British police car in its high-visibility "checkered livery." And it's not just loud on the eyes.

British police car in its high-visibility “checkered livery.” And it’s not just loud on the eyes.

How do you fix a crisis in policing?

(If your first response was to scratch your head and mutter “Crisis in policing?” then I offer a few terms to Google: Ferguson, school-to-prison pipeline, chokehold, Rahm Emanuel. That should get you started.)

Maybe the answer is to get people engaged in policing’s nuts and bolts. For example, amidst all the coverage and scrutiny of large police departments (and even smaller ones), rarely addressed in the debate is the question that has gripped U.K. schoolkids:

What do police sirens really sound like?

On this Change of Venue Friday, I offer a news story in which English police officers blared their car sirens to allow schoolkids to answer the difficult question: Do they sound like “nee-nah” or “woo-woo”? If you’ve watched any British movies, you may have wondered yourself what the hell is up.

This article—and the schoolkids—try to answer your question. It involves loud sirens, student voting, and a tongue-in-cheek apology by the police. All of this, I’m guessing, was mentioned somewhere in Magna Carta.

Police demonstrate their car and its multiple siren sounds to British schoolkids.

Police demonstrate their car and its multiple siren sounds to British schoolkids.

The hilarious musings by the school’s headmistress will have you thinking a British education doesn’t sound so bad.

“The school’s headmistress had ‘officially put it out there’ that it was actually a wah-wah. But following a vote at the school earlier, it was announced that ‘woo-woo’ was the winner by 60 votes to 28.

“Ms. Muckleston said the result was surprising as the children had been ‘leaning more towards the nee-nah’.”

“‘Nee-nah is a bit of a classic but when it came to it they decided woo-woo was the way to go,’ she said. ‘I would say it’s probably a surprise—although I think it’s more of a wah-wah myself.’”

That Ms. Muckleston is a saucy one!

And, as the Daily Mail explained the whole why-are-British-sirens-so-weird issue:

“There are at least six different types of siren used in the UK and most vehicles are able to sound them in different tones. According to one police training document, a longer tone should be used when the driver can see further and a shorter one in built-up areas.”

Color us colonists confused.

Have a terrific—and a woo-woo—weekend.

My kingdom for an earplug: Polling closed, young Britons stand beneath their selected siren sounds.

My kingdom for an earplug: Polling closed, young Britons stand beneath their selected siren sounds.

Heather Mac Donald

Heather Mac Donald

Tonight, Thursday, Nov. 12, conservative commenter Heather Mac Donald will visit ASU to deliver a talk titled “Is the American Great Crime Decline Sustainable?

The free public lecture will be delivered at 6:30 pm on the ASU Tempe campus, ISTB4, Marston Theater.

According to event organizers, Mac Donald’s work has largely focused on crime rates and race. She “pushes back against common arguments of racism in policing and the criminal justice system as a whole to argue for preventative policing that she believes contributed to the 20-year decline of crime in America.”

Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. Her work covers a range of topics, including homeland security, immigration, policing and racial profiling, homelessness and homeless advocacy, and educational policy.

You can see more of what the speaker advocates here, via C-SPAN:

Heather Mac Donald book cover policing racismIntroducing Mac Donald will be Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

Following Mac Donald’s talk, the former director of the Office for Victims of Crime, John W. Gillis, will give a brief talk about his career and experiences. He is a founding member of Justice for Homicide Victims and the Coalition of Victims Equal Rights.

More information and a Q&A with Montgomery and Gillis are here.

The event is free. RSVP here.

Parking is available (for a fee) in the Rural Road Parking Structure.

Radley Balko

Radley Balko

“Are cops constitutional?”

With that opening and follow-up sentences just as damning, Radley Balko has caused a furor among U.S. experts in policing and the Constitution. And this Friday, Balko will be in Arizona to make his controversial arguments.

That opening sentence was the first line in an impressive ABA Journal article last July. Titled “How did America’s police become a military force on the streets?” it is definitely worth your time. I know, I know, it’s crazy long, and we’ve all been trained (said the blogger) to read little snippets of thought and snark. Well, get over it. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, tea, wine or whisky (depending on the time and your inclination) and settle in. It will reward your time investment.

What Balko does is deconstruct the path of military dollars as it has been funneled into many police agencies, probably in your very own community. And the trickle-down effect of the global war on drugs (which is where this money is targeted) has been to transform your local constables into a highly trained, armed-to-the-teeth platoon of peace-keepers—who to the casual observer may be indistinguishable from U.S. military.

We are used to noting in politics that money has a certain corrupting influence, but many folks resist observing the same effect when it comes to our police departments. Balko has no such hesitation.

Example of policing monies, from Radley Balko ABA Journal article.

Example of policing monies, from Radley Balko ABA Journal article.

So why is the well-known Washington Post journalist coming to Arizona? To debate Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

Having read a fair amount of Balko’s work, I have to admire Bill’s willingness to jump into this fight. I look forward to seeing the two men spar.

The event will be on Friday, February 21, at 11:30. The sponsor is the Phoenix Federalist Society Lawyers Chapter. The debate will be at Kincaid’s, 2 S. 3rd St., Phoenix 85004.

Here is how they describe the combatants—I mean speakers:

militarization of police - Federalist Society debateRadley Balko is a senior writer and investigative reporter for the Huffington Post and a former senior editor for Reason magazine. He is the author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, which argues that politicians’ ill-considered policies and relentless declarations of war against vague enemies like crime, drugs, and terror have blurred the distinction between cop and soldier.”

“Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery was first elected to his position in a Special Election in 2010 and re-elected in 2012 on a pledge to fight crime, honor victims’ rights, and protect and strengthen our community. As a West Point Graduate, decorated Gulf War Veteran, former Deputy County Attorney and a professional prosecutor, he has dedicated his personal and professional life to serving others.”

Interested? You should be. Register here.

I may write a follow-up post. But if you’re moved to do the same, contact me about a possible guest post.

Flip off: All (protected) speech may not be for everyone.

Flip off: All (protected) speech may not be for everyone.

Where does protected speech end and obstruction of justice begin?

That has been on my mind since the 1980s, when I would regularly drive the many hundreds of miles of the New York State Thruway system.

It was not uncommon then (and probably the same today) that you would see State Trooper vehicles parked on a grassy berm, with a radar gun trained on oncoming traffic.

If you were fortunate enough, that radar gun was pointed the other way, aimed toward the opposite lane of vehicles. And so you, the lucky, were presented with a question: Should you flash your high-beams at the cars headed toward you, warning them that a speed trap was around the next bend?

If conditions were right (i.e., no massive curves that made oncoming cars invisible), I almost always opted to flash my lights. (Judge how you may.)

Please don’t remind me that speed may contribute to accidents and worse; I’m aware of that. But on most modern freeways (even in the 1980s) engineered for substantial speeds, 55 mph was a drowsy punishment. It is simply too easy to drift above that limit. And the costs associated with a ticket (including insurance costs) were (and are) substantial.

Back then, it was very common for many drivers to use their own headlights in aid of oncoming drivers. Especially appreciative appeared to be the semi-truck drivers, who would flash their thanks back to you.

Early social media, I suppose you could call it.

Were the troopers pleased at our community communication? Probably not. But they appeared to know what the First Amendment meant.

More recently, some police officers have been responding to headlight behavior with anger and the heavy hand of the law. Here is a story about a man arrested for obstruction of justice for flashing his lights as a warning.

The story opens:

“Missouri resident Michael Elli wanted to let others on the road know to slow down because they were about to drive into a speed trap, so he did what many kindhearted souls do: He flashed his headlights as a warning.”

“Police didn’t take at all kindly to warnings of this 21st century Paul Revere. They flashed him a ticket of his very own for obstruction of justice. Prosecutors eventually dropped the case, but Mr. Elli has now filed a class action lawsuit against the city because he says that the city retaliates against drivers who exercise their right to free speech–and that the government is trying to prevent it because it doesn’t like the message.”

Maybe the arrest came because so few people will flash oncoming drivers these days. My own unscientific poll of colleagues found that a majority did not even know what the practice meant. So if people are unaware of the flash’s meaning, why would they participate?

So perhaps Mr. Elli is one of the few remaining in that helpful herd. Whereas in years past police would have had to cite hundreds of drivers for the practice (and so wouldn’t), they now see the civic activity rarely, and so feel empowered to smite it.

But how different is Mr. Elli’s behavior, really, than that of some mainstream news organizations?

Every day, the Tucson Sentinel updates its online page of “Radar Van Locations.” You can see a screen-shot below; it’s very detailed. I doubt police like that page, but they appear to understand that it is protected by the First Amendment. How is the activity of a sole driver any different?

Radar Van Locations Tucson Sentinel

“Radar Van Locations” via the online Tucson Sentinel.

Finally, here is an indication that communications attitudes may be changing—when it comes to flipping off a police officer.

“A police officer can’t pull you over and arrest you just because you gave him the finger, a federal appeals court declared Thursday. In a 14-page opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that the ‘ancient gesture of insult is not the basis for a reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation or impending criminal activity.’”

The man had been cited for “disorderly conduct.”

Call me old-school, but I must say activity like that is pretty distasteful. Police have a very difficult job, and it cannot always be fun being the professional authority figure. But the court’s reasoning may be sound.

It is interesting that the middle-finger incident occurred when the driver saw a police officer holding a radar gun. (And I chuckled at the fact that the charges were dismissed on “speedy trial grounds.” Get it?) That was the extent of their interaction, but radar may tend to have that effect on people; it just seems, I don’t know, unfair somehow (I know, that’s not a legal basis, but a court sitting in equity would get it!)

Would the police have cited the driver if he had flipped off an unmanned radar camera? (That must happen dozens of times every day.)

What do you think? Do people have a constitutional right to convey information to their fellows, as long as they do not otherwise interfere with police activities?

Sure, you may be able to buy them. But are fireworks legal to set off in your community?

Sure, you may be able to buy them. But are fireworks legal to set off in your community?

Not to be a wet blanket, but there is an interaction between Independence Day and the law.

No, I don’t mean that obvious connection that involves Founding Fathers signing a letter to a king.

Instead, I refer to the annual question about fireworks: legal or illegal (or illegal but safe to set off)?

As you make your own ethical and legal decisions for the next day and evening, I point you to an Atlantic article about “The Great Illegal Fireworks Crackdown of 2013.” (Dramatic? Yes. But effective too.)

Here’s how writer Arit John opens:

“This Fourth of July, feel free to grill as many burgers and drink as many beers as your heart desires. But know that if you decide to partake in one of the most American traditions of all — driving over state lines and returning with a trunk load of fireworks — cops all across the nation will be waiting for you more than ever.”

Read the complete article here.

And click here for detail about your own Arizona community’s position on fireworks.

Have a great Fourth.

Example of on-officer cameras

A few days ago, the Arizona Republic reported on a grant that aims to help policing. Recent news suggests that the steps being taken are good ones.

The $500,000 grant comes from the U.S. Department of Justice, and the money will be used to outfit 50 police officers with on-body video cameras.

For quite some time, we’ve been accustomed to dashboard cameras in police cars. Fixed in place, though, they reveal relatively little of the activities that make up an officer’s daily life.

The on-officer camera would capture far more, integrating a device worn over the ear, similar to a Bluetooth device.

The task force that recommended the use of cameras said they believed it would help ensure that officers, and the public with whom they interact, will behave in the best possible way.

Kelly Thomas, who died after a police encounter

A story out of Fullerton, Calif., this week gives credence to that position.

As reported by the Los Angeles Times (written by Joel Rubin and Richard Winton), two Fullerton officers have been charged, one with murder, in the death of a homeless man. The facts are pretty brutal. But what caught my eye was the fact that audio from an on-officer camera is playing a key role in the prosecution’s case.

Here is the story’s lede:

“Before reaching the decision this week to charge a Fullerton police officer with murder, Orange County prosecutors re-created his fatal encounter with a homeless man from dozens of witness statements, footage from security cameras and cellphone videos.

“The piece of evidence that sealed the decision, however, came from an unexpected source: the officer himself.

“An audio recorder carried by Officer Manuel Ramos captured a chilling exchange between him and Kelly Thomas, in which Ramos told the mentally ill man that he was going to beat him. Those irrefutable words, said Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, proved Ramos was intent on hurting the defenseless Thomas and led Rackauckas to file the second-degree murder charge.”

This is likely one of those technological developments we later will recognize as a normal and vital part of policing. I’ll have more on the story as it unfolds.

Do you feel safer seeing security guards in public places? Or do you get more of a sense of safety when you see uniformed, sworn police officers?

That was one of the questions posed in a news story earlier this week (from the Washington Post and posted on the Arizona Attorney Magazine News Center). The story explains how there has been a huge proliferation in the number of security guards nationwide since 9-11. But is that a good thing?

As if on cue, an Arizona Republic story yesterday reported that it appears Phoenix will soon join other cities in replacing sworn police officers on Metro Light Rail duty. Instead, security guards will provide safety—and ticket-checking—duties.

The article also went to some lengths to explain that the change would cost no additional public money. That would be a real trick—getting something additional for nothing—so it took only a little more reading to see that it would actually cost us something:

“The switch to G4S for passenger monitoring won’t cost the city any extra money. It won’t save Phoenix any money, either, but it will improve oversight of passengers.

“[Cmdr. Jeff Alexander of the Phoenix Public Transit Police Bureau] said that with the change, the bureau would shift $770,000 to Metro light rail to pay for the private-security service. That money would otherwise have paid for filling several vacancies at the bureau: two sergeants, four police assistants and two municipal security guards.”

G4S Security guard

So public monies—and police positions—would be transferred to a private entity, albeit for a public purpose. Given the realities of City budget politics, those are dollars and police positions that we are unlikely to ever see return.

Of course, if the service the public receives from the guards is at least as good as that of the police, it may be a good deal that is being executed (assuming, of course, that a formal RFP and weighing of private options was done, and this was not a single-vendor contract with no analysis of alternatives).

But much of what police and security provide is peace of mind and a deterrent effect, so public impressions about this change in service matter a lot.

Where do you stand on the privatization of security services? Does it have its place? Is it appropriate in some scenarios but not others? Is this national shift an improvement, a detriment, or of little moment one way or the other?

Post your thoughts below, or write to me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.

Hon. Ron Reinstein (ret.) speaks at ASU Law School, Nov. 16, 2010

Yesterday, a program at ASU Law School turned a light on what may be one of the most important issues in law today.

“The White House Subcommittee on Forensic Science: Policies and Issues” was the title, and it covered developments—or the lack of them—that have followed on the nearly two years since the National Academy of Sciences issued a compelling report about the state of forensic science today.

(We covered the report’s release in Arizona Attorney in April 2009. You can read it here.)

The speaker was Ron Reinstein, former Maricopa County Superior Court Judge who now works at the Administrative Office of the Courts. His experience in the area is broad and deep, and he currently chairs the state’s Forensic Science Advisory Committee.

ASU’s Law & Science Student Association was the host, and it gave Reinstein 50 minutes to explain “what’s happening in the world of forensic science.” He did quite a job in his allotted time.

He admitted, though, that the White House Subcommittee is pretty stringent on what can and cannot be said about the group’s workings, at least until it issues its report. As he landed on his last slide, he said, “We’re only allowed to do that PowerPoint.”

Of course, he was able to explain far more than that about the world outside the subcommittee.

The takeaway message was that much work had been accomplished over the past year at the federal, state and local level. Unfortunately, that work has translated very little into changes in approach and operations in forensic labs. “To be honest,” he said, “I am not that encouraged about state government responses around the country.”

Even in terms of education, Reinstein admitted that few judges have read the NAS report, and many others are even unaware that it exists. A survey of Texas judges showed that only 22 percent knew anything about it. “That’s kind of scary,” Reinstein said.

Much that was proposed in the NAS Report is unlikely to come to pass, he said. That includes an effort to require that all forensic labs be independent of law enforcement agencies. “That was dead on arrival,” he said.

(For insight into why that is important, read an article in the November issue of the ABA Journal, titled “CSI Breakdown.” As it says, “Some police and prosecutors tend to view government-employed forensic scientists, including medical examiners, not as independent experts but as members of the prosecution’s ‘team.’” The article is here.)

Courts, too, have not taken a leadership position on forcing changes in the forensic science regimen. “Judges don’t feel comfortable taking the lead on this,” he explained, adding that there have been few challenges by defense counsel based on the NAS findings that would allow judges to rule on admissibility. (One exception he mentioned is Nancy Gertner, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. You can read more about her here.)

The speaker showed some silver lining in terms of education. He’s been pleased at the focus on the topic at Arizona Judicial Council conferences, and at the State Bar Convention. He said that people interested in the topic are watching to see what if anything the state’s new Attorney General, Tom Horne, and the Legislature adopt in regard to forensic science. And he is confident that “The Supreme Court wants to see change occur”; he mentioned Justices Hurwitz and Bales, and former Justice Ryan, as three who have indicated a strong desire to see positive change happen soon.

In the same vein, his Forensic Science Advisory Committee has developed a six-month course that will educate prosecutors and defense attorneys—25 of each—on all aspects of forensic science. It will meet weekly from January through May.

Look for more coverage in Arizona Attorney in 2011.

Here are more photos from the event.

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