Lia Russell

Lia Russell is an editorial intern at the Prospect.

Recent Articles

California Wildfires Stoke Need to Concentrate on Climate Change, Public Health

Northern California has been battling wildfires since early October, which have burned  almost 250,000 acres, killed 42 people, displaced 100,000 residents, and destroyed thousands of homes. The hardest-hit areas have been Napa and Sonoma counties, the epicenter of the U.S. wine industry, and Santa Rosa, a town of 175,000 50 miles north of San Francisco. As many as 11,000 firefighters worked to combat the flames, including 6,000 volunteer inmate firefighters. With wildfire threats shifting to southern California as temperatures climb and the dry Santa Ana winds pick up, Californians are taking a hard look at what happened and how to better protect local communities.

The wildfires in the northern areas of the state disrupted residents’ food and water supplies and health-care systems. Fire and smoke taint water sources—which led California to issue a “boil water” notice—and can affect bottled or canned food. Several health-care facilities burned down or had to be evacuated. Those developments also meant loss of vital medications, “and pharmacies in the [affected] areas are struggling to fill prescriptions, especially for respiratory illnesses,” said Dr. Linda Rudolph during a recent press briefing for state policymakers organized by Climate Nexus, a nonprofit science literacy organization. Rudolph directs the Center for Climate Change and Health at the Public Health Institute in Oakland. Skilled nursing facilities were also adversely affected since senior citizens are often too infirm to mobilize on such short notice.

Meanwhile, the intensity of the infernos did not surprise LeRoy Westerling, a University of California Merced management professor who co-directs the Center for Climate Communication, and has studied factors that make California so susceptible to wildfires. According to Westerling, the wet winter of 2016 following years of drought and dry coastal climates created perfect conditions for a fire of this magnitude. Plants grew rapidly after the heavy rainfall. The summer of 2017 was also one of the hottest on record, which further dried up all the vegetation and brush that had grown during the winter, creating the perfect  conditions for wildfires. “It’s usually pretty dry this time of year, and given the proximity to lots of population centers, there’s lots of human fire ignitions,” said Westerling during the briefing. “When you combine all of those together, it’s kind of a peak opportunity time in October for some of these big fires to occur,” he added. Other factors, such as dead plant debris from years of drought, provided “standing dead fuel” for the fires to surge. The summer of 2017 was also one of the hottest on record, which further dried up all the vegetation and brush that had grown during the winter.

To respond to the increased fire risks, Bill Stewart, a UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension Specialist, noted that California is developing a “vegetation treatment plan” that will require studying fire risk reduction techniques, weighing public health concerns, and monitoring wildlife and ecosystems, including endangered species habitats. Stewart also believes that California environmental officials should reconsider the kind of vegetation planted near population centers. Certain plants are more susceptible to fire than others, such as grassland, which easily dry out in summer.

Decades of other incremental changes in the climate helped create an environment that makes fires more intense, Westerling said. Because of warmer temperatures in recent years, soil and trees have retained much less moisture. These conditions, spurred by “diablo winds” and fluctuating temperatures between coastal and inland climates, also helped the fires spread even farther. (Diablo winds refer to hot, dry winds in the San Francisco Bay area that blow from the interior of the state to the coastline.)

California state legislators and energy officials are also working on statewide climate assessments. These studies explore the long- and short-term effects of climate events, performing simulations of both average and extreme events, such as the current fires. The state is also focusing on fuel management, population growth scenarios, and ecological development footprint scenarios, all of which influence climate patterns. In addition, the University of California is funding a multi-year project to compare climate change and public health concerns, and create projections that would help inform the state’s decision-making in the next decade.

Transgender Protections Rollback by Sessions Draws Scrutiny

While Americans focused on the tragedies unfolding in Las Vegas and Puerto Rico, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quietly rescinded a memorandum that protected transgender people from workplace discrimination.

Eric Holder, President Obama’ first attorney general, had issued the memo in December 2014, extending the Civil Rights Act’s Title VII protections against employment discrimination to transgender people on the basis of gender identity, a separate category from sex. Sessions’s memo, which was circulated on October 5, noted that the protections on the basis of sex “[did not] encompass discrimination based on gender identity per se, including transgender status.” A DOJ spokesman defended Sessions’s decision, saying “The Justice Department cannot expand the law beyond what Congress has provided; Unfortunately, the last administration abandoned that fundamental principle, which necessitated today’s action.”

Kris Hayashi, the executive director of the Transgender Law Center, criticized Sessions’s legal argument—that Title VII’s language doesn’t apply to “transgender status”—as a way to circumvent anti-discrimination laws: “The Department of Justice memo on Title VII tries to undo established law protecting transgender employees simply by wishing it so,” he said in a statement. “This is a vicious action intended to cause confusion where there was none.” Others, like Sharon McGow of Lambda Legal, argue that Sessions’s announcement also contradicts previous federal rulings: in 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that transgender workers are protected under Title VII. McGow told NBC News that the memo was “weak and thin in terms of legal analysis,” and that it “ignores two decades of law that have essentially unanimously concluded that discrimination against transgender people is a form of sex discrimination.”

Rescinding the Obama administration policy is yet another signal that LGBTQ rights are a low priority for the Trump administration. “Courts have repeatedly ruled that transgender people are protected by sex discrimination laws in employment, education, housing and healthcare,” said Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, in a statement. “We’ll see him in court.”

Transgender people are also more likely to live in poverty than the rest of the general population. In the face of discrimination, transgender people often have had to resort to illicit work to survive. According to a 2015 survey by the National Center for Trans Equality, almost 20 percent of transgender respondents reported that they had engaged in some form of sex work for food, money, or shelter, risking disease, incarceration, and violence.

Transgender people are a highly marginalized group, even within the LGBTQ community. The Anti-Violence Project found that between January and August of 2017, 50 percent of LGBTQ homicide victims were transgender or gender-nonconforming people. Transgender women of color are killed at higher rates than other groups, and they face higher rates of domestic violencehomelessness, and unemployment than other LGBTQ people.

New Police Crimes Database Provides Law Enforcement Accountability Tool

In September, Bowling Green State University in Ohio published the country’s first online police crime database. It’s a small but noteworthy milestone for groups like Black Lives Matter who have called for greater law enforcement accountability as police brutality and the shootings of African Americans by officers have continued to dominate headlines.

The Henry A. Wallace Police Crime Database covers a seven-year period from 2005 to 2012 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia: 8,006 cases were brought against 6,596 officers from 2,830 municipal departments nationwide. There are 18,000 police departments and 1.1 million sworn officers in the United States.

The database includes information about individual police officers who have been arrested—sometimes by their own departments—on felony and misdemeanor charges ranging from disorderly conduct to aggravated assault. But it is short on details, only identifying each officer by his or her badge number. There is little information about officers who were put on probation or served time in prison.

According to Phil Stinson, the Bowling Green State University professor of criminology and  former police officer who created the database, many officers who are caught committing a crime are given the option to resign quietly instead of facing a trial. “Granted, because everyone who is in the database has been arrested or charged,” Stinson says, “we don’t know a lot about the misconduct of police officers if it doesn’t result in them being brought into the criminal justice system or some other formal way.”

Moreover, police departments are notorious for being reluctant to disclose evidence relating to alleged officer misconduct. In October 2014, a Chicago police officer shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald when they were called to his neighborhood after getting reports of a black teenager wandering around with a knife. It took more than a year and countless hearings for McDonald’s family to get access to the dashboard video that depicted the shooting that cost McDonald his life. A nearby Burger King surveillance camera also recorded the shooting, but before the McDonald family or media could access the video, police officers deleted the video.

Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald, had 20 previous complaints filed against him from citizens who complained about him using excessive force but had never been convicted of any crimes.

In its continuing push for police accountability, the BGSU database may prove to be a powerful tool for the Black Lives Matter movement. Launched after Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, BLM has sparked a national debate about policing in African American and other minority communities. Their activism has led to certain reforms, such as the use of body cameras to record interactions with civilians, and the incremental scaling back of “broken windows” policing tactics.

The database demonstrates that crimes committed by police officers are not “one-off situation that [don’t] happen very often,” Stinson says. “People across the country, every day, are reading reports of [police officers] being arrested.” Indeed, tracking felonies and misdemeanors committed by police officers helps raise awareness of a key issue: the tendency by some police officers to treat every person of color as a potential suspect rather than as a citizen who deserves fair treatment and protection.