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

Adult Children Question Elderly Father’s Marriage to Care Giver

By: Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

CALIFORNIA, USA – A local news station was contacted by the Hess family over their concern for their father’s recent marriage. James Donald Hess, Don lost his second wife in February of 2016. The family says Don became depressed and lonely. At that time, his health was also steadily declining.  The family filed  petition in probate court alleging Don’s new wife was  “physically and verbally abusing him, and asserting undue influence over him.”

Nicky Shepard, now Hess, had been married five times before she married Don. According to Don’s Daughter-in-law Dede, Nicky had been recently married when she met and began caring for Don. The family’s petition in probate court stated that Nicky had convinced Don to marry her after just a few months. Nicky and Don were married October 14, 2017, two weeks after Nicky’s previous divorce had been finalized.

“I think of her as a shark that smelled the blood in the water,” Dede Hess said. The family alleges in the petition that after the marriage, Nicky had convinced Don to “withdraw large sums of money from his investment accounts” and that she “forged [ his] name on documents.” The family also believes that Nicky put Don in “extreme” danger by withholding medication from him or giving him too much medication.

The news station the family brought their concerns to learned that Don is now in the hospital. The family informed them that Don’s heart had stopped for several minutes, he had renal failure and he had pneumonia. “I would love to see some justice on behalf of my father-in-law, especially if he’s ill,” Dede Hess said.

The family went to court in mid-March where the judge recognized that both sides had a difference in opinion when it came to this case.  Judge Julia Kelety said “I know that you have very different views about whether this is on one hand, a recent marriage of an elderly person to his caregiver and the vulnerability that that can present and the possibility of financial abuse versus, on the other hand, a person who is engaging in his right in his older years to find love and get married.”

The family seeks to have Don removed from a trust that was created last year. Don’s children do not believe he was competent at that time. Nicky told the news station, “All I need is love. I don’t even think about his money. His kids did not approve our marriage.”

Don’s lawyer denied the abuse and instead said, the “children were more concerned about their inheritance than his happiness.” Don is 86 and Nicky is 64.

The Judge decided to suspend Nicky as successor trustee until another court appearance scheduled for April 5th. “I don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” Dede Hess said.

This is not an isolated case. Elder abuse is often unreported according to the National Council on Aging. According to a 2015 study, this kind of fraud and abuse can collectively cost America’s elderly $36.5 billion a year.

For more information, please see:

ABC 10 News – Family Questions Elderly Father’s Marriage to Caregiver – 30 March 2018

Forbes – 5 Ways to Spot and Stop Elder Financial Abuse – 30 March 2018

WTVA – Family Questions Elderly Father’s Marriage to Caregiver – 30 March 2018

Oakland Mayor Warned Bay Area Residents of Impending ICE Raid

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

OAKLAND, California — On Saturday, February 24, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf issued a news release warning local residents that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be conducting operations in the Bay Area during the next 24 hours.  This warning was posted on Facebook and shared on Twitter.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested over 150 suspected undocumented immigrants in Northern California in late February. (Photo Courtesy of ICE.gov)

Mayor Schaaf’s February 24 news release detailed her rationale for disclosing her knowledge of the pending raids: “As Mayor of Oakland, I am sharing this information publicly not to panic our residents but to protect them.  My priority is for the well-being and safety of all residents — particularly our most vulnerable — and I know that Oakland is safer when we share information, encourage community awareness, and care for our neighbors.”

In a statement made on February 27, ICE Deputy Director Thomas D. Homan said, “The Oakland mayor’s decision to publicize her suspicions about ICE operations further increased that risk for my officers and alerted criminal aliens – making clear that this reckless decision was based on her political agenda with the very federal laws that ICE is sworn to uphold.”  The statement further asserted that “ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately, and the agency prioritizes public and national security threats, immigration fugitives and illegal reentrants.”  ICE arrested over 150 suspected undocumented immigrants, half of which do not have criminal records.

Mayor Schaaf defended her decision two days later on Twitter: “I do not regret sharing this information. It is Oakland’s legal right to be a sanctuary city and we have not broken any laws. We believe our community is safer when families stay together.”

During the weeks following the operation, ICE’s San Francisco spokesman James Schwab resigned, frustrated by repeated misleading statements made by officials, including Attorney General Sessions, alleging that roughly 800 undocumented immigrants escaped arrest due to Mayor Schaaf’s public warning.  In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he condemned the misleading statements: “To say that 100 percent are dangerous criminals on the street, or that those people weren’t picked up because of the misguided actions of the mayor, is just wrong.”

Across the United States, places like San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, New York, and Philadelphia have challenged the constitutionality of President Trump’s January 2017 Executive Order 13768 that says cities and counties would lose federal funding if local law enforcement did not cooperate with immigration agents.  All courts (except for Seattle, which is still pending) have granted preliminary injunctions halting the enforcement of the order. On March 6, the Department of Justice filed suit against the state of California.  The complaint alleges that three recently enacted “state sanctuary laws” are unconstitutional as they are preempted by federal law and seeks to block their enforcement.

Liam Brennan, a former federal prosecutor and head of Connecticut’s Public Corruption Task Force, described his own experiences as a federal prosecutor, sanctuary cities such as Los Angeles and New York City prioritized fighting crime instead of enforcing civil immigration violations, because “Solving a crime was clearly more important than deporting immigrants who came here looking for economic opportunity.”  The federal government (through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) may offer U-visas and T-visas to individuals who have been victims of a crime in the US and who choose to cooperate with law enforcement in certain criminal prosecutions.

For more information, please see:

Just Security – Reclaiming the Public Safety Mantle for Sanctuary Cities – 27 March 2018

Just Security – Does the Oakland Mayor Face Legal Liability for Warning About ICE Raids? – 15 March 2018

San Francisco Chronicle – San Francisco’s ICE spokesman quits, disputes agency’s claim that 800 eluded arrest – 12 March 2018

The Washington Post – Justice Dept. sues California over ‘sanctuary’ laws that aid those in U.S. illegally – 6 March 2018

The Washington Post – Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf tipped off immigrants about ICE raid and she isn’t sorry she did – 28 February 2018

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – ICE statement on immigration enforcement activities in northern California – 27 February 2018

SF Gate – Oakland mayor’s warning puts immigrants, advocates on high alert – 25 February 2018

The Los Angeles Times – California becomes ‘sanctuary state’ in rebuke of Trump immigration policy – 5 October 2017

Maryland School Shooting Victim Dies in Hospital

By: Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

MARYLAND, U.S. – On Wednesday, March 21, a 17 year old male student opened fire in a Maryland high school. At 7:55AM, Austin Wyatt Rollins used a handgun to shoot two classmates, a male and a female. Less than a minute later, school resource officer Blaine Gaskill responded and fired a shot at Rollins, who fired a round of his own. Gaskill was unharmed and Rollins was later pronounced dead. The female victim, a 16 year old, is in critical condition fighting life threatening injuries atUniversity of Maryland Prince George’s Hospital Center. The 14 year old male student who was shot is in stable condition.

The female victim has been identified by family as Jaelynn Willey. According to the St. Mary County Sheriff’s office, it is believed Rollins had a prior relationship with the female student. Her family wrote a statement that was distributed on Facebook by family friend, Lucinda Avis. According to the statement, they were “devastated to learn that our beautiful Jaelynn was one of the victims in a school shooting.” They further said, “It is hard for us not to see her shining, smiling face right now, and to see her light up the room with her presence. We know that many of you are anxious to hear about her condition, and we will update you when we can.”

Classmate Isiah Tichenor, 18, was in the hallway when the shooting happened. He stepped out into the hallway and saw Rollins with a gun to his head when Gaskill rounded the corner. Gaskill and Rollins both fired shots. It is unclear at this time if Gaskill’s shot hit Rollins or if Rollins shot himself. Tichenor then ran away from the closed classroom door to a backroom area. There, he and about 20 other students waited for around 10 minutes until an officer knocked on the door and told them they could come out.

Great Mills High students leave Leonardtown High School after being picked up by their parents. Photo Courtesy of Michael Robinson Chavez.

The shooting was notable because it followed a national debate over arming teachers and putting more officers in schools.  Authorities credit Gaskill with possibly saving lives because of his quick response. While authorities are reviewing the tapes from the school to understand how the incident unfolded, St. Mary’s County Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron said there was “no question” that the situation would have been worse if Gaskill had not confronted the shooter as quickly as he did.

The shooting happened just days before a national protest scheduled for Saturday March 24 in Washington D.C. called the March for Our Lives. The march is a stand against gun violence and school shootings. This is the 17th school shooting in the United States in 2018.

On March 23, the family of Jaelynn Willey announced that Jaelynn was taken off life support and died on Thursday, March 22 after doctors pronounced the 16-year old brain dead. 

For more information, please see:

NBC News – Maryland school shooting victim Jaelynn Willey dies after being taken off life support – 22 March 2018

Baltimore Sun – Maryland High School Shooting: 16-year-old Victim Remains in Critical Condition – 21 March 2018

CNN – Maryland School Officer Stops Student Who Shot Two Others – 20 March 2018

Washington Post – Student Gunman Dies After Maryland School Shooting; Two Other Students Injured – 20 March 2018

Dutchess County Schools Face Multiple Potential Threats

By: Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

DUTCHESS COUNTY, New York – Following the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas, several schools in Dutchess County New York have dealt with potential threats. The week of February 19th, three Dutchess County School Districts dealt with threats. The following week, social media has brought to light more potential threats for several different schools. Among those schools, both junior high schools and high schools, have threats under investigation.

For Van Wyck Junior High School, a threat is currently under investigation by the East Fishkill Police Department. According to the Chief of Police, the students are safe and the child who is alleged to be making the threats was not in school on February 27-28. On the 26th, a parent was made aware of the student’s plan to shoot up the school by her daughter who came home and told her about it. They contacted the police who informed the parent that the investigation began last Monday. Social media is sparking rumors and gossip to run wild with these potential threats. Parents are anxious and posting on community pages and school pages trying to find out more information, but also fueling further rumors.

John Jay High School of Hopewell Junction is facing rumored threats. Photo Courtesy of Patrick Oehler.

On February 28th, rumors began about a threat to John Jay High School. A vague email went out to parents explaining that police were investigating but, at this time, it was still safe for children to come to school. Following that email, posts were made by parents on social media claiming the school was on lock down, but those allegations proved untrue. On Friday, February 23rd, John Jay had been under lock down after school hours. That alarm proved to be a glitch in the alarm system, but all the recent threats have parents on edge. Some have chosen to keep their children home from school or pick them up early.

In Poughkeepsie, the school district was closed on Wednesday February 28th due to the alleged threats made against the school. The Superintendent sent out an email saying the school was closed because of a social media post detailing a potential shooting at the high school. That threat was posted on social media site ‘snapchat’ and contained a picture of several guns and text stating that no one was safe. There was also a list of students who were named in that post. The School Board President said the threat is “beyond (the district’s) purview,” and that local police and the FBI are actively investigating the situation.

For more information, please see:

Poughkeepsie Journal – Threat Closes Poughkeepsie Schools as Officials Investigate – 28 February 2018

Poughkeepsie Journal – 2 More Dutchess School District Handling Threats, Police Say No Concern – 27 February 2018

News 12 Westchester – Van Wyck JHS Student Accused of Making Threats – 27 February 2018

Poughkeepsie Journal – John Jay High Goes into Friday Afternoon Lockdown Following Alarm Mishap: Police – 23 February 2018

Two Former Baltimore Police Officers Convicted in Federal Investigation

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

BALTIMORE, Maryland — On Monday, February 12, 2018, two former detectives from the Baltimore Police Department were convicted of racketeering conspiracy, racketeering, and robbery as a part of an ongoing federal investigation into widespread corruption within the department.

Federal Prosecutors spoke to the press following the guilty verdict of members of the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force. Photo Courtesy of The Baltimore Sun.

The two detectives, Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, face maximum sentences of 60 years each, are part of a larger group of eight police officers from the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force that was indicted on March 1, 2017.  The jury deliberated for 12 hours before delivering the guilty verdicts for each officer.

The officers were accused of falsifying hours worked for overtime pay, filing false court paperwork, and robbing and extorting citizens.  Allegations extended to officers reselling the drugs and guns that they had seized from the streets.  Six of the eight officers pled guilty to the charges, and the remaining two were tried in federal court.  These two detectives have been on unpaid leave since their indictment in March 2017. The Baltimore Police Department is moving to terminate their employment following their conviction.

According to reports from BBC News and AP News, four ex-officers testified for the prosecution during the trial in hopes of a reduced sentence.  Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, the leader of the Gun Trace Task Force since June 2016, pled guilty to stealing drugs from the people he arrested and admitted to planting heroin on a man who was sent to prison.  Other officers told the jury that Jenkins instructed officers under his command to carry BB-guns in their police cars to plant in the even the officers shot an unarmed suspect.

The officers’ testimony further detailed how the Gun Trace Task Force was actually “made up of thugs with badges who stole cash, resold looted narcotics and lied under oath to cover their tracks,” and spoke of officers conducting armed home invasions going back to 2008.  The testimony also alleged wrong-doing, ranging from active participation in crimes to the subsequent cover-ups, from a dozen other officers not involved in the proceedings.  Among those mentioned included the head of Internal Affairs, an unnamed Baltimore assistant state’s attorney, an officer assigned to the police training academy, and homicide detective Sean Suiter.  Detective Suiter was fatally shot with his own gun under mysterious circumstances the day before he was supposed to testify before a federal grand jury in connection with the case.

Following the March 2017 indictment, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said her office has identified 150 closed and adjudicated cases possibly tainted by the officers’ involvement and that of 50 active cases reviewed, 30 of them had the charges dropped.  More recently, public defenders alleged that there could be several thousand cases going back to 2008 tainted by the officers’ involvement.  As of the date of the verdict, 125 cases involving the indicted officers have been dropped.

The Federal investigations into the Baltimore Police Department were sparked by the acquittal of six officers connected to the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while handcuffed and transported in the back of a police vehicle.

For more information, please see:

The Baltimore Sun – Attorneys release video from Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force raid; criticize state’s attorney for inaction – 14 February 2018

AP News – 2 Baltimore detectives convicted of racketeering, robbery – 13 February 2018

BBC News – Who were the corrupt Baltimore police officers? – 13 February 2018

The Baltimore Sun – The Gun Trace Task Force trial has ended. What is Baltimore doing to prevent future police corruption – 12 February 2018

Los Angeles Times – Baltimore police officers found guilty of racketeering and robbery – 12 February 2018

NPR News – Baltimore Police Officers Convicted in Corruption Scandal – 12 February 2018

Newsweek – Police Unit Steals $100,000 in House Search Without Warrant in Rogue Cop Crime Spree, Prosecutors Say – 25 January 2018

The Baltimore Sun – Prosecutor who raised early questions about Gun Trace Task Force officer speaks out – 8 December 2017

The Washington Post – Convictions in cases involving 7 indicted Baltimore police may be overturned – 23 March 2017

The Baltimore Sun – Seven Baltimore Police officers indicted on federal racketeering charges – 1 March 2017

Options for People with Mental Illness in America Continue to Decline

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

Washington, D.C., U.S. – Psychiatric Services published a study that estimates about 3.4% of Americans suffer from some sort of serious psychological problems. That amounts to over 8 million Americans, roughly the population of New York City.  What’s worse is that there is a severe shortage of inpatient care in the United States which continues to rise wit the number of people suffering from psychological problems.

Psychiatric hospitals across America continue to shrink in number. Photo Courtesy of Paul Sancya.

The Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization that works to remove treatment obstacles for people with mental illness, published a study finding that, in 2012, there were only 50,509 state psychiatric beds. In raw numbers, that means that there were only 14 beds available for every 100,000 people suffering from a mental illness.

“Many times individuals who really do require intensive psychiatric care find themselves homeless or more and more in prison,” said Dominic Sisti, director of the Scattergood Program for Applied Ethics of Behavioral Health Care at the University of Pennsylvania“Much of our mental health care now for individuals with serious mental illness has been shifted to correctional facilities.”

Of the facilities that are still up and running today, many do not accept insurance. Considering most cost upwards of $30,000 a month, many people cannot afford the care. For low income individuals, their only hope is that they qualify for Medicaid. But even Medicaid has its limits. A provision in the law prevents the government from paying for long term care in such institutions.

Since so many cannot afford the care that they need, many end up in the emergency room during a mental health crisis. “We are the wrong site for these patients,” Dr. Thomas Chun, an associate professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at Brown University, told NPR last year. “Our crazy, chaotic environment is not a good place for them.” Usually, hospitals only take people who need such care for up to 72 hours. At that point, they are released back into the community.

Over the last decade, the disappearance of such long term care facilities and psychiatric beds has increased. This is because of a trend in deinstitutionalization in the 1950’s and 60’s that has continued through today.”State hospitals began to realize that individuals who were there probably could do well in the community,” says Sisti. “It was well-intended, but what I believe happened over the past 50 years is that there’s been such an evaporation of psychiatric therapeutic spaces that now we lack a sufficient number of psychiatric beds.”

One place people may find new support is Nonprofits. NAMI Appalachian South, a regional chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness is one such nonprofit in North Carolina.

For more information, please see:

Smokey Mountain News – Nonprofits Offer Support, Funding to Mental Health – 21 February 2018

North West Herald – President Donald Trump’s Focus on Mental Health After School Shooting Denounced – 19 February 2018

NPR – How the Loss of U.S. Psychiatric Hospitals Led to a Mental Health Crisis – 30 November 2017

1 Tweet Brought 120 Volunteers to Shovel Snow for Elderly

By: Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

CHICAGO, United States – Many elderly people struggle to get out of their homes following snowy weather. Particularly, those with asthma, neuropathy, and oxygen tanks. This was the case after snowy weather in Chicago on the weekend of February 10th. Many of these senior citizens called Jahmal Cole about their inability to shovel their drive ways and side walks. “When you’re getting emails and calls, you don’t want to let people down,” said Cole. “I wasn’t trying to make a campaign. This was literally me trying to help out my neighbors. We had to organize on the spot,” he said.

Chicagoan Jahmal Cole is a community organizer in Chatham who runs the non-profit, My Block My Hood My City. He runs it without office space and only two full time staff members. My Block My Hood My City both organizes and brings teenagers from under-served communities on different field trips. With one tweet, Cole called for volunteers to help clear the snow of elderly neighbors in Chatham . That one tweet was retweeted more than 22,000 times and liked over 64,000 times.

What did that tweet say? “Meet me at the 79th St. Red Line stop at 10:00 am tomorrow. I got hoodies, hats and lunch for anybody that comes through.” The following morning, 120 people showed up offering to help shovel, some even bringing shovels of their own. “The people who showed up, they showed that whether people have privilege or don’t have privilege, everyone recognizes a need,” said Cole. Cole had brought 10 shovels and his 15 person van. With all the volunteers, he had to go buy more shovels. Then, he sent the volunteers to dozens of addresses that needed snow removal.

Jahmal Cole and 120 volunteers shoveled snow for the elderly in a Chicago neighborhood. Photo Courtesy of Jahmal Cole.

The volunteers came from all over, including Rogers Park, Roseland and even Indiana (a two and a half hour bus ride away). Men and women of all ages shoveled for more than four hours. The next day, 11 more people showed up. About his efforts, Cole said, “My mindset is always, ‘What’s something simple that I can do that’ll have a positive impact on my block and my neighborhood’? You don’t have to have a law degree to shovel your neighbor’s walkway.”

When all was said and done, Cole and the all of the volunteers went out to lunch at a neighborhood restaurant. “I’m proud of our city. We’re getting things done,” Cole said. “People could have been doing anything in the world. They could have been home with families or making snowmen, but they came out to help.”

For more information, please see:

KMOV – How 1 Tweet inspired 120 People to Shovel Snow for the Elderly – 14 February 2018

CNN – How 1 Tweet Inspired 120 People to Shovel Snow for the Elderly in a Chicago Neighborhood – 13 February 2018

Independent – Chicago Man’s Tweet Asking for 10 Volunteers to Help Clear Snow for Elderly Draws 120 After Going Viral – 13 February 2018

VA won’t Change Their Motto for Gender Neutrality

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA – A quote from America’s 16th President currently stands as the motto for Veterans Affairs. In his second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln stated, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” The language of this quote has been under fire by many who believe it is outdated and/or sexist. IAVA Executive Director Allison Jaslow wrote a strongly worded letter in October of 2017. The letter went unanswered by VA Secretary David Shulkin. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also called on VA Secretary David Shulkin in November to change the motto.

For the last 59 years, the VA motto has been a quote from President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Photo Courtesy of Stars and Stripes/ Veterans Affairs.

Despite the outcry for change, a spokesperson for Secretary Shulkin’s office stated that the VA will continue to use it’s motto. “[The] VA is proud of Lincoln’s words as a historic tribute to all Veterans, including women Veterans, whose service and sacrifice inspires us all,” Secretary Shulkin’s spokesperson said. In response to the spokesperson,  Jaslow said, “They’re missing the point — that women don’t feel comfortable at the VA. That action enshrined not only a motto, but a culture too that often renders women veterans invisible at the agency, even to this day. Every day that the VA preserves this motto, it ignores and obscures the needs of far too many women veterans.”

There are many who think the VA has bigger problems to deal with right now rather than the currentness of the motto. Some of those problems include the long wait time for appointments and various scandals. Some of these scandals are centered around women. One such scandal was a Facebook group of over 30,000 members sharing pictures of nude female service members without their consent.

A study was also recently posted by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine which stated that many female combat veterans said that they weren’t believed about their war experience and often belittled by VA doctors. The study was conducted over 4 and a half years and focused on VA mental health services.

The director of the VA Center for Women Veterans, Kayla Williams, responded to the pleas from IAVA to change the motto. She unofficially has been using a modified version of the motto which states, “To care for those who shall have borne the battle and their families and survivors.”

“Recognizing that they can seem exclusionary to some women veterans, for many years I – along with other senior VA leaders – have honored the population we serve today by using a modernized version,” Williams said to Jaslow in a letter. “This symbolic update, which we are continuing to gradually incorporate alongside the original in digital and print materials, as well as spoken remarks, is an important acknowledgement of today’s veteran population.”

Jaslow calls for more change and for that change to be official. “I get it. The VA was designed for a male population, and culture change is hard,” Jaslow said. “But we’re talking 16 years we’ve been at war in Afghanistan. Women veterans are still feeling invisible and articulating they don’t feel comfortable at the VA. At what point are we going to get serious about addressing this?”

For more information, please see:

Washington Post – Is the VA Motto Outdated and Sexist? The Head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Group Thinks So – 6 February 2018

Stars and Stripes – VA Disregards Request to Make Agency Motto Gender Neutral – 2 February 2018

Computer Glitch leaves 11,000 Disabled Student Vets with Delayed Payment of Stipend

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – 11,000 disabled student veterans are facing a delay with their stipends this month. These payments are subsistence allowance payments. They help to pay for living expenses while the students go to school. The program which pays the stipends is through the Department of Veterans Affairs as part of its Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program. The money is supposed to be disbursed on the last day of each month. The money should have been disbursed on January 31, but the students did not see the disbursement until February 6.  An internal memo obtained by the Washington Post called the problem a “computer glitch.” In the memo, VA employees were told to apologize to the students and tell them their money was on the way.

The program gained popularity because it helps disabled veterans get job counseling. It also helps them earn college degrees or learn technical skills. There are internship opportunities and resume workshops. Although the problem was fixed in a few days, it may create a multitude a problems for the students. They may be late on rent or other bills or may not be able to buy groceries for a few days.

Army Vet Rick Collins is one of the students whose stipend is being disbursed to him late this month. Photo Courtesy of Rick Collins.

One army veteran who did not receive his stipend on the 31st is Rick Collins of Portland Oregon. Because his stipend will be arriving several days late, he has had to put off paying some of his bills and will not have to pay late fees as well. Collin had served in Afghanistan and suffers from post traumatic stress, severe memory loss, and chronic back and shoulder pain.

“This was going to be my first month with money left over after bills, and now that will all go to late fees,” said Collin. He is a father to four children aged 9, 7, 2 and 9 months. He is also studying photography at Portland Community College.  He has also said that he is in his fifth week of the term and still has not received the computer he was promised. He only received the camera he was promised last week.

“Any large bureaucracy has their glitches, but anytime veterans are not getting their benefits on time, especially when on a program like this, it’s a real hardship,” said Garry J. Augustine, executive director of 1.3 million-member Disabled American Veterans.

According to VA spokesman Curt Cashour, The glitch “has been fixed and it won’t occur again the future.” He also said, “We apologize to the veterans affected by this inconvenience.”

Even still the VA is facing a lot of scrutiny lately for several issues including long waits for appointment times and medical malpractice.

For more information, please see:

Chicago Tribune – 11,000 Disabled Student Veterans Left Without Rent, Expense Money Due to Computer Glitch – 2 February 2018

Washington Post – 11,000 Disabled Student Veterans Left Without Rent and Expense Money Due to Computer Glitch – 2 February 2018

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E)

Experts Ask Facebook to Pull Messenger Kids

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON D.C., U.S.A. – Last month, Facebook launched a new messenger app for kids as young as 6 years old. This is way below the previous minimum age that Facebook required users be for their apps, which was 13. Now, dozens of pediatric and mental health experts are asking Facebook to remove the app.

Facebook has created a messaging app for kids. Photo Courtesy of New York Times.

These experts composed a letter from the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood. Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood is an advocacy group which pushes companies to abandon marketing like the Pokemon Go app. The app sent children to all kinds of stores and fast food restaurants. McDonalds even advertised on children’s report cards in Florida.  But the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood says Facebook’s new app creates bigger concerns than those created by Pokemon Go.

“Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts,” the experts said in the letter. “A growing body of research demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to children and teens, making it very likely this new app will undermine children’s healthy development.”

In a study released in late January, the research stated that an increase in social media and smartphone use in children led to greater unhappiness in teenagers.

What is the Messenger Kids app? The app is a texting app that a parent can set up for their child. It works through the parent’s Facebook account. The parent sets up the account, but it is in no other way a part of the Facebook app. The app is missing “like” buttons and a newsfeed which are parts of what experts believe lead to depression and anxiety for teenagers on social media. What is included in the app are emojis, video chat, selfies and group texting.

Facebook argues that their new app provides a safer environment for children online than many other apps to social media sites. One such difference is that the app has no advertising. Facebook also says they worked with the National PTA before introducing the app. “Messenger Kids is a messaging app that helps parents and children to chat in a safer way, with parents always in control of their child’s contacts and interactions,” Facebook said in a statement.

Still, health advocates say that the app was created explicitly to hook users to keep using it and by allowing such a low age, they are giving themselves early access to the next potential generation of users.

Michael Brody, a former chairman of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry said, “Facebook is making children into a market, and the youngest children will be more likely to get hooked even earlier.”

For more information, please see:

BBC – Facebook ‘No Place’ For Young Children – 30 January 2018

Telegraph – Health Experts Urge Facebook to Pull Children’s App – 30 January 2018

NYT – Turn Off Messenger Kids, Health Experts Say to Facebook – 30 January 2018

‘Horrific’ Elder Abuse in Georgia

By Sarah Purtill
Impunity Watch Reporter

GEORGIA, United States – Dougherty county residents initiated the investigation of this case following a tip that was given to police officers. The tip came in after several Dougherty county residents were approached by some of the elderly outside of the Albany apartments, “begging for food.” Following the investigation, three people were arrested. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr described the case as a “horrific elder abuse scheme.’’ He went on to say that the elders were not given proper “health care, shelter and necessary sustenance.” Additionally, there appeared to be a scheme which included siphoning off the resident’s social security benefits.

This is one of many unlicensed care cases in Georgia. It has remained a problem in the state for years. Georgia personal care homes are supposed to provide food, lodging and if needed, personal care. The residents of these personal care homes are usually senior citizens and people with mental impairments.

Since 2010, Georgia has had over 3,000 people charged with elder abuse crimes in situations like that of the seniors in Albany.  This issue became more apparent after 49 individuals were rescued from supposed “dungeons” according to GBI Director Vernon Keenan. Despite what appears to be high numbers of such cases, Georgia is seen as having one of the nation’s strongest laws in place to protect the elderly and mentally impaired, says Keenan.

Michelle Oliver, Harold Hunt and Cynthia Riley were all arrested and were indicted on 17 different accounts. Photo Courtesy of Georgia Bureau of Investigations.

The Albany units in question have been condemned because living conditions in them are so poor. Those units were rented by Michelle Oliver, Harold Hunt and Cynthia Riley. The three were charged on a 17 count indictment including violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, neglect, exploitation and intimidation of the elderly and disabled. Oliver, 39, was arrested on September 20 for operating an unlicensed personal care home called Miracle One Care Center. After seven elderly and disabled individuals were triaged at the residence, Oliver was taken into custody at her home. Four elderly and disabled individuals were found in the home. Three more victims were found at an apartment in Macon.

“While this case is horrifying, it’s also gratifying to see the results of new laws and new funding passed in the last five years by the governor and the state Legislature,’’ Kathy Floyd, executive director of the Georgia Council on Aging said. “Law enforcement and state agencies have more tools and training to fight elder abuse.” Peter Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said Tuesday that “the tentacles [of these crimes] go not only across county lines, but also state lines.”

“This has been an ongoing problem in our state,” said Melanie McNeil, the state’s long-term care ombudsman. “Georgia is a leader in the nation for recognizing this problem, developing training and collaborations among law enforcement, prosecutors, and state agencies to rescue residents and prosecute the perpetrators.”

For more information, please see:

CBS – Police: Elderly were Starved, Injected with Medicine and Victims of Fraud – 16 January 2018

Telegraph – Authorities Charge Neglect, Exploitation and Drugs Amount to ‘Web of Abuse’ in Macon Albany – 16 January 2018

WABE – ‘Horiffic’ Elder Abuse Case Highlights Crackdown on Unlicensed Georgia Facilities – 16 January 2018