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Prison Escape Clouds Daily Routine For New York Community

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

DANNEMORA, N.Y. — Richard Matt and David Sweat are everywhere.

They are at highway rest stops, where the killers’ faces peer out from “wanted” posters. They are at checkpoints dotting the winding, forested roads, where troopers stand guard with rifles ready.

They are in the loaded weapons that locals place beside their beds at night, and they are in the porch lights that shine until dawn, when daylight brings a measure of relief to people living near the prison that Matt and Sweat fled more than a week ago.

The pair remain out of sight, but everyone knows they are out there, and if police are right, they haven’t gone far. That’s no comfort to people living in and around Dannemora, where the hulking Clinton Correctional Facility seems to devour the quiet village of clapboard houses and small businesses.

“I wish it could just be over. I haven’t been able to sleep,” said Amy Daust, who lives down the block from the manhole through which the prisoners emerged after cutting their way out of their cells and tunneling out of the prison. They were discovered missing during a 5:30 a.m. bed check on June 6. Since then, it seems life has turned upside down in tiny Dannemora, whose population of 4,000 includes the nearly 3,000 prison inmates.

“You feel like the roles are reversed. It’s like we’re in prison now,” said Daust, who has a clear view of the correctional center and can hear the announcements blasted to prisoners through its speaker system.

People avoid going outside at night. They lock their doors and windows, a change of habit in a town where many residents used to think nothing of leaving keys in their cars. Since the escape, nobody has been able to drive through town without stopping at checkpoints and opening their car trunks for troopers to peer inside. Daust, her fiance and their three young boys keep the house lights on during the night.

It has always been a bit creepy, knowing the kinds of people living behind the walls at the maximum-security prison, said Daust, who grew up in the region. But with so many correctional officers living nearby, and with the prison looking so impenetrable, it seemed plenty safe.

On the morning of the escape, Daust woke up unaware that anything unusual had occurred at the fortress up the hill. She looked out a window and was startled to see someone looking back at her. It was an investigator, one of hundreds searching for Matt and Sweat.

On Saturday, searchers were out again, combing the thick woods, fields and swampy areas of rural northeastern New York.

Officials say a civilian prison worker named Joyce Mitchell provided some contraband to the men weeks before the escape. A criminal complaint says Mitchell, 51, brought them hacksaw blades, a screwdriver bit and chisels.

Mitchell pleaded not guilty Friday to a felony and a misdemeanor in connection with the escape and was jailed in lieu of $110,000 cash bail. Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie says the investigation into Mitchell’s involvement continues, and he has not ruled out additional charges.

Officials have not explained how the prisoners managed to cut through thick brick walls and a steel pipe. They have said Matt and Sweat used power tools but have not said where they got those tools or how they were able to use them without the noise drawing attention.

Police said they had no reason to believe the men had fled to Canada, about 20 miles north, or to neighboring Vermont. The checkpoints are centered on a tight circle around Dannemora, and most of the intensive ground searches have occurred in the immediate vicinity.

Despite the manpower, the search dogs and a $50,000 reward for information leading to either man, there have been no confirmed sightings, leaving even people who do not live in Dannemora on edge.

In Plattsburgh, about 15 miles to the east, Dan Myatt said he had loaded his rifles, just in case, and he admitted to having felt a bit uneasy Friday night as he emerged from an evening kayak trip to find himself alone in near-darkness.

Myatt has tried not to let the knowledge that two killers are on the loose alter his routine. He still jogs by himself in the morning, but Myatt, who normally does not watch TV, has begun following the local news for search updates. He planned to take another paddling trip Saturday evening, and he hoped he would not find himself alone again.

Richard Matt, 48, had been serving 25 years to life for the 1997 killing and dismemberment of his boss.

David Sweat, 34, was serving life without parole for killing a sheriff’s deputy in 2002.

The pair have defied the odds in remaining free this long, according to prison escape data compiled by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

Of 29 inmates who escaped from New York state prisons from 2002 to 2012, none were loose for more than three days before being recaptured.

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

Screenshot: CNN/YouTube

Investigators Studying Cellphone Of Engineer In Fatal Amtrak Crash

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW YORK — Investigators trying to determine why an Amtrak train barreled into a curve at more than twice the speed limit are studying the engineer’s cellphone to see if he was distracted before the fatal crash, officials said Wednesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the Federal Railroad Administration had obtained the cellphone records of Brandon Bostian, who was at the train’s controls May 12 when it derailed in Philadelphia. Eight passengers on the train, Amtrak’s No. 188 out of Washington and headed for New York, were killed.

“Although the records appear to indicate that calls were made, text messages sent, and data used on the day of the accident, investigators have not yet made a determination if there was any phone activity during the time the train was being operated,” the NTSB said in its latest update on the investigation.

Robert Goggin, Bostian’s attorney, has said his client’s phone was turned off and packed in his bag, as Amtrak rules require, as the train headed north. The seven passenger cars and the locomotive sped up to 106 mph before the crash, which occurred on a curve with a 50-mph speed limit.

The NTSB said it will take time to determine if Bostian’s cellphone was indeed turned off from the time the train left Washington shortly after 7 p.m. until the moment it crashed at 9:21 p.m. Time stamps in the cellphone records must be correlated with various data sources, including the train’s so-called black box recorder, its radio communications and the locomotive’s outward facing video camera.

“Each one must be correlated to the same time zone so that a factual timeline of events can be developed that will allow investigators to understand if any phone activity has any relevance to the accident,” the NTSB said.

In addition to studying the cellphone, the NTSB said it continues to try to determine whether an object hit the train before the derailment.

A conductor on the train told investigators that she believed she had heard Bostian saying something to another train’s engineer about being hit by a projectile as he passed through Philadelphia.

A review of Bostian’s audio records from the trip, however, turned up no such conversation. Bostian did not mention anything about such a conversation when he met with investigators last Friday, officials said. The NTSB noted, however, that Bostian, who suffered head and other injuries in the crash, says he has no recollection of the incident.

The engineer of a local commuter train that had stopped after being hit by an object in the same area told investigators that he heard Bostian announce on his radio “hot track rail two,” to let him know the Amtrak train was about to pass the stopped commuter train. The commuter train’s engineer did not notice anything unusual as the Amtrak train went by, the NTSB said.
The windshield of the Amtrak locomotive appeared to have been hit by something, officials said, but the FBI studied the damage and ruled out a firearm as the cause.

Bostian, 32, has not spoken publicly. He has been an Amtrak engineer since December 2010, and had operated trains on the Washington-Boston route for about three years. According to the NTSB, he had been specifically assigned the Washington-New York City route for several weeks.

The crash halted rail service along Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor until last Monday morning.

Photo: (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Dairy Farmers, In Dire Need Of Workers, Feel Helpless As Immigration Reform Sours

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOMER, N.Y. — When Mike McMahon’s Latino employees need to go to the bank, the pharmacy, or the grocery store, he makes sure someone drives them to town, waits while they run errands, and then brings them safely back to his dairy farm.

Even then, there is no guarantee law enforcement in their small, rural community won’t spot the workers, ask for their IDs, and put them on a path toward deportation if they cannot prove they are here legally. It is a risk that dairy farmers in this agricultural region have faced for years, but it is hitting them harder as immigration reform languishes in Washington and the nation’s demand for milk-heavy products like Greek yogurt soars.

“It’s just crazy,” said McMahon, who has several hundred cows at his farm more than 200 miles north of New York City.

“I’m a lifelong Republican,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’m telling you, there are days when I think about switching.”

McMahon and other dairy farmers in central and upstate New York are in a quandary. On one hand, farms have thrived because of several factors, including the popularity of yogurt in recent years and drought in other milk-producing countries. At the same time, they are battling to find the reliable, year-round labor that 24/7 milking operations require.

Locals won’t do the dirty, manual jobs, farmers say, and immigration laws limit farmers to importing only seasonal agricultural employees. That does not help dairy farmers, who need year-round workers.

“The nation’s food system is at risk if we can’t get this fixed,” McMahon said one chilly day as scores of cows stood placidly in his farm’s milking parlor, which was pungent with the smell of manure. Workers went up and down the rows, checking to see that cows’ teats were attached to the metal milking machines.

In February, Dean Norton, a dairy farmer who is president of the New York Farm Bureau, traveled to Washington to argue for reform, including a guest-worker program catering to dairy farmers. At this point, though, given the partisan divide in Washington, few people expect to see change any time soon.

“Less than 15 percent, and that’s probably a high number,” Norton said when asked the chances of dairy farmers getting help from lawmakers.

The dairy farmers have seen some relief lately because of a slowdown in milk demand. They attribute this to several things, including the stronger dollar, which makes U.S. milk more expensive to overseas buyers, and stockpiles of milk from China. But fluctuations in milk prices and demand are cyclical, and Norton said as long as things like cottage cheese and yogurt grow in popularity, so will dairy farmers’ labor woes.

Without new immigration laws, he and other farmers say, the nation will lose dairy producers because farmers will switch to growing crops whose workers are eligible for temporary guest-worker visas.

“The U.S. dairy industry absolutely cannot survive without this,” said Dale, a dairy farmer who has moved toward robotic milking to avoid the labor problem. Like many dairy farmers, he did not want his full name or his farm’s name used because he was concerned that immigration officials would target his business.

Robotics are too expensive for most farmers; each machine costs about $250,000. They also cannot do the tasks that farmers say humans must handle, including cleaning teats and udders, and basic farm maintenance.

The problem has simmered for years, but it became more urgent with the Greek yogurt boom since yogurt maker Chobani’s arrival in upstate New York in 2005. Seven years later, New York was the nation’s yogurt capital, surpassing California to become the number one producer. That success was fueled in large part by the demand for Greek yogurt, which is denser and creamier than regular yogurt.

“You’ve got to have really, really good milk. That’s the key to great yogurt,” Chobani spokesman Michael Gonda said as he led a visitor through the Chobani factory in the hamlet of New Berlin.

In a 150,000-square-foot warehouse, which is kept at a steady 34 degrees, more than 1.5 million cases of yogurt in flavors ranging from the usual, like strawberry and blueberry, to the unusual, like green tea, waited to be shipped to retailers. Machines worked at dizzying speeds, slapping labels on white yogurt cups that made their way via conveyor belts into filling rooms. There, more machines squirted fruit into each cup and topped the fruit with dollops of creamy, white yogurt.

Chobani is now one of more than 40 yogurt producers in the state, and it is by far the largest. In 2000, the state had about 14 yogurt processing plants.

Dairy farmers say the yogurt boom has been a blessing. “It happened overnight,” said Dale, who watched the state’s dairy industry shrink through the 1980s and ’90s. “All of a sudden, New York had all these great yogurt things going on.”

He and McMahon said they tried to stick to local labor but succumbed to hiring migrant workers as their workloads increased.

Both men, and Norton, blame the problem more on attitudes than on economics. McMahon, for example, said his farmworkers all started at $2,000 a month and get a three-bedroom house plus utilities and other benefits. Even so, McMahon said attempts to hire locals have failed.

“Nobody wants to go out there and deal with cows and get manure up their sleeves,” said McMahon, who once advertised three straight weeks to find workers. Three locals applied, and only one worked out, he said. He now depends on Latino workers, most of them members of an extended family from Mexico.

Keeping them safe from immigration is a constant concern. Anyone obviously foreign-born sticks out in these largely white communities. The area is about 100 miles from the U.S.-Canada border, and there is a 360-bed immigration detention center in the region.

Mary Jo Dudley, who heads the Cornell Farmworker Program at Cornell University, said in a report in October that the state would need more than 2,200 additional farmworkers and about 100,000 more cows to ensure the steady production of sufficient milk to satisfy yogurt makers’ needs.

“Most people think of border and immigration issues as happening in the Southwest, but it’s a real issue up here,” said Dudley, who regularly visits dairy farms and hears stories from farmers and their workers about the latest detentions and scares.

McMahon told of one trusted worker, Antonio, who got word from his wife in Mexico that their young son had a brain tumor. He was desperate to visit them, so McMahon gave him some cash, wished him luck and let him go. Antonio was caught in Brownsville, Texas. By the time he was deported, his son had died.

McMahon hasn’t seen Antonio since and does not expect to, because of the cost of hiring coyotes to guide people over the southern border.

“I pray to God Jeb Bush is our next president,” McMahon said, “because he’s married to a Mexican woman. He gets it.”

Photo: Tina Susman via Los Angeles Times/TNS

Snowfall Begins In New York As City Is Warned To Prepare For The Worst

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW YORK — Snow began falling in New York City early Monday, a prelude to a potential monster storm that prompted a blunt warning from the mayor: “Prepare for the worst.”

The anticipated blizzard was not expected to reach its crescendo until Monday night, but its effects were already being felt across the area. Hundreds of flights leaving from or arriving at airports in the storm’s path were canceled through Tuesday, according to www.flightaware.com, which monitors airline activity.

Commuters in New York City and to the east on Long Island faced the prospect of the state shutting down the Long Island Railroad later in the day. “It looks like that may very well happen,” Ed Mangano, the Nassau County executive, told New York’s NY1 news on Monday.

Long Island usually gets the worst of the snow when storms blow through the area, but the oncoming storm, which is expected to last through most of Tuesday, has the potential to cripple cities from Boston to Philadelphia.

“We are facing most likely one of the largest snowstorms in the history of this city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday as he held up a list showing the worst recorded snowfalls in New York. They included a 2010 blizzard that dropped more than 20 inches of snow and hit the day after Christmas; a February 2006 storm that brought more than two feet of snow to the city; and one in February 2003 that killed at least two people in the city and 42 people nationwide.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged commuters who could work from home to do so to prevent becoming trapped on roads while driving home. Last November, a snowstorm in Buffalo was blamed for a dozen deaths, including at least one person found buried in his car on the side of a highway. Two years ago, dozens of vehicles became stuck in fast-rising snow on the Long Island Expressway as commuters tried to beat a blizzard that swept into the area.

The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning from southeastern New York and northeastern New Jersey up to northeastern Maine, and said wind gusts could reach 40-70 mph. “It appears many of the major metropolitan areas will be affected anywhere from Philadelphia through New York City and into Boston,” the agency said in a statement.

Throughout the area, grocery stores were jammed Sunday night and early Monday as people stocked up, and shelves emptied nearly as quickly as they could be restocked.

“I’m not taking any chances,” said Jessica Rodriguez as she stood in line to check out at a Brooklyn market. The line wound around the corner of the store and nearly down the length of the dairy aisle, where just one carton of eggs was left at about 9 a.m. Monday.

Outside, Jonathan Katz was walking his dog, Casper, whose red booties were bright against the accumulating snow. Katz said he and Casper are accustomed to warnings of horrible snowstorms that amount to little more than dustings.

“We’re both kind of hoping this one turns out to be as big as they’re saying,” he said. “It always makes the city look so nice. At least until the snow turns dirty.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

De Blasio On New York Police Turning Their Backs: ‘Disrespectful To The Families’

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW YORK — In his first public comments on the staging of silent protests by police officers angry at him, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that officers showed no respect for the families of two slain colleagues when they took their demonstrations to the men’s funerals.

At a news conference held to trumpet the latest low crime figures, de Blasio and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton both had harsh words for the hundreds of officers who turned their backs when de Blasio delivered a eulogy Sunday at the funeral for NYPD detective Wenjian Liu.

Officers did the same thing Dec. 27 during the funeral for Liu’s partner, Rafael Ramos. Both men were killed Dec. 20 by a gunman who had posted anti-police rants online.

“They were disrespectful to the families who lost their loved ones,” said de Blasio, who has been accused by police union leaders of creating a hostile environment for police that contributed to the officers’ slayings. “I can’t understand why anyone would do such a thing in a context like that.”

Bratton, who had urged officers to refrain from staging protests at Liu’s funeral, said he was disappointed that his appeal had been ignored by many police.

“What was the need in the middle of that ceremony to engage in that political action?” Bratton said. “I just don’t understand it.”

The president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Associaton, Patrick Lynch, defended the officers’ actions during Liu’s funeral, which drew thousands of police from across the country.

“We have a right to have our opinion heard like everyone else that protests out in the city,” Lynch told reporters after the service. “We did it respectfully out here in the street, not inside the church, not during the service.”

Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said Monday on Fox’s Good Day New York that he understood Bratton’s position but that the commissioner’s memo appealing for a halt to police protests at the funerals had “almost infuriated the rank and file.” Many officers felt that Bratton was doing the mayor’s “bidding,” Mullins said.

There has long been tension between the police unions and the mayor’s office over issues that include contracts and retirement plans, but differences came to a head last July after protests erupted over the death of an unarmed man, Eric Garner, during a scuffle with police on Staten Island.

As the protests continued through the summer and fall, police accused de Blasio of indulging demonstrators and not supporting the Police Department, which de Blasio vowed to reform when he took office last January.

After Liu and Ramos were killed, Lynch blamed de Blasio in part for the ambush, saying the mayor had ushered in a climate of hostility toward officers.

Lynch said a meeting last month with de Blasio to try to alleviate tensions did not resolve the problems. De Blasio, though, said Monday that he thought the meeting was “productive” because it included a “straightforward dialogue” about the issue of officer safety.

“I don’t think we went into the room expecting instant resolution,” he said.

Neither side has said what comes next.

AFP Photo/Spencer Platt

Another Arrest In Officers’ Assault As NYPD Prepares For Cop’s Funeral

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW YORK — Police have announced the arrest of a man suspected of taking part in an assault on officers during a demonstration alleging police brutality, an incident that fueled police anger toward New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who they say has not supported them in the face of protests.

The New Year’s Day arrest came as the Saturday wake approaches for one of two officers killed while sitting in their patrol car, an attack that widened the rift between police and De Blasio. Thousands of officers and civilians are expected to attend the wake and Sunday funeral for Officer Wenjian Liu. Liu was shot dead Dec. 20 alongside his partner, Rafael Ramos.

While the gunman, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, has been described as a mentally troubled individual working alone, police union officials have said De Blasio’s tolerance of demonstrators created a hostile climate that encouraged the attack.

Brinsley, who committed suicide after killing the officers, had posted anti-police online rants before shooting Liu and Ramos.

The shootings followed weeks of demonstrations by civilians in New York City alleging police abuse of power in the July death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died during a scuffle with a white officer. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for demonstrators.

Protesters said Garner’s death, and that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., an unarmed black man shot to death by a white officer, were signs of racial profiling among police departments nationwide.

The protests in New York City were mostly peaceful. But on Dec. 13, several demonstrators intervened when they saw two officers arresting a man who was accused of trying to hurl a trash container over a railing on the Brooklyn Bridge onto a lower roadway.

Video captured by bystanders and posted on YouTube showed several people trying to pull the policemen off of the man. One officer ended up with a broken nose, and police said both officers suffered cuts and bruises.

This was the fifth arrest for alleged involvement in the incident. They include the man accused of trying to throw the item onto traffic, and four others charged with crimes ranging from assault on a police officer to resisting arrest and riot.

The incident, coming on top of weeks of almost daily protests, angered police union officials and also drew condemnation from many protest organizers and civil rights leaders, who said it tainted what had been a boisterous but nonviolent movement.

De Blasio met with some protest organizers on Dec. 19, further angering many police, who accused him of indulging protesters. After the officers’ slayings Dec. 20, many police turned their backs on the mayor when he showed up at the hospital where the slain men were taken.

At Ramos’ funeral on Saturday, some police officers turned their backs on huge screens showing the service when De Blasio spoke. A meeting aimed at mending relations between union leaders and De Blasio that same day appeared to have resulted in little progress.

Afterward, both sides issued brief and tepid statements.

“There were a number of discussions, especially about the safety issues that our members face,” said Patrick Lynch, leader of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Assn. “Our thought here today is that actions speak louder than words, and time will tell.”

De Blasio issued a statement in part that the meeting “focused on building a productive dialogue and identifying ways to move forward together.”

The big question is whether officers will repeat their protest at Liu’s service by turning their backs on De Blasio.

The move at Ramos’ funeral was seen by some, including Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, as an insult to the slain officer’s family and inappropriate given the circumstances. In an editorial, the New York Times also criticized the move, and the Daily News reported that at least one police union chief, Roy Richter of the Captain’s Endowment Assn., had written to union members criticizing the action.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

New York Gov. Cuomo: ‘Time For A Societal Deep Breath’ After Cop Slayings

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW YORK – Gov. Andrew Cuomo joined calls Monday for a halt to angry rhetoric in the wake of the weekend slayings of two policemen by a gunman whose actions have threatened to derail progress toward mending relations among police, politicians and activists demanding law enforcement reforms.

“I think it’s time for a societal deep breath,” Cuomo told WNYC radio. He did not specifically urge a halt to activists’ demonstrations alleging police brutality, but his message indicated that protests should be put on hold at least through the end of the week, as should provocative statements from leaders on all sides of the issue.

“Let’s bring a moment of peace and calm,” Cuomo said. “Let’s go to the funerals, let’s join with the families in grieving, let’s go through the holy week.”

Tempers flared among police union leaders after officers Wenjian Liu, 32, and Rafael Ramos, 40, were shot dead by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, as the pair sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn on Saturday. Authorities said Brinsley killed himself shortly after the attack.

The leaders of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the Sergeants Benevolent Association, two major police unions, accused Mayor Bill de Blasio of failing to provide the kind of leadership necessary to bolster public support for police and said his lenience toward protesters had laid the groundwork for Brinsley’s rampage.

Brinsley had posted anti-cop statements online before the shootings. But he had a long criminal history, had been treated for mental health issues, and had shot and wounded his ex-girlfriend outside Baltimore hours before coming to New York to attack the police.

Officials say his true motivations are unclear, and most leaders in New York have described him as a thug and a madman rather than a killer with a political agenda.

Whatever fueled Brinsley’s rage, his rampage has led to a polarization that Cuomo and other leaders, including Police Commissioner William Bratton, say is tearing at the fabric of the nation’s largest city.

“It’s starting to shape up along partisan lines, which is unfortunate,” Bratton told NBC’s Today on Monday. “This is something that should be bringing us all together.”

He compared the tensions in New York to the 1970s in Boston, when he was a policeman there during that city’s racially tense period of court-ordered busing to desegregate public schools. “Who would’ve ever thought deja vu all over again, that we’d be back where we were 40-some-odd years ago,” Bratton said.

Cuomo said the anger being expressed now was reminiscent of the rage that arose during some of New York City’s most volatile moments, including the race riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991 and racially charged unrest that occurred in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens in 1986.

Just as the city overcame those events, Cuomo said it can get through the current crisis if all sides take a “cooling off period.”

“When people stop yelling, then they can start hearing,” he said.

Neither Cuomo nor Bratton would criticize either De Blasio or Patrick Lynch, the leader of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. Lynch said after the officers’ murders that De Blasio had blood on his hands. Several officers turned their backs on De Blasio in protest when he arrived at the hospital Saturday night where the officers were taken.

“I think he has lost it with some officers,” Bratton said when asked if the mayor had lost police support. “It’s reflective of the anger of some of them.”

But he also said that he did not support the officers’ turning their backs on the mayor. Bratton said their anger is rooted not just in the slayings, but in pension and labor issues that have been simmering for years.

Photo: Zach Seward via Flickr

Activists Responding To Police Killings See Potential For A New Civil Rights Era

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW YORK — The chants are angry, but simple: “I can’t breathe!” “Hands up, don’t shoot!” “Black lives matter!” They have echoed from the American heartland to the coasts in the wake of two recent grand jury decisions that cleared white policemen in the deaths of unarmed black men.

Now, activists are counting on the rage behind those words to spur a movement that would force the country to confront the interlocked issues of race and policing and press the government to automatically take control of cases of alleged police abuse.

“They’re asking for something simple. They want to be treated the same,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said of protesters Thursday as he sought to calm a city where many were seething over a grand jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a white officer, in the death of Eric Garner.

Largely peaceful demonstrations broke out in New York soon after Wednesday’s announcement of the Staten Island grand jury’s decision. Protesters blocked major roads and gathered at landmark sites, including Times Square and Grand Central Terminal. Police made 83 arrests, mainly for minor offenses.

More large demonstrations erupted Thursday night in New York and throughout the nation, including in Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh and Chicago. As night fell in New York, helicopters thundered over lower Manhattan while protesters gathered in Foley Square, near the courthouse and police headquarters.

“It was a murder on video and there was no justice,” said Mickey Thomas, a 21-year-old Hunter College student. “I definitely think we’ve had enough. I feel like there is a new civil rights movement.”

Ida Dupont, a Pace University sociology professor specializing in criminology, said she too thought the Garner incident was an “open and shut case” with the video.

“It was so ridiculous to me that I had to be here today to show my outrage,” Dupont said.

“I’ve been talking to my students about it,” she said. “All the young people know something is seriously wrong.”

Last week, violence, arson and looting erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, a white policeman, in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Marches have been almost daily occurrences there since Brown’s shooting in August.

At a Thursday news conference, black leaders, including Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, sought to draw protesters from around the country to Washington for a Dec. 13 event aimed at pressing for federal intervention in excessive-force cases.

“Marches and boycotts led to the ’64 Civil Rights Act,” Sharpton noted. He said that just as federal legislation led to change 50 years ago, similar action is needed now to ensure that prosecutors no longer handle cases involving their own police. “That’s what (Dec.) 13th is all about,” Sharpton said.

Marches in Washington in recent years have done little more than draw a few thousand people voicing concern over issues including fracking and veterans care.

This time, however, those pushing for change have the attention of some of the nation’s top leaders, who view their demands through personal eyes — from President Barack Obama and Attorney General. Eric H. Holder Jr. to de Blasio, whose wife is black.

The New York mayor spoke emotionally this week of the concerns he and his wife had for their 17-year-old son, Dante, in his dealings with police. “I couldn’t help but immediately think of what it would mean to me to lose Dante,” de Blasio said. “Life could never be the same.”

Holder has launched federal inquiries into several police departments in recent years, and many have led the Justice Department to mandate reforms. But those investigations often follow years of abuse claims, and they are never guaranteed to take place. The demand made Thursday was to automatically put in federal hands cases in which law enforcement officials face possible criminal charges arising from civilian deaths or injuries.

The visceral impact of Garner’s death, which was captured on video, and the recent death of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old shot dead by Cleveland police in an incident also caught on video, could help galvanize protesters, experts said.

Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney and founder of the Advancement Project in Los Angeles, said that if the mainly young marchers taking part in current protests harness those demonstrations into political action, “we’ll see a response that’s more than lip service.”

“It’s a continuation of a very old civil rights era,” Rice said of the latest cries for change. “It’s not going to look like it did, but that doesn’t mean it’s new.”

One question is whether the current anger will do what the Occupy movement failed to do: bring actual change at the top. Sharpton, without mentioning Occupy by name, appeared to allude to the movement when he spoke of the scattered protests across the country.

“We need to centralize,” Sharpton said, an approach that was contrary to Occupy’s determination to avoid getting tied down by specific demands. “The luxury that some have is to just express outrage. Those of us who have the connections to actual victims — we have to sit with them and say how this will achieve justice.”

Darnell Hunt, a media and race expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, said only time would tell whether Sharpton’s goals come to fruition. “But there does seem to be something very palpable in terms of a rising awareness around questions of race and fairness,” Hunt said.

The New York Police Department said Thursday it was moving forward with an internal review of officer Pantaleo’s actions on the day Garner died.

Pantaleo and the police officers union have denied that he used a banned chokehold on Garner, who died as police tried to arrest him on allegations of selling illegal cigarettes. Pantaleo will face an administrative trial, which could bring a range of punishments, including his termination from the NYPD, said Lt. Col. John Grimpel, a department spokesman.

There were fresh frustrations in New York over details of the grand jury proceedings. By law, documents are sealed unless prosecutors request public release.

In St. Louis County, prosecutor Bob McCulloch released thousands of pages of documents as soon as the grand jury returned its decision in the Darren Wilson case.

But the district attorney in Staten Island, Daniel Donovan, asked a judge to release only a limited amount of information from the New York grand jury case. The material did not include any transcripts from the 50 witnesses, including Pantaleo, who testified during the nine weeks the grand jury met.

The grand jury needed 12 votes to indict Pantaleo. It is not known whether anyone among the jurors favored an indictment.

Donovan did not explain why he sought only a limited release of information.
___
(Maya Srikrishnan contributed to this report from New York. Trevell Anderson, Michael Muskal and James Queally contributed from Los Angeles.)

Photo: Demonstrators march down Cathedral Street after trying to disrupt the holiday lighting of the Washington Monument in Baltimore to protest the Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the Eric Garner chokehold case, on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

New York Officials Urge Calm After Grand Jury Declines To Indict Cop In Chokehold Case

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW YORK — Public officials called for calm and peaceful demonstrations after a grand jury in Staten Island on Wednesday declined to indict a white police officer in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black New Yorker whose last words — “I can’t breathe” — were caught on video and became a rallying cry for protesters demanding police reforms.

The decision in New York not to charge the officer comes about a week after a grand jury in Missouri decided not to indict a white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. Both cases became symbols of what protesters called a tendency by white officers to overreact when confronting African-Americans.

“This is a deeply emotional day — for the Garner family, and all New Yorkers,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want,” said the mayor who had been elected with African-American support.

“New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through nonviolent protest. We trust that those unhappy with today’s grand jury decision will make their views known in the same peaceful, constructive way. We all agree that demonstrations and free speech are valuable contributions to debate, and that violence and disorder are not only wrong — but hurt the critically important goals we are trying to achieve together,” de Blasio said.

That call for peaceful protest was also echoed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

“While this decision is shocking, I want to echo the statement of a wide range of leaders inside and outside of government who are urging that protests remain peaceful in the aftermath of this decision,” she stated.

“I’m shocked by this grand jury decision, and will be calling on the Department of Justice to investigate,” she said.

Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island man, stopped breathing after Officer Daniel Pantaleo, 29, put him in what appeared to be an illegal chokehold while trying to subdue him. The city’s medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide resulting from compression of his neck and chest, but the grand jury did not find reasonable cause to charge Pantaleo with a crime.

Pantaleo issued a brief statement through the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association that said, in part, “I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves. It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.”

The union president, Patrick J. Lynch, said he was “pleased with the grand jury’s decision,” but he added: “There are no winners here today.”

The New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union denounced the lack of an indictment.

“The failure of the Staten Island grand jury to file an indictment in the killing of Eric Garner leaves New Yorkers with an inescapable question: How will the NYPD hold the officers accountable for his death? And what will Commissioner (William) Bratton do to ensure that this is the last tragedy of its kind?” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York ACLU. “Unless the Police Department aggressively deals with its culture of impunity and trains officers that they must simultaneously protect both safety and individual rights, officers will continue to believe that they can act without consequence.”

The 23-member grand jury met from Sept. 29, 2014, and concluded on December 3, 2014, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said in a prepared statement.

Donovan said he was prohibited by law from discussing the grand jury’s deliberations but said he has applied for a court order to release some information on the investigation.

Unlike the protests in Ferguson, Mo., which erupted after the Aug. 9 killing of Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson, the New York rallies that followed Garner’s death did not turn violent. But marches in both cities reflected distrust of the police among many blacks, and the demands were the same: prosecution of the officers involved in the deaths.

The Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, who said he shot Brown in self-defense. Pantaleo had no such defense, and his confrontation with Garner, and Garner’s struggle as he died, were captured on video by an onlooker.

The video, which quickly went viral, showed Garner becoming visibly edgy as several officers surrounded him on the Staten Island sidewalk where he was allegedly selling cigarettes illegally.

In the video, Garner accuses police of harassing him and tells them: “I’m tired of it. It stops today.”

“I’m minding my business,” Garner says as officers move closer. “Please just leave me alone.”

As Garner says “Don’t touch me,” Pantaleo grabs him around his neck from behind. Several other officers join in restraining Garner as he falls to the ground. “I can’t breathe,” Garner can be heard saying at least seven times as the officers hold him down and as Pantaleo pushes his head into the sidewalk.

Pantaleo was placed on modified leave and stripped of his gun and badge after Garner’s death. His partner, Justin D’Amico, was assigned to desk duty.

New York’s police commissioner, William Bratton, said Garner’s death showed the need for better training of officers, especially in use-of-force tactics. Chokeholds like the kind Pantaleo was accused of using have been banned by the New York Police Department since 1993, but the city’s civilian complaints board, which hears allegations of police abuse, says there have been at least 1,022 complaints alleging chokeholds since 2009. Nine of those were substantiated, the board said.

The city’s police union said Pantaleo did not use an illegal chokehold, and it blamed Garner for instigating the confrontation by resisting arrest and forcing officers to try to subdue him.

“Not wanting to be arrested does not grant an individual the right to resist arrest nor does it free the officers of the obligation to make the arrest,” Lynch said after Pantaleo was taken off the streets. In a later statement, the union president said police welcomed training that would improve safety, but added, “What we don’t need is training that only tells us what we can’t do when a person resists arrest.”

Garner’s death was the first in a series of high-profile cases over the summer and fall, including Brown’s, that ignited firestorms over police tactics and race relations and which continue to generate controversy.

On Aug. 5, police in Beavercreek, Ohio, shot and killed a man in a Walmart who was carrying a toy gun he had picked up from one of the aisles.

On Nov. 18, a police officer shot to death an unarmed man in a Brooklyn apartment building in what Bratton called a tragic mistake.

On Nov. 22, Cleveland police shot a 12-year-old boy waving a toy gun outside a recreation center. The boy died the next day.

In each case, the slain male was black. The Garner case bore some striking similarities to the Brown case in the anger it aroused and in the district attorney’s response.

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan convened a grand jury in September to review the evidence in the Garner case, just as St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch did after Brown’s death. The Staten Island jury began meeting in September and deliberated far longer than grand juries usually meet to consider cases. The St. Louis grand jury also met for a long time, convening Aug. 20 and announcing its decision Nov. 24, which in turn triggered days of unrest across the country.

In both cases, jurors heard directly from the police officers, giving Wilson and Pantaleo the opportunity to tell their sides and leaving jurors to sort through mounds of often contradictory statements.

The breadth of material presented to the jurors in the Pantaleo case was clear from the amount of time they needed to make their decision, and it fueled anger among activists and Garner’s family.

“There is no reason both grand juries should be taking this long,” Sharpton, whose National Action Network organized rallies for Garner and Brown, said Nov. 19 as both panels continued their deliberations.

The presentation of so much evidence also drew criticism from legal experts, who said the material was sure to overwhelm jurors and make it more difficult for them to find reasonable cause to indict. Many critics in New York and in Ferguson also said prosecutors in high-profile cases involving police could not be counted on to ignore their own biases in favor of law enforcement and pursue charges against officers.

Donovan especially faced political ramifications from the Garner case. The 57-year-old Republican, who was elected district attorney in 2003, faces reelection next year and would benefit from the support of the police unions that said Pantaleo did nothing wrong.

When he convened the grand jury, Donovan said he would not let politics interfere in the case.

“A man has died,” he told the Staten Island Advance newspaper in August, after announcing the grand jury. “I don’t want anyone losing focus on that.”

Photo: People attend a rally against police violence on August 23, 2014 in the Staten Island borough of New York (AFP/Yana Paskova)

New York To No Longer Arrest For Small Amounts Of Marijuana

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — Possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana no longer will be grounds for arrest in New York City under a new policy aimed at ending the lifelong stigma that can follow pot users, city officials announced Monday.

The new law, which takes effect Nov. 19, marks a substantial shift in policing in the nation’s largest city, where arrests for marijuana possession so far this year number more than 24,000. But both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said the policy change was not a sign they favored going the route of Colorado and Washington state, which have legalized some recreational marijuana use.

“It’s still against the law,” said Bratton, who held up a small plastic bag filled with oregano to demonstrate the maximum amount that a person could be caught with in New York City and avoid being arrested. “I’m not giving out ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ cards.”

De Blasio, a staunch liberal, also made clear he opposed marijuana legalization. “Any substance that alters your consciousness is a potential danger,” de Blasio said.

Under the new law, a person who is carrying 25 grams or less of the drug and not smoking it would be issued a summons rather than being arrested, taken to a police station, fingerprinted and photographed. Bratton said under some circumstances, a person could still face arrest. That could occur if the person with the marijuana was wanted on an outstanding warrant or if he or she was unable to provide identification to police.

A first offense would bring a fine of up to $100. Subsequent offenses could carry fines up to $300.

De Blasio said the shift was in keeping with his pledge to improve relations between the police and the city’s African-American and Latino communities, who were disproportionately affected by the department’s stop-question-frisk practices. Many of those stops led to arrests for small amounts of marijuana.

The mayor said such arrests often had “disastrous consequences” for individuals with otherwise clean records.

“When an individual is arrested even for the smallest amount of marijuana, it hurts their chances to get a good job. It hurts their chances to get housing. It hurts their chances to qualify for student loans. It can literally follow them the rest of their lives,” de Blasio said.

Bratton said the police department was hurt by the arrests too because it forced officers to spend “endless hours” in courtrooms while cases were prosecuted. “I don’t want them chasing down 25-gram bags of marijuana and tying themselves up in court,” he said.

The announcement came on the same day that new FBI crime statistics showed a drop in nationwide marijuana arrests in 2013. According to the FBI, 693,058 marijuana arrests were made last year, compared with 749,842 in 2012.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, Mason Tvert, said the drop in arrests was a positive step, but Tvert said it was wrong to arrest even one person for “using a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol.”

“Every year we see millions of violent crimes attributed to alcohol, and the evidence is clear that marijuana is not a significant contributing factor in such incidents,” Tvert said. “Yet our laws continue to steer adults toward drinking by threatening to punish them if they make the safer choice.”

AFP Photo/Frederic J Brown

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N.Y. Doctor With Ebola Is Stable; Health Care Protocols Under Scrutiny

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

A doctor who tested positive for Ebola was in stable condition at a New York hospital on Friday, as federal officials face heightening scrutiny over protocols for health care workers who have treated Ebola victims.

The ill doctor, Craig Spencer, 33, became feverish in his Manhattan apartment on Thursday and was diagnosed hours later at Bellevue Hospital. He returned to the United States on Oct. 17 after working with Ebola victims in Guinea, a West African country badly hit by Ebola.

He left Guinea on Oct. 14 and traveled back to the United States via Europe. In accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols, he had been checking his temperature twice daily and had remained mostly inside his apartment, the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, told reporters late Thursday.

But Ebola’s incubation period is 21 days, meaning that Spencer could not have been definitively declared free of the virus until early next month.

Although Spencer did not report symptoms — and thus was not considered contagious — until Thursday, his outings to a bowling alley, popular park, restaurant and travel on city subways have raised questions about whether he should have remained inside his apartment.

“That’s a good question,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Good Day New York, on New York’s Fox affiliate. “It is one of the questions the federal government is thinking through,” said Cuomo, who has spoken with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief, Tom Frieden, and with the country’s newly appointed Ebola czar, Ron Klain.

“This is something that’s being actively discussed,” the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, said on the program later.

But Cuomo and Bassett defended Spencer, who had been volunteering his services in Guinea for the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders. In New York, he is an emergency medical physician with New York’s Columbia University/New York Presbyterian Hospital.

“This was a doctor. He was taking his temperature twice a day. He knew he was only contagious if he was symptomatic,” Cuomo said. “He had limited interactions. He only saw four people in about a week.”

“These transmissions are rare,” Bassett said of health care workers becoming infected. She said she continued to support letting health care workers “self-monitor,” in which they check their temperatures daily and report themselves as ill if their temperatures rise.

All four of Spencer’s known contacts have been notified by health officials and are being monitored for possible symptoms, but none has shown signs of illness.

Cuomo also said that early reports that Spencer’s temperature was 103 when he called health officials to report his fever were incorrect; he said it was 100.3.

There were no immediate signs of worry in New York, a closely packed city of more than 8 million people where mass transit is the favored mode of getting to school and work. Spencer rode the city’s A, 1, and L lines in the days before he became sick.

A quick check of subway stations in Brooklyn early Friday showed the crowds as big as ever, with parents hauling children by the hand to school and commuters scanning the tabloid headlines. “NY Doc Has Ebola,” the Daily News screamed, with smaller headlines noting that Spencer “rode trains, took car service … Bowled.”

The Brooklyn bowling alley Spencer visited on Wednesday, the Gutter, closed Thursday night after word of his illness spread, even though the business said that health officials had advised it that staff and customers “were at no risk.”

“We voluntarily decided to close … as a precautionary measure while we gathered more information,” the Gutter said in a statement. “We are working with the NYC Health Department to have the bar cleaned and sanitized under their supervision and expect to be open sometime today after that is completed.”

There were no signs posted alerting riders about Ebola’s arrival in New York, where Cuomo said officials have been preparing for a long time for such a scenario.

“We’ve drilled, we’ve drilled, we’ve drilled,” he said.

Republicans were expected to take fresh aim at missteps that accompanied this country’s first Ebola diagnosis in Dallas last month during a hearing in Washington on Friday. The patient in that case, Thomas Eric Duncan, had arrived in Dallas from Liberia and was initially misdiagnosed and sent home after visiting an emergency room after developing symptoms.

Three days later he returned to the same hospital. He died Oct. 8, and two nurses who treated him contracted the virus.

The CDC chief conceded later that the federal agency should have taken a more aggressive approach to the Dallas situation and that if it had sent health experts to the Texas hospital as soon as Duncan were diagnosed, it might have prevented the nurses’ infections.

Calls have increased from lawmakers, mostly Republicans, for Washington to impose a ban on travel from African nations afflicted by Ebola. Lawmakers also have questioned why health care workers are not under mandatory isolation after working with Ebola victims.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee holding Friday’s hearing is chaired by Darrell Issa, a San Diego Republican who has been an especially harsh critic of the Obama administration.

Among those testifying will be representatives of National Nurses United, a group that has accused hospitals nationwide of failing to prepare its workers for Ebola cases. After the Dallas nurses fell ill, the group accused administrators of the Texas facility, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, of not providing nurses with proper protective gear, and not providing training to staff in how to prevent the spread of the virus during treatment.

Those issues have taken on added significance with Ebola now in the most densely populated city in the United States, NNU’s executive director, RoseAnn DeMoro, said in a statement.

“Everyone should appreciate the fact that our nurses are willing to care for the most deadly disease that we’ve encountered, and all they’re asking for is training, preparation and the right equipment,” she said.

AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary

Bears Are On The Ballot In Maine As Hunting Methods Are Debated

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — It has been a big year for bears in the news, especially in Maine, where voters on Nov. 4 face a question that has bedeviled other bear-heavy states: how to keep the species’ population at bay in the face of pressure from animal rights groups lobbying to ban certain hunting methods.

The campaign around the Maine Bear Hunting Ban Initiative, which will appear on the ballot as Question 1, has shed light on Maine’s unique status in the wildlife world. It remains the only state in the Lower 48 where hunters may use bait, traps, and dogs to nab bears.

Voters are being asked whether these methods should be banned except to protect property, public safety, or for research.

“We think we’ve got a great case to make,” the Humane Society’s chief executive, Wayne Pacelle, said in a heated televised debate Oct. 14. “The fact is, you don’t need to use these methods to hunt the animals. Hunting is supposed to give the animals a chance, and this stacks the deck so badly.”

The Humane Society supports the coalition backing the initiative, which is led by a group called Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting.

Opponents led by a group called Save Maine’s Bear Hunt say the Humane Society’s involvement shows that this is a fight being bankrolled by outside lobby groups with a broader agenda of ending sport hunting nationwide. Save Maine’s Bear Hunt supporters include the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which estimates Maine has more than 30,000 black bears.

“We have one of the largest bear populations in the country, certainly on the East Coast,” said James Cody, the campaign manager for Save Maine’s Bear Hunt. Cody said 93 percent of the kills in last year’s bear hunt involved one of the three methods that could be banned.

The use of bait, in which hunters put out buckets filled with junk food and sweets such as donuts and syrup, was cited in 72 percent of kills, according to state wildlife officials.

Eliminating the methods would send bear numbers soaring, and it would devastate the state’s bear-hunting industry, Cody said.

Each side has garnered at least one celebrity endorsement: Bill Maher supports Question 1; Ted Nugent opposes it.

The Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News have urged “no” votes; the Portsmouth Herald urged a “yes” vote.

Heavy-hitters on the “no” side include the National Rifle Association, the AFL-CIO and Gov. Paul LePage. They face a massive infusion of campaign funds from the Humane Society, the ASPCA and other animal advocacy groups.

Opponents of Question 1 would seem to have momentum on their side, given some recent incidents in states with big bear numbers. The most notorious of these occurred last month in New Jersey, where a 22-year-old hiker was attacked and killed by a black bear.

Officials killed the bear, which a police report described as a large male weighing 250-300 pounds.

Also last month, a Santa Barbara County, Calif., woman fought off a black bear that attacked her while she was walking her dogs. Earlier this month, officials say a black bear devoured the remains of a man who had suffered a heart attack outside his remote home in Northern California.

Mystery still surrounds the discovery of a dead black bear cub in New York City’s Central Park earlier this month. Wildlife officials said the animal appeared to have been hit by a vehicle, but nobody has been able to explain how the bear’s body got to the park, which has no known bears.

Not all the stories have been so grim. Smokey Bear celebrated his 70th birthday and took his message of fire safety onto social media.

But the Maine debate underscores a national reality: Black bear populations have increased, thanks to conservation efforts to protect the species, and so too have bear-human encounters in many areas.

In New Jersey, where Ridgewood police last month captured a black bear roaming near an elementary school, wildlife officials say reports of bear sightings have increased 23 percent over last year. The bear captured in Ridgewood was released back into the wild after it climbed a tree and was shot with a tranquilizer gun.

The latest polls show the “no” side ahead in Maine by a few percentage points, but supporters of Question 1 are hoping that a Maine judge rules in favor of their motion for an injunction to prevent the state’s wildlife department from using public funds to fight the ballot measure.

That ruling is expected this week.

Photo via Wikicommons

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New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade Drops Ban On Openly Gay Marchers

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — The nation’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade, which in recent years was mired in controversy over its ban on openly gay marchers, appeared to have bowed to corporate and public pressure Wednesday by including a diversity group from NBCUniversal in next year’s event.

“NBCUniversal’s LGBT Employee Resource Group is proud to be marching under the organization’s “OUT@NBCUniversal” banner in the 2015 St. Patrick’s Day Parade,” said Craig Robinson, executive vice president and chief diversity officer for NBCUniversal.

“We welcome the Parade Committee’s decision to accept OUT@NBCUniversal’s application to march and enthusiastically embrace the gesture of inclusion,” Robinson said. “Our employees, families and friends look forward to joining in this time-honored celebration of Irish culture and heritage.”

The Associated Press said a statement from the parade committee announced that other gay groups could apply to march in the future in the March 17 event, which draws hundreds of thousands of viewers and will feature more than 300 marching groups next year.

Parade organizers voted unanimously to let OUT@NBCUniversal march under an identifying banner, AP reported.

OUT@NBCUniversal describes itself on its website as “a volunteer organization with a goal to attract, develop and retain Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Straight Ally employees” at NBCUniversal.

The parade committee said it decided to have OUT@NBCUniversal in the parade as “a gesture of goodwill to the LGBT community in our continuing effort to keep the parade above politics,” AP reported.

The Irish Voice newspaper reported that the parade organizers also were pushed by NBC, which for years has broadcast the event. According to the Irish Voice website, NBC was “prepared to drop its coverage unless a compromise that resulted in the inclusion of a gay group was brokered.”

It no doubt was also swayed by concerns over the increasingly vocal debate over the parade’s long ban on openly gay marchers in a city famous for its large gay population and its history of activism in the gay-rights movement.

In March, Mayor Bill De Blasio refused to take part in the parade, one of the city’s most famous, because of its ban on gay marchers. In another major hit, Guinness USA dropped its sponsorship of the last parade over the issue.

The New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade is more than 250 years old and marches more than 30 blocks up Fifth Avenue, starting in midtown and ending on the Upper East Side.

Photo: Petty Officer Seth Johnson via Wikimedia Commons

Uneasy Calm In Ferguson As Holder To Meet With Leaders

By Tina Susman and Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

FERGUSON, Mo. — After a night of uneasy calm in Ferguson, Missouri, which has been rocked by unrest since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the county prosecutor was expected Wednesday to begin presenting evidence in the case to a grand jury, which would decide whether Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot the unarmed black 18-year-old, should be indicted.

Also, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., was to visit Ferguson to check on progress made in a Justice Department investigation into the Aug. 9 shooting, which is being conducted along with the county probe. He is also scheduled to meet with community leaders and elected officials.

In anticipation of the possible hearing, a crowd of media and about 50 demonstrators converged Wednesday outside the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in the nearby St. Louis suburb of Clayton. The presentation of evidence to a grand jury there was dependent on the availability of witnesses, said Ed Magee, a spokesman for the county prosecutor, Robert McCulloch.

Police have said that Wilson shot Brown in self-defense. Some witnesses have said that Wilson was the aggressor in an altercation between the two men and fired at Brown as the 18-year-old’s hands were up in surrender.

Unlike those on most previous nights, demonstrations Tuesday in Ferguson in connection with the shooting were largely peaceful and no tear gas was fired by law enforcement. At least 47 people were arrested as of early Wednesday, mainly for failure to disperse, officials said.

Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson said he hoped the situation represents a turning point in the consecutive nights of chaotic, often violent protests in which heavily armed police have fired tear gas to disperse unruly crowds. Several local businesses have been vandalized by looting and broken windows, and one has burned.

Protester Steven Wash, a 26-year-old cook who lives in Ferguson, said the filing of criminal charges against Wilson would not be enough to satisfy what he and other demonstrators say are long-standing grievances rooted in a local power structure that they see as racist.

“It seems like all of St. Louis County is against us,” said Wash, who is black, as he energetically waved a white flag early Wednesday morning at motorists driving down West Florissant Avenue, a commercial strip that has been the site of nightly protests. “I would like to tell Holder to get all these police out of here and give us some people who are with us, not against us.”

Just Tuesday, Wash noted, police shot and killed another young black man. Police say the man had a knife, but Wash questioned why they could not have tasered him instead of using lethal force.

“Why can’t you taser our black men? Why do you have to shoot them in cold blood?” he said.

Wash was among a group of seven men gathered on the side of the busy road early Wednesday. A couple of blocks away, volunteers picked up plastic water bottles and other debris left from the previous night’s marches.

State troopers sat in two cars across the four-lane road from Wash and his fellow demonstrators but did not bother them. Some with Wash clearly were exhausted from their all-nighter: One man sat down and fell asleep as the morning rush hour buzzed past.

Eric Shelquist, 31, a student in urban affairs from St. Louis, was one of two white faces in the group. He held a sign reading “RIP Mike Brown.”

Shelquist said he had been out only since 4:30 a.m., but that he had taken part in a march shortly after Brown’s killing and felt the need to get out again and join the protesters.

Just sitting back and expressing support isn’t sufficient in cases of injustice, Shelquist said. “I think every non-racist also has the responsibility to be anti-racist,” he said.

Like most protesters, clergy and community leaders who have kept watch on Ferguson’s demonstrations, Shelquist said there was no quick way to end the current unrest. Any resolution will take time, he said.

“I think the thing that would end this would be if they knew the police had to be accountable for their actions,” he said. “If the community trusted the police not to abuse their power, I think that would go a long way toward restoring trust.”

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster briefly came to the streets Tuesday night to address demonstrators. His spokeswoman issued a statement in his name voicing confidence in St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch, responsible for presenting the Brown-Wilson case to the grand jury.

“It is my understanding he has placed the matter in the hands of two highly experienced prosecutors, one of whom is African American,” Koster said in the statement. “I trust in their ability to diligently and fairly present the evidence in this case.”

A group of African-American attorneys has called on McCulloch to remove himself from the case, accusing him of bias. He has declined to do so.

Governor Jay Nixon said he would not call on McCulloch to step aside from the case. In an evening statement, the Democratic governor said: “From the outset, I have been clear about the need to have a vigorous prosecution of this case, and that includes minimizing any potential legal uncertainty. I am not asking St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCullough to recuse himself from this case.

“There is a well-established process by which a prosecutor can recuse” himself, Nixon continued. “Departing from this established process could unnecessarily inject legal uncertainty into this matter and potentially jeopardize the prosecution.”

Holder has said federal investigators have interviewed hundreds of people in connection with the Brown killing. A federal autopsy performed at Holder’s orders showed that Brown was shot six times, officials said.

In an op-ed article posted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, titled “A Message to the People of Ferguson,” Holder strongly defended his decision to push forward with a civil rights investigation. Local law enforcement officials have been accused of not moving fast enough in investigating the matter.

“The people of Ferguson can have confidence that the Justice Department intends to learn — in a fair and thorough manner — exactly what happened,” Holder wrote.

“This is my pledge to the people of Ferguson,” he added. “Our investigation into his matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent.”

The attorney general said that about 40 FBI agents and some of the Justice Department’s “most experienced prosecutors have been deployed to lead this process, with the assistance of the United States attorney in St. Louis.”

Holder warned protesters in Ferguson against looting and violence, calling those who engage in such activities a small minority who only “seriously undermine, rather than advance, the cause of justice.” He added, “Violence cannot be condoned.”

Federal law enforcement officials said a U.S. military medical examiner had concluded the federal autopsy of Brown and it showed six gunshot wounds, according to a government source who asked not to be identified. Holder confirmed in his op-ed article that the autopsy was complete.

The federal autopsy was the third postmortem to be performed on Brown. The first was performed by the St. Louis County medical examiner, and the second was on behalf of Brown’s family.

The results of the county autopsy have not been made public. The private autopsy, like the federal examination, showed six gunshot wounds.

Holder has said that federal officials’ civil rights investigation will review the county-performed autopsy.

AFP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Before Ferguson: Deaths Of Other Black Men At Hands Of Police

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — Amadou Diallo. Manuel Loggins Jr. Ronald Madison. Sean Bell. Eric Garner. And now, Michael Brown.

All of them were black men who died at the hands of law enforcement officers.

They are a handful of such cases since 1999, when Diallo, an unarmed man standing in a New York City doorway, was gunned down by cops who erroneously thought he had a gun.

Brown, who was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., on Saturday, is the latest victim of what civil rights advocates say is law enforcement’s tendency to be overly aggressive when dealing with black males.

There is no federal database that tracks the numbers of people of any race killed by police in the United States. Some individuals and groups have compiled their own databases, using information from media and law enforcement reports. They include The Root and Hiphopandpolitics.com.

Here is a look at some of the most famous cases involving black men who died at the hands of police, and the aftermath of the shootings.

— Amadou Diallo was an immigrant from the west African nation of Guinea when he was hit with 19 bullets fired by four New York City police officers. It was before dawn on Feb. 4, 1999.

The policemen, none in uniform, thought Diallo fit the description of a man wanted for a series of rapes. They said they identified themselves as officers as they approached Diallo. When Diallo reached into a pocket to pull out his wallet, they opened fire, saying they feared he was reaching for a gun. Diallo was unarmed.

A grand jury indicted the officers on charges of second-degree murder and reckless endangerment. A jury acquitted all of them. Diallo’s family sued the city and settled for $3 million.

— Manuel Loggins Jr. was a 31-year-old Marine sergeant and a father of three when he was killed by an Orange County, Calif., sheriff’s deputy on Feb. 7, 2012. The deputy approached Loggins after Loggins crashed through a gate of San Clemente High School about 4:40 a.m., with two of his daughters inside his SUV.

According to the sheriff’s department account, Loggins left the vehicle, then returned to it, ignored orders to show his hands, and displayed a “mean” expression. The sheriff’s deputy, who said he feared for the girls’ safety, fired three shots through the window, killing Loggins as his 9-year-old and 14-year-old daughters watched.

The deputy was not charged. Loggins’ family sued and settled for $4.4 million last spring.

— Ronald Madison was one of two victims of a New Orleans police shooting on the Danziger Bridge in the days after Hurricane Katrina caused flooding across the city. Madison, 40, was mentally disabled. He was unarmed when he was shot in the back on Sept. 4, 2005.
Madison and a 17-year-old named James Brissette were killed; four other people, all members of the same family, were wounded.

Prosecutors said the group was out walking in search of food and supplies in the wake of the hurricane. Authorities said a group of police opened fire on the unarmed individuals and tried to cover up what they had done by claiming they had been shot at.

Five New Orleans police officers pleaded guilty to obstructing justice in connection with the cover-up. Another five were convicted of civil rights violations and sentenced in 2012 to terms ranging from six to 65 years in prison.

— Sean Bell was due to be married the morning after his fatal encounter with New York City police officers on Nov. 25, 2006. Bell, 23, was behind the wheel of a car outside a Queens strip club where his bachelor party had been held. Police, including plainclothes officers who had been in the club, said they approached Bell amid concerns that someone in his party had a gun.

Officers opened fire, saying Bell had rammed his car into one of them. They said they had identified themselves as officers and showed their badges, an account disputed by some witnesses in a subsequent trial. Bell was shot in the neck and torso and died. Two friends in his car were shot but survived.

Three police officers were indicted on charges ranging from manslaughter to reckless endangerment. They were acquitted in 2008, but all were fired or forced to resign after the police department concluded they had acted improperly. A lawsuit filed by the victims’ families was settled for $7 million.

— Ramarley Graham was 18 when police entered his Bronx apartment without a warrant and shot him inside a bathroom on Feb. 2, 2012. Surveillance videos from the police pursuit showed Graham walking into the building, then police officers going to the building’s door and kicking it in.

They then ran upstairs to Graham’s apartment. One of them shot Graham once in the chest. The officer said he thought Graham was armed, based on conversations he said heard on his police radio. A bag of marijuana was found near Graham, but no weapon.

A judge threw out a manslaughter indictment against the officer who shot Graham on a technicality. A second grand jury failed to indict the officer, saying there was insufficient evidence to charge him. Graham’s family and local lawmakers have called for the Justice Department to investigate.

— Eric Garner, 43, died on July 17, 2014, after a police officer in Staten Island placed him in an illegal chokehold during an encounter on the sidewalk, where police said Garner was selling illegal cigarettes. A bystander shot video showing Garner’s final moments, and it quickly fueled major protests and demands that the officers involved face criminal charges.

The city’s medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide because of the compression of his neck and chest. Two officers face an internal investigation in connection with Garner’s death. The one who applied the chokehold was put on modified duty, meaning he was stripped of his gun and badge.

Neither has been charged with a crime, and police say Garner’s poor health and his refusal to cooperate with officers contributed to his death. Police Commissioner William J. Bratton ordered a review of police training techniques in the wake of Garner’s death.

AFP Photo/Michael B. Thomas

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Ebola’s Reach Is Felt In New York’s Little Liberia Community

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — It used to be the civil war back home that worried Oretha Bestman-Yates, who came to the United States in 1987 from the West African nation of Liberia.

Now it is Ebola, a threat quieter than the automatic weapons that once rattled her homeland, but killing as steadily as an army on the march.

War you could flee. Not Ebola.

“Running away won’t solve the problem,” said Bestman-Yates, tight braids swinging back and forth as she shook her head. “If you have it, you’ll bring it with you. It’s not like the civil war.”

Bestman-Yates is a fixture in Little Liberia, a Staten Island neighborhood where thousands of Liberians fled to escape the conflicts that engulfed the country through the 1980s and ’90s. It is also home to large populations of immigrants from other West African nations, many of whom have been touched by the Ebola news unfolding thousands of miles away.

A family from Sierra Leone lost two nieces to the disease, Bestman-Yates said. Other people in Little Liberia are being pressured by relatives in West Africa to send more money so they can stockpile goods and avoid frequenting the region’s crowded markets. Rumors fly across the Atlantic, leading to panicked calls from home.

When Bobby Digi’s phone rang early this week, it was his mother in Nigeria.

“She said the person in the hospital in New York tested positive,” Digi said, referring to the unidentified man who was tested for Ebola at Mount Sinai Hospital but whose results were not yet back from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Digi doesn’t know where she got her information, which was wrong: Mount Sinai announced Wednesday that the man, who had traveled recently in West Africa, did not have Ebola.

As Digi spoke, the sounds and smells of Africa swirled around him as Little Liberia’s daily outdoor market came to life in a paved lot next to a brick apartment block. Women wearing elaborate head wraps and colorful dresses put out food to sell to neighbors yearning for the tastes of home.

Plastic jugs that once held American fruit juice were filled with thick, red palm oil. Fish dried and blackened, to be boiled for soups and stews, lay on tables. There were boxes of the starchy staple called fufu, bags of butter beans, cans of palm nut cream, and plastic tubs filled with greens and plantains.

This is a tight-knit community, where hugs are common, but Bestman-Yates sensed a shift when she returned late last month from a visit to the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

“I had people kind of pulling away,” said Bestman-Yates, who is president of the Staten Island Liberian Community Association. “My own Liberians! As if they were afraid.”

She was told to stay away from her job as a nursing assistant for 21 days, the length of the virus’ incubation period.

Bestman-Yates was not near any sick people. Instead, she was working with a Monrovian nonprofit, Liberia Crusaders for Peace, trying to convince Liberians to work with the outsiders who are coming into their communities to fight Ebola.

Bestman-Yates said when the illness first appeared in Guinea, some there thought it was a curse cast by a witch doctor.

Only after the witch doctor died did people begin to accept the virus was real, she said.

Then two American aid workers fell ill with Ebola, something Logan called a “blessing in disguise” because it focused attention on the outbreak. He said if were not for the Americans becoming infected, regional governments would have tried to keep the gravity of the situation quiet.

“That blew it wide open,” Logan said. Both aid workers were flown to the United States and are receiving treatment at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

Now, Bestman-Yates, Digi and the Rev. Philip S. Saywrayne, a Liberian clergyman on Staten Island, are organizing fundraising events to send money and equipment such as gloves and hand sanitizer to West Africa.

Bestman-Yates said the United States should do more in particular for Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves, whose first president was born in Virginia and whose flag is modeled after the U.S. stars and stripes.

Of the more than 920 people believed to have died in the Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organization says 282 have been in Liberia. Bestman-Yates says the real number is probably far higher, because many ill people probably did not go to hospitals and were buried in their villages.

Logan worries that if the disease keeps spreading, the West Africa community will be shunned. Already, he noted, Donald Trump opposed the idea of bringing the two ill Americans to Atlanta, even though they were transported in a specially equipped medical ambulance and are in isolation.

“You’re going to have more people jumping on that bandwagon,” he said.

Digi said he thought it would have made more sense to keep the Americans in Liberia, and to send a medical team to them. Then, he said, they could have shared the experimental serum given to the Americans.

“I think that would be fair, because people are dying by the day, by the hour, by the minute,” he said.

Digi dismissed Logan’s suggestion that it would be better to wait a few weeks to see whether the serum had any obvious effect on the Americans.

“People are dying in those weeks,” Digi said.

Bestman-Yates agreed.

“If we don’t do something about it now, between now and December,” she said. Then her voice trailed off and she simply shook her head.

AFP Photo/Inaki Gomez

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2nd American Ebola Patient Arrives In Georgia

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

A second American aid worker with the Ebola virus was back in the United States on Tuesday after a medical air ambulance flew her from the West African nation of Liberia to Georgia, where she will join a colleague receiving treatment for the often lethal illness.

The plane carrying Nancy Writebol landed at Dobbins Air Reserve Base outside Atlanta and was met by a specially equipped ambulance for the drive to Emory University Hospital. It was the same drill used to transport Dr. Kent Brantly, who arrived at Emory on Saturday morning.

Both of the aid workers fell ill in Liberia last week after working with others stricken in an Ebola outbreak that has claimed hundreds of lives in four African nations.

No Americans have been diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, but doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City were awaiting results of tests on a man who arrived there Monday showing symptoms common to the disease, including a high fever and gastrointestinal problems. He had arrived in the past month from West Africa, officials at Mount Sinai said.

As a precaution, the man is in isolation until the test results are known, officials said.

There is no known cure for Ebola, but Brantly and Writebol both have received an experimental serum.

AFP Photo/Jessica Mcgowan

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