North America & Oceania

Disability has been Added on Twitter’s User Reporting Form

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

North Carolina, USA – Twitter has added a new word for when people want to submit a report about inappropriate behavior on their platform. The word disabled as been added to the list of reasons for reporting someone. This change has been a long time coming according to some. In early April, Twitter revised its’ reporting form so that those who were being targeted for their disability could more accurately report it.

“It’s against our rules to directly attack or threaten someone based on their protected category, including disability,” Twitter stated in a tweet that was posted April 2. “You asked us to clarify this in our reporting flow, and we’ve updated it to be more specific.”

Natalie Weaver, her husband Mark and their children Sophia, Lyla and Alex. Photo Courtesy of the Weaver family.

Twitter brought about the change after Natalie Weaver suggested they revise their reporting form. Natalie Weaver called on Twitter after her daughter’s photo was used in an offensive tweet that promoted eugenics. Weaver’s daughter, Sophia, has Rett Syndrome. Sophia is only nine years old. Rett Syndrome is a genetic brain disorder that effects a person’s language, walking and coordination. Weaver said she faced some opposition from Twitter by them refusing to take down the offensive tweet, but then they removed the account completely.

“People with disability experience hate and discrimination every single day just because they are disabled,” Weaver said to Today. “It is very important to have that distinction.”

Weaver said to The Mighty, “Many people with medical conditions and/or disabilities receive hate and harassment every day on Twitter and no violations are found. I am hopeful that this change will create a safer environment for people with medical conditions and disabilities. I hope that Twitter support will be more consistent now in finding violations. I will continue my work to ensure that Twitter support follows through on this”

Melissa Blake, a freelance writer says the change has been a long time coming. “Disabilities may make people uncomfortable. I’m sure my disability and my wheelchair has made people uncomfortable in the past. But that doesn’t give people the right to use it against me and vilify me for it. Twitter’s change in policy gives me hope. Hope that perhaps, finally, we’ve moved the needle of dismantling centuries of negative misconceptions surrounding people with disabilities,” Blake wrote in an article for CNN.

Weaver took on a social media platform and called them out for not protecting disabled individuals. By getting Twitter to respond by changing their reporting form, she won.

For more information, please see:

CNN – On Disability, Twitter is Better Late Than Never – 13 April 2018

Today – Mom Fights Twitter After Cruel Troll Mocked Child’s Appearance – 5 April 2018

Mighty – Twitter Changes Reporting Form to Include Hate Against People with Disabilities – 3 April 2018

Complaint Expected Regarding YouTube Collecting Data From Children

By: Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

SAN BRUNO, California – A complaint is expected in federal court on Monday, April 9th, claiming YouTube has been violating a children’s privacy law. More than 20 consumer advocacy groups are expected to come together and file the complaint. The advocacy groups claim that YouTube has been both collecting and profiting from collecting the personal information of children on its main site. YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, says their platform is only meant for those 13 years of age and older.

The advocacy groups contend that YouTube has been violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The federal law states that companies are supposed to obtain consent from the parents of children younger than 13 before they collect their data. The law is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and the advocacy groups are asking that the FTC starts enforcing the law on YouTube.

Over 20 advocacy groups are expected to bring a complaint against YouTube for allegedly violating the Children’s Privacy Protection Act. Photo courtesy of Artur Debat/Getty Images.

“Google has been continually growing its child-directed service in the United States and all over the world without any kind of acknowledgment of this law and its responsibilities. It’s living in a world of online fiction and denied that it’s serving children,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

YouTube defines itself as for viewers of 13 years of age or older and directs those younger than that to YouTube Kids. YouTube Kids has filtered versions of the videos and content that can be found on YouTube. The distinction YouTube gives between its’ main site and YouTube Kids is important in terms of the law. The reason for this is the rules on disclosure and parental consent that kick in for sites with supposed “actual knowledge” that they are dealing in the personal information of children under the age of 13.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act was passed in 1998 and updated in 2012.  It was updated to accommodate for the development of mobile devices. The update made it clear that companies were still to obtain parental permission before collecting the personal information of children. Some of this information includes identity, contact and location.

But YouTube’s terms of service state that if you are visiting the site, you are affirming that you are at least 13 years of age. By watching a video on YouTube, the policy says, viewers give parent company, Google, permission to collect the data tied to the user’s device, location, browsing habits, phone number and more. The advocacy groups say that this is the kind of information the Act requires parental consent for.

YouTube provided a statement that said they had not yet received the complaint but protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us.”

For more information, please see:

CBS – YouTube Violates Children’s Privacy, Consumer Groups Claim – 9 April 2018

New York Times – YouTube is Improperly Collecting Children’s Data, Consumer Group Says – 9 April 2018

Verge – Consumer Advocacy Groups Complain That YouTube is Collecting Information From Children – 9 April 2018

US Supreme Court Again Decides in Favor of Qualified Immunity for Law Enforcement in Shootings

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON D.C.  — On Monday, April 2, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a 7-2 decision to grant qualified immunity from prosecution to a police officer, Andrew Kisela, who shot a woman, Amy Hughes, for holding a kitchen knife outside her home.

Officers are entitled to qualified immunity as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Photo Courtesy of J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press.

In May 2010, Kisela and his partner responded to a 911 call reporting a woman acting erratically and hacking a tree with a kitchen knife.  They were joined by another police officer and saw Hughes—carrying a large kitchen knife—and her roommate, Sharon Chadwick, exiting their house.  The three officers drew their weapons and ordered Hughes to drop the knife.  When Hughes did not acknowledge the officers’ presence, Kisela shot Hughes four times.  The entire encounter occurred in less than a minute.

While the three officers later testified that they believed Hughes to be a threat to her roommate, Chadwick said that Hughes was speaking to her calmly from six feet away and that Chadwick at no time felt threatened by Hughes.  Kisela was the only officer to shoot at Hughes, and he did so without warning.

Hughes sued Kisela in a §1983 claim for $150,000 in damages, alleging that his use of deadly force was a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights.  Initially, a federal judge had granted summary judgment in favor of Kisela, but that ruling was reversed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court’s per curiam decision overturned the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in favor of Hughes without full briefings or oral arguments.  Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Ginsberg.

Qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’ To challenge qualified immunity, courts must determine through precedent (1) if the official’s conduct counts as a violation of the plaintiff’s rights; and (2) if the plaintiff’s rights were clearly established.  The Supreme Court determined that Kisela’s conduct, by shooting Hughes four times as she stood still in front of her house, did not violate any of Hughes’ established rights.

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the Supreme Court’s “one-sided approach to qualified immunity transforms the doctrine into an absolute shield for law enforcement officers, gutting the deterrent effect of the Fourth Amendment,” and that “it tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”

The Washington Post noted that the Supreme Court has developed a trend of siding in favor of law enforcement officers by reversing lower courts that deny qualified immunity to police.  Police officials applaud the Supreme Court’s broad approach, which they say give officers the benefit of the doubt and protect them from “frivolous lawsuits.”  Critics such as the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute believe this approach virtually absolves law enforcement from accountability for their misconduct.

The majority’s decision comes 15 days after police officers killed Stephon Clark while he was standing in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California.  It comes 3 days after the Louisiana Attorney General declined to file charges against the two Baton Rouge police officers that shot Alton Sterling at point-blank range outside of a convenience store while they had him pinned to the ground.  As of April 1, there have been 325 reports of people killed by police in the United States since January 1, 2018.

For more information, please see:

NPR – Police Shootings Stir Outrage Among Some, But Not The Supreme Court – 3 April 2018

The Washington Post – Ariz. woman survives police shooting, but Supreme Court says the officer is immune from her lawsuit – 3 April 2018

The Hill – Supreme Court rules police officer cannot be sued for shooting Arizona woman in her front yard – 2 April 2018

The New York Times – Supreme Court Rules for Police Officer in Excessive Force Case – 2 April 2018

SCOTUS Blog – Kisela v. Hughes – 2 April 2018

Slate – The Conservatives vs. Sonia Sotomayor – 2 April 2018

The Washington Post – What is “qualified immunity,” and how does it work? – 14 July 2015

Woman’s Rape Kit Has Finally Been Tested – 10 Years Later

By: Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

NEW YORK, USA – Natasha Alexenko was 20 years old on August 6, 1993 when a man held a gun to her back. She had been trying to get her keys out when she felt the gun against her back. She heard that man say “If you don’t do everything I say I’ll blow your brains out.” The man brought Alexenko into the stairwell of her building where he sexually assaulted her at gun point. Alexenko went to the hospital that night for a rape kit. But it was not until 10 years later that she finally got the call from the New York County’s District Attorney’s office informing her that the rap kit had finally been tested.

“I was like, ‘This is great, it’s moving forward — I can’t believe it after all these years,’” says Alexenko. “It wasn’t until later that I thought, ‘Holy mackerel! Why on Earth did this take so long?’” Alexenko was unsure why it took so long to be tested. “It just doesn’t make sense,” Alexenko said.  “Why would you put someone through this very invasive, whole-body exam, which is traumatizing in itself, take their rape kit and just let it sit there?”

Natasha Alexenko founded Natasha’s Justice Program to help fight againSt the backlog of rape kits across the United States. Photo Courtesy of Len Marks.

After her rape, Alexenko moved back home to Ontario. In Canada she had the support of her mother and close friends. But she ended up drinking heavily to try to get through the pain. “I just felt so much grief,” says Alexenko. She felt this way because she was not able to explain her assailants face to the police. “I blamed myself for not being able to help catch this man who was still out there, probably hurting other people.”

Four years after she received the call from the DA’s office, Alexenko’s assailant was caught. Victor Rondon was arrested in Las Vegas for jaywalking and then extradited to New York after he was finger printed by police. A year later, he was found guilty of eight counts of violent assault. He was also found guilty of burglary, robbery, two counts of rape, sodomy and sexual abuse. He was sentenced to 44 to 107 years in prison.

“I was just grateful that he was put behind bars,” said Alexenko, who fainted when she saw him at his trial. “My body just shut down. It wasn’t just that I was remembering stuff; it was like I was there.” In 2011, Alexenko founded Natasha’s Justice Program. The goal of the nonprofit is to get rid of the backlog of rape kits in the United States.

Alexenko’s story is not unique. In fact, her rape kit had been one of 17,000 unprocessed rape kits held in a storage facility in New York. Fortunately, New York City has since eliminated that backlog. Around the United States, there were 70,000 unprocessed rape kits in 2015. There are estimates that put that number in the hundreds of thousands.

According to Alexenko, people have started taking sexual assault and the backlog of rape kits much more seriously. The US Department of Justice announced it would be dedicating $41 million in federal grant money to test the 70,000 known unprocessed rape kits nationwide in 2015. So far, many communities have taken advantage of it.

“There’s been such a shift — and I think it’s because there have been so many survivors who have come forward,” says Alexenko. “There are so many amazing people who are fighting so hard.”

For more information, please see:

New York Post – I was Raped in 1993 – And No One Tested My Rape Kit for 10 Years – 4 April 2018

USA Today – Tens of Thousands of Rape Kits Go Untested Across USA – 16 July 2015

New York Post – DA Hailed After Pledging $35M to Eliminate Rape Kit Backlogs – 12 November 2014

L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy Charged with Sexually Assaulting Six Inmates

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

LOS ANGELES, California — On Wednesday, September 13, 2017, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy was initially arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting two inmates at the Century Regional Detention Facility.  As of February 21, 2018, Giancarlo Scotti has been charged with sexually assaulting a total of six inmates and faces six felony counts and two misdemeanor counts of sexual activity with a detainee in a detention facility.

The Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, California is part of the United States’ largest jail system and has an average population of 2,500 inmates. Photo Courtesy Gabriel Bouys, Getty Images.

As a matter of state and federal law, inmates cannot legally consent to sexual intercourse with jail staff while detained.

Two of the former inmates—who have since been released from jail—have also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the LA County Sheriff’s Department.  Their attorney, Justin Sterling, issued a statement to ABC 7 News about the charges against Scotti: “This tragedy is about more than one rogue cop. [. . .] As just one example of systematic failure, a federal law designed to prevent the sexual abuse of inmates requires local jails to undergo an audit. The LA County Sheriff’s Department has admitted that none of the jails it operates have undergone this federally mandated audit.”  A month after Scotti’s arrest, he was accused of assaulting a third inmate.

When the initial charges were filed in September 2017, no LA County jail had been audited under the 2003 Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).  In October, an independent review was conducted at the request of the LA County Sheriff’s Department and found that the Century Regional Detention Facility, as well as six other detention centers, failed to meet any of the federal standards under PREA.  An interim report released to the Los Angeles Times showed that jail staff is untrained in how to respond to victims of sexual assault or preserve evidence in instances of sexual assault. According to the report, “At least two Century Regional Detention Facility inmates revealed that allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment had been made to staff and summarily ignored.”  Jail officials also failed to provide documentation to auditors supporting their claim to not hire anyone with a history of prior sexual misconduct.

The Sheriff’s Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau launched an investigation into Scotti in November 2017 and identified three additional inmates assaulted by Scotti. Detectives for the investigation interviewed 150 witnesses and submitted the case to the district attorney’s office in December.

Giancarlo Scotti has worked in his department for over ten years.  He remains on paid administrative leave pending an October 2018 court appearance, and if convicted of all charges, may be sentenced up to seven years and four months in a state prison.

Similarly, in New York, lawmakers have proposed State Bill S7708 which explicitly states that anyone under arrest or otherwise detained by law enforcement is incapable of giving consent.  This bill follows the September 28, 2017 incident where two plainclothes NYPD officers claimed that they had consensual sex with an 18-year old they had arrested.

For more information, please see:

Los Angeles Times – L.A. County women’s jail lags behind national standards on preventing sexual abuse, report finds – 1 April 2018

New York Daily News – State lawmakers pass bill barring cops from having sex with detainees – 31 March 2018

Los Angeles Times – Read the preliminary report about Century Regional Detention Facility and prison rape – 29 March 2018

Newsweek – Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy Charged With Sexually Assaulting 6 Inmates At Women’s Facility – 22 February 2018

ABC 7 News – LA County sheriff’s deputy charged w/ sexually assaulting 6 female inmates at Lynwood facility – 21 February 2018

Los Angeles Times – L.A. County sheriff’s deputy charged with sexually assaulting 6 female inmates – 21 February 2018

Los Angeles Times – Deputy accused of sexually assaulting a third inmate inside Lynwood jail – 1 November 2017

Los Angeles Times – Sheriff’s deputy arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting 2 inmates – 14 September 2017