PAR learns about life under lockdown with COVID-19 from a guest just released from 10 months of incarceration, and examines the secretive police commission created by Attorney General Barr.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I never get tired of saying, the point of this show is to hold police accountable and to do so, we don’t just focus on the behavior of couple individual, bad cops, but we examine the underlying political economy which makes police malfeasance possible. And today we’re going to report on an example of how that system works at the highest level of government. We’re also going to talk to a man who was released from jail shortly after we publicized his story.
But before I get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it privately to us at parattherealnews.com or reach out to me directly at Taya’s Baltimore on Facebook or Twitter, and please like, share and comment on our videos. You know I read your comments and I appreciate them.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into it. One of the key players in the efforts to reform police has been the federal government, or at least it was. In our city, a Department of Justice investigation determined the Baltimore Police Department practice racist and unconstitutional policing. The report led to calls for reform and a consent decree between the city and the DOJ. The results have been mixed at best.
Remember, at the same time the DOJ was in Baltimore investigating the department, the notorious Gun Trace Task Force was robbing residents, dealing drugs and stealing overtime. Still, even if the process is not always effective, it is a critical tool for holding police to account because at the very least, it gives us some sense of what’s going on behind closed doors. Better to have some information than none at all, which makes the next part of the story even more concerning.
Last week, a lawsuit was filed against the same justice department that I was just talking about. The legal action from the NAACP came after the DOJ did something that is in a sense indicative of what this show is all about. The court filings accused the department of convening a special panel on the future of American policing in secret. And even more concerning is that every single person on the panel is a member of law enforcement. For more on this development, I’m joined by my reporting partner, Stephen Janis. Stephen, what is this panel and why is this happening?
Stephen Janis: Well, this panel is part a federal advisory sort of process. It was instituted years ago that sort of impanels people to look at complex social problems and solve them.
The problem with what is happening is it actually breaks the law. The law requires that you have people from both sides and both perspectives. It also requires that you meet in public. So that’s a problem. They’ve constituted a so-called law enforcement panel that actually breaks the law and is in violation of the process itself.
Taya Graham: Stephen, now the last iteration of this type of panel had a much different composition. Can you talk about that?
Stephen Janis: Well, you’ve been talking about the 21st panel for 21st Century Policing that was put together by the Obama administration, which had people from the community, activists, professors, lawyers, part of the defense bar, so it was a much more diverse committee and it was much more in tune with, connected to the community. So this panel is completely different. You have 17 people all from law enforcement and of the 15 working panels, about 115 people, only five are not from law enforcement. This one is completely and unequivocally law enforcement.
Taya Graham: Stephen, we know how critical the DOJ was in helping Baltimore jumpstart reform efforts. Remind us about the role that DOJ has played in national police reform efforts in the past.
Stephen Janis: Well, since the Department of Justice started working through police reform, they’ve had about 50 DOJ investigations of police departments across the country, Cleveland, Detroit, and of course, Baltimore, and that has led to reports and that has led to consent decrees and that has led to reform. Without it, it seems like municipal police departments can’t reform themselves. And it shows how the political economy works in cities where police departments are completely immune from the electorate. So the federal government has to step in and has played a critical role in the past of allowing people to have some sense of what’s going on inside their police department and then enforcing ways to reform it.
Taya Graham: Here we have a clear example of the so-called political economy that fuels policing and how it often works to prevent the type of policy changes that would improve it, and panel a commission to shape the future of law enforcement, but exclude all civilian input. Then if you do meet, make sure the proceedings are kept secret. It casts serious doubts on the notion of the heavily touted move towards community policing that has been espoused by political leaders across the country, especially when a process intended to shape law enforcement in the future excludes the people it will most effect.
I mean, how can a government agency funded by the people and empowered by the people meet in secret without the benefit of public scrutiny? It’s an interesting question that perhaps our next guest will help us answer, not so much about the aforementioned panel, but another facet of the criminal industrial complex that has been under fire for being secretive as well.
We first spoke to Sean Weston last year. At that time he was battling police after they raided his convenience store for the ninth time. Weston says he was being targeted because his business sold items that were legal, like baby laxative, but could be used to cut narcotics. Weston had never been accused of dealing drugs himself and had successfully sued the city for harassment and won.
But then last year federal investigators arrested Weston and charged him again for yes, selling paraphernalia. But this time they’re trying to tie him to a federal case. Since being arrested last July, Weston has been held without the possibility of bail in part due to the fact the federal system doesn’t have it. So instead the 52 year old with asthma has been sitting in a prison cell during the COVID crisis awaiting his trial, which might not start until next year. But his dilemma has given him a front row seat on not just how the criminal justice system can detain someone for months, if not years, without their day in court, but also the unfolding disaster that COVID-19 has brought to the country’s massive prison industrial complex.
As you may already know, some of the worst outbreaks of the virus have been inside prisons and jails. In fact, in one Ohio prison, the Marion Correctional Facility found a whopping 73% of inmates tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Throughout the country, prisons in California and New York have also reported facilities with more than half of all prisoners testing positive, which is why last month Weston’s fiance said Sean had already received a possible death sentence.
But last week, shortly after our story appeared, Sean was released on home detention. And now he’s joining us to talk about what’s going on inside. Sean, thank you so much for joining us. We’re really happy for you and your family that you made it home safely.
Sean Weston: I’m glad to be out of there.
Taya Graham: First, you were held at the DC Corrections Facility. What is it like inside and how are officials handling the outbreak of COVID-19?
Sean Weston: It was scary. I must say that, just having something like that hanging over your head, a possibility of contracting this virus. I do have some underlined health conditions, preexisting health conditions that really frighten me, that if I would’ve contracted it, it probably could have been a death sentence for me.
Taya Graham: Are inmates being tested? If not, how many do you think have contracted the virus?
Sean Weston: I was never tested for the virus. I guess what they were waiting for people to show signs and symptoms of having it before they tested them, the inmates that came down with it. But what they were doing, they were taking temperature checks twice a day seeing if anything might’ve changed there, which would have been one of the first signs, I guess, a fever.
But other than just taking our temperature twice a day, that was it. But several guys that was on my tier that I was housed in, I was housed in one of the maximum security block, at least I would say about at least 10 to 15 guys on that unit came down with it. And there was no more than about maybe, I’m going to say 50 of us being housed in that unit at the time. But all I could do was just try it to just stay inside myself, try to do as much cleaning as I could with the limited chemicals that they did provide us with. It was just about waiting, hoping that you wasn’t the next one.
I know at least one person died for certain. And I believe they shared a second guy had passed. I can’t say 100% sure, but I am 100% sure about the first guy it did [inaudible 00:08:58] to it.
Taya Graham: Now Sean, moving on to your case, you’ve been in jail since last summer, but your trial isn’t scheduled until next year. How is it possible to sit in prison for months for a crime you haven’t been convicted of?
Sean Weston: From my understanding, what I’m getting is that my right to a speedy trial were violated. I truly believe that’s what happened. They violated my rights to a speedy trial. The prosecutor, he filed a motion in order to extend the time of limitation pertaining to them violating my right to a speedy trial. The judge signed off on it, but I just can’t leave it on the judge and the prosecutor, because the lawyers that I had, they didn’t file anything in opposition pertaining to me objecting to my rights to a speedy trial [inaudible 00:09:44].
I’m not sure, but I do believe that the attorneys I had working on my behalf was compromised. Yes, I’ve been in DC jail for almost 10 months. I was told that my court date was scheduled for October 2021. I was arrested in July of 2019. And for me to have been sitting in jail for almost three years before I’ve been brought to trial in which the case or the charges that I’ve been prosecuted for, the maximum time I can be sentenced to is three years.
Taya Graham: Sean, I know you’re charged with selling paraphernalia, but as you’ve said before, it’s legal and many other stores in the city sell this. How do you plan to address these charges?
Sean Weston: I don’t sell paraphernalia. The things that I sell are legal, marketable products. I’m licensed to sell these things. They’re listed on my business license, but yet I’m the only person that’s been prosecuted for selling these over the counter products just about every other store in my community sell these same products plus more. I just don’t get it.
I have been prosecuted, or should I say persecuted, for this for almost 20 some odd years. This is about the 10th or 11th time I’m being charged with this and it doesn’t make any sense. We’re talking about sugar. We’re talking about vitamin capsules, oil sample vials, things of this sort, every day, legal, marketable products. You can go buy a gallon of gas from the gas station, fill up your little tank as if you’re going home to cut the grass, but go down the street and burn somebody’s house down. Now is the gas station labile for you doing that? No.
Taya Graham: Finally, when we first spoke to you, you were in the process of building a community center. In other words, giving back to the community where you work. What happened to those plans?
Sean Weston: My plans haven’t changed. My plans have not changed. I’m not going to let anyone deter me or keep me from the path I was on of trying to help that community. Everything I’ve done is to try to help that community because I feel as though that community has provided for me and my family for years, has given back. I haven’t been in that community in a while, but when I came back, I purchased a few buildings and I invested. I’m vested in that community, vested my money, my time to try to make it better. Nothing has deterred me from doing that. Everything is still a go.
Taya Graham: So think about it, Sean Weston would have sat in jail for two years, two years before having a chance to make his case in court, 24 months stuck in a cell, unable to support his family, see his kids or contribute to society in a productive or meaningful way. Whether he is guilty or innocent, his predicament raises a serious question. If the underlying idea of the American justice system is equal treatment before the law, then how is maintaining that standard even possible if a sentence is meted out before trial? How can any person prevail against the government that has the power to incarcerate without due process?
Remember, when we first spoke to Sean, he was in the process of building a community center, an effort to give back to the city that has been racked by poverty and neglect, and now those plans have to be put on hold.
Oh, and the murder rate in Baltimore that this [caneverous 00:13:19] justice system is supposed to abate, well that hasn’t quite worked out as planned. In fact, despite orders to shelter in place in the city, we are on a pace to have just as many murders this year as last. We have already had over 100 murders since January. The point is there appears to be a disconnect between law enforcement and us, a gulf between what the community says it needs and what the law enforcement establishment deems are its own secretive priorities.
The question we have to ask ourselves as journalists and as citizens is why. Why does such a pricey and powerful government entity seem so far removed from the people it purports to serve? How can an institution that demands we fund it, adhere to its laws and follow the commands of its agents, not solicit the input from those who empower it to exist? What is it that makes law enforcement so above the same laws that govern the rest of us?
This is the fundamental set of questions this show seeks to answer. It’s why we go beyond reporting the facts to talk about ideas that reveal the underlying philosophies that inform these processes. It’s why we discuss concepts like hegemonic policing, the idea that a good deal of law enforcement activity is dedicated to heightening the country’s growing income and inequality, or blanket criminality, the strategy that insulates police from accountability by criminalizing communities and thus limiting their political efficacy.
The point is the aforementioned commission and Sean Weston’s fight just to have a trial reveal how insular this country’s criminal justice system has become, how the people run it and benefit from it are not subject to its worst tendencies.
Maybe that’s the problem. It’s easy to bend the rules and warp the law when you know you’re above it. It’s easy to militarize police if you know they won’t show up at your door and it’s convenient to impanel a secret commission to shape the future of policing when you know there is no one watching. Well rest assured we are and we will continue to do so. I would like to thank our guest, Sean Weston, for joining us today and congratulations for making it home safely.
Sean Weston: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to let you guys know what’s going on with me right now at this point in my life. You guys have been a huge help and I truly appreciate everything you guys done.
Taya Graham: And I would like to thank reporter Stephen Janis for his investigative reporting, writing and editing on this piece.
Stephen Janis: Thanks Taya. Thanks for having me, appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And of course I have to thank friend of the show Noli Dee for her support. Thank you so much Noli Dee. So one more time, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at parattherealnews.com and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or at Eyes On Police on Twitter. Of course, you can message me directly at Taya’s Baltimore on Twitter and Facebook. Please like, share and comment. You know I read your comments and appreciate them. My name is Taya Graham. I’m your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.
Host & Producer
Before joining TRNN as an investigative journalist, Taya worked in Baltimore’s neighborhoods of color for years as an advocate and was awarded the Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Torchbearer Award and YANA’s (You Are Never Alone) “Love in Action” award. Her years of outreach to underserved communities have uniquely prepared her to connect with city residents. Now she cultivates relationships with Baltimore’s citizens to cover the stories on the ground.