Category Archives: Criminal justice reform

Photo finish

Violence interventionist James Clark, left, and four young men he’s counseling. Just hours later, three of the young men were shot. Then a second shooting five days later claimed the life of DeAndre Kelley, seated at far right. Photo by Whitney Curtis for Politico. Used with permission.

Covering gun violence and policing has taught me that no matter how long the reporting, writing, and editing of a story might take, the stories can change in an instant, right on deadline. That happened to me, for example, when I wrote this story for TakePart on Minneapolis. After months of reporting, writing, and editing, we went down to the wire with changes after two controversial police shootings occurred on the eve of publication. Now it’s happened again, in a particularly sad turn of events.

The Trace and Politico just published my story challenging Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ notion that increasing federal gun prosecutions can lower urban violence. We chose St. Louis as a case study because it boasts two relevant distinctions: It already has the most aggressive federal gun-prosecution rate in the country, while at the same time having the highest gun-violence rate among large cities. Although it would take more study to prove that federal gun prosecutions and their long sentences fail to reduce crime, it’s safe to say that they’re not the panacea that Sessions portrays them as. So I used the St. Louis experience to revisit a topic I have written about before, on the evidence of what actually works to reduce gun violence.

I wanted the story to look not just at what doesn’t seem to work, but also at which strategies might work better. For that angle, I focused on James Clark, a well-known violence intervention activist. I first encountered Clark back in December 2015, when I was in St. Louis on an assignment for The New York Times. When I landed the latest assignment, I decided to use Clark as a voice for the violence-reduction strategies that could do more good if they were given needed resources.

On Saturday, August 19, as my Trace/Politico story approached publication after months of off-and-on work, my editors sent photographer Whitney Curtis out with Clark to show him doing his work. In one scene she photographed, Clark chatted with four young men on the stoop of a north St. Louis home. Hours later, three of the four got shot. They called Clark first, instead of the police, and he ended up driving them to a hospital after calling police himself. All three survived. But, five days later, one of the four young men, DeAndre Kelley, got shot again with one of his high school friends, the friend’s mother, and a 10-year-old boy. All four died.

We learned of this a week before publication. I scrambled to talk to Clark and Curtis to add to the ending of the story, and to explain how one snapshot in time can serve as a disturbing reminder of the urgency of the work that people like Clark do.

Good cop, bad cop

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 5.40.46 PMWhen an editor from TakePart asked me to write about policing reform using Minneapolis as the example, I quickly determined that the chosen location made perfect sense as a window into a topic I’ve written about before. The more I learned through my reporting, including a week I spent there, Minneapolis and its small neighbor, Columbia Heights, Minnesota, struck me as ideal showcases of the issues that make policing such a fraught topic these days — even though the region hadn’t joined the list of cities known nationally for their problems.

And then that changed. Just as my editor and I were finishing the story, Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark, touching off tense protests that drew national attention when white supremacists shot and wounded five Black Lives Matter protesters outside a Minneapolis police station.

The end result, published today, puts the reaction to Clark’s death in the context of years of clashes between police and citizens. Despite a reform-minded administration and some positive changes of late, Minneapolis remains a divided city, a division that often defies logic to outsiders who never experience the kind of policing that inner-city people of color typically do. To them, the controversies over killings by police boil down to bad behavior and anti-cop lawlessness. That’s the kind of perspective you gain when you live in comfort and safety and get only the good kind of policing.

Alongside the story of Minneapolis, I tell the story of Columbia Heights, where a forward-thinking chief has led his department through a radical transformation that has cut crime while improving relations at the same time. They do it by looking for people to help instead of looking for people to arrest — the essence of the community-oriented policing ethos that my story examines. And the essence of what police reformers, inside and outside the policing profession, mean when they talk about the hard work that’s needed to restore and maintain a community’s trust in its police. I hope this story contributes to people’s understanding of what that debate is about.