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Daily Report: Public Safety

New director to take over troubled Sonoma disability center

March 7, 2013, 5:38 PM | Amy Julia Harris, California Watch

Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle Giant palm trees stand at the main gate of the Sonoma Developmental Center, which houses about 500 patients. 

A former employee of the Sonoma Developmental Center has been tapped to head California’s largest full-time care facility for the severely disabled, at a time when the institution is struggling to reinvent itself in the wake of patient abuse scandals.

The Department of Developmental Services announced Wednesday that Karen Faria, who worked at the Sonoma Developmental Center from 1985 to 2005, will become the embattled facility's latest executive director starting April 1.

The appointment comes in the wake of a California Watch series that uncovered serious allegations of patient abuse at the Sonoma Developmental Center. The reported abuses included cases of rape and molestation as well as allegations that a state worker used a Taser to inflict burns on a dozen patients.

The California Watch investigation exposed these cases and focused on failures of an internal police force to get to the bottom of the abuses. One-third of the 36 alleged rapes occurred at the Sonoma board-and-care center – one of five such facilities in California that house about 1...

State disability center forfeits funding over abuse

January 18, 2013, 5:17 PM | Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch

Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle A placard marks the Corcoran Unit at the Sonoma Developmental Center, which has been the site of 11 alleged sex assaults since 2009.

California's largest board-and-care center for the developmentally disabled will surrender more than $1 million a month in federal funding for failures to protect patients from abuse and provide quality medical care, state officials announced today.

In December, state regulators cited the Sonoma Developmental Center for numerous violations that put patients with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities at risk of serious injury and death. Regulators have threatened to close a major portion of the century-old institution, now home to more than 500 patients.

The state Department of Developmental Services, which operates the institution, this week agreed not to seek reimbursement from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid for services provided at its most troubled residences. The state singled out four out of 10 residential units at the Sonoma facility...

Prosecutors' opposition could limit release of third-strike inmates

December 19, 2012, 12:05 AM | Michael Montgomery, California Watch


State inmates serving life terms are starting to file resentencing petitions with local judges following the passage of Proposition 36, the ballot measure that overhauls California's controversial three strikes law. But opposition from local prosecutors and other factors could limit the number of qualifying inmates who actually get released.

Scott Thorpe, CEO of the California District Attorneys Association, said his organization is recommending that district attorneys file subpoenas for the prison records of inmates seeking a resentencing hearing so they can scrutinize everything from the offenders’ health and psychological profile to their participation in rehabilitation programs.

“We’re arguing that everything should be taken into consideration,” he said. “If they haven’t taken advantage of programs that were available to them, we’re saying that’s a relevant fact in determining whether this is a responsible person to go out into society."

Prop. 36 allows sentence reductions for inmates convicted under the original 1994 law if their third strike was not a serious or violent felony (as defined by the California Penal Code) and their prior convictions did not include rape, murder, child molestation or other grave crimes...

Video – Anaheim: A Tale of Two Cities

December 18, 2012, 11:20 AM | California Watch

Anaheim is the home to one of the most well-known and popular amusement parks in the world: Disneyland. It's also the home to a community whose anger at local police has boiled over recently, spilling onto the streets of Anaheim.

Watch Al-Jazeera English's video "Fault Lines," which, in its words, "examines the underlying causes of the recent unrest in Anaheim."

This video was featured on The I Files, the first YouTube investigative news channel, curated by the Center for Investigative Reporting, California Watch's parent company.

State threatens to shut down disability center amid patient abuse

December 12, 2012, 7:12 PM | Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch

Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle The Sonoma Developmental Center in Eldridge is one of five state-run institutions for the developmentally disabled. 

The state's largest board-and-care center for the severely disabled lost its primary license to operate today, after repeatedly exposing patients to abuse and shoddy medical care.

State regulators cited the Sonoma Developmental Center, which houses more than 500 patients, for dozens of cases where patients were put at risk of injury or death. In issuing the citations, the state moved to shut down a major portion of the century-old institution...

Local jails may limit immigration holds to convicts

December 11, 2012, 12:05 AM | Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch


In the next year, many of California’s local jails might limit federal immigration “holds” to detainees with felony convictions, greatly reducing the number of people deported from the state solely for entering the country without permission.

Gov. Jerry Brown met with leaders from the California State Sheriffs' Association last week to discuss ways to give city police and county sheriff's departments discretion on immigration enforcement.

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern said he recommended legislation to amend state Penal Code 834b. The code mandates that law enforcement cooperate with federal agents "regarding any person who is arrested if he or she is suspected of being present in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws."

Brown informed the sheriffs association that his office is working on draft legislation to that effect, Ahern said.

At issue is how local law enforcement should participate in Secure Communities, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement program operating in most of the state...

Caltrans slow to boost pedestrian safety on hairy Millbrae road

December 6, 2012, 12:05 AM | Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen

Zusha Elinson/The Bay Citizen Three people have been struck walking in this crosswalk at Santa Helena Avenue and El Camino Real in the past two months. 

A perilous stretch of El Camino Real in Millbrae where the state was found liable in 2010 for endangering pedestrians continues to claim victims as people try to cross the busy six-lane thoroughfare.

Caltrans was ordered to pay $8 million to the family of Emily Liou, who was struck by a Toyota in 2006 while crossing the highway in a crosswalk. Age 17 at the time, she was left in a coma. The jury found that Caltrans had known for years that the crosswalks without traffic signals were dangerous but had taken no action to prevent the accident.

Despite the jury’s verdict, Caltrans has done little since then to improve the crossing at Ludeman Lane where Liou was hit or three similar crosswalks within a six-block stretch of El Camino Real. Since the accident, 11 more pedestrians have been hit in these crosswalks. In the past six weeks alone, three people have been injured...

Calls grow for local police to take cases at developmental centers

December 3, 2012, 12:05 AM | Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch

Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle The Sonoma Developmental Center in Eldridge is one of five state-run institutions for the developmentally disabled.

Sonoma County’s top prosecutor has joined with advocates for the developmentally disabled in calling for local police to take charge of criminal investigations of patient abuse at California’s board-and-care institutions.

Cases involving reported assault and negligence have long been left to the Office of Protective Services, the police force at the five state-run developmental centers. The force's detectives and patrol officers have routinely failed to do basic police work even when patients die under suspicious circumstances.

The force has performed especially poorly in sexual abuse cases, California Watch reported in a story published Thursday.

Patients have accused caretakers of molestation and rape 36 times since 2009, but the Office of Protective Services did not order a single hospital-supervised rape examination for any of the alleged victims. “Rape kit” exams are routinely used to collect evidence at most police departments.

Eleven of the sex abuse cases were...

Homeland Security office OKs efforts to monitor threats via social media

November 15, 2012, 12:05 AM | G.W. Schulz, California Watch

Brian Lane Winfield Moore/Flickr

A little-known privacy office in the Department of Homeland Security has given its stamp of approval to an ongoing initiative aimed at monitoring social media sites for emerging threats.

Congress created the department’s privacy office in 2003 to review major initiatives and databases and make certain those initiatives respected the rights of Americans, while also enabling homeland security officials to better collect and share information about possible terrorism and criminal suspects.

The department first began experimenting with the possibility of social media monitoring in 2010 with pilot programs that targeted public reactions to the earthquake in Haiti, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The privacy office has since conducted compliance reviews every six months, with the most recent assessment [PDF] published last week.

Although the pilot programs were narrow in focus, privacy and civil liberties groups have long worried that the department’s monitoring would expand to all online speech with no reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred...

Fewer felons eligible to serve sentences in county jails

November 5, 2012, 12:05 AM | Michael Montgomery, California Watch

Dawn Endico/Flickr

As California struggles to meet a court-ordered reduction of its prison population, newly released figures show corrections officials overstated the number of low-level offenders eligible to be diverted to local jurisdictions as part of Gov. Jerry Brown's public safety realignment plan.

At issue are inmates who were being sent to state prisons for parole and other technical violations and became eligible to serve their sentences in county jails after Oct. 1, 2011.

Corrections officials long have argued that the churn of low-level felons in and out of state prisons was a major factor in overcrowding. Closing the revolving door to prison by sending those offenders to county jails instead – as envisioned under realignment – would be a major element in resolving the crisis, they said.

Speaking at a media event at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy in March, Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate put the figure at 47,000 offenders who had served terms of 90 days or less in 2011. 

“Those guys were just going through our system so quickly, but they were keeping those beds full and crowding our system,” he said...

Special visas for crime victims surge in Oakland

October 29, 2012, 12:05 AM | Shoshana Walter, The Bay Citizen

Courtesy of Linda Mendoza Linda Mendoza, 22, applied for a U visa for crime victims after her East Oakland salon was robbed at gunpoint. 

Linda Mendoza says her life began changing for the better the day she was robbed at gunpoint.

In 2010, Mendoza had just opened her beauty salon on International Boulevard in East Oakland when three men walked through the door, pointed a gun at her pregnant belly and demanded cash.

The event left her shaken. Mendoza, a Mexican national who had lived in Oakland since she was 4, packed up her salon and moved away from her childhood neighborhood. But the 22-year-old said the crime also produced a gift: Last year, she was granted temporary residency in the United States.

Mendoza applied for a U visa through an immigration program that gives victims of serious crimes temporary residency status in exchange for cooperation in catching the perpetrators.

Nationwide, immigration authorities have seen a substantial increase in U visa applications. In the Bay Area, the Oakland Police Department has seen the number of visas for immigrant victims skyrocket.

In 2007, the Oakland department processed three applications. In 2011, it processed 502...

Calif. privacy groups oppose cellphone surveillance device

October 29, 2012, 12:05 AM | G.W. Schulz, California Watch


FBI investigators used a court order authorizing access to cellphone customer data to quietly deploy a powerful surveillance technology known as “stingrays,” privacy groups contend in a new court filing [PDF] that claims the devices are overly invasive.

Your cellphone can be singled out by its international mobile subscriber identity, or IMSI, which then makes it possible to secretly determine your whereabouts using stingray devices, also known as IMSI catchers. The law enforcement tool troubles security experts and civil libertarians alike because it mimics cellphone towers. Stingrays track the locations of mobile devices, including those that are not targeted but are nearby.

IMSI catchers can also be adjusted to capture the content of communications, although the government claims that was not done in this case.

An expert in 2010 showed spectators at a technology conference in Las Vegas that IMSI catchers could be built at home for as little as $1,500, exposing a potential weakness in cellphone security. Thirty cellphones in the room reportedly attempted to connect to his do-it-yourself tower, and anyone in the room who made a call while...

Few subpoenas, warrants seek Clipper card travelers' data

October 16, 2012, 12:05 AM | Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen

Scott James/The Bay Citizen

San Francisco police arrested Marcel Largaespada on April 30 after a gunpoint robbery at a Lombard Street business, but they couldn’t catch his alleged accomplice, Alan McCahill.

McCahill gave officers the slip, investigators believed, by hopping on a Muni bus.

He was caught days later. To try to place McCahill at the scene, prosecutors subpoenaed the information from his Clipper card, which they believed he’d used to pay his bus fare.

The request for McCahill’s travel record was one of the rare occasions that police or lawyers have sought to use the Clipper card database to track the whereabouts of a cardholder.

According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which administers the card, it has received three search warrants or subpoenas seeking customers’ personal travel information since the card’s inception in 2010. In only one of those cases did the search turn up any relevant travel information, according to the commission’s response to a public records request from The Bay Citizen...

Disabled inmates suffer in shift to county jails

October 8, 2012, 12:05 AM | Shoshana Walter, California Watch


One day in March, a blind man was booked into the San Bernardino County jail.

A parole violator, he could see only four inches in front of his face. At the West Valley Detention Center, according to his account, deputies assigned him the upper bunk in a cell at the top of a tall staircase. “The deputy laughed at me and told me I could see just fine,” he recounted. Several days later, he missed a step and, flailing for a handrail, tumbled down the steel staircase. When he returned from the hospital in a wheelchair, deputies confiscated it. 

The blind prisoner’s account, dictated to an attorney, is one of dozens of complaints cited in a federal lawsuit alleging that the state violated the rights of disabled prisoners by not ensuring they would receive adequate care in county jails. The San Bernardino Sheriff's Department did not respond to requests for comment.

The debate over the state’s responsibility for disabled prisoners has taken on increasing importance as the state shifts the burden of housing many thousands of inmates onto the counties in a policy euphemistically known as “realignment.”


The state, facing a federal court mandate to shrink its prison population, enacted the Public Safety Realignment Act last year, flooding county jails with felons, nonviolent offenders and parolees who have been rearrested...

SF police told to follow law on entering residences

October 8, 2012, 12:05 AM | Shoshana Walter, The Bay Citizen

Jerome Scholler/Shutterstock

After a mentally ill man was shot and killed by a police officer inside his residential hotel room, the San Francisco Police Department has clarified its policy on entering homes: All residents, including those living in hotels, have the same privacy rights.

Amid little fanfare, Police Chief Greg Suhr admonished the officer and issued a training memo to the department that outlines the law. The memo states that officers are allowed to enter a residence only when there is an immediate safety threat, to prevent the destruction of evidence, when the officers are in hot pursuit of a suspect or if the residence is a crime scene.

Officers also are allowed to enter with a resident’s consent, with a warrant, to provide emergency medical assistance or if the resident’s probation or parole conditions permit searches. After the memo was distributed in July, officers were required to sign a statement that they had read and understood it.

“Members are reminded that individuals have an expectation of privacy in their residences,” Suhr wrote. “Tenants of hotels, including single room occupancy hotels, possess the same constitutional rights and protections related to law enforcement entry into their...

Navy's Treasure Island radiation report found wanting

October 5, 2012, 6:51 PM | Matt Smith, The Bay Citizen

Michael Short/The Bay Citizen A fenced-off residential area on Treasure Island warns of possible radioactivity left behind by the U.S. Navy. 

Recent U.S. Navy explanations for widespread readings of radioactivity on the former Treasure Island Naval Station don’t adequately explore the possibility that the base might have been dusted for years with radioactive ash, soaked with radioactive sewage and contaminated by radioactive garbage, California health regulators said today.

The response addressed an Aug. 6 draft report by the Navy, which was aimed at assuaging concerns about the base’s history of radioactive material. It detailed possible sources, including devices used to train sailors for nuclear war. It also described ship repair operations that occurred during an era when vessels frequently returned to the San Francisco Bay from Pacific atomic tests.

The Navy’s report is part of the process of turning the military land over to the city of San Francisco, which has approved construction of 8,000 homes there...

SF's most dangerous intersection was paved with good intentions

October 3, 2012, 12:05 AM | Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen

Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen A bicyclist rides through the intersection of Market Street and Octavia Boulevard during rush hour. 

Hayes Valley was best known for the hooker haven beneath the Central Freeway when Greg Foss moved to the San Francisco neighborhood in 1982.

The area was transformed when the city tore down the 1.2-mile double-deck structure and replaced it with Octavia Boulevard, a ground-level thoroughfare with tree-lined medians, a park and quiet side streets. Designed by noted UC Berkeley urban planning professor Allan Jacobs, it opened in 2005 to wide acclaim.

But the leafy boulevard has brought its own problems. Clogged with cars rushing to get on and off Highway 101, the corner of Octavia Boulevard and Market Street has become the city’s most dangerous intersection...

Senate report savages terrorism 'fusion centers' as useless

October 2, 2012, 7:05 PM | Andrew Becker and G.W. Schulz, California Watch

The nation’s vast network of anti-terrorism “fusion centers” for law enforcement have produced shoddy, untimely and often useless intelligence reports that have done little to keep the U.S. safer, a scathing U.S. Senate report concludes.

The 141-page report, a copy of which was obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, parent organization of California Watch, identified problems with nearly every significant aspect of the Department of Homeland Security’s more than 70 fusion centers, which were designed for law enforcement to coordinate their intelligence gathering.

The report marks one of the most blistering indictments to date of the Department of Homeland Security’s domestic intelligence operation. The department, investigators conclude, “has not attempted to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the value federal taxpayers have received for that investment.”

Fusion centers were created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as the best way to get local, state and federal officials to share terrorism-related information, speak with each other and “connect the dots” of terrorist plots before they happened...

More Americans support torture to fight terrorism, poll finds

October 2, 2012, 12:05 AM | G.W. Schulz, California Watch

Courtesy of Air Force Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen Former President George W. Bush speaks to reporters about the war in Iraq after meeting with senior Pentagon officials in 2007. 

A surprising number of Americans are supportive of controversial Bush-era tactics used to undermine terrorism, and are even open to more extreme measures like using nuclear weapons.

That's what professor Amy Zegart discovered when she asked the research firm YouGov to poll 1,000 people in August. Zegart recently joined Stanford University's Hoover Institution after leaving UCLA’s School of Public Affairs, where she specialized in national security and intelligence.

The poll results showed that an increasing number of Americans supported torturing prisoners, up 14 points to 41 percent since 2007. The wording of questions can deeply influence how people answer a poll, so Zegart used the same questions from research done on interrogation techniques in 2005, before Barack Obama was elected president...

Brown signs bills on developmental center abuse

September 28, 2012, 12:32 PM | Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch

Monica Lam/California Watch The Office of Protective Services is an in-house police force at California's developmental centers.

UPDATE, Sept. 28, 2012: This story updates to include comment from the Department of Developmental Services.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills yesterday to require California’s developmental centers to alert outside police and a disability protection organization when patients die under suspicious circumstances, are abused or are seriously injured.

The state operates five board-and-care institutions for more than 1,600 people with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities in Sonoma, Orange, Tulare, Riverside and Los Angeles counties. An in-house police force, called the Office of Protective Services, patrols and investigates crimes against the centers’ patients...

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