus another $389 million in a special reserve fund for schools. Though the figure is an all-time high, California is still viewed as lagging in per-pupil spending, in part because of the high cost of living.

Democrats are also demanding more stringent oversight of charter schools, which can operate like private schools, tend to be non-union and have proliferated in big cities such as Oakland and Los Angeles. Newsom proposed prohibiting charter schools from blocking or disenrolling special-education students who require more support for disabilities. Lawmakers readily embraced that change.

The budget includes $300 million to build more kindergarten classrooms in an effort to boost full-day kindergarten programs. Newsom had initially proposed $750 million but that was reduced after a study found most part-day kindergarten programs are in wealthier communities.

After-school programs will get a $50 million boost over the $600 million or so the state is currently spending. The money will help cover the cost of minimum wage increases enacted during Brown’s tenure.

So Did the Little Ones

In emphasizing early education, Newsom and lawmakers agreed to expand day care and preschool slots by the thousands while investing in training for child care providers.

Newsom gets $50 million in seed money to start child savings accounts for college and post-secondary education. He initially asked that all of it go toward pilot projects with First 5 California and local governments, but the Legislature is designating $25 million to that. The other $25 million will create a state program with the Scholarshare program in the Treasurer’s Office.

More Free College and Help for Student Parents

Newsom and legislators delivered on a $45 million promise to fund a second year of tuition-free community college for first-time, full-time students at campuses participating in the state’s College Promise program.

Other big winners include students with children, who will be eligible to receive grants of up to $6,000 to help cover their families’ living expenses. The budget boosts by about 15,000 the number of competitive Cal Grants—a significant jump, but far less than the 400,000 qualified students who applied for the state scholarships last year and didn’t receive them.

The University of California and California State University systems will receive money to increase enrollment, and waive tuition during the summer to help low-income students graduate faster. Lawmakers also set aside funds for campuses to combat hunger and homelessness, strengthen veterans resource centers, and provide more mental health counseling. A center at the University of California San Francisco is getting a $3.5 million earmark for dyslexia screening and early intervention.

Backers of the state’s controversial new online community college fended off an effort to slash the college’s funding, clearing the way to enroll its first class this fall. And CSU will get $4 million to study five possible locations for a new campus: Stockton, Chula Vista, San Mateo, Concord and Palm Desert.

Lots for Police Training; a Little for Police Records

Reflecting the Legislature’s focus this year on reducing police shootings, the budget includes $20 million to train police officers on de-escalation tactics, and how and when to use force. Outside the budget, bills to set a tougher standard for police to use deadly force and require more officer training are advancing through the Legislature, reflecting a compromise between civil rights advocates and law enforcement groups.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office will get $155,000 to implement the new state law he’d been resisting: making law-enforcement misconduct records public. Becerra will also have to report to the Legislature on how many requests his office processes, and how much time is spent on that. A judge ruled in May that Becerra must produce the records; previously he had said he would not release them until the courts clarified whether he had to.

Powering Down to Cope With Wildfires

Besides beefing up the state’s firefighting capability and disaster preparedness, California will add powering down to its to-do list for coping with climate change-driven wildfires.

The budget doles out $75 million to state and local agencies whenever investor-owned utilities decide to shut off electricity during red flag weather warnings. One note: The Assembly added language to track how the money is used.

CALmatters reporters Matt Levin, Felicia Mello and Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this report. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

For an hour and a half Wednesday morning, May 29, California lawmakers lined up to speak for or against—mostly for—one of the most high-profile bills of the year. One member of the Assembly, a former state cop, choked back tears as he wrestled with the implications of his vote.

But when the rolls opened on Assembly Bill 392, which would make it harder for police to legally justify killing a civilian, the tally wasn’t even close: The Assembly passed the bill, 68-0, with 12 members abstaining.

Wednesday’s vote pushes California one step closer to enacting use-of-force standards that would be among the strictest in the country. If AB 392 is signed into law, police would only be able to use lethal force if “necessary” to defend human life.

The current standard, established by the U.S. Supreme Court, allows the lethal use of force if the split-second decision to pull the trigger is “reasonable.”

Introduced by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber from San Diego, the bill is a product of a long political tug-o’-war. On one side are criminal-justice advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which has argued that current law allows police officers to justify all but the most flagrant misconduct. On the other are law-enforcement groups, which have said that a stricter use-of-force standard would allow prosecutors to second-guess difficult policing decisions in often-dangerous situations.

But most of the state’s major law enforcement groups are no longer actively opposing the bill, the result of an amendment last week. An earlier version of the bill defined “necessary” use of force as lacking any “reasonable alternative,” but that phrasing was stripped. Police groups argued that the “no reasonable alternative” would give prosecutors too much leeway to question every decision after the fact.

At a press conference after the vote, Weber insisted that the amendments had not substantially weakened the bill’s civil-liberty safeguards. But the change seems to have helped clear the way for Wednesday’s vote among officials ordinarily allied with law enforcement, with most moderate Democrats and 9 of the chamber’s 19 Republicans voting in favor.

“In my entire elected experience, never has a bill consumed my thinking as this has,” said Assemblyman Tom Lackey, a Republican and former California Highway Patrol officer who paused a number of times throughout his speech to collect himself.

He recalled a former colleague, “someone who was a very big part of my life,” who had killed someone while in the line of duty—and, struggling with the guilt, later took his own life. But Lackey said that he would support the bill, because, he argued, it offered a balanced approach.

Jim Gallagher, a Republican from Yuba City, also spoke in favor of the bill, saying that with the new amendments, it represents a “reasonable compromise.”

Devon Mathis, a Republican from Visalia, was initially the only Republican to vote “no” before switching his vote to an abstention. He argued that a lack of respect for police officers was the source of many civilian killings.

“We teach our youth ‘no means no,'” he said. “But when are we going to teach them, ‘stop means stop,’ ‘freeze means freeze’?”

That argument prompted a fierce response from Assemblyman Mike Gipson, a Democrat from Compton.

“I listen to all of you with your commentaries and words, but you don’t have to have my kind of experience,” said Gipson, who is African American, his voice reverberating around the chamber. “You don’t live where I live or grow up where I grew up.”

Weber, also an African American, said that the bill was part of a “400-year challenge” for racial justice in the United States. She closed by dedicating the bill to her two grandchildren. When the vote was called, criminal-justice advocates stood in the balcony and sang “This Land is Your Land.”

The bill now progresses to the Senate, where a similar version of the proposal died in committee last year. But this time around, the bill has the public support of the Democratic President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego, who stood beside Weber at Wednesday’s press conference.

Earlier this week, the state Senate passed a police-backed “companion” bill unanimously. The proposal by Democratic Sen. Anna Caballero from Salinas would provide more use-of-force training to police.

Learn more about these two bills and about the legal, political and human dimensions of this debate by subscribing to Laurel Rosenhall’s podcast, Force of Law. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Even as a landmark California bill meant to prevent police shootings passed through its first committee on Tuesday, April 9, fault lines among Democrats began to emerge—suggesting the measure will likely change as it moves through the Legislature.

How much it will change, though, was not yet clear.

After emotional, standing-room-only testimony from Californians whose loved ones have been killed by police, and a sheriff’s deputy who survived being shot by a gunman who killed her colleague, the Assembly Public Safety committee passed Assembly Bill 392 on a party-line vote. But three of the panel’s six Democrats said they were dissatisfied with the bill in its current form. They asked civil-rights groups that support the bill and law-enforcement groups that oppose it to keep working toward common ground.

“It is incumbent upon each of us to look at the safety of the public, both law enforcement and the community members that are out on the streets every day,” said Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, a Democrat from Orinda.

“The pendulum has swung too far in one direction such that we aren’t protecting and holding accountable those who are taking life from our community members. I do have serious concerns that the text of this (bill) swings the pendulum too far in the other direction, because the sanctity of the life of our law enforcement is equally as important.”

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said she would work to reach a compromise before the bill reaches the Assembly floor.

“We are committed to having a piece of legislation that makes a difference and that does provide a balance,” said the San Diego Democrat whose bill would change the legal standard for justifying police use of deadly force.

Her bill—which is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and numerous civil-rights groups—was prompted by the death last year of Stephon Clark. He was not armed, and Sacramento police killed him after mistaking the cellphone he was holding for a gun. Last month, the Sacramento district attorney announced she would not press charges, because the officers acted legally.

Clark’s case has re-ignited anger among many, with evidence that black and brown men are unfairly targeted by police—a message that was carried into the Capitol by scores of Californians who packed the hearing room and spilled out into the hallway, wearing T-shirts commemorating slain loved ones, or emblazoned with the hashtag #LetUsLive.

Weber’s bill would make sweeping changes to the laws that determine when California police can use deadly force. It says police could shoot only when it’s necessary to prevent death or serious injury, and would require they use other tactics in many situations.

That would go beyond the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court, which says police can use force when a reasonable officer in the same circumstance would do the same thing. Law-enforcement groups said that a law that deviates from the reasonable standard would subject officers to greater danger while performing an already dangerous job.

“I was fighting for my life and fighting to protect complete strangers when I chose to stand between the gunman and the employees and patrons. The thought of having to second-guess my actions in that moment is frightening,” said Julie Robertson, a Sacramento deputy sheriff who watched her colleague get killed by a gunman when they responded to a disturbance at an auto-parts store last year.

“My only intention is to protect and save lives. How is it that I would be questioned and judged by the ones who live so distant from the dangers we inherently face each day?”

Though law-enforcement groups are largely opposed to Weber’s bill, several said they would keep working with her to find common ground. Police groups have backed competing legislation, Senate Bill 230, that focuses on updating department policies on the use of force and increasing training for officers. It will likely get its first hearing later this month.

Follow this issue as it moves through the Legislature this year with CALmatters’ podcast Force of Law. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

When we decided to put a story about police-involved killings on the cover of our July print edition, we had no idea that the month would be dominated by news about police-involved killings—and the killings of police.

Yet that’s exactly what happened. The deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., sparked yet more outrage about the excessive use of force by law-enforcement officers. The country watched in horror as Micah Johnson mowed down police officers who were watching over a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, killing five officers and injuring nine other officers and two bystanders. Then came the murder of three law enforcement officers, and the wounding of three others, again in Baton Rouge, La., by Gavin Long.

These terrible deaths prove, yet again, that our country has some deep and serious problems. Way, way too many people are dying at the hands of law enforcement. On the flip side, while the vast majority of police officers in this country are fantastic, some troubled souls view all cops as being bad. And, of course, systemic racism is alive and well.

None of these problems will be solved overnight—especially considering the fact that one of this country’s two major parties is pushing an agenda that marginalizes LGBT Americans, Mexican immigrants, Muslims and many others. Sadly, more blood will be spilled before things get better.

That’s not to say there’s no reason for optimism. That aforementioned July cover story was about the fact that for the first time ever, the country has access to the fairly complete Fatal Encounters database of law-enforcement-related deaths—and that data can be analyzed and used to create better public policy.

It’s also important to note that violent-crime rates are much, much lower today—about two-thirds lower, in fact—than they were in the early 1990s. So even though it may not seem like it at times, our society today is way safer than it used to be.

Finally, despite all of the political rancor, many amazing people are working hard to unite us and develop understanding. For example, there’s Tizoc DeAztlan, a young local Democrat who’s working with his friend Hugh Van Horn, former president of the Coachella Valley Young Republicans, to hold a series of “Perspectives” discussion groups. Anita Rufus recently wrote about him in her Know Your Neighbors column; read that here.

You can also read Anita’s column in the August 2016 print edition of the Coachella Valley Independent, which is being distributed across the valley and High Desert this week. Enjoy, please, and drop me a line if you have any questions or comments.

Published in Editor's Note

The numbers of police-related deaths in the United States, as documented by Fatal Encounters, have been eerily similar in recent years.

2015: 1,356.

2014: 1,323.

2013: 1,330.

However, this statistical fluke is not what’s newsworthy: What is newsworthy is the fact that we now actually have a database of police-related deaths.

That’s right: Before Fatal Encounters came along, there was not a comprehensive database of all of the people in the United States who died during encounters with law enforcement.

By the time the Fatal Encounters effort is complete, it will include a database going back to the year 2000. As of this writing, the Fatal Encounters team has already “finished” 27 states—including California, which was finished in May. Data for the last 3 1/2 years is complete nationwide

The numbers and details contained in the Fatal Encounters database can be chilling. In 2015, of the 1,356 people who died during law-enforcement encounters in the nation, 263 of them were in the state of California. Going back to 2000, at least 48 people have died during law-enforcement efforts in the Coachella Valley alone. (See the list at the bottom of this article.)

Fatal Encounters is the brainchild of D. Brian Burghart, the longtime editor of the Reno News & Review, the alternative newsweekly in Reno, Nev. (Burghart has been a friend and colleague of mine for 20 years—going all the way back to my internship at the News & Review during the summer of 1996.)

At FatalEncounters.org, Burghart explained how the project came to be.

“May 18, 2012: I was on my way home from work when I noticed a bunch of cop cars down by the Truckee River,” Burghart writes. “… It turned out the police had pulled over a stolen car, and they’d shot and killed the driver. (Jace Herndon, 41, we found out later.) Honestly—and not because I’m one of those hard-boiled, cynical types—I wasn’t particularly surprised or offended. Criminals often come to a bad end.

“But again, I’m an editor, so I noticed when a gaping hole appeared in every single news story I read about the incident. There was no context. I kept looking for a sentence that said something like, ‘This was x person killed by police in Washoe County this year.’

“But it was never there.”

It was never there, Burghart learned, because no such database exists. Therefore, Burghart (who stepped down from the Reno News & Review earlier this year) decided to create one—using Google, news coverage, existing databases and public-records requests—going all the way back to the start of the century.

It’s safe to say Burghart had no idea what he was getting into. However, after a grant or two, a successful crowd-sourcing funding effort, tons of media coverage and a whole lot of work by Burghart and his volunteer-and-paid team, Burghart’s goal is in sight.

“When we say (a state or year) is complete, we’ve exhausted all the means at our disposal—but there are always lawsuits that will bring one that never made the press,” Burghart told me.

“Even when we get everything that we can find, I know we’re still missing stuff,” Burghart said. “… It’s just because of the peculiar ways the media choose to report this stuff. You’d think that they would say, ‘An officer shot and killed somebody’—something simple—but instead, they say, ‘An officer-involved shooting occurred. It’s crazy.”

Still, Burghart said, he’s happy with how accurate and comprehensive the database seems to be.

“I have yet to have a journalist … point out one we missed,” he said. “We’ve had grad students, not members of our team, who did an analysis using public-records requests and found that we were at 100 percent. While I know it’s not true (that we’re at 100 percent), that’s what they found.”

Burghart said his team has faced a lot of challenges finding information, especially the older info.

“We think of the Internet in 2000 as a mature thing,” he said. “But until 2005 to 2006, a lot of stuff—basically, until the advent of the cloud storage—just got purged from files. People regularly purged their older stuff, because data storage was expensive.”

Fatal Encounters—due to the extra attention given to police-related killings in places like Ferguson, Mo., in recent years—has received a lot of media coverage. This attention helped attract people like Carla DeCeros to the Fatal Encounters effort. She’s the person who is responsible for compiling a lion’s share of the California database.

“I was already researching this topic before linking up with Fatal Encounters,” DeCeros said via email. “My reasons for doing so were probably similar to those of Brian and others who’ve done this sort of work. Mainly, I wanted answers, but they just didn’t exist.

“To get answers, I realized I’d have to take several steps back and do a lot of info-gathering. Fortunately, there were others—past and present—who’d done at least some of the work already. What I was doing was building on these earlier efforts, connecting them and filling in the blanks.”

All of this, however, leads to a big question: Why hadn’t someone, like the government, been keeping track of these fatal encounters? Burghart said he has several theories.

“It’s usually just incompetence, to be honest,” he said. “Many people that I’ve talked to over the years want to find a conspiracy, but I really believe that it’s mostly government incompetence.”

California’s government has done better than most at gathering data. The state Office of the Attorney General’s “Open Justice” website offers data on deaths in custody and arrest-related deaths between 2005 and 2014. Over that period, the state database includes about 1,200 arrest-related deaths.

Over that same time period, Burghart said, Fatal Encounters has counted twice the number of deaths.

“The government tracks everything that it thinks matters. That suggests to me that the government does not believe that these deaths matter,” he said. “If a low-tech guy like me could do this, then the FBI—with millions of dollars to apply to it and super high-tech knowledge—could do it in an hour.”


Now that there is a comprehensive database of police-involved killings that is available to all, the real work can begin: People can examine the details, crunch the numbers and figure out how to perhaps decrease the alarming number of deaths.

That’s where Nick Selby comes in. He’s a law-enforcement officer as well as a consultant, writer and speaker on law-enforcement data and technology. He’s also the CEO and co-founder of StreetCred Software, Inc.

“Fatal Encounters is quite simply the database that is the most complete, the most accurate, and the most contextually complete,” Selby said. “By that, what I mean is in addition to things like name, and time, and gender, we also get some indication of what the person was doing at the time the police showed up, which is really important.”

Using Fatal Encounters data, Selby has come to some conclusions that may have major public-policy implications. He looked at a subset of fatal encounters cases—specifically, unarmed people who were killed in 2015.

“What we found was that about 7 percent were unjustified,” he said. “… If I tell you that there are 153 people who were killed by police, and they were unarmed, how many would you think would be unjustified? (Law enforcement officers) would probably tell you two or three. If you ask an activist the same thing, they’d probably tell you 30 or 40. They’re both wrong. That’s important. I thank (Fatal Encounters) for the ability to actually do that analysis.

“The biggest predictor (of fatal encounters with police) is poverty, not race—but the biggest predictor of poverty turns out to be race,” Selby said. “That’s not a police problem; that’s an American societal problem. That’s a federal, state and local policy problem.”

Selby has uncovered some fascinating trends using data: “If you take a look at just people who are suffering from mental illness—either diagnosed or apparent—disability, and drug addiction, or some combination of those three, that’s 52 percent of the people who died last year” during encounters with law enforcement.

Thanks to this information, Selby pointed to several programs that he thinks should be emulated around the country.

“No one is bringing attention to the fact that Richmond, Calif., and Albany, N.Y., and Chicago are doing these wonderful intervention-based programs on gun violence, where they identify—through social networks and other means—people at risk of being involved in gun violence, and speak to them and ask them to attend meetings. They’re cutting down their murder rate, and they’re cutting down their gun-violence rate.”

Selby also said society needs to do a better job of dealing with mental illness. Some Fatal Encounters data analyses have indicated that 25 to 30 percent of people who are killed by law enforcement are suffering from mental illness.

“Why are we not moving to do better intervention-based programs instead of waiting until there’s a mental-health crisis?” Selby asked.


In the months and years to come, Fatal Encounters’ data, once complete, will no doubt lead to other conclusions that could help inform public policy. Burghart said that he had been hoping to finish the databases of the other 23 states by the end of the year.

“Well, that was the plan earlier this year, before the whole Guardian and Washington Post thing happened,” he said.

Burghart is referring to the fact that both the Guardian and the Washington Post have created their own databases of law-enforcement-related deaths. In fact, the Post earlier this year won a Pulitzer Prize for its database—after getting the idea from Fatal Encounters, a fact that Burghart documented in an excellent piece at Gawker.com on April 26. (While the Post tipped its figurative hat to Fatal Encounters when it started its efforts, credit was nowhere to be found when the Pulitzer was awarded. In fact, both the Post and the Pulitzer citation made claims about the Post’s database being the “first” and “only” one to accomplish certain things that Fatal Encounters had accomplished well before.)

Neither the Guardian nor Post databases are going back in time to collect anywhere near 17 years of data like Fatal Encounters is, and Burghart said it’s been harder to attract help to Fatal Encounters since the Post won the award.

“It undermines the idea that this is needed, because people now believe that the media’s on top of it—although I can tell you by looking that they’re not,” Burghart said

When Fatal Encounters is complete, most likely next year, the database will include details on more well more than 20,000 police-related deaths. What’s next?

“When we have a comprehensive database going back to Jan. 1, 2000—I’ll make a decision then,” he said. “We’ve actually been asked by people in other countries to help them set up something.

“I have a lot of ideas. There are a lot of databases that should exist in this country to show the numbers behind things. There should be a database of people who die in prison and in jail. That doesn’t exist. … It’s mind-boggling that these aren’t tracked.”


Coachella Valley’s Fatal Encounters Since 2000

Stephan McEwan, 33, April 13, 2000, Palm Springs. McEwan was killed after his motorcycle crashed into a van while leading police on a brief pursuit.

Jesus-Pena “Jesse” Herrara, 32, Feb. 1, 2002, Indio. District Attorney Investigator Dan Riter shot Herrara in the head at close range.

Raymond Deleon, 36, Dec. 26, 2002, Desert Hot Springs. Two officers shot and killed Deleon; officers said Deleon tried to hit them with his car and wouldn’t show his hands.

Antonio Gastelum Sanchez, 34, Jan. 23, 2003, La Quinta. Sanchez died shortly after struggling with deputies.

Kevin W. Diabo, 24, May 13, 2003, La Quinta. Deputy Robert Burbach shot and killed Diabo after Diabo killed Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Bruce Lee and swung a baton at Burbach.

Name withheld by police, June 16, 2003, Thousand Palms. A female passenger in an uninvolved car was killed by a car fleeing deputies.

Michael Sanchez, 26, and Delonn Arenas, Nov. 21, 2003, Desert Hot Springs. Arenas died after a car fleeing deputies struck the Honda in which Arenas was riding. The passenger in the fleeing car, Sanchez, reportedly died of cardiac arrest after a foot chase and struggle with deputies.

Omar Mendiola, 22, Feb. 17, 2004, Thermal. A California Highway Patrol officer shot and killed Mendiola after an altercation on the Torres-Martinez Indian Reservation.

Lawrence Christopher Phillips, 26, Sept. 2, 2004, Palm Springs. Officer Don Benstead shot Phillips when he pulled a gun on the officer’s partner.

Scott R. Neth, 35, Jan. 16, 2005, Thousand Palms. Neth died when he crashed his car while fleeing the CHP.

Rodolfo Inzunza-Sanchez, 23, March 5, 2005, Thousand Palms. Deputies shot Inzunza-Sanchez when he allegedly refused to drop a handgun and a knife.

Israel Ruiz Hernandez, 30, June 10, 2005, La Quinta. Two deputies shot and killed Hernandez when he allegedly pointed a gun after they confronted him behind Big 5 Sporting Goods.

Julio Cesar Prado-Franco, 18, June 12, 2005, Indio. Prado-Franco was killed when he lost control of his SUV and slammed into a pole while fleeing police.

Joel Soto Campaña, 35, Aug. 11, 2005, Indio. An officer shot and killed Campaña when he allegedly physically confronted the officer, who was responding to a report of a domestic disturbance.

Fred Ray Bradley Jr., 29, Nov. 15, 2005, Palm Springs. Bradley was killed in a car crash during a brief police chase.

Merle Vernon Houston, 40, Jan. 5, 2006, Palm Springs. Police shot Houston when he grabbed an officer’s gun during a confrontation in front of Walmart.

Carlos Romero-Avena, 34, March 24, 2006, Coachella. A CHP officer shot and killed Romero-Avena when he took the officer’s baton after a pursuit.

Leonel Lopez Ramirez, 35, Aug. 1, 2006, Indio/Coachella. Deputies shot Ramirez when he threatened them with a replica firearm and a paintball gun.

Thomas Sharp, 49, Nov. 4, 2006, Cathedral City. Sharp reportedly shot himself during a police standoff.

Jorge Alberto Martinez, 64, March 19, 2007, Thermal. Martinez was killed in a head-on collision with Deputy Manuel Viegas, who was also killed.

Roberto Perez, 25, April 11, 2007, Indio. Two officers shot Perez after they responded to a family dispute in Indio.

Sergio “Checko” Lopez, 48, Oct. 2, 2007, Desert Hot Springs. Sgt. Robert Ritchie shot Lopez, who residents of a nearby homeless camp said was known as “Checko,” four times when Lopez continued to come toward the officer.

Nino Joseph Garcia Jr., 24, Jan. 15, 2008, Palm Springs. Police shot and killed Garcia when he pulled a weapon on officers.

Alexis Melendrez-Acosta, 18, May 30, 2008, Desert Hot Springs. CHP officers shot Melendrez-Acosta when he shot at them during a pursuit.

Gregory Fisher, 56, June 3, 2009, Rancho Mirage. Fisher was a passenger killed in a crash during a high-speed chase.

Robert Albert Appel, 48, May 14, 2010, Palm Desert. Appel died after struggling with deputies Martin Alfaro, Robert Garcia, Sean Dusek and Edward Chacon while he was in the midst of a delusional episode inside a gated community.

Jesus Juan “Chapo” Hernandez-Cazares, 21, Sept. 19, 2010, Cathedral City. An officer shot Hernandez-Cazares twice during a confrontation.

John Howe Jr., 57, Dec. 27, 2010, Desert Hot Springs. Howe, a pedestrian, was struck and killed by a police car.

Francisco Gabriel Durazo, 31, April 17, 2011, Palm Springs. Police had been chasing Durazo for a parole violation; police said he also led them on a chase March 18 in a stolen vehicle. Police and Durazo exchanged shots, and officers unleashed police dog Ike on Durazo, but he shot the dog to death before being killed himself.

Ricardo Avila, 37, June 11, 2011, Indio. Avila was a passenger who died on June 20 from injuries sustained when he jumped from a stolen sedan during a pursuit.

William Scott Routh, 47, Aug. 20, 2011, Cathedral City. Routh began experiencing labored breathing and later died after he struggled with officers.

Pascual Manuel Mata, 59, Oct. 21, 2011, Coachella. SWAT officer Gustavo “Gus” Araiza shot Mata when he opened fire on officers during a 25-hour standoff.

Frank Tanuvasa, 20, Feb. 23, 2012, Palm Desert. Tanuvasa was seen running away from an apartment complex where a burglary was reported. Tanuvasa was shot following a fight with a sheriff’s deputy.

Robert Shirar, 32, May 21, 2012, Indio. After crashing his vehicle on Interstate 10, Shirar threatened investigating CHP officers. They shot and killed him.

Karl Watson, 47, June 25, 2012, Indio. Police shot and killed Watson as he reportedly beat an officer who arrived at the scene after Watson murdered his ex-girlfriend.

Joshua Sznaider, 27, Oct. 6, 2012, Palm Springs. Police were called out at 7 a.m. as Sznaider created a neighborhood disturbance. He was Tasered twice and put in a chokehold as he resisted arrest. He died four days later of cardiac arrest.

Allan DeVillena II, 22, Nov. 10, 2012, Palm Springs. Officers fatally shot DeVillena after the unarmed Marine allegedly drunkenly drove his car at the officers. Despite conflicting witness statements, the district attorney declined to file charges against the officers.

Alejandro Rendon, 23, Feb. 14, 2013, Indio. Rendon, 23 was shot by Indio Officer Alex Franco after he and his partner attempted to stop the suspect while he was riding his bicycle. Franco claimed the suspect was facing him down over the hood of the police vehicle and could have been armed. Experts later testified that Rendon’s wounds showed he was shot from behind and below. The family of Rendon was awarded $1.9 million.

Ernest Foster, 37, July 4, 2013, Indio. Foster was shot and killed by an Indio police officer; authorities said he was armed, and when police confronted him, he ran away. A pursuit on foot led to a confrontation, when the officer opened fire.

Eulizez Rodriguez, 24, Aug. 22, 2013, Desert Hot Springs. Rodriguez was killed after officers pursued him for driving a stolen car. After a short foot chase, an officer shot Rodriguez after he pulled out a gun.

Luis Morin, 39, Jan. 27, 2014, Coachella. Morin, wanted on two nonviolent felony warrants, was visiting relatives. When Morin and his relatives returned home from dinner, a deputy attempted to arrest the unarmed Morin; a scuffle ensued, ending with the deputy shooting and killing Morin. A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed against Riverside County.

Jesus Zuriel Orduno Luviano, 20, Nov. 2, 2014, Indio. The California Highway Patrol attempted to pull over a drunk driver. When the suspect didn’t stop, Indio police joined the chase. Luviano exited the vehicle, allegedly with a shotgun, and was shot.

Omar Rodriguez, 35, Dec. 25, 2014, Coachella. A deputy was in the area responding to a report of a “suspicious person.” Rodriguez allegedly tried to take the deputy’s baton, and was shot and killed.

Dario Colin, 33, Feb. 6, 2015, Palm Desert. Colin was killed in a crash while fleeing the CHP.

Samuel Villarreal, 18, Oct. 14, 2015, Indio. Officers were investigating an auto theft and attempted to stop Villarreal after he drove a stolen car into a parking lot. Police opened fire after Villarreal allegedly backed his car into a police cruiser.

Dominic Hutchinson, 30, Oct. 24, 2015, Cathedral City. Hutchinson was shot by officers responding to a domestic disturbance.

Juan Perez, 38, Dec. 5, 2015, Indio. Police, investigating a stolen golf cart, approached Perez, and shots were exchanged. Perez was shot and killed.

Source: Fatal Encounters

Published in Features

When Sonoma State University professor Carl Jensen started looking into the new media’s practice of self-censorship in 1976, the Internet was only a dream, and most computers were still big mainframes with whirling tape reels and vacuum tubes.

Back then, the vast majority of Americans got all of the news from one daily newspaper and one of the three big TV networks. If a story wasn’t on ABC, NBC or CBS, it might as well not have happened.

Forty years later, the media world is a radically different place. Americans are now more likely to get their news from several different sources through Facebook than they would from CBS Evening News. Daily newspapers all over the country are struggling and, in some cases, dying. A story that appears on one obscure outlet can suddenly become a viral sensation, reaching millions of readers at the speed of light.

And yet, as Jensen’s Project Censored continues to find, there are still numerous big, important news stories that receive very little exposure.

As Project Censored staffers Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth note, 90 percent of U.S. news media—traditional outlets that employ full-time reporters—are controlled by six corporations. “The corporate media hardly represent the mainstream,” the staffers wrote in the current edition’s introduction.

“By contrast, the independent journalists that Project Censored has celebrated since its inception are now understood as vital components of what experts have identified as the newly developing ‘networked fourth estate.’”

Jensen set out to frame a new definition of censorship. He put out an annual list of the 10 biggest stories that the mainstream media ignored, arguing that it was a failure of the corporate press to pursue and promote these stories that represented censorship—not by the government, but by the media itself.

“My definition starts with the other end, with the failure of information to reach people,” he wrote. “For the purposes of this project, censorship is defined as the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method—including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship, which prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in the world.”

Jensen died in April 2015, but his project was inherited and carried on by Sonoma State sociology professor Peter Phillips and Huff.

Huff teaches social science and history at Diablo Valley College. Under their leadership, the Project has, at times, veered off into the loony world of conspiracies and Sept. 11 “truther” territory. A handful of stories included in the annual publication—to be kind—were difficult to verify. That’s caused a lot of us in the alternative press to question the validity of the annual list.

But Huff, who is now project director, and Roth, the associate director, have expanded and tightened up the process of selecting stories. Project staffers and volunteers first fact-check nominations that come in to make sure they are “valid” news reports. Then a panel of 28 judges—mostly academics with a few journalists and media critics—finalize the Top 10 and the 15 runners-up.

The results are published in a book that was released Oct. 6 by Seven Stories Press.

I’ve been writing about Project Censored for 25 years, and I think it’s safe to say that the stories on this year’s list are credible, valid—and critically important. Even in an era when most of us are drunk with information, overloaded by buzzing social media telling us things we didn’t think we needed to know, these stories haven’t gotten anywhere near the attention they deserve.

1. Half of global wealth owned by the 1 percent

We hear plenty of talk about the wealth and power of the top 1 percent of people in the United States, but the global wealth gap is, if anything, even worse. And it has profound human consequences.

Oxfam International, which has been working for decades to fight global poverty, released a January 2015 report showing that, if current trends continue, the wealthiest 1 percent, by the end of this year, will control more wealth than everyone else in the world put together.

As reported in Project Censored, “The Oxfam report provided evidence that extreme inequality is not inevitable, but is, in fact, the result of political choices and economic policies established and maintained by the power elite, wealthy individuals whose strong influence keeps the status quo rigged in their own favor.”

Another stunning fact: The wealth of 85 of the richest people in the world combined is equal to the wealth of half the world’s poor combined.

The mainstream news media coverage of the report and the associated issues was spotty, at best, Project Censored notes: A few corporate television networks, including CNN, CBS, MSNBC, ABC, FOX and C-SPAN covered Oxfam’s January report, according to the TV News Archive. CNN had the most coverage with about seven broadcast segments from Jan. 19 to 25, 2015. However, these stories aired between 2 and 3 a.m.—far from primetime.

Sources: Larry Elliott and Ed Pilkington, “New Oxfam Report Says Half of Global Wealth Held by the 1%,” Guardian, Jan.19, 2015

Sarah Dransfield, “Number of Billionaires Doubled Since Financial Crisis as Inequality Spirals Out of Control–Oxfam,” Oxfam, Oct. 29, 2014

Samantha Cowan, “Every Kid on Earth Could Go to School If the World’s 1,646 Richest People Gave 1.5 Percent,” TakePart, Nov. 3, 2014

2. Oil Industry Illegally Dumps Fracking Wastewater

Fracking, which involves pumping high-pressure water and chemicals into rock formations to free up oil and natural gas, has been a huge issue nationwide. But there’s been little discussion of one of the side effects: The contamination of aquifers.

The Center for Biological Diversity reported in 2014 that oil companies had dumped almost 3 billion gallons of fracking wastewater into California’s underground water supply. Since the companies refuse to say what chemicals they use in the process, nobody knows exactly what the level of contamination is. But wells that supply drinking water near where the fracking waste was dumped tested high in arsenic, thallium and nitrates.

According to Project Censored, “Although corporate media have covered debate over fracking regulations, the Center for Biological Diversity study regarding the dumping of wastewater into California’s aquifers went all but ignored at first. There appears to have been a lag of more than three months between the initial independent news coverage of the Center for Biological Diversity revelations and corporate coverage.

In May 2015, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page feature on Central Valley crops irrigated with treated oil field water; however, the Los Angeles Times report made no mention of the Center for Biological Diversity’s findings regarding fracking wastewater contamination.”

Sources: Dan Bacher, “Massive Dumping of Wastewater into Aquifers Shows Big Oil’s Power in California,” IndyBay, Oct. 11, 2014

“California Aquifers Contaminated with Billions of Gallons of Fracking Wastewater,” Russia Today Oct. 11, 2014

Donny Shaw, “CA Senators Voting NO on Fracking Moratorium Received 14x More from Oil & Gas Industry,” MapLight, June 3, 2014

Dan Bacher, “Senators Opposing Fracking Moratorium Received 14x More Money from Big Oil,” IndyBay, June 7, 2014

3. 89 percent of Pakistani drone victims not identifiable as militants

The United States sends drone aircraft into combat on a regular basis, particularly in Pakistan. The Obama administration says the drones fire missiles only when there is clear evidence that the targets are al-Qaida bases. Secretary of State John Kerry insists that “the only people we fire a drone at are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest levels.”

But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which keeps track of all the strikes, reported that only 4 percent of those killed by drones were al-Qaida members, and only 11 percent were confirmed militants of any sort.

That means 89 percent of the 2,464 people killed by U.S. drones could not be identified as terrorists. In fact, 30 percent of the dead could not be identified at all.

The New York Times has covered the fact that, as one story noted, “most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.” But overall, the mainstream news media ignored the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting.

Sources: Jack Serle, “Almost 2,500 Now Killed by Covert US Drone Strikes Since Obama Inauguration Six Years Ago,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Feb. 2, 2015

Jack Serle, “Get the Data: A List of US Air and Drone Strikes, Afghanistan 2015,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Feb. 12, 2015

Steve Coll, “The Unblinking Stare: The Drone War in Pakistan,” New Yorker, Nov. 24, 2014

Abigail Fielding-Smith, “John Kerry Says All those Fired at by Drones in Pakistan are ‘Confirmed Terrorist Targets’—But with 1,675 Unnamed Dead How Do We Know?” Bureau of Investigative Journalism,Oct. 23, 2014

Jack Serle, “Only 4% of Drone Victims in Pakistan Named as al Qaeda Members,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Oct. 16, 2014

Jeremy Scahill, “Germany is the Tell-Tale Heart of America’s Drone War,” Intercept, April 17, 2015

4. Popular resistance to corporate water-grabbing

For decades, private companies have been trying to take over and control water supplies, particularly in the developing world. Now, as journalist Ellen Brown reported in March 2015, corporate water barons, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, the Carlyle Group and other investment firms, “are purchasing water rights from around the world at an unprecedented pace.”

However, over the past 15 years, more than 180 communities have fought back and re-municipalized their water systems. “From Spain to Buenos Aires, Cochabamba to Kazakhstan, Berlin to Malaysia, water privatization is being aggressively rejected,” Victoria Collier reported in Counterpunch.

Meanwhile, in the United States, some cities—in what may be a move toward privatization—are radically raising water rates and cutting off service to low-income communities.

The mainstream media response to the privatization of water has been largely silence.

Sources: Ellen Brown, “California Water Wars: Another Form of Asset Stripping?,” Nation of Change, March 25, 2015

Victoria Collier, “Citizens Mobilize Against Corporate Water Grabs,” CounterPunch, Feb. 11, 2015

Larry Gabriel, “When the City Turned Off Their Water, Detroit Residents and Groups Delivered Help,” YES! Magazine, Nov. 24, 2014

Madeline Ostrander, “LA Imports Nearly 85 Percent of Its Water—Can It Change That by Gathering Rain?,” YES! Magazine, Jan. 5, 2015

5. Fukushima nuclear disaster deepens

Nearly five years after a tsunami destroyed Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant and causing one of the worst nuclear accidents in human history, radiation from the plant continues to leak into the ocean.

But the story has largely disappeared from the news.

As Project Censored notes: “The continued dumping of extremely radioactive cooling water into the Pacific Ocean from the destroyed nuclear plant, already being detected along the Japanese coastline, has the potential to impact entire portions of the Pacific Ocean and North America’s western shoreline. Aside from the potential release of plutonium into the Pacific Ocean, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) recently admitted that the facility is releasing large quantities of water contaminated with tritium, cesium and strontium into the ocean every day.”

We’re talking large amounts of highly contaminated water getting dumped into the ocean. The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, “admitted that the facility is releasing a whopping 150 billion becquerels of tritium and seven billion becquerels of cesium- and strontium-contaminated water into the ocean every day.” The potential for long-term problems all over the world is huge—and the situation hasn’t been contained.

Sources: “TEPCO Drops Bombshell About Sea Releases; 8 Billion Bq Per Day,” Simply Info: The Fukushima Project, Aug. 26, 2014

Sarah Lazare, “Fukushima Meltdown Worse Than Previous Estimates: TEPCO,” Common Dreams, Aug. 7, 2014

Michel Chossudovsky, “The Fukushima Endgame: The Radioactive Contamination of the Pacific Ocean,” Global Research, Dec. 17, 2014

6. The global impacts of methane and arctic warming

We all know that carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are a huge threat to climate stability. But there’s another giant threat out there that hasn’t made much news.

The arctic ice sheets, which are rapidly melting in some areas, contain massive amounts of methane—a greenhouse gas that’s way worse than carbon dioxide. And, as the ice recedes, that methane is getting released into the atmosphere.

Dahr Jamail, writing in Truthout, notes that all of our predictions about the pace of global warming and its impacts might have to be re-evaluated in the wake of revelations about methane releases:

“A 2013 study, published in Nature, reported that a 50-gigaton ‘burp’ of methane is ‘highly possible at any time.’ As Jamail clarified, ‘That would be the equivalent of at least 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide,’ noting that, since 1850, humans have released a total of about 1,475 gigatons in carbon dioxide. A massive, sudden change in methane levels could, in turn, lead to temperature increases of four to six degrees Celsius in just one or two decades—a rapid rate of climate change to which human agriculture, and ecosystems more generally, could not readily adapt.”

Jamail quoted Paul Beckwith, a professor of climatology and meteorology at the University of Ottawa: “Our climate system is in early stages of abrupt climate change that, unchecked, will lead to a temperature rise of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius within a decade or two.” Such changes would have “unprecedented effects” for life on Earth.

A huge story? Apparently not. The major news media have written at length about the geopolitics of the arctic region, but there’s been very little mention of the methane monster.

Source: Dahr Jamail, “The Methane Monster Roars,” Truthout, Jan. 13, 2015

7. Fear of government spying is chilling writers’ freedom of expression

Writers in Western liberal democracies may not face the type of censorship seen in some parts of the world, but their fear of government surveillance is causing many to think twice about what they can say.

Lauren McCauley, writing in Common Dreams, quoted one of the conclusions from a report by the writers’ group PEN America: “If writers avoid exploring topics for fear of possible retribution, the material available to readers—particularly those seeking to understand the most controversial and challenging issues facing the world today—may be greatly impoverished.”

According to Project Censored, a PEN America survey showed that “34 percent of writers in liberal democracies reported some degree of self-censorship (compared with 61 percent of writers living in authoritarian countries, and 44 percent in semi-democratic countries). Almost 60 percent of the writers from Western Europe, the United States … indicated that U.S. credibility ‘has been significantly damaged for the long term’ by revelations of the U.S. government surveillance programs.’”

Other than Common Dreams’ coverage, the PEN report attracted almost no major media attention.

Sources: Lauren McCauley, “Fear of Government Spying ‘Chilling’ Writers’ Speech Worldwide,” Common Dreams, Jan. 5, 2015

Lauren McCauley, “Government Surveillance Threatens Journalism, Law and Thus Democracy: Report,” Common Dreams, July 28, 2014

8. Who dies at the hands of police—and how often?

High-profile police killings, particularly of African-American men, have made big news over the past few years. But there’s been much less attention paid to the overall numbers—and to the difference between how many people are shot by cops in the United States and in other countries.

In the January 2015 edition of Liberation, Richard Becker, relying on public records, concluded that the rate of U.S. police killing was 100 times that of England, 40 times that of Germany, and 20 times the rate in Canada.

In June 2015, a team of reporters from the Guardian concluded that 102 unarmed people were killed by U.S. police in the first five months of that year—twice the rate reported by the government.

Furthermore, the Guardian wrote, “black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people.” The paper concluded that, “Thirty-two percent of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25 percent of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15 percent of white people killed.”

And as far as accountability goes, the Washington Post noted that in 385 cases of police killings, only three officers faced charges.

Sources: Richard Becker, “U.S. Cops Kill at 100 Times Rate of Other Capitalist Countries,” Liberation, Jan. 4, 2015

Jon Swaine, Oliver Laughland, and Jamiles Lartey, “Black Americans Killed by Police Twice as Likely to be Unarmed as White People,” Guardian, June 1, 2015

9. Millions in poverty get less media coverage than billionaires do

The news media in the United States doesn’t like to talk about poverty, but they love to report on the lives and glory of the super-rich.

The advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting analyzed the three major television news networks and found that 482 billionaires got more attention than the 50 million people who live in poverty.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who follows the mainstream media, or pays much attention to the world of social media and the blogosphere. The top rung of society gets vast amounts of attention, for good and for ill—but the huge numbers of people who are homeless, hungry and often lacking in hope just aren’t news.

“The notion that the wealthiest nation on Earth has one in every six of its citizens living at or below the poverty threshold reflects not a lack of resources, but a lack of policy focus and attention—and this is due to a lack of public awareness to the issue,” Frederick Reese of MintPress News wrote.

From Project Censored: “The FAIR study showed that between January 2013 and February 2014, an average of only 2.7 seconds per every 22-minute episode discussed poverty in some format. During the 14-month study, FAIR found just 23 news segments that addressed poverty.”

Sources: Steve Rendall, Emily Kaufmann, and Sara Qureshi, “Even GOP Attention Can’t Make Media Care about Poor,” Extra!, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, June 1, 2014

“Millions in Poverty Get Less Coverage Than 482 Billionaires,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, June 26, 2014

Frederick Reese, “Billionaires Get More Media Attention Than The Poor,” MintPress News, June 30, 2014

Tavis Smiley, “Poverty Less Than .02 Percent of Lead Media Coverage,” Huffington Post, March 7, 2014

10. Costa Rica is setting the standard on renewable energy

Is it possible to meet a modern nation’s energy needs without any fossil-fuel consumption? Yes. Costa Rica has been doing it.

To be fair, that country’s main industries—tourism and agriculture—are not energy-intensive, and heavy rainfall in the first part of the year made it possible for the country to rely heavily on its hydropower resources. But even in normal years, Costa Rica generates 90 percent of its energy without burning any fossil fuels.

Iceland also produces the vast majority of its energy from renewable sources.

The transition to 100 percent renewables will be harder for larger countries—but as the limited reporting on Costa Rica notes, it’s possible to take large steps in that direction.

Sources: Myles Gough, “Costa Rica Powered with 100% Renewable Energy for 75 Straight Days,” Science Alert, March 20, 2015

Adam Epstein, “Costa Rica is Now Running Completely on Renewable Energy,” Quartz, March 23, 2015

Tim Redmond, a longtime editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, is the founding member of the San Francisco Progressive Media Center and editor of that nonprofit organization’s publication 48 Hills.

Published in Features

With a bill to mandate the independent investigation of officer-involved killings in California stalled in committee, other legislative efforts have revealed lawmakers’ picky appetites for holding law-enforcement communities accountable.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty’s bill to outsource the investigation of fatal police encounters, AB 86, is being “held under submission.” The term means there’s a stated desire to discuss the bill, but no forward momentum to move it out of committee.

The same fate recently visited Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s Assembly Bill 619, which would require law-enforcement agencies to report their use-of-force encounters to the California attorney general’s office on an annual basis.

There currently is no official database documenting fatal police encounters, much less one for confrontations that stop short of death. Weber’s bill would greatly expand what is known about when and how force is applied by California’s law-enforcement establishment.

Referencing the viral-video litany that includes such names as Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray, racial-justice advocate Chauncee Smith indicated that lawmakers have before them a grim opportunity.

“While it is quite difficult to discern betterment in such tragedy, if it exists, it may be that it has delivered a proverbial gut check to our society,” Smith, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, told an Assembly committee on May 27.

Yet the guts of lawmakers may not be quite as big as their eyes. The tepid response to Weber’s AB 619 is due, in part, to its $3.3 million price tag.

Finding more support was AB 1289, authored by a former cop himself, Assemblyman Jim Cooper, of Elk Grove. Unanimously approved by the state Assembly, the proposal now moves to the Senate. If passed, the bill would require a study on local community policing and engagement strategies. The bill shifts that authority from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office to the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which sets the minimum standards for becoming a cop.

Taryn Kinney, a spokesperson for Assemblyman Cooper, said it was the LAO that recommended the shift, since POST’s contacts with local law enforcement agencies would make the data-collection process easier.

Lastly, there’s AB 953, also by Weber. It would expand California’s prohibition against racial profiling to include all forms of identity bias, and create an advisory board under the state attorney general’s office to oversee such efforts in 2016.

AB 953 advanced through the Assembly’s appropriations committee on May 28.

“We’ll see if our Assembly actually has the courage to do what the people are asking for,” Weber said during the committee meeting.

Apparently, there was some courage in the Assembly: It passed on June 3, and the bill is now in the Senate’s hands.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Sacramento News & Review.

Published in Politics

Our country’s justice system is broken—and a recent Independent story, by Brian Blueskye, illustrates that painful fact.

Meet Kimberly Long. The Corona resident was convicted of murdering her boyfriend after a day of drinking back in 2003—even though all the available evidence seems to exonerate her. Her case is one of the 18 that the San Diego-based California Innocence Project has taken up; here’s hoping the project’s attorneys can achieve justice for Kimberly Long and her family very soon.

Another example: My good friend Brian Burghart continues his work on Fatal Encounters, a crowd-sourced database of people killed during interactions with law enforcement. As we explained in an article last December—and as Brian himself has explained during TV interviews on everything from Al Jazeera to The Daily Show—he is trying to fill a void: There is no national database of people killed by law-enforcement officers, even though there is a semi-epidemic of such killings happening around the country, especially in the West. Therefore, he set out to create a database going back to the start of the year 2000. If you have time and expertise, please consider helping him out.

(As a side note: Brian, who is the editor of the Reno News & Review, and Fatal Encounters were just announced as finalists in the 2015 Association of Alternative Media Awards. Now, a little bragging: So were the Independent and writer Brian Blueskye, for his coverage of the Palm Springs mural ordinance. Congrats!)

Of course, there are also the examples of the unrest-catalyzing police-related deaths in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.

However, I am optimistic that our justice system can be fixed, at least partially. It’s a good sign that the Fatal Encounters site exists and is getting so much attention. It’s great to see that people are taking actions to make their voices heard in Baltimore and Ferguson and fight against police brutality and racism. It’s fantastic that groups like the California Innocence Project exist to help those wrongly imprisoned—and 11 of the project’s clients are now free, as we hope Kimberly Long will be soon.

You’ll learn a lot from Brian’s piece on Kimberly Long, which serves as the cover story of our June print issue. You’ll get a lot out of the rest of our content, both online and print, as well.

As always, thank you for reading the Coachella Valley Independent.

Published in Editor's Note

Page 1 of 2