Austrian lockdown for the unvaccinated is days away, chancellor says

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria is days away from placing millions of people not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 on lockdown, as daily infections are at a record high and intensive-care units are increasingly strained, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on Thursday.

Around 65% of Austria’s population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, the lowest rate of any Western European country apart from tiny Liechtenstein, according to European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control data.

Many Austrians are skeptical about vaccinations, a view encouraged by the far-right Freedom Party, the third-biggest in parliament.

Under an incremental government plan agreed in September, once 30% of intensive-care beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, people not vaccinated against the coronavirus will be placed under lockdown, with restrictions on their daily movements. The current level is 20% and rising fast.

“According to the incremental plan we actually have just days until we have to introduce the lockdown for unvaccinated people,” Schallenberg told a news conference in the westernmost province of Vorarlberg, adding that Austria’s vaccination rate is “shamefully low.”

The conservative-led government said on Friday it was banning the unvaccinated from restaurants, theatres, ski lifts and providers of “services close to the body” like hairdressers.

“A lockdown for the unvaccinated means one cannot leave one’s home unless one is going to work, shopping (for essentials), stretching one’s legs – namely exactly what we all had to suffer through in 2020,” Schallenberg said, referring to three national lockdowns last year.

Centrist opposition parties have accused the government of doing too little for months to boost vaccination levels and keep infections in check.

Some conservatives have argued that a lockdown for the unvaccinated would be unenforceable. Schallenberg said the police would conduct spot checks.

The surge in Austria comes at a time when Eastern European states, with the continent’s lowest vaccination rates, are experiencing some of the world’s highest daily death tolls per capita. Dutch experts on Thursday recommended a two-week partial lockdown, which would be Western Europe’s first since vaccines were widely deployed, and other countries are requiring vaccination certificates to enter public spaces.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Peter Graff)

New York prepares for fallout from vaccine mandate resisted by many police, firefighters

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York woke up on Monday to its first full workday under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s order that all city workers be vaccinated for COVID-19, with many police officers and firefighters still refusing the shot and one labor leader calling the mandate a recipe for disaster.

De Blasio, a Democrat who announced the mandate less than two weeks ago, has assured the city of 8.8 million people that officials could handle any shortage of police, firefighters or sanitation workers through schedule changes and overtime.

“Another great uptick to report. @FDNY EMS vaccine rates are up to 87%,” Danielle Filson, a press deputy for de Blasio, tweeted on Sunday night.

The percentage of inoculated police officers and firefighters is below that of other city employees, and union leaders say de Blasio will be to blame if emergency services are left in disarray in the largest U.S city.

“We need everyone we can to keep the city running and keep it safe. We’re trying to avoid what is going to be an inevitable disaster by design on Monday morning,” Andrew Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, told a news conference on Friday.

Union leaders say their members were given only nine days to comply with the mayor’s vaccination deadline and that workers who have already been ill with COVID-19 should be granted an exemption. That includes some 70% of firefighters, Ansbro said.

The dispute is the latest nationwide over vaccine mandates that have been increasingly imposed by political leaders, including President Joe Biden, to help stem the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. Police officers and firefighters in Chicago and Los Angeles have also pushed back hard.

New York City health officials say that while research has yet to determine the degree and length of immunity from COVID-19 following an infection and illness, experts agree that vaccines can afford additional protection.

De Blasio has forecast that vaccination rates for city workers would continue to rise significantly.

The mayor said similar deadlines for other New York state and city workers prompted a rush for last-minute shots as reality set in that paychecks were about to stop coming.

Legal challenges by police and fire unions in New York City and elsewhere have so far been unsuccessful, with state and federal courts reluctant to overturn vaccine mandates.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Trevor Clifford in New York; Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Toronto says police not vaccinated by Nov 30 will be put on unpaid leave

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Members of Toronto’s police, the largest municipal force in Canada, will be placed on unpaid leave if they do not provide proof of complete inoculation against COVID-19 by Nov. 30, officials said on Thursday.

The move is the latest announcement in a crackdown by professional bodies across Canada. The police force said 90% of members had disclosed their vaccine status and of those, 94% had received two shots.

The Toronto Police Service employs over 5,500 officers and more than 2,200 civilian staff.

“Effective on November 30, 2021, any member … who has not disclosed their vaccination status or is not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will have rendered themselves unable to perform their duties. These members will be placed on an indefinite unpaid absence,” it said in a statement.

“The safety of our workplaces and the health of our members is of critical importance to the Service.”

Canada’s federal Liberal government said earlier this month it would place unvaccinated federal employees on unpaid leave if they had not proved their inoculation status by Oct 29.

Public broadcaster Canadian Broadcasting Corp said on Thursday it had set a Dec. 1 deadline for all staff, contractors, producers, vendors and guests to be fully vaccinated.

Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children placed 147 of its employees on unpaid leave on Thursday for failing to submit proof of full inoculation, a spokeswoman said.

The Ottawa Hospital, one of the biggest in Canada, has told 318 staff they will be put on unpaid leave unless they get fully vaccinated by Nov. 1, a spokesman told CTV news on Thursday.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. Supreme Court again protects police accused of excessive force

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday granted requests by police officers in separate cases from California and Oklahoma for legal protection under a doctrine called “qualified immunity” from lawsuits accusing them of using excessive force.

The justices overturned a lower court’s decision allowing a trial in a lawsuit against officers Josh Girdner and Brandon Vick over the fatal shooting of a hammer-wielding man in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

They also overturned a lower court’s decision to deny a request by Union City, California police officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas for qualified immunity in a lawsuit accusing him of using excessive force while handcuffing a suspect.

The brief rulings favoring the police in the two cases were unsigned, with no public dissents among the justices. They were issued in cases that were decided without oral arguments.

The qualified immunity defense protects police and other government officials from civil litigation in certain circumstances, permitting lawsuits only when an individual’s “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.

The decisions on Monday indicate that the justices still think lower courts are denying qualified immunity too frequently in excessive force cases involving police, having previously chided appeals courts on that issue in recent years.

Reuters in 2020 published an investigation that revealed how qualified immunity, with the Supreme Court’s continual refinements, has made it easier for police officers to kill or injure civilians with impunity.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

Chile police bust crime ring smuggling Haitian children to U.S., Mexico

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chilean police have dismantled a crime ring that helped smuggle hundreds of children of Haitian migrants, sometimes without their parents, from Chile north to Mexico and the United States, Interpol said on Monday.

The transnational group orchestrated a complex, cross-border network that smuggled an estimated 1,000 Haitian migrants out of Chile, including 267 Chilean children under the age of six, all born to Haitian migrants, according to the global police co-ordination agency.

Some of the children, police said, were not traveling with their real parents, while others were found abandoned or their parents had died en route.

“It is horrifying to think what these vulnerable children, some just a few years old, have suffered,” said Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock.

The harsh realities of migration in Latin America have come under the spotlight recently after thousands of Haitian migrants formed a large impromptu border camp at the Mexican-U.S. border. Some have been flown back to Haiti, while others are waiting to have their cases for asylum heard in the United States or remain scattered across Latin America seeking refuge.

Many of the Haitian migrants had initially settled in South American countries like Chile and Brazil, where some say they had difficulty finding work and experienced racism. Protests in Chile have flared in recent weeks against Venezuelan migrants who have set up camps in city squares and even beaches.

Their home nation of Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, has been battered by political crises and natural disasters.

The smuggling ring promoted their services to Haitians via messaging service WhatsApp, Interpol said, then helped to covertly transport migrants into Peru from Chile, after which they embarked on their journey north.

Chilean police arrested nine suspects involved in the operation, including four Chileans, two Venezuelans, one Peruvian, one Haitian and one Paraguayan.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Taliban are rounding up Afghans on blacklist – private intel report

OSLO (Reuters) – The Taliban have begun rounding up Afghans on a blacklist of people they believe have worked in key roles with the previous Afghan administration or with U.S.-led forces that supported it, according to a report by a Norwegian intelligence group.

The report, compiled by the RHIPTO Norwegian Center for Global Analyses and seen by Reuters, said the Taliban were hunting individuals linked to the previous administration, which fell on Sunday when the Islamist militant movement took Kabul.

“Taliban are intensifying the hunt-down of all individuals and collaborators with the former regime, and if unsuccessful, target and arrest the families and punish them according to their own interpretation of Sharia law,” said the report, dated Wednesday.

“Particularly at risk are individuals in central positions in military, police and investigative units.”

The non-profit RHIPTO Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, which makes independent intelligence assessments, said the Afghanistan report was shared with agencies and individuals working within the United Nations.

“This is not a report produced by the United Nations, but rather by the Norwegian Center for Global Analyses,” said a U.N. official, when asked for comment.

A Taliban spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report. Since seizing Kabul, the Taliban have sought to present a more moderate face to the world, saying they wanted peace and would not take revenge against old enemies.

The four-page report reproduced a letter it said had been written to one alleged collaborator who was taken from his Kabul apartment this week and detained for questioning over his role as a counter-terrorism official in the previous government.

Reuters could not independently verify its authenticity.

The letter, dated Monday, from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s Military Commission, noted that the detainee had travelled to the UK as part of his role “which indicates you have had excellent relations with the American and British”.

“If you do not report to the commission, your family members will be arrested instead, and you are responsible for this. You and your family members will be treated based on Sharia law,” the letter said, according to a translation given in the report.

The detainee’s name was redacted.

Separately, a senior member of the security forces of the ousted administration sent a message to journalists saying that the Taliban had obtained secret national security documents and Taliban were arresting former intelligence and security staff.

(Reporting by Gwladys Fouche; additional reporting by Michelle Nichols and Charlotte Greenfield; Writing by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Police in Nigeria secure release of 100 kidnapping victims

LAGOS (Reuters) – Police and government authorities have secured the release of 100 people, including women, children and nursing mothers, who were kidnapped from their village in northwestern Nigeria over a month ago, a local police spokesperson said.

Nigeria is battling an increase in armed robberies and kidnappings for ransom, mainly in northwestern states, where thinly deployed security forces have struggled to contain the rise of armed gangs, commonly referred to as bandits.

The released captives had been abducted on June 8 from Manawa village in Zamfara state, Mohammed Shehu, the state’s police spokesperson, said in a statement sent to Reuters on Wednesday.

He said their release had been secured “without giving any financial or material gain.”

“They will be medically checked and debriefed before (being) reunited with their respective families,” the statement added.

While northeastern Nigeria has faced a decade of insecurity, including attacks by Islamist militants including Islamic State-allied Boko Haram, the current wave of kidnappings is primarily financially motivated.

Lagos-based consultancy SBM Intelligence estimates that kidnappers took 2,371 people across Nigeria in the first half of this year, demanding ransoms totaling 10 billion naira ($24.33 million).

The bulk of those were abducted in the northern states of Zamfara, Kaduna and Niger. SBM said it could not accurately assess how much has been paid in ransoms.

Over 200 students as well as scores of others taken in kidnapping raids are still being held captive.

($1 = 411.0000 naira)

(Reporting By Libby George, additional reporting by Maiduguri newsroom and Camillus Eboh in Abuja; Editing by Joe Bavier)

Promise vs practice: Police body-cam delays in Texas capital frustrate reformers

By Alexandra Ulmer and Julia Harte

AUSTIN, Texas – Advocates of police reform in Austin, Texas, cheered a year ago when the city agreed to release video from officers’ body cameras within 60 days of incidents in which they used force that caused serious injuries.

But since then, only a single body camera video has been released on time – in a non-fatal police shooting. Footage from three fatal police shootings was made public past the deadline. In at least 10 use-of-force incidents during Black Lives Matter protests last year, the department did not release any video.

Across the United States, where a complex thicket of laws stymies public access to body-camera footage, activists have urged law enforcement to release video to increase transparency and accountability in policing.

The effort gained greater urgency after high-profile cases of officers using force against people of color elevated concerns about racial bias, including the police murder of George Floyd. But enthusiasm for body-worn cameras, which about 80% of large U.S. police forces have, has been tested as their use has not guaranteed public access to footage.

That has been the case in Austin, the liberal capital of conservative Texas. An examination of how the city’s police department has put the promise of increased transparency into practice shows the limitations of body cameras as a solution to excessive force and unjust policing.

“It does make me question the whole edifice of body-worn cameras as an accountability or oversight tool,” said Chris Harris, director of the criminal justice project at Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit.

Two Austin police shootings just a day apart highlight the uneven success of the body-camera video release policy.

On Jan. 4, Dylan Polinski, who was 23 at the time, was shot by police in the leg after he barricaded himself in a hotel room with a hostage. He survived.

The next day, Alex Gonzales, 27, was shot by an off-duty officer after an alleged “road rage” incident and then shot again by an on-duty officer called as reinforcement. Gonzales, who was in a car with his girlfriend and baby, died.

Body-camera footage in Polinski’s case was released by the deadline. Gonzales’ family, which believes he was wrongfully killed and plans to sue the two officers and the city, expected the video from his shooting would be too.

AGONIZING WAIT

“We were counting down the days,” his sister Angel Gonzales, 21, said in the backyard of their home on the outskirts of Austin on a sweltering June afternoon. “And they kept delaying it last minute.”

During the family’s wait, police twice put out statements explaining the hold-ups, citing weather-related closures and investigative needs. His mother Liz Gonzales said it was upsetting to steel herself for the video of her son’s death ahead of each deadline, only to be confronted with delays.

The video was finally released in April, 113 days after the shooting. Prosecutors say they expect to present the case to a grand jury by early winter.

Joseph Chacon, Austin’s interim police chief, said there have been legitimate reasons for delays in releasing video, including insufficient resources for the time-intensive process of preparing the footage for public disclosure.

However, the policy enacted under his predecessor needs to be overhauled to achieve its goal of more transparency, said Chacon, who is seeking to be hired as the next chief.

“We put a policy out there and said: ‘We’re going to do it within 60 days.’ They have an expectation and when we fail to meet that expectation, that erodes that trust,” Chacon said in an interview.

The proliferation of police body cameras nationwide reflects the growing view that citizens have a right to scrutinize how officers perform in the field, though police largely see the cameras as evidence-gathering tools.

Additionally, some activists believe officers are less likely to discriminate or use excessive force when they are recorded. Research to confirm this has produced mixed results.

But experts agree that if video is recorded, slow or inconsistent release of the footage stokes public mistrust and reinforces perceptions that police want to hide officer misconduct.

CHANGE AHEAD

Chacon said the department can only prepare footage from one case at a time and had to prioritize Polinski’s shooting because it happened first. He wants to reduce processing time by no longer editing videos and instead release near-raw footage.

Rebecca Webber, a civil rights lawyer who has criticized the Austin Police Department’s delays, welcomed Chacon’s proposal.

“It’s the obvious solution. I am 100% in favor,” she said.

Other cities in Texas have adopted shorter footage release timelines for critical incidents. Dallas says it does so within 72 hours, while Houston takes up to 30 days.

Police in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center were commended in April for releasing body-cam footage from the officer shooting death of Daunte Wright, a Black man, within 24 hours.

But in other places, body-cam video has been released years after an event — or never. In the New York police killing of Kawaski Trawick in April 2019, the Bronx district attorney released the footage 18 months later.

When demonstrators were injured during racial justice protests in Austin last year, the city’s police department said it would not release videos until the district attorney decided whether to present the cases to a grand jury.

After Reuters’ questions about the delay, the DA’s office – where a new chief, Jose Garza, was elected in November – said it no longer objected to releasing footage. Among Garza’s campaign pledges was to hold police officers accountable for misconduct.

Sam Kirsch, 27, is eager to view the video. He believes severe damage to his left eye during a May 2020 protest was caused by a police projectile, and he has sued both police and the city.

The DA’s office is investigating. In court filings, the officer said he was performing within his scope of duty.

“If I were able to see the footage of me, and hear what may have been said, I could know if I was targeted,” Kirsch said. “If I knew for a fact that I was not intentionally targeted, I could feel a little bit safer living in Austin.”

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Austin and Julia Harte in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. Supreme Court rejects case over ‘qualified immunity’ for police

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sidestepped a chance to review the scope of a legal defense called qualified immunity that increasingly has been used to shield police accused of excessive force, turning away an appeal by a Cleveland man who sued after being roughed up by police while trying to enter his own home.

The justices declined to hear the appeal by Shase Howse, who said he was slammed to the ground outside the house where he lived with his mother in a poor and mostly Black neighborhood, struck in the back of the neck and jailed after police deemed his actions suspicious. Howse, who was 20 at the time, is Black. The police involved in the 2016 incident are white.

Qualified immunity protects police officers and other types of government officials from civil litigation in certain circumstances, allowing lawsuits only when an individual’s “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.

Police use of force has been closely scrutinized following the May 2020 death of a Black man named George Floyd after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck.

The U.S. House of Representatives last Wednesday passed policing reform legislation that among other provisions would eliminate the qualified immunity defense for law enforcement. The legislation, supported by most Democrats and opposed by Republicans, faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

Howse’s case was featured in a Reuters investigation into qualified immunity published in December. The investigation illustrated how the endorsement of this defense by courts has denied Black Americans recourse to justice under a law enacted 150 years ago specifically to protect them from abuses by state and local authorities in the post-Civil War years.

Howse sued two police officers, Brian Middaugh and Thomas Hodous, accusing them of excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. The officers said they used only the force necessary to subdue Howse.

The Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020 granted the officers qualified immunity, ruling that no “clearly established” precedent showed that their actions were unlawful.

In May 2020, a Reuters investigation revealed how qualified immunity, under the careful stewardship of the Supreme Court, has made it easier for police to kill or injure civilians with impunity by shielding them from lawsuits, even when courts determine police actually violated a person’s constitutional rights.

Law enforcement professionals and some U.S. conservatives have argued that qualified immunity is essential for police to make quick decisions in dangerous situations without fear of lawsuits.

In recent months, the Supreme Court has signaled a potential softening of its approach to qualified immunity. In two cases the justices allowed inmates to sue prison guards who had been granted immunity by lower courts from accusations that they violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)

UK to prioritize next stage of COVID-19 vaccines by age, not job

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) – Police and teachers will not jump to the head of the queue in the second phase of Britain’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout, with people instead prioritized by age, officials advising the government said on Friday, describing this as the best way to keep up the pace of immunizations.

Britain’s vaccine program has been among the fastest in the world, meeting a government target to offer a first dose of vaccination to 15 million high-risk people by mid-February.

Some frontline workers such as police and teachers had been calling for prioritization on the basis of their jobs, but Professor Wei Shen Lim, COVID-19 chairman for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI), said such an approach could complicate the rollout.

“Following an age-based program will be simple, and simplicity has been one of the cornerstones of the current program in terms of speed and its success,” he told a news conference.

Britain aims to complete the first phase of its vaccine rollout by mid-April.

While the priority list for that phase was largely determined by age, with all over-50s set to be offered a vaccine, health and care workers and clinically vulnerable people have also been prioritized.

Announcing the prioritization list for phase 2, Lim said all those aged between 40-49 would be next in line for the shot, then those aged 30-39, then those aged 18-29.

The JCVI said that an age-based approach remained the most effective way of reducing death and hospitalization from COVID-19, even in those under 50. Giving shots by job would be logistically complex and could result in delays, it said.

The government said it would follow the recommended approach, but not everyone welcomed the advice.

John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation of England & Wales, said it was “a contemptible betrayal of police officers.”

“Their anger is palpable, this will not be forgotten.”

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Michael Holden, Elizabeth Piper and Frances Kerry)