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Planned Parenthood Stops Taking Reimbursement For Fetal Tissue Procurements

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Planned Parenthood said it will stop taking reimbursements for procuring fetal tissue used in medical research, a step to defuse the political maelstrom that includes a campaign by congressional Republicans to end federal funding for the group.

In a letter released on Tuesday, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards wrote that the group and its affiliates would no longer accept money to pay for costs associated with procuring fetal tissue from abortions. The letter was addressed to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, which runs many major research programs.

The latest move follows the release of a series of videos by anti-abortion activists who argue that Planned Parenthood officials sought to profit from their program to supply fetal tissue from abortions to researchers. Planned Parenthood argued the videos were deceptive in their editing and denied seeking any improper payments beyond money legally paid to reimburse costs.

“Planned Parenthood’s policies on fetal tissue donation already exceed the legal requirements,” Richards wrote. “Now we’re going even further in order to take away any basis for attacking Planned Parenthood to advance an anti-abortion political agenda.

“The real goal of these extremists has nothing to do with our fetal tissue donation compliance process but is instead to ban abortion in the U.S. and block women from getting any health care from Planned Parenthood,” Richards wrote in the letter. “Today, we’re taking their smoke screen away.”

The videos were released by the anti-abortion group the Center for Medical Progress. In the videos activists posed as representatives of a biomedical firm and sought to negotiate the purchase of fetal organs from some Planned Parenthood personnel.

The videos set off protests among anti-abortion Republicans in the House of Representatives who renewed efforts to cut the group’s federal funding. Most of the federal funding involves aid to Medicaid patients receiving a range of health services.

Four congressional committees have been investigating Planned Parenthood. The House also voted to form a special committee to examine the organization.

Planned Parenthood has said the fetal tissue programs takes place in only two states, California and Washington.

Photo: Planned Parenthood will no longer receive money for costs associated with fetal tissue procurement. Jason Taellious/Flickr 

Police: No Bomb Charges Against Muslim Boy Who Brought Homemade Clock To School

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

No charges will be filed against a 14-year-old Muslim boy who was detained after he brought a homemade clock that a teacher thought looked like a bomb to his Texas high school, Irving police Chief Larry Boyd announced Wednesday morning.

Boyd said his department had investigated the incident, which has gone viral, and decided that Ahmed Mohamed should not be charged. The student faced a charge of bringing a hoax bomb to class.

“We consider the case closed,” the chief said at a televised news conference, adding that he hoped the department and the community could work together to put the incident behind them.

The boy’s case has sparked calls for an investigation by a leading Muslim civil rights group and has generated widespread outrage with trending hashtags on Twitter, including #IStandWithAhmed.

President Barack Obama threw his support to the boy as well. “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great,” the president said in a tweet.

Hillary Clinton, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, joined the Twitter support for the Irving, Texas, student: “Ahmed, stay curious and keep building.”

“Thank you fellow supporters,” Ahmed wrote in a tweet Wednesday morning. “We can ban (sic) together to stop this racial inequality and prevent this from happening again.”

Ahmed told the Dallas Morning News that he enjoys tinkering, especially with electronics.

“He just wants to invent good things for mankind,” said the boy’s father, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed, who emigrated from Sudan. “But because his name is Mohamed and because of Sept. 11, I think my son got mistreated.”

In a video interview with the newspaper, Ahmed described how he built the clock to show his ingenuity to teachers at MacArthur High School. “Here in high school, none of the teachers know what I can do,” the teen said.

The clock is basically a circuit board connected to a power supply and a digital display. Ahmed said he showed his creation to his engineering teacher, who was less than overwhelmed. “He was like, ‘That’s really nice,'” Ahmed told the newspaper. “‘I would advise you not to show any other teachers.’ ”

So the boy said he kept the clock in his bag, but his English teacher complained when the alarm went off. Ahmed said he showed her his creation.

“She was like, ‘It looks like a bomb,'” Ahmed said.

“I told her, ‘It doesn’t look like a bomb to me.’ ”

The teacher kept the clock.

Later, the boy was pulled out of class and sent to the principal’s office, where four police officers were waiting. Mohamed said he felt suddenly conscious of his brown skin and his Muslim name.

“They (the police) were like, ‘So you tried to make a bomb?'” Ahmed said.

“I told them no, I was trying to make a clock.”

“He said, ‘It looks like a movie bomb to me.'”

Police led the boy out of class about 3 p.m., his hands cuffed behind him and an officer on each arm. He was fingerprinted at a juvenile detention center and released to his parents.

“I am not a criminal,” Ahmed insisted in the video interview posted by the newspaper. Mohamed said he was suspended for three days by the school.

In a letter to parents, MacArthur Principal Dan Cummings later said Irving police had “responded to a suspicious-looking item on campus” and had determined that “the item… did not pose a threat to your child’s safety.”

Ahmed’s father has fought discrimination before. He debated a Florida pastor who had burned a Koran.

There also has been concern at the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has been fighting what it says is a growing feeling against Muslims.

“This all raises a red flag for us: how Irving’s government entities are operating in the current climate,” Alia Salem, who directs the council’s North Texas chapter, told the newspaper. She said she has spoken to lawyers about Ahmed’s arrest.

“We’re still investigating,” she said, “but it seems pretty egregious.”

Photo: Irving Police released a photo of the confiscated device at a press conference about the arrest of an Irving ninth grader who brought a homemade clock to school on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)

University Of Cincinnati Officer Indicted On Murder Charges In Motorist’s Shooting

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

In a year scarred by deadly confrontations between African-Americans and police, a white University of Cincinnati officer has been indicted on a murder charge in the shooting of an unarmed black motorist near the campus, officials said Wednesday.

The city had been bracing from the possible fallout as the Hamilton County grand jury weighed the evidence in the case of Officer Ray Tensing, who on July 19 stopped Samuel DuBose for a missing front license plate.

DuBose, 43, was shot and killed during the encounter, which was captured on video by the officer’s body camera. The video was released Wednesday by Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters, who was sharply critical of the officer.

“I have been doing this for 30 years, and this is the most asinine act by a police officer I have ever seen,” Deters said at a televised news conference.

“This type of senseless act, this doesn’t happen in the United States, maybe in Afghanistan, but not in the United States,” Deters said. “People don’t get shot for a traffic stop.”

The murder charges, which carry a maximum penalty of up to life in prison if convicted, come after a string of deadly confrontations in which blacks died at the hands of police officers, from Ferguson, Missouri, to New York’s Staten Island, Cleveland, and Baltimore.

The indictment also comes as officials wrestle with the case of Sandra Bland, who was involved in a contentious traffic stop in Prairie View, Texas. Bland was found dead July 13 in her cell at the Waller County Jail in what officials call a suicide by hanging. Her family insists that Bland would not have killed herself.

“Cincinnati is showing the rest of us how to do this right,” said Mark O’Mara, the attorney for the DuBose family. He and the family called for a peaceful response to the grand jury action.

O’Mara noted that it has been a period during which friction between cops and citizens and cops and blacks “have led to tragedy.”

“We understand the concerns and we want the reaction to be completely peaceful. Sam was completely peaceful. … We want his memory to remain intact as a peaceful person.”

O’Mara was the lead defense attorney for George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted two years ago of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

After the indictment was announced, Audrey DuBose thanked demonstrators who had marched in Cincinnati on behalf of her slain son. “I am ready to join the battlefield,” she said of civil rights efforts.

Authorities have said that Tensing spotted a car driven by DuBose that lacked the required front license plate. Tensing stopped the car and the encounter quickly escalated after DuBose did not produce a driver’s license.

Tensing has said he was dragged by the car and forced to shoot at DuBose, according to his lawyer, Stuart Mathews.

But prosecutor Deters rejected that contention, saying that the video from the body camera doesn’t support that argument.

Tensing “fell backward after he shot (DuBose) in the head,” Deters said.

“I think he lost his temper because DuBose would not get out of the car,” Deters told reporters. “You won’t believe how quickly he pulls his gun and shoots him in the head.”

Tensing surrendered to authorities Wednesday afternoon to face the charges.

“He purposely killed him,” Deters said of the defendant. “He should never have been a police officer.”

Deters said he was shocked when he saw the video.

“I realized what this was going to mean to our community. It really broke my heart because it’s just bad,” Deters said. “I feel so sorry for this family and what they lost. And I feel sorry for the community, too.

“It was so unnecessary for this to have occurred,” he said. “This situation should never have escalated like this.”

Tensing has been terminated, University of Cincinnati President Santa Ono announced after the indictment was released.

“Beyond the criminal investigation the university is reviewing what has occurred and we will take all necessary steps,” including training and staffing to upgrade the university force, he said.

Even after the charges were announced, city officials said they were concerned about the response and the expected demonstrations.

“We all hoped that the charges that came out of the grand jury would match the video,” said Mayor John Cranley at a televised news conference of local officials. “We wanted the right thing to be done, the just thing to be done, the fair thing to be done.”

Cranley noted that there have been violent demonstrations in other cities but said he hoped his city would be different.

“We respect the right for people to protest,” Cranley said. “Our police department is prepared to respect that. Our police department is also prepared to deal” with protests.

Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell, who like the other officials met with the DuBose family, said the department is hopeful that protest would be peaceful, but warned that “lawlessness cannot and will not be tolerated.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This post has been updated.

Screenshot: WCPO/YouTube

Bakery Ordered To Pay $135,000 For Denying Wedding Cake To Lesbian Couple

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The former owners of an Oregon bakery have been ordered to pay $135,000 to a lesbian couple who were refused a wedding cake, in the latest front in the battle between religious liberty and individual rights.

Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian ordered Aaron and Melissa Klein, who owned the Sweet Cakes by Melissa bakery in Gresham, Ore., to compensate the couple for emotional and mental suffering that resulted from the denial of service.

The Kleins had cited their Christian beliefs against same-sex marriage in refusing to make the wedding cake for Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer.

Avakian’s final order, issued Thursday, had been expected in the dispute that dates from 2013, one of several around the nation involving bakers, florists and photographers who have refused to provide services to same-sex couples on religious grounds.

Oregon law bars businesses from discriminating or refusing service based on sexual orientation, just as they cannot turn away customers because of race, sex, disability, age or religion.

According to the state Bureau of Labor and Industries’ report, Rachel Bowman-Cryer and her mother attended a bridal show in Portland where the Kleins had a booth advertising their wedding cakes. Bowman-Cryer and her mother went to a cake-tasting at the bakery in 2013.

When Aaron Klein was told there would be two brides, Rachel and Laurel, he responded that he was sorry, but the bakery did not do wedding cakes for same-sex couples because of his and his wife’s religious convictions, according to the report.

The Bowman-Cryers held a commitment ceremony in June 2013 and were married in May 2014, shortly after a federal judge struck down Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage.

In August 2013, the brides filed a complaint with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, and the agency brought charges against the Kleins in January 2014.

Aaron Klein said his family had suffered because of the case and the glare of media attention.

The bakery’s car was vandalized and broken into twice, he said. Photographers and florists severed ties with the company, eventually forcing the Kleins to close their storefront shop in September 2013.

In a Facebook post, the Kleins vowed to contest the ruling.

“We will NOT give up this fight, and we will NOT be silenced,” they wrote. “We stand for God’s truth, God’s word and freedom for ALL Americans.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Gexydaf via Flickr

South Carolina Governor Says Confederate Flag At State Capitol Must Be Removed

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday reversed her position and called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the state Capitol.

The announcement comes after nine African-Americans were killed during a prayer meeting at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in what authorities are investigating as a hate crime.

“Today, we are here to say it is time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds,” Haley said, flanked by state leaders.

Haley joins a growing list of state and national political leaders and civil rights activists who say the flag is a racist symbol.

Religious and political leaders including Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said earlier Monday that they would push for the flag’s removal when the Legislature returns. Riley has led protest marches against the flag and has called for its removal from state grounds before.

“The time has come for the Confederate battle flag to move from a public position in front of the state Capitol to a place of history,” Riley said at a televised news conference. The flag “was appropriated years and years ago as a symbol of hate,” Riley said, and should be moved to a museum.

Both of the U.S. senators from South Carolina joined in the call to take down the Confederate flag. Tim Scott, one of two African-Americans in the U.S. Senate and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a contender for the GOP presidential nomination, back its removal, according to sources familiar with their decisions.

The Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III of the National Action Network said the flag should be removed before the body of state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the attack, lies in state on Wednesday. Pinckney was also pastor of Emanuel AME.

Republicans, who control South Carolina’s state Legislature, have rebuffed many previous calls to remove the flag, which dates from the Civil War. For civil rights activists and many others, the flag is a racist symbol of the state’s slave past.

The flag has also been adopted by some white supremacist groups in modern times.

Defenders, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a social and political group in the South, insist the flag is a symbol of the state’s past and no longer carries the racist meaning.

“There is absolutely no link between the Charleston massacre and the Confederate Memorial Banner. Don’t try to create one,” stated Leland Summers, South Carolina commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He said the group would fight any plan to take down the battle banner.

While successfully running for her second term in 2014, Haley, a Republican, defended the Confederate flag’s presence on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds. Her Democratic challenger Vincent Sheheen called for the flag’s removal.

“I think the people of South Carolina are tired of having an image across America that’s not truly who we are,” Sheheen said during a debate, adding that everyone should “rally together under a flag that unites us all, the American flag, that looks toward the future, and not the past.”

Haley responded that the flag was a “sensitive issue” but she rejected the idea of removing it.

“What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state,” Haley said. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”

Conceding that South Carolina had suffered an image problem in the past, Haley insisted that the state had moved beyond the past.

“But we really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian American female governor,” Haley said of herself. “When we appointed the first African-American U.S. senator, that sent a huge message.”

The issue has taken on a new force with the shooting at Emanuel AME on Wednesday. Dylann Roof, 21, is being held on nine counts of murder in the attack.

Last week, Haley said she believed that Roof should get the death penalty if convicted. She noted her own support for keeping the Confederate flag but added: “I think the state will start talking about that again, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Over the weekend, hundreds of protesters in the state marched to protest the flag’s placement in front of the Capitol.

NAACP President Cornell Brooks has also called for the removal of the flag, which was embraced by Roof in photographs that were posted online and became public in recent days.

“That symbol has to come down,” Brooks said last week, speaking at a televised news conference in Charleston. “That symbol must be removed from our state Capitol.”
Republican state Rep. Doug Brannon announced last week that he will introduce a bill to remove the flag when the Legislature convenes again.

“The switch that flipped was the death of my friend Sen. Pinckney. … I’ve been in the House five years. I should have filed that bill five years ago. But the time is now, I can’t let my friend the senator’s death go without fundamental change in South Carolina,” Brannon said Monday.

(Staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this story from Washington.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Screenshot via

White Gunman Sought In Killing Of 9 At Black Church In South Carolina

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Authorities hunted through Charleston, S.C., early Thursday searching for a white gunman who opened fire at a prayer meeting in a historic black African American church, killing nine people in what officials called a hate crime.

The gunman attended a church meeting for nearly an hour before he began shooting Wednesday evening, Police Chief Greg Mullen told reporters at a televised news briefing Thursday morning.

“We are committed, we are determined, we are definitely working with a number of agents and officers to identify the individual,” said Mullen, who described the attack as a hate crime. “This is a situation that is unacceptable in any society, especially in our city.”

“This is an unfathomable and unspeakable act by somebody filled with hate and a deranged mind,” Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. told reporters. “We will make sure he pays the price for this act.”

The mayor also pledged to reach out to the Emanuel AME Church, a major black congregation with a long and distinguished existence that is rooted in the era before the Civil War.

“We will put our arms around that church and that church family,” Riley pledged.

Police released photographs from a surveillance video showing a suspect and the vehicle used to escape. Mullen said he had no reason to think the man had fled the Charleston area, but sent all information to agencies around the country.

The gunman was described as a white man thought to be in his early 20s. Mullen repeatedly called the attacker a “very dangerous individual,” urging people to call police and not pursue him or his vehicle on their own.

Mullen said he was unable to give a make and model on the suspect’s dark sedan because investigators were uncertain from the images.

The church holds a Bible study class every Wednesday evening.

The gunman was in the church about 8 p.m. and apparently sat down, Mullen told reporters, based on information from a witness who was there and was unharmed. The witness told authorities that the gunman let her live so she could tell her story.

“He was in the church about an hour before the actual deaths,” Mullen said.

About 9 p.m., the gunman opened fire.

Little has been announced about the dead to allow time for families to be notified, but Mullen said there were six females and three males. Eight died at the church and one died after being rushed to a hospital.

Earlier reports said another person was injured and being treated, but Mullen said that was wrong.

One of the dead was identified as pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Pinckney, 41, was a married father of two who was first elected when he was 23 years old.

Emmanuel AME church traces its roots to 1816, when several churches split from Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal church. One of its founders, Denmark Vesey, tried to organize a slave revolt in 1822. He was caught, and white landowners had his church burned in revenge.

Parishioners worshipped underground until after the Civil War.

“Of all cities, in Charleston, to have a horrible hateful person go into the church and kill people there to pray and worship with each other is something that is beyond any comprehension and is not explained,” Riley said.

The attack came two months after the fatal shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in neighboring North Charleston, which sparked protests and highlighted racial tensions in the area. The officer has been charged with murder, and the shooting prompted South Carolina lawmakers to push through a bill helping all police agencies in the state get body cameras.

Pinckney, the slain pastor, was a sponsor of that bill.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: From foreground to back: Emmanuel A.M.E., Citadel Square Baptist and St. Matthew’s Lutheran. (Micha A. Ponce/Flickr)

This story is developing.

Suspect Arrested In Washington, D.C., Mansion Killings

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Daron Dylon Wint was a welder with a violent past who sometimes worked for American Iron Works. Savvas Savopoulos was the company CEO and head of a family that lived in a mansion in Woodley Park, a wealthy and especially safe neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where guards and police are a frequent sight because the official residence of Vice President Joe Biden is nearby.

But that security didn’t protect the Savopoulos household: Savvas, 46; his wife Amy, 47; their 10-year-old son, Philip; and housekeeper Veralicia Figueroa, 57. Three of the four were stabbed or bludgeoned to death before they were found in the ashes of the burned-out home on May 14.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser described the slayings as “an act of evil.”

Wint had been the prime suspect ever since officials identified his DNA found on a crust left over from a pizza delivered to the home. For days, Wint has led police on a chase to Brooklyn, N.Y., and then to Maryland, where he was arrested by officers with the Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force about 11 p.m. Thursday.

Wint, 34, is scheduled to be arraigned Friday on a charge of first-degree murder while armed.

He showed no emotion and offered no resistance when he was arrested, Dave Oney, spokesman for the U.S. Marshals’ Service, told the Los Angeles Times on Friday. The family of the Savopouloses asked to be left alone to grieve but issued a statement after the arrest.

“While it does not abate our pain, we hope that it begins to restore a sense of calm and security to our neighborhood and to our city,” the family said. “We are blessed to live in a community comprised of close circles of friends who have supported us and grieve with us.”

“Our family, and Vera’s family, have suffered unimaginable loss,” the Savopoulos family said, “and we ask for the time and space to grieve privately.”

The sharp contrast between a family that had it all and a suspect with a history of having little riveted the nation and the neighborhood.

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“For residents of the District who are rightfully scared and want answers as to why and how this family may have been involved, we want to give you as many answers as we can,” Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said at a televised news conference Thursday. “What we can tell you right now is that we do believe there is a connection between the suspect in this case through the business. So right now, it does not appear that this was a random crime.”

The bodies were discovered about 1:15 p.m. May 14 in the burned large brick house. Police also found the family’s blue Porsche torched in a church parking lot in Prince George’s County, two miles from the home of the suspect’s parents. Authorities had earlier released a video showing a blurred image of a man running away.

Police said they are still investigating the crime, seeking a motive. At news conferences during the week authorities said they believe that the victims were taken captive May 13 and killed the next day, before their multimillion-dollar home was set ablaze. On the morning of May 14, Savopoulos’ assistant dropped off a package at the house with $40,000.

Police said their records also show a series of phone calls involving Savopoulos, his assistant, a bank, and an accountant in the hours before their bodies were discovered during a fire. A longtime housekeeper has said she received texts and voicemails from Savopoulos and his wife telling her not to come to the house May 14.

Wint had been employed by Savopoulos’ company, American Iron Works, police said. The company is a construction-materials supplier based in Hyattsville, Md., and was involved in major projects.

He was convicted of assaulting a girlfriend in Maryland in 2009, and pleaded guilty in 2010 to malicious destruction of property after he was accused of threatening to kill a different woman and her infant daughter, breaking into her apartment, stealing a television and vandalizing her car, according to published reports.

Also in 2010, Wint was arrested carrying a 2-foot-long machete and a BB pistol outside the American Iron Works headquarters, but weapons charges were dropped after he pleaded guilty to possessing an open container of alcohol.

Wint apparently saw the news report identifying him as a suspect and fled, according to Oney.

Federal marshals and others in the task force had been tracking Wint through the week. They told the media that they thought he had gone to Brooklyn to visit a girlfriend. Authorities missed him in New York on Wednesday night.

By Thursday night, police had gathered more information and officers tracked him to a Howard Johnson Express Inn in College Park, Md., Oney said.
“They focused on the car,” a white Chevrolet Cruze, Oney said.

Wint was a passenger, traveling with two women, one of whom was driving. The Cruze was following a large white truck with two men inside who were believed to be Wint’s friends or relatives.

When the vehicles got to 10th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE, police used a PIT maneuver, a well-known precision immobilization tactic, to stop vehicles and prevent them from moving by boxing them in among official cars. Officials recovered some cash, though the exact amount was not immediately known.

The other men and two women were taken into custody, Oney said. They have not been named, nor is it known if they will be charged.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Screenshot via ABC News/YouTube

Waco Shopping Center Reopens While Legal System Copes With 170 Biker Arrests

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The Central Texas Marketplace Shopping Center in Waco fully reopened for business on Wednesday, days after a bloody shootout and brawl among rival biker gangs left nine dead and 18 injured.

Police have largely finished processing the scene, the parking lot and area around the Twin Peaks restaurant in the south end of the shopping center. Stores in that area, including a Best Buy, reopened for business at ten a.m.

“We’re happy to be here,” Kara Stewart of Best Buy said by telephone. The store had been closed since the shootout Sunday. “Business has been slow. When the students leave Baylor University, Waco slows down big time.”

Still, many stores are looking for an uptick in business as the Memorial Day weekend begins. Some stores in the north end of the shopping center did not close while police investigated the shooting.

Lorie Macon, a sales associate of the Family Christian Bookstore, said the store reopened Monday. She said she had a direct view of the parking lot and all seemed quiet with no unusual police presence.

That was a far cry from Sunday when a dispute in the parking lot and a fight inside Twin Peaks restaurant spilled over into the mall’s parking lot. What began with kicks and fists quickly escalated to knives, chains, clubs, and guns, police said.

At least 18 Waco police officers had been stationed in the parking lot along with four state cops and all responded to the shots within seconds, police said. Police fired at bikers who police said also were firing at each other.

Nine people died in the melee, all men ranging in age from 27 to 65 years old, according to court documents. The preliminary autopsies indicate all died from gunshot wounds, according to records released by the McLennan County Justice of the Peace. It will take further testing to determine who fired the fatal shots.

Police have recovered more than 1,000 weapons, including knives, guns and a high-powered assault rifle, some hidden at the restaurant, Waco Police Sargent W. Patrick Swanton said in a televised interview Wednesday. Officials have also moved more than 135 motorcycles and about 80 other vehicles to be examined for evidence.

All of the dead are members of two groups: the Bandidos, the state’s largest motorcycle gang, and the Cossacks, an up-and-coming gang that has clashed with the Bandidos, police said.

Eighteen other bikers were injured and most have been released from the hospital. No police or bystanders were injured.

If all was calm at the shopping center, the legal system in Waco remained in a frenzy trying to deal with about 170 people who were arrested after the brawl. All have been charged with engaging in an organized crime enterprise. The enterprise is capital murder — the deaths of the nine bikers.

No one yet has been charged with capital murder, police said.

“It’s been a nightmare,” said one county employee who asked not to be identified because she works with the courts and lawyers.

Officials have had to secure legal counsel for defendants, many of whom have said they are too poor to hire their own attorneys. McLennan County maintains a panel of lawyers to represent those who are too poor to hire outside counsel, but there are just 100 lawyers and many of those do not do the kind of felony proceedings that have stemmed from Sunday’s brawl.

All of the inmates are being held in lieu of one million dollar bail. Most are expected to seek a bond reduction. At least two hearings have already been scheduled for June fifth in district court, officials said.

Relatives of those being held have complained that many of the inmates are innocent and are not like the criminal elements being portrayed in the media.

Katie Rhoten told The Associated Press that her husband, Theron, ran for cover and was later arrested, along with antique motorcycle enthusiast friends and other “nonviolent, noncriminal people” at the gathering designed as a meeting of biker groups to discuss issues such as pending safety legislation.

“He’s good to his family,” she said. “He doesn’t drink; he doesn’t do drugs; he doesn’t party. He’s just got a passion for motorcycles.”

Officials have painted a different picture. They have said that the meeting included talks between the Bandidos and the Cossacks designed to settle differences, including turf. Officials have also cited a long-standing rivalry between the groups that have included assaults in other parts of the state, including the Dallas area.

The U.S. Justice Department said in a report on outlaw motorcycle gangs that the Bandidos “constitute a growing criminal threat.” The report said the group is involved in transporting and distributing cocaine and marijuana and in the production and distribution of methamphetamine.

Photo: Waco Police Department via Flickr

Baltimore Police Injured During Protests After Freddie Gray Laid To Rest

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Police and angry teenagers faced off in Baltimore on Monday, hours after thousands of mourners called for justice and peace during the funeral of Freddie Gray, the latest flash point in the continuing unease between parts of the African-American community and police.

Television images showed protesters throwing rocks and other debris at police. In a message on Twitter, Baltimore police said several officers were injured. At least one injured officer was shown being taken from the scene.

Several vehicles were attacked.

The unrest slowly built up steam in the early afternoon, beginning with a few individuals confronting a phalanx of officers then growing to hundreds of people swarming through the area, which serves as a transportation hub for nearby schools and for the Mondawmin Mall.

A flier circulating on social media called for forceful confrontations Monday afternoon to begin at the mall then moving downtown toward City Hall. There have been a number of similar calls, many citing “The Purge,” a movie based on the idea of the suspension of all law.

The latest violence comes about two weeks after Gray was arrested by police and fatally injured in an incident that has enflamed the city. Over the weekend, 35 people were arrested and six officers injured in demonstrations.

Hours earlier, officials from city government to the White House attended the funeral service for Gray, who died April 19 of a severed spine, a week after he was arrested by police. Gray, hands cuffed behind his back and later restrained by leg irons, was apparently injured during transport, slipped into a coma, and died.

In a footnote to the growing unease, Baltimore police announced they had received a “credible threat” that three violent gangs, the Black Guerrilla Family, the Bloods, and the Crips, were working together to “take out” law enforcement officers. It was unknown if the threat was connected to Gray’s death.

Mourners gathered in the morning for the televised funeral service, which lasted almost two hours. It drew such dignitaries as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., as well as a host of civil rights leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dick Gregory, former NAACP leader and Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume and current Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes.

Gray’s family sat in a front pew of the sanctuary that holds more than 2,000 people. Eight floral arrangements surrounded Gray’s white coffin in front of the pulpit. Screens on the walls showed the words: “Black Lives Matter & All Lives Matter,” which have become slogans at demonstrations around the country in the past year since a white police officer shot an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo. That case was followed by demonstrations over the deaths of blacks in Staten Island, Cleveland, Tulsa, Okla., and South Carolina.

“The eyes of this country are all on us, because they want to see whether we have the stuff to make this right,” William Murphy Jr., a lawyer who is representing the Gray family, told the mourners.

“We need justice not just for Freddie Gray, for the Freddie Grays to come,” he said.

“We will not rest until we address this and see that justice is done,” Cummings said of the Gray case. “And so, this is our watch. We will not fail you.”

The investigation is continuing into the incident that began April 12 when Gray was walking with a friend and made eye contact with police. Both fled and police gave chase, catching Gray.

Video of the arrest shows Gray with his hands cuffed behind him being put into the police van. The wagon stopped at least twice. At one stop, Gray was taken out by police, placed on the ground and his legs put in irons. He was returned to the van. At the second stop, another prisoner is put in the van, separated by a metal barrier.

Throughout, Gray said he needed medical attention and at one point asked for an inhaler, police said.

On Friday, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said he was appalled that Gray did not receive proper medical care immediately. He also said officers should have given Gray timely medical care during the transport to the police station.

Batts also said there are no excuses for Gray not being buckled in a seat belt while in the van.

Exactly what happened to Gray remains a mystery that will be answered when the full autopsy is released.

Officials have said he died of a severed spine, confirming the family’s original claim. The family also has said Gray’s voice box was crushed and his neck snapped before he slipped into a coma and died a week after his arrest.

Baltimore officials are scheduled to submit their findings into the death by Friday. Five of the six officers have been interviewed by police as have several witnesses, including some who shot video of at least one of the stops made by the van.

Erica Garner, 24, the daughter of Eric Garner, who died in New York police custody, attended Gray’s funeral. She said she came after seeing the video of Gray’s arrest.

“It’s like there is no accountability, no justice,” she said. “It’s like we’re back in the ’50s, back in the Martin Luther King days. When is our day to be free going to come?”

Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton said Monday he plans to visit Baltimore this week to discuss Gray’s death. In a statement, Sharpton said he also wants to plan a two-day march in May from Baltimore to Washington.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Screenshot via CNN

Mourners Gather In Baltimore For Man Fatally Injured In Police Custody

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Amid calls for peace, family and mourners filed into a Baltimore church on Monday morning for the funeral of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African-American who was fatally injured while in police custody.

The funeral took place after a weekend of protests that included 35 arrests and six injured officers. The unrest followed a week of largely peaceful demonstrations over the death of Gray from a severed spine.

Gray died on April 19, a week after he was arrested by Baltimore police who transported him by police van. There were several stops along the way and Gray, handcuffed and wearing leg irons, complained that he needed medical care.

Six officers have been suspended with pay pending an investigation into the incident. Police have acknowledged that Gray should have been wearing a seat belt while being transported in a police wagon. Police should also have been quicker to get medical aid, authorities said last week.

On Monday, members of Gray’s family entered the sanctuary at New Shiloh Baptist Church just before the funeral service began about 11 a.m. local time, according to televised images from the scene.

A woman, identified by local media as Gray’s mother, Gloria Darden, sobbed in front of the casket and dropped to her knees. She then reached into the casket and appeared to straighten Gray’s tie. Flanked by eight floral arrangements, the casket was placed in front of the pulpit.

Thousands are expected at the funeral.

Broderick Johnson, assistant to President Barack Obama and Cabinet secretary, who also chairs the administration’s My Brother’s Keeper task force, was scheduled to attend. He was to be joined by Heather Foster, an adviser in the Office of Public Engagement, and Elias Alcantara, with the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, according to the White House.

Also among the expected mourners will be a group called Families United for Justice, which includes relatives of Eric Garner, who died last July after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold. Protests erupted after a grand jury declined to indict that officer. Other members of the group include relatives of Amadou Diallo, who was fatally shot by New York police officers in 1999.

Baltimore officials are scheduled to submit their findings into the death by Friday. Five of the six officers have been interviewed by police as have several witnesses, including some who shot video of at least one of the stops made by the van.

Exactly what happened to Gray remains a mystery.

Officials have said he died of a severed spine, confirming the family’s original claim. The family has said Gray’s voice box was crushed and his neck snapped before he slipped into a coma and died a week after his arrest.

Police on Saturday arrested 35 people, including four juveniles, at a protest and rally that turned heated.

Gray’s twin sister on Saturday night condemned the violence.

“My family wants to say, ‘Can y’all please, please stop the violence,'” Fredericka Gray said Saturday night. “Freddie Gray would not want this.”

On Friday, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said he was appalled that Gray did not receive proper medical care immediately when he said he needed his inhaler. He also said officers should have given Gray timely medical care many times during the transport to the police station.

Batts also said there are no excuses for the fact that Gray was not buckled into the transport van.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Susan Melkisethian via Flickr

Indiana’s Fix To ‘Religious Freedom’ Law Draws Critics On Both Sides

By Michael Muskal and Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

INDIANAPOLIS — In a move designed to ease the political and business pressures tightened around Indiana, state lawmakers Thursday presented new legislation designed to answer critics who said the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows for discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The proposed amendment states the law cannot be used as a legal defense by those who deny goods and services to customers because of their sexual orientation or gender. It is expected to sail through the Legislature and land on the governor’s desk in time to meet the self-imposed deadline of this week.

Critics of the law immediately said the changes do not go far enough in protecting against discrimination, while proponents said that Indianans’ religious liberties are still threatened.

The state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act was designed to give persons some protection from lawsuits if they were acting in defense of their religious beliefs. Supporters argued the law was needed to protect religious freedom and was not designed to discriminate against any group.

But critics, including gay rights activists, prominent business leaders, and sports figures, charged that the Indiana law would allow providers to discriminate by denying services to gays and lesbians. At least three states ordered boycotts of travel to Indiana, conventions threatened to move, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association said it was troubled about possible discrimination.

Facing the pressure, Governor Mike Pence on Monday ordered a fix by the end of the week.

The amendment is “a very strong statement to assure that every Hoosier’s right will be protected,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said at a news conference where the new language was unveiled. The law “cannot be used to discriminate against anyone.”

The amendment offers some protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the first time an Indiana law has addressed the issue. But the amendment stops short of being a separate anti-discrimination law that some critics of the act had sought. Indiana has anti-discrimination laws, but they do not cover cases involving sexual orientation.

Republican leaders said they hoped the national outrage could be “put to bed” with the change and declined to immediately pursue adding lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people as a protected class, hinting that the issue may be debated next year.

The Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people, said more battles will come.

“Though this legislation is certainly a step back from the cliff, this fight is not over until every person in Indiana is fully equal under the law,” Chad Griffin, the group’s president, stated. “At the federal level and in all 50 states, the time has come in this country for comprehensive legal non-discrimination protections for LGBT people that cannot be undermined.”

The new proposal, while a concession to liberal and business concerns, was also blasted by proponents of the law. Eric Miller of Advance America, one of the primary supporters of the law, vigorously opposed the proposed legislative change.

Speaking at a legislative committee meeting on Thursday, Miller said he was worried that religious Indianans were having the defense of their religious liberties stripped away and expressed concern that businesses would have to serve “homosexual” weddings against their religious beliefs.

“Hoosier businesses will be less protected,” Miller said, adding, “Nobody should be forced to violate their conscience…absolutely not.”

But the proposed amendment was praised by business and sports leaders.

“The future of Indiana was at stake,” Bart Peterson, a senior vice president at Eli Lilly and former mayor of Indianapolis, said at the news conference. “The healing needs to begin right now.”
The high-tech sector was vocal in its opposition. Apple CEO Tim Cook was a key voice along with the company Salesforce Marketing Cloud, which was an early opponent of the law.

“It was really a grassroots response from our employees,” Scott McCorkle, CEO of Salesforce, told The Los Angeles Times in an interview. “It really lit a fire with me.”

This weekend, Indianapolis will host the NCAA basketball championships and criticism from the sports group was especially telling. In a statement, the group’s president, Mark Emmert, praised the changes.

“We are very pleased the Indiana Legislature is taking action to amend Senate Bill 101 so that it is clear individuals cannot be discriminated against,” he stated. “NCAA core values call for an environment that is inclusive and nondiscriminatory for our student-athletes, membership, fans, staff, and their families. We look forward to the amended bill being passed quickly and signed into law expeditiously by the governor.”

Indiana is also the home of the famed Indianapolis 500, held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We care about how people feel when they come here,” Allison Melangton, the former CEO of the city’s 2012 Super Bowl hosting committee and a vice president at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said at the news conference. “Today is a significant day.”

Democrats in the conservative Republican state said they were still concerned that the changes didn’t go far enough.

“My instant reaction is, they’ve done nothing with this,” said Representative Dan Forestal (D-IN) in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, adding that the new language only addresses the RFRA law and appears to do nothing to add broader civil rights protections for Indiana LGBT citizens. “Discrimination is alive and well in Indiana, and their efforts have exposed that,” Forestal said. “Once again, they’ve tried to squirm off the hook….They pushed a gay marriage ban for two years in a row, but that failed, and then they tried to push this.”

Indiana was the 20th state to pass such a “religious freedom” law. A similar law is pending in Arkansas, where the Legislature is also seeking a fix after Governor Asa Hutchinson refused to sign the measure and sent it back to lawmakers this week.

“I think it is a great revision,” John Pippa, a professor and former dean at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock law school, said of the Indiana amendment. “It goes a long way to reassure people that the law won’t be used to discriminate.

Pippa also praised a provision that makes it clear that religious organizations and their officials “won’t be forced to do anything against their religion.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Indiana Governor Mike Pence Calls For Legislative Fix For Religious Freedom Law

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Facing growing unhappiness within the state, Indiana Governor Mike Pence on Tuesday called for a legislative fix this week to clarify that the state’s new religious law does not permit discrimination against gays and lesbians.

At a televised news conference, Pence repeated the arguments he has been making for days: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was not designed to be discriminatory, but a clarification would be a positive step. He said he wanted the state Legislature to send him a fix this week.

“After much reflection, I have come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone,” Pence said. Details on the bill were still pending.

Pence again criticized the media for mischaracterizing the religion bill, which he insisted was about guaranteeing freedom of religion.

“I was taken aback,” by the reaction including threats of boycotts and complaints by top business and sports executives, Pence said.

Pence this week launched a drive to minimize the negative fallout from the state law that critics charge will allow discrimination against gays and lesbians by those acting out of religious belief.

In a television appearance on “Fox and Friends,” the conservative Republican governor said the state will clarify the controversial religious freedom law, but did not offer any specifics.

“I stand by this law,” Pence insisted in the interview that followed the publication of an editorial he wrote for the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal.

“I abhor discrimination. I believe in the Golden Rule that you should ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn’t eat there anymore,” Pence wrote in the piece.

State leaders have said they will look at the Indiana law to see if it needs clarification.

“If we have to make adjustments to this law to make it clear…this law was never intended to create the impression that businesses can turn away customers on the basis of sexual orientation, we are going to fix that,” Pence said on television.

The law’s fallout includes a social media campaign to boycott the state and complaints from top businesses, especially in the tech sector. Even the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the agency that runs college sports, including basketball, has said it will look at the impact of the law on future sports events.

The state’s biggest newspaper, the Indianapolis Star urged lawmakers in a dramatic front-page editorial to respond.

The Star’s editorial, headlined “FIX THIS NOW,” covered the newspaper’s entire front page. The newspaper said the uproar sparked by the law has “done enormous harm” to the state and potentially to its economic future.

It called for a law that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Indiana has anti-discrimination laws, but they deal with categories such as race and do not cover sexual orientation.

Meanwhile in Arkansas, the Legislature prepared to pass a law similar to the one in Indiana and in 20 other states.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Indiana Religious Freedom Act: What’s Behind The Law And The Backlash

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

When Indiana approved a law designed to allow residents and business owners to use their religious beliefs as reason to deny services to some people, the conservative state braced for some fallout. But the response was quicker and harder after a campaign from critics who argued the law discriminates against gays and lesbians.

Within days, Indiana was the target of a social media boycott campaign, threatening its lucrative convention business. Top business leaders from the technology sector slammed the state. San Francisco and Seattle announced they were barring publicly funded travel to Indiana. Connecticut announced it would follow suit. Even the NCAA, a temple to what some consider to be the religion of basketball, weighed in, saying it was disappointed in the new law and wanted a clarification before deciding what to do about future events and tournaments.

Indiana legislative leaders are scrambling to contain the potential damage, announcing they will pass language to clarify that the law, which goes into effect in July, does not discriminate against gays and lesbians, despite the fear that it does. Here is a guide to understanding the issue that is a political window into the changing nature of gay rights.

Q: What happened in Indiana?

A: Gov. Mike Pence, a conservative Republican, last week signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, designed to “help protect churches, Christian businesses, and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their biblical beliefs,” he said. Twenty states have similar laws, though the exact language differs. Sixteen more states are considering passage of some form of the law.

Q: Isn’t there a federal version of the law? How does it differ from the state laws?

A: Yes. The federal version of the law was signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and was considered a liberal response to a conservative Supreme Court ruling in 1990. The court ruled against Native Americans who argued that their use of peyote was a religious requirement. In effect, the court decided that states could ban the sacramental use of peyote. That changed the legal standard for what states could and could not do in the area of religious practices.

Liberals quickly moved to protect the tribes by passing a measure to protect religious practices from government interference. Two decades later, it is conservatives who are seeking the new laws.

There are differences between the federal and state laws, according to a statement from the office of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who was a sponsor of the federal legislation as a House member. The federal law could be used only if someone was suing the government for violating his or her right to the free exercise of religion. The state laws are broader, applying to lawsuits involving individuals, and could be used by businesses that want to prevent a service because it violates their religious principles.

Q: What do backers of the law say?

A: Pence has defended his signing of the law, arguing it is not designed to discriminate against anyone. Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma and state Senate President Pro Tem David Long echoed those complaints at a news conference Monday, saying that other states have not gone through the same backlash as Indiana has.

“What we had hoped for with the bill was a message of inclusion, inclusion of all religious beliefs,” Bosma said. “What instead has come out as a message of exclusion, and that was not the intent.”

Both said they hoped to propose new language to amend the law to meet the criticism that it is discriminatory.

Q: What is the problem with these types of laws?

A: Gay rights advocates see the whole category of such religious legislation as part of a conservative campaign designed to allow people and companies to opt out of providing services to gays. The frequently cited example is that the law could be interpreted to allow bakers or photographers to refuse to do business with same-sex couples who are legally getting married.

Q: How would this law work?

A: Religious freedom laws are used in civil lawsuits. In one typical example, a Christian baker, whose faith opposes same-sex marriage, decides not to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. The couple sue the baker, claiming they were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

The Indiana law asserts that the government can’t “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” and that individuals who believe their religious beliefs have been or could be “substantially burdened” are protected from lawsuits. The concept of substantial burden is not defined in the law. It would be up to state courts to decide the issue.

Recently in Oregon, a Christian baker refused to sell a wedding cake to a lesbian couple. That state has rules against discrimination based on sexual orientation, so a state agency eventually ruled that the baker had acted improperly.

That couldn’t happen in Indiana because the state does not include sexual orientation as a protected class. Indiana law protects against discrimination based on race, religion, and gender. Twenty-one states do protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Q: Why has there been such a backlash?

A: Using social media, various groups launched a drive to #BoycottIndiana, a campaign that quickly drew influential supporters, including a Star Trek hero, actor George Takei, and other celebrities with huge Twitter followings. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook and Yelp Chief Executive Jeremy Stoppelman also criticized Indiana’s law.

“These laws set a terrible precedent that will likely harm the broader economic health of the states where they have been adopted, the businesses currently operating in those states and, most importantly, the consumers who could be victimized under these laws,” Stoppelman wrote in an open letter.

Marc Benioff, head of tech company Salesforce, went further. “We are canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination,” Benioff said in a tweet last week.

The business leaders were joined by another powerful lobby — especially in Indiana — basketball. The NCAA raised questions about the law and its future effect on college basketball playoffs. The current tournament, which annually traumatizes the nation in a rite of spring dubbed March Madness, ends this weekend with the Final Four playing in Indianapolis.

Q: If these laws have been around for a while, what’s changed?

A: The biggest change in gay rights has been the steady march of legalization of same-sex marriage, now lawful in 36 states and the District of Columbia. The issue will be argued this term before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“If Gov. Pence had signed this law even five years ago, it would have been a different story,” said Adam Talbot, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, an influential organization that has been involved in fights over gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. The group was involved in the successful effort to stop a similar law in Arizona last year.

The Indiana law “shines a light on how LGBT issues have changed and how the mainstream of American society doesn’t want to see this type of discrimination enshrined,” Talbot said.

Indiana is also the first state this year to act on a religious freedom law. Arkansas is expected to act this week on its version of a religious freedom measure.

Q: What do polls say?

A: A Pew Research Center survey last year showed the American public is divided over the issue of providing services in same-sex marriages. About 49 percent said businesses should be required to serve same-sex weddings, and 47 percent said businesses should be permitted to refuse service because of religious objections. Most Americans 65 and older (60 percent) said wedding-related businesses should be able to decline to provide services for same-sex weddings, but most adults younger than 30 (62 percent) take the opposite view.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: Screenshot of Mike Pence being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos, via ABC

Indiana Fights Major HIV Outbreak In Rural County

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

As a nurse and manager of the only medical office in Austin, Ind., Jeanni McCarty finds herself at the heart of the state’s worst-ever outbreak of HIV, so bad that on Thursday the governor declared a heath emergency.

McCarty, 42, grew up in Austin, but she scarcely recognizes it now.

“It’s not what it used to be,” said McCarty, who still lives in Scott County, in the southeast corner of Indiana. She described a region where many people live in poverty with limited prospects of jobs and a “very, very serious drug problem that has made us the epicenter of the HIV outbreak.”

The Scott County outbreak has been linked to the illegal use of contaminated syringes. On Thursday, Gov. Mike Pence authorized a short-term exchange to fight the spread of HIV, an exception to Indiana’s conservative anti-drug policy that bars needle-exchange programs that trade dirty needles for uncontaminated ones.

“This is all hands on deck. This is a very serious situation,” the Republican governor said at a news conference.

“Scott County is facing an epidemic of HIV, but this is not a Scott County problem; this is an Indiana problem,” Pence said, announcing the health emergency and executive order.

The order will run for 30 days but Pence can extend it. In addition to the needle exchange, the order sets up a command center to coordinate HIV and substance-abuse treatments, according to the state. The state is also establishing a public awareness program to explain safe sex and needle disposal and a hotline to get HIV testing and treatment.

Scott County, about 30 miles north of Louisville, Ky., is a rural area of about 24,000 people. Running through the area is Interstate 65, a broad highway that brings in drugs — and customers for prostitutes, who face a double danger.

The human immunodeficiency virus is spread among people through blood and other bodily fluids, and is associated with risky sexual activities and the use of contaminated needles. HIV attacks an individual’s immune system and eventually leads to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

Typically, Scott County sees fewer than five HIV cases a year, but 71 cases have already been confirmed since late January, and at least nine more cases have been given a preliminary positive status, according to Amanda Turney, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Health. It is the worst such outbreak in the state and probably the worst in the nation, though national statistics are unavailable, she said.

The number of cases is expected to increase. Health officials say they are trying to contact as many as 100 people tied to those with confirmed HIV infections.

“The number will grow,” McCarty agreed in a telephone interview. “We’re doing more testing already and we have people here waiting on line to be tested.”

Foundations Family Medicine is the only medical office in Austin. McCarty says it has one doctor, three nurse practitioners, five nurses, and two medical assistants to care for the approximately 12,000 patients who have come in.

She says the HIV outbreak had been expected.

“It’s been a long time coming,” McCarty said. “About three to four years ago, we noticed a big increase in the number of hepatitis C cases.” Hepatitis C is also spread through blood and is associated with illegal drug use.

Since then, almost all of the confirmed HIV cases have been from Austin, a city of about 4,200. Given how quickly it has spread, more cases are expected in the coming weeks.

Some help is on the way: The area is getting its first specialist in infectious disease. Patients are being treated at no charge once they test positive for HIV.

“This has been hard to swallow,” McCarty said of the outbreak.

“A lot of the problem comes from poverty,” she said. “These people don’t have education to get jobs. Resources are so limited.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Cleveland Blames Fatal Police Shooting Of Tamir Rice, 12, On Boy

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The lawyer representing the family of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African-American with a toy gun shot to death by a white Cleveland police officer, reacted angrily on Monday to city arguments that the boy was responsible for the shooting.

Rice was shot by Officer Timothy Loehmann on Nov. 22 as the child played in a Cleveland park, roiling civil rights groups across the nation.

The family originally filed a wrongful death suit in December, then amended it in January. The city formally responded in a 40-page document filed with the U.S. District Court in the Northeastern District of Ohio on Friday.

In its papers, the city blames the boy for his death and puts the injuries, losses and damages “directly and proximately caused by the failure of [Rice] to exercise due care to avoid injury.”

“We’ve been in a holding pattern and all we get is these insults,” Walter Madison, the Rice family attorney, told the Los Angeles Times on Monday.

“That has to be the most incredulous comment I have ever heard,” said Madison. “The family is just completely infuriated. They are still picking up the pieces of their lives and they have been obliterated by such an insult” that blamed the death on the 12-year-old boy’s actions.

“The city is saying it wants to impose a new standard for 12-year-olds,” Madison said. “There are many things we don’t allow 12-year-olds to do. We don’t allow them to vote, we don’t allow them to drink, because they don’t have the capacity to understand the consequences of their actions.”

Cleveland also argues that the city does not have enough information to respond in full to the Rice family allegations because the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office is still investigating Rice’s death.

Madison said he expected to meeting with city lawyers and the judge soon to work out the next steps in the suit.

The Rice case was one of a trio of police actions that reignited questions about policing and African-Americans.

The Cleveland shooting came just days before a grand jury decided not to charge a white police officer in the deadly shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Mo. The Cleveland shooting also happened before a Staten Island grand jury declined to charge a New York police officer in the death of Eric Garner, who died after a chokehold was administered during an arrest.

Both of those cases led to demonstrations and sometimes violent protests.

The Cleveland incident was caught on videotape and shows Rice playing in the park with a cellphone and a toy gun that uses pellets.

Police arrive, responding to a call to 911, and the boy is quickly shot.

In its suit, the Rice family alleges that Loehmann, Officer Frank Garmback, who is Loehmann’s partner, and 100 unidentified 911 operators, police officers and city employees violated the family’s rights in the shooting.

The family’s suit also describes details about the moments after the shooting when Tamir Rice’s sister, Tajai Rice, 14, was tackled and restrained as she ran toward her brother screaming “my baby brother, they killed my baby brother.”

The Rice shooting occurred after the federal Department of Justice completed its investigation into the Cleveland Police Department.

In its report issued Dec. 4, federal officials found that Cleveland police engaged in a pattern of using excessive force against suspects, including in the chase and shooting of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell in 2012.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Another Snowstorm Wallops Northeast; Thousands Of Flights Canceled

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

It didn’t take a groundhog to predict six more weeks of winter as the second major storm in a week created near whiteout conditions in much of New England on Monday after dumping more than a foot and a half of snow in the Chicago region and spreading a blanket of thick snow through the Midwest.

The storm was expected to bring up to 16 inches of fresh snow to the Boston area, when the precipitation stops on Monday, Groundhog Day, less than 24 hours after the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl. Boston officials on Monday announced that the victory parade would be held on Tuesday, proving that the post office is not the only institution to brave snow, sleet and rain.

The latest storm cut a wide swath through the Midwest, bringing 19.3 inches to Chicago, the city’s fifth-largest storm ever. About 2,400 customers remained without power Monday morning, down from the 51,000 who lost electricity when the storm began.

More than 5,300 flights have been canceled from Sunday through Monday because of the storm, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. Schools in states across the upper tier of the nation were closed. Four deaths related to traffic or shoveling were reported in Ohio, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Detroit reported its largest snowfall in four decades. The National Weather Service said 16.7 inches fell at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus on Sunday and Monday, the third-largest storm ever and the largest since a 19.3-inch storm in December 1974.

Also in Michigan, the Battle Creek area got 12 to 18 inches and Ann Arbor, 14.1 inches.

From the Midwest, the storm churned its way East, bringing six to 10 inches to the Buffalo region and eight to 14 inches in the Albany area.

In downstate New York, Long Island, especially hit hard last week, was bracing for an additional three to five inches.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned residents of snow and ice, but the output was expected to be less than last week when nine to 15 inches fell on different parts of the city.

A blizzard brought up to three feet of snow to some parts of Massachusetts last week. On Monday, the state planned to work a normal day despite predictions of up to 16 more inches of snow. Schools in many areas including Boston were closed.

“We are very concerned about this current storm and its implications. Working with city departments and our private partners, we will take every precaution necessary to keep our residents safe,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “I ask that every Boston resident look out for their neighbor, whether it be in the home next door, or on our city’s streets.”

“I’d encourage everyone to stay off the roads today,” Walsh said.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil reportedly saw his shadow, indicating six more weeks of winter, according to legend.

The Weather Service routinely notes that the Groundhog Day test has no predictive value, though it spawned a hit movie and rodent imitators around the country.

Photo: David Cislinski, whose car is buried in snow parked on Stockton Drive, tries to shovel it out despite high winds and blowing snow on Feb. 1, 2015 in Chicago. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

NYPD Inspector General’s Report Faults Discipline On Chokeholds

By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

New York police received little or no discipline from their superiors in ten recent case involving the use of the banned chokehold, the city’s first report by the Police Department’s inspector general said on Monday.

The report comes as the city continues to reel from the July death of Eric Garner, who was selling loose, untaxed cigarettes and was placed in a chokehold during a confrontation with police in Staten Island.

That incident touched off demonstrations and further strained relations between police and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said he understood the frustration and worry behind the demonstrations that followed a grand jury’s decision in December not to charge the officers.

As a sign of their displeasure with City Hall, many police officers turned their backs on De Blasio during the funerals for officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, slain last month in Brooklyn. Police have also reportedly slowed down their enforcement of some minor laws such as summonses.

The inspector general’s office, headed by Philip Eure, was created last year by the City Council in response to complaints about how police enforced the stop-and-frisk policy, which critics alleged targeted blacks and other people of color. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and then-Commissioner Ray Kelly both opposed creating the office, but the council overrode Bloomberg’s veto.

Originally scheduled to be released last month, the report was pushed back after the two police officers were fatally ambushed in their patrol car by a man who said he wanted to kill police officers in the wake of the Garner case and the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer. Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, the suspect in the Brooklyn cop shooting, killed himself moments after the attack.

The report looked at ten chokehold cases substantiated by the Civilian Complaint Review Board between 2009 and 2014. The Garner case was not among those examined.

In four of the cases, police used chokeholds as a first act against citizens who had confronted them only verbally, not physically.

“While the substantiated use of prohibited chokeholds by members of the NYPD in any context is troubling, the fact that several of the subject officers in the 10 cases reviewed by OIG-NYPD used chokeholds as a first act of physical force and in response to mere verbal confrontation is particularly alarming,” the report stated.

“Rather than using communication skills and approved tactics to de-escalate tense encounters with members of the community, these officers immediately turned to a prohibited and dangerous physical act to try to control the situation,” the report said.

Department policy bans the use of the chokehold, which is defined as “any pressure to the throat or windpipe, which may prevent or hinder breathing or reduce intake of air,” according to the inspector general’s report. But the report found that “at least historically, the disciplinary process is complex, multi-tiered, and often delivers inconsistent results.”

In all ten cases the NYPD ignored the Review Board’s recommendations. In nine of the cases, the board recommended the toughest sanction possible, departmental charges. In every case the cop got lesser punishment ranging from no punishment to the loss of vacation days.

In six of the cases, Kelly imposed lesser punishments or none at all.

“The lack of transparency regarding the police commissioner’s disciplinary decisions in these cases deprives CCRB — and by extension the public — of an important window into how NYPD works and how it holds its officers accountable when they violate the rules,” the report said.

“Whether such data are indicative of a broader trend” will be studied further, along with effectiveness of police training including the instruction to “use minimum necessary force,” the report added.

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