Friday, August 28, 2009

Disorderly Conduct in GJ - Part 3

Today I received an e-mail from Wini Stevenson, the woman that was cited by Grand Junction Police for Disorderly Conduct after displaying a sign reading "PSYCHO" on her truck, parked in front of the house of a neighbor with whom she was having a dispute. I detailed this in previous posts this month, which are available here and here.

I called Wini this afternoon. She let me know that she had decided to contact the ACLU after watching coverage of President Obama's visit to Grand Junction, and seeing so many of the disparaging things written on signs and displayed at that event.

She did receive a reply from the ACLU, but it didn't matter after she appeared in Grand Junction Municipal Court this past Tuesday and was informed that the Disorderly Conduct charge against her had been dismissed with prejudice. This means that she cannot be charged again for the actions that she took back in July.

Wini added that the number of requests for police response all had their roots in the community block party that she had obtained a City permit for, and that her neighbor apparently had extreme difficulty with, to the point that the neighbor wrote a letter of complaint to their Homeowners Association.

Wini stated that after this event, she had turned on her stereo in her garage while washing her truck, and the police arrived in the area shortly thereafter. She added that she was feeling as though she was being harassed for engaging in lawful activity around her place of residence. Wini also said that she felt the police officer that cited her was doing so just to quiet the protestations of the neighbor across the street.

Wini added that she was concerned about the effect of the publicity in the local media on her reputation and her business, and had contacted the Daily Sentinel regarding the manner in which her case was portrayed in the Police Blotter of August 1. She also said she is looking into her options in the civil courts concerning the disparaging treatment she received in her neighborhood.

It's heartening to see another good outcome on the civil liberties front in the Grand Junction area. I hope that the neighborhood involved, as well as local law enforcement, take this case to heart when developing alternatives to engaging in non-communicative, escalating behavior, or attempting to bend a vague law around its intended use and running headlong into the First Amendment.

As per my previous post, the City Attorney's office has elected to review this case further. While the dismissal of the charges against Wini Stevenson may be a result of that review, I hope that additional training will also be in the offing for those in government who are faced with these types of disputes every day.

Remembering alternatives such as Mesa County's Mediation Center, and referring those involved in disputes to resources that can prevent it from entering the civil or criminal courts, may be a better first step than how this case was eventually handled.

In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to reading about the dismissal of the charge against Wini Stevenson in the paper sometime soon.

Have a great weekend.

Sign O' the Times 3

Fouled and dirty your spark plugs are.
A tune-up your vehicle requires.

"You can't make anyone think like you.
You can't make anyone believe you.

Sometimes all you can do is love

and hope that makes them love you back.

"It takes steps."

“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”

- John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Thursday, August 27, 2009

2800 D Road, I Mean Riverside Parkway...

My thoughts over the last couple of days have been directed toward Massachusetts, not just because of Sen. Ted Kennedy's death but also because my brother-in-law Mike lives there, and had a little bit of a medical problem yesterday that required him to be seen in the local ER.

Mike is developmentally disabled, and prone to seizures. A seizure caused him to fall last year and fracture his skull, for which he spent 6 months in a rehab facility before moving back into a group home environment this past June. He seems to be acclimating well there, and it is hoped that he will be able to return soon to his normal routine, which includes a day rehabilitation program.

Mike's life experience got me to thinking more about the 32 residents of the state-operated Grand Junction Regional Center, who aren't really able to function like Mike and stand to be moved next year due to Gov. Ritter's decision to close the facility. The parents and relatives of some of these residents are up in arms over the decision, not to mention several local politicians that are making noise about it.

I'm sure that Gov. Ritter and his staff anticipated this outcry. The Governor's office states that a significant budget savings can be realized by closing the facility, moving the residents, and laying off the 57 employees currently working there. They contend that the residents can find competent care elsewhere in the community, most likely at nursing facilities.

It's a shame, if not a travesty, that these 32 people have to be uprooted from the home that many of them have known the bulk of their lives. Aside from the human factors, however, I believe there are other reasons driving this that haven't been reported or discussed very much, and depending upon your perspective may very well need to be.

At least one local blogger is trying to make this decision into a political football with which to disparage the incumbent in favor of his locally-based Republican challengers. As much as using the closure to rouse up political sentiment toward Gov. Ritter's opposition in this way is a novel idea, I don't think it's going to work very well in this case.

I don't think that the real reasons behind the Regional Center closure are something that any Republican, let alone a GJ Republican, would sincerely oppose, at least outside the context of a political campaign.

I think that Gov. Ritter is closing the Regional Center, which is admittedly rather large for its current population, in order to sell the land for development. The City of Grand Junction would probably be in favor of this, as any redevelopment of the site will trigger its annexation, as well as remove something perceived as perhaps old and unseemly from the rarefied urban landscape that is their vision for the Riverside Parkway corridor.

Speaking of that, both the City and Mesa County have been conspicuously silent on the closure issue. I wonder why...

The Fire Department has used some of the Regional Center campus as a training site, and the land has been mentioned as a potential location for a regional public safety training center.

The issues that I believe are truly at hand are far removed from the care and welfare of the current residents, which is unfortunate. I personally don't think that a Gov. Penry or Gov. McInnis would have decided any differently. I wish the best to those who are vigorously advocating for those whose quality of life may be in the balance, and who are unable to speak for themselves. The Sentinel's Gary Harmon reported on some valid and realistic conclusions in a piece last week.

In the meantime, I've received calls today and yesterday from Mike's caregivers in Massachusetts, as well as a representative from the State agency there that oversees his care. Luckily, nothing serious was found. Mike is improving and should be back to normal in a couple of days.

Since I took over watching over Mike's care and other issues after the rest of his family passed on, I'm often asked by people why Mike hasn't moved to Colorado to be closer to us.
My replies have been centered on the fact that Mike has lived and worked around generally the same people for over 20 years, and taking him out of that environment for what is essentially our convenience wouldn't be fair to him.

As I watch some of the dealings unfold with our state budget in recent weeks, and remember that there are so many people like Mike waiting for services here that a constitutional amendment was floated (and defeated) last year, I think that my decision remains a sound one.

Have a great day.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Public Safety - Verities, Brainstorming, and Balderdash

The Grand Junction City Council has put off asking citizens for a sales tax increase to fund a new public safety complex until at least next year. This decision illustrates the differences between practical and political expediency, particularly among an electorate that looks upon large public projects like this with a very pragmatic eye.

That action doesn't change the essential truth of the matter; Grand Junction needs new facilities for its Police and Fire Departments, even more so for the 9-1-1 and Dispatch Center that serves every citizen of Mesa County.

I've written at length about this in the past, and I don't see anything in the latest developments that gives me pause about the assertions that I've already made. The current set of circumstances seem to amplify at least two of the talking points I've identified previously.

The recent announcement of a joint graffiti abatement program between the GJPD and MCSO again raises the question of additional Regionalization and Consolidation efforts that could reduce operating costs by combining additional components of these two separate and distinct agencies.

In an area laid out as the Grand Valley is, why must there be four separate law enforcement agencies?

Why shouldn't there be a single metropolitan police force for the entire valley, or the county for that matter?

What are the practical barriers? The political obstacles?

I've also written about the design and location of a new 9-1-1 Communication Center, which deservedly appears to be at the top of the priority list of facilities needed. One idea that I put forth at that time was the location of a new 9-1-1 center apart from the proposed public safety complex, due mostly to the location of the complex in the center of an urban core area, and the hazard profile associated with such a location.

Why can't the 9-1-1 center be in an accessible but less populated area, more removed from major transportation routes and other potential hazards?

Have the respective governments explored an alternative method of funding the 9-1-1 system? An example is in Garfield County, where 9-1-1 and dispatch services are provided by a municipal authority that collects sales tax.

Would a transition to a regional or "Metro" police force ease a move to a stand-alone 9-1-1 and dispatching environment, rather than have the potential of creating conflict between incorporated towns and the county?

The continuing saga of the stalled Public Safety Initiative, and the clear need for new facilities, should serve as a signal to our local governments to start seriously thinking outside the box on how to streamline and optimize the delivery of public safety services.

Starting from the most basic assumptions, such as the structure of organizations and districts or the nature of jurisdictional boundaries, accomplishing this endeavor in a way that allows these professionals to best serve their communities in the most efficient way can only pay dividends when that demonstrated commitment to service trumps any imaginary line, parochial attitude, or uniform color.


Two stories in the Daily Sentinel this month reported several elected and appointed officials stating that they were under a federally-mandated deadline to build a new 9-1-1 center before January 1, 2013. On August 10, reporter Leroy Standish included the following as a sidebar to a story where one County Commissioner was reported as saying "the clock is ticking to get the 911 communications center built within the next two years to comply with federal law":
The Federal Communications Commission has ordered that all public safety agencies upgrade 911 communications by Jan. 1, 2013. The process is known as “narrowbanding” because it will reduce the bandwidth of channels in use, according to the FCC. If the deadline is not met, the FCC could refuse to renew the 911 communication center’s license.
This mandate has a practical impact to the 9-1-1 Center relating only to its radio systems, and nothing else. To meet the requirements of this mandate, the Communication Center would need to apply for new licenses for its existing radio frequencies before the deadline, and reconfigure or replace transmitters and receivers at tower sites across the county. Additionally, every car radio and walkie-talkie in the field would need to go through the same process.

While challenging in scope, it is highly unlikely that this would require the hasty design and construction of a new building.

Mr. Standish reported in a Sentinel story on August 18 that the governing board of the Communication Center has elected to transition to what was termed an "800 Megahertz" radio network, better known as the State of Colorado Digital Trunked Radio System, or DTRS.
The board likely does not want to put any more serious dollars into their legacy systems, and are choosing the DTRS option to avoid having to refit on the VHF band, where they currently operate.

The Communication Center is working hard to help move this transition along. They were recently awarded a $100,000 Justice Assistance Grant for the purchase of radios by their user agencies.

This approach, while likely more expensive, makes sense, especially considering that most Colorado counties surrounding Mesa County have in large part already moved to the DTRS for their daily operations.

Mr. Standish again appeared to confuse the changing out of radios with the building of a new 9-1-1 center when he stated:
"In light of the voters’ rejection of the tax proposal, city and county leaders are discussing possibly building a separate, and more costly, 911 facility in order to meet the 2013 federal deadline".
Two e-mails to Mr. Standish went without a reply.

As much as I want to see these buildings built, I would like it to be accomplished in a measured and efficient way, and not potentially hampered by misinformation or an outright distortion of the facts. A new 9-1-1 Communication Center is sorely needed. There is no doubt about that. To continue to use this FCC mandate in an attempt to expedite those efforts may be convenient, but it's not truthful.

It took federal court intervention to get an antiquated and overcrowded Mesa County Jail replaced almost 20 years ago. Prior to that, the Mesa County Sheriff and Grand Junction Police co-existed in the same city block. Can we as a community of leaders and innovators take a closer look at the way we protect all of us, and with that collective expertise and the suspension of disbelief craft a best practice in public safety that all citizens can depend on? I hope so...

Hey, it could be worse. You could be living outside Leadville, or worse yet, Phoenix. (Sorry, Dad.)

Have a good rest of the week.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bresnan Outage - Update

Over the course of the last week I had the opportunity to speak twice with Shawn Beqaj, Vice President of Public Affairs for Bresnan Communications, about last Thursday and Friday's outage that affected every Bresnan Internet and phone service customer. Every single one.

Mr. Beqaj is a very good P.R. person. He is accessible, gracious under pressure, exceedingly competent in the nature of his company's activities, and sufficiently vague when he feels he needs to be.

We spoke first about the stated root cause of the outage last week; the corruption of DNS routing tables on one of their servers that in turn sent that corrupt table to all other routing servers, resulting in what is called a broadcast storm that crippled the network.

Mr. Beqaj stated that this problem was not the result of any hacker activity.

I then asked about the relationship between Internet routing and the provision of phone service, and my concerns that the Internet was not as stable and secure as more traditional methods of telephone system connectivity.

Mr. Beqaj replied that Bresnan uses what is called a soft switch to provide dial tone and other services to its telephone customers. These switches are the bridges between what is the essential core elements of legacy circuit switched telephone networks, which use dedicated circuits for each connection made on the network, and packet switched networks, which leverage multi-modal transmission capabilities to send call traffic, along with data and other media, as packets of data that are assembled and disassembled at the server level, before being sent to their respective destinations.

Boy, was that a techie mouthful or what?

Having a basic understanding of these types of switches, I understood where Mr. Beqaj was coming from. He said that Bresnan holds itself up to any Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier, such as Qwest, with regard to the serviceability and reliability of the products and services they provide. Mr. Beqaj also stated that it was "inarguable..that redundancies in place didn't operate as anticipated" last week.

With regard to the notification of 9-1-1 centers about outages, Mr. Beqaj said that different states have different notification requirements, and that he was unaware of the exact requirements or the varying nature from state to state. He did say that Colorado has the most stringent requirements of the states that they serve. These requirements are available here.
I did verify with the PUC that the outage was reported to them as required.

I also received several e-mails regarding the earlier post about this outage, at least two from people who seem to have a greater degree of knowledge about these systems than the average person. Like so many that are already out on the web at places like DSL Reports, these posts put forth ideas about allegedly reliable backups for DNS routing and 9-1-1 availability, none of which I can independently verify or confirm based on my own knowledge, so they're not appearing here.

Mr. Beqaj displayed little patience for some of these assertions, stating in an e-mail that "..
it isn’t productive to enter into a public debate on network architecture among laypeople". He also asserted:
"Bresnan’s engineering team are among the best in the business and what’s more, the more than $1.3 billion we have spent in the infrastructure of our Rocky Mountain footprint is proof positive that this person’s insinuations are not only wrong but offensive as well."
I've worked long enough around technology to know that the most expensive systems are not necessarily the most reliable, especially if they were built for any other purpose than to optimize service to the end user. I've seen expensive trunked radio systems go up to fulfill the ego of a system administrator and the sales quota of an account executive, only to see the system scrapped well short of its intended life because it couldn't serve the needs of the public safety professionals on the other end.

This isn't to say that the Bresnan network is a boondoggle; on the contrary, the company is normally very professional and reliable, with products and services that are responsive to the customer's needs and/or desires, to the extent that applicable law and competent business practices will allow.

I do think that I pay too much, and that services should be provided with more choice available to the subscriber, For example, please deliver me from HSN, QVC, and the Jewelry Channel. I'll take Free Speech TV instead.

I'm expecting that service delivery and reliability will improve significantly in the wake of this incident, but to quote Mr. Beqaj, "the smartest, best system engineers never speak in absolutes". I'm hoping that makes them Jedi Knights, while the bean counters, who know that 2+2 = 4, are the Sith Lords.

Nevertheless, I'm making sure that the Colorado PUC is informed of my experience with this outage, and what I would like to see happen in the future. This includes:

  • Complete disclosure of the nature and cause of the failure, the corrective actions taken to address it, and what preventative measures that are planned or underway.
  • The nature of contingency plans to allow for the protection of critical infrastructure and provision of 9-1-1 service, as well as telephone access to customer service and network operations personnel.
Thanks to Shawn Beqaj for his accessibility. Have a good weekend ahead.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Health Care - Local and Personal

Air Force One over Clifton.

I spent my Saturday afternoon with an orange vest on, listening to at least three separate radios while helping to keep traffic off of F Road between 31 1/2 Rd. and the I-70 approaches while the President's motorcade passed by. There may have been over 200 officers deployed from various agencies to assist with the overall operation, but there were a lot of volunteers assisting in that role as well.

This blog is subtitled "notes from the journey". That means my journey. Regurgitating someone else's opinions, position papers, news reports, etc. may be helpful in embellishing a point or building consensus, but this issue is too close to home and too well-debated already to warrant me wasting time adding to the noise floor.

I've got lots of experience, both personal and professional, in the health care delivery system. Most of it relates to Emergency Medical Services, which is best described as a symbiotic hybrid of the health care and public safety disciplines.

Add aircraft to the mix and you incorporate the rigorous disciplines of aviation. More about that later on.

Here's what I believe must happen if we are to come anywhere near providing adequate health care to all citizens:
  • Universal coverage is essential. No one with a pre-existing condition should be excluded from obtaining health care coverage.
  • Health care coverage must be in force and accepted regardless of the location within the country or the qualified provider used.
  • A profit motive is incompatible with the provision of health insurance coverage.
I've had a front row seat to catastrophic illness, out of network care issues, hospice care, and coordination of benefits disputes, among other things. I've been fortunate to have had good health care coverage through employers, that covered the vast majority of the costs involved in many of these circumstances.

There are things that I prefer to handle myself. I choose to self-pay for my own prescriptions, because I want to be able to control where I obtain these, and in what quantities.

At this point I don't have a great deal more to share. I'll keep reading and listening to both sides, and will watch yesterday's town meeting coverage on the DVR. I can tell you one thing, though. If the debate is indeed distilling itself down to hope versus fear, count me in for hope.

Have a great day.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bresnan Outage - It's Personal

I'll try not to get too deep into the massive outage that deprived Bresnan Communications subscribers of Telephone and Internet service for the better part of 16 hours (at least in Grand Junction) on Thursday and Friday.

Shawn Beqaj, Bresnan's Vice President for Public Affairs, was a very busy man Friday, fielding comment requests from media outlets all over the Mountain West. From speaking with him previously, I know that his company is very concerned with providing efficient and reliable service, and I appreciated his candor when he detailed the root cause behind this week's problem, which related to a "corrupt routing table" on one server that cascaded to others.

I'm no IT or networking professional, but I would be interested to know if this outage was the result of hacker activity, or something else. Is it coincidental that the outage affected two of the three areas where the President is scheduled to visit? How's THAT for a conspiracy theory? Perhaps I should start making signs and listening to KNZZ. Scary...

Seriously, when dealing with a problem like this, the process surrounding the mitigation and resolution of the problem, especially as it relates to the people affected, is as equally important as any technology component that may need to be repaired. With that, I was concerned that NO local broadcast media were apparently aware of the outage when it started, or didn't think it worth mentioning as part of their Thursday evening reporting.

A friend on Facebook brought the lack of phone service, but the availability of cable TV, into real perspective on Friday morning:
Only the most life-and-death commodity they offer. If I have a medical emergency, I will die slowly, but be able to watch "Housewives of Atlanta" as I go.
I believe that any interruption of phone service is a serious matter, especially given the number of Bresnan phone service subscribers who have bought into the "reliability" message as put forward by Bresnan in their advertising. I've caught Bresnan in the past doing late night "scheduled maintenance" on their Internet and phone systems, and have let their customer service have it for not making subscribers aware in advance.

Considering the duration and scope of this particular outage, and the seeming lack of notification through the media or other means, I contacted Kate Porras, PIO for the Grand Junction Police, which also operates the county 9-1-1 center. I was curious if they had received any formal notification from Bresnan of a major outage, and if so when that notification was made.

Kate responded that the 9-1-1 center was advised on Thursday evening, but couldn't elaborate on the manner in which the notification was received, i.e. from a citizen or via a Bresnan network operations person. At about the same time as Kate spoke with me, the GJPD issued a press release that provided some rudimentary instructions for people who had no phone service and needed help.

Yes, many of us had backup in the form of cell phones, neighbors, etc. should the unthinkable have occurred during the outage. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the seemingly cavalier attitude taken by Bresnan regarding a service that is largely perceived by the public as reliable and available in the vast majority of circumstances. The same might be said for our local emergency services, who while aware of the interruption took no apparent action to inform the public until asked about it.

I'm curious as to why a corrupt routing table for a DNS (Domain Name System) routing server would compromise a telephone switch, supposedly located here in Grand Junction, which is connected through what is known as a CLEC (Competitive Local Exchange Carrier) to the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network). That's about as techie as I am willing or able to get about it, but if I find that my landline phone service is in any way dependent upon the Internet to establish connectivity, I'm going to get serious about a service change.

I think that Bresnan is going to need to do some serious follow-up with its customers. Some in the social networking cloud are calling for a credit to their bill, and I think that's reasonable. I'm hoping to hear back from Bresnan regarding some of my questions and concerns, and I'll post an update when I get it.

I'm also going to do some research through the Colorado Public Utility Commission on what resources are available through the state agency that is responsible for regulating and monitoring the activities of Telecommunications services providers doing business in Colorado.

I would have done this before posting, but as luck (?) would have it, the PUC's servers are down.

Looking forward to the President's visit this afternoon. Have a great weekend.

ADDENDUM, Sat. 8/15 10:30 AM - The PUC website is back up this morning, and has a comment and complaint page with an associated form. These pages include telephone numbers to contact the commission as well.

According to the PUC website, their jurisdiction in a matter such as this is limited to the provision of basic telephone service.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Homelessness: Two Perspectives

Grand Junction got a mention in another New York-based publication this week, but it's doubtful that anyone will be tooting their horn about this one.

The City's recent dalliance with a panhandling and solicitation ordinance was mentioned by Barbara Ehrenreich in an op-ed in this past Sunday's New York Times. The piece, titled "Is it Now a Crime to be Poor?", references a new study titled Homes Not Handcuffs: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.

This study, commissioned by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and The National Coalition for the Homeless, also identifies what it calls the ten "Meanest Cities" in terms of their treatment of the homeless and poor in their areas.

The column included stories that sound a familiar chord to those who advocate locally for what are called the "publicly poor"; targeted enforcement of petty infractions such as littering or smoking in a public park, warrant sweeps through shelters, camps, and public housing, and a resulting cycle of arrest, incarceration, and debt that is nearly impossible to get out of.

Ms. Ehrenreich summarized things nicely:
The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Be sure to harass street vendors when there are few other opportunities for employment. The experience of the poor, and especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks.
Some cities have gone so far as to criminalize the activities of their communities of faith, among others, by passing laws prohibiting the sharing of food with indigent people. Las Vegas and Orlando were mentioned specifically; perhaps the vital nature of their tourist economy was the impetus behind such a mean-spirited measure, but this is one tourist whose dollars will not be going to either of those locations, at least until those laws are repealed.

While the NYT piece was painting a picture of ongoing despair combined with draconian indifference on the part of some local governments, a story in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal offered a picture of hope and common sense for many with no other choice.

Cities Tolerate Homeless Camps showcased several initiatives that were undertaken by local governments around the country to allow tent cities in certain areas, while entering into partnerships with local non-profits and advocacy groups to coordinate the provision of municipal services to the camps.

This story also focused on efforts in Nashville and Tampa, as well as in Sacramento, where:
"legalizing the camps is more compassionate and cost-effective than forcing 'poor people who are camping because they have a lack of better choices to constantly have to fear being rousted and cited by police,' (according to) Joan Burke, advocacy director for Sacramento Loaves & Fishes, a homeless-assistance agency."
It's nice to know that there are places in this country where government can clearly recognize the nature of the problem beyond the surface appearances. With the realization that the problem will not be going away anytime soon, local governments can enter into partnerships with the non-profit community to provide for more effective service delivery.

With regard to how some of these things can be paid for, the study cited by Ms. Ehrenreich contains several examples of ways that some community partnerships are helping to fund services. One example comes from just over the hill:

"The Denver Road Home campaign began with 36 meters in March 2007; by October 2008 there were 86 meters. This initiative is part of Denver’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. The idea behind the meters is to funnel the $4 million given to homeless individuals in the city annually, as estimated by the Downtown Denver Partnership, toward agencies better equipped to distribute resources without the fear of money being used for counterproductive purposes. The meters serve two purposes - to be donation receptacles and to raise public awareness. The meters have raised close to $15,000 in coins, in addition to nearly $100,000 through private donors and businesses 'adopting' a meter. This model has had national influence and more cities have looked to emulate Denver’s example."

Here's one potential application of this idea locally; instead of not charging for parking in Downtown GJ over the Christmas holiday shopping season, earmark all proceeds from the meters, as well as all parking fines, to established non-profits and social service agencies that serve the local homeless population.

The City of Grand Junction can benefit from these lessons learned elsewhere, especially as the fall and winter grow closer, by partnering with stakeholders and looking into the feasibility of permitting a more stable and accessible location for a homeless camp, if necessary. There is no shortage of community groups that might be willing to partner with the city to provide a more stable base of services to the homeless population.

In a Christian nation, Compassion and Caring should be the benchmark of how we look after one another, instead of Criminalization and Contempt.

Have a good day.

Photo Credit: National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, The National Coalition for the Homeless

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Disorderly Conduct in GJ - Part 2

I received a call Tuesday from Kate Porras, Public Information Coordinator for the Grand Junction Police Department. She provided an update and response to my inquiry that was detailed in Monday's post, about a case in which a summons for Disorderly Conduct was issued to a Grand Junction woman for a display that appeared to fall within First Amendment protections of freedom of speech.

Ms. Porras provided me with the following background information:
  • The summons was written due to the incident being a continuation of an ongoing neighbor dispute. Since July 18, GJPD officers had responded 5 times to the area to deal with complaints directed between the same neighbors, and had fielded several phone calls as well.
  • The officer felt that the latest incident, involving the 'PSYCHO' sign, was an attempt to incite or harass the person being targeted. Rather than charge Ms. Stevenson with Harassment, a misdemeanor which would require a County Court appearance, the officer instead opted for Disorderly Conduct, which would be handled in GJ Municipal Court. It was felt that this step was necessary to "get the attention" of the persons involved.
  • The officer's report included that Ms. Stevenson had written a letter of apology to the object of her aggravation. With an "ongoing issue" such as this dispute, the goal of the Police Department is to prevent further escalation. It appears that this is the case with the incident in question.
  • This case will be brought to the attention of the City Attorney's office for further review, due in part to the attention that it has generated.
  • The Police Department is very cognizant of the need to respect and protect the First Amendment rights of those they may come into contact with.
Sounds like a tough call on the part of the officer that handled this. The dispute between the two neighbors, which began when a complaint was registered with the City and their HOA over a sanctioned block party, probably shouldn't have festered that long. According to the officer's report, the alleged victim admitted that she refused to speak with Ms. Stevenson when approached by her about the complaint letter. This apparently led to the adorning of Ms. Stevenson's truck with "PSYCHO" in front of her neighbor's house.

Colorado Revised Statutes, Section 18-9-111 (in part):
(1) A person commits harassment if, with intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person, he or she:

(a) Strikes, shoves, kicks, or otherwise touches a person or subjects him to physical contact; or

(b) In a public place directs obscene language or makes an obscene gesture to or at another person; or

(c) Follows a person in or about a public place; or

(h) Repeatedly insults, taunts, challenges, or makes communications in offensively coarse language to, another in a manner likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response.
The harassment statute doesn't seem to fit the bill either, unless you consider the word 'psycho' an example of "offensively coarse language". In the end, the officer apparently elected to use Ms. Stevenson's acceptance of her role in the incident, along with her stated regret for the situation, to make an example of her behavior in a way that would be the least problematic for her.

As much as I agree with the concept of an officer exercising discretion when faced with the various circumstances that he or she may encounter during the course of doing what is a very difficult job, I'm still having a hard time believing that the end justified the means here.

The officer's report describes the history surrounding the incident, but doesn't make reference to any ongoing dispute or multiple calls for service in the context of justifying the actions he took that day.

Under the reported circumstances, the dispute didn't seem to be so long-standing and acrimonious that it was completely intractable. The offended party also refused to talk with Ms. Stevenson, and that lack of willingness to communicate likely helped to fuel the problem.

I still think that Ms. Stevenson had every right to display her sign on the side of her truck. Like Professor Gates, she exercised her right to be a jerk. Unlike that other situation, an ongoing dispute had to be dealt with.

I know from personal experience how annoyingly stupid some of these disputes can be, and how the parties to them can be extraordinarily nasty at times. The officer must exhibit the wisdom of Solomon while endeavoring to maintain order.

While the ticket that Ms. Stevenson received seemed to be the path of least resistance toward resolving this particular dispute, it's little incursions like this into the slippery slope of the Bill of Rights that threaten to set dangerous precedents for the future.

Thanks to the Police Department for their response to my questions. May they receive sage direction and advice from the City Attorney in this area.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Disorderly Conduct in Grand Junction

'Psycho’ sign nets ticket

A northeast Grand Junction woman decided one word would speak louder than violent actions Thursday when she parked her car in front of a neighbor’s house with “Psycho” written in parchment paper on the side of her vehicle.

Grand Junction police said they cited Wini Stevenson, 53, for disorderly conduct after she parked her car in front of a neighbor’s home to protest the neighbor complaining to their homeowner’s association about a block party.

- Police Blotter, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, August 1, 2009

A week ago, while working on a previous post about a similar topic, this blurb from the newspaper jumped out at me. Something didn't seem right; I wondered what extenuating circumstances may have existed to warrant a criminal citation for what would normally be just an ill-advised, rude, and largely pointless, but not illegal gesture.

Given the timeliness of these questions to what was a national point of discussion, I decided to obtain a copy of the police report for the incident, which in most cases is permitted under the Colorado Open Records Act. The report accurately detailed the summary in the newspaper account.

The officer wrote that he "issued Stevenson a municipal summons for disorderly conduct for directing derogatory language" at her neighbor. The officer added in his narrative, "Stevenson's attitude continued to be positive and truthful. She answered each question I asked her and was totally cooperative throughout my entire contact with her."

It sounds like Ms. Stevenson didn't give the officer a hard time at all. I really started wondering about how a sign on a car, or in a window, or being carried on a public sidewalk, without any associated belligerent behavior on the part of anyone, could be a crime.

If I were to walk in front of a local used car lot with a sign that says "XYZ AUTO SELLS LEMONS", this could be considered "derogatory language" by the business owner, and he could seek relief in the civil courts if he saw fit. But is it a criminal act?

Here is a picture of the few pro-health care reform citizens who showed up at Saturday's
rally against the current health care proposal being considered in Washington.

What if one of these signs had just the word "PSYCHO" on it? Would that be considered "derogatory language"? Would the officer in the picture have probable cause to cite that person for Disorderly Conduct?

What is the difference between this lawful expression of free speech rights, and what happened above?

I posed this question last Tuesday to both the Colorado Chapter of the ACLU and to Kate Porras, Public Information Coordinator for the Grand Junction Police Department.

Perhaps it would be good to review what the applicable laws actually say about Disorderly Conduct.

Colorado Revised Statutes, Section 18-9-106 (in part):
(1) A person commits disorderly conduct if he or she intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly:

(a) Makes a coarse and obviously offensive utterance, gesture, or display in a public place and the utterance, gesture, or display tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace;
Grand Junction City Code, Section 24-4 (in part):
A person commits disorderly conduct if he knowingly:

(1) Addresses abusive language or threats to any person present which creates a clear and present danger of violence.
I think that if a reasonable person looks at what the law says, and how it relates to the account at the top of this post, there appears to be a disconnect. Mark Silverstein, the ACLU Of Colorado's Legal Director, replied to my question with the following:
As described in the Sentinel, the actions of the Grand Junction woman are not disorderly conduct nor any other crime; she engaged in free speech that is protected by the Constitution. There is a narrow exception to the First Amendment for so-called "fighting words," but the display of a sign under the circumstances described here does not qualify as "fighting words."
I have yet to receive a reply from Ms. Porras. She did say that she would get back to me, and it's understandable that her workload may have prevented a more expedient response. The announcement of a new interim Police Chief, activities surrounding National Night Out, and preparations for a Presidential visit were likely all on her calendar last week, along with the usual incident stuff. I'll post an update with her reply when I receive it.

I felt it necessary to complete this post without her contribution, because there are timely issues relating to the use and enforcement of laws like this one that need to be discussed.

First and foremost, we the people need to remember that the rights conveyed by the Constitution apply to all citizens, regardless of race, cultural or political background, or perceived socio-economic status. I say "perceived" because of this story from last week.

Second, when any attempt is made to use vague statutes like Disorderly Conduct to quell or restrict appropriate free speech, it needs to be called out for what it is. The recent attempt to criminalize solicitation and panhandling in Grand Junction is one example.

Another example was in a local response to the tumult that has erupted at various congressional town meetings across the country, orchestrated by opponents of the health care reform package. Grand Junction blogger and attorney Bill Hugenberg offered the following in a recent blog post:
Under the law, “(1) A person commits disorderly conduct if he or she intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly: . . . (c) Makes unreasonable noise in a public place . . .” In People v Fitzgerald, 194 Colo. 415, 573 P.2d 100 (1978), the Colorado Supreme Court interpreted the foregoing language as follows: Section 18-9-106(1)(c) cannot, consistent with First Amendment rights, be construed to prohibit automatically all speech which might disturb people even when the speaker had that intent. . . . However, the state may act to prohibit, consistent with the First Amendment, the use of the human voice to disturb others when there is no substantial effort to communicate or when the seeming communication is used as a guise to accomplish disruption (emphasis added).
I'm not in favor of law enforcement trying to wade through a morass like this; their job is hard enough already. As I see it, if those disrupting a meeting won't cooperate, then they should be asked to leave. If they won't, then trespass them.

As if we haven't seen enough of disorderly conduct issues in recent weeks, we in Grand Junction get to explore these limits a little more as part of what constitutes Critical Mass for the civil liberties crowd; a visit from the President of the United States. Even this pales in comparison to what some of my friends in Pittsburgh are busy preparing for; a G-20 Summit.

Recent local history surrounding these types of visits has seen local law enforcement exercising admirable restraint in the vast majority of circumstances, acting only when obviously necessary. Let's hope that this practice translates to everyday operations, with appropriate action where needed, and respect for established rights being the clearly established norm.

Have a great week ahead.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Solar Rethink

Good news today, in the wake of this afternoon's PUC hearing to consider Xcel Energy's request for a rate hike.

Xcel informed the state yesterday that it was stripping from its request a controversial fee that would have levied an additional charge on customers with solar power systems tied into the power grid. Seems that the pressure exerted from the public, solar consumers and installers, and the Governor's Energy Office caused Xcel to rethink this part of their request.

The Denver Business Journal delivered a very balanced and thorough account of the issues surrounding the fee. It included some of Xcel's concerns regarding what they perceive as a free ride that solar is getting. Here's a sample:

Since many solar-powered customers don’t have a monthly bill, they don’t pay embedded costs for things such as power plants, transmission lines, or equipment upgrades at power plants that are aimed at improving air quality, (Xcel spokesman Tom) Henley said.

They also don’t pay fuel costs associated with generating electricity at night, or pay into the “Solar*Rewards” fund that Xcel uses to pay rebates for new solar power systems, Henley said.

Regardless of what you think of the future of solar power, I've read about some of the advances. Japanese companies such as Kyocera and Sharp are making significant strides in the area of lightweight, flexible, and cost-effective solar arrays, and the less you draw from the grid to run your things, the less money Xcel makes, or at least they think so.

So with all parties understanding what each other wants and has planned for the future, it's prudent to share those things with concerned citizens, business owners, utilities, and those otherwise engaged in noteworthy activity to reduce Colorado's carbon emissions in the form of fossil fuels to generate power.

Then again, today's PUC hearing could be crashed by the body-snatched drones of talk radio, shouting over people that solar power is a socialist plot to weaken the oil and coal producers so that they can be more easily nationalized by the non-native-born occupant of the White House...

Time to get some sleep.

Gates v. Crowley - The Real Lesson

One should not be subject to arrest merely for berating an officer (particularly at one's own home). Disorderly conduct statutes tend to be vague and amorphous, allowing police officers to use them against those who annoy them. This is contrary to the concepts of free speech.
Amid the media circus that played out ad nauseam last week over the Professor Gates and Cambridge Police issue, I've found some little tidbits of wisdom that highlight what I consider the biggest issue that the incident has brought up; the relationship of the incident to the First Amendment right to free speech, and the use of 'disorderly conduct' laws on a punitive basis by law enforcement.

Don't get me wrong; by all accounts, Professor Gates acted inappropriately, and has been called out by many for doing so. The question being brought up in many places is, do we as citizens have the constitutional right to act in such a manner, so long as there is no imminent danger to others?

Judging from many commentators and other media outlets, there is wide latitude available to police when they are attempting to address a problem, and feel the need to resolve the problem by taking someone into custody and charging them with "Disorderly Conduct" or the local equivalent. Here is a sampling of what is out there:

Harvey Silverglate, writing in Forbes magazine:
Today, the law recognizes only four exceptions to the First Amendment's protection for free speech: (1) speech posing the "clear and present danger" of imminent violence or lawless action...(2) disclosures threatening "national security," (3) "obscenity" and (4) so-called "fighting words" that would provoke a reasonable person to an imminent, violent response.

There is a serious problem in this country: Police are overly sensitive to insults from those they confront. And one can hardly blame the confronted citizen, especially if the citizen is doing nothing wrong when confronted by official power. This is, after all, a free country, and if "free" means anything meaningful, it means being left alone--especially in one's own home--when one is not breaking the law.

Sgt. Crowley had every right to check on what was reported as a possible break and entry. But as soon as he realized that the occupant was entitled to be in the house, he should have left. He admits in his own police report that he was indeed able to ascertain Professor Gates' residency and hence right to be in the house.

Vikram David Amar, writing on Findlaw:

...this brings us to the likely real basis for the disorderly conduct arrest: Sergeant Crowley was being yelled at and accused of racism within view and earshot of many other police officers and members of the community, and that kind of disrespect and accusation angered and embarrassed him.

Being angry is natural when a person is being yelled at and accused of evil. But as the Supreme Court has made clear in a number of cases (largely from the 1970s and 1980s), police officers cannot invoke vague and open-ended laws like "disorderly conduct" ordinances simply because police are being unfairly berated.

As free speech champion Justice William Brennan explained for the (U.S. Supreme) Court two decades ago in a seminal case in this line of decisions, Houston v. Hill, "contrary to the city's contention, the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers. 'Speech is often provocative and challenging.... [But it] is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.'"
Grand Junction-area blogger and self-described "individualist" John Wilkenson wrote an exhaustive piece about the incident, and how it illustrates the current nature of freedom in America. One of its subtitles, "Jerk vs. Jerk" seemed to sum the whole thing up nicely, but Mr. Wilkenson made an excellent concise point or two as well:
I suspect Crowley became angry when Gates repeatedly and vigorously insisted that Crowley give Gates his name and badge number. Obviously 4th Amendment probable cause law was on Gates' side, and Crowley, for whatever reason, was unable or unwilling to simply ratchet down and walk away saying, "Thank you. We're glad everything is OK. Have a nice evening." But that's not what cops do. Cops tend not to ratchet down. They most often tend to take control, even if that means making a knowingly unconstitutional arrest in prima facie violation of the 4th Amendment's probable cause requirements and relevant 1st Amendment free speech law.
Over the last week, several mainstream media outlets, from Time Magazine to the Los Angeles Times, have explored the issue of Disorderly Conduct laws and how they are used by police. This was a refreshing change from the knee-jerk litany about racial profiling, class, and beer that dominated most of the reporting I saw.

In any case, the discourse about what is called "contempt of cop" in some circles has generated increased interest in what differences exist between what police are trained to do, what they try to do, and what they actually can do in certain situations.

I hope to explore in greater detail later this week the application of Disorderly Conduct laws in Colorado, with emphasis on some of our local West Slope resources and jurisdictions.

Have a good rest of the week.

Monday, August 03, 2009

An Inconvenient Tale

After the tragic events in Montrose a little over a week ago, I happened upon a link to a police mug shot of Dennis Gurney, the man that killed Sgt. David Kinterknecht and wounded two other Montrose officers before taking his own life.

After the initial shock, I was struck with questions about the kind of tortured soul that resided inside what was literally a mask of scar tissue. What limited information that was available indicated that he had several recent run-ins with local law enforcement, with a history of alcohol-fueled violence against his wife. The circumstances surrounding Mr. Gurney's disfigurement were usually limited to one sentence, that he had been burned in an oil rig fire in the 1980's.

With our deserving final respects paid and Sgt. Kinterknecht laid to rest, I was surprised that any segment of the media would choose to focus so soon on the life and times of Dennis Gurney. But there it was, on the front page of Sunday's Denver Post.

West slope-based reporter Nancy Lofholm detailed the very things I was looking for. The circumstances surrounding the drill rig mishap in 1980 that left Mr. Gurney burned over 3/4 of his body. His family's relocation to Montrose, and his assimilation into that community. The dark cloud of depression, band-aided with medications and alcohol, and his tragic end a week ago Saturday.

The comments on the story understandably ran the gamut; from a desire to understand, to the extent that we can, how trauma shaped Dennis Gurney, to those all too quick to judge him, his wife, and the Post, unable to see past the "psycho cop killer" label. Add a little flame war to muck it up all the more, and you have a pretty classic example of Internet discourse in this country.
Fortunately, a diamond in the rough stood out:
While there can never be a valid justification for anyone taking another person's life, the Post was right in presenting another side to Dennis Gurney's sad and painful life rather than just allowing him to be remembered as another psycho abuser and cop killer. There is a story behind every single person who eventually ends up as an alcoholic, drug addict, abuser or cop killer. Unfortunately, most of them are never told. It takes a willingness to be subjected to criticism such as the kind we are seeing in this discussion to present another side to a "cop killer's" personality and I commend the Post for having the courage to do so on this occasion.
As it happens, there was another, much more comprehensive report about a group of citizens who engaged in substance abuse and violent behavior after being involved in a lengthy traumatic experience.

The Colorado Springs Gazette is getting national attention for a two-part series published last week titled Casualties of War. The series focuses on the alarming number of violent crimes committed in the Colorado Springs area by military personnel, with emphasis on a single Army infantry battalion based at Fort Carson.

The two stories are filled with graphic descriptions of battle, atrocities alleged to have been committed on innocent Iraqis by American soldiers, and numerous random violent acts stateside. It's worth a complete read.

Now the Army, for the first time, will be watching the soldiers at Fort Carson for signs of PTSD.

A recurrent statement during soldier interviews for the Gazette story is how there is a "stigma" or "culture" in the Army that views asking for help in coping with the rigors of war as a sign of weakness. There's a common thread here to what I've seen among public safety personnel who I assisted during my time as a Peer Debriefer for a CISM team in Pittsburgh.

The mantra for me was, "Hey, you're a human being, complete with strengths, weaknesses, with unique experiences that help to shape how you react to bad things when they happen. Get this; somewhere, someone has dealt with the things you're dealing with. You're not alone."

Coupled with a greater social and cultural acceptance (particularly among men) of the need to communicate with professionals about emotional problems, is the need for readily available mental health services, more robust than trying to mask a problem with something like Zoloft or Xanax.

Yes, Dennis Gurney did a horrible thing. He is receiving an eternal judgment far greater than any of us could impose. Some of the soldiers returning from multiple deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan did terrible things, too. We as a society need to remember and understand; it will be a victory for responsible, well-rounded journalism if these stories help to begin that process.

Have a good week.