Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Valley Police Departments' Biggest Supporters Are Ideologically Driven Bigots And Racists

Holding a "thin blue line" flag, and carrying a handwritten sign, pro-police activist Nohl Rosen held a one man protest outside of the Chandler police department headquarters in early October.  This was the latest in what has become a one man show for Rosen, despite his attempts to build a mass of public support for police through his "Rally for L.E." social media presence.  The Chandler Police Department took a photo of Rosen's demonstration of support and posted it on their Twitter and Facebook page thanking him for his support.

Scottsdale Police joined Rosen for a photo op outside of a police station. The photo was posted to the department's Facebook page.

A late September demonstration in Scottsdale attracted a similar response from the Scottsdale Police Department, only this time a few officers joined him in the photograph. In a comment left by Rosen on the Facebook post, he claims an officer also brought him out a bottle of water.  It's the same story in Glendale, as Rosen posted photos of officers joining his pro-cop demonstration, with one officer even holding Rosen's "thin blue line" flag, and Glendale Chief of Police Deborah Black left a comment on Rosen's Twitter personally thanking him for his support of the department.

A retweet from the Glendale Police Department and a tweet of support from the police chief.

Over the last year Nohl Rosen has become the valley's most visible pro-police activist, in addition to his one man rallies he also organizes pro-police demonstrations, and shares news from other pro-police sources through the "Rally for L.E." social media handle.  According to Rosen's Rally for L.E. website, Rosen organized to support police in "December 2014 after the founder of the movement Nohl Rosen got tired of seeing law enforcement get attacked on a daily basis not just by anti-police protests but by the media as well."  Rosen has frequently described Rally for L.E. as "a movement," although he may be the group's only permanent member.

A Phoenix police officer joins Rosen's one man demonstration.

A pro-Scottsdale Police rally, organized by Rosen in January, attracted media attention when opposing demonstrators clashed in front of Scottsdale Police headquarters. Like many of pro-police rallies organized by Rosen, this one attracted elected officials, former and current law enforcement, and far-right political activists, many of them armed.  Among the note worthy Scottsdale political figures in attendance were Mayor Jim Lane, Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp, and Chief of Police Alan Rodbell, who stood by even as pro-cop supporters got physical with counter-demonstrators.

Also present was embattled ASU police officer Stewart Ferrin (who resigned weeks later), who spoke at the demonstration to thank his supporters, and to stand in support of Scottsdale police.  Down and Drought covered the online police response to the incident which first landed the now former ASU officer Ferrin in the news after his violent take down of a black ASU professor.

We also contributed to the coverage of the protest in Scottsdale when we published a piece on Van Berry, a sergeant in the Arizona Army National Guard's military police unit, and an attendee of Rosen's Scottsdale rally who was captured on video assaulting a videographer at the rally. We published screenshots of posts from Berry's public Facebook page, including a post that linked to a white supremacist site about mosque burnings in Europe.  Berry "liked" a comment left on the article which said "Burn them all!"

The rally in Scottsdale attracted another rightwing activist, Barb Heller, a die hard supporter of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, she has been a fixture at anti-immigrant protests for over a decade in the valley, making the news years back when she wore a medical mask while protesting an immigration march with with "No TB please" written on it.

Heller, seen here counter-demonstrating, at an immigrant march near Tent City

Like Berry, we found anti-Muslim comments on a public post made by Barb Heller on her Facebook page, where she wrote "WE WILL DIP OUR BULLETS IN PIGS BLOOD & URINE!!" in response to a news article about graffiti of the word "Jihad." 

Heller boasts of her proximity to law enforcement by posting pictures on Facebook of her attending citizen law enforcement classes, posing with police officers during police operations, and attending political events in support of Sheriff Arpaio.

 Barb Heller claiming to work with Phoenix police on "Operation High Tide"

Which brings us back to Nohl Rosen, who, like Berry and Heller has opinions leaning to the extreme fringe of the rightwing.  One can easily find anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim statements made online by Nohl Rosen's by running his name through a search engine, and he's become a public supporter for the Confederate flag. Rosen participated in a pro-Confederate flag rally, organized by anti-Muslim activist Jon Ritzheimer, the served as a hub for far-right and white supremacist activists, again many of them armed. Among those who attended the rally was a man who identifies as "Johnny Rebel," the self described Imperial Cleric of the Rebel Outlaw Knights Of The Ku Klux Klan, which he claims is active in Arizona.

"Johnny Rebel", holding the Confederate flag, yells at counter demonstrators. Nohl Rosen stands to Rebel's left in the green shirt.

Rosen spoke to the press at the event as well, and was quoted in a USA Today article in which he was described by the writer as "[o]ne of the most animated Confederate-flag supporters." Rosen spoke in support of the flag saying "[t]he Confederate flag is not a racist flag; it's a part of our history."  Right.

And Rosen's opinions do tend to the extreme fringe of the right wing.  A look around the internet provided plenty of inflammatory comments from Rosen.  Take for example a comment left on the Fox 10 Facebook page in an article regarding a Muslim complaining of discriminatory treatment from an airline. Rosen responds by calling for the mass deportation of all Muslims in the United States.

And where does the law and order loving Rosen stand on Mosques, specifically when they are the target of threatening letters?  He sure doesn't stand with the FBI investigating the case, no, his solution is to get rid of all mosques.

And Rosen is a "Birther," here's a post from 2010 when he questions whether President Barack Obama is a US citizen.

While Rosen's political leanings are likely unknown to the police officers who join him in his one man protests, the political rhetoric he uses online and at demonstrations, often in front of police officers, is no secret. Nor is his contempt for anyone who criticizes or demonstrates against police actions, in a recent video posted online, Rosen calls for "the anti-cop movement" to be destroyed.
If all else fails, perhaps Nohl Rosen can leverage the popularity of fringe rhetoric to make a buck off of his pro-police activism, he's currently trying to build a pro-police business directory on his Rally For L.E. website. He's currently offering pro-police businesses a basic listing on his website for $20 a month, or a yearly basic listing for $240.  A featured business listing runs for $480, and includes mentions on the Rally For L.E. social media accounts. No information could be found to confirm if any businesses had purchased this advertising space from Rally For L.E..

This overlap between police, military, and far right extremists must be of concern to anyone who believes that people should be able to freely organize and assemble to challenge the actions of the government without coercion from the state or state sanctioned vigilantes.  Currently police departments are facing widespread protests and anger over the use of force, racial profiling, and militarization across the country. Do they also want to be known for enabling, showing support for, or protecting these most controversial supporters?

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Scottsdale police officer who killed six is now training cops when to shoot to kill

Disgraced Scottsdale police officer James Peters works as a pitch man for Tempe based police shooting simulator VirTra Systems, selling the simulator to police and military alike

James Peters selling the V-300 to foreign militaries at the 2015 International Defense Exhibition in Abu Dhabi

Down and Drought has learned that VirTra Systems, Inc., a Tempe company that produces a shooting simulator used for law enforcement and military training, employs former Scottsdale police officer James Peters who resigned from the department amid controversy in 2012 following revelations that he had tallied six fatal shootings during his twelve year career. 

James Peters was cleared in his final fatal shooting, that of John Loxas, an unarmed man carrying his grandchild when Peters shot and killed him. The incident ignited anti-police protests and debate around this officer who had killed so many, and resulted in the city paying out a $4.25 million dollar settlement to the Loxas family.  In the summer of 2012, Peters took an early retirement from the city, and effectively dropped out of sight. But while he was no longer a police officer he continued to work alongside law enforcement in the private sector.

VirTra Systems was a perfect place for the former officer to put his unique skills to use. The company offers some of the most realistic simulations for small arms training by police and military.  VirTra's top product is their V-300 shooting simulator, an immersive experience in which trainees are nearly surrounded by five screens displaying a 300-degree scenario in which the trainee must choose when and how to use deadly force.  The V-300 blasts sound at the trainee as well. Describing the experience, VirTra's website says the "audio system provides over 2,000 watts of audio, and transducers mean simulated sounds feel real and adrenal is felt during training."

Some of VirTra's scenarios include "You're fired" and "Hooker OD"

And if the adrenaline isn't pumping from the simulation alone, the V-300 has an added factor to direct officers to fire on the virtual suspects in the scenario: electrodes from the "Threat-Fire" device are also connected to the trainee to shock them, or as the company explains "to simulate them being injured" during a virtual gun battle. Another explanation for the electrodes is that they are behavior forming, providing a shock when the officer is virtually "shot" during the exercise, an outcome that results when the trainee does not fire at the simulation first.

In KJZZ's article on the VirTra simulator and Threat-Fire, journalist Jimmy Jenkins interviewed neuroscientist Beau Cronin on the impact that virtual reality simulators have on the brain. Cronin explained that his research has identified simulators as having the same effect on comprehension as real experiences, even causing the brain to form new connections between neurons as they would after a real shooting.  In essence, the effect of the V-300's immersive virtual world and the negative reinforcement shocks from Threat-Fire should not be underestimated for the conditioning effect they have on trainees' behavior.

VirTra's pain compliance training operates on the theory that officers who hesitate to take action, die. The pain conditioning kicks in when the officer fails to react quickly enough, with the goal of reinforcing training. In essence, it recreates being shot, an outcome that VirTra's officer-safety-first-and-foremost training strongly implies is the losing outcome.

Describing their system in a press release, VirTra said this about the role of pain in their system: “The trainee knows they could experience pain during training, so they take the training far more seriously, leading to more effective training. In addition, the extra stress and pressure during training helps better prepare the trainee for a real life or death situation where a mistake could have dire consequences.”

Former Minnesota State professor Dr. William J. Lewinski and founder of the Force Science Institute, agrees. A staunch defender of cops who shoot and kill, and controversial researcher on police use of force, Lewinski has been cited in at least one VirTra press release and is an enthusiastic supporter of VirTra's training technology. Lewinski singled out VirTra systems as the best trainer available: "VirTra Systems’ has the greatest potential to save officer’s lives by actually shaping and conditioning their judgments and responses in a realistic format that is unparalleled in its ability to replicate the reality of lethal force street encounters."

In an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Lewinski gave a thumbs up: "Simulations are an excellent way to move into and begin to approximate the training required for real-life encounters.” But he went even further. Speaking of VirTra, he was adamant,"They're sure filling a niche. They need to get out and market themselves now."

Incidentally, Lewinski's connections to Tempe, VirTra's current home base, go at least as far back as a 2003 reaction study done in cooperation with the Tempe Police Department. This research was published in the September/October 2003 issue of Police Marksman magazine. That study states its purpose quite directly: “The concepts addressed in this study are critical for officers to understand, especially those who are consulted by prosecuting attorneys or go before grand juries as firearms experts.”

Interviewed for an August 2015 New York Times article, Lewinski went further, saying that officers cannot afford to wait to act. “We’re telling officers, ‘Look for cover and then read the threat.’ Sorry, too damn late.” Lewinski's theory basically comes down to the idea that if police wait to see a gun, they're too late. Act first and aggressively is his advice.

The failure of Lewinski to publish his research in scientific journals has invited criticism from other experts. Quoted in that same New York Times article, Washington State University professor Lisa Fournier called his research “invalid and unreliable.” For his part, Lewinski says he likes to publish for popular police publications rather than scholarly journals because he wants police to see his research. There is little doubt that Lewinski sees himself as a partisan in the battle over police shootings, and his objectives jibe quite well with VirTra's mission.

But there's one more kicker with Lewinski. If you're an officer who's facing a review of your use of force, he's also available for hire. According to the New York Times, Lewinski has testified on behalf of police in everything from grand juries to trials. At a price of nearly $1000 an hour, he'll bring his aggressive police philosophy and police-friendly research to court.

According to Lewinski's CV, he has a history of supporting police involved in shootings locally. He testified in support of the Mesa police officers who shot and killed Mario Madrigal, and as a witness in the defense of former Chandler officer Dan Lovelace on trial for murder in the on duty shooting of Dawn Rae Nelson. In both cases the cops were kept out of a prison cell, and the cities paid out large settlements, Mesa paying $3 million to the Madrigal family, and Chandler paying $1.9 million to the Nelson family. The City of Scottsdale was forced to raise its primary-property tax in large part to pay for the payout to the Loxas family, raising serious doubts about whether VirTra's grants and confiscation payment plan makes sense financially in the long run.

In a real sense, VirTra and Lewinski are a pro-police double team. VirTra operates on Lewinskian theories and then, if a cop gets in trouble, Lewinski is on hire to bail them out. In fact, in an odd coincidence, Lewinski's Force Science Institute wrote an article for its June 23rd, 2006 issue of its newsletter about one of Peters' previous shootings (it was his third). The article was republished at PoliceOne.com, a top police website. According to the piece, investigators contacted Lewinski about the case and he referred them to another expert from Lewinski's Force Science Research Center, then based at Minnesota University, who provided materials that supported Peters' side. The investigation into Peters third shooting exonerated him. Within a week of being cleared, Peters had shot and killed again.


VirTra Systems hired Peters shortly after he was approved for disability retirement in July of 2012. He has since worked for the company as a director of the company's international efforts, as a product trainer to law enforcement and military customers, and assisting in product development. According to Peters' LinkedIn page, he holds the position of "Regional Director of International Business Development and Law Enforcement SME/Trainer," (SME is Subject Matter Expert) and is responsible for VirTra product demonstrations, sales, training, coordinating distribution to Europe and Africa, obtaining weapons for VirTra customers through the Federal Firearms License (FFL), and working with software and hardware engineers to develop VirTra products.

James Peters speaks to the AP at 2014 France Defense Expo, far away from anyone who might recognize him

VirTra has been on a local PR blitz of late with segments dedicated to the product on KTAR, ABC 15, 12 News, and KJZZ this week, but don't expect to see any mention of James Peters (Peters' former co-worker at Scottsdale PD, Scott DiIullo is the local face of VirTra). In fact, Peters name can only be found twice on the VirTra website, once in an acknowledgment in a product manual, and the other in a repost of a round table discussion on simulators in which he is identified as "a retired officer from an Arizona Law Enforcement Agency." It also notes "[h]e had a distinguished career in Patrol, Street Crimes, SWAT, and holds numerous training certifications." Peters can also be found on simunitionvssimulation.com, a site registered to Bob Ferris the CEO of VirTra Systems, Inc., where he has written a defense of the VirTra style simulation as opposed to their Simunition competitor.  On this second website he is identified as "a subject matter expert in the simulation industry," and VirTra Systems is not identified as his employer.

While Peters is kept away from regional media, he has traveled representing VirTra at military and police conferences around the world.  He was at the France Defense Expo in 2014 and this year's International Defence Exhibition in Abu Dhabi,  and his position as "Regional Director of International Business Development" might have a lot to do with keeping a cop known for his six deadly shootings out of sight from an American public increasingly polarized by police violence. 

During his career as a Scottsdale police officer, Peters was never charged with a criminal offense in any of the seven shootings, six fatal, during his twelve year career, his reputation was akin to a modern Dirty Harry. He was a physical fitness instructor and a firearms instructor; he worked in patrol and SWAT; and as a Field, SWAT, and Recuit Training officer. Peters personnel file cites seven civilian complaints against the officer, and 376 recorded use of force incidents, in short James Peters doesn't seem to have been an officer known to de-escalate a situation.

He also was disciplined for his participation in violent episodes, for his attitude towards civilians, and, in December 2002, he was reprimanded for a violent incident involving the transportation of a handcuffed inmate.  In this incident, Scottsdale Police Chief Douglas Bartosh suspended Peters for his role in the use of excessive force against a restrained detainee in a department patrol car. Peters antagonized the prisoner while a Scottsdale police trainee would hit the brakes of the vehicle while traveling on the freeway, causing the prisoner to violently hit the cage separating the front from the back of the car. This is disturbing on many levels, not least of all because Officer Peters, certified as a training officer, was with a trainee, but also because of the incident's resemblance to the rough "nickle rides" Baltimore cops made infamous, most recently in the death of Freddie Gray.

Also on his record was an incident from 2005 in which he was reprimanded for unsafe use of a gun while on duty.  Peters was reprimanded by Deputy Chief of Police John Cocca for "unsafe performance, by mishandling your firearm."  Peters was witnessed removing his firearm from the holster, then pointing it at his face during a department briefing.  When asked why he was operating his firearm in such an unsafe manner, Peters replied that it rained hard the night before and he "wanted to check to ensure the gun was clean."  As Peters is tasked with obtaining weapons for VirTra customers through the company's FFL such a glaring misuse of a firearm would presumably cause concern for a company looking to hire a trainer who shows sound judgement when using a firearm. 

Peters, like many Arizona police officers who avoid discipline by retiring, receives a monthly pension from the City of Scottsdale since he resigned in June of 2012.  Peters "accidental disability retirement application"was approved by the Scottsdale Public Safety Personnel Retirement System Board, allowing him to retire and collect a monthly pension of $4500 in addition to his salary from VirTra. On the VirTra backed simunitionvssimulation.com, Peters works the hard sell to encourage police departments to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars on one of the company's products. The cost of a V-300 is up to $300,000, but Peters let's interested buyers know that the hefty cost can be partially or completely offset by "[g]rants and/or asset forfeiture funds."

 VirTra offered a training demo this week for valley police departments

Even with Peters' endorsement, and the claim by VirTra that over 200 law enforcement agencies use their line of simulators, no Valley police departments have purchased one of the company's products and it's not because they're not advocates.  Lyle Mann, executive director of Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training, told the Arizona Republic last year that it's the price of the simulator which keeps police departments from making the purchase, even if they were to rely on grants or seized assets.  In short: "They are very, very expensive."

And yet, profits are up for VirTra this year, and with the latest PR push the company recently hosted departments from across the Valley at a simulator training demo in Mesa.   Dr. William Lewinski is also profiting from police departments fear of an officer landing in legal trouble, he's hosted two Force Science Certification courses sponsored by the Scottsdale Police Department since officer James Peters gunned down John Loxas in his south Scottsdale driveway.  Lewinski's Force Science Certification courses are also expensive, he charges $1500 per student, just $500 more than his fee for an hour of professional testimony.

It's clear that a lot of people have their eyes on police reform, and some are looking for ways to profit from it. In addition to VirTra and the Force Science Institute, companies like Taser International have made a killing on the demand for their Axon body cameras, another product of dubious effect with regard to protecting the public from police violence, but substantial effect in terms of protecting police from the public, including public recourse for their violent actions. It's unlikely, for instance, that either VirTra simulators or cop cams would have ended Peters' career in law enforcement any sooner.

If companies like VirTra and Taser have their way, the outcome may look something like this: officers are taught to shoot first from negative reinforcement in VirTra simulators, officers are captured shooting and killing a person on their Taser body camera, and a professional such as Dr. Lewinski will appear in court to explain away the inconsistencies between the video and what the officer stated had happened.  And the cops will walk, just like James Peters did seven times in Scottsdale.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Tempe politicians want police to run collections for campaign reform plan

Tempe city councilors hope people of color, poor won't mind footing the bill for politicians' backbone transplants

In what must rank as one of the most boneheaded moves in Tempe government history, the Tempe city council is considering turning to a regressive fee tacked onto traffic tickets in order to pay for a public campaign system for city council and mayoral elections, all in the name of thwarting the increasing grip that developers have on the upside-down pyramid.

Citing an electoral system taken prisoner by developers, local elected officials hope that adding a fee on top of speeding tickets will raise an independent source of revenue for funding candidates not captive to wealthy real estate interests (presumably these captives include the current council).

Speaking to AzCentral, Councilman Schapira described the current workings of city government in bleak terms:
“Right now in Tempe, if you’re a pro-developer council member who always votes the way developers want you to vote, developers are going to find a way to finance your campaign and you’re basically guaranteed re-election.”
The evidence for his claim is plain to see for most anyone in Tempe with eyes. The pace of new building in Tempe is rapid and, fueled by tax breaks doled out left and right by the city, aims almost exclusively for the luxury market. 

Locals feel increasingly squeezed out. Many have seen their rents sky rocket in recent years. Rising rents are a common complaint on a downtown Tempe neighborhood group, Maple-Ash-Farmer-Wilson (MAFW), which boasts nearly 3300 members.

A recent ABC15 piece pointed out that Tempe average rents have jumped nearly $250 since 2010 with most of that almost certainly coming in the more current end of that range. 

Tempe rents rising steeply (graphs via ABC15)
Clearly there is a problem. City council is basically waving the white flag to developers and telling city residents quite clearly that they have no backbone and that they are helpless before the developer juggernaut. 

But while almost everyone who isn't receiving a massive tax break to build luxury condos can probably agree that stemming the influence of real estate profiteers is a noble cause, there's a big problem with the solution some city councilors are putting forward.

A fee placed on speeding tickets has several serious issues, not least of all questions about the group implementing it and who's going to pay for it. Since the fee is attached to speeding tickets, the task of collection falls to the Tempe Police Department. Let's address that first.

Last November, Down and Drought broke the story locally about massive disparities in Tempe PD's African-American arrest rate. Following unrest in Ferguson sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown, USA Today reviewed arrest reports nationwide. That investigation found that the disproportionate arrest of blacks was common throughout the country, but specifically it noted that many cities, including Tempe, arrested blacks at rates higher than Ferguson PD.

This information recently raised serious questions about the ability of Tempe PD to do their job without a racial bias. Downtown residents took concerns about this data to the city and officials discussed it at a February 10th meeting of the Tempe Human Relations Committee (.PDF).

Via Feb 10th Tempe Human Relations Committee Minutes
At another meeting with the city, Tempe residents were assured that in response to the data, a massive Tempe policing operation known as "Safe and Sober" would be canceled. 

The operation, highly unpopular in the party-prone neighborhoods surrounding ASU, featured over a dozen and sometimes nearly 20 police agencies flooding the area, stopping thousands of drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians over the course of several weekends, ostensibly to combat what the city called "rowdyism." Partying, essentially. Something many locals consider a birthright.

Considering the USA Today data, residents of MAFW demanded that the city account for the racial breakdown in those stops. The city replied that it had no way to track that data because police agencies from other cities took those reports with them when they left. Whether true or not, claiming incompetence is not a very inspiring defense.

Considering the scale of the program and the disparities USA Today had revealed, the city wisely canceled the program. Taking that data into account, for the two years it ran Safe and Sober may have been one of the biggest profiling operations in the country, in the same category as NYC's racist "Stop and Frisk" program.

Graphic via State Press

In February, The Republic wrote of disproportionate Black arrest rates in the Valley. The article noted that three East Valley cities, including Tempe, "arrested Black people at a rate higher than in Ferguson, Mo." in 2011 and 2012. Despite initial challenges to the data in the article, our own internal data ultimately showed the same thing.

In the same years examined in the article, our data showed that Black Tempe residents were arrested at nearly three times the rate of White residents, a proportion that is indeed worse than Ferguson.
Not long after, Tempe Police Chief Tom Ryff, the long-serving top cop in town and originator of the Safe and Sober program, resigned. Local media reported that the USA Today data had played a role in his departure.  Again, Councilman Schapira spoke out, saying "I'm excited to see what a new chief can do in terms of building morale in the department and building a culture ...that's a positive one for the city and building really strong relationships in the community."

When speaking before the city's Human Relations Commission, Chief Ryff and Director Brenda Buren justified the data by saying, essentially, that it showed that police nationwide are racist and that Tempe PD may only be targeting blacks who drive through the city. Again, not much of a defense. If you have to indict your entire profession, you've lost the argument. Tempe historically was a "sundown town," a city where after sunset African-Americans and other people of color were strongly encouraged to get out of town. Tempe PD's assertion that they target out of towners lines up with this disgraceful tradition.

This is all highly relevant to the city's proposal to fund its clean elections program with speeding tickets. After all, TPD's documented racism, acknowledged by the city, will obviously effect the way it enforces speeding tickets. The truth is, not everyone catches TPD's attention equally, and as a result, these fees, tacked onto speeding tickets, will disproportionately come from people of color, particularly Tempe's black population and any African-Americans passing through or visiting Tempe.

The city seems bent on projecting a progressive attitude lately, with its recent changes to its discrimination law. But piggy-backing your election "reforms" on the backs of the Valley's non-white population, collected through a police department with well-documented and officially acknowledged racism, hardly seems in line with this objective.

Councilwoman Kuby says it's not a tax.

Further, given the income disparities between blacks and whites, we can reasonably  extrapolate that the poor in particular will also be disproportionately affected by these fees. And it just so happens that African-Americans and the poor are also the most likely to have been deliberately excluded from the electoral system through just the kind of racially-biased policing that Tempe engages in.

And the poor are the most likely to see little value in participating in formal politics, a position city council clearly must have some sympathy for, given that they themselves are about as enfranchised as it gets and yet at the root of this reform is city councilors claims that even they are helpless before wealthy developers.

"For a city that distinguished itself recently for arresting blacks at a higher rate than Ferguson, you'd think Tempe would be loathe to court another comparison to a city emblematic of systemic racism."

In a recent Twitter exchange with Down and Drought, Councilwoman Kuby seemed averse to calling this a tax, but the fact remains that it's a compulsory contribution, administered by a racist police force, taken from those least likely to protest it. It's an easy fee to assess, passing the buck onto people who can't afford it, and for whom the disruption of arrest that would come with non-payment would be the most crippling. After all, not paying a traffic ticket can land you in jail and when you're broke even a few dollars can make a big difference.

Kuby's error seems mostly centered on a desire to accomplish what she thinks is a larger good. But this still doesn't excuse ignoring the details of how it will be implemented and who will be implementing it.

Schapira's backing of the new fee is even more troubling, indicating a peculiar selectivity when it comes to TPD's racism. While he was clear in his June 9th Arizona Republic editorial about TPD's racism and its impact on Safe and Sober, he was somehow unconcerned about it just a few weeks later when defending Tempe's new ordinance banning smoking with children in the car.

In that case, he was not bothered by Tempe PD's documented racism and its impact on enforcement of the law.  Quite a reversal!
"We fashioned the ordinance to treat violations as secondary offenses. Officers will only cite those pulled over for something else.

In other words, if a cop busts you for speeding and sees a lit cigarette in the ashtray and a kid sucking fumes in the back seat, you're going to owe $50."
What's the difference? How could it be that safe and sober was a racist policing operation while somehow other enforcement measures, like the smoking law or the proposed fee-financed public campaign system, are immune from such biased policing? After all, a racist police force that is documented to target blacks will certainly likewise cite them more often for secondary offenses. You can't be cited for a secondary offense if you're not stopped in the first place, and we know who TPD likes to stop. This is carceral progressivism and should be opposed. City council needs to reverse course immediately.

In our opinion, the shocking data detailing Tempe PD's disproportionate arrests rates for African-Americans ought to have the City of Tempe pulling back on all enforcement and seriously questioning its application across the board. Instead, they seem to be charging headlong into policy territory -- public funding via criminal fees -- reminiscent of Ferguson. For a city that distinguished itself recently for arresting blacks at a higher rate than Ferguson, you'd think Tempe would be loathe to court another comparison to a city emblematic of systemic racism.

The bottom line is, it's not fair to make the city's most marginalized populations pay for the city council's lack of backbone. This fee is a regressive tax extracted at gunpoint by a racist police force. Further, it will raise money from groups most excluded from or most fed up with politics. If the city council can't find the wherewithal to stand up to developers and real estate interests seeking handouts, then maybe they don't deserve their jobs in the first place. Poor residents and African-Americans in Tempe are already paying out of proportion to their numbers, is it right to make them pay again?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Valley law enforcement's internet "Red Squad" takes center stage at International Social Media and Surveillance Conference

A group of law enforcement officers who coordinated the crackdown on Occupy Phoenix, and regularly monitor the pages of activists through internet surveillance, are scheduled speakers at next week's "Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement" (SMILE) three day conference.  The Phoenix Police Department are the host agency for this year's conference,  Detective CJ Wren and  Terrorism Liaison Officer (TLO) All Hazards Analyst Brenda Dowhan will be representing Phoenix,  Detective Chris Adamczyk, a TLO from Mesa Police Department will also be presenting.

What they will be presenting on, should be of interest to anyone concerned with the powers given to police agencies to spy and collect information on individuals and groups engaged in political activity.  While the justification has been provided that these departments are concerned with anarchists and "criminal activists," much of the documentation surrounding Occupy Phoenix revealed that these individuals and their respective police organizations (Phoenix PD and Mesa PD coordinating with other departments through the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center (ACTIC)) were using secretive technologies to identify individuals who merely criticized department policy.

Phoenix police prepare to make arrests during Occupy Phoenix (Downtown Devil)

Journalist Beau Hodai obtained thousands of pages of documents from various law enforcement agencies on the varied multi-agency responses to  Occupy Phoenix, and related events.  What Hodai learned was that the counter-terrorism infrastructure established in Arizona, through the ACTIC fusion center, worked closely with corporate partners to pass information along information on protests being organized against them. 

We made good use of the Hodai's source materials, which were generously posted online, to write a series of stories that Hodai had not covered, including the revelations that a co-owner of Changing Hands Books was passing information about Occupy Phoenix along to the Phoenix PD.  Another unsettling story we covered was on the Facial Recognition Unit within ACTIC that was using a facial recognition software to scan the state's drivers license database to identify participants in protests, using photos found on social media.  Given that most of the information regarding the activities of ACTIC, and the TLOs involved in targeting Occupy Phoenix, is approaching four years old, the upcoming SMILE conference affords us the opportunity to shine a light on these digital spies.  Here are some highlights from the conference agenda:

TLO All Hazards Analyst Brenda Dowhan is giving a presentation on Using Social Media for Event Planning and Real-time Monitoring, in her event description Dowhan advocates for "pro-active policing," citing an anti-police protest as an event which "could impact public safety and the community."  Given what we know from Dowhan's history with the Occupy protests, anarchist events, and marches affiliated with indigenous causes, her objective is not to merely pass along information to other regional TLOs about a possible protest or activist gathering, but to coordinate disruption.  Hodai noted in his "Dissent or Terror" article that after Tempe Homeland Defense Unit Detective Derek Pittam wrote of a guerrilla gardening event successfully disrupted by Tempe police, Dowhan responded with "Good to hear. Every site I've been on, they know that we are watching them."

Dowhan was often aided by Mesa Detective Chris Adamczyk, a TLO and self-described expert in "subversive organizations."  Adamczyk will also be presenting to other officers on the topic of  Unmask the Movement: Using social media to assess the risks of subversive organizations.  In his description, Adamczyk laughably describes the "dark side of social media," the world of street gangs, syndicates, criminal activists, and terror organizations. In addition to his obsessing over the Facebook page of Food Not Bombs, Adamczyk has launched a private enterprise to share his unique skill set.  His website and smartphone app, called the Protestus Project, claims to be"making sense of the world of activism," but for who?  The site is updated infrequently, and appears to rely of the same open source information that Adamczyk receives on the daily from his position as a TLO at the Mesa Police Department.  The website and app are uneven in what information is shared, for example the website documents an activist group involved in recent anti-police protests and provides analysis of the local Black Lives Matter/Rumain Brisbon protests, while the app appears to be an alphabetized threat assessment of local activist groups.  It's unclear if Detective Adamczyk writes all content for the website or app.

Perhaps nothing is more humorous than the presentation given by Detective CJ Wren on Stalking 2.0 ~ Stalking in the Social Media Era, which is apparently about a man who found 30 social media pages belonging to the police and saved the info to disk, and why police officers should lock down their social media profiles.  Detective Wren is the Arizona Chapter President at Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, and Law Enforcement President of the Arizona Terrorism Liaison Association.  Despite Detective Wren's counter-terrorism expertise and his online privacy tips for law enforcement, a simple Google search reveals that Wren himself has a revealing social media footprint.  Perhaps he should consider using his own online activities as a case study!  This is all the more laughable considering his employment (along with Dowhan and Adamczyk) relies on him stalking radicals, anarchists, indigenous activists, and immigrant rights groups on their respective social media pages and storing the information forever through a joint partnership with the Federal government.

Detective Wren would like to have it both ways; an open internet for for Wren, Dowhan, and Adamczyk to prowl, collecting "open source intelligence" to share with their TLO partners and the FBI through ACTIC; and, under the justification of officer safety,  a closed internet to protect the identities, actions, and opinions of police officers, shielding them from criticism. These agents of the law are speaking at SMILE because they are skilled in the use of surveillance, disruption, and repression to halt protests and groups opposed to the actions of government and business.

Creepy name aside, networking hubs such as SMILE, the ACTIC fusion center, and the activities of the anti-protest "Red Squad" counter-terrorism departments must be dragged out into the light.  The increasing efforts of local police departments to spy on and disrupt the efforts of activist groups and political protest goes hand in hand with the riot police using military equipment to intimidate and control people when they sign off from the internet and take to the streets.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

ASU gives Nazis what they want: The "Problem of Whiteness" debacle reaches new low

Do white supremacists call the shots at ASU these days? The Neo-Nazi National Youth Front (NYF) showed up at ASU on Tuesday (along with National Socialist Movement member Harry Hughes, the former comrade of JT Ready) to thank the university for silencing professors associated with the "The Problem of Whiteness" class and demanding their termination. And according to information provided to us, it looks like ASU is giving them exactly what they want.

Although they were straining the definition of "youth" to the point of pure absurdity, the NYF's small cadre of mostly middle-aged worn out white nationalist protesters held signs with one saying "Thank you ASU", while a crowd of about fifty surrounded them, mocked them and challenged them. They invoked "free speech" in their own defense while advocating censorship of classes they didn't like.

And they shouted their support for former ASU police officer Stewart Ferrin. Ferrin, you will recall, is the white officer who resigned last month after much hemming and hawing from the university, in the fallout from the violent arrest of a black ASU professor, Dr. Ersula Ore, for jaywalking on a blocked off street at night. Things got heated at one point during the demonstration as protesters and counter-protesters faced off, but the NYF, surrounded and outnumbered, didn't seem interested in following through with their threats against "the militant Left" which appeared online.

NYF and NSM at ASU. That's Harry Hughes with the camera.

Yup, that Harry Hughes.

A little background. The "outrage" of Professor Lee Bebout's The Problem of Whiteness course was originally instigated by a right wing ASU student correspondent to a Fox News show.  The controversy over "The Problems of Whiteness" class took an even harder right turn when the NYF posted anti-Muslim posters on campus and handed out fliers on campus specifically targeting Bebout denouncing him as "anti-white."

The NYF won't claim credit for it, but someone distributed the fliers targeting Bebout in his neighborhood, an action clearly meant to intimidate him. Because "free speech", right? Posts about the class on Stormfront, the infamous white supremacist website tied to scores of murders, encouraged racist militants to email the university, and naturally threats of violence came with it.

Emboldened by ASU's silence on the issue, the boneheads today also demanded the termination of ASU grad student Robert Poe, who teaches at the Tempe campus, and who two weeks ago led a workshop on the same topic.

Poe's flyer clearly says "informal and unsanctioned"

Poe's teach-in was specifically labeled "informal and unsanctioned." NYF member "John Hess" attended the teach-in with a video camera and recorded it. Hess then cherry picked a moment where Poe, responding to a question from Hess, said that he supported violence "against racists who choose to politically mobilize" and posted it online in the hopes that ASU would take the bait. A moral trip about violence from a Neo-Nazi, now that's rich. And ASU apparently fell for it.

It isn't hard to find examples of the use of political violence against racists in history, or even locally. Why Poe's statement would be controversial on a campus that has poli-sci departments overflowing with advocates for war, history departments that debate the use of violence, and that maintains such a cozy relationship with the most violent organization on Earth, the US Military, is a little baffling. If advocating violence against politically active racists is forbidden at ASU, then a whole generation of WWII vets should probably stay off campus -- and maybe stop sending their grandchildren and their money there, since it's obviously not welcome.

A 2009 anti-Nazi riot in Phoenix that you're not allowed to talk about at ASU

Of course, the university regularly grants free speech rights to all manner of right wing nuts who advocate violence. On the day before Poe's teach-in, for example, there was an anti-gay protester who called publicly for the government to kill homosexuals. And of course there's the "you deserve rape" guy (watch a video where he advocates death for "whores" below). And anti-abortion protesters, who belong to a movement that has been killing doctors for decades, regularly set up shop in front of the Memorial Union. Apparently this is protected speech at ASU, but referencing historical violent resistance to Nazis and the Klan is not.

According to information provided to Down and Drought, as threats poured in, the university told both professors to be quiet, likely hoping to hunker down and avoid controversy at a time when they were negotiating looming budget cuts with a Fox News adoring far right governor and legislature who might be agitated by the idea that such ideas are being taught on campus.

Our sources tell us that the university administration told both Poe and Bebout to stay quiet. Bebout was reminded that he is up for tenure and Poe was essentially issued a delayed termination, with the university removing his name from the class, forcing him to get class materials approved weekly, and forbidding him from teaching next semester. This looks a lot like ASU hoped to shift his official firing into the future, when there would be less eyes on it.

Where's Rob Poe's name?

We received a screen shot of the class that Poe is teaching this semester and his name has been removed from it. In his place is the name of the head of his department school, the School of Social Transformation (SST).  Is the head of department  SST now teaching Poe's class? Meanwhile, a search for Poe's name on the faculty website turns up no results. Where did he go? What happened to him? Did ASU throw him under the bus?

It appears that ASU has caved in to Neo-Nazi demands. Which, in essence, means that Neo-Nazis basically are making hiring and firing decisions at ASU, and have imposed some measure of veto power over curriculum. At today's protest, various members of the NYF ranted about eugenics, about biological differences between races and about their deep hatred for Jews. Will the biology department be the next target? You have to wonder where it will stop now.

According to the website "Problem of Whiteness 101", which catalogs the various racist posts, comments and Facebook "likes" of members of the NYF, local leader John Hess is interested in a lot of things that ought to really disturb the university, if they are indeed planning on continuing to cede curricular and staffing decisions to them. These things include the books Mein Kampf and the Bell Curve, and racist bands like Skrewdriver. The NYF likes to pretend that they are just "white activists," whatever that means, but their associations with Hughes and Hess's affinity for Nazi literature and white supremacist music tell a different story.

A recent State Press article detailed concerns among the ASU and Tempe Muslim community about a rise in anti-Islamic sentiment and vandalism following the Chapel Hill shootings. ASU giving in to Neo-Nazis certainly won't help on that front. At the protest today, one prospective student waiting for his tour of campus was overheard describing second thoughts about attending after seeing the NYF protest.

Previously the NYF has organized anonymously and avoided appearing in public. But now, thanks to ASU's surrender, they have taken their first step into the open. Just as they were encouraged by ASU's cowardice in the case of Dr. Ore, they are likewise now bolstered by the university's handling of the "Whiteness" class and subsequent fallout.

We reached out to ASU repeatedly via twitter and got no response, which is not surprising since silence seems to be their strategy. You have to wonder, though, where silence and capitulation to Neo-Nazis will get us in the long run.

The article incorrectly identified the person listed as teaching Poe's class (Dr. Brayboy) as the head of his department. Brayboy is the head of Poe's school, the School of Social Transformation.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Arizona Army National Guard Sergeant posted link to white supremacist site, "likes" burning mosques

 Sgt. Berry, on the right, uses a poster to harass a videographer (Ray Stern/Phoenix New Times)

Arizona Army National Guard Sgt. Van Berry, of the 856th Military Police Company, found himself in some hot water last month after he was captured on video menacing and assaulting a videographer at a pro-police rally in Scottsdale.  Berry, along with Ken Harris, a former cop and  member of the Blue Knights MC, harassed videographer Dennis Gilman in an incident captured by Phoenix New Times reporter Ray Stern.

The thuggish behavior of Van Berry, Ken Harris, and others occurred under the watch of the Scottsdale police chief, the mayor of Scottsdale, a Scottsdale city council member, and dozens of current and former police officers who were present.  This pro-cop rally, far from being an organic display of appreciation for the institution of policing, was instead a gathering of those on the extreme right. Anti-immigrant organizer Barb Heller was present, and organizer Nohl Rosen has counter-demonstrated against a May Day rally and considers himself a "second amendment advocate."


Felipe Hemming, a writer at Photography Is Not A Crime, followed up on the New Times story with an article that identified Van Berry as a sergeant in the Arizona Army National Guard's military police unit.  Hemming was able to identify Sgt. Berry through Facebook after noticing that he was wearing his Arizona Air National Guard sweater which had his first initial and last name printed on the front.  Hemming was able to confirm with the Arizona Army National Guard that Sgt. Berry remains active in the 856th Military Police Company, he also reported that Berry's chain of command was aware of his actions at the protest and that Berry would be disciplined.

Berry had posted photos from the pro-cop rally on the event's Facebook page, in which he bragged that the counter protesters were "unarmed and very undangerous [sic]," he also took a shot at the Phoenix New Times, calling it the "Pravda Phoenix Times," Pravda being the news organ of the Russian Communist Party. Despite his position as a sergeant in a military policing unit, Berry was comfortable posting his extremist opinions for public view on his personal Facebook page. Browsing through his timeline there are frequent posts about the perceived threat from radical Islamists, undocumented immigrants, the "communist" Obama administration, and the "anti-white and anti-police thuggery" of the Ferguson demonstrators.

While Sgt. Berry is entitled to his opinions, there was one post on the page which stood out from the others. It was a link to thewhitevoice.com, a white supremacist website that claims to fight against the "large anti-White agenda going on in the United States and globally." The article Berry posted celebrates the burning of a mosque in Sweden, which the author describes as a "rape chamber," and declares that mosques have no place in "Western European Society."

We have posted a screen shot from Berry's page of the article, notable is the comment from Charlene Fossett, who commented "Burn them all!" The comment received one "like," it came from Sgt. Berry.

Berry also posted photos from Nevada, and claimed that he "couldn't find the Bundy Ranch."  These photos were posted in late April of last year, during the armed standoff between rancher Cliven Bundy and the small army of armed militiamen who came to challenge the federal government.  Sgt. Berry seems unconcerned with publicly endorsing acts of terrorism against Muslims and supporting armed confrontations with federal agencies.

In an article by David Sterman published in The Atlantic last year on the danger of right-wing extremists with military training, former Department of Homeland Security domestic terror analyst Daryl Johnson cited a "government survey of 17,080 soldiers found that 3.5 percent of them had been contacted in order to recruit them into an extremist organization and that 7.1 percent said they knew another soldier who they believed to be part of an extremist organization."  While there is no public knowledge of Berry's involvement in any far right-wing extremist organization, he is an active member of the US military with no qualms about posting content from far right-wing outlets on his public Facebook profile or participating in aggressive protest activity.

The only terrorism being discussed in relation to the rally in Scottsdale had to do with some anti-police graffiti reading "Cops Kill so Kill Cops" that was found in a park the week before. Scottsdale mayor Jim Lane described the graffiti as a "terrorist act" in an interview with KTAR. Lane continued: "It was done in order to intimidate or bully the police department from doing their job. Somebody who makes those kinds of threats is completely outside the realm of the law."  Yet, Lane was comfortable standing alongside anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim extremists like Berry who shared a white supremacist article, or Barb Heller who would wear surgical masks at anti-immigrant protests mocking immigrant demonstrators with "No TB please" written across the front.

Heller has her anti-Muslim credentials as well, in a public post to her Facebook wall in 2013 she wrote "WE WILL DIP OUR BULLETS IN PIGS BLOOD & URINE!!" in response to a news article about a wall with "jihad" written across it in Florida. And Heller wasn't the only one on the far right with such anti-Muslim sentiment.  A group of "patriots" from Idaho were selling boxes of "Jihawg Ammo," with individual bullets dipped in pig blood in an effort to force Muslims shot with that ammunition to be Haraam, or unclean, upon entering the afterlife. 

And it was Scottsdale Police Chief Alan Rodbell, and his officers, who shook hands and thanked these supporters of the police. The pro-cop demonstrators who had intimidated, threatened, or assaulted anti-cop counter-protesters had the support of the establishment.  This overlap between police, military, and far right extremists must be of concern to anyone who believes that people should be able to freely organize and assemble to challenge the actions of the government without coercion from state sanctioned vigilantes.