U.S. civil rights groups protest ‘out-of-touch’ Justice Department police commission

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prominent U.S. civil rights groups are refusing to appear before a Justice Department law enforcement commission set up to recommend ways to increase respect for police and reduce crime, calling it out of touch with public anger over policing.

The Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice was established in January, before the latest wave of mass protests over police use of force against Black Americans set off by the May killing of George Floyd.

Its mission statement did not mention racial disparities in criminal justice or address excessive use of force by police, and unlike a similar Obama administration commission, its members represent only federal, state and local law enforcement, with no civil rights advocates, defense attorneys or even big-city police departments taking part.

Civil rights leaders told Reuters they only received invitations to testify after the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued the commission in April, contending it was violating federal open-meeting laws and lacked diverse viewpoints. That case is pending, and the Justice Department has asked a federal judge to have it dismissed.

“It is so completely out of touch with what is happening,” said Kanya Bennett, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

After the protests over Floyd’s death began, the commission held some hearings about the excessive use of force and community policing, but they were announced with little advanced warning and were closed to the public. President Donald Trump has struck a strict “law-and-order” tone in his response to the protests.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the commission would be addressing the issues outlined in a police reform executive order signed by Trump in June including “accreditation and how to assist law enforcement and communities in their response to homelessness, addiction and mental health.”

The commission is expected to release a report in October offering recommendations for decreasing crime, addressing mental health and homelessness issues, and promoting respect for police officers.

‘SHAM COMMISSION’

U.S. civil rights groups including the ACLU have refused to attend the hearings, submitting only written testimony.

“The ACLU is not going to participate in a sham commission that was formed for the sole purpose of promoting a ‘blue lives matter’ narrative,” Bennett said.

Commission Chairman Phil Keith said at a June meeting that of the nearly 30 civil rights and other advocacy groups invited to testify, only a handful accepted, including the North Carolina-based Racial Equity Institute and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

Deena Hayes-Greene, a co-founder of the Racial Equity Institute, said she learned other groups had declined invitations at the meeting she attended. Norman Reimer, executive director of the NACDL, said he was cynical about the commission but thought it was important to express his group’s views.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said it had not received an invitation to participate.

The commission “fails to consider … the long and fraught history of police community relations, especially in Black and brown communities and the nexus between unconstitutional policing and the violations of civil rights,” said Sakira Cook, director of the justice reform program with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Outpouring of rage over George Floyd killing tests limits of U.S. police tactics

By Sarah N. Lynch and Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – Responses by law enforcement authorities in the U.S. capital and in Flint, Michigan, to protests over the police killing of George Floyd illustrated starkly contrasting approaches to handling angry crowds on American streets and repairing relations with grieving communities.

Sheriff Christopher Swanson of Michigan’s Genesee County was keenly aware that some protests in other cities against police brutality after the May 25 death of Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody in Minneapolis had descended into arson and looting.

Tensions were rising in Flint on Saturday when Swanson saw a few officers actually exchange friendly fist-bumps with protesters. So Swanson removed his helmet, strode into the crowd, hugged two protesters and told them, “These cops love you.” Swanson then joined the march.

“We’ve had protests every night since then. … Not one arrest. Not one fire. And not one injury,” Swanson said in a telephone interview.

Federal law enforcement officers took a far less conciliatory approach on Monday evening in confronting a crowd of peaceful protesters outside the White House. The officers charged and used tear gas to clear a path for President Donald Trump to walk to a nearby church for a photo opportunity holding up a copy of the Bible.

“Not only is it a terrible tactic and unsafe … it also is sending a tone as if this is the president that has ordered this,” said Ronald Davis, who headed the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama.

Davis oversaw a task force that in 2015 released new federal guidelines for improving police practices after demonstrations that turned violent over the 2014 police killing of a young black man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, one of a long list of similar killings.

The guidelines addressed ways to improve trust between police and their communities and included recommendations to prevent protests from escalating into violence.

They advised officers to ease rather than rush into crowd control measures that could be viewed as provocative, to consider that anger over longstanding racial disparities in the American criminal justice system was the root cause of such protests and to not to start out with the deployment of masked, helmeted officers and military-style weapons.

That approach appears to have been seldom used in protests that have engulfed many U.S. cities since Floyd’s death after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during his arrest.

LACK OF TRUST

For example, police in New York City have used pepper spray on protesters, hit people with batons and in one case drove two cruisers into a crowd. In New York and some other cities police themselves have been the target of violence.

“If we were dealing with traditional, peaceful protest, everything would have been different,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters on Monday.

Candace McCoy, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, noted police face a complicated task.

“They know that there are people who have announced beforehand that they intend to do violence both to property and to other people,” McCoy said. “The notion that the property destruction could have somehow been prevented is, I think, perhaps naive.”

New York police were heckled by some demonstrators when some officers knelt in solidarity at a Brooklyn protest. During a Manhattan protest, a police officer shook the hand of a young woman wearing a T-shirt showing slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King and hugged her. Just a few minutes later, another officer zip-tied the woman’s arms behind her back and detained her.

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said he plans a hearing on police conduct and race.

“This committee has a unique opportunity to build on some things that the Obama administration did and ask ourselves some hard questions,” Graham said.

Some Obama administration law enforcement reforms aimed at reducing racial discrimination and improving community policing came to a halt after Trump became president in 2017 and his Justice Department took actions such as ceasing investigations into police departments suspected of systemic racial bias.

Civil rights advocates have taken heart over conciliatory approaches displayed in places like Camden, New Jersey, as well as Baltimore, a city torn by violent protests following the 2015 death in police custody of another black man, Freddie Gray.

“I’ve been somewhat encouraged to see that there are some police departments that have demonstrated that police can make the decision to operate in a constitutional fashion and give protesters an opportunity to speak to exercise their First Amendment rights to vent their anger,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told reporters this week, referring to the right of free speech.

Community policing experts said that will be important.

“You have to be transparent and police need to be held accountable when they make mistakes,” said Roberto Villaseñor, the former police chief of Tucson, Arizona, who worked on the 2015 guidelines. “What we need to do is just listen.”

 

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)

FBI points to China as biggest U.S. law-enforcement threat

By Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI on Thursday identified China as the biggest law enforcement threat to the United States, and its director said Beijing was seeking to steal American technology by “any means necessary.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray told a conference the bureau currently had about 1,000 investigations open into Chinese technology theft across its 56 regional offices.

FBI counterintelligence chief John Brown said the bureau arrested 24 people in 2019 in China-related cases and had already arrested 19 people in 2020.

He told the conference at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that the FBI believed “no country poses a greater threat than Communist China.”

Wray said the threat needed to be dealt with through action across the whole of the U.S. government.

“As I stand here talking with you today, the FBI has about 1,000 investigations involving China’s attempted theft of U.S.-based technology in all 56 of our field offices and spanning just about every industry sector,” he said.

Wray added that China was aggressively exploiting U.S. academic openness to steal technology, using “campus proxies” and establishing “institutes on our campuses.”

William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, told the conference China was placing particular priority on stealing U.S. aircraft and electric vehicle technology.In advance of Thursday’s event, Evanina estimated the theft of American trade secrets by China costs the United States “anywhere from $300 to $600 billion” a year.

The FBI data shows an aggressively stepped-up campaign by U.S. authorities to root out Chinese espionage operations pursuing American secrets. This has snared a growing group of Chinese government officials, business people, and academics.

In 2019 alone, public records show U.S. authorities arrested and expelled two Chinese diplomats who allegedly drove onto a military base in Virginia. They also caught and jailed former CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency officials on espionage charges linked to China.

China’s efforts to steal unclassified American technology, ranging from military secrets to medical research, have long been thought to be extensive and aggressive, but U.S. officials only launched a broad effort to stop alleged Chinese espionage in the United States in 2018.

CHINA SAYS CHARGES ‘ENTIRELY BASELESS’

The Chinese embassy in Washington rejected the U.S. allegations as “entirely baseless.”

“The people-to-people exchange between China and the US is conducive to stronger understanding between the two peoples and serves the fundamental interests of our two countries,” it said in an emailed statement.

According to CSIS, of 137 publicly reported instances of Chinese-linked espionage against the United States since 2000, 73% took place in the last decade,

The CSIS data, which excludes cases of intellectual property litigation and attempts to smuggle munitions or controlled technologies, shows that military and commercial technologies are the most common targets for theft.

In the area of medical research, of 180 investigations into misuse of National Institutes of Health funds, diversion of research intellectual property and inappropriate sharing of confidential information, more than 90% of the cases have links to China, according to an NIH spokeswoman.

One main reason Chinese espionage, including extensive hacking in cyberspace, has expanded is that “China depends on Western technology and as licit avenues are closed, they turn to espionage to get access,” said CSIS expert James Lewis.

In late January alone, federal prosecutors in Boston announced three new criminal cases involving industrial spying or stealing, including charges against a Harvard department chair.

Prosecutors said Harvard’s Charles Lieber lied to the Pentagon and the NIH about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan: a Chinese government program that offers mainly Chinese scientists working overseas lavish financial incentives to bring their expertise and knowledge back to China. They said he also lied about his affiliation with China’s Wuhan University of Technology.

During at least part of the time he was signed up with the Chinese university, Lieber was also a “principal investigator” working on at least six research projects funded by U.S. Defense Department agencies, court documents show.

A lawyer for Lieber did not respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom; editing by Chris Sanders, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Hong Kong protesters confront police to try to free campus allies

Anti-goverment protesters trapped inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University abseil onto a highway and escape before being forced to surrender during a police besiege of the campus in Hong Kong, China November 18, 2019. HK01/Handout via REUTERS

Hong Kong protesters confront police to try to free campus allies
By Nick Macfie and David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police used tear gas and water cannon on Monday against protesters who tried to break through cordons and reach a university at the centre of a week-long standoff between demonstrators and law enforcement.

The black-clad protesters hurled petrol bombs as they tried to get to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, occupied by activists during a week that has seen the most intense violence in five months of anti-government demonstrations.

“We have been trying to rescue them all day,” said a young man in a blue T-shirt, cap and spectacles, running down Nathan Road, the Kowloon district’s main commercial street. “They are trapped in there.”

Later, about a dozen protesters pinned inside the campus escaped on the backs of waiting motorbikes after lowering themselves with rope onto the road.

The size of demonstrations has dwindled in recent weeks, but clashes between protesters and police have escalated sharply since early last week, when police shot a protester, a man was set on fire and the city’s financial district was filled with tear gas in the middle of the workday.

On Monday night, protesters under cover of umbrellas huddled along the median strip in Nathan Road, filling bottles with petrol to make crude bombs, a weapon they have used increasingly.

Some residents were trapped at police cordons, and all the shops along a stretch of commercial strip that is usually one of Hong Kong’s busiest were shut.

TIGHTENED CORDON

Earlier on Monday, police tightened their cordon around the Polytechnic University, and fired rubber bullets and tear gas to pin back about 100 anti-government protesters armed with petrol bombs and other weapons and stop them from fleeing.

Dozens, choking on the tear gas, tried to leave the campus by breaking through police lines, but were pushed back.

“The police might not storm the campus but it seems like they are trying to catch people as they attempt to run,” Democratic lawmaker Hui Chi-fung told Reuters.

“It’s not optimistic now. They might all be arrested on campus. Lawmakers and school management are trying to liaise with the police but failed.”

Police said officers had been deployed “on the periphery” of the campus for a week, appealing to “rioters” to leave.

“All roads to Poly U are blocked,” said a policeman who stopped Reuters reporters at a road block on Monday night. “All are blocked.”

ARRESTS MOUNT

Police say 4,491 people, aged from 11 to 83, have been arrested since protests began in June.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in Hong Kong’s promised freedoms when the then British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are responding to excessive use of force by police.

China says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula granting Hong Kong autonomy. The city’s police deny accusations of brutality and say they show restraint.

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday no one should underestimate its will to protect its sovereignty.

On Sunday, Chinese soldiers in a base close to the university were seen monitoring developments at the university with binoculars, some dressed in riot gear.

On Saturday, Chinese troops in shorts and T-shirts, some carrying red plastic buckets or brooms, emerged from their barracks in a rare public appearance to help clean up debris.

The unrest poses the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. Beijing denies interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and has blamed Western countries for stirring up unrest.

The Hong Kong government invoked a colonial-era emergency law in October banning faced masks commonly used by protesters. The High Court ruled on Monday the ban was unconstitutional and police said they would suspend all such prosecutions.

(Reporting by Marius Zaharia, James Pomfret, Josh Smith, Jessie Pang, Joyce Zhou, Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree, Twinnie Siu, Greg Torode, Kate Lamb, Farah Master, Jennifer Hughes and Tom Lasseter in Hong Kong and Phil Stewart in Bangkok; Writing by Greg Torode and Tony Munroe; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel and Timothy Heritage)

As death toll keeps rising, U.S. communities start rethinking Taser use

Chinedu Okobi is pictured in a family photo in Menlo Park, California, U.S., October 16, 2010, provided December 28, 2018. Courtesy Kobi Eshun/Handout via REUTERS

By Tim Reid, Peter Eisler and Grant Smith

(Reuters) – Warren Ragudo died after two Taser shocks by police intervening in a family altercation. Ramzi Saad died after a Taser shock by police during a dispute between Saad and his mother. Chinedu Okobi died after police used a Taser to subdue him in a confrontation they blamed on his refusal to stop walking in traffic.

All three were unarmed. All three had histories of mental illness. And all three died last year in a single northern California county, San Mateo.

They were among at least 49 people who died in 2018 after being shocked by police with a Taser, a similar number as in the previous two years, according to a Reuters review of police records, news reports and court documents.

The deaths typically draw little public scrutiny and no government agency tracks how often Tasers are used or how many of those deployments prove fatal.  Coroners and medical examiners use varying standards to assess a Taser’s role in a death. But some communities now are considering more restrictive Taser policies following allegations that the weapons were used excessively or deployed against people with physical or mental conditions that put them at higher risk of death or injury.

Reuters has contacted 14 police departments, counties and cities that saw a Taser-related death or other serious Taser-related incidents in 2018. Of those, five are reviewing their Taser policies; three had conducted reviews and made no changes, and five declined to comment because investigations into the incidents were still ongoing.

Reuters now has documented a total of at least 1,081 U.S. deaths following use of Tasers, almost all since the weapons began coming into widespread use in the early 2000s. In many of those cases, the Taser, which fires a pair of barbed darts that deliver a paralyzing electrical charge, was combined with other force, such as hand strikes or restraint holds.

Following the three San Mateo deaths, all within nine months, the county board of supervisors and the district attorney launched ongoing reviews of the use and safety of Tasers, which were touted by police and the weapon’s manufacturer as a near-perfect, non-lethal weapon when they began coming into widespread use more than a decade ago.

“There is a need to reevaluate the proper role for Tasers and how and when they are engaged,” Dave Pine, a member of the Board of Supervisors told Reuters. “Until then, I personally think it would be appropriate to have a moratorium on their use.”

Most independent researchers who have studied Tasers say deaths are rare when they are used properly, but in a series of reports in 2017, Reuters found that many police officers are not trained properly on the risks and weapons are often misused.

Reuters was able to obtain cause-of-death data for 779 of the 1,081 deaths it has documented and the Taser was deemed a cause or contributing factor in 21 percent of those.

Axon Enterprise Inc, the Taser’s manufacturer, says most deaths involving the weapons are a result of drug use, underlying physiological conditions, such as heart problems, or other police force used along with the Taser.

Axon argues that most cause-of-death rulings implicating its weapons are misinformed and said in an email that Tasers albeit “not risk-free” are “the safest and effective less-lethal use of force tool available to law enforcement.

RECOGNIZING THE RISKS

Reuters reporting, which included the most complete accounting to date of fatalities following Taser shocks, showed that many cases involved high-risk subjects, such as people agitated by drugs or mental illness, people with heart problems, people who are very young or very old or very frail.

At least half those who died after Taser shocks last year fell into one or more of those categories. As in previous years, about 90 percent were unarmed and nearly a quarter had a history of mental illness.

As police departments have become more aware of Tasers’ risks and limitations, a growing number have restricted their use, says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) think tank. Still, many officers remain unaware of the hazards when they encounter those vulnerable to a Taser’s shock, Wexler warns.”That’s a big problem.”

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, one of the nations largest police forces, drafted a new Taser policy last year that would put new restrictions on the weapons’ deployment, according to an official familiar with the initiative. The policy awaits final approval from the department’s new leadership, which took over after November’s elections.

In Cincinnati, the police department is reviewing its Taser policy after an 11-year-old girl was shocked last year, said Lt. Steve Saunders, a spokesman. In Chula Vista, California, an automatic review is under way following the death of Jason Watts, 29, who died in October after police shocked him in a confrontation at a store, spokesman Capt. Phil Collum said.

Public discourse over Tasers safety has been especially heated in San Francisco, where the Board of Supervisors voted in June to block funding for the police department’s long-debated plan to purchase the weapons.

Nationally, there are no uniform standards governing police use of Tasers, although PERF and the International Association of Chiefs of Police offer model guidelines that warn against using Tasers on vulnerable populations and limit the number and duration of shocks during deployment.

Axon said it offers police departments the latest public-safety best practices and training for Taser use, including warnings about vulnerable populations. The company also offers de-escalation training to help officers resolve conflicts without Tasers, as well as empathy training for special populations, including the mentally ill.

CONCERNS IN SAN MATEO

In San Mateo, the county coroner ruled the death of Ramzi Saad a homicide: “cardiac arrest occurring during physical exertion, physical restraint and tasering.”

Police visited the Redwood City home where Saad, 55, lived with his mother on Aug. 13 after a neighbor witnessed him shoving his mother during an argument and called 911.

Saad, who suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, diabetes and high blood pressure, was shocked with a Taser at least twice after threatening an officer, then lost consciousness as he was pinned to the ground by other police, investigators later found. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Stephen Wagstaffe, the county’s district attorney, found the officer’s response justified, but a second death in 2018 after a Taser shock made local officials take notice.

Two months later, the questions about Taser use grew more urgent: Chinedu Okobi, 36, died on Oct. 3 after being shocked by San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputies in Millbrae.

The deaths have raised major concerns, Wagstaffe told Reuters. He said he has directed staff to come up with as much information as possible on Taser-related deaths.” The results of the fact-gathering exercise will go to the sheriff and the county’s 15 municipal police chiefs to help them in their judgment on the future use of Tasers,” Wagstaffe said.

The district attorney is conducting a separate, formal investigation into whether the deputies who confronted Okobi before his death committed any crimes. That inquiry should be completed by the end of the month and will be made public, Wagstaffe told Reuters.

While Pine favors a moratorium on Taser use during the review, several municipal police chiefs told Reuters they preferred to wait for Wagstaffe’s Okobi investigation before deciding whether to alter policies. The sheriff’s department, which operates countywide, is against a moratorium. Carlos Bolanos, the San Mateo County Sheriff, said he was awaiting results of Wagstaffe’s report into Okobi’s death before his department conducts its own internal review into the death.

Meanwhile, Okobi’s death has become a flashpoint in the county’s debate over Taser use. The sheriff’s department and Okobi’s sister Ebele, a Facebook executive, have offered conflicting accounts about the events surrounding Okobi’s death. The Board of Supervisors will hold a public meeting on Feb. 11 to discuss law enforcement’s Taser use. Presenters will include officials from Axon, the county sheriff’s office, the American Civil Liberties Union and Dr. Zian Tseng, a cardiologist, Pine said.

(Editing by Jason Szep and Tomasz Janowski)

Immigrant accused of killing Iowa student pleads not guilty

FILE PHOTO: Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, charged of Murder in the First Degree, is seen in this booking photo released by Iowa Department of Public Safety in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., August 21, 2018. Courtesy Iowa Department of Public Safety/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

(Reuters) – The accused killer of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts, whose disappearance produced national headlines, pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder at a court appearance on Wednesday.

Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a 24-year-old farm worker from Mexico accused of stabbing 20-year-old Tibbetts, appeared in a black-and-white striped jumpsuit at his arraignment in Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa.

“Mr. Rivera pleads not guilty,” his lawyer Chad Frese told the judge as Rivera listened through black headphones to a translator.

District Court Judge Joel Yates set his trial for April 16. Rivera was ordered held on $5 million bail at a previous court appearance.

Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student, vanished while jogging on July 18, and her body was found about a month later in a field near Brooklyn, Iowa.

Law enforcement officials told reporters that Rivera was in the country illegally. His defense lawyer has said in a court filing that Rivera had legal status.

The case further fueled a national debate over illegal immigration and crime, with U.S. President Donald Trump saying Tibbetts’ death was a result of weak immigration laws.

In an opinion piece for the Des Moines Register earlier this month, Tibbetts’ father, Rob Tibbetts, called on politicians not to “distort” her death to advance views “she believed were profoundly racist.”

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Joseph Ax and Bill Berkrot)

Glass ceiling for female federal investigators: U.S. watchdog report

An FBI agent exits her car in Austin, Texas, U.S., March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Flores

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Women are not getting hired or promoted at the same rate as men in the U.S. Justice Department’s top law enforcement arms, leaving many female employees feeling they face routine gender discrimination in the workplace, the department’s internal watchdog has found.

A report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, issued on Tuesday, looked at gender equity issues across the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Marshals Service.

The low number of women in the ranks and the lack of promotions compared to their male counterparts is a large factor behind a perception of inequality that many women in the agencies have, the report found.

In fiscal year 2016, for instance, women comprised only 16 percent of the criminal investigator population across all four law enforcement agencies, it said.

And of the women employed, many worked in human resources or other administrative roles, and few held top leadership positions.

While a majority of male employees surveyed believed the workplace treated men and women equitably, a minority of women – only 33 percent – believed this was the case.

“We find it concerning that 22 percent of all women and 43 percent of female criminal investigators reported to us in the survey that they had been discriminated against based on their gender,” the report said.

“Additionally, in almost all the interviews and female focus groups we conducted, women reported to us that they had experienced some type of gender discrimination.”

Despite the fact many women reported being passed over for promotions or experiencing gender-based discrimination, few decided to file a formal Equal Employment Opportunity complaint.

Many of the women surveyed said they were concerned that filing a complaint might trigger retaliation, create a negative stigma or else they did not have confidence in the process.

“Underreporting and ineffective handling of EEO claims undermines employee trust and confidence that components (agencies) will address discriminatory behavior,” the report concluded.

The report calls on the Justice Department to take steps to improve how it hires, recruits and retains female employees.

All of the four agencies concurred with the watchdog’s recommendations.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Texas serial bomber made video confession before blowing himself up: police

Law enforcement personnel investigate the scene where the Texas bombing suspect blew himself up on the side of a highway north of Austin in Round Rock, Texas, U.S., March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Loren E

By Jon Herskovitz

PFLUGERVILLE, Texas (Reuters) – The serial bomber whose deadly attacks terrorized Austin, Texas, for weeks left a 25-minute video “confession” on a cell phone found after he blew himself up on Wednesday as officers closed in to make an arrest, police said.

Texas blast suspect Mark Anthony Conditt. Austin Community College/via REUTERS

Texas blast suspect Mark Anthony Conditt. Austin Community College/via REUTERS

Mark Conditt, 23, an unemployed man from the suburb of Pflugerville, detailed how he made all seven bombs that have been accounted for – five that exploded, one that was recovered before it went off and a seventh that he detonated as officers rushed his vehicle early on Wednesday.

But the video failed to reveal a coherent motive for the attacks spread over the past three weeks, police said.

“He does not at all mention anything about terrorism, nor does he mention anything about hate, but instead it is the outcry of a very challenged young man, talking about challenges in his personal life,” Austin Police Chief Brian Manley told reporters.

“I would classify this as a confession,” Manley said.

Conditt, who had never before been in trouble with the law, killed two people and wounded five with a campaign of violence that began on March 2, authorities said.

Based on their search of the suspect’s home and his video statement, authorities said they felt confident that there were no other bombs and that the public was safe from further harm.

FBI special agent Christopher Combs said investigators believe the suspect would have continued his attacks had he not been apprehended.

Police recovered a “target list” of addresses for future bombings, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing U.S. Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Even so, the video gave no explanation for the individuals and addresses singled out as recipients of the bombs that were planted or shipped, Manley said.

Police previously said they had considered the possibility that the attacks were racially motivated, noting that the first several victims, including the two who died, were either African-American or Hispanic.

Conditt likely recorded the video between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Tuesday. According to Manley, Conditt said he believed police “were getting very close to him,” and he was right. Authorities filed a criminal complaint and issued an arrest warrant around that time.

A surveillance image shows the serial bombing suspect inside a FedEx office store in Austin, Texas, U.S., which was given to law enforcement and obtained by TV station, WOAI/KABB, March 21, 2018. Courtesy of WOAI/KABB/Handout via Reuters

A surveillance image shows the serial bombing suspect inside a FedEx office store in Austin, Texas, U.S., which was given to law enforcement and obtained by TV station, WOAI/KABB, March 21, 2018. Courtesy of WOAI/KABB/Handout via Reuters

By Wednesday morning, police had tracked Conditt to a hotel and were waiting for the arrival of tactical units and equipment before they planned to make an arrest, Manley said. But then Conditt drove away.

Police followed and decided to stop him before he got on the highway. Just as officers approached the vehicle, the explosion went off, Manley said. There was also some police shooting.

“This can never be called a happy ending, but it’s a damn good one for the people of this community, the people of the state of Texas,” Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore told reporters.

Residents in Austin, a city of 1 million people and a liberal enclave of university students and tech companies, voiced relief that the hunt for the serial bomber was over.

“I am going to be leery and extra careful tomorrow at work, but I feel relieved now,” said Jesus Borjon, 44, an employee of parcel delivery firm UPS, who lives in Pflugerville.

Austin was hosting thousands of out-of-town visitors for its annual South by Southwest festival of music, film and technology when the first bombings occurred.

Law enforcement personnel investigate the surroundings of a house linked to the bomber in Pflugerville, Texas, U.S., March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

TRAIL OF CLUES

The trail of clues leading hundreds of investigators to the serial bomber ranged from store receipts and fragments of booby-trapped packages to surveillance video of the suspect in a hat and wig.

Experts scoured the suspect’s home for further evidence on Wednesday, removing explosive materials and bomb components.

“I wouldn’t call it a bomb-making factory, but there’s definitely components consistent with what we’ve seen in all these other devices,” Fred Milanowski, special agent in charge of Houston office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told reporters.

Investigators evacuated a four-block radius around Conditt’s house while they searched the home, which Conditt shared with two roommates who had been detained for questioning. Conditt moved in a year ago after leaving his parents’ home about a mile (1.6 km) away, public records showed.

One law enforcement official involved in the investigation but speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters that some of the materials found in remnants of the bombs were traced back to where they had been sold.

The source also said investigators, once they had identified Conditt as a potential suspect, obtained a warrant to monitor his Google search history.

Surveillance video showed the suspect in a hat and a blond wig, as he prepared to ship one of two booby-trapped packages he was known to have sent through FedEx Corp’s delivery service, according to the source.

He used the alias “Kelly Killmore” to ship those packages, ABC News reported, citing unnamed law enforcement sources.

Conditt, who was home-schooled, described himself as a conservative but said he was not politically inclined, according to blog posts he wrote as part of a U.S. politics class at Austin Community College. He attended from 2010 to 2012 and had no record of any disciplinary actions, the school said.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Mark Hosenball in Washington, Jonathan Allen and Gina Cherelus in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Peter Cooney & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Armed deputy who failed to confront gunman at Florida school resigns

A woman mourns in front of the fence of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Bernie Woodall

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Reuters) – The armed sheriff’s deputy assigned to the Florida high school where 17 people were shot dead has resigned rather than face suspension after an internal investigation showed he failed to enter the school to confront the gunman during the attack, the county sheriff said on Thursday.

Deputy Scot Peterson, who was on duty and in uniform as the resource officer posted at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was the only law enforcement officer present on Feb. 14 when the rampage started, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said.

Peterson’s actions were caught on video during the massacre, which ranks as the second-deadliest shooting ever at a U.S. public school, carried out by a lone gunman wielding a semiautomatic AR-15-style assault rifle.

Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old former student, was later arrested and charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder in the assault.

“What I saw was a deputy arrive at the west side of Building 12, take up a position and he never went in,” Israel said, referring to the building on campus where authorities said the bulk of the shooting occurred.

Israel told reporters the shooting in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Parkland lasted six minutes, and that Peterson reached the building under attack about 90 seconds after the first shots were fired, then lingered outside for at least four minutes.

Asked what the deputy should have done, Israel replied, “Went in. Addressed the killer. Killed the killer.”

Peterson has not given a reason for why he did not enter the building, Israel said. Neither the deputy nor any representatives could immediately be reached for comment.

Israel said he had decided on the basis of his review of the video to suspend Peterson, but the deputy resigned first.

The sheriff said two other deputies have been placed on restricted duty pending an internal investigation into whether they properly handled two telephone tips, received in 2016 and 2017, warning that Cruz might be inclined to commit a school shooting.

Authorities have said that Cruz, who was expelled from Stoneman Douglas High last year for unspecified disciplinary problems, made his getaway moments after the shooting by blending in with students fleeing the school for safety.

LAW ENFORCEMENT RESPONSE UNDER SCRUTINY

Police officers arriving on the scene from the adjacent city of Coral Springs thought the gunman was still inside as they searched the building, based on a security camera video feed that they mistakenly believed was showing them real-time images but was actually footage from 20 minutes earlier.

Coral Springs Police Chief Tony Pustizzi told reporters on Thursday that the confusion stemmed from human error and a “communication failure,” not malfunctioning equipment. He insisted that the mishap did not put any lives in danger.

Still, the disclosure may help explain the time lapse between the shooting and the suspect’s arrest.

The Broward sheriff has said Cruz, after slipping away from the school, casually spent more than an hour drifting through a Walmart store and visiting two fast-food outlets before he was spotted and taken into custody without a struggle.

The shooting has renewed a national debate between proponents of gun rights, as enshrined in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and advocates for tougher restrictions on firearms.

High school students from Stoneman Douglas and elsewhere around the country have launched a protest and lobbying campaign demanding new curbs on assault weapons. U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested school gun violence could be abated by arming teachers.

On Thursday, the head of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, lashed out at gun control advocates, accusing liberal elites of politicizing the Florida mass shooting to try to attack “our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.”

The carnage also has raised questions about whether law enforcement agencies did all they could to detect and follow up on possible warning signs of last week’s gun violence in advance.

The Broward sheriff’s office received at least 18 calls for service or tips about Cruz during the past decade, and internal affairs detectives are still reviewing two of them to determine if they were properly handled, Israel said.

In one instance from February 2016, the sheriff’s office received information from a neighbor’s son that Cruz “planned to shoot up” a school, based on an Instagram post with a picture of a “juvenile with guns,” according to an agency fact sheet released to the media. A deputy subsequently determined Cruz possessed knives and a BB gun and notified a school resource officer, the document said.

In a more recent incident dated Nov. 30, 2017, a caller told the sheriff’s office that Cruz was collecting guns and knives and “could be a school shooter in the making,” according to the fact sheet. The tipster, it said, advised that the weapons were kept at a friend’s house at an unknown location.

A deputy in that case referred the caller to the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office because Cruz was said to have moved to that jurisdiction, the Broward sheriff’s office said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation prompted widespread outrage last Friday when it said it had failed to act on a tip warning that a man, since identified as Cruz, had possessed a gun, the desire to kill and the potential to commit a school shooting.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker)

Chicago police say Facebook ‘secret groups’ traffic in guns and drugs

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson speaks about the latest police districts to start wearing body cameras, during a news conference at the 20th District Chicago Police Department in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. October 30, 2017.

By Bernie Woodall

(Reuters) – Police in Chicago said on Thursday they have arrested 50 people suspected of using “secret groups” on Facebook to deal in guns and drugs, and have teamed up with the world’s largest social media network to crack down on criminal trafficking online.

Announcing the arrests at a news conference, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson initially criticized Facebook as being unhelpful during a 10-month investigation by his department.

“Quite frankly, they haven’t been very friendly to law enforcement to prevent these things,” he told reporters.

However, police later said the department and the California-based company agreed to work collaboratively “to target any illegal activity on the platform.”

Police did not detail charges facing the 50 men and women arrested through Thursday, but said there were “dozens and dozens” of private Facebook groups being used for illegal drug and weapons transactions. Arrest warrants for 18 more suspects have been signed, and most have prior criminal histories, police said.

Among the illicit sites monitored by police was one offering a “Thanksgiving special” on cocaine baggies discounted to $40 from a normal street price of $60.

In an emailed statement on Thursday, Facebook Inc, which boasts 2 billion users worldwide, said it had only just been alerted to the arrests in Chicago.

“We do not allow the sale of guns or drugs on our platform. We routinely work with law enforcement and outline how officials may submit a request on our site,” Facebook added.

Among those arrested was an elementary school teacher taken into custody at his Chicago school in possession of scales often used for weighing drugs, according to Anthony Riccio, chief of the police department’s organized crime unit.

Since a confidential informant alerted investigators about alleged criminal trade on Facebook in February, police detectives working undercover arranged for the purchase of 17 different types of drugs and 18 different illegal firearms, Riccio said.

Riccio said investigators created covert identities on Facebook and were invited into private groups, which are closed unless the user-administrator allows someone to join. Police then monitored messages and contacted those in the group via Facebook to make buys.

Chicago has been singled out by President Donald Trump as one of the most violent U.S. cities. In 2016, the number of murders there exceeded 760.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Editing by Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)