Monday, February 24, 2014

Why does a Phoenix Cop want to see West Phoenix Girl Scouts profiled by police?

Eight year old Girl Scout Lexi Carney made national news this week after she and her family set up a table selling Girl Scout cookies outside of the TruMed medical marijuana dispensary in East Phoenix. Her mother Heidi had been inspired after hearing the news that a Girl Scout in San Francisco had sold out of her entire stock of cookies in a single day after setting up her table outside a pot shop. 

For its part, the local Girl Scouts chapter said that the medical marijuana dispensary would not have been approved because it would not be considered a "kid friendly" location. But the reality is that, in 2014, a family can set up a table at an East Valley medical marijuana dispensary and face no threat from law enforcement, even if Girl Scout leaders frown on the practice.  However, it's a different story in the Southwest Valley, if the Facebook post of a Phoenix Police lieutenant is to be believed.

In a February 6th posting on the public wall of his face book page, Lt. Tom Van Dorn posted a status update describing how he is a "cynical cop" because of his reaction when he saw a black Chevy Tahoe advertising the sale of Girl Scout cookies.  Below is a screen shot of Van Dorn's original post:

In other words, Lt. Van Dorn has a message for anyone driving a black Chevy Tahoe in the southwest valley: he is profiling your vehicle and is especially suspicious of anyone advertising their kid's Girl Scouts cookies from their vehicle in that part of town. When he sees your truck his first thought is, "WHO DID YOU ROB FOR THOSE COOKIES? [sic]" And, "I should pull you over."

According to the Girl Scouts of America's Girl Scout cookies FAQ, "parents and Girl Scout adults may assist, [but] it is the girl who makes the sale, sets learning and sales goals, and learns the entrepreneurial skills that are part of the program."  By these definitions the driver of the Tahoe is most likely following the rules, not that the police are empowered to enforce the Girl Scout handbook. 

Furthermore there's any number of scenarios which could explain why a parent would advertise that they have Girl Scout cookies for sale, for the suggested retail price of four dollars, as stated on the Arizona Cactus-Pine Council's FAQ. And the driver in the West Valley who advertises they have Girl Scout cookies for sale is not alone in this tactic, as the Duncan Banner reported over the weekend. 

 Tyler Boydson/Duncan Banner

The Watson family of Duncan, Oklahoma said that the painted message on their vehicle has helped them sell more cookies than they expected.  Luckily for the Watsons, they don't live in Southwest Phoenix where their support for their daughter's Girl Scout group would be interpreted by a Valley police officer as suspicious, and the cookies as likely stolen goods.

What's interesting is that you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a more wholesome, American middle class activity than selling Girl Scout cookies. In other parts of town, parents who participate in such activities are viewed as engaged and responsible parents. But not if you live in Lt. Van Dorn's beat. To him, you're just a thief.

This sets up a lose-lose situation in which parents are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Violating traditional middle class parenting values invites police intervention, but emulating them draws police suspicion. 

According to his public Facebook wall, Lt. Van Dorn was transferred to the Estrella Mountain Precinct in early January, working the 33 Area which encompasses Estrella and Laveen in Southwest Phoenix, both heavily minority parts of the city.

Before his transfer to the Estrella Mountain Precinct, Tom Van Dorn worked in the Career Criminal Squad, a division of the Phoenix Police Department's Major Offenders Bureau.  Van Dorn was referenced in journalist Beau Hodai's "Dissent or Terror" investigation into various local law enforcement agencies' surveillance of Occupy Phoenix participants, as well as individuals associated with anarchist protests and events.

According to emails released in that investigation, it was Lt. Van Dorn, then a sergeant, who was responsible for sending undercover officer "Saul DeLara" to spy on protesters, and he encouraged his colleagues at the Arizona Counter Terror Information Center (ACTIC) to broaden the scope of their internet spying on protest groups. Several people who interacted with officer "DeLara" reported that he advocated violence and claimed to have connections to Mexican anarchists. He was quickly outed by Occupiers and was further revealed in the "Dissent or Terror" investigation to be Detective Saul Ayala.

Interestingly, a search of the the Global Intelligence Files, five million emails from global intelligence firm Stratfor and leaked thanks to the work of Jeremy Hammond (who also hacked Arizona law enforcement as a part of the Antisec group), reveals that Saul Ayala contacted Stratfor at least twice offering advice on alleged radical jihadists in Mexico, a common far right wing talking point, but something that seems a bit out of the jurisdiction of your average undercover cop. There's quite a bit in these files about local police and unfortunately the media has largely ignored it.

Nevertheless, the connections between local police and private national security firms like Stratfor (and Infragard, as we have previously reported) raise serious questions, just like Van Dorn's thinly-veiled profiling operating under the guise of cynicism. Last year Down and Drought revealed a racist tweet from Phoenix officer Yuliana Sobarzo, out of the South Mountain Precinct mocking the mentally ill.  Social media posts, like those from Sobarzo and Van Dorn, reveal the casualness with which officers feel they can display their racism and bias on social media and raise questions about general attitudes among the force.

As we covered in a previous piece, the Phoenix police department has had ongoing problems with racism and their heavy handed approach to policing, so it is no surprise that the police consider the residents of Southwest Phoenix to be always under suspicion, just like how anyone outraged enough by the looting of the economy to join popular protests was a potential target of police surveillance and infiltration. And, of course, when a police officer like Van Dorn, who ordered the infiltration of a popular protest movement, jokes about profiling, it's not a far leap to believing he may in fact do it.

Further reading: Phoenix cop mocks Olympic athlete, the mentally ill, and wins gold medal in anti-black racism

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Scumbag Tempe creates free public transit, criminalizes using it

Let's hearken back to 2007, shall we? Tempe was dreaming big.  Centerpoint Towers, now reborn as W6 after temporarily pooping out mid-development, was still in progress.  The twin towers steadily rose to unprecedented heights, along with the city's prospects, it was hoped.

So can this can be used arbitrarily? Yes.

And Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman was championing the transformation of the city's public transit system to reflect its New Urbanist vision -- a city of easy transport and just as easy-to-get-to entertainment and work. Easy money, you might call it. The city envisioned an expansion of the existing free transit system, the Flash Forward and Back, into a neighborhood system. Small free buses would snake through the areas surrounding the university, delivering students and shoppers to various city destinations.
Quoted in an official city press release at the time, Mayor Hallman described the purpose of the free Orbit system in broad, inclusive terms.  Not only was the system meant to be a simple, green means of getting to work, it was also supposed to serve the old and disabled.  "Many residents — young, old, disabled or those simply desiring to reduce vehicle emissions — are in need of alternative transportation," he said.

So it might be surprising to know that a few weeks ago Tempe essentially made taking the city's neighborhood buses a crime for elderly and disabled people.  And probably poor people, too. And probably just about anybody that doesn't fit into the city's yuppie vision for the future. And not only that, the may have turned taking the bus into a potential Fourth Amendment nightmare.

On January 24, 2014, the city council passed a troubling expansion of the city's sidewalk sitting ordinance into the surrounding neighborhoods, effectively criminalizing sitting on the ground while waiting for the free bus. Given that the system utilizes a “flag” stop arrangement, meaning that residents and visitors can essentially wait for and wave down the bus anywhere along the circuitous route where it is reasonably safe for the bus to pick them up, this change in the law represents a dangerous expansion of the ability of police to harass and criminalize people using the system, or just hanging out in front of their own homes minding their own business.

The only no vote came from Councilman Kolby Granville, who questioned the broad language and potential arbitrary enforcement of the ordinance.

Before the vote, Granville questioned legal counsel, asking, "So if I was sitting on the sidewalk in front of my own house, conceivably, could I be violating this rule?" To which counsel responded in the affirmative.  Cops would use their discretion, came the reassuring response.  And when it comes to the police, we know what that means: it will be open season on the poor, people of color and mentally ill and other perceived undesirables.

The passage of the original Tempe sidewalk sitting ban was controversial at the time.  Starting in 1999, community members engaged in a series of protests against the law, and then local ASU graduate student (now a professor at Prescott College) Randall Amster challenged it in court. In an unusual move, the 9th Circuit Court, based out of San Francisco, took up the case and heard the case in Tempe, in a public forum at ASU. Sadly, the court upheld the law. Ironically, it went into effect on Martin Luther King Day.

Down and Drought contacted several city officials for comments on the new ordinance, including Councilman Corey Woods. As the only African-American council member, we were curious if he would have any concerns about potential profiling that may result from the law. In his response to us via Twitter, Woods said the city had considered the effect of similar laws in Phoenix and Mesa, and that their "analysis didn't show profiling happening in those cities."

We requested that data and followed up with Woods via email, who then put us in contact with Bill Amato, police legal advisor to the city. Amato didn't include any data in his response but reiterated the claim that the city had run a "best practices analysis with other jurisdictions that had similar language," and found no reason to suspect increased "4th Amendment or racial profiling claims."

The term Fourth Amendment claims refers to cops using the pretext of police contact made via enforcement of the sidewalk sitting ordinance as cause for a search, which otherwise wouldn't happen.  This troubles Granville, who told us via email that while he's not a legal expert on the question, 'I do not know if violation of the city code is considered to be "an arrest" subject to a search, or if it is something different.  However, my concern is that it may be.'

But after those initial comments, things get a little tricky. In his response, Amato reminds us that racial profiling and police harassment are not "ordinance specific," meaning that a police force that generally profiles is just as capable of profiling with any law at its disposal. Neither Phoenix nor Mesa have stellar records in this regard.

Readers may recall in 2010 when police assaulted and handcuffed Phoenix City Councilman Michael Johnson as he was checking on a neighbor whose house was on fire. Indeed, we here at Down and Drought broke a story last year involving a racist tweet from a Phoenix police officer. In 2012 a community group accused PPD of racial profiling during traffic stops. And a statewide review of traffic stops by DPS in 2008 by the ACLU revealed widespread bias in police stops in Arizona. And of course, many Tempe residents remember the Sgt. Schoville affair. And just recently we saw allegations that Tempe police offered protection to a frat that threw a racist party. So there is certainly cause for concern.

Criminals up to no good in Tempe?

So essentially Amato's message to us is that we should just trust the police, despite ample cause for skepticism. However, it seems even the city is having some second thoughts. Amato tells us, 'As one final note, staff will be bringing this ordinance back to Council to add some additional language. The proposed language will add additional safeguards by requiring the conduct to “unreasonably impede the right of way or cause a safety risk”.'

So, if there's no reason for concern, why the need for additional language to prevent the abuses they claim won't happen in the first place? It certainly begs the question as to why the ordinance is needed at all. Is this a solution looking for a problem? Or is this push for increased policing related to other standardization measures in North Tempe, such as increased enforcement of noise ordinances and yard codes?

To us, it looks like a part of a broader attempt by the city to domesticate the valuable downtown area, to make it safe for development and high end condo owners, and to enclose all social life in Tempe in one of three places: in city sanctioned mega events and the bars of Mill Avenue (where they can be taxed and policed), or quietly and meekly inside residents' homes. Our guess is that's exactly what this is, and that's another big reason all residents should oppose it.

To the sidewalks!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Public Relations: The love affair between Valley cops and the news media

 A Symbiotic Relationship: 3TV news crew poses for a selfie with Phoenix PD's Press Information Officer (PIO) Steve Martos

It's no surprise that local news content is full of pre-packaged "video news releases" which make up much of the content that supplements the local coverage.  While some of the news is received via satellite from international news organizations such as the Associated Press, often there are stories planted by public relations firms and advertisers disguising their product in a news story.  Local television stations have relied on video news releases to keep the costs of producing a newscast low and the profits for the station's owners up, even as audiences for local newscasts have been dwindling for years. The pervasiveness of the video news release has reached such absurd proportions that even late night talk host Conan O'Brien has a regular feature on his show lampooning the frequency of local newscasts that report the same story, word for word, in markets across the country.

However, it is not just PR firms and ad agencies making the most of local news media's need for content that is cheap and easy to obtain, police departments have also become experts at using the media to boost their image by adapting the methods used by advertisers to craft a "brand identity" for consumer products. In "Branding Your Agency: Creating the Police Department's Image", a 2004 article published in Police Chief Magazine, police chiefs Gary J. Margolis of the University of Vermont and Noel C. March of the University of Maine encouraged police chiefs to seize control of their department's public image by turning to the strategies of advertising and PR firns in creating a brand identity for policing.

Margolis and March cite a 2001 "Public Image of the Police" report from George Mason University which concluded that negative perceptions of the police stem from personal experience, rather than the success of police in reducing crime or an individual's favorable interaction with a law enforcement officer.  Key to the study was the finding that people's perception of the police are often formed by their exposure to police actions in the media, that the media is the primary source for most people about crime, and in the absence of a narrative controlled by the department it may appear that police are unable to stop crime. 

Valley police departments were taking notes, as Press Information Officers (PIO) make frequent appearances on the evening newscast to share information that departments want released to the public.  In addition to the various departments' de facto anchors making regular appearances on the local news, press releases from law enforcement agencies are often reprinted with minor changes made in the arrangement of sentences to avoid plagiarism.  That these press releases are appearing on local news websites and newscasts as news items, complete with all the authenticity associated with a journalist's byline, should be prompting outrage at the local news and police agencies. 

We here at Down and Drought follow the local news pretty closely, so we thought we might have some fun comparing the press releases from law enforcement agencies with news articles from our esteemed "free and independent" fourth estate. How bad is it?  Take a look at two recent stories in the Phoenix news, compare the police press releases to the slightly altered news content and ask if it stands on its own as an independent piece of journalism.

Below is a screen capture from the January 27, 2014 press release from the Mohave County Sheriff's Office announcing the search for a suspect involved in a bank robbery in Golden Valley, Arizona.  The press release includes photos of the alleged robber as well as information specific to the person's build, their behavior during the alleged robbery, and the the appropriate contact information for the department(s) investigating, in the case a viewer might have information the cops would find useful.

The photos below are both screen captures from articles published on the website for KTVK Channel 3 and KPHO Channel 5.  Both websites ran the press release with slight modifications from the original writing and were published under the names of employees at the station.   The KPHO article, credited to Steve Stout, a longtime editor of valley news publications from the East Valley Tribune to his current gig at KPHO, is nearly identical to the press release.

Both articles come pretty close to qualifying as plagiarism, as they are nearly identical to the Mohave County press release, and yet they are not the exception.  Again, the same pattern with a Tempe police press release on the arrest of an alleged bike thief:

Followed by screen shots taken from two articles from local news websites which include large sections of the press release which are rearranged just enough to keep it from being a plagiarized article.

The local press, and as seen above KTVK and KPHO, have no qualms about reprinting police news releases and remaining completely uncritical about the information contained within.  Just like the video news releases released to stations by PR agencies, law enforcement agencies know they have an open door with the local media, forever hungry for cheap, garish stories which come to them, saving any of the employed journalists from having to do any of the actual leg work and research required for a balanced piece of journalism.

In plain terms, there's lots of advantages for the police in crafting a brand identity which portrays the police as the solution and final word to the problems of the community. Aside from that, they need the good publicity! Just last year valley cops killed over 50 people in shootings alone, a key community relations officer was arrested for sex with minors, and Phoenix officer Richard Chrisman went to prison on assault and manslaughter charges.

It was during the week that Chrisman was sentenced when the Phoenix police's PR division may have tried to deflect attention from the Chrisman verdict by planting a story about officers helping a needy family at Christmas.  The story, which appeared on KNXV ABC15, cited Phoenix police officer James Holmes, as he described Phoenix cops as having a "tough and dangerous job", and frequently coming to the aid of the citizenry, at what now sounds like potentially great peril to their well being.  Whether out of laziness or complicity, the journalist Lauren Vargas deemed it unnecessary to also include the information that James Holmes is a PIO for the Phoenix police, and the story aired on December 20, 2013 the day that one of the most notorious cops in Phoenix's history was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Writer JJ Hensley at the Arizona Republic wrote a lengthy article on the police shooting spree of 2013 and tackled a number of contributing factors which critics and defenders of the police say have contributed to so many shootings in the Valley.  Hensley cites the rate of assaults on officers and the continuing militarization of the police as two of the main reasons for the change in policing.

Hensley ends the article with a section on the public's response to trigger-happy cops, noting a lack of public outrage to the well-publicized shootings.  But he fails to consider one of the biggest factors as to why there may be a lack of outrage when officers gun someone down: that his own profession treats the local police department as an in-house bureau which provides the footage that often bleeds and leads on the local news.

While the public's passivity to police killings cannot be entirely attributed to the media's coverage and working relationship with the police, it is worthwhile to return to Margolis and March's article in Police Chief Magazine and their emphasis on manipulating the public's perception of the police. Utilizing the media is useful for police in expressing their department's brand identity, and to seize the narrative from their critics to ensure that, whether they are rescuing a cat from a tree or shooting over 50 people in a year, they must be seen as the community's only solution to their problems.


As if things weren't bad enough for Arizona's poor and working class, what with the way the education system fails us, or how we live under constant threat of “financial devastation,” yesterday brought new bad news for people trying to get by on low incomes.

It should come as no surprise then that Arizona's poverty rate has spiked upwards to almost 20% post-recession when we see these recent figures from the Economic Policy Institute. While rich people and politicians threaten "economic apocalypse!" over proposed minimum wage hikes, hold the unemployed hostage, and cut food stamps, the poor have continued to suffer the brunt of the deepening and continuing economic crisis.

According to the EPI data, Arizona ranked ninth worst in the country in wage erosion, with paychecks for the bottom 20th percentile dropping in constant dollars significantly beyond the 68 cents national median.

According to the report:
The figure below shows that low-wage earners— wage-earners at the 20th percentile— have experienced wage erosion in nearly every state.  Between 2009 and 2013, low-wage earners’ wages declined in every state except three (West Virginia, Mississippi and North Dakota). Real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) wage erosion was greatest in Maryland (-$1.24), Massachusetts (-$1.18), and New Jersey (-$1.16) during this period.  The national average decline over this period was $0.68 or 6.4 percent. Further, wage erosion was not confined to this portion of the wage spectrum.  Wages at both the 10th percentile (“very low wages”), and the median wage saw erosion in forty-five states and the District of Columbia over this period.
With the recent Davos gathering of billionaires identifying income inequality as the most significant threat to stability, you wonder just how far Arizona ricos are willing to push things. The riots that have repeatedly broken out in Rio and other places over things like increased bus fares must certainly have been on the minds of the masters of the universe when they made that declaration from the safety of their luxury retreat. 

Meanwhile, the Tucson city council is debating raising ticket prices tonight, tightening the squeeze even further on the already strained budgets of the poor and working class. Arizona already ranks second in income inequality, and the disparities between rich and poor are growing.

Maybe Arizona isn't Rio, but politicians and rich people should be thinking carefully about just how far they can push Arizona's poor and working class. We have already borne a disproportionate share of the costs for a crisis we didn't cause, and we can't help but notice that the rich are doing better than ever.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Fox 10 Producer "Thankful" for drunk driver crashing into Phoenix home

UPDATE: After media journalist Jim Romenesko picked up on the exclusive Down and Drought coverage of Fox 10 producer Juliana Vasquez's twitter meltdown, the story spread across the internet, largely being reposted by others in the news business.  The media blog TVSpy reported that Vazquez had been reprimanded by station management as a result of our story and the coverage it received from media outlets. In a statement to TVSpy regarding the Down and Drought story on Vazquez, KSAZ vice president and GM Mark Rodman stated that “This is unacceptable behavior and will not be tolerated.” TVSpy also reported that other sources had said that Vasquez was reprimanded by the station for her twitter posts.

Juliana Vasquez, a morning news producer at KSAZ Fox 10 Phoenix, may have been venting about the difficulty of finding content for the morning program when she tweeted that she was "thankful" that an alleged drunk driver crashed into a Phoenix home last night, but her logic in posting such a statement is questionable.  The Fox 10 producer tweeted: "Sometimes you just gotta be thankful that some drunk dude drivers [sic] into a one was hurt, but I needed news #producerproblems".

The tweet was removed from Vasquez's twitter profile this afternoon after Down and Drought posted responses challenging the ethics of a news professional publicly posting such sentiment, and callously treating the real life problems of people impacted by an event as a "#producerproblem".  Fox 10's morning news coverage of the accident featured reporter Anita Roman boasting of the "first look" inside the home, describing how the van crashed mere feet away from where a resident had been sleeping.

FOX 10 News |
Had the residents of the home been aware of Vasquez's excitement over the crash, would they have granted the station "first look" access into their home to video tape the destruction?  Would the 17 year old family member who told reporters that he and his family were "lucky to be alive" be "thankful" that he was able to help a news station fill two minutes of air time?  Vasquez's tweet that she "needed news" is emblematic of the troublesome "what bleeds leads" mentality of local news, and a reminder that, despite the sympathy in the voice of the reporter, it's these stories which drive the advertising revenue and keep producers needing the next big tragedy.