Coronavirus fuels historic legal battle over voting as 2020 U.S. election looms

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – The Nov. 3 contest between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden has generated an unprecedented wave of election-related litigation, as both sides seek to shape the rules governing how votes are tallied in key states.

With 40 days left, the court clashes have spread to every competitive state amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has fueled pitched battles over seemingly mundane issues such as witness signatures, U.S. mail postmarks and the use of drop boxes for ballots.

Trump’s unfounded attacks on voting by mail and delivery delays amid cost-cutting measures at the U.S. Postal Service have only intensified the urgency of the litigation.

A Reuters analysis of state and federal court records found more than 200 election-related cases pending as of Tuesday. Overall, at least 250 election lawsuits spurred by the coronavirus have been filed, according to Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor who has been tracking the litigation.

The pandemic has turned what were once minor hurdles, such as witness signature requirements, into potentially major obstacles, while exacerbating existing concerns.

“In the past, long lines would be disenfranchising or deterring, but in this case they can be deadly,” said Myrna Perez, who directs the voting rights and elections program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Democrats generally have sought to ease restrictions on mail ballots, which are surging as voters want to avoid the risk of visiting in-person polling sites.

“The Biden campaign has assembled the biggest voter protection program in history to ensure our election runs smoothly and to combat any attempt by Donald Trump to interfere in the democratic process,” Mike Gwin, a Biden spokesman, said.

Republicans say they are trying to prevent illegal voting, although experts say voter fraud is exceedingly rare.

“Democrats are working to shred election integrity measures one state at a time, and there’s no question they’ll continue their shenanigans from now to November and beyond,” said Matthew Morgan, general counsel for the Trump campaign.

A flurry of court decisions this month have delivered several Democratic wins, although many remain subject to appeal. In the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, officials will count ballots that arrive after Nov. 3, as long as they were sent by Election Day.

Several pending cases, including in competitive Texas, Pennsylvania and Michigan, could have a major impact on those states’ elections.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Republicans will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to step in after the state’s highest court rejected their bid to limit drop boxes and disqualify late-arriving ballots. The Trump campaign is pursuing a separate federal lawsuit over some of the same issues.

In Texas, state Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, has sued officials in Harris County to stop them from sending absentee ballot applications to all voters. The county, which includes Houston, is the state’s most populous, with nearly 5 million residents.

Republicans prevailed in several earlier cases.

In Florida, a federal appeals court blocked hundreds of thousands of ex-felons from voting in November. In Texas, where only those 65 years and older can vote by mail without having to provide a valid reason such as disability, a series of court rulings have stymied Democratic efforts to extend that right to all residents.

SUPREME COURT BATTLE TO COME?

The influx of cases may also be a preview of what is to come after Nov. 3, when new fights could arise over which ballots should be counted.

Both campaigns have assembled armies of lawyers in preparation.

The Biden campaign has lined up hundreds of attorneys and has brought in top lawyers like former U.S. Solicitors General Donald Verrilli and Walter Dellinger and former Attorney General Eric Holder as advisers.

Marc Elias, the Democratic attorney who has coordinated many election lawsuits this year on behalf of left-leaning groups, is heading a team focused on state-by-state voter protection.

Trump’s campaign, for its part, has filed multiple challenges to states like Nevada and New Jersey that plan to mail a ballot to every voter.

Some Democrats are concerned that if Republicans succeed in getting a successor to the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court before the election, it will ensure Trump wins any dispute that ends up at the high court.

The Supreme Court’s decision in 2000 to stop the Florida recount handed the presidency to Republican George W. Bush, the only time the high court has decided the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.

Trump has seemingly laid the groundwork for a post-election fight, repeatedly asserting without evidence that voting by mail will yield a “rigged” result.

On Wednesday, the president said explicitly that he wanted to have Ginsburg’s successor in place because he expects the election to end up at the Supreme Court.

Levitt, the law professor tracking the cases, said he still trusted that judges would reject challenges not backed by evidence.

“Filing a case costs a few hundred dollars and a lawyer, and can often be useful for messaging,” he said. “But courts of law demand evidence that the court of public opinion doesn’t.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe and Disha Raychaudhuri; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Peter Cooney)

Michigan aims for carbon neutrality by 2050

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday signed an executive directive setting a goal for the midwestern state to become carbon neutral by 2050, the ninth U.S. state to take on this target.

Whitmer’s plan directs the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to come up with a strategy to carry out the target by the end of next year that would reduce emissions across the state’s key economic sectors.

Michigan, where temperatures have risen over the last three decades across all counties, is the 10th biggest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It is a swing state in the Nov. 3 presidential election that President Donald Trump, a Republican who has rolled back efforts by Democrats to fight climate change, won narrowly in 2016.

“Through comprehensive and aggressive steps, we will combat the climate crisis by formally setting and relentlessly pursuing a goal of statewide decarbonization by 2050,” said Whitmer, a Democrat. The target will spur the creation of clean energy and energy efficiency jobs, she said.

It calls for all new state-owned buildings to be carbon neutral by 2040 and existing buildings to reduce energy use by 40% by 2040.

Whitmer also set an interim goal for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 28% below 1999 levels by 2025.

The order does not yet outline emissions-cutting requirements for the state’s auto manufacturers, but companies like Ford have already set a carbon neutrality goal. Ford and GM have also said they plan to build electric pickup trucks in the state.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici)

Michigan court rules that late arriving ballots must be counted

By Michael Martina

DETROIT (Reuters) – A Michigan judge ruled on Friday that mailed ballots postmarked by Nov. 2 must be counted in the state as long as they are received within two weeks after the Nov. 3 election, the latest move by a U.S. court to protect voting rights in the pandemic.

Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens made the ruling in a case brought by the Michigan Alliance for Retired Americans, and argued for by Marc Elias, an elections lawyer working with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign.

The ruling said the ballots must be received “by the clerk’s office no later than 14 days after the election has occurred,” and would apply to this year’s election as a special provision due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Late arriving ballots “are eligible to be counted in the same manner as all provisional ballots” up until the time when the election is certified, Stephens said.

Elias, in a tweet, called the ruling a “major victory for voting rights” in the state, though it is likely to be appealed.

“This helps rectify issues with delays from the USPS, while relieving pressure on voters to make sure their ballot is received in time to be counted,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes. “This is a victory for every voter in Michigan.”

Democrats and Republicans have clashed over the rules for voting by mail ahead of the November election, when there is expected to be a surge in mail voting because of the virus.

That has led to controversy over whether the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will be able to handle the mail rush in time to ensure that voters who mailed their ballots would not be disenfranchised.

The Michigan ruling also cleared the way for anyone to help deliver a person’s ballot to clerks “between 5:01 p.m. on the Friday before the election and the close of polls on Election Day,” a practice normally banned under law unless the delivery is done by a family member, an election official or mail carrier.

The ruling came a day after Pennsylvania’s top court ruled that state officials can accept mail ballots up to three days after the election, as long as they were mailed by Election Day.

But not all courts have moved to expand voting rights.

A federal appeals court last week rejected Texas Democrats’ bid to allow all state residents to vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic, ruling that the state’s law extending that right only to those over 65 was not unconstitutional age discrimination.

Another federal appeals court last week said Florida could require felons to pay all fines, restitution and legal fees they face before they can regain their right to vote.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone, Bill Berkrot and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. Postal Service warns of ‘significant risk’ of late ballots

By Andy Sullivan and David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ahead of a presidential election that could see up to half of U.S. voters cast their ballots by mail, the U.S. Postal Service is warning some states that they need to provide more time for those votes to be counted.

The Postal Service has told at least three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Washington — there is “significant risk” voters will not have enough time to complete their ballots and return them on time under current state laws, which allow them to request ballots just days before the election.

The letters highlight the possibility that a meaningful number of mail votes in the Nov. 3 presidential election might go uncounted if they are returned too late.

“State and local election officials must understand and take into account our operational standards and recommended timelines,” Postal Service spokeswoman Martha Johnson said. She did not respond to a question about how many states in total got warning letters.

Election officials have scrambled to prepare for a deluge of mail ballots as Americans avoid public gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted many states to make it easier to vote by mail.

The Postal Service itself has gotten pulled into a political fight, with Republican President Donald Trump on Thursday saying he objected to providing funds for the struggling service or mail voting as part of a coronavirus relief package.

Trump, who is trailing Democratic rival Joe Biden in opinion polls, has railed against widespread mail voting, saying without evidence that it could lead to fraud.

Biden and other top Democrats have accused Trump of trying to discourage mail voting because he believes doing so would boost his re-election chances.

Election experts say mail voting is as secure as any other method.

TOO LITTLE TIME?

The Postal Service has warned some states that allowing voters to request ballots less than a week before the election does not leave enough time to print up the ballot, mail it to the voter and have it returned.

“There is significant risk that the voter will not have sufficient time to complete and mail the completed ballot back to election officials in time for it to arrive by the state’s return deadline,” Postal Service General Counsel Thomas Marshall wrote in a July 29 letter to Michigan’s top election official seen by Reuters.

Half of the states allow voters to request an absentee ballot within seven days of an election. The Postal Service recommends that mail ballots should be completed and in the mail back to election offices by that point, according to Marshall’s letter.

Ohio, Michigan and several other states with tight deadlines have so far not pushed them back.

Pennsylvania’s secretary of state asked the state Supreme Court to allow ballots to be counted if they are received up to three days after the Nov. 3 election, rather than on Election Day.

Marshall also encouraged election officials to use its first-class mail service to ensure prompt delivery, rather than the cheaper and slower bulk-mail rate.

In past elections the Postal Service has given priority to all political and election mail, no matter the postage rate, according to workers and the service’s internal watchdog.

“If this letter aims to backtrack on that collaboration or the promise of prioritization of election mail, that would be very concerning,” said Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of State, which oversees elections.

Roughly 0.25% of mail ballots were rejected in 2016 because they arrived too late, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Problems with mail ballots have marred many primary elections this year. Voters in Georgia reported not getting requested mail ballots, while in New York a judge ordered election officials to count thousands of ballots they had rejected for missing that state’s deadline.

The issue has taken on added urgency in recent weeks, as cost-cutting measures put in place by Trump’s new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, have led to widespread mail delays.

“They’re not moving as fast as they normally would, and I think we know that,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said at a news conference on Wednesday. He urged voters to complete their ballots as quickly as possible.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan and David Shepardson; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Why COVID-19 is killing U.S. diabetes patients at alarming rates

By Chad Terhune, Deborah J. Nelson and Robin Respaut

(Reuters) – Devon Brumfield could hear her father gasping for breath on the phone.

Darrell Cager Sr., 64, had diabetes. So his youngest daughter urged him to seek care. The next day, he collapsed and died in his New Orleans home.

The daughter soon learned the cause: acute respiratory distress from COVID-19. His death certificate noted diabetes as an underlying condition. Brumfield, who lives in Texas and also has type 2 diabetes, is “terrified” she could be next.

“I’m thinking, Lord, this could happen to me,” she said of her father’s death in late March.

She has good reason to fear. As U.S. outbreaks surge, a new government study shows that nearly 40% of people who have died with COVID-19 had diabetes.

Among deaths of those under 65, half had the chronic condition. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed more than 10,000 deaths in 15 states and New York City from February to May.

Jonathan Wortham, a CDC epidemiologist who led the study, called the findings “extremely striking,” with serious implications for those with diabetes and their loved ones.

A separate Reuters survey of states found a similarly high rate of diabetes among people dying from COVID-19 in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

Ten states, including California, Arizona and Michigan, said they weren’t yet reporting diabetes and other underlying conditions, and the rest did not respond – rendering an incomplete picture for policymakers and clinicians struggling to protect those most at-risk.

America’s mortality rates from diabetes have been climbing since 2009 and exceed most other industrialized nations. Blacks and Latinos suffer from diabetes at higher rates than whites and have disproportionately suffered from COVID-19.

“Diabetes was already a slow-moving pandemic. Now COVID-19 has crashed through like a fast-moving wave,” said Elbert Huang, a professor of medicine and director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Chronic Disease Research and Policy.

Keeping diabetes under control – among the best defenses against COVID-19 – has become difficult as the pandemic disrupts medical care, exercise and healthy eating routines.

The high price of insulin has also forced some people to keep working – risking virus exposure – to afford the essential medicine. And as the country grapples with an economic crisis, millions of Americans have lost their jobs and their employer-sponsored health insurance.

Much of this could have been anticipated and addressed with a more comprehensive, national response, said A. Enrique Caballero, a Harvard Medical School endocrinologist and diabetes researcher.

Top health officials should have done more to emphasize the threat to people with diabetes and assuage their fears of hospital visits, he said, while also focusing more on helping patients manage their condition at home.

Policymakers had ample warning that COVID-19 posed a high risk for diabetes patients. In 2003, during the coronavirus outbreak known as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, more than 20% of people who died had diabetes.

In 2009, during the H1N1 flu pandemic, patients with diabetes faced triple the risk of hospitalization.

Most recently in 2012, when the coronavirus Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, emerged, one study found 60% of patients who entered intensive care or died had diabetes.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has unearthed previously unknown complications because it has lasted longer and infected many more people than earlier coronavirus epidemics, said Charles S. Dela Cruz, a Yale University physician-scientist and Director of the Center of Pulmonary Infection Research and Treatment.

Doctors warn that the coronavirus pandemic may indirectly lead to a spike in diabetes-related complications – more emergency-room visits, amputations, vision loss, kidney disease and dialysis.

“My fear is we will see a tsunami of problems once this is over,” said Andrew Boulton, president of the International Diabetes Federation and a medical professor at the University of Manchester in England.

‘ONE BIG PUZZLE’

Researchers have scrambled for months to unravel the connections between diabetes and the coronavirus, uncovering an array of vulnerabilities.

The virus targets the heart, lung and kidneys, organs already weakened in many diabetes patients. COVID-19 also kills more people who are elderly, obese or have high blood pressure, many of whom also have diabetes, studies show.

On the microscopic level, high glucose and lipid counts in diabetes patients can trigger a “cytokine storm,” when the immune system overreacts, attacking the body. Damaged endothelial cells, which provide a protective lining in blood vessels, can lead to inflammation as white blood cells rush to attack the virus and may cause lethal clots to form, emerging research suggests.

“It’s all one big puzzle,” said Yale’s Dela Cruz. “It’s all interrelated.”

Many of their vulnerabilities can be traced to high blood sugar, which can weaken the immune system or damage vital organs. COVID-19 appears not only to thrive in a high-sugar environment but to exacerbate it. Recent evidence suggests the virus may trigger new cases of diabetes.

David Thrasher, a pulmonologist in Montgomery, Alabama, said up to half of COVID-19 patients in his local hospital ICU have diabetes. “They are often my most challenging patients,” he said, and the immune system response may be a big reason why.

‘DIABETES BELT’

The pandemic has ripped through several southern states with some of the nation’s highest diabetes rates. A Reuters examination of state data found that nearly 40% of COVID-19 deaths were people with diabetes in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia. Much of this area lies within what the CDC calls the “diabetes belt.”

Alabama has the highest percentage of adults with diabetes at 13.2%, or more than 550,000 people, CDC data show. Diabetes patients accounted for 38% of the state’s COVID-related deaths through June, officials said. Karen Landers, Alabama’s assistant state health officer, said she is particularly heartbroken at the deaths of diabetes patients in their 30s and 40s.

Medical professionals in these states say they struggle to keep patients’ diabetes under control when regular in-person appointments are canceled or limited because of the pandemic.

Sarah Hunter Frazer, a nurse practitioner at the Medical Outreach Ministries clinic for low-income residents in Montgomery, Alabama, said diabetes is common among her COVID-19 patients. With clinic visits on hold, she stays in touch by phone or video chat. If a problem persists, she insists on an outdoors, face-to-face meeting. “We meet them under a shade tree behind the clinic,” Frazer said.

In similar fashion, doctors at the University of North Carolina stepped up their use of telemedicine to reach at-risk rural patients. Despite those efforts, John Buse, a physician and director of the university’s diabetes center, said he’s certain some foot ulcers and dangerously high blood sugars are being missed because people avoid health facilities for fear of the virus.

‘UNDER CONTROL’

Many diabetes patients with severe or deadly cases of COVID-19 were in good health before contracting the virus.

Clark Osojnicki, 56, of Stillwater, Minnesota, had heard early warnings about the risks of the coronavirus for people with diabetes, said his wife, Kris Osojnicki. But the couple didn’t think the admonitions applied to him because his glucose levels were in a healthy range.

“He was incredibly active,” she said.

On a Sunday in mid-March, Osojnicki jogged alongside his border collie, Sonic, on an agility course for dogs inside a suburban Minneapolis gym. Three days later, Osojnicki developed a fever, then body aches, a cough and shortness of breath. He was soon in the hospital, on a ventilator. Clark, a financial systems analyst, died April 6 from a blood clot in the lungs.

Osojnicki is among 255 recorded deaths in Minnesota of people with COVID-19 and diabetes mentioned on their death certificate as of mid-July, according to state data. The records describe people who died as young as 34.

WORKING FOR INSULIN

For years, the skyrocketing cost of insulin has fueled much of the national outrage over drug prices. Early in the pandemic, the American Diabetes Association asked states to eliminate out-of-pocket costs for insulin and other glucose-lowering medications through state-regulated insurance plans.

But no state has fully followed that advice, the ADA said. Vermont suspended deductibles for preventive medications, like insulin, starting in July. Other states ordered insurers to make prescription refills more available but didn’t address cost.

Robert Washington, 68, knew his diabetes put him at risk from COVID-19. When his employer, Gila River’s Lone Butte Casino in Chandler, Arizona, reopened in May, he decided to keep working as a security guard so he could afford insulin.

Washington’s supervisors had assured him he could patrol alone in a golf cart, said his daughter, Lina. But once back at work, he was stationed at the entrance, where long lines of gamblers waited, most without masks, Robert told his daughter.

“He was terrified at what he saw,” Lina said.

He tested positive for the virus in late May and was admitted to the hospital days later. He died from complications of COVID-19 on June 11, his daughter said.

A week after Washington’s death, the casino again closed as COVID-19 cases exploded in the state. The casino did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s hard to accept he is gone. I have to stop myself from wanting to call him,” said Lina, a sports anchor and reporter at a Sacramento, California, TV station. “A lot of these deaths were in some way preventable.”

(Reporting by Chad Terhune, Deborah J. Nelson and Robin Respaut; Editing by Brian Thevenot)

U.S. police unions approved for millions in pandemic aid

By Reade Levinson and Chris Prentice

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – At least six police unions qualified for a combined total of $2 million to $4.4 million in emergency U.S. government loans intended to help small businesses stay afloat during the coronavirus lockdown, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The unions represent about 110,000 law enforcement officers in Philadelphia, Houston, New York state, Michigan and 11 Southern states.

All told, the six approved loans make up a small fraction of the program’s $521 billion in lending across 4.9 million loans as of June 30. The data released on Monday does not specify whether the loans were disbursed or if the unions will qualify for loan forgiveness.

Intended to help small companies and non-profit organizations keep their work forces employed during the coronavirus crisis, the federal Paycheck Protection Program allows employers with 500 or fewer workers hurt by the economic fallout of the pandemic to apply for a forgivable government-backed loan.

The six police unions typically receive 90% of their revenue from membership dues, according to tax records reviewed by Reuters, and thus, barring layoffs, would not be hurting for cash. All six unions have work forces of their own, providing support to members. Their combined loan applications said they sought to retain 331 jobs.

Four forces with unions that received loans – the New York State Police, Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department – told Reuters they had not laid off or furloughed any employees during the pandemic, so their unions’ dues collections should not have suffered any significant hits.

It is clear the loan program, overseen by the Small Business Administration (SBA), gave out funds with few limits on who would benefit, said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

“The onus was on the SBA to ensure we’re not just throwing public funds at entities that don’t need them,” she said. “It is common sense we’d prioritize the industries that need it most, and I don’t know that’s police unions right now.”

James Miller, spokesman for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said the union sought a loan in anticipation of potential revenue losses and possible layoffs amid prison closures. The union, which represents about 26,000 employees and retirees, qualified to borrow between $150,000 and $350,000.

“Based on current revenue projections for the remainder of the year, we anticipate returning the loan, as it is the prudent thing to do,” he said, in an email to Reuters.

The other police unions approved for loans did not return repeated emails and calls seeking comment.

Qualifying for a loan of between $1 million and $2 million was the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, which represents about 58,000 federal, state, county and municipal law enforcement officers in eleven states. The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 14,000 active and retired Philadelphia police officers and sheriff deputies, qualified to borrow between $350,000 and $1 million.

Authorized to borrow between $150,000 and $350,000 were the Police Officers Labor Council in Michigan, which represents about 350 sheriffs and police departments; the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which represents 5,300 Houston Police Department officers; and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Home Association, a separate non-profit that maintains a lodge for union meetings.

The police unions were among at least 117 public and private sector unions that applied for loans through the program. The SBA did not release the names of recipients of loans less than $150,000.

The Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, which represents about 900,000 members across industries including teaching, performing arts, hospitality, manufacturing and construction, said in an email Wednesday that it received $267,000 and plans to ask for loan forgiveness.

Many affiliate unions represent industries that have laid off members as a result of the coronavirus, Rick Bloomingdale, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president, said in an email. Faced with declining dues, he said, the union decided to seek aid.

“We made the decision to apply for the loan to keep our people employed.”

(Reporting by Reade Levinson in London and Chris Prentice in Washington, D.C.)

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)

Trump declares state of emergency as Michigan floodwaters recede

By Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) – Floodwaters that breached two dams in central Michigan began to recede on Thursday after displacing thousands of people while spreading to a Dow Chemical plant and an adjacent hazardous waste cleanup site.

U.S. President Donald Trump, acting at the request of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, issued an emergency declaration authorizing federal disaster relief to victims of severe storms that struck Michigan this week in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Flooding unleashed by two dam failures on Tuesday plunged parts of the riverfront city of Midland, about 120 miles (193 km) northwest of Detroit, under several feet of water and forced the evacuation of about 11,000 residents.

The torrent also posed a potential environmental hazard as floodwaters spilled into a Dow Chemical Co plant, mixing with the contents of a containment pond there, and swept a Superfund toxic cleanup site located just downstream.

Dow, a unit of Dow Inc <DOW.N>, said in a statement on Thursday that the brine solution in the pond posed no risk to residents or the environment, and no “product releases” from the plant were known to have occurred.

The rain-engorged Tittabawassee River rose to historic levels on Wednesday before starting to recede the next day, leaving a ravaged landscape of mud and debris. No deaths or serious injuries were reported.

“This is unlike everything we’ve seen before. The damage is truly devastating,” Whitmer told a news conference on Thursday.

Trump, visiting a newly reopened Ford Motor Co <F.N> automobile factory in Detroit on Thursday, said a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team was on the scene of the dam breaks to help assess damage and bring the situation under control.

Mark Bone, a Midland County commissioner, said floodwaters must ebb further before it was safe for evacuees to return home.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission directed Boyce Hydro LLC, operator of the stricken dams, to establish an independent investigation of the breaches. The agency in 2018 revoked the hydropower-generating license for one of the dams, accusing Boyce of deficiencies.

Boyce said in statements that it had been in conflict with federal and local authorities in recent years over how much water the dams should release and the levels of a nearby lake.

The company also said that since losing its license, it was unable to secure funding for dam improvements and received no government assistance.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; additional reporting by Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago and Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Paul Simao and Lisa Shumamker)

Michigan governor declares emergency after dams collapse

(Reuters) – Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday declared an emergency for Midland county after two dams breached and on expectations of extreme flooding.

The county said two dams, Edenville and Sanford, have collapsed due to heavy rain in the past few days and residents nearby have been told to evacuate immediately.

“In the next 12 to 15 hours, downtown Midland could be under approximately nine feet of water”, the governor said in a news conference.

Aerial view of water from a broken Edenville Dam seen flooding the area as it flows towards Wixom Lake in Michigan, U.S. in this still frame obtained from social media video dated May 19, 2020. RYAN KALETO/via REUTERS

About 3,500 homes and 10,000 people have so far been affected by the evacuation notices, CNN reported, quoting Mark Bone, Chairman of the Midland County Board of Commissioners.

No injuries or deaths have been reported so far, CNN said, citing the chairman.

Residents were also advised to seek higher ground as far as possible from the Tittabawassee river.

Two rivers in Michigan, the Tittabawassee River in Midland and the Rifle River near Sterling, were in major flooding stage, the National Weather Service (NWS) said.

The NWS also said it issued a flash flood emergency in locations downstream of the failed dams.

(Reporting by Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Editing by Sandra Maler and Kim Coghill)

Where U.S. coronavirus cases are on the rise

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Most U.S. states reported a drop in new cases of COVID-19 for the week ended May 17, with only 13 states seeing a rise in infections compared to the previous week, according to a Reuters analysis.

Tennessee had the biggest weekly increase with 33%. Louisiana’s new cases rose 25%, and Texas reported 22% more cases than in the first week of May, according to the Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

(Open https://tmsnrt.rs/2WTOZDR in an external browser for a Reuters interactive)

Michigan saw new cases rise 18% after five weeks of declines. Michigan was hit hard early in the outbreak and has seen more than 4,800 deaths.

Nationally, new cases of COVID-19 are down 8% in the last week, helped by continued declines in New York and New Jersey. Nearly all 50 U.S. states, however, have allowed some businesses to reopen and residents to move more freely, raising fears among some health officials of a second wave of outbreaks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended states wait for their daily number of new COVID-19 cases to fall for 14 days before easing social distancing restrictions.

As of May 17, 13 states had met that criteria, down from 14 states in the prior week, according to the Reuters analysis.

WHERE NEW CASES ARE FALLING

Kansas and Missouri saw the biggest declines in new cases from the previous week, after an outbreak at a St. Joseph, Missouri meatpacking plant resulted in over 400 cases in the first week of May. St. Joseph sits on the Kansas-Missouri border, just north of Kansas City.

Washington D.C. saw a 32% decline after several weeks of growth.

Georgia, one of the first states to reopen, saw new cases fall 12% in the past week and now has two consecutive weeks of declining cases.

Globally, coronavirus cases top 4.5 million since the outbreak began in China late last year. On a per-capita basis, the United States has the third-highest number of cases, with about 45 for every 10,000 people, according to a Reuters analysis.

(Reporting by Chris Canipe in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago)