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States diverge on police reforms after George Floyd killing

DENVER — Maryland repealed its half-century-old Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. Washington state reformed use-of-force policies and created a new agency to investigate when officers use deadly force. And California overcame objections from police unions to make sure officers fired in one jurisdiction couldn’t be hired in another.

Those are some of the far-reaching policing changes passed this year in response to the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But the first full year of state legislative sessions since his death sparked a summer of racial justice protests produced a far more mixed response in the rest of the country.

A number of states implemented incremental reforms, such as banning chokeholds or tightening rules around use of body cameras, while several Republican-led states responded by granting police even greater authority and passing laws that cracked down on protesters.

The state action on both sides of the debate came as Congress failed to implement policing reforms aimed at boosting officer accountability. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the U.S. House without a single Republican vote and then collapsed in the evenly divided Senate.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents more than 356,000 law enforcement officers, said he thinks it’s still possible for Congress to pass police reform, but perhaps only after another deadly case captures the nation’s attention.

“Sadly, the only thing we know for sure, it will be a tragedy that will precipitate change,” Pasco said.

He said the trend of states passing their own policing measures depending on their politics is creating more divisions in an already fractured country.

Partisan leanings were in play in Maryland, which 50 years ago became the first state to pass an officers’ bill of rights that provided job protections in the police disciplinary process, measures that eventually spread to about 20 other states. This year, it became the first to repeal those rights after lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly overrode the veto of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

They replaced the bill of rights with new procedures that give civilians a role in police discipline. Democratic lawmakers also united to pass other reforms over Hogan’s objections or without his signature, including expanding public access to police disciplinary records and creating a unit in the state attorney general’s office to investigate police-involved deaths.

“Other states can use this legislation as a blueprint for creating meaningful police reform,” said Rashawn Ray, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institute.

In Washington state, an ambitious series of reforms will ban police from using chokeholds and no-knock warrants, create a new state agency to investigate police use of deadly force and change the threshold for when officers can use force. Some law enforcement officials have said they are not clear about what they’re required to do, which has led to discrepancies about how to respond to certain situations.

California created a statewide certification system for officers, in part to prevent police fired in one jurisdiction from getting a job somewhere else. The bill stalled in the legislature last year and struggled to gain support again this year in the face of opposition from police unions. It passed after it was amended to allow for the option of an officer’s license being suspended as a lesser punishment and to include other safeguards.

“This is not an anti-police bill. This is an accountability bill,” said Democratic state Assemblywoman Akilah Weber, who carried the legislation in that chamber. “Without any accountability, we lose the integrity of the badge, and the bond with the community is broken.”

California also required the state attorney general’s office to investigate all fatal shootings by police of unarmed civilians, specified when officers have a duty to intervene to prevent or report excessive force, and increased the minimum age to become a police officer from 18 to 21.

The state reform bills passed in 2021 are important because they help promote accountability for police, which can shift officer behavior as long as the changes are enforced, said Puneet Cheema, manager of the Justice in Public Safety Project at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

To try to prevent violent encounters with the police in the first place, she said governments need to limit what police are asked to do — such as whether or not they should respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis or make certain traffic stops.

“That is a longer-term shift that will lead to the broadest changes in police violence and the role that police play in people’s lives,” Cheema said.

Even some states with divided governments were able to agree on certain reforms.

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, signed a partial ban on no-knock warrants approved by the Legislature, where Republicans hold veto-proof supermajorities. The bill was passed after months of demonstrations over the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in her Louisville home during a botched police raid last year. It permits no-knock warrants if there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the crime being investigated “would qualify a person, if convicted, as a violent offender.”

Many protesters and some Democratic lawmakers had sought a full ban, but the law does prevent cities and towns from banning the warrants completely.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, signed a bill passed by the Republican-led legislature that creates a public database where anyone can check whether an officer’s certification has been suspended or revoked. It also creates another confidential database showing cases in which an officer kills or seriously injures someone that is only accessible to law enforcement agencies.

In Louisiana, the Democratic governor and lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature placed new restrictions on the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, required detailed policies for body camera and dash camera use, boosted law enforcement agencies’ minority recruitment efforts and required anti-bias training. They also agreed to require suspension or revocation of a police officer’s state certification if the officer committed misconduct.

Some states controlled fully by Republicans moved in the opposition direction and expanded the rights of police officers or cracked down on protesters.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds introduced measures at the start of this year’s legislative session to ban racial profiling by police and establish a system to track racial data for police stops. But lawmakers dropped those sections of her proposal and instead passed the Back the Blue Act, which Reynolds signed in June. The law makes it harder to sue and win monetary damages from police accused of misconduct, made rioting a felony and provides legal protection from lawsuits for the driver of a vehicle who might strike a protester.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill that increased penalties for blocking roadways and granting immunity to drivers who kill or injure rioters. It was prompted by an incident in Tulsa last year in which the driver of a pickup truck drove through a crowd gathered on an interstate as part of a protest against Floyd’s killing.

In Ohio, people attending a rally who are accused of violating an anti-riot law could be targeted with a provision normally used against terrorist activity under proposed GOP legislation. Florida also passed a law cracking down on violent protests that had been championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, but a federal judge has blocked it from taking effect, calling the law “vague and overbroad.”

PHA looks at its accomplishments from 2021

The Philadelphia Housing Authority had several major accomplishments this year, but the top executive said he is most proud of the 6,441 units the agency built or renovated in 2021, along with its partners.

These new units were part of PHA’s “six-in-five” plan launched in 2014, which referred to developing or preserving 6,000 units of housing in a five-year period. The progress was delayed for two years, as a result of the pandemic.

“We feel a deep sense of accomplishments in meeting our goals, but we live in a city with such tremendous need that it feels as though our work has really only just begun,” said PHA President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah. “What makes our program so successful is that, in addition to the construction and neighborhood rebuilding we have done, we have funded and worked with extremely committed non-profit housing organization whose mission matched our own.”

According to PHA, a major area for renovation has been its scattered site inventory, or individual properties that have fallen into disrepair and have been vacant and uninhabitable for decades. Under the plan, PHA renovated 1,745 of these units, many in neighborhoods being gentrified, thereby preserving affordability in some of these communities.

Other major PHA accomplishments are the redevelopment of the former Norris Homes complex near Temple University and the continued revitalization of the Sharswood neighborhood, which includes a $52 million shopping center and a 98-unit apartment complex. About half of the apartments will include below-market rate units.

The mixed-use development at 2077 Ridge Ave., will include a bank, supermarket, restaurant and an urgent care center.

Mosaic Development Partners, of Philadelphia, will manage and run the 234,000-square-foot development that will be called Sharswood Ridge.

Mosaic is a minority-owned firm with developments at The Navy Yard, Cheyney University and other parts of Philadelphia.

The development is expected to generate about 200 construction jobs and about 200 permanent jobs. It is 70% completed and scheduled to be finished later this year.

Looking ahead, PHA reports that changes in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have given the agency more flexibility to accelerate the pace of construction.

“We will use every tool in our disposal to create and preserve more housing for low-income families, seniors and veterans,” Jeremiah said.

Despite all of the efforts of PHA and its development partners, families seeking PHA homes still remain on waiting lists for years, he said.

“We are hopeful Congress will approve President Biden’s Build Back Better program, which would provide desperately needed cash infusion to help us produce more affordable housing for those who need it,” Jeremiah said.

Other notable PHA accomplishments include:

• Completed the North Central Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant, which included the redevelopment of Norris Homes. This included 302 rental apartments and affordable homes. The neighborhood has a new 10,000-square-foot community center, training and employment supports, recreational areas, and a day center operated by residents along with Temple University. Norris Apartment residents’ incomes have doubled since the program’s launch and violent crimes have gone down 42%.

• PHA Expanded the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which has expanded housing options for Philadelphians through a campaign the agency launched to recruit additional property owners and offering monetary and support incentives to current property owners. As a result, about 350 new property owners rented apartments to PHA voucher holders for the first time.

• PHA prioritized populations at greatest risk for homelessness this year. For example, the agency worked with Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) to offer apartments to students needing them. The rehabbed units, which serve up to 16 students, are just blocks from the college’s campus. PHA received about $10 million in emergency housing vouchers to help homeless families and those at risk of losing their housing. The families are referred to PHA by the city.

• PHA Workforce Center at Vaux Community Building continued to expand workforce and employer partnerships. For instance, CVS Health was brought in as a training partner. CVS Health opened a Workforce Innovation and Talent Incubator, to prepare people for jobs as pharmacy technicians and retail associates.

• PHA minority firm contract opportunities: The agency reported that 36.5% of its contracts were awarded to companies owned by people of color, which included 28% going to Black-owned firms; and 4% going to firms owned by Hispanic-owned companies.

• PhillySEEDS Inc., a unit of PHA, awarded a total of $316,000 in scholarships to 84 PHA residents seeking or enrolled in higher education institutions, a new record.

• PHA Homeownership Opportunities Program: under this program, 85 people moved from renting to owning homes setting a new home ownership record. One PHA resident, Dwayne Fair, bought the home his family had rented from the agency for more than 50 years.

• Vaux Big Picture Learning High School, which PHA helped to establish, graduated about 90 students, half of which were PHA residents. Of the total, 42% were headed to college, a trade school or an internship. And the class valedictorian has been accepted to 13 colleges and received about $1 million in scholarships. The high school is in the city’s Sharswood section.

US children hospitalized with COVID in record numbers

SEATTLE — The omicron-fueled surge that is sending COVID-19 cases rocketing in the U.S. is putting children in the hospital in record numbers, and experts lament that most of the youngsters are not vaccinated.

“It’s just so heartbreaking,” said Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious-disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It was hard enough last year, but now you know that you have a way to prevent all this.”

During the week of Dec. 22-28, an average of 378 children 17 and under were admitted per day to hospitals with the coronavirus, a 66% increase from the week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.

The previous high over the course of the pandemic was in early September, when child hospitalizations averaged 342 per day, the CDC said.

On a more hopeful note, children continue to represent a small percentage of those being hospitalized with COVID-19: An average of nearly 10,200 people of all ages were admitted per day during the same week in December. And many doctors say the youngsters seem less sick than those who came in during the delta surge over the summer.

Two months after vaccinations were approved for 5- to 11-year-olds, about 14% are fully protected, CDC data shows. The rate is higher for 12- to 17-year-olds, at about 53%.

A study released Thursday by the CDC confirmed that serious side effects from the Pfizer vaccine in children ages 5 to 11 are rare. The findings were based on approximately 8 million doses dispensed to youngsters in that age group.

Dr. Albert Ko, professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at the Yale School of Public Health, noted that the low vaccination rate is, in part, a matter of timing: Younger children were not approved for the vaccine until November, and many are only now coming up on their second dose.

Offit said none of the vaccine-eligible children receiving care at his hospital about a week ago had been vaccinated, even though two-thirds had underlying conditions that put them at risk — either chronic lung disease or, more commonly, obesity. Only one was under the vaccination age of 5.

The scenes are heart-rending.

“They’re struggling to breathe, coughing, coughing, coughing,” Offit said. “A handful were sent to the ICU to be sedated. We put the attachment down their throat that’s attached to a ventilator, and the parents are crying.”

None of the parents or siblings was vaccinated either, he said.

The next four to six weeks are going to be rough, he said: “This is a virus that thrives in the winter.”

Aria Shapiro, 6, spent her 12th day Thursday at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. She tested positive for COVID-19 after getting her first dose of the vaccine Dec. 17.

Aria, who is considered “medically fragile” because she has epilepsy, suffered prolonged seizures in the hospital, and a breathing tube had to be put down her throat at one point, though she has since improved.

“We lived our life in for two years to prevent her from getting COVID, finally went for the vax, and the one thing that we didn’t want to happen happened,” said her mother, Sarah Shapiro. “It wasn’t enough time for her body to build antibodies. She did end up getting COVID.”

Overall, new COVID-19 cases in Americans of all ages have skyrocketed to the highest levels on record: an average of 300,000 per day, or 2 1/2 times the figure just two weeks ago. The highly contagious omicron accounted for 59% of new cases last week, according to the CDC.

Still, there are early indications that the variant causes milder illness than previous versions, and that the combination of the vaccine and the booster seems to protect people from its worst effects.

In California, 80 COVID-19-infected children were admitted to the hospital during the week of Dec. 20-26, compared with 50 in the last week of November, health officials said.

Seattle Children’s also reported a bump in the number of children admitted over the past week. And while they are less seriously ill than those hospitalized over the summer, Dr. John McGuire cautioned that it is early in the omicron wave, and the full effects will become apparent over the next several weeks.

New York health authorities have also sounded the alarm.

The number of children admitted to the hospital per week in New York City with COVID-19 went from 22 to 109 between Dec. 5 and Dec. 24. Across all of New York state, it went from 70 to 184. Overall, almost 5,000 people in New York were in the hospital with COVID-19.

“A fourfold increase makes everybody jump with concern, but it’s a small percentage,” Ko said of the New York City figures. “Children have a low risk of being hospitalized, but those who do are unvaccinated.”

Dr. Al Sacchetti, chief of emergency services at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, New Jersey, likewise said vaccinated children are handling the omicron outbreak extremely well.

“It makes a big difference in how these kids tolerate the disease, particularly if the child’s got some medical issues,” he said.

COVID-19 deaths have proved rare among children over the course of the pandemic. As of last week, 721 in the U.S. had died of the disease, according to data reported to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The overall U.S. death toll is more than 800,000.

Almost 199,000 child COVID-19 cases were reported during the week of Dec. 16-23, the pediatrics group said. That was about 20% of the more than 950,000 total cases recorded that week.

While many of these children will recover at home, they may have contact with others who are at much greater risk, said Dr. Jason Terk, a pediatrician in North Texas. He cared for a 10-year-old boy with COVID-19 who managed the disease well, but his father got sick and died, he said.

“The death of a parent is devastating, but the toxic stress for a young person in this situation is difficult to measure,” he said.

Biden, Putin talk nearly an hour as alarm rises over Ukraine

WILMINGTON, Del. — Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin spoke frankly for nearly an hour late Thursday amid growing alarm over Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine, a crisis that’s deepened as the Kremlin has stiffened its insistence on border security guarantees and test fired hypersonic missiles to underscore its demands.

Putin’s foreign affairs adviser said Biden reaffirmed the U.S. threat of new sanctions against Russia in case of an escalation or invasion, to which Putin responded with a warning of his own that such a U.S. move could lead to a complete rupture of ties.

“It would be a colossal mistake that would entail grave consequences,” said Yuri Ushakov. He added that Putin told Biden that Russia would act as the U.S. would if offensive weapons were deployed near American borders.

White House officials said the leaders agreed there are areas where the two sides could make meaningful progress but also that there are differences that might be impossible to resolve.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden “urged Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine” and “made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine.”

Putin requested the call, the second between the leaders this month, ahead of scheduled talks between senior U.S. and Russian officials Jan. 9 and 10 in Geneva. The Geneva talks will be followed by a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council on Jan. 12 and negotiations at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna on Jan. 13,

White House officials said Thursday’s call lasted 50 minutes, ending after midnight in Moscow.

Russia has made clear it wants a written commitment that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance’s military equipment will not be positioned in former Soviet states, demands that the Biden administration has rejected.

Biden told Putin that a diplomatic path remains open even as the Russians have moved an estimated 100,000 troops toward Ukraine and Kremlin officials have turned up the volume on their demands for new guarantees from the U.S. and NATO.

White House officials said Biden made clear that the U.S. stands ready to exact substantial economic pain through sanctions should Putin decide to take military action in Ukraine.

Ushakov said Putin reacted strongly.

Putin “noted that it would be a mistake that our ancestors would see as a grave error. A lot of mistakes have been made over the past 30 years, and we would better avoid more such mistakes in this situation,” Ushakov said.

Russia’s demands are to be discussed during the talks in Geneva, but it remains unclear what, if anything, Biden would be willing to offer Putin in exchange for defusing the crisis.

Draft security documents Moscow submitted demand that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.

The U.S. and its allies have refused to offer Russia the kind of guarantees on Ukraine that Putin wants, citing NATO’s principle that membership is open to any qualifying country. They agreed, however, to hold talks with Russia to discuss its concerns.

The security proposal by Moscow has raised the question of whether Putin is making unrealistic demands in the expectation of a Western rejection that would give him a pretext to invade.

Steven Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the Clinton administration, said the Biden administration could engage on some elements of Russia’s draft document if Moscow is serious about talks.

Meanwhile, key NATO members have made clear there is no appetite for expanding the alliance in the near future. The U.S. and allies could also be receptive to language in the Russians’ draft document calling for establishing new consultative mechanisms, such as the NATO-Russia Council and a hotline between NATO and Russia.

“The draft treaty’s proposed bar on any NATO military activity in Ukraine, eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia is an overreach, but some measures to limit military exercises and activities on a reciprocal basis might be possible,” Pifer, who is now a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis for the Washington think tank.

Biden and Putin, who met in Geneva in June to discuss an array of tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship, are not expected to take part in the January talks.

Last week, Russia test-fired Zircon hypersonic missiles, a provocative move that Russian officials said was meant to help make Russia’s push for security guarantees “more convincing.” The test was the first time Zircon missiles were launched in a salvo, indicating the completion of tests before the new missile enters service with the Russian navy next year and arms its cruisers, frigates and submarines.

U.S. intelligence earlier this month determined that Russian planning was underway for a possible military offensive that could begin as soon as early 2022, but that Putin had yet to determine whether to move forward with it.

Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, said Thursday his country believes there is no immediate threat of a major Russian invasion.

“Our experts say that the Russian Federation just physically can’t mount a big invasion of our territory,” Danilov said. “There is a time period needed for preparations.”

The U.S. military has flown surveillance flights in Ukrainian airspace this week, including a flight Thursday by an Air Force E-8C JSTARS aircraft, according to Chuck Pritchard, a spokesman for U.S. European Command. That plane is equipped to provide intelligence on ground forces.

Pritchard said such flights are conducted with European allies “routinely.”

Russia has denied any intention of launching an invasion and, in turn, has accused Ukraine of hatching plans to try to reclaim control of territories held by Moscow-backed rebels by force. Ukraine has rejected the claim.

At the same time, Putin has warned that Moscow will have to take “adequate military-technical measures” if the West continues its “aggressive” course “on the threshold of our home.”

As Biden prepared for the talks with Putin, the administration also sought to highlight its commitment to Ukraine and drive home that Washington is committed to the “principle of nothing about you without you” in shaping policy that affects European allies. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Past military incursions by Putin loom large.

In 2014, Russian troops marched into the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and seized the territory from Ukraine. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was one of the darker moments for President Barack Obama on the international stage.

The U.S.-Russia relationship was badly damaged near the end of President George W. Bush’s administration after Russia’s 2008 invasion of its neighbor Georgia after Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Biden, who is spending the week in his home state of Delaware, spoke to Putin from his home near Wilmington. The White House distributed a photo of the president speaking to the Russian leader from a desk lined with family photos.