Wednesday, December 30, 2015


The continuing and tragedy of questionable police shootings has generated much noise and consumed many hours of cable TV news bandwidth. I have learned to click past the expert-of-the-moment who seems to enjoy the sound of his or her own voice. Things have to change! Fire the rascals! March! Shout! Book another guest!

There is something missing from this all, a solution. I would prefer to listen to how the issues of 1) police officer selection, training, and supervision and 2) accountability, both for police and prosecutors.

Under the current political and legal system these are all issues for local elected officials and their voters. States generally set standards for police training, but it is the local jurisdiction that chooses to hire an officer and chooses how he or she is to be supervised. How is a voter in San Francisco or a stalled commuter in Seattle expected to influence these issues in Missouri or Ohio? It is the same for any accountability system that purportedly reviews and deals with police misconduct. Accountability is further complicated by the power vested in police bargaining units by collective bargaining laws. You want to change the accountability system? You have to talk to those being accounted for.

At one time things like race discrimination in the workplace, race discrimination in public accommodations, and race discrimination in voting rights were all deemed private and local matters, not the business of the federal government. Then things changed, very slowly and with much opposition. Is this what is needed for police accountability?

Until I start hearing some concrete solutions to the issues of police performance and accountability I will feel bad for the families and those involved, but I will find something else to watch.

Monday, December 28, 2015


My first novel, Down The River, was the result of serendipity like so much of the rest of life. In 1994, I was an active family historian in San Francisco blessed with several fabulous genealogy libraries in the city. These were the days before the World Wide Web and email. One library had a scrap book of queries snipped from the Boston Transcript. People posted queries in this paper and in local genealogy society newsletters. It was a slow process requiring hand searches, snail mail, and months to turn around one query.

I stumbled across one query mentioning my ancestors and asking for information about their murders in 1813. Their murders?! The query was then about ten years old. I wrote a letter to the address provided on the hopes that the person had not moved or died. The bad news is that she had moved. The good news is that she had moved next door and got my letter. Martha Heineman was a retired nurse and a meticulous researcher. She had details of the murders of David and William Morgan by fellow slave holder Edward Osborn. She referred me to primary documents from Floyd County, Kentucky and another researcher who had written a monograph on Osborn and the killings.

I wanted to know more. Court records from the early 1800s had been lost over the decades—and they were very brief. The first histories of the county were written fifty or sixty years later from oral tradition and these had errors. Even the headstone for David and William was erected more than 100 years after the fact and the wrong date is carved in stone. One element that the accounts seemed to agree on was that the slave Phyllis, sometimes spelled Fillis, was the only eyewitness.

Instead of trying to do a history and a historiography of this minor event I thought it would be more fun to fictionalize it. I could keep what was known and which of the disputed facts I liked, and invent the rest. I tried to be as faithful as I could to what transpired as well as to the setting, the social, economic and political situation that gave rise to the conflict. I found I could tell the story from the point of view of Phyllis. For that I had to get into the head of someone born in the 1790s, who was a different race, and a different sex. Other authors had done this; Robert Golden for Memoirs of a Geisha and Ernest J. Gaines for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

I thought I would give it a try. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

DOJ to investigate Chicago PD

This has to go with, "I'm shocked, shocked to find there's gambling going on in here." The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has spent the last seven years patrolling the country looking for police department to investigate. Cincinnati was an early stop and they came to Seattle four years ago. In every case the investigators have discovered a pattern and practice of unconstitutional use of force and other issues. DOJ filed suit in U.S. District Court and the cities had to come to the negotiation table to work out a consent decree.

The DOJ campaign was like a police department that expected its traffic officers to issue a minimum number of citations. In every city they visited the pattern and practice was confirmed. Other cities involved include Oakland, California and Los Angeles.

While the lawyers and consultants were interviewing people and reviewing records (Seattle kept careful track of use of force, even the most minor contact) the Chicago PD went unexamined until recently. When the investigation was announced it was news.

Where has DOJ been the past seven years?

I interviewed the Cincinnati police chief in 2011 and he loved the DOJ consent decree. At the end of the process he had a piece of paper that said his department was completely in compliance with constitutional guidelines.