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An officer stops to speak with unhoused people as part of a Portland community policing patrol. Photo by Melissa Lewis/Reveal.

For this week’s episode, Handcuffed and Unhoused, data reporter Melissa Lewis and producer Emily Harris investigate what happens when local residents call police on unhoused people in their neighborhood, analyzing arrest data across six major West Coast cities with large homeless populations. In Portland, Oregon, for example, most calls to police about unhoused people weren’t about criminal behavior. 

Yet an officer with a gun is dispatched, contributing to a high volume of arrests for what are often minor infractions.

Here’s what Lewis’ data analysis found: 

  • Across the six West Coast cities, people living on the streets are consistently more likely to be arrested than their neighbors who live in houses. In Portland, unhoused people make up at most 2% of the population, but they account for nearly half of all arrests in the city. 

  • Many of the arrests were for smaller, nonviolent offenses – 35% were for misdemeanors and another 43% were for warrants (often for things like missing a court date).

  • In Portland, the city receives calls about unhoused people an average of at least 80 times a day.

In the show, Lewis meets with neighbors in Portland’s Lents neighborhood at a free Friday night dinner in Lents Park. She follows the journey of a houseless man who was arrested 14 times over the last five years. Five of those arrests were for criminal charges – all misdemeanors like shoplifting at Walmart and having small amounts of meth. The rest were on warrants for things like missing court dates. Lewis tracks the meth possession case as it moves through the court system, highlighting the hurdles for someone experiencing homelessness to get out of the criminal justice system once they’re in it. Things like remembering your court date and showing up on time are difficult when you don’t have a phone, access to electricity, or reliable transportation. 

I talked with Lewis about cities that have long turned to police as the mechanism for making homelessness disappear. But arrests don’t solve a housing crisis. 

There's a lot of misconceptions around people who are houseless. How does your reporting counter some of those stereotypes?  

Melissa Lewis: The primary misconception is that they're a monolith. I feel like reporting on homelessness typically casts anybody living outside as either a hero or a villain. And they're not. That is also described as a “sin or sickness model” of unhoused people: Either they are hapless victims or they chose this. I think people are going to better identify with what is actually happening if they have a fuller sense of a houseless person as an actual person. I think it's really important to illustrate that maybe they're choosing not to go into a shelter because it mandates attending religious services or because they can't bring their stuff, their pets or their partner.

How did reporting this story complicate your understanding of the relationship between houseless people and police? 

Lewis: I think the reporting actually uncomplicated a few things. When I worked on this previously for The Oregonian (for a 2018 story that found half of all arrests were of homeless people), I had no clue why it was happening. The police said the numbers were driven by calls for service – you know, people calling 911 and complaining. When I talk to sources for this story, people think that I'm reporting on it because I think cops hate homeless people. But I think the individual dispositions of the people policing our communities shouldn't matter. This is about city priorities. What this story showed me was how Byzantine city infrastructure is for responding to homelessness. Sources described a lack of coordination. I encountered police officers who didn't fully understand the nature of the warrants they were arresting people on. If somebody is arrested in two different counties, those counties aren't talking. There’s often different judges signing every single warrant. There's no coordination that allows any individual within the system to see the full scope of what they're doing. 

So reporting this story helped you understand why people get kind of stuck in the cycle of the criminal justice system?

Lewis: Yeah, it feels like something out of a Kafka novel. It's paperwork on paperwork. I'm a programmer, a data analyst, I have training as a lab scientist, and it was hard for me to parse what time the person I was reporting on was even supposed to show up to court. There are tremendous barriers. And on top of that, people are just trying to survive. Every minute you're spending trying to disentangle yourself from the criminal legal system is a minute you're not spending getting yourself out of homelessness. 

When people listen to this, they might ask, “So what do we do about it?” Do you feel like your reporting found any kind of strategies to improve the situation? 

Lewis: [There’s] one concrete thing I'm excited about, and it’s still not perfect, but it’s something San Francisco has done. They have the same problem as Portland: Somebody is cited for camping or a really low-level crime. They're unhoused. They're supposed to come to court. They don't. They may not remember when the court date is or they may not have a phone or anything to track time. So they don't show up. And then the judge issues a warrant for failure to appear. Then they could be arrested, they're brought in, they have a new court date, they failed to appear and so on and so on. San Francisco ended that practice. That doesn't erase the underlying charges – you're charged with camping, that remains – but you're not going to get these cascading “failure to appear” warrants. They recognize that, like the evidence showed, it wasn't working. This is a costly and ineffective response that our region is having to this issue. So we can stop that. What is the point of the criminal legal system? It's not to rack up fees. It's not to continue arresting people. So what are we spending our time and money on?

Listen to the episode:  Handcuffed and Unhoused

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New Investigation: DC Police Tried to Fire 24 Current Officers for ‘Criminal Offenses.’ A Powerful Panel Blocked Nearly Every One, Documents Show.

Photo by Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Documents obtained by Reveal and WAMU/DCist show how hard it is for the Washington, D.C., police force to fire officers who the department have determined to be involved in criminal offenses. 

Internal disciplinary records show the Metropolitan Police Department sought to terminate at least 24 officers currently on the force for criminal misconduct from 2009 to 2019. But even when the department’s own internal affairs investigators determined the officers committed “criminal offenses,” most of them were not fired. 

The files provide a rare glimpse into how police officers avoid accountability and remain on the force. In one case from 2015, for example, the department determined an officer had solicited prostitution, pointed a gun at a sex worker and lied about it. The officer in charge of the appeals panel, Robert J. Contee, has since risen to become chief of police. The officer remains on the force.

The records, which have never before been made public, show:

  • The department’s internal investigators concluded that at least 64 people who currently serve as MPD officers committed criminal misconduct. 

  • The department sought to fire 24 of those officers. In 21 of the 24 cases, the Adverse Action Panel, which hears officers’ appeals, reduced their sentence to a suspension or acquittal. 

  • The department did not seek to terminate the other 40 officers, more than half of whom the Internal Affairs Division believed had been driving either drunk or recklessly. Other criminal conduct the department did not try to fire current officers for included recklessly handling a firearm, harassment, property damage, stalking and theft.

“These systems that MPD set up to punish or at least give officers their day in court when they committed an infraction, they don’t really work,” said Ronald Hampton, a retired MPD officer who has advocated for more accountability as a member of the city’s recently created Police Reform Commission. “It’s seated in the culture of the institution; it’s going to take more than setting up more systems within the organization to deal with it.”

Read the investigation: DC Police Tried to Fire 24 Current Officers for ‘Criminal Offenses.’ A Powerful Panel Blocked Nearly Every One.

Lawmakers Push for Action on Amazon Security Failures 

Credit: Watchara Phomicinda/MediaNews Group/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images
In response to a recent investigation by Reveal and WIRED, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is calling for a Federal Trade Commission investigation of Amazon, while other members of Congress say the company’s failures to protect customers’ personal information highlight the need for federal legislation on data privacy. In his ongoing investigation into Amazon, Reveal reporter Will Evans found that Amazon couldn’t even keep track of all the sensitive data it kept on customers and businesses, much less adequately protect it. 

Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, said: “Recent exposes by Reveal and WIRED raise serious questions about whether Amazon is protecting its customers’ private data. The FTC and state attorneys general should investigate these allegations in order to identify whether these practices broke any laws.”

Wyden, who is working on a bill to regulate how American data can be shared overseas, was particularly worried about the aspect of Evans’ reporting that showed the personal shopping data of millions of Amazon customers was harvested by a Chinese data firm. “It’s outrageous that Amazon shared millions of customers’ transaction data with a firm in China, exposing it to abuse and misuse by the Chinese government,” he said.

Several other lawmakers have spoken out, saying that Amazon’s practices show the need for Congress to take action on passing a federal privacy law. 

Read the story: Lawmakers Call for Action on Amazon Security Failures 

Mississippi Goddam: One of the Best Podcasts of the Year

Our seven-episode serial Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe has gotten lots of love on year-end “best of” lists. New Yorker podcast critic Sarah Larson shouted out the show as one of the best podcasts of 2021, Episode 1 landed on Spotify’s list of the best episodes of the year, and the podcast curators at the Bello Collective named the show one of their favorites of the year, praising the show for “quiet moments (that) connect this tragedy to a community, a history and a profound experience of life.” 

The show has also been getting attention from national media and outlets based in George County, Mississippi, where the serial’s central figure, Billey Joe Johnson Jr., grew up. 

  • Listen: Host Al Letson talks with NPR’s All Things Considered about why he felt compelled to investigate Johnson’s death.

  • Read: The Biloxi Sun Herald, which first reported on Johnson’s death back in 2008, profiles the podcast and explores how it raises new questions.   

  • Watch: Mississippi TV station WLOX talks to Billey Joe Johnson Sr. about his son’s death and how the podcast lays out evidence for why the case should be reopened. 

This newsletter is written by Sarah Mirk. Drop her a line with feedback and ideas!
Copyright © 2021 The Center for Investigative Reporting, All rights reserved.

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