Paula Cooper

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Paula Cooper arrest  (1986)
Paula Cooper arrest (1986)

I was saddened this weekend to read of the suicide of Paula Cooper.

I mostly knew her through news stories. Then I heard about her when visiting another young woman who was friendly with Paula. Both were housed at the Indiana Women’s Prison.

To be sure, Paula was at the prison for a serious crime. At 15, she and friends skipped classes at their Gary, Indiana, school, and showed up on the doorstep of nearby 78-year-old Ruth Pelke.

The girls told Mrs. Pelke they were interested in Bible lessons and on that pretext, she invited them into her home.

In reality, the girls, probably high on marijuana, meant to rob this kindly elderly woman. For some unknown reason, Paula went to the kitchen and retrieved a butcher knife.

She then stabbed Mrs. Pelke 33 times. The girls searched the house and found only $10. They took her car keys and went for a joy ride in the lady’s old Plymouth. This was 1986.

I got involved because Paula was first sentenced to die for the crime. I wrote editorials decrying the death sentence. I noted that growing up, the girl had been frequently beaten and suffered from severe depression.

I don’t recall how the pope became involved. But he also pleaded for clemency. Indeed, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned the death sentence. That was in 1989. But that’s far from the whole story.

Paula not only became a model prisoner. She earned her bachelor’s degree. She trained assistance dogs. She tutored inmates and ran the prison kitchen.

With time off for good behavior, she was released from prison a couple of years ago. She had tried to make amends for her crime. Mrs. Pelke’s grandson Bill took up the anti-death penalty cause launching the “Journey of Hope.”

I got acquainted with Bill when he brought his program to Fort Wayne. He had long since forgiven Paula for killing his grandmother. But out women’s prison and free, she took her own life.

She had so much to give. She had so much to live for. Forgiven by others, she couldn’t forgive herself.

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Stay out of jail class

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Professor Rick Roe of Street Law Program
Professor Rick Roe of Street Law Program

I can’t say for sure that Richard L. Roe’s street law class in D.C. schools persuaded any students to avoid a life of crime.

But it makes sense to me if you help young people to understand that risk of getting caught or even killed in a shoot-out with a shop owner, you’re likely to make a difference.

Every week or so I’m reminded of Rick’s class at Georgetown University when I see the weekly newspaper column that features 15 or so photographs of people wanted by the police on various crime charges.

Mostly these young people have been charged with drug law violations or breaking and entering or criminal conversion or prostitution. I guess the paper wouldn’t just list “stupid” at the end of the charges.

That’s what often comes to mind for me as I glance at that column.

I got acquainted with Rick in 1992 when we lived in Washington, D.C. My wife Toni had an appointment at the National Science Foundation. I wrote my editorials for the Fort Wayne paper from our bureau in the National Press Building.

A law professor, Rick was married to one of the civil rights attorneys who filed a desegregation lawsuit against Fort Wayne Community Schools, a suit that was eventually settled out of court.

Besides teaching university law students, Rick visited D.C. high schools and taught what he called “Street Law.”

I spoke at his law classes one day. But I was most interested in his classes for younger students in the mostly black D.C. schools. I know that his mission went far beyond persuading these kids to stay out of trouble with the law.

That alone, though, surely was an a noble cause. D.C. jails have always been filled with young guys arrested on drug charges or breaking and entering, along with even more serious crimes. Over just a few years, those arrests add up to thousand of lives sidetracked and often wasted.

I always thought some kind of street law class might not only keep some young people on the straight and narrow. But it can help every student understand how the legal system works.

Such a course would include laws governing divorce and child protection. It would include bankruptcy, property rights and police powers. It would help students understand how the legal system works.

Sooner or later, people encounter such issues. What a benefit for students to have a real-world understanding of the law and the legal system! And before a person is involved in a crisis. Yet to my knowledge, few school districts offer a study of the law in the curriculum. Except for D.C., I know of none.

When I left the ministry in my early 20s, I taught high school for a few years. I even directed a couple of senior class plays. As any teacher of that age group would acknowledge, teen-agers can be terribly impulsive.

Wanting to be accepted, a few will join a friend or two to break into a vacant home or use money earned baby-sitting to buy illegal drugs. Who’s to know? How would I ever get arrested?

You can be sure that every one of those kids sitting in a juvenile detention center, jail or prison was confident he or she wouldn’t get arrested.

I have an idea how a full-blown course on street law could start. It could start when a government or sociology teacher invites a criminal attorney or police officer to talk with the class.

To be sure, school should be intellectually stimulating and broadening. School should introduce students to this extraordinarily complex world of people and ideas. But school can also help students fulfill their dreams without encroaching on the rights of others.

Call it street law. Call it stay out of jail 101. It belongs in the curriculum.

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Killer in my classroom

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Gunshots, body stun 'quiet' area
Gunshots, body stun ‘quiet’ area

“Gunshots, body stun ‘quiet’ area.”

That was the headline, above the fold, in the morning paper today.

Witnesses reported seeing a couple of guys running from the scene. No word yet that police had apprehended anybody.

Fort Wayne is Indiana’s second-largest city, after Indianapolis. So I guess we’ve come to expect to see newspaper stories and TV news accounts of major crimes on a regular basis.

One newspaper feature displays mug shots of usually six or eight people who have alluded police and are wanted on arrest warrants.

When I see such features, I’m often reminded of Mike Maggard. Back in Dayton, Kentucky, Mike was a ninth-grade student of mine during the early years I taught high school.

I can’t say I ever got to know Mike, even though I saw him daily in class for an entire school year. He was a heavy-set young man. He displayed tattoos of guns and daggers on his arms.

He never caused a discipline problem.

Mike sat in the back row. (It was my practice to allow students to choose where they sat.) He didn’t visit. He didn’t talk out of turn. He didn’t visit with his neighbors. He didn’t volunteer answers.

As I recall, he turned in his homework on time. He passed quizzes. He earned his credit for the course. Mike was nearly invisible. A few years later that changed.

I was still teaching in the Cincinnati area. It was a front-page story in both city papers. Late one night, in a robbery attempt, a young man had attacked a downtown Cincinnati parking garage attendant, beating him to death. Apparently there were witnesses. They identified the attacker from mug shots. It was Mike, my former student.

I imagine Mike, if he’s still living, remains in an Ohio state prison. It’s a tragic story, both for the garage attendant and for Mike. Apparently, he missed some vital lesson. In his family? His pals? An uncle who got out of prison?

Obviously, the English curriculum didn’t help Mike stay on the straight and narrow.

Forget “Romeo and Juliet.” Forget “Julius Caesar.” I’m sure Mr. Blue’s freshman biology class didn’t deal with law and order. I suppose Mike got passing marks in that class.

As a long-time journalist, I often visited jails and prisons. I always wondered how the prisoners missed such a basic lesson in living: Don’t be stupid. Stay out of jail. Obviously, the vast majority of students figure it out for themselves. Or they absorb the message at home or at church.

I’ve been tempted to propose a stay-out-of-jail class in, say, middle school. But such a class assumes that people tempted to rob or to kill just don’t know the possible consequences of committing a crime.

Of course, some well-educated people in the professions, in business and in politics break the law. They refuse, in Bill Clinton’s famous phrase, to “play by the rules.” It’s not the case that such people don’t know the rules. They surely know the consequences of getting caught.

It remains one of our country’s biggest challenges. Every year, we see more major crime than citizens in every other Western country. We have more police per capita. We have more social workers. We have more churches. We have greater wealth.

Anyway, a young black man wearing red and black sneakers lay bleeding to death face down in the snow yesterday afternoon. It was a big news story. Even with arrests, I’m not sure we’ll get a good answer.

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Policing – the way forward

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Boston Police - Special Operations Officer
Boston Police – Special Operations Officer

These recent stories simply are heartbreaking. First to make national news was Ferguson, Mo. Police officer Darren Wilson shot to death an unarmed teenager Michael Brown. A grand jury declined to indict the officer. Thank goodness, he resigned from the department.

Then we heard about a Staten Island officer acquitted in the choke-holding death of an overweight, middle-age, unarmed black for selling cigarettes on the street. Actually, we got to see this on videotape. A United Nations panel of human rights expects expressed shock that the officer, again, wasn’t indicted.

There’s been even more news about police conduct. An 18-month Justice Department study of policing in Cleveland found a pattern of cruelty and routine violation of citizens’ constitutional rights.

In his column this Friday, the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson cites a pervasive pattern of racism that persists throughout the country and infects police departments. Indeed, dating back generations, official reports have lamented the great racial divide in America. This divide can been seen in housing patterns, employment, segregated schools. As the Koerner Commission might have put it today, we remain two nations, separate and unequal.

Policing just happens sometimes to illustrate the worst side of that racial divide. But another side greatly complicates the picture. These recent stories brought to mind my own experience. I got to ride one night with a decorated Memphis police officer almost 20 years ago. I had joined two Fort Wayne officers to get a close look at the Memphis model program for officers encounters with mentally ill persons.

After a banquet honoring a number of Memphis officers, I climb into Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) member Tony Mullins’s patrol car. Shaved bald, husky, wearing black gloves, Officer Mullins was no cop I ever wanted to encounter in a dark alley. But what I witnessed that evening was a highly trained officer who handled those people on the street late at night with extreme patience. He didn’t yell at citizens. He didn’t order them to go home. Rather, his conversations involved his mostly listening to the person.

Like police departments throughout the country, Fort Wayne and the country departments here adopted the Memphis model of policing. Since then, police have made far fewer arrests of mentally ill persons. The CIT here had been such a model that our officers are now invited to instruct other departments on this highly successful form of policing.

As I suggested, the tragic encounters recently in the news represent part of the story about how police in this country treat citizens, particularly minorities. But CIT programs point the way to more just and effective policing everywhere. First, CIT officers are carefully screened even before they can start training. They receive hours and hours of additional classroom and field work. Then they’re supervised in the early days they’re formally regarded as CIT officers.

To be sure, part of the problem in many departments is racial prejudice among officers. How to deal with that when so much of the general population harbors those feelings? Surely for starters, you can’t have a department that doesn’t reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the community. Ferguson, Missouri, has only a handful of minority police officers out of a force or more than 50. This is just asking for tragedy. Beyond that, I hope community leaders, in light of the recent news, would examine the experience of towns and cities that have excellent records of police-community relations.

The good news is that these highly-publicized tragic encounters between police and citizens have sparked calls for reform from President Obama and other political leaders. Nobody can be proud of the tragedies, least of all police.

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A death in Ferguson

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Michael Brown, Jr.
Michael Brown, Jr.

I have no idea whether Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson should be found criminally liable in the August 9 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

I felt Wilson’s newly released testimony to the grand jury confusing. Eyewitness testimony was conflicting. The tragic encounter didn’t make any sense. For example, why in the world did Wilson need to get off 12 shots at close range before he no longer felt threatened by his suspect?

Consider: This all began when Officer Wilson ordered Brown to walk on the sidewalk, not in the middle of the street. So here jaywalking turned into a capital offense.

Beyond that, county prosecutor Bob McCulloch presented the case to the jury in a fashion that didn’t follow any procedure I’m familiar with. Rather than laying out the case for, say an indictment on manslaughter, McCulloch recited a case both for and against an indictment. He then left it to jurors to draw their own conclusions.

It doesn’t help ordinary citizens feel justice was done that McCulloch has a reputation for protecting police officers. Further, his police officer father once shot to death a black suspect. It also seems peculiar that it took months for the grand jury to reach a decision to not indict.

At his conference following the grand jury’s decision, McCulloch blamed the press for making a national story out of the case.

This was an extremely volatile case. Given McCulloch’s reputation and the national interest, he should have stepped aside and let the Missouri governor appoint a special prosecutor.

Then you have the investigation by the local police. From the news accounts, it appears so amateurish. Here’s Officer Wilson bagging his own pistol. Then local officials left Brown’s uncovered body lie in the street for hours.

Also puzzling, the investigator of the scene didn’t take measurements or conduct even the most routine examination of the police vehicle. Nor did the police tape record interviews they conducted with Officer Wilson. An odd procedure, to say the least.

It’s not that police never get charged for shooting a citizen. One study over seven years found 41 officers charged with murder or manslaughter. During the same period, researchers found that officers had been exonerated in nearly 3,000 shooting deaths.

For years, studies have noted that police are 10 times more likely to stop black male teens than white male teenagers. The Ferguson case provides yet the latest tragic glimpse at
a racial chasm in this country. Indeed, the demonstrations in Ferguson and around the country that followed the grand jury’s decision remind us that the very perception of injustice is not all that different from injustice itself.

I hope outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder does open a federal investigation of the case. Maybe that would quell some of the anger and show everyone that we really can expect and find justice when local officials fall short.

There are some powerful takeaway lessons from Ferguson. First, let’s be highly selective before pinning a police badge on a person. Then let’s see that their training meets national standards. Let’s see that the racial and ethnic makeup of the department reflects the community – unlike Ferguson.

For the rest of us, let’s get on about the business of championing justice. Too many resources have been wasted. Too many lives have been ruined. Too many lives have been needlessly lost. Michael Brown surely is one.

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Stay out of jail 101

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jailI’ve often thought that every student should be required to take a class on how to be a law-abiding person and stay out of jail.

Here’s what reminded me of this. Today, I read a news story about somebody shooting to death a woman in her home on the city’s southeast side. The killer apparently sprayed the house with an automatic weapon, neighbors reported. A few days ago, I read that somebody has had been arrested and charged with a different crime.

It’s such a drumbeat of crime news. It’s not all about somebody shooting another person to death. I read yesterday about a stock broker getting years in prison for violating the laws that regulate trading. Once in a while, the offender is somebody famous like a pro football star.

Just this week, the Baltimore Ravens kicked Ray Price off the team after a closed-circuit film surfaced showing Price striking his now-wife Janay Palmer, then dragging her out of the elevator. This was another crime. I confess I watched the video the news. That’s pretty stupid to clobber somebody in front of a closed-circuit camera in an elevator. Not only that, it’s a crime.

Stories vary. I don’t have much reaction to news of some crimes. If it’s a child that’s different. Or if it’s a rape. Or if the crime seems especially cruel. I’m thinking of lthe girls who some years ago stabbed an elderly woman to death in Gary, Indiana, after she gave them cookies. Yet crimes have two things in common. First, of course, they violate the law.

Hey, you expect clerks to give you the right change and not pocket a few bucks for themselves. You expect to go to bed every night and not have somebody break into your house and beat you and your wife up. It’s the law to not break into other people’s houses. The fact most people obey that law gives you a good night’s sleep.

The second thing about crimes is that they’re all stupid. There’s just no other word for it. Even when you think you’ve gotten away with holding up a gas station or battering your spouse, you never can be sure you’ll never be found out and go to prison. Believe me, you don’t want to spend one day in prison.

As a journalist, I’ve visited people in jail and prison. There, the prisoner is at the mercy of the guards and the rules, not the mention the craziness of other inmates. Somebody else decides when you’ll eat, when you go to bed, when you can watch TV. Once released, you’ll have a devil of a time earning a living. If you go back to a life of crime, you’re more likely to be arrested than before. Then, as a repeat offender, you’ll get a longer sentence.

I don’t claim that taking a class that teaches students about the law and the penalties for various crimes would prevent most crimes. But I think there’s a good chance that such a class will would help prevent some crimes. That would spare potential offenders and their victims.

In Washington D.C., a Georgetown University law professor sends his law students to local high schools to teach the fundamentals of the law, both criminal and civil law. He calls it street law. Former Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy used to teach high schoolers in the district a class in peace studies. I don’t know if he still does. Among other goals, that class showed students how to avoid conflict in their personal lives.

Again, I concede that a class in the law isn’t the cure-all for crime. But I believe every student would benefit from a few lessons on the law. We’re required to study lots of things that have no bearing on our lives. I don’t quarrel with that. I just say that it makes sense to learn your rights and obligations as a citizen when you’re in school. Then you’ll have lots of time to discuss the issues freely. Then maybe you won’t get that schooling when you’re hearing it from a judge and charged with a crime.

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The Price to Punish

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I was seated at the banquet next to Marvin Wolfgang.

We were attending a conference at the University of Pennsylvania on juvenile justice.   Many of the country’s top experts showed up, along with two journalists, Fox Butterfield of The New York Times and me, then the editorial page editor for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

I don’t recall the names of most people there.  But Professor Wolfgang would have stood out in any such gathering.  And if you got to visit with him, you sure wouldn’t forget.  He’s still regarded one of the most influential criminologists of all time.

I was reminded of that evening in the mid-1990s by a recent news story in The Journal Gazette. It told about a hearing of state policy makers.  The panel took up the subject of the Indiana Department of Correction budget. Commissioner Ed Buss spoke.

He’s been watching his budget balloon every year.  By 2014, he projects that feeding and housing inmates will cost $675.2 million.  That would be up from the projected $667.4 million in 2012.

It’s not that the commissioner has been feeding inmates steak every day.  He’s already cut 1,000 staff jobs in recent years.  But the demands to house more and more prisoners grows every year – about 1,000 in fact.   Does Indiana  have more crime?   Not at all.  We don’t have less crime, either.

What’s happened is that over the past 20 years, as Commissioner Buss notes, the legislature has added 107 new crimes.  Further, lawmakers keep tacking on longer sentences to existing crimes.  We all know why:  Politicians want people to believe they’re getting “tough on crime.”

Of course, tough on crime isn’t the same thing as getting smart on crime.  Which brings me back to the eminent criminologist, Professor Wolfgang.

“Do longer sentences really reduce crime?”

My dinner companion smiled and shook his head.

“No,” he said.

Then he turned away from the salad to more fully answer my question.

“To the contrary.”

“The longer somebody is locked up, the more likely they’ll commit more crime when they’re released.”

I’d come across research to that effect before.  But so directly from the professor made it a more powerful conclusion than ever.

In his testimony the other day, Indiana’s DOC’s commissioner called for an overhaul of sentencing.  Yet he noted that it would take a lot of courage from lawmakers to move away from the draconian sentences now regularly being meted out.

We could cut the length of sentences.  We could put more inmates into community corrections, at a much lower cost than in prison.  (The state currently houses more than 3,000 nonviolent offenders who would pose no threat to their towns.)  We could give more time off the sentences for good behavior.

One state lawmaker at the hearing seemed to discount any of these changes ever happening  “It would take a lot of guts,” he pointed out, echoing the commissioner’s words.

But the changes would only take guts if legislators believe that longer sentences in prison reduce crime. Trouble with that belief is that for all these people locked up for longer periods,  crime hasn’t gone down.  In fact, in some categories, such as assault and property crimes, we’ve seen more crime.

What about acting on Professor Wolfgang’s research and the findings of other experts?   What if reducing time in prison for most felons actually reduced crime?   We don’t even have to  try a pilot program to test the proposition.  Shorter sentences work well for countries in Western Europe, which report far less crime than we do in this country.

I know Commissioner Buss worries about his budget and the cost of handing out longer sentences to more offenders.  Taking a page from the professor, I believe state leaders can rightly tell their constituents that they’ll support an overhaul of sentencing.  It won’t be just to save money .  It will protect the public safety.

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