Syria claims ‘terrorists' eat human hearts
by Amir Bibawy
UNITED NATIONS — Syria's foreign minister claimed Monday that his government is fighting a war against al-Qaida-linked militants who eat human hearts and dismember people while they are still alive, then send their limbs to family members.
Walid al-Moallem, addressing world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, also charged that the U.S., Britain and France had blocked the naming of the real perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
He claimed “terrorists” fighting the regime in the civil war are being supplied with chemical weapons, but he did not name specific nations accused of supplying them.
President Barack Obama told the U.N. last week that it was the President Bashar Assad's regime that was behind a chemical weapons attack in August that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburbs and brought threats of a U.S. strike.
Syria has committed to getting rid of its stockpiles of chemical weapons and the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Friday to oblige it to do so based on a plan made by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Al-Moallem claimed that it is clear to all that offshoots of al-Qaida — “the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world” — is fighting in the Syrian civil war. But some countries refuse to recognize it, he said.
“The scenes of murder, manslaughter and eating human hearts were shown on TV screens, but did not touch blind consciences,” al-Moallem said.
“There are innocent civilians whose heads are put on the grill just because they violate the extremist ideology and deviant views of al-Qaida. In Syria ... there are murderers who dismember human bodies into pieces while still alive and send their limbs to their families, just because those citizens are defending a unified and secular Syria.”
A video published online in May purported to show a member of Syria's armed opposition eating a human heart while the body of a Syrian soldier lay close by. Another video the minister referred to purportedly showed rebels grilling the head of a Syrian soldier.
The video with the heart drew condemnation from human rights groups as well as the Syrian National Council, one of the main opposition groups.
As rebels gain more territory and a multitude of militias, jihadists and criminals join the fight against Assad, reports of serious human rights abuses committed by armed opposition elements are on the rise.
Summary executions committed by rebel forces — albeit on a far smaller scale than the regime's alleged atrocities — have put the West in a difficult position as it seeks to arm, train and otherwise aid the rebels.
Al-Moallem said his government was committed to a political solution to his country's conflict which he called a war against “terror” and not a civil war as the international community has been calling it for months.
“Our commitment to a political solution does not mean watching our mosques and churches destroyed, as is happening in Homs and Aleppo, and is happening now in the town of Maaloula, the only place in the world whose people still speak the language of Jesus Christ.”
More Oakland Neighborhoods Employing Private Security Amid Public Safety Concerns
Consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the nation, the City of Oakland has long been plagued with skyrocketing crime rates.
According to federal statistics, Oakland has one robbery for every 91 residents. The SF Gate reports that this translates to almost 12 robberies a day. And given the fact that the city has fell victim to 3,800 robberies to date in 2013—a 24% jump from last year at this time—this year is shaping up to be a lot worse, leading some community groups to resort to crowdsourcing initiatives in order to fund private security details for their neighborhoods.
The neighborhood of Rockridge is located in the Northern part of Oakland. Its collection of large homes nestled in the hills is known for being one of the wealthiest areas in the city.
Lower Rockridge, however, is middle-class neighborhood located just north of Highway 24. Its proximity to both several freeway onramps and a BART station positions it as a prime target for muggings and robberies.
“Enough is enough,” remarked campaign organizer Paul Liu in the CrowdTilt description. “The crime in lower Rockridge north and west of the Rockridge BART station is completely out of hand.”
Proceeds from the initiative will go towards hiring the VMA Security Group who will patrol from 11am to 11pm, Monday thru Friday starting November 1. The fundraising campaign has already amassed over $12,550 of its $20,513 goal within a week of its inception, securing VMA through February of next year. Over 131 individual sponsors have donated thus far at or above the minimum $82.05 contribution.
A Neighborhood United
A native of the East Coast, Victoria Bogdan and her fiancé moved to Oakland's Lower Rockridge from San Francisco a few years ago. When asked about her experience, she responded that it has been “mixed.”
Citing the neighborhood's character, beauty, charm and array of diverse, interesting and caring neighbors, Bogdan cherishes her neighborhood, save for it being a hotbed for criminal activity.
Within the past 30 days, there have been 21 muggings in Bogdan's neighborhood alone.
Bogdan has witnessed her fair share of crime in Lower Rockridge. While in flight from the cops, a perpetrator once ended up in the backyard of Bogdan's home.
Caught between the crossfire of two competing drug dealers, a neighborhood car across the street from her home was filled to the brim with lead. Windows were shattered and bullet holes adorned the exterior. For Bogdan and her neighbors, the car served as a daily and sullen reminder of Oakland's dismal state of public safety before it was removed a week later.
“We have definitely become quite adept at distinguishing the sound of gunshots from fireworks,” remarked Bogdan.
The threat of robberies and muggings has integrated itself into her daily routine. Though the BART station is but a half mile walk away from their house, Bogdan and her fiancé have calculated that walking poses too much of a risk and now bike the short distance daily in hopes that it will deter criminals.
When asked whether raising a family would be of concern in Rockridge, Bogdan replied that it is a bit of a worry to her and her fiancé. They have watched young families pick up and leave the neighborhood time and time again.
Even in light of the neighborhood's rising crime, Bogdan wanted to commend her community for how well they have come together. The crowdsourcing initiative is but one example of the neighborhood's collective effort to stymie criminal activity.
Bogdan and her neighbors maintain a private online network where they post crime alerts and share instances of suspicious activity that take place in neighborhood; a kind of virtual neighborhood watch. They host block parties and nights out in Rockridge's business district to let perpetrators know that people actually reside, work and live their lives in Lower Rockridge. The neighborhood association and its residents are in constant contact with their council representative, Councilman Dan Kalb who also lives in Rockridge.
“Our neighbors have really come together in light of our situation and learned to depend on each other,” stated Bogdan. “It is remarkable to see how people have adapted to their circumstances so quickly.”
Benjamin Katz, a tech entrepreneur from San Diego, is a former resident of Oakland who has a number of friends who live in Lower Rockridge. His parents and brother still live in Oakland and despite having been out of the city for 20 years, he feels a connection to his hometown.
Katz' friends moved to Rockridge from San Diego a year ago and have since had their house broken into three or four times. It pains him to hear about how the crime situation has “spiraled out of control.”
“Oakland is a great town with great culture and really phenomenal people but it has never been the nicest town from a safety standpoint,” stated Katz. “I would have to look at hard data but I don't remember stories like this when I was a kid.”
A Citywide Struggle
Chris Jackson is the Operations Manager for the Rockridge District Association, where he oversees security for the business district that neighbors Lower Rockridge. Jackson is heavily involved with the Greater Rockridge Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council and is in communication with the OPD Captain on a daily basis.
Jackson believes that because penalties for drugs, prostitution and pimping are so stringent, muggings and robberies are on the rise.
“It's much easier just to steal items off of passersby,” said Jackson. “That way these perpetrators aren't going against another pimp or drug deals.”
Jackson also attributes the skyrocketing crime rates to Oakland's dramatically-reduced police force.
In March of this year, the Oakland Police Department reported a staff of 611 officers— the lowest staffing level in 17 years. This is a sharp decline from just five years ago, when the City boasted a staff of over 800 officers.
“No matter how much neighborhood crime prevention is in place, without a strong police force it won't cut it,” stated Jackson.
When reached for public comment, OPD public information officer Sylvia McDaniel stated, “We recognize that neighborhoods have the option to contract with private security companies. We are committed to communicating and partnering with residents and the security companies operating within the city to address and enhance public safety.”
The CrowdTilt initiative has 22 days left in its campaign. People who reside outside of Lower Rockridge are welcome to give but will so knowing that security detail is limited to the identified area.
Colorado parolees: Some fear new policies put public safety at risk
by Christopher N. Osher, Jennifer Brown and Karen E. Crummy
As Colorado struggles to lower one of the highest return-to-prison rates in the nation, parole officers are stuck balancing second chances against punishment for parolees who misbehave.
Documents obtained by The Denver Post reveal the state's parole division two years ago adopted new policies aimed at keeping troubled parolees out of prison and on the streets whenever possible.
But the shift has been plagued by inadequate training and a lack of resources, corrections officials now say. Law enforcement and parole officers question the new direction, fearing the public's safety is at risk.
Parolees are "getting so bold because of the direction the whole division is going in," said Ryan Burch, who supervises sex offenders out of the Englewood parole office. "We're losing the parolees' fear that prevents them from violating their parole."
Two years ago, Greeley police Chief Jerry Garner complained to corrections officials that his community faced a surge of dangerous parolees on the street.
"These people are dangerous to my citizens," Garner recently told The Post, noting his complaints went unheeded. "They are dangerous to my police officers."
Even committing theft doesn't necessarily get a parolee sent back to prison in Colorado. Neither does missing drug tests or having a machete.
Ernest Schmidt did all of those things. Schmidt, who had a history of burglary, theft and methamphetamine use, remained on parole until he killed. Labeled a likely "career criminal" by a prison case manager, Schmidt had been free on parole since Jan. 18, 2011.
Pikes Peak Community College warned the parole system in April of that year that Schmidt had stolen a computer. Schmidt remained free, and his parole officer retrieved the computer and returned it to the college.
Schmidt skipped three drug tests.
A search of his home found a bow, a machete, a marijuana pipe and internal financial records from a rental store. Parole reported the information to the Colorado Springs police department's financial crimes unit, but Schmidt continued to walk the streets.
On July 27, 2011, Schmidt shot two men, one fatally, during a robbery in an AutoZone parking lot in Colorado Springs. He is serving life in prison without parole.
In 2011, the state put in place a new program aimed at standardizing how parole officers handle parolees who get in trouble. The new program is meant to guide parole officers on when they should seek revocations. But there is resistance.
Previously, officers had leeway when deciding to pursue revoking parole. The new program, called the Colorado Violation Decision Making Process, takes into account risk levels of offenders and gives points for violations to determine presumptive sanctions, which can range from verbal reprimands to a revocation.
The program was being implemented while Schmidt was on parole, so his officer didn't use it to evaluate his early violations.
Some parole officers say the program is too lenient and seems to be another way for the state to save money.
Burch, the parole officer, said violations are often a precursor for bigger problems. A person taking drugs, for instance, might be stealing to feed his habit, he said. A sex offender caught with a prohibited smartphone may be a step away from looking at children online.
"How do I enforce the rules when the punishment for violating them has been watered down quite a bit?" he said. "These are safeguards in place to get people into custody before there is a victim."
Others praise the reduction of the number of parolees returned for technical violations.
"People should be re-incarcerated if they are a public safety risk or engaging in criminal activity, not if they don't have a job or place to live or are struggling with mental health or addiction problems," said Christie Donner, founder and executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
A consultant who reviewed the new program last summer found morale low among parole officers.
"Many staff appear to lack an understanding of the department's focus on evidence-based practices, risk reduction and behavior change; the research that supports these strategies; or the knowledge and skills to effectively implement these techniques," wrote Madeline Carter, who conducted the site visit for the nonprofit Center for Effective Public Policy.
In December, an internal corrections audit on the assessment program continued to find problems. That audit reviewed 210 cases in which a parole officer appealed to a supervisor when the program had recommended against revoking parole. In 43 percent of those cases, "training issues were identified, indicating that officers were not using" the assessment tool as designed, a draft report on the audit states.
The audit found parole officers needed to do a better job of documenting and addressing lower-level violations early — perhaps by diverting an offender to therapy — before more serious violations occurred.
The new program is a work in progress, said Steve Hager, interim director of the parole division. One issue under review is whether stiffer sanctions should occur for those who repeatedly violate their parole terms, he said. Currently, each violation is treated individually and not part of an overall pattern of behavior, Hager said.
In Schmidt's case, had the program been used, it would have weighed his risk level, which was rated high, and any criminal charges. But the college did not pursue charges. The program would have assessed the missed drug tests as low-level violations, said Alison Morgan, a spokeswoman for the corrections department.
Schmidt's bow and machete could have resulted in a summons to the parole board, Morgan said. Records indicate no move to revoke was made until after Schmidt was accused of murder.
The assessment tool was developed for use in Colorado, but other states — including Kansas, Georgia, Washington and California — have similar but more-advanced programs.
Roger Werholtz, interim director of corrections in Colorado after the assassination of corrections chief Tom Clements in March, allegedly by a parolee, said additional training is needed to improve the program. Another part of the problem, Werholtz said, is that the assessment tool may recommend treatment options that are scarce.
As far back as 2007, an assistant director for the parole division realized the state needed to train parole officers on other issues. Supervisors found that officers were resorting to intimidation and weren't skilled in trying to motivate parolees to change behaviors, documents show.
Despite a $2.1 million federal grant awarded to the state in 2009 to teach "motivational interviewing" techniques throughout the criminal justice system, parole officers still struggle with the techniques.
Three quarters of the parole staff have received training, but just 6.3 percent have reached competency or proficiency, according to data compiled by corrections officials for The Post.
Fewer sent back still goal
Regardless of the problems in training, the parole division has committed to driving down the number of parolees sent back to prison for technical violations.
Last year, the division committed to reduce the percentage of parolees returned for "low and moderate risk" violations to 23.6 percent, a 5 percent reduction from the period of July 2010 through March 2011, strategic planning documents show.
In a November 2012 memo to parole officers, Tim Hand, then-director of the parole division, also urged parole officers to use a summons instead of arresting parolees with violations whenever possible. Hand, who has since been fired, said the division needed to cut back on arrests because it had overspent its budget for holding parolees in jail by $2.4 million.
The push to reduce revocations and arrests back up what Garner, the Greeley police chief, was being told.
"What I was hearing from parole officers around the state is that they were finding it much more difficult to return parolees for technical violations because the state wanted them out of the prison," Garner said. "The state was transferring the cost for these very expensive prison beds to the cities and counties. We were going to have to try them; we were going to have to put them in jail. Our citizens were going to be the victims."
Garner talked to Clements and Hand, who told him he was overreacting.
Whether the state's effort to keep more parolees on the streets is the right move, the consequences of failing to intervene can be deadly.
Susan Daniel tried to save her daughter, Kathryn Young. Parole records show Daniel pleaded for revocation of the parole of her daughter's husband, Rodricke Shari, who was released from prison on parole in June 2007.
Daniel told the parole officer that her daughter's husband was so violent that Young was wearing turtlenecks to cover up choke marks and sleeping in the family's clothing store. But Shari remained free after he was investigated for punching a man in the head and making a threat against a restaurant owner.
"I couldn't get him revoked, but I tried. I would call with anything. I would say, 'What will it take?' " Daniel said. "The problem is they go before the parole boards, and they are sweet as iced tea. They are so sickly sweet: 'I'll be good. I'll be good. I won't do anything wrong.' Saying it for 15 minutes doesn't make it true."
Nearly a year after Shari was paroled, he stabbed his estranged wife 21 times. After killing her, Shari stole nearly $700 from her. Now he is serving life in prison.
"I knew it was going to get worse, and it did," Daniel said. "But no. Nobody listened."
Are Public Safety "Activists" Planning to Shame Drug Addicts and Needle Users?
Public safety "activists" in Santa Cruz recently began planning a protest against those they believe are creating hypodermic needle waste in outdoor and natural areas locally. One individual has suggested shaming clients outside of the county's needle exchange office, where drug users may obtain clean needles when they turn in used ones. In a Facebook discussion, Chris Brown said, "What about taking pictures of those going in and out and posting them to a web site in an effort to shame them? I admit it seems rather creepy and low but????"
They are members of the Facebook group "Needle Free Zone - Santa Cruz County," and those planning the protest include many well known names: Ken "Skindog" Collins, Valerie Abbott, Samantha Olden, Kim Gardner, Meriah Campbell, Janell Whiting, Ellie Chapman, Chris Brown (not to be confused with Santa Cruz Clean Team admin Chrissy Brown, who is also in the group but did not comment on the plans for a protest), and Lewis Roubal.
Some members of Needle Free Zone Santa Cruz County say they are still angry that in March, members of Take Back Santa Cruz "softened" down a protest march that went from from Harvey West to City Hall. The protest was originally to include a stop by the Homeless Services Center (HSC), which Samantha Olden said was supported by Ken "Skindog" Collins. (Collins has been the subject of controversy more recently after he was captured on video poking and yelling at a homeless person at a clean up event with the Clean Team in March of this year)
The idea to stop at the HSC was scrapped. Olden said the protest was, "softened up into the event that took place."
"I agree that we need to get loud and more demonstrative," she said, "that we are "mad as hell and we're not gonna take it anymore". We pay for the hsc and needle giveaway with our hard earned tax dollars. I personally want a refund! And will not vote for anyone that isn't willing to close the "exchange"."
The group is similar to, and includes members of, other public safety groups in Santa Cruz that focus on the litter and waste associated with homeless drug addicts (and homeless people in general), such as The Santa Cruz Clean Team and Take Back Santa Cruz.
Like the other groups, Needle Free Zone Santa Cruz County is somewhat myopic in its understanding of the issues surrounding homelessness and needle use, and members of the group rarely talk about people on the street who are diabetic and sometimes need to use syringes when in public. Needle Free Zone Santa Cruz County members have distributed and stuck stickers all over public spaces in the city that say "Needle Free Zone." Apparently no consideration has been given to those who need to use syringes for various personal medical reasons.
Kim Gardner said in the protest thread, "...obviously pictures and data and speaking at meetings aren't changing anything."
"People NEED to get their needle bubble popped," Meriah Campbell said.
"Cleaning isn't working," Janell Whiting said.
The idea of shaming individuals who are attempting to access the needle exchange, a legal medical service, and to plan a protest for the location of the exchange seems remarkably similar to the political agitation and violence that occurs at abortion providers.
The American Civil Liberties Union says Needle Exchange Programs (NEPs) promote public safety, and offers the following reasons:
|* In 2002, NEPs reported removing nearly 25 million used syringes from communities.
* According to the Centers for Disease Control, the one-time use of sterile syringes remains the most effective way to limit HIV transmission associated with injection drug use.
* A study by the National Institutes of Health found that NEPs “show a reduction in risk behaviors as high as 80 percent in injecting drug users…”
* NEP participants have been found five times more likely to enter drug treatment than those who had never used an exchange.
* NEPs throughout the country have reduced HIV transmission rates by one-third to two-fifths.
* An analyses of a New York State-approved NEP found that during a 12-month period, an estimated 87 HIV infections were averted as a direct result of the use of needle exchange.
* Injection drug users who are afraid of being arrested while carrying drug paraphernalia are 1.74 times more likely to share syringes, and 2.08 times more likely to share injection supplies than other users.