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When the NYPD Gets Desperate

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In the fall of 2017, I sat in a windowless back room in O’Neill’s bar in the Maspeth neighborhood of Queens and watched the Retired Detectives of New York (RDNY) honor two of their own.

The first was Louis Scarcella, whose record of high-profile arrests in Brooklyn in the 1990s had just crumbled under evidence that he’d coerced people into giving false confessions. The second was John Russo, who’d only recently become tabloid famous: He’d identified a Black man as a suspect in the murder of Karina Vetrano, a 30-year-old white woman who was killed in the summer of 2016 while jogging near her family’s home in Queens.

I was covering the event for New York magazine. Russo’s police work was a “true iteration of that cinematic ‘detective’s intuition’ that cops love to valorize,” I wrote. “It’s the same one Scarcella was so famous for before the allegations appeared to suggest he was just making all that shit up.”

The name of the man Russo ID’d is Chanel (pronounced “Tcha-nel”) Lewis. At Lewis’s trial Russo testified that on Memorial Day, about two months before Vetrano’s murder, he was off-duty and in his car with his daughters when he saw Lewis, then 19, walking through the majority-white neighborhood of Howard Beach. Russo deemed him suspicious and tailed him for 45 minutes. When Russo spotted him while off-duty the next day too, he alerted nearby police. The officers stopped Lewis and drove him to a McDonald’s in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, where he was questioned and released.

In Russo’s telling, seven months after Vetrano’s murder, he suddenly remembered Lewis and established him as a person of interest. When police officers went to his house, Lewis voluntarily gave them a DNA sample that matched DNA found on Vetrano’s neck, on her phone, and on her fingernails. Lewis was arrested on February 4, 2017, and he confessed to killing Vetrano the next morning. Russo’s story was that he had a hunch, and it hit.

That night in Maspeth, Russo was low-key while his fellow cops swooned. “Because of his actions an animal was put behind bars,” an RDNY organizer said. They presented Russo with the ARDY, “our highest honor.” As the ovation died down, Russo took the podium and addressed Vetrano’s family, who was seated nearby. “We all work together every day to bring justice to every crime victim’s family; we thank them for being here. God bless this police department. God bless the people of the city of New York.”




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Is There a Single Best Way to Manage a City?

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Galveston’s ruined city hall after the 1900 hurricane.

A stereograph of the ruins of Galveston, Texas’ “Splendid City Hall” after the 1990 hurricane. The nation’s first city-commission-style local government was created in Galveston after the disastrous storm exposed political mismanagement. (Library of Congress)

You may never have heard of city commission government, and that’s probably just as well. For the past several decades, only one major American city has used this most cumbersome of urban management systems, and now that city — Portland, Ore. — has decided to scrap it. Last month, some 57 percent of Portland voters opted to do away with their city commission after more than a century and replace it with a more conventional structure featuring a stronger mayor and city manager.

From this vantage point, it’s a little hard to see why anybody thought city commissions were a good idea. They give elected council members the authority to function as administrators of key city departments. You could win a place on the council and soon find yourself running the police department, even if (as was often the case) you didn’t know much about law enforcement.

The intentions were to invest politicians with executive authority so that they would take government more seriously and to encourage voters to elect more capable candidates in the first place. The system was usually put in place after a political scandal or other crisis discredited the old one: The first city commission was created in Galveston, Texas, after a disastrous hurricane in 1900 exposed political mismanagement. A couple of decades later there were quite a few of them, many in Texas but some in big cities around the country as well.


But the system was full of flaws. Not only did it place people whose talent was campaigning into administrative jobs for which they were unqualified, but it tended to foster squabbling and unseemly horse-trading among the commissioners, who had no one supervising them. The mayor in this system was a commissioner, but was almost always a figurehead.

The system left one egregious legacy, in Birmingham, Ala., where the demagogic racist Eugene “Bull” Connor, who never finished high school, served repeated terms on the city council and remained in the job of public safety commissioner for 22 years. Birmingham abolished its commission government shortly after Connor embarrassed the city by turning fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights demonstrators in 1963.

Portland voted to create a commission to run its affairs in 1913 following a scandal in which dozens of city hotels were hosting illegal sexual activity. Progressive activists and most of the business community went for it, and it passed narrowly despite opposition from the previously dominant Republican machine.

In later years, Portland modified its commission system so that it functioned reasonably well, with the mayor assuming more powers, and several attempts to do away with the system were beaten badly at the polls. A move to revamp city government was defeated in 2007 by a huge 76-24 majority. But the past decade or so has been a rough one for Portland’s local government, with a mayor plagued by sexual scandal, disturbing racial unrest and an increasing level of discontent over crime and homelessness. There’s no reason to assume that voters were reacting last month against the commission system per se, but they were looking for change, and it didn’t take much to persuade them to mandate it.

AT THIS POINT, CITY COMMISSIONS might be best thought of as a footnote to urban history. But they can also serve as a useful introduction to the question of what’s the best way to manage a city. Or whether there is a best way.

Perhaps the most important impact of city-commission government was that it served as a kind of precursor to the city-manager system, which came into existence around the same time and went on to supplant it. Though the two forms are sometimes remembered together, they are in many ways diametrical opposites. Commissions were supposed to turn politicians into managers; city-manager government was meant to take politicians out of local administration almost entirely.

But if you look a little more closely, city commissions and city-manager systems actually have something important in common: They were both a product of Progressive Era resentment against the corrupt ward politics plaguing scores of American cities at the time. They emerged at a moment when social scientists were arguing that managerial science could design effective city administration and put the ward heelers out of business for good.

By the 1920s, there were city-manager systems in place in hundreds of American communities, most of them in cities of less than 500,000 people and most of them west of the Mississippi. A majority of small cities in America still use it. A number of larger ones have produced some outstandingly successful managers, such as L.P. Cookingham in Kansas City and Marvin Andrews and Frank Fairbanks in Phoenix. I could name quite a few more.

But the central dogma of the city-manager system — that it can take politics out of government — turned out to be way off base. Most of the early city managers were engineers with few political instincts; they made up for that deficiency by essentially letting the local chamber of commerce and influential corporate executives tell them what to do, sometimes over breakfast on weekday mornings at a café near city hall. It wasn’t ward heeler politics, but it was politics just the same. And in general, it enshrined the conservative values of the local business community. I have made this point quite a few times over the years, and I always get nasty responses from city-manager enthusiasts. But it is true nonetheless.

In recent decades, the system has softened. Most city managers now come out of graduate programs in public administration rather than engineering schools. And many of the larger city-manager cities have gradually invested more power in the mayor’s office, creating something of a hybrid scheme for doing the city’s business.

BUT CITY-MANAGER GOVERNMENT STILL HAS SOME SERIOUS FLAWS, some of which have proved corrosive in a number of places. One is that the common practice of electing council members on an at-large, citywide basis tends to underrepresent the interests of less-affluent communities, particularly minority communities. Another is that, especially in its purer varieties, city-manager government leaves no one in a position to serve as a public spokesperson and chief decision-maker. The manager isn’t supposed to do that; a mayor with circumscribed powers can’t do it very effectively either, although some try.

The bottom line is that many of the larger city-manager cities have decided in recent years that they need an authoritative leader that manager government doesn’t give them. To put it another way, voters in these places feel they need a voice. The city-manager system doesn’t provide for much of a voice. Those cities have chosen to abandon city-manager government and move to a system with an elected mayor possessing a full package of powers.

The list of big cities that have gone to or expanded strong-mayor government in the last two decades is a long one. It includes Cincinnati; Hartford, Conn.; Minneapolis; Richmond, Va.; St. Petersburg, Fla.; San Diego; and Spokane, Wash., among quite a few others.

There is a great deal to say about strong-mayor government, more than I can get across in a few hundred words. But perhaps the first thing to say is that when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong, in ways that a city-manager system rarely does; but when it works it is splendid. In the 1970s it gave us Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, who boasted that “I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” and proclaimed that Black Panthers “should be strung up.” But it also gave us Fiorello LaGuardia, who ruled New York City so capably for a dozen years that he is widely regarded as the greatest mayor in America in the last century.

Most often, though, strong mayors are neither heroes nor villains, but imperfect public officials who do the best they can with the tools they are given, and sometimes look for ways to acquire more. In this context, I can’t help but point to the Daleys of Chicago, who were neither crooks nor reformers but accepted a certain amount of controlled corruption and used the powers it gave them to accomplish things for the city. It is sometimes said in Chicago that a little corruption gets things built; a heavy dose of reform rarely does. That is probably true of a number of other cities besides.

What’s the best scheme of government for a city? In the end, there isn’t one. Nothing is foolproof. A dedicated and shrewd public servant can make any system work — even a city commission — while a scoundrel or an incompetent can make any system fail. We are ultimately dependent on the skills and values of ordinary human beings. In that respect, city governance is like every other form of management that has ever existed, in the public realm and in the private world as well.




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Corruption: Excuse or misunderstanding? – Jamaica Observer

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Jason McKay

Corruption as an allegation is a staple in Third World political campaigns. Whether it exists or not it doesn’t really matter. Just throw the dirt around and it will stick.

It’s also no different for law enforcement. Every organisation that has failed to curb the violence cites corruption as a factor. That is whether it is of the Government, the Opposition, or society as a whole.

Well, let’s address something; corruption exists in every major organisation in the world — from the much-vaunted New York City Police Department (NYPD) to the British Government. That’s the reality.

However, is corruption a primary factor in Jamaica’s inability to win the war against the gangs? I don’t believe it is.

I believe capacity is the fundamental reason.

Also, there are some other issues like laws, societal divisions, and the fact that as a country we don’t accept that we are at war.

However, before I venture down that rabbit hole, let’s discuss this corruption factor that everyone likes to shout about.

The librarian at my parish library is a great lady. She can cook well, too. If I want to know where to find a good VS Reid novel, she can direct me to the aisle and shelf.

Despite her acumen, she can’t direct me to where one AK-47 rifle is buried. To find that I need to talk to someone who moves in that crowd, it is possible that person may even be a criminal.

So if I, or any other police officer, talk with a criminal with an aim to furthering justice and peace, it doesn’t mean I am corrupt. It’s just part of the process to do the job professionally.

We often encourage gang members, and the rest of society, to use the justice system to achieve justice rather than seek revenge themselves.

If they listen and become a complainant then we have to, like with any other complainant, ensure safe attendance to court and their safety generally.

Therefore, you are likely to see them being visited by the police and transported to court, etc. This doesn’t mean they and the police are friends or that the police are sharing information with them.

So you are a good citizen. You are the victim of a crime and you give a statement to the police. The culprit is arrested and jailed. A trial is the end result of a criminal charge and at some point the accused is going to know your identity and your allegations.

This is not because the police are corrupt, but because the law says you must serve the defence a copy of all statements. It’s the law! It’s not the police officer ‘selling you out’.

A gunman commits a crime in front of one person. If that person becomes a witness and the gunman knows who talked, it’s likely because he knows he committed the crime in front of only one person. He’s a mongrel, not a fool.

Okay, back to using corruption as an excuse. We have lost the battle largely because of persons making decisions without really understanding the peculiar matrix of gang control.

The lawmakers, the advisors, and the technocrats are the ones who, based on our democracy, make the decisions. They are well-intentioned and often seem practical, but gang land is a complex geography.

The real experts are powerless and underutilised when decisions are to be made. This is the reality and the fundamental reason we fail. It begins with this and all else simply follows.

Can this change? It will be difficult. Let me explain. I have been to many schools and have lived in Jamaica for most of my life, but I was an adult before I realised that yam grows under the earth.

It’s not because I don’t eat yam, I rather like it.

It’s just that I was not exposed to agriculture.

Crime fighting is like that.

Each jurisdiction has its own dynamic. Macro decisions can be problematic when micro implementation is required.

The decision that you should charge a man within 24 hours of his arrest seems reasonable in a court of law and Gordon House, but not so much when you see what the wrong man with the right rifle did to a family one sad night in an informal settlement called ‘Africa’ in Spanish Town, St Catherine.

I guarantee that if any lawmaker or defender of the constitution spent a year in the shoes of a frontline cop, they would think differently about laws and that constitution under which the laws fall.

What’s the solution? Trust! Realise as leaders that you don’t know enough about fighting gangs and trust the police when they say they need declarations of states of public emergency or longer remand periods or roadblocks on every corner.

As a society, accept that the disparity in living conditions between groups in our country is a primary contributor to the continued failure to defeat the gangs and commit to drastic change. This is even, perhaps, the most important factor.

Feedback: drjasonamckay@gmail.com




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Remembering Tony Auth

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When the 29-year-old Tony Auth arrived at The Inquirer from Los Angeles in 1971, readers didn’t know what was about to hit them.

The early ‘70s were an era when the Vietnam War was raging, Richard Nixon was raging, and Frank Rizzo was raging. Women and civil rights activists were stepping up their fight for equal treatment under the law. And the nation — newly skeptical in many ways amid the tumult of Watergate — began to demand a greater degree of accountability from elected officials and those in power. Tony drew about it all — and so much more.

Tony looked past personalities and repeatedly highlighted issues — the blight of poverty, the perils of racism and bias, public corruption and gun violence in cartoons that still grab us by our consciences. So many of Tony’s illustrations resonate as strongly today as the day he drew them.

While Tony’s images were sharp and opinionated, he was affable in person and would sometimes engage readers who called him to complain about his work.

David Leopold, the curator responsible for staging a marvelous retrospective of Tony’s work at the Michener Museum in 2012, said of Tony’s cartoons: “Readers might not read every editorial, but they always looked at Tony’s drawing. Like many of the great cartoonists, while his work seemed topical, he was most interested in human nature. Tony might not show us or our leaders at our best, but he always hoped that things would get better.”

Tony’s clean style with a minimum of cross-hatching or shading attracted many younger cartoonists, including me, whom he kindly welcomed and mentored.

None were more extravagantly helped than the Lexington Herald Leader’s longtime cartoonist, Joel Pett. In 1979, as a young sprout hoping to meet his idols, Joel hitchhiked from Indiana to New York City to attend the opening of an exhibit of the late David Levine’s exquisite caricatures. There he met prominent cartoonists of the day, including Tony, who — when he found out Joel was penniless — invited him to a cartoonists’ post-show dinner, gave him train fare to Washington, and brokered an introduction to the Washington Post’s iconic, now departed, editorial cartoonist Herbert Block, who famously signed his work “Herblock.”

Joel is still grateful — and he’s hardly alone in having been a beneficiary of Tony’s grace and generosity. Before he became a CNN news anchor, for example, aspiring cartoonist Jake Tapper took his work to Tony, who suggested books to read and other cartoonists’ work to follow. Tapper said: “Tony would take me out to lunch, he would call me on the phone. … He was a friend and mentor and mensch.”

Tony died of cancer in 2014 at age 72, leaving behind his wife, Eliza Auth, and two beloved daughters. Eliza recounted how Tony would get up in the morning, read the newspapers, and start sketching ideas before heading into his office on the sixth floor of the former Inquirer building at 400 N. Broad St., which now serves as the headquarters for the Philadelphia Police Department. (When asked who now occupies Tony’s office, a police public affairs officer helpfully revealed — wait for it — “police.”)

Eliza said: “Tony loved his work. He came home at the end of the day and began to draw.”

This year marks a decade since Tony left The Inquirer through a buyout after 41 years in the newsroom. His departure was yet another in a wave of retirements, voluntary separations, and dismissals over the last quarter century that have decimated the ranks of newspaper cartoonists. In the 1980s there were somewhere around 150 cartooning jobs in U.S. newsrooms. Today there are about 30 and not all of them are full time. Similarly, comic strips have withered as the newspapers that spawned these distinctive visual art forms have largely shrunk to shells of their former selves — their demise accelerated by the onslaught of online media where no one has to pay for news they don’t agree with.

As a result, once-robust papers like The Inquirer no longer have their own in-house editorial cartoonist, so they are rarely able to feature on their pages homegrown visual commentary on City Hall or the state legislature — the exact people who most need a pen pointed in their directions.

Instead of finding homes on newspaper editorial or comics pages, today’s cartoonists are intrepidly creating their own digital outlets. You can find your preferred comic humor online without having to look at work you disagree with. It’s great! With the work correctly curated, you never have to have your viewpoints challenged in the virtual world.

Traditional editorial cartooning may be fading, but Tony Auth — mentor and mensch — was recognized as one of its masters for four decades.

Tony wore his many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, lightly. In 2005, he received cartooning’s highest honor, the prestigious Herblock Prize, named for the Post icon whom Tony helped Joel Pett meet all those years ago. Accepting the award, Tony said: “Our job is not to amuse our readers. Our mission is to stir them, inform and inflame them. Our task is to continually hold up our government and our leaders to clear-eyed analysis, unaffected by professional spin-meisters and agenda-pushers”

And so he did.

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Signe Wilkinson spent 35 years as an editorial cartoonist at The Inquirer and the Daily News.


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