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How US police are co-opting a law meant to protect victims of crime

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Columbus, Ohio – Some of the final moments of Ta’Kiya Young’s life unfolded in a supermarket car park last August.

Suspected of stealing from a Kroger’s grocery store in Blendon Township, Ohio, Young had just climbed into her black Lexus sedan when two police officers approached her.

“Are you going to shoot me?” Young asked as the officers ordered her out of the car, one with his weapon drawn.

Her car started to roll slowly forward. The armed officer fired. His bullet pierced the car’s windscreen, and the body camera he wore captured a final, high-pitched scream.

Young, only 21, later died in a nearby hospital. So too did her unborn daughter: Young was entering the final trimester of her pregnancy at the time of her death. She left behind two sons, ages six and three.

It was a bitter loss for Nadine Young, her grandmother. “She was a fun-loving person,” Nadine said. “Always cheery.”

But Nadine’s anguish was compounded when she discovered that officials considered there to be three possible victims in the deadly incident: Young plus the two cops.

That allowed the officer who fired the fatal shot to invoke a state measure called Marsy’s Law, designed to conceal the identities of crime victims.

Criminal justice advocates, however, warn this is part of a dangerous trend in the United States, where police officers use Marsy’s Law to shield themselves from public scrutiny.

“They were saying he was a victim?” Nadine asked incredulously. “He was the man with the gun.”

Nadine Young holds up a photo of Ta'Kiya Young with two of her relatives
Nadine Young shares a photograph of Ta’Kiya Young, centre, and two other grandchildren [Patrick Orsagos/AP Photo]

A shield against accountability?

Marsy’s Law originated in California in 2008. Framed as a victims’ bill of rights, it sought to protect crime victims not only by ensuring their privacy but also by notifying them if their assailants were up for parole.

Since then, variations of the law have been passed in about a dozen other states, including Ohio.

But experts fear Marsy’s Law has been co-opted by police departments in those states to hide the identities of officers involved in use-of-force incidents.

In Union County, South Dakota, for instance, a highway patrol trooper shot a man twice following an altercation in September 2018. His identity was withheld under Marsy’s Law.

In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, another officer used Marsy’s Law to avoid being named after he fired upon a man who was armed and drunk last June.

The law enforcement officers in both cases were said to be threatened or physically harmed, thereby making them crime victims.

People sit on the grass outside the state house in Columbus, Ohio.
Voters in Ohio passed Marsy’s Law as an amendment to the state constitution in November 2017 [Stephen Starr/Al Jazeera]

Supporters of the law’s use in law enforcement argue that police officers regularly face violent criminals, and the potential for victimisation is high. Their names should therefore remain private if they so wish.

However, academics and rights groups have described the ability to hide officers’ identities as a “gift to bad cops”.

The anonymity, they say, could translate into a lack of accountability — which in turn could lead to officers with a record of excessive force returning to the streets, endangering more lives.

And the risk is on the rise. The nonprofit group Mapping Police Violence named 2023 the deadliest year in a decade. An estimated 1,243 people were killed by law enforcement last year, the nonprofit’s highest tally on record.

Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank, believes scrutinising law enforcement’s use of force is a critical public right.

It can also help reduce the rates of police violence, he said. “[It’s] one of the key ways in which we prevent the next incidents of abuse from happening.”

The Ohio parking lot, outside a Kroger's supermarket, where Ta'Kiya Young was shot
Ta’Kiya Young and her unborn child were shot and killed in this car park in Blendon Township, Ohio, a suburb of the state capital Columbus [Stephen Starr/Al Jazeera]

But Marsy’s Law is raising broader legal questions, not only about abuse of power in law enforcement but also about due process.

Critics see the law as preventing potential litigants from accessing information that might be relevant in their court cases. Then there’s the question of how to decide who is a victim.

“People are being accorded these crime-victim rights even though there has been no legal process determining whether they have been victimised. That’s a paradox,” said Olson.

“It can go beyond their name not being released. It could be that they don’t have to reveal information to an opposing lawyer.”

Those concerns have led to high-profile legal challenges and even protests. In Florida, for instance, Marsy’s Law has come under increasing public scrutiny.

A 2020 investigation from USA Today and ProPublica found that, in at least half of the cases where Florida officers invoked the law, no physical injuries occurred.

That same year, two fatal police shootings in the state capital Tallahassee prompted law enforcement to invoke Marsy’s Law.

One of the shooting victims, Tony McDade, was a transgender Black man. His death came only days after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed at the hands of police in Minnesota, prompting nationwide uproar and months of demonstrations.

Protesters in Tallahassee likewise filled the streets, chanting McDade’s name and comparing him to Floyd. The pressure prompted the city to push for the release of the officers’ names, against the wishes of the state’s own police union. That escalated into a lawsuit.

Last November, Florida’s Supreme Court ultimately ruled, six to zero, that Marsy’s Law “does not explicitly” shield the officers’ identities — nor the identities of any other victims.

It was a victory for proponents of government transparency and a rebuke to law enforcement’s embrace of the statute.

Lawyer Sean Walton poses in front of an office window
Sean Walton, the lawyer for the Young family, has called for police accountability in Ta’Kiya’s death [Stephen Starr/Al Jazeera]

A family grappling with loss

Other lawsuits are under way, including in Ohio, where Young was killed.

For instance, the Columbus Dispatch, a newspaper in the state capital, filed a complaint in Ohio’s Supreme Court arguing that police were using Marsy’s Law to block public records requests.

Al Jazeera attempted to reach the Ohio branch of the Marsy’s Law advocacy group for comment but received no response. It also reached out to the Blendon Township police chief, but likewise did not receive a response.

The officer who shot and killed Young and her unborn child was placed on paid administrative leave, as is common practice after police shootings.

In January, the case was sent to a grand jury to decide whether the officer would face charges. A county prosecutor also publicly identified the officer as Connor Grubb, after months of officials concealing his name.

The legal team representing the Young family, however, had named Grubb in their public announcements shortly after the loss of the 21-year-old and her unborn child.

They point out that the police department’s own policies required Grubb to get out of the way of Young’s slow-moving vehicle, rather than using lethal force.

“This shows why we need police accountability,” said Sean Walton, the lawyer representing Young’s family.

“Police departments are going to use [Marsy’s Law] until they are no longer able to use it.”

Walton has also filed an action with the Ohio Supreme Court seeking to prevent law enforcement officers from concealing their identities in use-of-force interactions going forward.

Six months on from the killing, Nadine Young is now caring for her granddaughter’s two sons. She told Al Jazeera they all are still grappling with their mother’s death.

“One of them tells me he wants to be a police officer — but a good police officer,” she said. “We just miss her a lot. We want justice for her.”

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Elephant in the room: Why Botswana, Namibia want fewer of the gentle giants

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They might be an awesome sight to see from a safe distance on safari as they lumber around with their big, lopping ears and long trunks, but for those who live side by side with elephants, these mammals can quickly become a menace.

Elephants’ numbers in African countries have dwindled hugely in the past. Conservation efforts since the 1980s, however, have seen populations recover somewhat. In Southern African countries, where about half of the African elephant population resides, their higher numbers mean they are starting to come into conflict with humans.

As a result, some of these countries have tried to reduce their elephant numbers. In Botswana, which has the largest number of elephants in the world, President Mokgweetsi Masisi has sought to push controversial policies, like the promotion of hunting by rich tourists. Last month, he lashed out at the German government for considering a ban on the import of elephant parts, threatening to send Berlin 20,000 of its jumbos.

The diplomatic spat made catchy headlines. But it belied the serious challenges facing elephants, rural communities and conservationists working to find solutions.

Two men lift huge elephant tusks in Kruger national Park, South Africa
Officials carry a large elephant tusk at Skukuza in the Kruger National Park, South Africa, in 2001 [File: Denis Farrell/AP]

How have elephant numbers changed in the past?

Following long periods of overhunting and poaching for their meat and expensive ivory tusks, elephant numbers collapsed dramatically across Africa between the 1970s and 80s. About 100,000 elephants were killed each year during that time, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). While an estimated three to five million elephants roamed the continent around 1930, the number had fallen to 1.3 million in 1979, the WWF says. According to researchers who have looked back as far as the 1500s, elephant populations in Africa have shrunk by some 98 percent.

Numbers continued to fall from 1979 until conservation practices – including crucial bans on sales of elephant parts and trophy hunting – halted the decline. Total elephant numbers in Africa currently stand at about 415,000, according to WWF estimates.

This is still low compared with historical numbers. In particular, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the African bush elephant as endangered and the African forest elephant as critically endangered, meaning they still face the threat of extinction.

The African bush elephant is a bigger animal inhabiting the savannah grasslands of Southern and Eastern Africa, making up 70 percent of the total population on the continent. Its cousin – the African forest elephant – is native to Western and Central Africa and is recognisable by its smaller, rounded ears and short, pointed tusks.

Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe together account for more than half of the African bush elephant population. Botswana alone is home to about 130,000 bush elephants – about half of the region’s numbers. It is a big country with a small population of two million people, comparable in size to France, which has a population of 67 million. For every 15 people in Botswana, there is about one elephant.

Zimbabwe has the second-largest bush elephant population at about 100,000.

Elephants roam in the Hwange Game Reserve, Zimbabwe
Elephants roam in the Hwange Game Reserve in Zimbabwe, August 6, 2015 [File: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP]

Why have rising numbers of elephants become a challenge?

The largest living land animals’ feeding habits can dramatically alter ecosystems during their roughly 60 years of life. They have few natural predators to manage their numbers besides humans and, with people out of the way, elephants can populate quickly, says researcher Lucy King from the non-profit organisation, Save the Elephants.

“When left alone, they breed pretty well [and] their numbers can go up quite steadily over time because their survival rate is pretty good,” King says.

During the same time that elephant numbers have steadied, human population growth has doubled across Africa. In Southern and Eastern Africa, the population grew from 312 million in 1994 to 633 million in 2021 according to the United Nations Population Fund. That growth has seen humans occupy more land area and increasingly encroach on wildlife habitats. Settlements and farms have also cut roaming wildlife off from water or food sources.

As a result, humans and elephants are coming into more frequent contact and are clashing over the same resources. Foraging herbivores often roam onto farms, rip open thatch roofs on huts in search of food or cause damage to water pipes and other infrastructure. This has prompted angry locals to retaliate and attack them. Those interactions can be fatal for both man and beast.

Climate change has also caused more elephants to wander further than they once would have – and to more unpredictable places – to seek scarce food and water.

Zimbabwe is a peak conflict site, but human-elephant clashes are increasingly occurring across the region, King says.

Countries like Zimbabwe and Botswana blame elephant overpopulation and argue that reducing their numbers would reduce these clashes. However, some experts reject this suggestion, pointing out that there used to be many more elephants in Africa.

How have governments tried to tackle the issue?

South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana have all tried to reduce the number of elephants in their territory at certain points, but nearly all their methods have been met with criticism or outright condemnation from animal welfare organisations.

One practice is culling – the deliberate targeting and killing of several animals, usually whole families, together.

This practice was popular around the 1980s and 90s. In South Africa’s Kruger Park, a culling campaign saw about 14,000 elephants killed between 1967 and 1995. However, the practice was outlawed after African countries faced a global backlash, such as widespread calls for tourists to boycott countries culling elephants.

However, in 2008, South Africa defied the global outcry and lifted its culling ban. In 2021, Zimbabwe – which had killed about 50,000 elephants between 1967 and 1988 – said it was considering bringing back the practice.

Conservationists such as King argue that culling is particularly cruel for elephants, who are emotionally intelligent and can experience trauma. Besides, the method is not effective and will “hardly scratch the surface”, she says.

Governments have also attempted to simply sell off part of their herds, although animal welfare groups say elephants could be shipped to zoos and used for human entertainment.

In 2021, Namibia auctioned 170 elephants but sold only a third – at 5.9 million Namibian dollars ($400,000). There was so much bad press and criticism of the sale that buyers were discouraged, officials said.

Another way to control numbers is by allowing trophy hunting, whereby countries license adventure seekers – usually tourists from the United States and other Western countries – to kill a limited number of animals in specific, allocated areas for their horns, skins and tusks. Often, these tourists target male elephants – or bulls – for their bigger tusks.

Government officials in Southern Africa – and hunters themselves – argue that hunting helps manage the elephant population naturally and provides revenue for local communities. That in turn incentivises local communities to stop illegal poaching and to ensure that elephant numbers remain steady — and never drop below a sustainable level. Hunting licences can cost as much as $10,000, depending on the animal being hunted.

African governments are often angered by the idea of Western countries telling them the practice is unethical – hence the threat by Botswana to ship 20,000 elephants to Germany. Botswana’s President Masisi has been a particular advocate for the return of hunting licences. In 2019, after he took office, Botswana lifted a five-year ban on elephant hunting.

What are the arguments against hunting?

Some conservationists dismiss this anger from African governments.

“I just think it’s extremely shortsighted. I think it’s a convenient smokescreen behind which to hide and justify trophy hunting which is big business,” says Ross Harvey, a wildlife economist with the non-profit organisation Good Governance Africa. Harvey points out that much of the funds from trophy hunting – first introduced in colonial Kenya – go to wealthy businessmen who own trophy hunting companies, rather than into conservation efforts.

“How much of it actually ends up going to conservation is highly questionable, certainly not enough to conserve the landscape, and how much of it accrues to poor community members is also extremely unclear,” he adds. “But now that elephant is gone, now you live with the negative effects of having taken out all the bulls – typically in their reproductive peak.”

Older males often help guide younger bulls, teaching them where to find food and water, or how to behave. When they are killed, younger males can become aggressive, researchers have found.

“My prediction is that you’re going to see an increase in human and elephant conflict because when you take out all the bulls that are responsible for disciplining the herd, then crop raiding is going to increase, not decrease,” says Harvey.

So, what is the solution?

Harvey says while elephant numbers may have increased since the 1990s, the real problem is not one of “overpopulation” but rather of humans cutting off connecting land strips or corridors which elephants – and all wildlife – use to migrate in search of food and habitat. Freeing up those spaces, he argues, will reduce human-elephant interactions.

“If you shoot them, you just exacerbate the problem,” he says.

“There’s only two solutions really,” says King. “One, to have breathing space. We keep throwing up fences everywhere and stopping [elephants], so they get squeezed into areas where they can then deplete the vegetation incredibly fast. The only solution is to release the valves and make sure the fences come down. That does not mean that elephants should be everywhere … but you can’t fence elephants in.”

In northern Botswana, one initiative called the “Eco-Exist Project” worked with locals to identify and demarcate more than 60 elephant corridors across the sprawling Okavango Delta. The team then worked with communities to replan village layouts, so that farms, homes and other infrastructure would be positioned away from these “elephant highways”.

It is not yet clear how much this project has reduced human-elephant conflict, but some 65,000 hectares (160,600 acres) of farmland belonging to 500 farmers, have been protected so far. Farmers have also clustered to share farm spaces which they have ringed with fences or crops such as chilli – which elephants dislike and therefore avoid.

Another solution, King says, is to teach people how to live more harmoniously with the animals. Her research on natural ways to fend off elephants from settlements and farms in southern Kenya has yielded some results.

King found that when she played sound recordings of swarming bees, elephants would disperse in a hurry. She then started to experiment with building beehive fences around several farmsteads. This is a rudimentary method which is suitable for rural communities – farmers need only poles to mount boxes housing the hives. Women then harvest the honey and sell it for some side income. The method is now being employed in 17 African countries and some areas in Asia.

“We’re really proud about it … and it’s completely open source,” King says. “We let people have the manuals, develop their own bio fence project, and run with it. And the interesting thing is it’s really working everywhere.”

However, the method works for small land areas only. It is also threatened by drought – which is not conducive for bees.

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Photos: Sikhs celebrate harvest festival of Baisakhi, marking new year

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Baisakhi is an ancient festival symbolising the new harvest season and the beginning of the solar new year.

In gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, people participate in congregational singing, eat communal meals and reflect on the tenets of their faith that revolve around “seva,” or serving fellow human beings and seeking to build a just society while living a simple life.

The Sikh religion, with its line of 10 gurus, is traced back to the time of Guru Nanak, the first guru. He was born in a village in present-day Pakistan in the northern state of Punjab in 1469.

He rejected the prevalent unequal caste system, which determined and fixed the status of people by birth. Instead, he looked upon humanity as one and encouraged his followers to work hard and perform acts of charity.

The spirit of Baisakhi is reminiscent of the ideals of the gurus.

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Iran’s IRGC seizes ‘Israeli-linked’ ship near Strait of Hormuz

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Tehran, Iran – Iranian armed forces have seized a container ship near the Strait of Hormuz amid rising tensions across the region after a deadly Israeli attack on Iran’s consulate in Syria.

The ship was commandeered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the elite force that lost seven members, including two generals, in the Syria strike, Iranian state media reported on Saturday.

“The ship has now been guided towards the territorial waters of our country,” state-run IRNA reported.

The vessel was identified as the Portugal-flagged MSC Aries, which reportedly departed from a port in the United Arab Emirates en route to India. It is associated with the London-based Zodiac Maritime, a part of the Zodiac Group run by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer and his family.

Footage from the deck of the vessel obtained by The Associated Press news agency on Saturday showed soldiers rappelling down from a helicopter.

‌The helicopter appeared to be a Soviet-designed Mil Mi-17, which is operated by the naval forces of the IRGC.

Zodiac Maritime said in a statement that MSC, an Italian-Swiss shipping group, was responsible for all vessel activities.

MSC confirmed there were 25 crew members on board the ship, adding in a statement that it is “working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure their wellbeing, and safe return of the vessel”.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) had said a vessel was seized by “regional authorities” 50 nautical miles (92km) northeast of the UAE’s Fujairah in a waterway vital to world trade.

Another Israeli-linked container ship was attacked and damaged by a drone in the Indian Ocean in late November, which the United States blamed on Iran.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a post on X that the move by Iran was “a pirate operation in violation of international law”.

He called on the European Union and “the free world to immediately declare” the IRGC a “terrorist organization and to sanction Iran now”.

White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the ship’s crew comprised of Indian, Filipino, Pakistani, Russian and Estonian nationals, and pushed back against the vessel’s seizure.

“We call on Iran to release the vessel and its international crew immediately,” she said. “Seizing a civilian vessel without provocation is a blatant violation of international law, and an act of piracy by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”

Soaring regional tensions

The US military is moving more military assets to the Middle East as it anticipates an Iranian response to the Israeli attack on the consulate in Syria.

A US defence official told Al Jazeera that the move is mainly aimed at better protecting US troops in the region, but also to ramp up regional deterrence.

US media confirmed the move but the Pentagon has not officially said which assets it is moving to the region.

The Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed US officials as saying on Friday that it includes repositioning two destroyers, with one of the warships already in the region and another redirected there.

On Saturday, US President Joe Biden said he was cutting short his weekend stay in Delaware to return to the White House early to meet with his national security team and monitor the security situation ahead of a feared Iranian attack on Israel.

On Friday, Biden said he expected an Iranian retaliation to come “sooner than later” and that Washington will continue to defend Israel.

“Don’t,” he said when asked by reporters if he had a message for Iran.

Since the start of the war on Gaza after the Hamas-led October 7 attacks in Israel, the US has sent thousands of bombs and ammunition to its ally Israel despite growing international criticism, along with moving warships and troops to the region.

John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, said on Friday that Iran’s threats to retaliate against Israel remain “real” and viable”.

General Erik Kurilla, the head of US Central Command in the region, arrived in Israel on Friday to discuss a potential Iranian attack and met with top officials, including Israeli military chief of staff Herzi Halevi.

Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said that “Iran funds, trains, and arms terror proxies across the Middle East and beyond”, adding that the Islamic republic doesn’t just threaten the people of Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria”, but “fuels the war in Ukraine and beyond”.

He said that Israel was on “high alert” and was “prepared to respond” to what he called “any Iranian aggression”.

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