Saturday, August 22, 2009

Armed and Dangerous Behind the Badge - When "Protect and Serve" turns deadly.

We live in a dangerous world - gangs, drug cartels, random gun toting lunatics roam the streets. We depend on law enforcement to protect us from harm.

But what do you do when the harm comes from the cops themselves? In cities all across America, police are killing civilians in the "line of duty". Sure, usually the victims are criminals, dead set on hurting citizens and cops. But too often, they are not. They are innocent passers by, or cases of unfortunate mistaken identity, or merely troubled young people who need therapy rather than hot lead. Even when cops follow all the proper (current) procedures, sometimes things go terribly wrong.

Take the case of Libertyville mother, Marilyn Foutes. Her son, 23, had recently come to live with her after having some trouble with local Arizona gangs. He was turning his life around, staying away from drugs, holding down a job and planning for college. But he also struggled with depression, and this past Saturday came home drunk and angry after receiving a DUI and being brought home by neighboring Vernon Hills police. He lost control, and punched the wall. His mother called Libertyville police, fearing that her son may be having a psychotic episode (his father also struggled with mental issues). Police arrived and entered the home, found Spencer Foutes lying on his bed holding a handgun. It is unclear what happened at that point, reports from the officers and the mother differ. But Spencer was shot and killed by police after police claim he pointed his gun at them. (link to full article below)

Now, I don't blame police for needing to protect themselves. Nor do I give a pass to cops who get trigger happy and kill without justification, and the newspaper archives are full of stories of cops shooting innocent people. And I question the wisdom of high speed car chases through city streets that too often take innocent lives. Police must protect themselves, but we must also ensure the safety of citizens (including suspects).

In cases like Spencer's, the shooting was legally justified (although why police took mother Marilyn to headquarters and held her there for several hours without informing her of her son's death is unknown. ) But was his shooting NECESSARY? Would officers have shot and killed this young man if they had a NON lethal option to subdue him?

In the last decade, non-lethal law enforcement technology has become a routine sight, but has yet to be fully embraced by police departments. Tazers are common place, used by patrol officers, and are often the weapon of choice in courtroom or crowded situations. However, rubber bullets, pepper spray bullets, even tranquilizer technologies are being developed, but have yet to be integrated into widespread police procedure. EMP (Electro Magnetic Pulse ) devices that can be deployed like spike strips and fry the electrical system of the fleeing vehicle, shutting down the engine, have yet to replace the considerably less effective traditional tire mangling spike strips that often leave a car still riding on it's rims.

Some of these methods have met resistance from citizens (and police). Stories about Tazer related deaths are often cited, and tranquilizer guns have been wholly shunned because of "the potential dangerous reaction to the drug" a few folks may experience. "What if the cops tranquilize someone who is allergic and they die?" is a common argument.

But these arguments seem weaker when we see the loss of a life like Spencer's. While some folks may react badly to Tazers or tranquilizers, EVERYBODY has a bad reaction to bullets. Had the police officers been armed with and deployed some of these methods, Marilyn's 23 year old only son might be sleeping off a hangover awaiting bail instead of taking his eternal rest and awaiting burial.

Understandably, police officers have resisted replacing their firearms with a "zapper". I think too often well meaning bleeding hearts have put non-lethal weapons as a "either/or" situation. I feel that police officers should keep their firearms, but should also be supplied with and trained to use non-lethal options as a matter of first protocol. In many departments across the country, these methods are starting to infiltrate police work, and where they are deployed, officers are glad to have this option. Cops don't like shooting people, contrary to the plot of The Shield. Reality video shows like Most Wanted show clips of suspects being disarmed safely. A man threatening to shoot himself brought down with Tazers and quick cop work, an angry drunk wielding a machete subdued with a Mace grenade, a distraught gang banger bent on "suicide by cop" instead lives to serve his time when his baiting police gets him a belly full of rubber. Situations that could have turned out deadly, but were instead resolved without injury because police effectively used non-lethal methods. We will never end police related deaths, or shootings, cops have to defend themselves against some well armed criminals. But how many more lives can be saved, how many innocent victims will be spared, how many criminals will live to serve their time if every police officer in the country has the non-lethal option?

Unfortunately, Marilyn Foutes and her son weren't so lucky. While Libertyville police may not have done anything wrong, in this case and in countless others across the country, non-lethal police weapons could have prevented a death and helped police to more effectively and safely "Protect and Serve."

Here's the link.,0,434852.story

And here's an image to remind us of the human cost. (This photo breaks my heart)


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Don't pull Grandma's plug (until you get a lawyer) - A case for tort reform

Last week a 92 year old man was awarded $1.9 million dollars from the Phillip Morris company for the death of his 73 year old wife. Shirley Barbanell died in 1996 of lung cancer after smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day since she was 16. Leon, her husband, was originally awarded $5.3 million, but the jury determined that the tobacco giant was only 35% responsible for Shirley's illness, with Shirley herself being 65% responsible (according to a practice in tort law called comparative negligence).

Now I'll give you some articles in a minute, and you can argue the facts amongst yourselves.

But I wanted to add a few facts to the mix.

Tort settlements account for nearly 2% of United States GDP, or approximately 285 billion dollars. However, liability insurance holdings, the insurance folks get to protect themselves from lawsuits may be consuming as much as 8-10% of the global GDP, with the US one of the biggest consumers. We can extrapolate that the US% is similar to global trends. That means as much as 12% GDP is used in preventing lawsuits. With healthcare consuming 16% of our GDP, and with malpractice insurance and lawsuits increasing the costs of healthcare (as the costs of those suits and insurance gets passed on to the consumer, us) we can't really know how much of our GDP is being spent suing people and preventing getting sued. 10% - 15% - more?

Lawyers take, on average of 50% of a tort settlement. If there were 285 billion dollars in settlements in 2008, that means being a tort lawyer is a 145 billion dollar industry. That's more than the majority of our industries make. That's big oil kinda money.

As for Shirley's case, it's worth noting the average American life span is 74 years old. Shirley Barbanell lived a reasonably long life. She chose to smoke and one might argue she got 50 years of product enjoyment from her Marlboros. And now, as sort of a parting gift, for being a loyal customer, her hubby gets $1.9 million (well, closer to $700,000, after the lawyers get their cut, and taxes, etc.)

Speaking of taxes, the states collected over 19 billion dollars in tobacco tax (with the feds taking another 6-8 billion, and more to come with a recent drastic hike), and many state economies depend on tobacco taxes to survive. If tobacco companies are going to sustain this kind of cash drain, somebody better keep smoking. Smoke em if you got em, please!

Enough facts, here's what it all comes down to...

1. Tort law is costing us trillions of dollars (and our souls). While some liability claims are legitimate, it is hard for me to see how Leon Barbarnell, 92 deserves to be a millionaire for his last few years because his wife enjoyed and CHOSE a life of smoking. Tort law teaches us to avoid responsibility. "I'm taking up a few more bad habits so my hubby has more chances to collect. Who needs life insurance, when I can SUE!" This rampant culture of lawsuits not only costs trillions of dollars, but it is turning us into a people who can't (won't) take responsibility for our own actions. We're a nation of greedy tattle tales, and nobody likes a tattler.

2. Tort law is mostly making lawyers rich. Tort lawsuits make lawyers millionaires in only one case, and many class action lawsuits net millions for attorneys while plaintiffs get only a few dollars compensation. Lawyers are looking for cash cows and big tobacco, medical malpractice and personal injury are always ready for milking, the consequences be damned.

3. The hidden cost of tort law is insurance. Everything must be insured to protect it from being sued. The sidewalks in front of your house need insurance. The porta potty you used at the fair. Even your kid's teacher may be required to carry insurance to protect from lawsuit. And especially your doctor, who could be paying up to half of his/her salary in malpractice insurance costs. Everything, everything, EVERYTHING costs MORE the more we sue, and as such, more places must then insure against lawsuits. The cycle of higher prices continues.

4. Tort reform will not be easy. People like Leon Barbarnell want to point the finger of blame and get rich. Lawyers want to help him do that. Lawyers give a lot of money to Washington. HECK, LAWYERS RUN Washington. They don't like giving up money or power in Washington, DC.

5. Tort reform is necessary. To reduce medical costs. To reduce government costs. To stop giving money to greedy folks that want a free lunch, and insure legitimate negligence cases are handled based on the case merits and not merely potential payouts. To save us all trillions of dollars. And maybe give us back our sense of personal responsibility.

I'm finishing off my smoke, now. But don't worry, folks, I'm not the suing type.

Here's the articles.


Friday, August 7, 2009

Nepotism 101 (Adv. Placement) to be offered to elite in Chicago High Schools.

College is a wonderful time in a person's life, a time when we learn more than Freudian Psychology or 17th Century English Lit. We learn valuable life lessons on how the world works, and on what it takes to succeed in today's "rat race".

University of Illinois students are getting an extra special lesson on how the world works...can you say "Nepotism", boys and girls?

Recent investigations into Univ of IL admissions found that school trustees and admission officials at the schools routinely maintained a list of "well-connected" applicants, and often admitted these "Clout List" students instead of more qualified applicants. Additionally, trustees often pressured other members to comply with their politically motivated admissions.
From the Huffington Post
"CHICAGO — A panel investigating the role that clout played in University of Illinois admissions recommended in its final report released on Thursday that all trustees voluntarily submit their resignations and let Gov. Pat Quinn decide which ones to accept.

In a scathing 45-page report, the Illinois Admissions Review Commission found unqualified students were admitted because of political connections, and recommended that any new trustees conduct a review of the university's president, the chancellor of the Champaign campus and other administrators."

That's right, the corruption went all the way to the top. University of Illinois has apparently been teaching students that 'it's not WHAT you know, it's WHO you know'.

But in an attempt to bring college level learning to advanced high school students, it appears that same lesson is being taught to Chicago high school students. A Federal grand jury investigation into a school district policy allowing principals to "hand-pick" up to 5% of their admitted students seeks to discover if political connections may be playing a role in the principals' selections.

From the Chicago Sun Times
"A federal grand jury is investigating whether any “public officials’’ lobbied to get kids into the city’s most elite public high schools through new powers that allow principals to handpick five percent of their freshmen seats, a subpoena released Thursday suggests. ...
Its release follows Chicago Sun-Times disclosures that Chicago School Board President Michael Scott also has been called before a federal grand jury.

Chicago Public school officials revealed last month that they asked the Schools Inspector General to investigate the student admissions process at the system’s elite selective enrollment high schools after determining that policies may have been violated. After that announcement, the existence of a federal probe emerged.
Principals of magnet schools that choose most kids using a race-based lottery have long been allowed to handpick five percent of their students — and critics have questioned whether clout or money have influenced such selections. But last school year, for the first time, those “principal pick’’ powers were extended to the principals of the city’s selective enrollment college prep high schools, which use mostly test scores and grades to admit students.",chicago-public-schools-investigation-080609.article

We will have to wait and see what the federal probe reveals, but it'll be no shocker if "Clout List" admissions were going on in Chicago high schools as well. The Chicago School Board President, Michael Scott is a well connected friend of Mayor Richard Daley and is no stranger to the ways of political nepotism.
A recent Chicago Tribune investigation revealed that Scott may be using his ties to Mayor Daley (and his former role on Mayor Daley's Olympics Commitee) to purchase taxpayer land located directly adjacent to the city's proposed Olympic venues and develop it into retail properties. Though the land is allotted for public or affordable housing and is sold at $1 per plot for builders of such projects, Michael Scott may be getting the sweet deal price despite his intention to use the land for retail development (including a Nike store). Additionally, as an early member of the Olympics committee, Scott may have influenced the placement of proposed Olympic venues to take advantage of political connections, convincing local aldermen to set aside lots for Scott to purchase and develop. Scott stands to profit significantly when the low value lots shoot up in value as the Olympics related development dramatically increases property values. A little news on Michael Scott...
From the Chicago Tribune
"He (Scott) was criticized in 1990 for his insider connections when he left his job as city government's chief cable administrator to go work for a cable company.

Earlier this year, Scott's roles as school board president and as a member of the city's Olympic committee stirred controversy.

In May, he asked all of the city's school principals to form plans to promote the Olympics. Teachers and union officials said Scott's tactics were heavy-handed and they feared retaliation if they did not support Daley's quest for the Games.",0,4603832.story

Michael Scott claims no wrong doing, although one wonders how many federal investigations into allegations of political favoritism one can be involved in and still viably claim the appearance of innocence. He is clearly a well oiled cog in the infamous Chicago Machine.

And a fine example to the students of Illinois.

So here's your vocab lesson for the day, kids.

Nepotism - (noun) - the showing of favoritism for relatives or friends based upon that relationship, rather than on an objective evaluation of ability or suitability, for instance by offering employment to a relative, despite the fact that there are others who are better qualified and willing and able to perform the job. syn. cronyism

Or as I call it, Chicago style politics.


Monday, August 3, 2009

No Child Left Unarmed - Education Secretary gives himself an "F" on ending school violence.

It's not every day, folks, where a politician speaks the truth. And when it happens, I like to give credit where credit is due. Especially when the truth is a painful one.

From the Chicago Sun Times
"US. Education Secretary Arne Duncan got a painful reminder last week that not enough has been done to save schoolchildren from violence.

On July 25, Christina Waters, 18, was shot in the head in the 8700 block of South Wood after leaving a picnic.

Waters' best friend, Kris Owens, was wounded in the attack. Waters remains in a coma, fighting for her life.

Duncan was in Florida, heading for Chicago, when people started calling and e-mailing him about the tragedy. Waters had attended Ariel Community Academy, a small school founded by John W. Rogers Jr., head of Ariel Investments. The school is part of the Ariel Education Initiative, which Duncan led before becoming the Chicago Public Schools CEO.

Best friends since childhood, Duncan and Rogers went to see Waters together.

Duncan was in town to discuss the U.S. Department of Education's "Race to the Top" fund. The will award states an unprecedented amount of money to dramatically overhaul schools.
Because the president and so many of his close advisers come from Chicago, there is the expectation that more federal resources will go to target the violence.

After all, the weekend before Duncan came to town, 15 people were shot and wounded overnight. Seven people were shot in one incident on the West Side alone.

Although none of the shootings occurred in schools, dozens of Chicago Public School students have been victims.

Duncan admitted that he has worried "tremendously" about the violence.

"It was one area [where] we didn't do enough and failed our children," he said. "I give myself an 'F' on that one. As a city, as a state, as a country, we need to protect our children and have them be safe."",CST-NWS-mitch02.article


Well, Arne, we agree. You deserve that "F". Chicago has one of the worst rates of violence against students, perhaps because little was done during your tenure as Chicago School Board CEO to change that. Metal detectors installed to prevent weapons from entering the schools sit unmanned or unplugged because the security checks kept students late for class or the school can't afford staff to man them. School security guard numbers have been reduced, and current IL budget proposals plan to gut those jobs even more. School Board Policies hamstring overworked and underpaid teachers while office buildings full of "administrators" surf the web at the expense of the children's education funds. Troubled or poor performing students are encouraged to attend local charter schools, making state test scores for the public school system show improvement based not on teaching, but what some call "student dumping". Chicago Public School System is hardly a model for our national education system.

Which is why I had grave reservations when President Obama chose his Chicago home boy Arne Duncan as Education Secretary. He hasn't had a great measure of success, and I was hoping to avoid a "Duncan, you're doin' a helluva job." moment.

But maybe Arne has seen the light. At least he is able to admit one of his failures, and being able to admit when you're wrong is about as rare in politics as a porkless bill. It takes balls to admit you suck, and we all know that Washington has a shortage of those (I think Nancy Pelosi is hoarding them). Arne Duncan has earned himself the benefit of the doubt with this bit of self reflection, and I hold out hope that he can make a real difference.

But if he comes out with the "No Child Left Unarmed" Program (or No CLU, as I call it), I'm revoking my hope.


Friday, July 24, 2009

One Toke Over the 'Unincorporated County' Line - A Decriminalization Story

The Cook County Board shocked the press, Chicago's Mayor, and even their own Board President, Todd Stroger earlier this week by passing a marijuana decriminalization ordinance seemingly under the radar of a celebrated tax cut.

The measure gives sheriff's and deputies in unincorporated Cook County (not any of the city, or other townships who have their own law enforcement) the OPTION of issuing a $200 ticket for less than 10 grams of pot, with NO criminal record. Championed by Commissioner Earlean Collins (whose grandson was arrested on a first offense marijuana charge), she created the bill to help give 'young people who make mistakes a second chance' and to reduce overcrowded jails with non violent offenders (not to mention making a little coin for the county with those fines and reduced prosecution costs).

Board President Todd Stroger came out originally skeptical, threatening to veto the measure, but had a thorough change of heart by Thursday. "“I’m fine with it. It’s just another tool a law enforcement office can use,” Stroger said.
(from Chicago Sun Times),stroger-pot-possession-legislation-072309.article

Chicago Mayor Daley only 5 years ago supported a similar measure in the city, but seems to have had a change of heart. While a supporter of decriminalization, Daley argued that pot was "already decriminalized" in Illinois, because "99% of the cases were thrown out".
Thursday, he blasted the Board's decision as a step on a slippery slope of drug acceptance, a move that seemed a tad hypocritical. And pointless, since the law does not affect the city.,mayor-daley-chicago-pot-marijuana-072209.article

HOWEVER, I have yet to light one up in celebration. While the new law does give offenders a second chance, it also gives officers a HUGE amount of leeway that can (and most likely will) be prejudiced. Numerous studies in IL and across the nation reveal that Black people are prosecuted 2-3 times more than whites for marijuana crimes. In rural IL, it isn't hard to figure out who's gonna get tickets and who's gonna get arrested , at the cops "discretion". This law is rife with potential for abuse, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth, kinda like smokin' a seed.

I have always supported decriminalization, and this misdemeanor fine policy can indeed generate revenue while saving millions in incarceration costs of non violent pot "offenders". But I am very wary of any system that leaves the option of prosecution to the 'judgment call' of the police. Not that I question their judgment, it's their PRE judgment I worry about.


Friday, July 10, 2009

How low can greed take you? At least 6 feet under...

After a week where the world watched the biggest funeral this millennium, and buried an African American legend, it is natural to think about the past. Not always were blacks given such a send off to the hereafter. In earlier times, even cemeteries were segregated, as is the case of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, IL. Burr Oak was one of the few cemeteries in the region that would accept black "guests" and as such has several prominent black Americans buried there, most notably civil rights icon Emmit Till, whose 1955 racially motivated murder was a pivotal moment in the American civil rights movement.

After a week like this one, it is even more disturbing to read something like this...

" Every family's nightmare: Burr Oak Cemetery graves allegedly stripped for profit
R.I.P SHATTERED | Manager, three gravediggers charged in scheme"

Yep, you read it right. Recent investigations launched into the operation of the renown Burr Oak Cemetery have discovered that as least 100 bodies were removed from their graves and their plots resold. Bodies were discovered dismembered, piled in a field on cemetery property, sometimes casket and all. Other allegations include stuffing two bodies into one gravesite, essentially burying the more recently deceased over old graves. Here's some of the article.

(from the Chicago Sun Times) "The manager of Burr Oak Cemetery and three gravediggers were charged this morning, accused of scheming to dig up gravesites and resell them.

The four were expected to be in court this morning. The sheriff's office says caskets and remains were removed more than 100 graves and piled up in an unused area of the graveyard over several years.

The cemetery is the final resting place of civil rights icon, Emmit Till.
Other well-known people buried in Burr Oak include jazz legend Dinah Washington; bluesmen Willie Dixon and Otis Spann; Harlem Globetrotter Inman Jackson; and several Negro League baseball players.

Officers raided the cemetery, at 4400 W. 127th St, in Alsip, Wednesday morning. Five people were taken into custody.

Dart’s office was notified by the cemetery’s owners of “impropriety” about three weeks ago.

Dart believes the scheme has been going on for about four years.
“It was well thought out,” Dart said.

The employees apparently freelanced selling grave plots and dealt with cash.

“One person had an inordinate control of records, and a lot of those records have since been destroyed.

“We don’t know the full extent of this yet,” he said.,burr-oaks-cemetary-mitchell-070909.article

Another link to the story (more details and pics of the perps)

And they may never know. Records were destroyed, bodies and bones were piled in mass piles. The collection of DNA evidence may take months. All the while each of these families are forced to relive their loved ones passing as they try to find out what happened to their family members. Some families with up to 12 family members buried there were only able to locate a few of their gravesites.

It just never ceases to amaze me, 2 things about people. 1. What lows they will stoop for money, and small amounts of it too. I don't know about you, but if I'm digging up the dead and chopping remains, there better be at LEAST 2 commas in my pay check. And 2. how little people think of the consequences. I mean, you are only gonna be able to pile bodies and caskets in an empty field for so long before somebody notices. You can only TRY to focus on reselling graves that seem unvisited, at some point someone is gonna say, "Hey, I coulda sworn we buried Mom right by this tree." This plan was bound to fail, and though these guys had a good 4 year run at it, where is all your illegally gained money now and how will you spend it in prison? And even more tragic is that this outrage against these mostly African American graves was purported by African Americans. Seems black on black violence doesn't end at the funeral.

One of the most touching stories of distraught family members was a young woman whose brother recently came home from a box. Killed in the line of service to our country, buried at Burr Oak, his grave is now not able to be found. If we are going to ship our poor young men overseas to die, at least we hope they would rest in peace.

Luckily, reports suggest Emmit Till's grave to be undisturbed. But we won't know for months what damage has been done, and then begins the long slow process of reburying the dead.

I hope they bury Michael at Neverland, it may be the only safe place left.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

A perfect case for better health care, reproductive education and not naming your daughter 'Candy'.

Recent stories on CNN news and the Huffington Post are talking about Candy Vigneri, the Maryland woman who was arrested Wednesday on child abuse and endangerment charges after giving birth in a Washington, DC PortaPotty.

Here's the messy details.
From CNN
"A 44-year-old Maryland woman faces charges of child abuse after police say she gave birth in a portable toilet and dropped the newborn into the waste tank.
After exiting the portable toilet in Long Wharf Park in Cambridge, Candy Vigneri got a cigarette from a construction worker and sat at a picnic table, police Lt. Wayne Bromwell said.
As she sat, a male passer-by approached the toilet but Vigneri warned him, "Don't go in there, I just had a baby there," police said.
The man immediately called 911. Vigneri returned to the toilet and retrieved the newborn from the foul liquid at the base of the tank.
The baby was unresponsive and covered with a blue antibacterial chemical agent when emergency responders reached the scene, police said.
Vigneri told officers that she didn't know she was pregnant.
She was arrested Wednesday on charges of child abuse and reckless endangerment and is being held on a $50,000 bond.
The baby is in stable condition at Easton Memorial Hospital. Dorchester County social services will take control of the newborn after she is released from the hospital."

(A few other reported details, Vigneri lives in Maryland with her other children. Not really someone who wouldn't know she was preggers.) Here's a great article on it, with some thoughtful insights.

Yep, that's America. We're fucking nuts, here. And pathetic. Sure, Candy Vigneri is pathetic, that goes without saying. What do you expect when you name your daughter Candy? (Anybody ever heard of Senator or General or CEO Candy? No.)

But even more pathetic is the culture that leads to this kind of life choice.

Expensive, unavailable health care often leads women to not seek prenatal care. The high costs of living impact families that cannot afford the birth control, doctors visits, or even food for the kids they have. The obvious lack of mental health care facilities and services leaves folks to be crazy (like Candy clearly is) and wander the streets having babies in toilets. Poor education, including inadequate reproductive and child development education leaves people to "figure shit out for themselves" and people are clearly stupid. Shame and politics affect women's access to all reproductive options. A culture that is 'gaga' over babies rewards pregnancy with social status and promotes idealized versions of motherhood, but leaves women out in the cold when it comes to health care or child services or family rearing support. And now this child is here in the world and is "enjoying" the care of the local Dept of Family Services, another wonderful element of modern American life (sarcasm included).

We have spent a lot of time arguing between the left and right on the health care plan, on abortion rights and the value of Human Life, on what this administration or the last administration did or did not do. When it comes down to it, what we need more than debates and mud slinging and blame is real solutions that affect real people. You know, people like Baby Vigneri, who are going to inherit what ever mess we create or clean up.

So next time you feel compelled to blame the Right for all the worlds ills, or blame the Left for everything gone wrong, remember this new little baby. Remember that what this baby, and in fact all of us need is actual solutions, and real solutions require compromise and respect. They require us to put our petty attitudes and prejudices aside and do what is necessary to make REAL CHANGE, not merely affective campaign slogans.

For all of us in America, it is time to give birth.

Or get off the pot.


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