Mysterious Bay Area Criminal Organization Had Nationwide Reach, Law Enforcement Impostor, Ties to Shootings and Notorious Murder, Feds Say

On April 13, 2020, a white Jeep Cherokee pulled up alongside a Honda containing Antioch resident Kameron Booth and one other person as it drove past the 23rd Street exit on Interstate 880, then opened fire.

Mortally wounded from gunfire, Booth pulled over, stumbled to the trunk, and in desperation offered a passing motorist $10,000 for a task: He said he had $400,000 in cash that needed to be delivered to another person. Before he could hand over the money, Booth collapsed. Paramedics rushed him to a hospital but he died from his injuries two weeks later.

Booth’s killing remains unsolved, but this month federal prosecutors in Sacramento revealed a bombshell: Just four days before the shooting, an Alameda County prosecutor received a call from a woman claiming to be a U.S. Attorney, inquiring about Booth. Days after the shooting, the same woman called a CHP officer, claiming to be with the DEA, and revealed information that had never been released to the public.

That woman, according to federal prosecutors, was the co-leader of a mysterious criminal organization that has been officially linked to identity theft, marijuana trafficking in several states, and EDD fraud during the COVID-19 pandemic. But court records reveal the investigation also involves unsolved violent crimes, guns hidden in secret compartments, and attempts to retrieve souped-up classic cars that had been seized by law enforcement.

The alleged leaders of the organization are a man named Quinten Moody, 37, of Dublin, and a woman named Myra Minks, 46. Minks, Moody’s onetime girlfriend, is accused of repeatedly impersonating law enforcement officials, including in the calls related to Booth’s homicide. The third defendant, Jessica Tang, 48, of Sacramento, is charged with EDD fraud, but she’s best known for her role in a notorious East Bay murder from 1999.

An indictment against the trio, filed June 16, includes charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana to “California, Georgia, Nevada, Texas, and elsewhere,” false impersonation of an officer, aggravated identity theft, and mail fraud. Most of the charges are aimed at Minks and Moody, while Tang is accused of committed EDD fraud by filling out false unemployment forms in other people’s names.

Moody remains in federal custody in Sacramento, while Tang has been released on a $50,000 bond, court records show. Minks was arrested June 21 in Nevada and is in custody there, pending extradition to Sacramento, where a federal magistrate will decide whether to free her or keep her in jail while the case is pending.

Minks’ past criminal history include other attempts at impersonation, including identity theft. In 2005, she was charged in an alleged identity theft scheme that involved her and another person allegedly buying jewelry with a victim’s credit card. Minks’ co-defendant later escaped from the Sonoma County jail; the complaint alleges the two “discussed arrangements” for the escape beforehand. The charges were dropped a month after they were filed, but Minks was later convicted and sentenced to federal prison for an unrelated fraud scheme, records show.

In 1999, then-Pinole residents Raymond Wong and Tang allegedly murdered and mutilated 21-year-old Alice Sin, dumping her body in a Nevada desert and staging the crime scene to appear as though it was committed by a racist hate group. Wong was dating both women; police believe the motive was related to the love triangle. In 2011, both were charged with murder. Tang pleaded guilty to accessory and received probation and community service, while Wong was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 50 years to life.

Moody, meanwhile, has twice dodged serious criminal convictions. He was accused of beating his then-wife with a blunt object in Alameda County in 2014, but the charges were dropped when the alleged victim’s attorney showed up in court and said she didn’t desire prosecution. In 2010, he beat a federal gun possession case when a judge ruled two U.S. Park officers illegally searched his car, where they found a pistol hidden in a secret compartment, court records show.

The charging documents describe Minks as a daring impostor of law enforcement officials, alleging she claimed to be a U.S. Attorney, a member of the Secret Service, an FBI agent, a DEA agent — also an airline employee — and that she and Moody drafted forged property release orders to obtain vehicles that had been seized by law enforcement. For instance, in October 2020 Minks allegedly called the Colma police department, posing as a Secret Service agent, and asked them to release a Jeep that had been seized from one of Moody’s associates, Gregory Bell, four months earlier.

Federal prosecutors are targeting Bell as well. He currently faces federal gun possession charges in San Francisco and Atlanta. Court records allege that he and Moody were arrested in Roseville in June 2021, after police there attempted to pull over a car containing both men at the direction of the FBI. Moody, the driver, allegedly sped away from police, reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour, before they both were arrested. Bell’s phone reportedly contained a video of him and another man shooting guns at a Georgia gun range.

Prosecutors also allege that in 2019 Bell possessed a pistol — later linked to nonfatal shootings in Oakland and San Francisco — that was found in the hidden compartment of a white Jeep. During a search of his home, authorities allegedly found an unregistered “assault pistol” loaded with 100 rounds, as well as 40 pounds of marijuana.

Some of Minks’ alleged impersonations appeared to be attempts to sniff out federal informants. On April 27, 2020, she allegedly called a federal prosecutor in Georgia, posing as U.S. Attorney “Cynthia Lee” in the Bay Area to inquire about a person referred to as “Associate 1” that had been cooperating with the government, naming Moody as a marijuana trafficker. The Georgia prosecutor allegedly confirmed the existence of an investigation involving Associate 1 and Moody, then discovered there were no federal prosecutors named Cynthia Lee in the Bay Area.

Three weeks earlier, when Minks allegedly called the Alameda County DA’s office, the focus of the call was Booth, according to federal authorities. A DA spokeswoman declined to comment on specifics and DA Nancy O’Malley didn’t return an email seeking comment.

When Booth was gunned down four days after the call, it wasn’t his first shootout, nor the first time he’d been caught with huge amounts of cash. In November 2018, Kameron Booth and his brother, Kyle Booth, were arrested and charged with gun and marijuana possession after they were involved in a gun battle in San Leandro. Police searched their Hayward home and found nearly $2 million in cash and 180 pounds of marijuana, as well as a pound of marijuana and about $43,000 in their car.

Kyle Booth was shot and killed four months before his brother, in Atlanta. Police say Kyle Booth and another California resident, Byron Edwards, were driving through the northeastern district of the Georgia capital when another car pulled alongside them and opened fire, killing both men. Authorities have not announced any arrests in the double homicide, nor publicly revealed a motive beyond saying the victims appear to have been targeted.

Click here to read the full article in the Mercury News

Los Angeles DA Recall Closes In On Needed Signatures 50 Days Before Deadline

The Recall DA George Gascon campaign announced on Wednesday that more than 450,000 signatures have been collected as of May 13th, closing in quickly on the 566,857 needed and the safety goal of 800,000 that the group wants to submit to the LA County Registrar in 50 days.

The second petition to recall Gascon has seen an explosion of support in recent months, especially when compared to the first petition. Following the election in 2020, Gascon, who previously was the DA of San Francisco, quickly instituted several so-called “reforms,” including ending policies that had juveniles being tried as adults, many crimes reduced to misdemeanors or having jail time reduced, and the removal of cash bail for most crimes despite California voters voting to keep it in 2020 in Prop 25. However, these policies led to criminals being emboldened and rising crime in the County, despite the COVID pandemic. Crime rates went up in everything from homicides to robberies. A petition was started up last year, but it fizzled out by October.

Supporters vowed to get another petition in place, and were emboldened by the smash and grab crime spree in LA and San Francisco in late 2021. With the public more aware of Gascon’s policies, more and more people began voicing opposition against Gascon. Entire City Councils, including the Beverly Hills City Council, voted outright in favor of his recall, and more than 30 cities in the County voted no confidence in him. The successful signature effort in San Francisco to recall their DA, Chesa Boudin, also encouraged many to give it a second chance.

In late January the second petition was approved by the County. With high crime, a lack of prosecution attempts against criminals, crime victims believing that the DA supports the criminals more than them, and previous petition factors being amplified, the 2022 petition quickly garnered signatures. Many lawmakers and political candidates immediately threw their support behind the recall, and by mid-March over 125,000 signatures were collected.

Over 450,000 signatures collected so far

On Wednesday, that figure shot up by over 300,000 signatures. As recall supporters are to send out more petitions to millions of LA County residents ahead of the June 7th primary, the recall campaign is now on track to not only meet the 566,857 needed signature line of 10% of all county voters, but is also likely to hit the 800,000 safety figure to account for double signatures, invalid signatures, and other factors that may result in their signature being removed.

“With 50 days to go, we are continuing to see increases in signature collection and anticipate additional bumps as our mail program is fully deployed,” the Recall DA George Gascon campaign said on Wednesday. “We are on the cusp of qualifying this recall and positioned exactly where we need to be to hit our goals within the remaining timeframe.  If residents and community leaders continue to step up, this will be the beginning of the end of George Gascon’s reign of terror over Los Angeles.”

Experts noted that other outside factors may only increase the number of signatures in the final stretch of collection days until the deadline in early July.

“Crime continues to play the big reason people are signing the petition. That and Gascon not prosecuting or going after criminals,” said James Long, a neighborhood safety planner in Los Angeles, to the Globe on Wednesday. “I mean, he is, but to nowhere near where he should be, not with crime this high and those arrested just walking out.”

“But that Boudin recall up in San Francisco has been encouraging to many. Outside at petition signature gatherings, one of the oddest groups of people who have come out in support of the recall have been former San Francisco residents who moved here. They still see the news from back home, and they have seen that Boudin is now all but certain to be recalled next month. To them, that’s amazing. They’ve seen how wrong things have become in both cities, and hey, if San Francisco can recall their guy, so can LA.”

Click here to read the full article at the California Globe

Homeowner Shot During Apparent Break-In At Riverside Residence

A Riverside homeowner was shot but is expected to survive after confronting three possible burglars inside his house early Sunday morning, police said.

The apparent break-in occurred sometime around 4:40 a.m. in the 18000 block of Moss Road, Officer Ryan Railsback, a spokesman for Riverside police, said.

“They did break into the home and then they were confronted by the homeowner,” Railsback said. “That’s when they shot him.”

It wasn’t clear how the trio got into the home. And police did not say how many times they shot the homeowner.

The suspects fled before police arrived. When officers got to the residence, they found the homeowner alive and took him to a hospital, where he was recovering Sunday.

Railsback said he didn’t know if the trio took anything from the home. And he said detectives are trying to determine if Sunday’s break-in was connected to other similar crimes in the same area over the last month.

There have been at least two other home burglaries in the sprawling neighborhoods just to the west of Mission Grove since April.

“It’s obvious that these are all near each other,” Railsback said. “Right now our detectives have been investigating … to determine if these are related or not. But right now at this point we can’t say if they are.”

Click here to read the full article at the Press-Enterprise

Churchgoers Hogtie Gunman After 1 Killed, 5 Wounded at Laguna Woods Church

A gunman killed one person and wounded five others at a Taiwanese luncheon in a Laguna Woods church on Sunday, then was tackled by churchgoers who hogtied his legs with extension cords, officials said.

The crowd also managed to take two handguns away from him, said Orange County Undersheriff Jeff Hallock.

“That group of churchgoers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism and bravery,” Hallock said.

The five wounded – four of them critically – range in age from 66 to 92.

The man’s name was not released Sunday, but Hallock described him as  Asian in his 60s, and not believed to live in the area. Any connection to the church wasn’t known.

Dispatchers received a call of a shooting inside Geneva Presbyterian Church at 1:26 p.m., Sheriff’s officials said. The church is located at 24301 El Toro Road.

The Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church was holding a banquet in the church at the time of the shooting.

The lone fatal victim, described only as a man, died inside the church, officials said. The others with critical injuries, all adults, were rushed to local hospitals. A sixth person had minor injuries.

Hallock said the suspect pulled out at least one of his handguns and started firing during the luncheon, when around 30 to 40 people were inside the church.

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

DA Gascón Won’t Bargain Because of Recall Support, Prosecutors Union Says

‘His authoritarian approach demeans the oath he took and the office he holds. It’s bullying, not leadership,’ claims the union leadership

A union representing about 700 prosecutors has filed a complaint with the Los Angeles County Employee Relations Commission alleging District Attorney George Gascón is refusing to engage in collective bargaining because its members overwhelmingly support efforts to recall him.

An unfair labor practice charge filed April 27 by the Association of Deputy District Attorneys claims the Gascon administration “has simply ignored the ADDA’s request for mid-term bargaining and has failed to provide the bargaining related material requested by the Union.”

“It is of note that there has been absolutely no response from the Gascón administration, not a phone call, not a letter, not an email; neither has the Gascón administration taken issue with the legitimacy of the union’s request for mid-term bargaining; nor has the administration voiced any objections to the material requested by the union,” the filing stated.

The ADDA contends Gascón, in violation of city law and city ordinances, is retaliating against the union because 98% of its members voted in February to endorse efforts to recall him.

Organizers of the recall effort have collected 400,000 of the needed 566,000 signatures required by July 6 to put the measure on the ballot  Additionally, more than 30 Los Angeles County cities have take votes of “no confidence” in Gascón.

The union is requesting that the Employee Relations Commission order Gascón’s administration to participate in bargaining and provide materials needed for those negotiations.

According to the ADDA, bargaining is necessary to resolve:

  • Increasing the number of Grade IV deputy district attorneys.
  • Compensatory time.
  • Special pay adjustment for selected Grade IV deputy district attorneys.
  • Issues involving environmental protocols and metal detectors.

“George Gascón broke the law within the first five minutes of his administration,” ADDA Vice President Eric Siddall said Wednesday, May 4. “His contempt for the judiciary and the rule of law continues to this day. Now he is engaged in anti-labor activity. His authoritarian approach demeans the oath he took and the office he holds. It’s bullying, not leadership … plain and simple.”

The District Attorney’s Office referred questions about the filing to the Los Angeles County Chief Executive Office, which responded that it “does not generally comment on ongoing labor negotiations.”

The ADDA has been at odds with Gascón since his election in late 2020 amid promises of sweeping social justice reforms, which prompted several lawsuits. The union sued Gascón in December 2020 to block some of his directives it considers illegal.

Specifically, the suit focuses on the elimination of some sentencing enhancements, including the “three strikes” law — enacted by California voters in 1994 to add prison time to the terms of previously convicted felons.

“While an elected district attorney has wide discretion in determining what charges to pursue in an individual case, that discretion does not authorize him or her to violate the law or to direct attorneys representing the district attorney’s office to violate the law,” ADDA President Michele Hanisee said in a statement.

More than a half-dozen prosecutors have filed lawsuits alleging they were retaliated against and demoted for refusing to carry out Gascón’s  policies.

In December 2021, former Head Deputy Richard Doyle received an $800,000 settlement from Los Angeles County after claiming retribution from Gascón’ for refusing to drop charges against three anti-police protesters accused of attempting to wreck a train in Compton.

In the latest lawsuit, filed April 25 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Deputy District Attorneys Peter Cagney, Richard Todd Hicks, Mindy Paige and Karen Thorp allege Gascón retaliated against them for refusing to carry out his resentencing directives.

“Each plaintiff either opposed or disclosed to their supervisors that laws were being violated if they followed Gascon’s hastily conceived new resentencing guidelines, and that prison inmates that posed a serious and dangerous risk to society would be or were released from prison,” the suit says.

“Gascon’s policies effectively required prosecutors to unlawfully hide the truth from the courts by mischaracterizing many violent offenses and hiding the inmate’s propensity for violence, and danger to the community if given an early release from prison, from the courts and resentencing judges.”

Click here to read the full article at the LA Daily News

Killings In L.A. Are On Pace To Top Last Year’s High

People are being killed in Los Angeles so far this year at a slightly faster pace than 2021, when homicides hit a 15-year high, according to the latest data from Los Angeles police.

While the newly released figures indicate the dramatic escalation in violence that the city experienced in 2020 and 2021 may be leveling off, they show violent deaths are still occurring far more frequently than a few years ago, experts said.

“We certainly see instances of street violence that we tie into gangs, with a lot of ready and easy access to handguns and rifles,” LAPD Chief Michel Moore said in an interview with The Times. “It’s resulting in this loss of life and this high frequency of shootings.”

Through April 30, there had been 122 homicides in L.A., six more than were recorded during the same time period in 2021, according to the data. Last year ended with 397 killings in the city, the largest annual total since 2006.

The bloodshed remains far below that of the early 1990s, when the city had more than 1,000 homicides per year. But it nonetheless marked another uptick, however slight, in the troubling surge of gun violence that erupted in 2020 and has become a top concern among residents as well as a key issue in the race for the city’s next mayor.

While up only marginally compared to 2021, this year’s homicide count represents about a 40% increase in killings over the same period in 2020, which included the final months before COVID-19 emerged in the U.S., protests over the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd erupted and the crime landscape radically changed in cities across the nation.

While the rest of the year could see a significant decrease in the rate of killings, the numbers so far likely scuttle any hope that the city would find a way to return to pre-pandemic levels of gun violence, experts said.

Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based crime analyst whose firm AH Datalytics maintains an online database of homicide totals in 71 U.S. cities, said homicides nationally were down slightly less than 1% overall through March — which was similar to where L.A. stood at the time. 

While some cities have seen big increases in killings this year and others big drops, Asher said the data so far suggest the rapid increases in killings across the country in the latter half of 2020 and in 2021 have peaked.

“It’s plausible that things sort of leveled out at this new, elevated level of murders,” Asher said. “What we’re looking for: Is this a plateau, or are things going to come down? Or are they going to keep rising?” Asher said.

In L.A., the level of killing has fluctuated. A drop in homicides at the start of the year, which was cause for cautious optimism, was offset by a spike in killings in recent weeks. Homicides were down 25% through January, compared to 2021, but that decline had narrowed to 13% by the end of March. Then, there were 36 homicides in April, a month which saw only 21 killings last year, Moore said.

Moore said the violence was driven in part by a cluster of shootings in the city’s 77th Division, where disputes among gangs appeared to be escalating into gun violence. Of the 36 homicides in the city in April, 11 were in the 77th, Moore said.

Moore said killings were also occurring within the city’s large homeless population, with more than a fifth of all 2022 killings involving a homeless victim. Moore said he didn’t have information on how many suspects in this year’s killings were unhoused since many killings remain unsolved.

Moore said the “overarching effort” among police now is “to try to quell further acts of violence” by working with gang intervention workers and other community leaders to quell disputes and perceived insults that may spur gang shootings, as well as by adding investigative resources to identify and arrest suspects. 

Click here to read the full article at LA Times

LA sheriff Investigates How Reporter Obtained Leaked Video

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles County sheriff on Tuesday disputed allegations he orchestrated a cover-up of an incident where a deputy knelt on a handcuffed inmate’s head and said a Los Angeles Times reporter who used leaked documents and video to first report on the case is part of his criminal investigation.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s comments at a news conference Tuesday brought immediate criticism from the newspaper’s leadership and First Amendment advocates. Hours later, the sheriff clarified in a series of tweets that his agency has “no interest in pursuing, nor are we pursuing, criminal charges against any reporters.”

The paper’s general counsel sent a letter to the sheriff protesting the investigation and the top editor condemned Villanueva’s remarks, calling it an illegal “attempt to criminalize news reporting.”

“Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s attack on Alene Tchekmedyian’s First Amendment rights for doing newsworthy reporting on a video that showed a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s head is outrageous,” Executive Editor Kevin Merida said in a statement. “We will vigorously defend Tchekmedyian’s and the Los Angeles Times’ rights in any proceeding or investigation brought by authorities.”

The incident with the inmate occurred in a county courthouse on March 10, 2021 — two days after jury selection began for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who was convicted of murder for pressing his knee against George Floyd’s neck for up to 9 1/2 minutes.

The video shows Deputy Douglas Johnson directing inmate Enzo Escalante to move up against a wall in the courthouse. Escalante swings at Johnson and punches him repeatedly in the face. Three other deputies help Johnson wrestle Escalante to the ground and handcuff him.

The LA Times reported that Johnson had his knee on Escalante’s head for more than three minutes, even after the inmate had been handcuffed, placed face-down and did not appear to be resisting. Escalante — who was awaiting trial on murder and other charges — was taken to the hospital for treatment of minor injuries.

Johnson was removed from duty months later and is under criminal investigation, Villanueva said during Tuesday’s news conference. No charges have been filed against the deputy.

Escalante has pleaded not guilty to two counts of resisting an officer. He is being represented by the public defender’s office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Escalante has filed a federal lawsuit against members of the sheriff’s department, including Villanueva, that alleges his civil rights were violated.

On Monday, Commander Allen Castellano filed a legal claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, that accused Villanueva of first blocking and stalling the investigation into Johnson’s use of force, and then working to cover up the incident and retaliating against whistleblowers.

Villanueva, who oversees the nation’s largest sheriff’s department, is up for reelection and Castellano’s claim states the sheriff was seeking to avoid bad publicity during his campaign.

The sheriff on Tuesday said he did not see the video until eight months after the incident, but Castellano wrote in his claim that Villanueva had viewed it within days.

Villanueva called Castellano a “disgruntled employee” who made “false claims.” The sheriff also said the video obtained by the Times was “stolen property that was removed illegally” and “all parties” to the act are subject to his investigation of the leak.

“She received the information and then she put it to her own use,” he said, referring to Tchekmedyian. “What she receives legally and puts to her own use and what she receives illegally and the LA Times uses it, I’m pretty sure that’s a huge complex area of law and freedom of the press and all that. However, when it’s stolen material, at some point you have to become part of the story.”

During his news conference Villanueva displayed photos of Tchekmedyian, LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman and former sheriff’s Commander Eli Vera under the heading: WHAT DID THEY KNOW AND WHEN DID THEY KNOW IT?

Click here to read the full article at AP News

Beverly Hills Increases Surveillance

Travel along Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills and digital eyes follow you. The same goes for Olympic Boulevard. And Rodeo Drive. And more.

For years, the Los Angeles enclave synonymous with exclusivity and privilege has been building a network of surveillance cameras that today covers much of its bustling shopping district and many residential areas.

The city has about 2,000 closed-circuit cameras — nearly 1 for every 17 residents — along with others at many intersections that snap photos of drivers going through red lights, as well as drones and dozens of devices that can read license plates and automatically check them against law enforcement databases to find unregistered plates or stolen vehicles.

And city leaders aren’t done. At a meeting in August 2020, when the City Council unanimously approved the purchase of a few hundred more surveillance cameras, Assistant City Manager Nancy Hunt-Coffey laid out a five-year proposal to spend $14 million for an additional 900 cameras and 50 more license plate scanners.

The ultimate goal?

“Ubiquitous coverage,” Hunt-Coffey said.

Such ambitions have kept Beverly Hills squarely at the center of a debate here and elsewhere over how cities should combat robberies, thefts and other crimes targeting luxury stores and wealthy people.

City officials reason that the cameras pose no threat to people who don’t break the law and say they serve as both a deterrent to would-be criminals and an indispensable tool for detectives trying to solve crimes like the armed robbery of a man’s half-million-dollar watch last year.

But the city’s technology push is unsettling to civil libertarians and other police critics, who see the blanket surveillance on streets, in parks and elsewhere as an invasion of privacy and a step down a slippery slope of government intrusion into people’s lives.

And with Beverly Hills having come under fire in recent years for allegedly singling out Black and Latino people for arrest and criminal charges, they don’t trust police to use the cameras in an unbiased way.

“When you are in a heavily surveilled environment, the definition of wrong magically expands; people start to become much narrower about what becomes acceptable behavior,” said Shobita Parthasarathy, director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy program at the University of Michigan. “In a community, it could be about noise levels or it could be about how high your grass is growing or about what kind of lawn ornaments you have. And so there are all kinds of things that could become the domain of the criminal justice system.”

The evidence is also mixed about whether cameras have a direct effect on crime, she said. A 2016 review of several studies found that closed-circuit TV cameras were most effective when combined with other crime-fighting tools such as improved lighting and security guard patrols, but that they hadn’t been shown to reduce violent crime on their own.

Although comparatively tiny, Beverly Hills’ roughly 60 cameras per 1,000 residents ranks it among the most surveilled cities in the world alongside the likes of London and Beijing, according to statistics compiled by the consumer site Comparitech. Los Angeles, by comparison, has roughly 35,000 cameras and 4 million people — or about 9 for every 1,000 residents.

Beverly Hills’ surveillance buildup is part of a broader, years-long push to remake itself into a “smart city,” in which data on many aspects of residents’ and visitors’ lives are collected and analyzed to address common urban challenges such as traffic, sanitation and public safety. City officials envision a wired Beverly Hills of the future with driverless public transit and high-tech cultural venues.

Some of the city’s cameras are in plain view and some inconspicuous. Many are encased in black orbs and are affixed to traffic light poles or installed in city parking garages. Elsewhere, they adorn the sides of boutiques and art galleries, or look down from utility poles in residential areas.

The city has been adding cameras since 2005, and the endeavor picked up significantly in 2018 after the council expanded surveillance into residential neighborhoods, according to minutes from council meetings.

Then came the decision in August 2020 to spend $1.2 million to install the additional 200 cameras throughout the city.

The expansion came at a delicate moment: Earlier that summer, protest groups such as Black Future Project came into the city to hold demonstrations against the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other police abuses, knowing the juxtaposition of Black and Latino protesters in the overwhelming white and rich city would draw attention. Police and the city attorney’s office took a hard line with protesters, making arrests and pursuing prosecutions on minor criminal charges.

The decision to add cameras on the heels of the protests was viewed by critics as an attempt to further boost the city’s ability to tamp down on such dissent and a response to the anxieties of residents unsettled by the sight of protesters taking to city streets to rally against racial injustice.

“In a community where people perceive Black people and poor people as threats to their wealth … then people will respond with surveillance systems and strategies to protect what they have at all costs,” said Safiya Noble, co-director of UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, who wrote a book about how search engines can reinforce racial bias.

In the years since, tensions over race and wealth have continued to simmer in Beverly Hills, where the population is 78% white and the median household income in 2020 was $101,241.

A Times report last year found that an overwhelming majority of the people arrested by a special Beverly Hills Police Department detail patrolling Rodeo Drive were Black.

The special team was formed amid complaints over what residents and shop owners said was a “criminal element” on Rodeo Drive, and it focused, at first, on curtailing minor infractions like loud music and illegal street vending. Most of the arrests, however, were part of a crackdown on shoppers believed to be part of an elaborate scheme to defraud the state’s unemployment system, records show.

Police have not explained why so many of the arrests were of Black people.

The city’s police chief, Mark Stainbrook, says the cameras have helped solve “dozens” of crimes since he took over the job late last year, including the December slaying of renowned philanthropist Jacqueline Avant and the overdose death of a billionaire’s son. In both cases, detectives used city cameras to stitch together the suspects’ movements.

But he hasn’t always shared the council’s breathless enthusiasm for adding more cameras, saying that before the city thinks about expanding its surveillance any further, it should redeploy its existing cameras to areas with more crime.

“You’d have to ask the people on the council what they think. I’ve always said that you have to evaluate what you have first,” Stainbrook said in an interview a day after sledgehammer-wielding thieves pulled off a daytime robbery, making off with $3 million to $5 million worth of jewelry.

At a meeting with the City Council this month, however, Stainbrook floated the idea of building an intelligence center, where feeds from cameras, drones and automated license plate readers could be monitored in real time by private security contractors.

In response to a question from a councilmember, Stainbrook acknowledged some residents have expressed concerns about their privacy being invaded, but said safeguards are in place to prevent misuse of footage. “The data is kept in compliance with state law,” he said.

Currently, Beverly Hills doesn’t have nearly enough cops or civilian employees to monitor live feeds from the cameras, Stainbrook said. Instead, the footage is uploaded to a server, and when a crime occurs, investigators check whether suspects were caught on camera. In the “age of ‘CSI,’” he added, “juries seem less willing to convict someone without video evidence.”

“At least criminals know that when you’re going to come here and commit a crime, you’re going to be on video and we’re going to find and arrest you,” he said.

But crime is relatively rare in Beverly Hills, raising the question whether so many cameras is overkill. Preliminary police data showed that even though the number of violent crimes such as robberies and serious assaults rose from 111 to 139 from 2020 to 2021, the overall crime rate declined roughly 2% in that span.

Lili Bosse, a longtime councilmember who recently started her third rotation as mayor, said in an interview that constituents have told her the cameras bring them peace of mind, especially as many of the roughly 7 million tourists who visited the city each year before the pandemic have begun to return. In today’s hyperconnected world, people have grown used to the idea they could be recorded when they leave their homes, she said.

Despite signs posted in commercial and residential areas alerting people to the fact they are on camera, resident Evan Brenner said he was unaware of the city’s surveillance ambitions. He said he can see both sides of the debate.

“I’m kind of torn about it, to be honest with you, because on the one hand you want to feel safe. But on the other hand, who wants strangers watching every move that they make?” said Brenner, who works in real estate. “I don’t like the government intruding on our privacy, and at the same time, if the intention is keeping us safer … a lot of it has to do with how the technology is used.”

Bosse and her colleagues on the council have suggested the city should find ways to tap into privately owned cameras to further broaden their surveillance capabilities and have endorsed buying artificial-intelligence software that could automatically flag people captured on camera as suspicious based on their appearance or behavior, or scan crowds for the face of a person with a warrant.

“I would be willing to spend more money, if necessary, to … find the most robust artificial intelligence we can find that could be adapted to a policing environment,” Councilmember Bob Wunderlich said at the meeting this month. Stainbrook demurred, saying that while the department will eventually use such technology to automatically read and interpret footage from the city’s cameras, the potential upsides and pitfalls need to be studied more thoroughly.

Wunderlich said the department is already using a type of AI technology from a company called BriefCam, but did not elaborate. Later in the meeting, Stainbrook explained that state law bars the use of facial recognition on police cameras, but BriefCam makes it possible to “review hours and hours of video and hone in on certain cars or times, locations, people, descriptions” to help authorities “quickly locate people.”

Click here to read the full article at the LA Times

Report: Violent Crime in the Region Up in 2021

Violent crime rose 8 percent in the San Diego region last year, and property crimes rose by 9 percent, when compared to 2020, a newly released report found.

In particular, reports of rape and aggravated assault were up, according to the San Diego Association of Governments which tracks local crime data.

And even though reports of robbery and burglary hit a 42-year low last year, thefts were up overall, according to SANDAG. The number of cars stolen jumped 20 percent. And people swiped the parts off cars in surprisingly higher numbers, with such thefts skyrocketing 71 percent. The most commonly stolen parts: catalytic converters.

The agency releases an annual report comparing crime numbers year over year. It has been tracking the data since 1980.

SANDAG Senior Director of Data Science Cynthia Burke noted that while the overall 2021 crime rates are at “historic lows for our region, violent and property crimes were up last year.”

Crime has steadily declined for the last three decades, but some has started to tick back up in recent years, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Countywide last year, rapes and aggravated assaults were up 11 and 12 percent respectively in 2021 compared to the previous year.

Homicides rose slightly last year, from 115 to 118 — an increase of 3 percent. That’s far less of an increase than in 2020, when homicides spiked 35 percent.

In the homicides last year in which investigators determined a motive, nearly a third of the killings followed an argument. Another 18 percent of the deaths were gang-related.

Click here to read the full article at the San Diego Union Tribune

Gov. Brown Pushed for Softer Treatment of Violent Felons

It’s an election year and crime has emerged as a major campaign issue, so it’s no wonder that the horrendous shootout between two gang factions in downtown Sacramento that left six people dead has led to much political fingerpointing.

Republicans, who have become virtually powerless in California, quickly pointed the finger of blame at Gov. Gavin Newsom because one of the alleged shooters, Smiley Martin, had served just five years of a 10-year prison term for spousal abuse due to the state’s recently loosened parole standards.

“In California, you can do the crime and skip the time. Criminals see little to no consequences for crime, and that needs to change,” said Senate Republican leader Scott Wilk. “If we are to restore order and safety to our communities, a good place to start is ensuring early release credits are not given to violent and dangerous felons for simply breathing.”

In response, Newsom’s office has said the state prison system was merely implementing authority to grant more generous “good time” credits to inmates that voters authorized when they passed Proposition 57 in 2016.

Prison authorities had adopted the new rules on an expedited basis without the chance for public input, but after a lawsuit was filed and a judge tentatively ruled against the process, they reversed themselves and have allowed a period for comment.

The politician who should bear the onus for allowing the alleged shooter and other violent criminals to serve only portions of their sentences is former Gov. Jerry Brown, who wrote Proposition 57 and more or less tricked voters into believing that it would benefit only felons who committed non-violent crimes.

Brown’s stated aim was to undo some of the tough sentencing laws he signed during his first stint as governor nearly four decades earlier, saying they had not worked.

He closely guarded details of the “Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016” until just before submitting it as an amendment to a pending ballot measure dealing with juvenile justice, thereby virtually eliminating any chance for opponents to influence “title and summary” processing by the Department of Justice.

The measure, a constitutional amendment, declares that “any person convicted of a non-violent felony offense and sentenced to state prison shall be eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense” and made it easier for them to reduce the “full term” with more generous credits for good behavior.

However, it did not define or list “non-violent felony offenses.” Instead, Brown’s campaign referred to a section of the Penal Code that listed 23 particularly violent offenses, such as murder. Any crime not on the list would be considered non-violent for purposes of parole.

Indirectly, therefore, dozens of serious crimes would be considered non-violent for parole purposes. They include assault with a deadly weapon, soliciting murder, intimidating or harming a crime victim or witness, resisting arrest that injures a police officer, violent elder or child abuse, arson with injury, human trafficking and several forms of manslaughter.

Click here to read the full article at CalMatters