Friday, July 18, 2008

Face Crimes

originally published in the Hartford Advocate September 13, 2007

Face Crimes

Bradley airport may have behavior detection officers checking you out. Smile at the airport so they don't think you're a terrorist.

By Jennifer Abel

Let's play "Name That Background Noise," where the Advocate lists the sounds of a given location and you guess where it is. Ready? Here goes: "Take off your jacket and shoes. I'm confiscating your shampoo because it's in a four-ounce bottle and any bottle bigger than three ounces is a terrorist threat. Seriously, that's our official policy."

If you guessed "an airport checkpoint staffed by the Transportation Security Administration," you win! For your prize, here's some useful advice (which the losers should also heed): next time you fly somewhere, schedule it for when you're in a good mood and can remain so even if TSA says they're taking your deodorant so nobody can hijack the plane with it.

The good mood's important because a bad one might attract attention from Behavior Detection Officers, TSA agents trained (more or less) to wander through airports looking for secret hidden facial expressions that indicate you're up to no good.

Seriously, that's their official duty. "There are physical and psychological signals that manifest themselves when an individual is ... feeling fear and anxiety [such as] trying to hide a fear of discovery," said Ann Davis, a TSA regional spokesperson in Boston.

TSA's Web site says the same thing with slightly different words, describing BDOs as people who go around "identifying potentially high-risk individuals based on involuntary physical and psychological reactions."

They're talking about something called "microexpressions," which supposedly make a person's hidden feelings visible, albeit briefly, to anyone who knows how to look. Paul Ekman, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC San Francisco, discovered the phenomenon nearly 40 years ago.

Early in his career, Ekman determined that certain facial expressions remain consistent across all societies. Though cultures disagree on some facial issues, like whether eye contact is respectful or rude, feelings like disgust, sadness, fear and their opposites look identical on faces all over the world. This implies a biological, rather than cultural, component. Ekman catalogued the myriad involuntary muscle movements that make these faces. Here's how they tie in to microexpressions: say you're feeling some intense emotion like anxiety. You want to hide this, and you're a good actor, so for the most part you're successful; everyone who sees your face thinks you're happy.

But at some point, you'll still make the muscle movements that form the "anxious" expression. Anxiety might only flash on your face for a fraction of a second, but it will appear.

Ekman discovered this during slow-motion studies of videotapes.

In one famous example, he viewed a tape of a woman who'd suffered through a bout of severe depression, but insisted to her off-camera psychiatrist that she was feeling much better and not entertaining suicidal thoughts, so could she please have a weekend pass home?

The woman was lying but her doctor believed her. (Fortunately, she confessed the truth before leaving that weekend.) Ekman, while studying the tape, caught a look of utter desperation that distorted her features for only a few frames. Her microexpression told the truth where her macroexpression (and words) did not.

But Ekman, in a 2006 interview with Scientific American, cautioned that knowing what a person is feeling isn't the same as knowing what they're thinking. Identifying anxiety, for example, doesn't let you know "whether a person fears that I'm seeing through their lie or that I don't believe them when they're telling the truth." Or any of the other reasons they might feel anxious in an airport.

Nationwide, TSA hopes to have a total of 500 BDOs by 2008. Does Bradley International have one on staff? An airport spokesperson referred the question to local TSA administrator Daniel Lee, who sounded puzzled when he heard why the Advocate was calling. "I haven't had the media call before" to ask about BDOs, he said. But "there is a BDO at Bradley," though he had to check with his boss before discussing what the job entails.

Next morning he called back. "Did I say bee-DEE-oh? ... I meant bee-AY-oh. Bomb Appraisal Officer." TSA keeps a bomb guy at Bradley, Lee confirmed, but "with BDOs, we don't tell the public whether we do or do not for obvious reasons. If a terrorist knew what airports have BDOs, they'll avoid them."

Lee referred further questions higher up the command chain. "I can't give you any additional information ... if you have questions about BDOs, give Ann Davis a call."

Ann Davis, the TSA regional director in Boston, was friendly but not too informative. She spoke in generalities, and only confirmed specifics if the Advocate mentioned them first.

What does a BDO do? "The BDO is essentially a security officer trained in our SPOT program," Davis replied. That, like her earlier mention of involuntary "physical and psychological reactions," closely mirrors the wording on the TSA Web site, where a July 2006 press release about new career opportunities in the agency lists "Behavior Detection Officers who execute TSA's Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) program."

Neither Davis nor the Web site mentioned the term "microexpressions," but Davis, when asked, admitted that's what all the psycho-physical wording alluded to.

But consider: Ekman's shown a remarkable success rate finding and interpreting microexpressions — when given unlimited time to study individual tapes. That's quite different from walking through a busy airport seeking microexpressions in the crowd.

"Well, I'm personally not trained in the techniques," Davis said when asked about that.

Also, BDOs are reputed to work in teams; if one detects a suspicious look, for example, he'll approach the person and try to start a conversation to glean more information. Considering how Americans are supposed to be always on alert in airports these days, it seems counterintuitive to quell suspicions of anxiety by sending a stranger to start up a chat.

Their training covers that possibility, Davis said reassuringly.

Ah, yes, the training. Ekman needed decades of experience and advanced education to achieve his microexpression proficiency. TSA agents, meanwhile, have been known to do things like confiscate a one-inch plastic gun from a child's GI Joe doll, apparently unaware that such toy weaponry is no actual threat. How do BDOs compare to the TSA rank and file?

"Behavior Detection Officers come from our security officer corps, and receive additional training," Davis said.

What credentials are needed to become a regular TSA security officer, then? And how much training to upgrade to the behavior detection ranks?

The minimum requirement to be a TSA security officer is "A GED or equivalent ... high school equivalency," Davis said. A BDO gets an additional "four days of classroom instruction ... and on-the-job training."

Dr. Michael Stevens did a lot more than that to become Director of Clinical Neuroscience at the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center in Hartford. He's also done much research on the issue of psychopaths, which is why we called him.

A psychopath in this case is loosely defined as someone who is sane, in that he's in touch with the same reality as the rest of us, but completely lacks any conscience or sense of empathy.

Such people also lack the emotions, like fear and anxiety, which BDOs are supposed to spot, but Davis assured us a BDO would still be able to spot one. "They're under stress," Davis said.

"Again, the more someone tries to suppress that, the more some of it shows through."
Stevens disagrees. "A psychopath would not feel the emotions," that manifest themselves as microexpressions, he said.

But to be honest, the psychopath factor isn't much of an issue when dealing with terrorists of the 9/11 sort.

"The current crop of primarily religious terrorists are not psychopaths," says Robert Trestman, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center. However, if such terrorists "are comfortable in their belief they will not demonstrate the anxiety ... if they have come to terms with ... what they are doing, the anxiety you expect won't be there." They won't attract attention from the BDOs either.

So the TSA, implemented after the World Trade Center attacks to upset future terrorist plots, is hiring new agents who probably won't have much luck in stopping terrorism. Of what use are they, then? According to Davis, they've had success in standard law enforcement. "The program has resulted in a lot of arrests, ranging from illegal immigrants ... to individuals with drugs or large amounts of cash." They may not stop the next Bin Laden, but college kids with marijuana brownies had better watch out.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Checkpoint Charlies

originally published in the Hartford Advocate June 21, 2007

Checkpoint Charlies

West Hartford will be conducting drunk driving checkpoints on June 22 on New Britain Ave. So, you've been warned.

by Jennifer Abel

You already know that you shouldn’t drive drunk, and you know the reasons why. But should you choose to ignore these reasons and drive drunk in West Hartford on June 22, make sure you avoid the lower end of New Britain Avenue. The cops are setting up a drunk checkpoint there, and you’ll totally get busted.

Wow – a newspaper advising its readers how to break public-safety laws without getting caught. Sounds edgy and rebellious, right? Nope. Actually, by helping drunks avoid the checkpoint we’re semi-cooperating with the police, who must make at least a token attempt to get the word out in order to qualify for DUI-enforcement grants from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Grant money from the [NHTSA] goes through the state Department of Transportation,” which then doles it out to cities and towns, according to Lieutenant David Dubiel, who handles traffic control for West Hartford. Of course there are restrictions on how these funds are spent. “We can’t buy equipment,” says Dubiel, but are limited to funding overtime pay for officers to either perform “roving patrols” (driving around with an eye out for trouble) or staff “sobriety checkpoints.”

And they can’t keep it secret. “[According to] parameters established in case law, [a checkpoint] has to be announced to the media,” said Dubiel. Though what the media then does with the announcement is up to them: “Say, I tell the Hartford Courant, but I can’t force them to print it.”

That’s okay — there’s no force necessary for the Advocate to do the right thing. So remember, everybody: if you’re drunk in West Hartford this June 22, or even if you’re sober and just don’t like the idea of innocent citizens having to pass through police checkpoints, stay the heck away from New Britain Avenue.

Before 1990, checkpoints in America were mostly seen on television, when low-rent stations aired old black-and-white movies about life under the Nazis or Communists. “Your papers, citizen.” Pre-1990 civics teachers bragged to their students that Americans are protected from that sort of thing by the fourth amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees: “The right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures … but upon probable cause.”

In other words: you can’t be stopped for searches or questioning unless the cops have a warrant or at least a very good reason to suspect you’re up to something. No “fishing expeditions” netting the innocent in hopes of catching a few guilty along with them are allowed.

Then, in the 1980s the Michigan State Police decided that drunk driving was too big a problem for the fourth amendment to cover it. The police started setting up random checkpoints, inspecting all drivers on a given road to ensure none had been drinking. Challenges to this went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1990 (by a 6-3 vote) that such checkpoints were indeed permissible.

Actually, when then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote the Court opinion he agreed that “a Fourth Amendment ‘seizure’ occurs when a vehicle is stopped at a checkpoint.” But the Court decided this seizure without probable cause was only a “minimal intrusion of civil liberties,” and acceptable since reducing drunk driving is a legitimate concern of the government.

Ironically, Michigan’s Supreme Court later banned checkpoints within the state.

One of the arguments cited by the court were multiple studies showing checkpoints to be less effective than roving patrols in catching drunk drivers. (That the patrols avoided violating the fourth amendment was an added bonus.)

The Supreme Court ruling in favor of checkpoints had precedents: in 1976, for example, the Court said that checkpoints could be used within 100 miles of an international border, to determine drivers’ immigration status. Carving this exception to the Constitution was supposed to solve the illegal-immigration problem that plagued the country 31 years ago, the theory being that in exchange for a little fourth-amendment rollback, by 2007 or so illegal immigration would be a complete non-issue in America, border walls and INS crackdowns in New Haven notwithstanding.

Anyway, Dubiel thinks the purpose of the cops’ having to announce checkpoints to the media might be to keep constitutional bruising to a minimum. “Theoretically, the practical reason for the announcement [involves] the fourth-amendment rights against search and seizure,” he said.

When asked whether he found roving patrols or random checkpoints more effective in increasing the safety of the streets, Dubiel didn’t hesitate to answer.“I find roving patrols more effective … our last roving patrol we found a stolen car. There are no checkpoints for that.”

West Hartford’s town council voted to accept the NHTSA grant at the last council meeting. When you look at the agenda for a meeting in West Hartford (or any other municipality in America) you’ll usually see one or two items that you know will be rubber-stamped into acceptance with no prior debate.

One of the acceptance no-brainers on the last agenda was this: “Resolution to appropriate funds awarded the Town of West Hartford under the Federal Highway Safety Program for the purpose of expanded DUI enforcement.” No councilmember will vote to turn down free federal money, especially not in the name of public safety and double-especially not when the town’s having budget problems.

“The grant request was processed some time ago,” said Mayor Scott Slifka. “It’s for work we’ve done throughout the year, with the exception of [the upcoming checkpoint].” Slifka also said that the town helps fulfill the grant’s prior-notice requirement by mentioning future checkpoints on its “list serve,” a free e-mail subscription service offered on the town website. So if you’re wont to drink and drive in West Hartford then shame on you, and don’t forget to add your e-mail address to that list.

Coffin Nails Fill State Coffers

originally published in the Hartford Advocate August 2, 2007

Coffin Nails Fill State Coffers
Is taxing smokers fair?

By Jennifer Abel

Hey, smokers! You should inhale a nice, refreshing cigarette while you read this. Maybe two. The exact number doesn't matter; what's important is that you smoke cigarettes purchased instate from a licensed retailer in full compliance with all tax regulations.

Speaking of which, did you notice the price increase that went into effect on July 1? That's because the per-pack state tax went up again. Connecticut now gets two dollars for every pack you buy. That, in turn, explains why you need to keep smoking: according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the state expects to collect $400 million from tobacco this year. If every Nutmegger gave up nicotine tomorrow, we'd face a $400 million budgetary shortfall.

Not that anybody in the government's going to come right out and tell you to keep smoking. Nor are they likely to mention that non-smokers cost society far more money than smokers; a non-smoker will (statistically) live up to seven years longer, costing state or federal pension plans another seven years' worth of payment checks. The more people smoke, the richer the government gets.

That leads to a conundrum: Connecticut's one of the wealthiest states in the nation. The majority of smokers are low-income people. Why is a rich state balancing its budget on the backs of the poor?

"Since most people don't smoke, it's not hard to get majority support for an increase in cigarette taxes," said Jacob Sullum, a senior editor for Reason magazine (published by the nonprofit Reason Foundation). "The share of American adults who smoke is down to about 20 percent. As a group, they are less affluent and less politically influential than nonsmokers, and they are widely reviled for their unhealthy, disgusting habit. So when you ask people whether the government should take money from an unpopular minority ... I guess anything less than 80 percent support should be counted as a victory for fairness."

With 20 cigarettes in a standard pack, the state gets a dime for every cigarette smoked here. But some smokers, for whatever reason, want to avoid this tax. Doing this is quite simple (though illegal): just buy cigarettes from someplace with a tax rate lower than Connecticut's.

If you have friends in low-tax states, it's easy to have them buy cheap cigarettes and mail them to you. However, not everybody has connections in tobacco country. The most popular means of buying out-of-state smokes is to order them over the Internet, but smokers who avoided taxes this way got an unpleasant surprise last month.

"The Department of Revenue Services will begin sending notices ... to Connecticut residents who owe the state taxes," said a DRS press release. "The initiative is part of an effort by the agency to ensure taxpayer compliance with state cigarette laws."

Those laws, of course, basically boil down to "give the state a dime for every cigarette you smoke." And a federal law called the Jenkins Act makes it very easy for the state to find out who's been keeping that money for themselves.

"The Jenkins Act dates back to the 1940s," said Sarah Kaufman, a spokesman for the DRS. "It requires retailers who sell -- at the time it was mail order -- to individuals out of state" to give the state its customer lists, so revenuers will know where to send the tax bills.

Anyone who bought Internet cigarettes in 2005 or 2006 can expect to receive a DRS back-tax bill, Kaufman said. This is partially to help fill the state's coffers, and partially to make things fair for Connecticut cigarette sellers.

"If people buy over the Internet to avoid the taxes, that's hurting businesses that sell cigarettes here," Kaufman said. So does quitting smoking to avoid the taxes, but that's all right. "Our position is, if people quit, there's no tax. It's just, we are, by the nature of this agency, our mission is to uphold the tax laws of the state of Connecticut."

Not every Internet customer will get a bill for back taxes, though. While most mail-order companies are required by the Jenkins Act to hand their customer lists to the government, one subset of retailers is exempt: Indian tribes who sell tax-free cigarettes are technically sovereign nations where U.S. law doesn't apply.

"We argue that they are bound by the Jenkins Act; they argue they are not," Kaufman said. And so far "they" seem to be winning; Indian reservations have not yet turned their customer records over to the DRS.

Indian tribes in Connecticut make money from their casino monopoly, but one state over, in New York, (untaxed) cigarettes are the primary income source. is just one of many New York-based Indian cigarette sellers, this one run by the Seneca Indian Nation. The Advocate called to ask if the tribe turned its customer records over to state revenue departments. "We're exempt from that right now," said the woman who answered the phone (and preferred not to be named). "They're trying to get our information, but so far they haven't."

The key words here are "so far." Given America's shaky record of upholding treaty obligations with Indian tribes, it probably wouldn't be wise to put your faith in such treaties now. (Assuming you wanted to buy tax-free cigarettes in the first place, but you really shouldn't do that.)
Hypothetically, suppose you bought such cigarettes in person and paid with cash? There would be no record to trace. Such Indian tribes in New York aren't as common as those who make mail-order sales, but they do exist.

The nearest one seems to be the tribe running the Poospatuck Smoke Shop on Long Island (a 190-mile round trip from downtown Hartford, according to Google maps). Poospatuck "hasn't done mail-order [cigarette sales] for two years," said the woman who answered their toll-free number. So how do they sell cigarettes?

"It's like a store. You come in, you make your purchase and you leave. There's no [customer] records kept."

Sarah Kaufman of the DRS said that you can only bring one carton of out-of-state cigarettes home with you; any more than that and you're expected to pay the full $20 per carton tax. Considering gas prices these days, it's not worth $20 to drive all the way to Long Island and back just for a single carton of cigarettes. You'd need to buy at least four or five, which would be illegal.

Of course, the chance of getting caught is very low, unless the state decided to have drunk-driving-style checkpoints looking for untaxed Indian cigarettes.

"We're not going to have checkpoints," Kaufman said when asked about the possibility. "We're not the Gestapo."

Public Service?

originally published in the Hartford Advocate December 6, 2007

Public Service?
The DMV hates your phone voice (no offense). We tried reaching them on the phone and were sent on a great Mario-Brothers-like adventure. So you'd better try to talk to them in person instead.

By Jennifer Abel

An online search for Web pages containing the phrases “Department of Motor Vehicles” and “Hell” yielded nearly 63,000 hits, though a more refined search for “Hell” and “Connecticut DMV customer-service phone tree” showed no responses at all.

This glaring omission demonstrates why you can’t rely too much on the Internet for information. Or maybe it just shows the strangeness of the thoughts you get after your seventh or eighth hour spent climbing the branches of that non-hellish (according to the Internet) phone tree at the DMV’s “Telephone Center.”

Best not to call them at all. DMV doesn’t like phone chats anyway. It all but says so on its Web site: “Branch [o]ffice telephone numbers are not listed due to the overwhelming amount of phone calls that are received daily. We feel that you would be better served in the [b]ranch [o]ffices by having line staff on the counter to expedite transactions and have phone calls referred to a centralized location.”

Some might say they’d be served better yet by not having to go to the branch office at all. These are the people likely to call the Telephone Center, because they think calling DMV on the phone must be more convenient than going there during normal business hours or on Saturday.

They’re wrong. The Telephone Center’s main purpose is to minimize if not eliminate the time agents spend talking to you over the phone; going to a branch office and immersing yourself in the full-body DMV experience is actually the lesser of two evils, annoyance-wise.

It’s not known if this is a deliberate strategy on DMV’s part; maybe the bureaucratic equivalent of “always go clubbing with friends less attractive than you?”

I’m not the first person to fail in an attempt to reach an actual human over the DMV’s phones. A few weeks ago I tried calling to get an on-the-record comment for a story. When you call the Telephone Center you’re told that dialing zero to speak to an agent won’t work unless you’re specifically invited to do so.

And I never was. No matter which numbers I picked, I kept getting kicked back into the same never-ending Mobius loop of pre-recorded choices.

“Before you are able to speak to a phone agent, you must choose the DMV issue that you are inquiring about from the menu,” explains the Web site. I did, and continued reading: “After you choose an issue you must then choose specific topic before you will be asked if you want to speak to an agent. Please be patient.”

I was. For half an hour. Then I hung up and drove to the DMV’s main office in Wethersfield, where I was eventually directed to spokesman Bill Seymour. After getting my comment for the story at hand, I asked him, “Did you know it’s impossible to reach a human being through the phone number on your Web site?”

Seymour laughed. “I hear that complaint from a lot of people.”

I’ll bet he does. So I thought: why not climb through and map out the whole phone tree? See if those dial-zero invitations actually exist, and determine where in the foliage they’re hidden.

And “hidden” is exactly the right word; the invitations are tucked behind the point where most people would hang up in frustration.

If you do want such an invitation, here’s the punch-code sequence most likely to lead to one: after dialing the main number, you press 1 to access the automated system, press 1 again “for information on vehicle registration, Internet renewal, safety inspection or emissions,” and press 1 a third time “for vehicle registration.”

Now wait. The DMV voice actress will recite eight different options ranging from registering a used vehicle to information about new registration stickers. (With a cuticle trimmer, you can accomplish valuable hangnail-maintenance tasks during this time.)

Then you’re told to press “pound” to repeat that list, “9” to return to the previous menu, or “star” to go back to the main menu. And then — finally — you’re invited to press zero to speak to an agent.
But you might be on hold for a couple of hours. You’re probably better off just going to the DMV.

By your second day perched in the phone tree you might ponder the Nintendo corporation which, being based in Japan, has no known connection with the Connecticut DMV. But the video games in the company’s popular “Mario” franchise share traits with the phone tree all the same.

Resist the temptation to make the obvious joke about how both experiences are improved by the consumption of magic mushrooms. The salient point is, Mario sometimes stumbles upon hidden “warp zones” that whisk him off to entirely different levels of the game, and there are warp zones hidden in the Telephone Center too.

Ponder this hypothetical: Say you live in New Britain or a suburb thereof, and want directions to your nearest DMV safety inspection facility. So you call the Telephone Center, and you’re given the address of the DMV Web site and advised to seek answers there.

Press 1 to access their automated system, and you’ll be given the address of their Web site, where you can find answers to many questions. Then you’re asked to choose from five different options. Choose option 1 again, “for information on vehicle registration, Internet renewal, safety inspection or emissions.”

You’ll be told the address of the DMV Web site, where you can get many questions answered. Then you’re given more options; when you press 3 for safety inspection, you’re given the address of the DMV Web site, where many common questions are answered. Now more phone options: press 2 for directions to safety inspection facilities. And did you know that many DMV-related questions are answered on the department’s Web site?

Behold the final three options: press 1 for Enfield, 2 for Hamden or 3 for Wethersfield.

“Wait a minute,” you might say at this point. “I live in New Britain or a suburb thereof, remember? None of those choices help me.”

To quote the Web site: Please be patient. Pick any of those options — it doesn’t matter which — and sit through the long list of different ways to reach a given inspection center. When that’s over, press 9 to go back to the previous menu. (If you try this while the message is still playing, it won’t work.)

Now you’re back to the previous menu, which has changed from the original: press 1 for Enfield, 2 for New Britain or 3 for Wethersfield.

That’s the New Britain safety inspection center warp zone, and once you’re in it you’ll never be invited to press 2 for Hamden again unless you hang up and start over. Doing so grants access to the Hamden warp zone, which will kick you out of the safety-inspection listings entirely, and into a list of photo-ID centers in the Derby/Milford area.

After leaving the warp zones behind, you’ll find the phone-tree sub-levels most notable for their complete lack of tact. Are you a resident non-citizen looking to schedule an appointment to get your first-ever driver’s license in Connecticut? Then press 1 to access the automated system, 2 for information on driver’s licenses, 2 again for first-time Connecticut licenses, and 1 for non-citizens.

Now you sit through a recording that’s several minutes long, and eventually you’ll be invited to press 1 to schedule an appointment over the phone. That’s when you’re told it’s not possible to schedule appointments over the phone.

I called Bill Seymour just as he was leaving for a meeting. Since he had no time to chat, I sent him an e-mail with a variety of questions ranging from “How many agents does DMV have to work the phones” to “In light of the already-long hold times to reach an agent, how much of a problem would it be if a journalist were to publish the ‘cheat codes’ telling readers exactly which sequence of buttons they must press to be invited to speak to an agent on the DMV phone tree?”

There are 22 agents working the phones, Seymour replied. In calendar year 2006, the phone center received 1,054,523 phone calls, of which 400,210 led to actual conversations and 37,979 were ”abandoned,” meaning the caller disconnected ”before going through the first menu option.”

And using cheat-code shortcuts to speak to an operator “could produce longer wait times for a live operator,” Seymour wrote. “The system was set up for achieving some forms of efficiency.”

Since this e-mail arrived mere seconds before deadline, there was no time to ask exactly which forms of efficiency the system’s set up to achieve.

The Right To Dissent

originally published in the Hartford Advocate September 20, 2007

The Right To Dissent

School officials clamp down on student blogger

By Jennifer Abel

Food for thought and mental indigestion: even though you've committed no crime, government agents whose six-figure salaries come out of your tax dollars can make you spend most of your waking hours in a lockdown facility. When you're not there, they can still regulate what you write, say and do. And when election time rolls around, if these government agents don't like who you voted for they can decide your ballots just don't count. Best of all, they'll tell you with straight faces that they're teaching you how to be a free citizen of a democracy.

So far the above paragraph only applies to students enrolled in Connecticut's Region 10 school district. But if Region 10's administration gets its way, it will eventually apply to every public-school student in America.

Get this: a few months ago Avery Doninger, a Burlington resident who is now a senior at Lewis Mills High School in that town, sat at home and wrote a Livejournal blog entry that referred to unnamed school administrators by the misspelled insult "douchbags."

So Lewis Mills principal Karissa Niehoff, with the approval of Region 10 superintendent Paula Schwartz, removed Doninger from her elected position as secretary of the class of 2008. And a month later, when new class elections were held, they wouldn't allow her name on the ballot. Though Doninger was still elected in a write-in campaign, Niehoff and Schwartz chose not to count those votes, rationalizing that referring to administrators as feminine hygiene supplies was inappropriate for a Class Leader.

Had Doninger said this at school, or directly to an administrator, they'd probably be right. But can public schools dictate students' off-campus, non-illegal behavior all throughout the school year? If the Doninger case becomes a binding precedent, the answer will be "yes."

It all started last April, after Doninger and some classmates had spent several months trying to organize an at-school student music festival called "Jamfest."

"I'm a student council representative and I was helping to organize it," Doninger said. But the kids couldn't use the school auditorium to host the event. The giant building that houses the high school, Har-Bur Middle School (a punny abbreviation for Harwinton and Burlington, the two towns of Region 10) and the district administration offices has been undergoing construction for well over a year.

"They demolished the [old] auditorium," Doninger said. And the new auditorium always had problems, said the administration: audio, lighting, something. So "they kept pushing back the date ... to April 28."

Then that date was put on hold, apparently because no adult could be found to work the sound system. The administration didn't want to entrust the task to a teenager even though, according to Doninger, "there were kids who knew how — one whose job is to do it in Torrington." Also, "we were told it was 'the taxpayers' auditorium' ... the school owned the old auditorium, but the new one is owned by Region 10, the whole community uses it."

So Doninger and her friends decided to go straight to the taxpayers and ask permission to use their collective auditorium.

Doninger's mother Lauren described what happened next. "[Doninger and some classmates] went to the school computer lab and sent a mass e-mail to taxpayers, asking them to tell the central office to let them" use the auditorium. And "it had an effect. People started calling [superintendent] Schwartz's office."

If you check the Lewis Mills Web site you'll find the school's list of "Student Expectations," which include personal and academic goals like developing an "awareness of rules and responsibilities of citizens in a democratic society."

So Avery Doninger and her friends did the sort of thing civics textbooks gush about: wanting permission to use property collectively owned by the taxpayers, the kids asked them directly, and received overwhelming support. The people have spoken! Thus did Superintendent Schwartz, acting in her capacity as a well-paid public servant, cleave to public opinion and allow Jamfest to proceed, and everyone involved lived happily ever after.

Just kidding. If it happened that way you wouldn't be reading about it here. What really happened, according to Doninger, was this: "The next day Ms. Niehoff said 'I need to talk to you ... as of now Jamfest is cancelled' ... she said, 'Mrs. Schwartz is really upset, getting all these calls and e-mails.'"

The Advocate couldn't talk to anyone in the administration (that's usually the case when there's pending litigation) to ask their side of the story. So let's continue with Doninger's: the cancellation of Jamfest left her in a vile mood, so she went home and made the infamous "douchbag" blog post. As a result, she was removed from the class secretary position she already held for her junior year, and forbidden from running again as a senior.

The Doningers decided to go to court, and hired attorney Jon Schoenhorn to represent them. "We just wanted the school to count the votes for Avery and reinstate her as class secretary," said Lauren Doninger.

But on Aug. 31, Judge Mark Kravitz ruled with the administration, reasoning that since Doninger wrote something on a Web site that could be read by people at school, that's essentially the same as if she'd stood up in class and shouted it.

"There's three lines of cases that allow restrictions on student's first amendment rights," says Schoenhorn. "One ... developed in the '80s, and had to do with indecent, vulgar or obscene language in school. You can't yell 'fuck you' in the hallways. That is the standard the judge has applied to the Internet."

Free speech isn't the only right granted by the first amendment, which contains other rights that schools can arguably curtail. For example, Doninger's right to freedom of religion probably wouldn't allow her to give in-school speeches exhorting classmates to convert. But suppose she wrote such an essay on her blog. If Kravitz's ruling stands, wouldn't it be possible for school administrators to punish students for religious commentary posted online, too?

"It could," says Ethel Sorokin, a retired attorney who's now president of the Center for First Amendment Rights in Hartford. "Carrying the authority of the school so far out of the school is inappropriate ... schools are supposed to teach citizenship, but students aren't allowed to behave like citizens ... schools should allow students to dissent."

Beth Duffy, chair of the Region 10 Board of Education, takes a different view. Though she wouldn't speak to the press, at a school board meeting on Sept. 10 she handed out a release telling the school's side of the story. "Despite what has been reported in the press ... Ms. Niehoff and Mrs. Schwartz did not infringe on Avery Doninger's First Amendment rights ... citing Constitutional rights as protection for bad behavior does that incredible document a grave disservice."

Schoenhorn countered. "Obviously, whatever document they're talking about isn't the U.S. Constitution," said Schoenhorn. "Are they talking about Azerbaijan?"

"Free speech is [to protect] what we dislike, not what we like," Sorokin added.

So which should prevail: Doninger's Constitutional right to be critical of authority, or the administration's presumptive right not to have its authority criticized? Schoenhorn has filed an appeal, but doesn't yet know when it will be heard.

The Thought Crime Law

originally published in the Hartford Advocate January 3, 2008

The Thought Crime Law
All of Connecticut's Congresspersons signed the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, and none of them want to talk about it. So we called Dennis Kucinich, who read the bill and wouldn't sign it.

By Jennifer Abel

Full disclosure: according to a staff member from the office of Hartford’s own Congressman John Larson, this article is “not a good story.” It wasn’t worth our time to write it, nor the Congressman’s time to discuss it, and probably not worth your time to read it either. Nothing to see here, people. Move along.

Worthwhile or not, the story’s about a bill that recently passed the House of Representatives and looks on track to pass the Senate and be signed into law. Over 98 percent of Congressmen, including all five from Connecticut, voted in favor of it (the final count was 404 to 6), and when a bill passes with such a high majority it’s usually easy to find among that 98 percent a few Congressmen willing to go on the record to say “I voted for this incredibly important bill because blah blah blah.”

Not this time. No one who voted for the bill wants to talk about it. And when we called Larson’s D.C. office hoping to chat, staff member Emily Barocas said: “I used to be a journalist — I was on NPR — so I know where you’re coming from. I know what it’s like to want to get that big scoop, but this isn’t it … I know a good story from a bad story. This isn’t a good story.”

Maybe not. But we’d already spoken to Ohio Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, who’d told us he voted against the bill because it’s “unconstitutional” and “a thought-crime bill.” And a representative of Hawaii, Congressman Neil Abercrombie said his boss voted no because he felt the bill gave law enforcement too much power, and didn’t sufficiently protect individual rights.

So without mentioning any names to Barocas, we thanked her for the advice but said that since we’d already been in touch with 33 percent of all Congressmen who’d voted against the bill, we’d just go ahead and write about it anyway.

What is this Bill of Mystery, that Congresspeople will vote for yet not discuss? It’s called the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, also known as HR 1955, and one of the first things it says is that “Congress finds … The Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing access to ... terrorist-related propaganda to United States citizens.”

The bill also says that “preventing the potential rise” of individual domestic terrorists like Tim McVeigh “cannot be easily accomplished solely through traditional federal intelligence or law enforcement efforts.”

Fine. The Internet helps terrorists and fighting terrorism is hard. So what does the bill plan to do about this?

“You should ask Representative [Jane] Harman of California,” Barocas said when we asked. “She wrote the bill, not Congressman Larson. He wasn’t even a co-sponsor.”

Good idea, except Harman never returned calls seeking comment. (Nor did anyone from the offices of the other four members of Connecticut’s Congressional delegation: representatives Chris Shays, Chris Murphy, Joe Courtney and Rosa Delauro.) Besides, we said to Barocas, since the Congressman voted for the bill he must have felt it worthwhile legislation. Perhaps he could tell us why?

“You ask what this bill allows [law enforcement to do] … the answer is nothing,” Barocas said. “It creates a grant communities can use to stem the tide of homegrown terrorism.”

That caught us by surprise, since we never realized there was a tide of homegrown terrorism threatening to wash over the country. Neither did Texas representative (and GOP presidential candidate) Ron Paul. He was absent the day of the House vote, but in a speech against the bill, Paul called it “an unwise and dangerous solution in search of a real problem. Previous acts of ideologically-motivated violence, though rare, have been resolved successfully using law enforcement techniques, existing laws against violence, and our court system.”

Which goes back to the question, “What does this bill allow law enforcement to do about terrorism that it couldn’t do before?” But Barocas didn’t consider the question worth passing on to her boss. “I just fail to see how having the Congressman answer these questions would be necessary … the more you study this bill the more you realize there’s nothing sinister here. I’ve been a journalist and I know there’s just no story here.”

Congressman and Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich must’ve been unaware of the bill’s lack of storyness when he agreed to talk to us about it. When we asked why he voted it down, we expected him to say something pithy about the importance of civil liberties.

Instead, Kucinich said in a how-obvious tone of voice, “I voted against [the bill] because I read it, which is why I voted against the PATRIOT Act … you’d be surprised how many bills pass because people don’t have time to read it [before voting]. That’s what happens when you’ve got bills flying through the air like confetti at a special-interest parade.”

Or when Congressmen feel that writers and co-sponsors are the only ones who can be expected to know what a given bill says. At any rate, Kucinich wasn’t the only Congressman to compare HR 1955 to the PATRIOT Act; Connecticut’s Chris Shays did as well. In a press release urging his fellow legislators to vote for the bill, Shays wrote: “[Bunch of stuff about the dangers of terrorism.] Then came Sept. 11, and we did wake up somewhat. We reorganized our government and created the Department of Homeland Security. We passed the PATRIOT Act … I think it is absolutely important we pass this legislation.”

But explaining why it’s so important was something the Congressman couldn’t squeeze into his schedule.

The bill says nothing explicitly ominous. It even specifies that “The Department of Homeland Security’s efforts … shall not violate the constitutional rights, civil rights or civil liberties of United States citizens or lawful permanent residents.” So what’s the problem?

“Essentially,” said Kucinich, “the bill moves to criminalize thought by giving an overly broad view of the threat of homegrown terrorism.” Hence the problem: not that the bill threatens anything specific, but that it’s far too vague.

Dave Helfort, a spokesman for Congressman Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, explained why his boss voted against the bill: “After looking it over, he just had a problem with the possibility that it went too far, opened the door to possible violations of privacy … [Abercrombie is] very sensitive to the possibility of giving too much power to law enforcement out of fear and overreaction.”

HR 1955 is written in the vague and eye-glazing bureaucratic language common to government documents (never “help” when you can “facilitate”), and sounds innocuous if you don’t read too closely.

“Violent radicalization,” one of the threats the bill seeks to curb, is defined there as “the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically-based violence to advance political, religious or social change.”

Acts of violence are already illegal, whether stemming from extreme beliefs or not. But “adopting” or “promoting” beliefs is supposed to be covered by the first amendment, which Kucinich said “protects freedom of speech, which should also include freedom of thought — thought usually precedes speech, unless you’re talking about Washington — this undercuts the first amendment, [because] lines like ‘ideologically based’ … says government should police ideas, not conduct.”

Or maybe he’s just being paranoid, to assume that our government, in the name of fighting terrorism, might step on civil liberties in the process.

Emily Barocas stopped taking our calls once it became obvious she wouldn’t dissuade us from writing this non-story. We made one last round of calls to Connecticut’s Congressional delegation in hopes of getting some pro-bill quotes to write here. But the staffers who returned our calls would only speak off the record, and said pretty much the same as Barocas: not that they’d ever worked for NPR, but they just couldn’t understand why we’d bother writing a story about this incredibly minor and unimportant bill.

Thy Brother's Keeper (And Thy Bank's, Too)

originally published in the Hartford Advocate September 27, 2007

Thy Brother's Keeper (And Thy Bank's, Too)

Protecting the assets of wealthy lending institutions is your personal responsibility. Seriously.

By Jennifer Abel

Here's how the five stages of grief play out when you learn that your lucky self is at risk of identity theft because you're one of the 106,000 taxpayers whose names and social security numbers were on the laptop stolen from the Department of Revenue Services last month:

Denial: I don't believe this!
Anger: Dang government, always making innocent people miserable.
Bargaining: I'd give anything for competent leadership.
Depression: Yeah, right, that'll happen (sniffle).
Acceptance: I can't afford to move to Amsterdam.

Once you complete the final phase you can start taking steps to regain control of your destiny, by contacting either Equifax, TransUnion or Experian, the three credit-reporting agencies listed on the DRS letter, and telling it to put a credit alert on your accounts. Whichever agency you call is legally obligated to contact the other two on your behalf.

What's the benefit of a credit alert? According to a Sept. 14 press release from Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (who did not return our calls for this story), "Credit alerts require companies to make a good faith effort to verify the identity of anyone seeking credit or a loan. Alerts must be renewed every 90 days."

Envy me, reader, for the security that's temporarily mine: over the next three months minus the time it takes for this to get to print and thence to you, if anyone contacts the Gigantobank Corporation to say "Hi, I'm Jennifer and I'd like to take out several thousand dollars in high-interest, unsecured credit-card debt," Gigantobank has to make a good-faith effort to ensure it's actually me before burdening my credit record with a legal responsibility to pay them back this money.

This is a special privilege, not a default setting. After I activated it for myself by calling the first company listed on my DRS form letter, I made a few more phone calls in hopes of learning why anyone need bother with credit alerts anyway.

"Protect yourself from identity theft." That phrase, in quotation marks, yielded 141,000 hits in an online search. Take the quotes away and it's nearly two million. Who in America hasn't heard it at least that many times? It's a bona fide part of the zeitgeist. Yet the assumption behind it is false.

The classic identity theft scam works something like this: the thief manages to convince Gigantobank he's actually you, and borrows money in your name. It will be a very annoying and time-consuming process for you to straighten out the mess, but at least you're not liable for the money Gigantobank lost.

Read that last sentence again: it's not your money you're protecting. So how did it become your responsibility (or mine) to protect the assets of wealthy corporations which, in most cases, we've never even done a lick of business with?

The folks I spoke to said that expecting financial companies to make sure it's really you they're lending money to would bring the credit card industry to its knees, which would be an undesirable outcome.

Let's say you've just been informed of the presence of one or more previously unknown credit cards in your name. It's up to you to prove that it's not yours. No "innocent until proven guilty" assumptions apply. Why can't you just tell the company "I never borrowed this money, and if you think I did then prove it?" Why is the onus on you to prove your innocence?

"That's simple," said Jay Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center. "The fact that your personal information was used to open the account."

But calling it my "personal" information sounds like a bit of a stretch these days, doesn't it? Given how commonplace identity theft cases and database security breaches are, it seems folly for credit-card companies and the like to continue pretending that on all God's earth, the only person who could possibly know my social security number and date of birth is me. My credit alert requires companies to make a good faith effort to ensure I'm responsible before loaning money in my name. Why isn't that standard practice?

Foley spoke for several paragraphs that boil down to: this would kill the credit industry as we know it. "If it fell to credit card companies to prove the individual opened the account ... if I walked into a Kmart, or a Wal-Mart, or a Sears," he'd no longer be able to apply for and receive on-the-spot credit.

Nessa Feddis, from the American Bankers Association, put it more succinctly. "If consumers were simply allowed to make the statement 'I owe you nothing' and avoid payment, all consumers could simply make the declaration and avoid paying legitimate debts."

Well, all consumers could certainly try that. But the assumption of innocence until guilt is proven hasn't prevented society from imprisoning criminals, most of whom vehemently deny having committed the crime for which they were convicted. It's up to the prosecution to prove guilt. Why isn't that the case with debts incurred via identity theft?

"Criminal transactions are far less frequent and presumably more serious than loan transactions," Feddis said. "Resolving every loan dispute would clog the courts and make loans far more expensive ... the burden of proof in a criminal case is stronger than in a civil case."

Speaking of civil cases, consider this: if a thief steals your identity, you are (at least) not required to pay the actual bills your identity thief rang up. But neither are you entitled to compensation for the dozens of hours you'll spend clearing up the mess. And if you're unfortunate enough to suffer additional financial consequences, like being denied a mortgage or even turned down for a job because of your unjustly low credit score, you can't sue for damages in a civil court. Why not?

"State laws often allow victims to get compensation from criminals," Feddis observed. "Whether the victim is entitled to compensation from others ... is a matter of state law and tort law. It is no different from any other case where someone incurs damages due to someone else's actions."

Oh, but it's very different from such cases. If I, as a private citizen, make an honest mistake that causes you to be rejected for a loan or denied a job, you can sue me for damages in civil court. But if you suffer this same consequence due to the honest mistake of a credit-card company or credit reporting agency, you have no legal recourse at all.

"Unfortunately, that's right," said Jay Foley. "As much as I hate to say that, that's true."

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Money Down A Rathole

originally published in the Hartford Advocate August 30, 2007

Money Down A Rathole
West Hartford's rodent crackdown penalizes victims and perpetrators alike

By Jennifer Abel

Before discussing the very serious rodent problem plaguing West Hartford, let's get the obvious joke out of the way: "I always knew it was full of rats but figured they had offices in Town Hall, heh heh heh." (Actually, where the current controversy's concerned, it's the West Hartford/Bloomfield Health District most likely to be discussed in rat-like metaphors, but we'll get to that later.)

Jokes aside, there really is a rat-infestation problem in the Elmwood section of town, though of the four-legged rather than political variety. The problem's been ongoing for at least a year, residents say.

"You get up in the morning, walk your dog, you see rats all over," said Rick Dean. "Rats in the road, rats in people's yards, rats on the sidewalk ... especially on garbage day, that's when they all come out to eat."

Dean's neighbor James Cyr concurs. "On the street, around the houses, underneath the porches, they're all over the place."

The species infesting Elmwood is the Norway rat, which has been called "the most destructive animal in North America." It's also one of the fastest-breeding mammals on Earth.

"They can have a litter of young every 21 days," says Steve Huleatt, director of the West Hartford/Bloomfield Health District. "Up to 16 in a litter for this particular species." Statistically, around half of each litter will be female, and newborn females reach reproductive maturity in four months. Also, rats have no mating season, but breed year-round. Do the math: it won't take long for a small rat problem to spawn a big one.

About the only good thing to say regarding the Norway rat is that it wasn't the species that helped spread the Black Death through medieval Europe. That dubious honor goes to the black rat. Still, a plague of Norway rats is nothing to get complacent about. Not that anyone is. Plenty of people in Elmwood have hired the services of exterminators, but the problem's too big for any one property owner to handle.

"One homeowner makes his yard rat-unfriendly, so they just move next door," Huleatt said on Aug. 21, at a public meeting the health department held at the Elmwood Community Center. Since piecemeal exterminations won't solve the problem, the department plans to arrange a single-night mass rat-killing sometime in the near but indeterminate future. At the meeting, Huleatt and West Hartford's mayor Scott Slifka announced that they would put out a Request For Proposals in search of a contractor capable of handling such a huge task.

So far, so good. It's the health department's plans in the interim that have homeowners irate. The department sent letters to 88 people in Elmwood, ordering them all to clean up their rat-infested properties and hire an exterminator.

James Cyr got one of the letters. It says he "was found to be in violation" of local codes because "rat burrows, rodent tracks, and/or other signs of rodent activity were observed on the property."

That's true. The burrows are in a narrow strip of space between Cyr's small garden shed and the high fence separating Cyr's yard from the one behind it. The Advocate came by a few hours after Cyr had buried most of the burrows under fresh dirt, but the rats had already re-dug one of their exit holes.

"I cover one hole, they dig a new hole," Cyr says. He'd had an exterminator come by just that afternoon (at a cost of $75), but "he said there's not much he can do. He can drop the [poison] bait here, but you've got to go to the source to solve the problem."

The source is the yard behind Cyr's. The Advocate peeked over the fence into the yard of a shabby multi-family home and saw a veritable ratopia: piles of rotting garbage, old plant matter half-decayed into compost, and at least a half-dozen enormous rat-burrow entrances near a row of loosely covered garbage cans.

The letter from the health department says "whenever infestation is caused by failure of the owner to maintain a dwelling in a reasonably pest- insect- or ratproof condition, extermination shall be the responsibility of the owner."

But Cyr's infestation isn't caused by any failures on his part: his garbage is kept in a locked shed surrounded by enormous bricks buried deep in the ground. "I did that so the rats can't burrow their way into my garbage shed," he said. His yard is immaculate; the Advocate couldn't find so much as a stray grass clipping, let alone enormous rat-friendly compost piles like the kind behind his neighbor's house.

There's two ways you can wind up with rats on your property: make it a rat-friendly zone, or live close to someone who has.

When the Advocate called Huleatt to ask why people like Cyr received copies of the letter, Huleatt said it's because "for whatever reason, they've either allowed or permitted those rats to get into their yard."

"I'm not 'permitting' the rats to come into my yard," Cyr said with obvious disgust. "I'm doing everything I can to keep them out. How am I supposed to keep them from burrowing into my yard? Should I cover it all in concrete?"

No. That would probably violate town zoning codes. Until the mass kill hopefully wipes out the Elmwood rat problem, homeowners like Cyr have to grin, bear it and literally pour money down the ratholes in their yard, by hiring exterminators who freely admit they can't solve the problem unless they can go to its source.

Will Cyr at least be reimbursed for his exterminator fees? Steve Huleatt said, "I don't know."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dead Dog Blues

originally published in the Hartford Advocate November 22, 2007

Dead Dog Blues
Alan Weisenberg's old pet Chihuahua was confiscated by Animal Control, and later died. He is now being charged with cruelty to animals for letting it live so long.

By Jennifer Abel

Picture a female named Bambi, age 18 or 19 years old. But before investing too much energy in the wrong image, you should know that Bambi is a dog. A Chihuahua, in fact, equivalent to a centenarian in human terms.

So the fact that she died last month really isn't any surprise, but the fact that her owner's facing jail time maybe is.

It's an odd tale. On one side there's Alan Weisenberg, a 58-year-old West Hartford man who is by most accounts a responsible dog owner. Then there's Karen Jones, a town Animal Control officer who is by most accounts a responsible dog warden.

Until Sept. 17, the day Weisenberg says she threatened to arrest him on animal cruelty charges if he didn't have Bambi euthanized.

The dog died in her sleep on Oct. 5, and two weeks later Weisenberg went to the police to turn himself in after learning of an Oct. 16 arrest warrant in his name. Now he's waiting for his Dec. 11 court date, where he faces up to a year in jail.

"[Jones] said, 'when dogs get old ... we should put them down.'" Weisenberg recalled in an interview with the Advocate. "I said, 'Who are you to tell me to put my dog down? If she's dying, she can die at home with her family."

By all accounts the dog was in poor health. "[Bambi's] left leg had arthritis," Weisenberg said. "I used to carry her outside, she liked the warm weather ... I guess it made her arthritis feel better."

Weisenberg knew his old dog didn't have long to live. "I've had her since she was a pup ... I didn't want to put her down. If she was showing she was in pain, crying or something, then I would've said 'All right.' But she didn't."

The incident happened on a warm day on Sept. 17. Usually, when Weisenberg went to work he brought his two large mongrel dogs with him and left Bambi in the house. But that was a particularly nice day, and Bambi wanted to stay outside. And so: "Never done this before, but I had a cord about 15 feet long, and tied her to a tree outside while I went to work for five or six hours. Someone — they never said who — called [town officials] to say they thought the dog was dead."

An elderly, arthritic dog sprawled on a sunny sidewalk might well be mistaken for a dead one.

So far this sounds, at most, like a routine misunderstanding. Weisenberg didn't know Bambi had become a law-enforcement issue until he left work, "got home, and saw a cop and the dog warden."

Bambi was already in the Animal Control truck when he got home, Weisenberg said, so he couldn't simply carry her back inside. Weisenberg says Jones wanted the dog euthanized almost from the start. "She said if you let me put the dog down, I won't charge you with anything."

Weisenberg's roommate Rick Bouchard said he was there and confirms Weisenberg's account of the conversation between the dog owner and the animal control official. "She was threatening to arrest [Weisenberg] and fine him if he didn't release the dog to her," he said.

Weisenberg refused. Animal Control took Bambi to Avon's Farmington Valley Veterinary Hospital, where she stayed for 10 days until Weisenberg's attorney Fred Boland sent police a letter demanding the dog's return.

On Sept. 27 another animal control officer took Bambi to Newington's Fox Clinic, a low-cost facility run by the Humane Society. After being checked by a vet, the dog was released back into Weisenberg's custody.

"She was always thin," Weisenberg said, "but they gave me back a skeleton ... they put her in a kennel somewhere where she was scared to death, probably a cubicle with a hard cement floor ... she was so happy to see me."

Bambi died in her sleep Oct. 5. Weisenberg mourned his dog and figured the matter over. But police were preparing an arrest warrant, completed and dated Oct. 16. Bouchard was the first to learn of its existence.

"I was emptying the garbage about nine, 9:30 at night, and then four cops with flashlights came up — I think it was three police and the animal investigator there — they asked me if I was Alan. I told them no ... I imagine they knew I wasn't Alan; they did not ask for ID." Weisenberg turned himself in the next day.

This is the part of the story where police are supposed to give their version of events. But with Weisenberg's court appearance pending, neither Officer Jones nor Chief of Police James Strilacci can speak to the press. They did return our calls long enough to say they couldn't say anything, and Jones added "I'd be more than happy to help you out after the case is taken care of ... and help you write a good story."

Their version of events can be found in the arrest warrant affidavit, which Boland gave us as soon as he got a copy (two days after we first spoke to Weisenberg). It describes a dog suffering not from old age, but neglectful ownership.

Weisenberg and Boland both say events were twisted just out of focus of the truth.

For one example, the warrant says that Jones felt the dog needed emergency care, but "Weisenberg insisted the dog was fine, just old and that he did not have the funding to pay for her care and might soon be losing his used car business."

Boland and Weisenberg's version of the encounter is that Weisenberg wanted to take Bambi to his own vet rather than the one recommended by Jones because "business has been slow and the Fox Clinic is cheaper."

Parts of the affidavit read a bit ambiguously: one section notes that Bambi was tied to the tree by a 20 foot rope, and later says ,"A bowl of water was visible but at least 15 feet away from where the dog lay collapsed," implying that it was out of Bambi's reach. The report also says the dog lacked shelter.

It's true there's no doghouse in Weisenberg's front yard, but there is a crabapple tree whose sprawling branches provide shade (at least in September; by late November the tree's a largely leafless skeleton). A 15- or 20-foot rope tied to the trunk would be just long enough to let the dog escape the shade and sun herself at sidewalk's edge.

The police report says the Farmington Valley Veterinary Hospital recommended euthanizing Bambi when she arrived on Sept. 17.

But a "to whom it may concern" letter from the Fox Clinic, dated Oct. 31 and referencing the Sept. 27 visit, made no such suggestion; it says Bambi showed no signs of physical abuse or cruelty, but that Weisenberg was advised to "eliminate outside tethering for extended periods of time because of age and health issues." So keeping Bambi outside on Sept. 17 was probably a bad idea (though whether it rises to the level of criminal animal cruelty is another matter).

The state Animal Control Division is a branch of the Department of Agriculture. We called to ask under what circumstances a dog owner could be legally compelled to put his pet down, and were surprised to learn the answer is "none." If a dog is violent the state can confiscate and destroy it, but the owner's not obliged to do so. Therefore, if Jones tried forcing Weisenberg to euthanize the dog, she far overstepped her authority as an Animal Control officer.

But the man who answered the phone at Animal Control seemed very surprised to hear who we were talking about. "That sounds out of character for [Jones]," he said.

Get Off Your Lazy Omnipotent Ass And Help Us

originally published in the Hartford Advocate "Up Front" section July 12, 2007

Get Off Your Lazy Omnipotent Ass And Help Us
Alabama Governor declares a pray-for-rain week for his state.

The drought parching the Southeast has been particularly devastating for Alabama, whose primary industry is agriculture. So Governor Bob Riley has adopted a take-charge, proactive solution to the problem, and issued a proclamation declaring June 30 through July 7 as "Days of Prayer for Rain" week in the state. "I encourage all Alabamians to pray individually and within their houses of worship for sufficient rain," said the press release given by the governor's office.

So how did it work? The good news: last week scattered showers dropped nearly a half-inch of rain on some parts of the state. The bad news: it'll take at least 14 inches to get water levels back to normal. Theological speculation as to why the prayer week failed: Riley asked all Alabamians to pray. That means Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and probably a few Pastafarians too. So you know at least one person in the state prayed to a false and non-existent God, thus annoying the real one enough to negate any brownie points the statewide prayer vigil might otherwise have racked up.

Between The Lines

originally published in the Hartford Advocate June 28, 2007

Between The Lines
Tax activists would love to suggest some cuts to the town budget, only the budget isn’t itemized, so where does the money go?

By Jennifer Abel

You know how some people say that complaining is useless unless you offer some constructive criticism, too? The West Hartford Taxpayers’ Association admits it can’t find much constructive to say.

Get this: a few months ago, when next year’s proposed town budget came out, the association was dismayed to find that once again, tax bills would increase at a rate roughly double that of inflation.

"A lot of people are thinking of leaving town because they can’t afford the taxes," said association president Theresa McGrath. So the WHTA held a petition drive and collected enough signatures to force the referendum, where voters defeated the proposed budget by a margin of nearly three to one.

Score one for the taxpayers’ association. Then ask the obvious question: if they think the budget is too high, what cuts do they recommend?

"I don’t know," McGrath admitted as she sat on the back deck of her modest two-bedroom home and pored through a copy of the budget on the patio table before her. It’s a massive document, that budget, and looks quite impressive: high-quality binder, glossy colored separators, and an overall sense of graphic design much higher than you’d expect for a small-town municipal budget.

Pretty dull reading, though. Nonetheless, McGrath has spent hours poring over it. So why can’t she suggest any cuts?

"The budget is not a line-item budget," she said. "Each department shows a dollar increase, but they’re not telling us what they’re spending it on."

Here’s what she means: suppose you need to cut expenses, and think maybe you can trim a few dollars from your grocery bill. By listing individual food purchases, you can look through them and say "I can save money here by replacing steak with ground beef, and there by replacing Domino sugar with store-brand."

But you can’t do that if all your groceries are lumped together into a single line item labeled "Food." And that’s how West Hartford’s budget is written.

"Wages and salaries for the town manager’s department increased by 18.2 percent [from last year]," McGrath said, pointing out the relevant statement in the budget book. "We were told by his office that his salary wasn’t increasing this year. They said that large percent increase resulted from moving the previous town manager’s salary from another portion of the budget."

Did they say which portion? "No. So we don’t know if that portion of the budget was [correspondingly] decreased."

McGrath showed other vague examples: "fringe benefits" for one town department increasing nearly 40 percent, and "special allocations" for another increasing 127 percent (in this case, $470,000).

Naturally, the Advocate asked the town manager about these increases. Or tried to, anyway — he didn’t return our calls. His secretary says he was stuck in various meetings.

Anyway, those increases were in the old budget, the one rejected in the referendum. Maybe the new version will be more to the association’s liking?

"Nobody’s seen it yet," said Judy Aron, the association’s vice-president, on June 22. "The budget’s supposed to be discussed at the next town council meeting [on June 26], and presented to the Finance and Budget Committee the next morning at eight a.m. … Nobody’s put it on the [town] website. How can we discuss the budget if we haven’t seen it?"

Don't Know Their Assets From Their Elbows

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 22, 2007

Don't Know Their Assets From Their Elbows
Reassessment promises higher tax bills for West Hartford

by Jennifer Abel

Life’s full of things that work well individually but clash together. Like plaids and stripes. Toothpaste and orange juice. And high home values and low tax rates.

Wait, what’s wrong with the last pair? West Hartford property owners will soon learn.

"[There’s] going to be a significant tax increase for many people," says Judy Aron of the West Hartford Taxpayers’ Association. Here’s why: every so often, town governments throughout Connecticut reassess the properties in their jurisdictions, to determine their values for tax purposes. West Hartford’s latest assessment (called a revaluation) took place last year, and residents received their property-value notices in October.

The last revaluation before that was in 1999. And between then and 2006 came this thing called the "housing bubble," where home prices rose far faster than incomes. According to Joanne Ferraresso, the city’s director of sssessment, in 1999 (through 2005) the average assessment for a single-family home in West Hartford was $135,570, compared to $234,300 last October.

That’s an increase of over 70 percent, and even that only applies to homes fair-to-middling by city standards. Overall, "values rose anywhere from 60 to 200 percent," says city spokesperson Renee McCue.

Quite a windfall for anyone who wants to sell a house bought in 1999, but a mixed blessing for those who simply wish to keep living where they are. More value in the home means more value to be taxed.

So where do those low tax rates come in? Next month, in light of the increased assessments, the town’s going to lower its mill rate, used to determine property taxes.

Though mill sounds like million it actually comes from the Latin mille, meaning thousand. It’s a dollar of tax on every $1,000 in value, and since West Hartford’s mill rate was 46.19 last year, homeowners had to pay $46.19 for every $1,000 their home was worth. But this year, "our town manager mentioned something about the mill rate going down almost 10 points," said Judy Aron. "But the reality is, the value of homes have gone up proportionately more than the mill rates will go down."

Actually, the rate is likely to drop at least 15 points, according to the town manager’s report to the council. Though it’s too early to say for sure, the new rate is expected to be around 31.43.

Not low enough, says Aron. She calculated that, with her home’s increased assessment, the mill rate would have to go down to 24.69 for her tax bill to match last year’s. What’s worse for homeowners is that they’re paying taxes on profits they won’t see unless they sell their house. "We’re paying taxes on unrealized capital gains," Aron said.

Ferraresso agrees. "The basis for property tax in Connecticut is ad valorum, meaning it’s based on the value of the property, not your ability to pay or the services you use."

The mill rate is calculated every year, basically by taking the cost of the city budget and dividing it by the property on the grand list. Since the list remains essentially the same between revaluations, residents see their mill rates rise each year and recognize that for the tax increase it is. This year, with the rate drop, some might not realize how much they’ll owe until their tax bills arrive in June.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 27, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake

How much tax money does West Hartford's Board of Education spend on catered meals for itself? They won't tell us.

By Jennifer Abel

The current West Hartford school budget is close to $118 million, about $11,670 per student. According to the CIA World Factbook, this is more than the per capita income of 141 of Earth's 230 nations.

According to the board of education it's still not enough to teach the kids, so they're requesting an extra $7.5 million next year.

There's already grumbling in town about how taxes, once again, are rising higher than inflation. And since the school budget is over 60 percent of the town's total, much of that grumbling's directed toward school spending. It's mostly off-the-record, though, because people who speak against school spending are branded as selfish.

The budget's not presented in a line-item form that lists individual expenses. So when we first heard complaints about the board allegedly having breakfasts and lunches catered to meetings on the taxpayers' dime, we didn't know if this was a big deal or not because we couldn't go to the budget and read "Refreshments: X dollars."

Are we talking "coffee and donuts" or "five-course banquets"? A woman at the Avon Board of Ed. said she usually makes coffee for meetings; Simsbury said they'll provide a meal if they are scheduled back-to-back during the dinner hour. This sounds reasonable; is that what West Hartford's doing?

It'll be simple to ask the board of ed. about this, we thought. Their offices are right on the top floor of town hall. So we stopped by and were eventually referred to Chip Ward, the finance director, who responded to our question with a friendly smile and the suggestion that we make a Freedom of Information request. We handed over the FOI letter we'd printed out in case he said that.

When writing FOI requests, remember that if the person wanted to give you this info, you wouldn't be jumping through FOI hoops to begin with. So you must word your letter carefully, lest you leave a loophole through which the answer can escape.

Alas, we goofed. Our Feb. 6 letter asked, among other things, the cost and number of catered meals provided at board of education meetings. Ward's response, dated Feb. 14 and received Feb. 28, said: "Catered meals are not provided at board of education meetings. They have been provided at an ad hoc basis at special meetings." Oops. Ward mentioned one meal that cost $254.15, and was listed in the budget under "Communications."

Our next letter on Feb. 29 was much wordier and covered (we hope) all meetings having anything to do with the board in any official capacity. Ward's response, dated March 5, said "please be advised that as we are in the midst of budget preparation, it will take several weeks to compile the information requested."

Which means we didn't get it before the school budget hearing on March 27. So how much money are we talking about here? We have no idea.

Billing For The Billets

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 6, 2008

Billing For The Billets

In Connecticut, when you get out of jail, you may get a bill from the state for your room and board

By Jennifer Abel

Afew years ago the Chinese government made a great humanitarian leap forward by outfitting "death vans" with lethal-injection tools and then driving through the countryside executing prisoners along the way. This was a huge improvement over the old system, where they shot you in your own village and then billed your family for the bullet. As the Times of London reported in 2005, "Death by injection costs the state about £63 but is free to the victim's relatives."

Connecticut's pay-for-your-punishment plan differs from the old Chinese model in significant ways, the most important one being that executions are mercifully rare and always free of charge. Prison sentences are another matter; the Department of Corrections runs a spotty program to make (some) inmates pay for their incarceration.

The intent is to recoup actual costs. So we called to let DOC brag about the program's success. The annual Corrections budget "for this year is about $665 million," said spokesman Brian Garnett. The individual cost per inmate depends on where they're kept. "Typically, they're charged the rate of their facility. Minimum security ranges from $50 or $60 [per day], maximum security up to $150."

But he didn't know how much money the DOC got from inmates; that question's for the Department of Administrative Services, which handles the collections.

Spokesman John McKay told us "We had 781 cases in 2007, collected $3.3 million out of those cases." That's just under 0.5 percent of the annual cost.

One reason it's so low is that not every inmate's slated for reimbursement. "There's a tracking system," McKay said. Those who are asked to pay back include "anyone [who] receives a windfall, proceeds from a claim or any type of lawsuit, they're required to reimburse the state."

That also includes inheritances, but "not income," according to McKay. Say for example that a corrupt ex-governor went to prison, got out and then used his connections to land a cushy six-figure consulting-type job at taxpayer expense. How much money did former Governor Rowland pay for his stint in the clink?

"Rowland was in a Federal prison," McKay pointed out. "That doesn't apply."

Many people like the idea of having the state charge for the punishments it doles out. "I'm a law-abiding citizen and I don't get free room and board, so why should criminals?" they say.

We posed the question to Bridgeport attorney Antonio Ponvert. "The measure of our society and how advanced we think we are is ... how we treat the least among us," he said. "If people want to punish and then exact that last ounce of blood, that says something about our society and what kind of people we are."

Thing is, even though Connecticut's program has the stated goal of "fiscal responsibility" rather than "screw you," in practice it seems to work more like the latter.

Take the case of Mark Strickland. He was no angel; several years ago he served time for sexual assault and multiple burglaries. While in prison he won $250,000 in a court settlement against a third party. And had his victims then sued him for damages, we'd cheer them on.

But the state sued him instead. Strickland got that money from a local diocese of the Catholic Church, because back in the '70s he was a little boy unwillingly involved in what later became known as "that priest-molestation scandal."

After paying the state for his time in stir and his lawyer's fees he had only $40,000 left. Last anyone heard, he's living in poverty somewhere in Florida. Although he'd be slightly better off nowadays, according to state Rep. Mike Lawlor, who said that the law changed in 2004. "Now attorney's fees and the costs of the case are excluded."

What's not excluded are cases against the DOC itself. If you're an inmate who sues for mistreatment, or the family member of an inmate killed by the guards, the DOC will pay out any judgments and then take the money right back. "I've had cases," said Ponvert, "where someone's killed in custody [and the state wants] reimbursement for the very day he was killed."

In 1999 a paranoid schizophrenic inmate named Bryant Wiseman stopped receiving his anti-psychotic medication. Two days later he died while being restrained by prison guards. His mother brought a wrongful-death suit against the DOC, and lost. Had she won, however, the state would've charged for the tender loving care her son received in its custody.

We told Ponvert we understood how the program was legal — obviously, because the lawmakers said so — but couldn't understand how it was constitutional. If you take away a man's liberty, then turn around and charge him for the privilege, how does that not run afoul of the "double jeopardy" clause? You can't punish someone twice for the same crime.

"It may not be legal," he said. "I think it's unconstitutional interference with federal civil rights standards [which] allow a citizen to sue the government if the government infringes on their constitutional rights."

It's hard to feel sympathy for some of the folks swept up in the payback net. And yet, we speculated to Ponvert, you could say that crime and punishment is the one area of government that should always run a deficit. Taking away a man's liberty is such a serious matter that you don't want it to be cheap and easy and convenient.

"It all comes back to two things," Ponvert said. "One is enlightened self-interest. No matter how anti-prisoner you are, 95 percent of them are going back into the community ... do you want them living under a debt they'll never be able to satisfy?"

More ominous, says Ponvert, is the message this sends to prison guards. "It allows guards at the DOC to mistreat people with impunity, and creates disincentives to behave like decent human beings according to the Constitution."

Slaves To The Snow

originally published in the Hartford Advocate March 6, 2008

Slaves To The Snow

Why can the town government force you to shovel their sidewalks? Nobody seems to know.

By Jennifer Abel

Ah, the sublime New England joy of awakening to discover that overnight, Mother Nature has quilted the earth beneath a gentle blanket of snow.

That idyllic morning scenario only applies to apartment dwellers, or homeowners in the sticks. Those in West Hartford or anywhere else urban enough to have sidewalks in front of their houses have to get dressed and go shovel off some town property; specifically, that sidewalk we mentioned.

This is hardly unique to West Hartford. It applies pretty much wherever public walkways exist. Here in Connecticut the rule is generally that the sidewalk is public property, but you personally have to maintain it, while in other states it's more the sidewalk is yours, but everybody gets to use it and you have to make sure there's no snow or ice in their way.

Walking through snow and ice is, of course, very annoying and you can slip if you're not careful. Shoveling sidewalks is also annoying, which is probably why the government figures "better you should do it than us."

Disclosure: our current living arrangement makes us exempt from any sidewalk-maintenance regulations. And no matter how annoying the sound of scraping shovels might get, we're too well-bred to even think about ever opening our window and shouting "Stop shoveling so loudly! You're disturbing us here in our cozy warm bed!"

But when West Hartford's e-mail alert service sent out a reminder that the town expects everyone to clean out their sidewalks within 12 hours of snowfall's end (and is also sponsoring some wholesome activities for children), we did call to wonder how these snow-removal mandates got around the 13th amendment to the Constitution.

That's the one which reads "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." This includes West Hartford, most of whose residents lack criminal records.

Town police recommended we bring our questions to the corporation counsel (the attorneys who handle legal matters for the town). Assistant counsel Kimberly Boneham told us "the General Assembly has two statutes allowing towns to require homeowners to clear ice and snow off the sidewalks."

We had no doubt the town was acting within the confines of the law, we told her; what we couldn't understand was how the law passed constitutional muster in the first place. "The court interpretation is 'for the greater good,'" Boneham said.

But there's no "greater good" exemption in the 13th amendment. Boneham suggested we speak to the legislature, so we called the state Senate clerks' office to ask if anybody had ever tried challenging the sidewalk regulations on constitutional grounds, assured him that yes, we were serious but wouldn't be offended if anybody laughed, and after a slightly awkward pause the guy told us, "You'd have to look that up in the [legislative] law library."

And we would've done it, too, only we didn't have time because we had to scrape all the ice and snow off our car.

No Smokin' Babes

originally published in the Hartford Advocate February 28, 2008

No Smokin' Babes

A new law will ban smoking in cars with children

By Jennifer Abel

Think of the children! Seriously, think about them for a second: awww. Truly they are precious, and fragile in many ways. When new laws are proposed in the name of "the children," that generally means more restrictions on adults.

State Senate bill 268, "An Act Prohibiting Smoking In Vehicles With Minor Children," is no exception. It's currently before the Children's Committee, where it was introduced by Senator Henry Genga of East Hartford.

When we called Genga about the bill he told us, "Last year it was introduced ... from a request from a boy who was 9 years old."

America is unique among the world's democratic republics, few of whom let 9-year-olds so much as vote, let alone help write the laws of the land. Though the child's vision was diluted in committee, Genga said: "We reduced it to 'no smoking in cars with small children' ... it's enforceable, and it's practical."

The bill defines smoking as the act of holding "a cigarette, cigar, pipe or similar device ... in the immediate proximity of [the] mouth." It need not actually be lit. And Genga's "small children" are those required to ride in child-restraint seats: 6 years or younger and weighing less than 60 pounds. When asked the rationale for this legislation, Genga recited the usual statistics about how secondhand smoke is very bad for you: poisons, toxins, bronchitis, asthma, allergies, cancer and death.

"I don't believe people know how bad secondhand smoke is to small children," he said.

We wondered about that ourselves, we told him. Up through the mid-'90s you could smoke pretty much everywhere: restaurants, waiting rooms, common areas of shopping malls. Through the '60s and '70s you could even smoke in hospitals and doctors' offices.

"We didn't know then how bad it was," Genga said.

Right, we said, but if secondhand smoke is as harmful as all that, why don't most Americans old enough to remember the 20th century have lung disease by now? And why aren't all the Baby Boomers dead?

"Every time a bullet is fired at someone, do they die?" Genga asked. We didn't agree that smoking upwind of a person is analogous to shooting at them, but Genga told us, "[The Surgeon General] said in 2006, 'There is no risk-free exposure to secondhand smoke.' It raises the risk of health problems 20 to 30 percent in non-smokers."

Which brought us back to our original point, we said; if secondhand smoke is that dangerous then most adults over 25 should have lung or respiratory problems by now, because as kids their exposure to —

"I'm not focusing on that," Genga said impatiently. "I'm focusing on the little children. In cars. An enclosed space."

So if enclosed spaces are the issue here, will the bill make an exemption for smoking in open-top convertibles?

No, Genga said firmly. "If you're in a vehicle with a child in a restraint seat, no smoking."

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Feb. 28, in room 1C of the Legislative Office Building. Those who wish to speak can sign up starting two hours beforehand.