Obama says Trayvon Martin 'could have been me' years ago
by Julie Pace
WASHINGTON (AP) - In a rare and public reflection on race, President Barack Obama called on the nation Friday to do some soul searching over the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his shooter, saying the slain black teenager "could have been me 35 years ago." Empathizing with the pain of many black Americans, Obama said the case conjured up a hard history of racial injustice "that doesn't go away."
Obama's personal comments, in a surprise appearance in the White House press room, marked his most extensive discussion of race as president. For Obama, who has written about his own struggles with racial identity but often has shied away from the subject in office, the speech signaled an unusual embrace of his standing as the nation's first black president and the longing of many African-Americans for him to give voice to their experiences.
"When you think about why, in the African- American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away," Obama said during his 20-minute remarks.
A Florida jury last week acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the February 2012 shooting of Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old. The verdict was cheered by those who agreed that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense, while others protested the outcome, believing Zimmerman had targeted Martin because he was black.
Despite his emotional comments on the case, the president appeared to signal that the Justice Department was unlikely to file federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. Traditionally, he said, "these are issues of state and local government," and he warned that the public should have "clear expectations."
Following the verdict, some civil rights leaders called on Obama to lead a national conversation on race. But the president has resisted. Before Friday, his only comment on the verdict had been a written statement in which he called Martin's death a tragedy and appealed for calm.
But throughout the week, the president kept track of the national response to the verdict, particularly by black Americans, and had discussions with his family, aides said. He was ready to address the verdict earlier this week during a round of interviews with Spanish language television stations, but the matter never came up.
On Thursday, he told his senior advisers that he felt the country needed to hear from him - not in an interview or speech, just a frank discussion of his views and experiences. He spoke from the podium in the White House briefing room with no notes.
Even as the president urged the public to accept the verdict - "once the jury's spoken, that's how our system works" - he gave voice to the feelings held by many angered by the jury's decisions.
There's a sense, Obama said, "that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different."
The president spoke emotionally about Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and
Tracy Martin, saying they had displayed incredible grace and dignity. He never mentioned the feelings of Zimmerman, whose brother has said the former defendant has faced numerous death threats.
Martin's parents released a statement following the remarks, saying, "President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him. This is a beautiful tribute to our boy."
Zimmerman's brother, Robert, also welcomed the president's remarks, telling Fox News that "the American people need to have some time to digest what really happened and to do that soul searching the president spoke of."
Despite that fact that Obama's race has been central to the narrative of his political rise, he has rarely addressed the matter as a public figure. He last spoke about race in a substantial way as a presidential candidate in 2008 in addressing criticism over incendiary comments made by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
In 2009, Obama stumbled when commenting on the arrest of a black Harvard professor in the professor's home, saying the police "acted stupidly." The president was forced to retract his statement, then held an awkward "beer summit" at the White House with the professor, Henry Louis Gates, and the white arresting officer.
But on Friday, Obama spoke poignantly about the distrust that shadows many African-American men, saying that they can draw nervous stares on elevators and hear car locks clicking when they walk down the street.
"There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store," he said. "That includes me."
In a departure from his typical caution on legal matters, the president also waded into the thorny debates on racial profiling and Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, despite the fact that neither was formally raised during Zimmerman's trial.
Obama said it would be useful "to examine some state and local laws to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of confrontation" that led to Martin's death. He questioned whether a law that sends the message that someone who is armed "has the right to use those firearms even if there is a way for them to exit from a situation" really promotes peace and security.
And he raised the provocative question of whether Martin himself, if he had been armed and of age, "could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk" and shot Zimmerman if he felt threatened when being followed.
Seeking to inject a sense of hope into his otherwise somber remarks, the president said race relations in the United States have improved with each passing generation. He said his young daughters and their friends are "better than we were."
"We're becoming a more perfect union," he said. "Not a perfect union, but a more perfect union."
L.A. County sheriff making progress on jail reforms
by Christina Villacorte
The Sheriff's Department has implemented almost two-thirds of the reforms sought by a blue ribbon commission to stamp out excessive use of force in its jails but says millions of additional dollars are needed to implement the rest, according to an independent monitor.
Richard Drooyan said the department has implemented 37 of 60 recommendations made by the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence 10 months ago, including hiring an assistant sheriff to manage the jails, drafting new policies governing the use of force, and rotating staff more frequently to prevent deputies from forming "cliques" or what the ACLU calls "savage gangs."
"The remaining recommendations that do not require funding should be completed by the end of the year, if not sooner," he added in a report to be formally submitted Tuesday to the county Board of Supervisors.
Although 15 of the remaining 23 recommendations require additional funding to be fully realized, department spokesman Steve Whitmore said Sheriff Lee Baca is satisfied with the pace of reforms.
"The sheriff is quite pleased with how everything is moving forward very quickly," Whitmore said.
"Part of that -- please don't forget -- is that the sheriff began this way before the Jail Commission was even formed," he added.
But ACLU Jails Project Director Esther Lim, who personally witnessed two deputies punching, kicking and using a Taser on an already unconscious inmate at Twin Towers Correctional Facility in January 2011, has lingering skepticism about the changes at the jails.
"It sounds really great on paper, but is it actually happening?" Lim said. "Are the line supervisors on top of the custody personnel in making sure that these policies are actually put into practice? If not, are they initiating swift disciplinary responses?"
"It's great to see that the Sheriff's Department, the commission, the board, and everyone else really wants this issue to be resolved, but it needs to go a lot further than writing policies," she said.
Baca's initial estimate of the price tag for the reforms was $60.9 million.
Since then, it has surged 45 percent to $88.5 million and several expenses still have yet to be computed, including improving the supervisor-to-staff ratio, enhancing training, and overhauling the department's data tracking system to identify deputies that are frequent subjects of inmate complaints.
Those are labeled "under review" and their costs are to be determined.
"Problems identified by the commission -- including a persistent problem of unreasonable use of force by some in the jails, a troubling culture that allowed force problems to fester, and a disturbing lack of training, supervision and accountability -- won't be solved overnight," commission Executive Director Miriam Krinsky said. "Long-term solutions will require a lasting and sustainable shift in practice, attitude and institutional structure and culture."
"Some of these changes will also require the infusion of new resources and an investment in change as well as in new, effective and empowered outside oversight of the Sheriff's Department," she added. "These investments are not simply the right thing to do, but will also save our community money that we otherwise too often spend on defending lawsuits and taking corrective action when misconduct occurs."
Drooyan said the department is in the process of buying new scanners by mid-November to prevent inmates from concealing shivs and other makeshift weapons. It is also beefing up divisions in charge of investigating alleged deputy beatings of inmates.
Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, whom the commission had blamed for encouraging a "culture of violence" at the jails, stepped down in March though his retirement does not actually take effect until August.
"The department reports that an administrative investigation remains ongoing to determine if there is a basis for formal discipline against department personnel," Drooyan said. "It now expects to complete the investigation by the end of the month."
The department has a pending request for at least $28 million in extra funding, mostly for installing closed-circuit television cameras.
Further cost increases are to be laid out in September.
Secret court renews NSA phone surveillance
by Joby Warrick
WASHINGTON — A secret court on Friday extended the National Security Agency's authority to collect and store the phone records of tens of millions of American cellphone customers, the top U.S. intelligence official confirmed.
The decision by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court amounted to a routine renewal of the legal framework for one of the government's most sensitive and controversial data-collection programs. But it was the first time U.S. officials have publicly acknowledged the step.
The existence of the top-secret collection effort was one of the key revelations in a series of leaks last month by Edward Snowden, the former NSA technical contractor who exposed new details of the spy agency's surveillance programs.
Snowden provided newspapers with documents describing the NSA's systematic efforts to collect "metadata" from cellphone records, including phone numbers and information about the time and length of phone calls. Among the documents was an April court order by a FISA judge ordering a Verizon subsidiary to provide the NSA with data on all telephone calls by its customers.
That order lasted 90 days and was set to expire Friday. The statement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not mention Verizon or any other telecommunications company by name, only that the government was seeking the "renewal of the authority to collect telephony metadata in bulk, and that the Court renewed that authority."
NSA and Obama administration officials say the collected information does not include the content of phone calls, and they say that the program is subject to oversight by congressional committees as well as the FISA court. NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, defending the program before a congressional committee, said such data-collection efforts have helped U.S. spy agencies track terrorists and disrupt plots.
The director's office said it was publicly acknowledging the court's action "in light of the significant and continuing public interest in the telephony metadata collection program."
The statement said administration officials were reviewing whether additional information about the secret program could be publicly disclosed, "consistent with the protection of national security."
Snowden's decision to leak the documents has been hailed by civil rights groups who say the 30-year-old systems administrator exposed a massive and unwarranted government violation of privacy. But critics have accused him of undermining U.S. national security.
In an essay published Friday, former CIA director Michael Hayden described Snowden as likely "the most costly leaker of American secrets in the history of the Republic."
Elderly men held for years in 'dungeon' at Houston home
by Doug Stanglin
Four men, apparently invalids, were being held for years while residents of the house stole their Social Security or veterans checks.
Police answering a 911 call at a home in North Houston Friday discovered four elderly men being held in a "dungeon" garage for as long as 10 years while residents allegedly confiscated their Social Security or veterans checks, according to local media reports.
KTRK-TV quoted police as saying at least one of the four -- ages 79, 54, 74 and about 65 --had been held against his will for 10 years.
Three men found Friday morning were unable to walk and were taken to a Houston hospital, KTRK reports. They appeared to be suffering from malnutrition.
"One of them seemed to think he was picked up off the street and brought here," said Police Sgt. JW McCoy, according to KTRK, the local ABC affiliate. "In exchange for beer and cigarettes and a place to stay, he had to turn over his Social Security check."
Although the men seemed to be in good health, they appeared to be invalids and may have been homeless.
Authorities were investigating whether four women found in the house were also being held against their will. Three had mental disabilities, and police described them as "witnesses," reported KPRC-TV, a CNN affiliate.
One neighbor told the Chronicle that a mother, son, daughter and granddaughter all lived in the one-story house.
Authorities said one person at the house had been taken into custody.
The garage room had burglar bars, locked doors and only a single chair for furnishings, KHOU-TV said.
The Houston Chronicle quoted police Sgt. Steve Murdock as saying conditions in the home were "very deplorable," with some of the men sleeping on the linoleum floor.
"They were prisoners in that house," he said, according to the newspaper.
DNA match links confessed Boston Strangler to last slaying in the spree
by Martin Finucane and Maria Cramer
A DNA match has been made from the remains of Albert DeSalvo, the confessed Boston Strangler, to crime scene evidence from a 1964 slaying that was part of the Strangler's murder spree, authorities announced today. The discovery sheds new light on the dark, decades-old mystery of a killer who preyed on women in Boston in the 1960s.
DeSalvo admitted to 11 murders that transfixed and terrified the city. But he was never convicted of them. And his confessions to murdering the women from 1962 to 1964 had long been questioned because of inconsistencies in his story.
DeSalvo's remains were unearthed from a Peabody cemetery last week in an effort to help resolve the lingering doubts. Investigators were looking to see if DNA from his body matched evidence collected in the slaying of Mary Sullivan on Beacon Hill, who was apparently the Strangler's last victim. The test results were finalized this morning.
“I hope this brings some measure of finality to Mary Sullivan's family,” Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a joint statement with the Suffolk district attorney and Boston police. “This leaves no doubt that Albert DeSalvo was responsible for the brutal murder of Mary Sullivan, and most likely that he was responsible for the horrific murders of the other women he confessed to killing.”
District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said, “We now have an unprecedented level of certainty that Albert DeSalvo raped and murdered Mary Sullivan. We now have to look very closely at the possibility that he also committed at least some of the other sexual homicides to which he confessed. Questions that Mary's family asked for almost 50 years have finally been answered. They, and the families of all homicide victims, should know that we will never stop working to find justice, accountability, and closure on their behalf.”
Casey Sherman, nephew of Mary Sullivan, said Conley had called him early this morning to tell him the news, which he considered “fantastic.”
“This provides finality,” he said.
He said he still had “concerns and question” about whether DeSalvo committed the other Strangler killings. But he said, “If modern science can answer those questions, they'll do it.”
Sherman said he called his mother right after hearing from Conley and she was relieved, telling him, “Mary can rest now.”
Officials said that a nationally recognized lab, Orchid Cellmark of Dallas, had matched seminal fluid recovered at the scene of Sullivan's murder “with scientific certainty” to DeSalvo. The lab said the odds that a white male other than DeSalvo was the source of the evidence were 1 in 220 billion. Only about 107 billion human beings have ever lived on the planet, the officials said.
Sergeant Detective William Doogan, head of the Boston police cold case squad, said the results meant, “You would have to leave the universe to find somebody who did this other than Albert DeSalvo.”
“Albert DeSalvo is our guy. He raped and murdered Mary Sullivan,” he said.
Both Doogan and Donald Hayes, head of the Boston police crime lab, said that, in their opinion, DeSalvo was responsible for all the Strangler murders.
The preliminary results were received Thursday night and they were confirmed this morning. The samples were taken from a 6-inch section of DeSalvo's femur and three of his teeth, the district attorney's office said. The body was returned to the grave last Friday, the same day it was unearthed.
Elaine Whitfield Sharp, an attorney representing DeSalvo's relatives, issued a statement today saying that the DNA results “have not been proved to be relevant” to whether DeSalvo committed the crime.
“We ask the media and the public not to take at face value what the government agents have announced today. There is more to come on this matter, and we are very grateful for your patience in waiting for comment,” Sharp said in the statement.
DeSalvo recanted his confessions and was never convicted of any of the Strangler crimes. He was convicted of unrelated rape charges and sentenced to life in prison. An inmate stabbed DeSalvo to death in November 1973, when he was 42 years old.
Officials said today's announcement marked the first time law enforcement “could confirm his culpability” in any homicide.
Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said he was proud of the tenacity of detectives and analysts working on the case. “The ability to provide closure to a family after 50 years is a remarkable thing,” he said.
The victims, who were 19 to 67 years old, lived in the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Brighton, Dorchester, Fenway, and South End neighborhoods of Boston, as well as Cambridge, Lawrence, Lynn, and Salem, authorities said. All of the victims were single women who were sexually assaulted and strangled.
TSA to expand speedier screening — for a fee
by Bart Jansen
The Transportation Security Administration plans to dramatically expand its program to get travelers through airport checkpoints faster by inviting them to pay a nominal fee for voluntary background checks.
TSA's Pre-check program offers travelers separate lines at checkpoints, where they leave on shoes and light coats and keep laptops in their bags. The free program operates at 40 airports and now covers members of frequent-flier programs for Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, US Airways and Virgin America airlines. Airlines invite frequent-fliers to apply with little more than the information provided when buying a ticket.
But TSA Administrator John Pistole announced Friday the agency will expand eligibility for the program to include travelers who pay a one-time fee of $85 for five years, to cover an application with identifying information such as address and birthplace, a background check and fingerprinting.
Enrollment centers are initially scheduled to open in the fall at Washington's Dulles and Indianapolis airports, but the program is expected to expand at numerous locations nationwide.
"This initiative will increase the number of U.S. citizens eligible to receive expedited screening, through TSA Pre-check," Pistole said.
The expansion is part of Pistole's shift from blanketing everyone with the same security to focusing the most scrutiny on the riskiest travelers. By sorting out trusted travelers for less intrusive screening, the agency hopes to narrow its focus on potential terrorists.
"That's our way of dealing with risk-based security and saying let's get away from the one-size-fits-all, and let's focus on the those that we can pre-screen ... so we can expedite your physical screening at the checkpoint because we have a high confidence that you are not a terrorist," Pistole said Friday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
Pistole's goal is to expand the program to cover 25% of travelers by the end of the year and perhaps 50% by the end of 2014. So far, 12 million travelers have used Pre-check since it began in late 2011, but about 1.8 million people fly every day.
Easing checkpoint security for more travelers is also expected to reduce criticism of TSA.
At the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday, retired admiral Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence overseeing the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, argued that airport checkpoints inconvenienced more people than NSA collecting information about phone calls.
"There has been more inconvenience and damage to Americans by the no-fly list and by taking off your shoes off in the airport than this program," Blair said of the NSA phone program.
Under the expansion, Pre-check would resemble Custom and Border Protection's popular Global Entry program for international travelers. Participants in Global Entry pay a one-time fee of $100 for five years, fill out a travel questionnaire and submit to a background check and fingerprinting.
If the application is approved, Global Entry participants whisk through Customs by swiping their passport at a kiosk and then handing a printed receipt to a government officer.
TSA already recognizes Global Entry participants for Pre-check and that will continue. But Pre-check is an option for travelers without passports and is projected to have more enrollment centers than the 39 that Global Entry has. Pre-check application processing is expected to take about two to three weeks.
Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy for the U.S. Travel Association, which promotes travel and conducts research, said the expansion is important for regular travelers who aren't frequent fliers or who don't live near a Global Entry enrollment office.
"This is a huge development for Pre-check and it has big implications for ordinary travelers," Hansen said. "It's going to be something that expedites the screening process for everyone."
The U.S. Travel Association surveyed travelers in 2010 and 2011 and found a willingness to pay a fee for faster screening.
"If you can get the travelers who travel two to three times per year, that's the majority of the flying public," Hansen said. "If you can target them, that's going to put a lot more people through the expedited screening lane and it's going to shorten the regular screening line for everybody else."
Airports, which have to find space for TSA checkpoints, also welcomed the expansion. Deborah McElroy, interim president of Airports Council International-North America, an advocacy group for airports handling 95% of travelers nationwide, said the program will mean better efficiency and customer service at many checkpoints.
"ACI-NA looks forward to working with TSA to expand this program to additional airports nationwide as soon as possible," McElroy said.
Columbus Police Form Community Policing Unit
The Columbus Police Department has formed a pro-active community policing unit called C.O.P.P.S., which stands for Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving. The new unit begins work tomorrow.
Police Chief Jason Maddix says Officers Troy Love, John Searle and Toby Combest will be assigned to the unit and will work a variety of assignments such as saturation patrols, parades, community events and neighborhood meetings. Their primary purpose will be to suppress criminal activity and further the department's community policing efforts.
"The demand for this unit came from our citizens. We now have the resources to focus squarely on drug dealers and other criminals who may be embedded in our neighborhoods," Maddix said. "The C.O.P.P.S. unit will be a direct extension of our narcotics team, detective division and public relations office. I have high expectations for these officers, who were selected based upon their commitment to community policing, work ethic and high activity levels. We already have a long list of assignments for these officers, so they will be busy."
The recent hiring and training of several new Columbus police officers has providing the staffing level to form this unit. The Columbus Police Department anticipates being at full staff - 79 sworn officers - by November.
Policing the 'flash mobs'
A Hollywood rampage is a reminder that police need sufficient resources to keep pace with technologies and social movements that can undermine public safety.
As crime in Los Angeles has dropped from the frightening levels of the 1990s to the astonishingly low rates of the last decade, pressure from residents and leaders to spend more money on law enforcement has turned into pressure to instead spend less, especially when so many other city services have been cut to accommodate shrinking budgets. But a well-trained police department with enough officers and expertise to respond rapidly to trouble isn't simply a previous era's priority. It is a perpetual need.
Tuesday night's rampage in Hollywood, which may have been incited and organized through social media, is a reminder that police need sufficient resources to keep pace with technologies and social movements that can undermine public safety, and to respond in force to more than a single spot within the city at any given time.
Police speculated that a group of teenagers communicating through Twitter targeted the entertainment and tourist district for an evening of lawlessness in part because they knew a large number of officers would be deployed elsewhere — in the Crenshaw district, where on previous nights peaceful protests against the acquittal in Florida of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin were interrupted by violence. As many as 40 or 50 teenagers converged on Hollywood, where they knocked down pedestrians and in some cases took their cellphones, watches and other items. No serious injuries were reported, but the episode was not merely an irritating romp by teenagers with too much time on their hands. There were robberies and assaults.
Community policing requires more than officers knowing what is happening, on a day-to-day basis, on the streets they patrol. It also requires keeping in touch with those communities in cyberspace, to the extent that it can be done without crossing the line that separates patrolling and snooping. It requires knowing when "flash mobs" are forming. It requires as well being sufficiently involved in neighborhoods to be able to distinguish between peaceful expressions of anger — like most of the protests of the Zimmerman verdict — and acts of violence.
The Los Angeles Police Department has, to its credit, moved away from decades of confrontation-oriented policing to a more community-oriented approach, and that may have helped keep Tuesday's events from getting even further out of hand. Or, perhaps, with better planning and deeper involvement in the communities it serves, the department could have prevented things from going as far as they did. Either way, Los Angeles deserves a full report on what went right and what went wrong, because if the LAPD expects the public to respond with resources, it must also expect scrutiny of its actions and deployment decisions.