Later On

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Archive for February 8th, 2017

Plato on the process that can deliver someone like Trump

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Andrew Sullivan narrates an intriguing 3-minute animated film:

I was just thinking that I’ve encountered some who really like being told what to do, if they trust the person telling them. Given that trust, these find it restful not to have to evaluate, decide, choose: it’s much more relaxing just following the orders of someone they trust. And such people are not rare.

The video is from Open Culture, where Josh Jones writes:

We stand, perhaps, at the threshold of the singularity, that great event when machine intelligence overtakes our own. The writhing of late capitalism may in fact be the death throes of Western modernity and, for both good and ill, much of its Enlightenment legacy. Institutions like the press and the polling industry have stumbled badly. No amount of denialism will stop the climate crisis. Something entirely new seems poised for its emergence into the world, though what it might be no one seems fully equipped to say. Why, then, should we look back to Plato to explain our epoch, a philosopher who had no familiarity with modern weaponry, artificial intelligence, or information systems?

Perhaps a better question is: do we and should we still value the contributions of European philosophy in contemporary life? If so, then we must allow that Plato may be perpetually relevant to learned discourse. Alfred North Whitehead famously characterized “the European philosophical tradition” as “a series of footnotes to Plato.” Suggesting his agreement with the sentiment, Massimo Pigliucci titled his regular column at The Philosopher’s Magazine, “Footnotes to Plato.” Though he did not invent his mode of inquiry, and often got it very wrong, Plato, he writes, “is a towering figure for an entire way of thinking about fundamental questions.”

There may be few questions more fundamental than those we now ask in the U.S. about tyranny, its origins and remedy—about how we arrived at where we are and what ethical and practical matters lie in the hands of the citizenry. These questions were central to the thought of Socrates, Plato’s mentor and primary character in his dialogues, who had some surprisingly contrarian ideas on the matter in The Republic. Here, as Andrew Sullivan tells us in the BBC Newsnight video above, Socrates theorizes that “Tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”

The statement shocks us, but it also ran counter to the Athenian sentiments of Plato’s day. The picture Socrates paints of democracy’s ills finds its echo in the contemporary conservative’s worldview, but we should point out that Sullivan misrepresents the text he reads as one continuous passage, when it is actually a series of excerpted quotations. And as always, we should be careful not to try and see our own partisan divides in ancient thought. Socrates also had many other things to say the modern right finds truly objectionable.

The problem with democracy, Socrates thought, was . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

8 February 2017 at 6:26 pm

A bit wonky, but very important: The GOP’s sleight-of-hand with health insurance

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Now you see it, now (after the legislation is passed) now you don’t.

Simon Maloy reports in Salon:

In a weird spasm of issue-based programming, CNN elected to host a debate on Tuesday night between Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on the topic of health care. Given the ongoing storm and stress over the Affordable Care Act and the shambolic Republican crusade to “repeal and replace” it, an extended public discussion about health care policy between two prominent elected officials is not the worst thing in the world. The debate actually produced some revelatory moments, particularly with regard to the GOP’s plans for people with pre-existing conditions.

At one point early on in the debate, a woman in the audience who had been diagnosed with breast cancer voiced her concern over what will happen if the Affordable Care Act’s pre-existing conditions protections are repealed. She asked Cruz, “What can you do to protect people like me who are alive because of Obamacare?”

Cruz tried to reassure her that with a Republican replacement for Obamacare, people with pre-existing conditions will be protected: “If you look at every proposal that’s been submitted — every significant Republican proposal that’s been submitted to replace Obamacare . . .  all of them protect people in your situation. All of them prohibit insurance companies from canceling someone because they got sick; they prohibit insurance companies from jacking up the insurance rates because they got sick or injured.”

Cruz was pressed on this by Sanders and the moderators, who wanted to know if he would insist that a Republican Obamacare replacement include a mandate that people with pre-existing conditions would be protected. Cruz then recalibrated his answer slightly, but significantly. “What I’ve said is virtually all the Republican legislation that has been filed that the Democrats have opposed maintains a continuity of coverage so that insurance companies can’t cancel policies,” he said.

Sanders nodded knowingly as Cruz said this, having caught what Cruz was trying to do. “If you listen carefully to what he’s saying, if you go to the doctor tomorrow, and you are diagnosed with a terrible illness, the insurance companies do not have to provide you insurance,” Sanders responded. “That is what Ted said. What he also said, if you have an illness, [insurance coverage] has to be kept.”

“Continuity of coverage” is the key phrase in Cruz’s answer, and it’s the policy idea that Cruz, in his earlier answer, tried to frame as a prohibition on insurance companies discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions.

As Sanders pointed out, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

8 February 2017 at 5:27 pm

China’s going to be eating our lunch globally, starting with Africa

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All our energy and money and attention is on the Global War on Terror, so we’re not doing much cooperative development and foreign aid (which can build alliances). China seems to be playing the long game.

And Trump is certainly not helping, weakening the alliances we have, making other countries wary of us—warier, given the breadth and nature of the US world presence since 9/11.

Read the article by Andrew Jacobs in the NY Times and see what you think.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 February 2017 at 5:23 pm

A real life “Funes the Memorius”: Perfect memories

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Linda Rodriguez McRobbie has a lengthy and interesting long read in the Guardian. If you’ve read Borges at all (and if you haven’t, you should), you’ve read “Funes the Memorius.”

If you ask Jill Price to remember any day of her life, she can come up with an answer in a heartbeat. What was she doing on 29 August 1980? “It was a Friday, I went to Palm Springs with my friends, twins, Nina and Michelle, and their family for Labour Day weekend,” she says. “And before we went to Palm Springs, we went to get them bikini waxes. They were screaming through the whole thing.” Price was 14 years and eight months old.

What about the third time she drove a car? “The third time I drove a car was January 10 1981. Saturday. Teen Auto. That’s where we used to get our driving lessons from.” She was 15 years and two weeks old.

The first time she heard the Rick Springfield song Jessie’s Girl? “March 7 1981.” She was driving in a car with her mother, who was yelling at her. She was 16 years and two months old.

Price was born on 30 December 1965 in New York City. Her first clear memories start from around the age of 18 months. Back then, she lived with her parents in an apartment across the street from Roosevelt Hospital in Midtown Manhattan. She remembers the screaming ambulances and traffic, how she used to love climbing on the living room couch and staring out of the window down 9th Avenue.

When she was five years and three months old, her family – her father, a talent agent with William Morris who counted Ray Charles among his clients; her mother, a former variety show dancer, and her baby brother – moved to South Orange, New Jersey. They lived in a three-storey, red brick colonial house with a big backyard and huge trees, the kind of place people left the city for. Jill loved it.

When she was seven years old, her father was offered a job with Columbia Pictures Television in Los Angeles. He spent a year commuting back and forth from California to New Jersey, until he and her mother decided to move the family out there in the spring of 1974. By 1 July 1974, when Jill was eight and a half, they were living in a rented house in Los Angeles. That was the day, she says, her “brain snapped”.

She had always had a talent for remembering. She had also always dreaded change. Knowing that after they left New Jersey, nothing could ever be the same, Price tried to commit to memory the world she was being ripped away from. She made lists, took pictures, kept every artefact, every passed note and ticket stub. If this was a conscious effort to train her memory, it worked, perhaps better than she ever imagined.

Price was the first person ever to be diagnosed with what is now known as highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, a condition she shares with around 60 other known people. She can remember most of the days of her life as clearly as the rest of us remember the recent past, with a mixture of broad strokes and sharp detail. Now 51, Price remembers the day of the week for every date since 1980; she remembers what she was doing, who she was with, where she was on each of these days. She can actively recall a memory of 20 years ago as easily as a memory of two days ago, but her memories are also triggered involuntarily.

It is, she says, like . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 February 2017 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

It’s Not Foreigners Who are Plotting Here: What the Data Really Show

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Nora Ellingsen writes at

A little more than a week ago, Benjamin Wittes posted a piece about the malevolence and incompetence of Trump’s Executive Order on visas and refugees—an order that, in his words, is both wildly over-inclusive and wildly under-inclusive. If we take the ban and its stated purpose at face value (which Ben argued we should not), at best, the ban is ineffective and fails “to protect Americans.” At worst, as many experts have suggested over the past few weeks, the Executive Order is completely counterproductive. As ten bipartisan former national security officials—four of whom were briefed regularly on all credible terrorist threat streams against the U.S. as recently as a week before the EO—said in a legal brief on Monday:

We view the order as one that ultimately undermines the national security of the United States, rather than making us safer…It could do long-term damage to our national security and foreign policy interests, endangering U.S. troops in the field and disrupting counterterrorism and national security partnerships.

Ben’s piece touched a nerve. It has received nearly half a million pageviews, according to Google Analytics, and was featured this week on This American Life.

In this post, I want to follow up on and flesh out an aspect of the piece that has gotten a lot of attention but much of it in the vein of repetition, not elucidation. Specifically, Ben pointed to some of the most compelling empirical evidence on the issue of ineffectiveness: the EO wouldn’t have blocked the entry of any of the individuals responsible for recent terrorist attacks on American soil. Other media organizations have elaborated on the theme, with various news outlets running stories showing that no one from any of the seven countries included in the Executive Order has carried out a fatal attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. But there’s more to say on this subject and more data to share on it, and I suppose I’m as good a person as any to shed some light.

I know something about domestic terrorism investigations. Before going to law school 18 months ago, I spent five years at the FBI working in an analytical capacity. I spent the majority of that time providing case assistance to FBI agents working international terrorism investigations within the United States—in other words, cases very similar to the ones the president insists we need to keep Muslims out to stop. I spent those five years responding to terrorism threats to the United States, and working cases up until the point of arrest. I also worked extensively with other government agencies and deployed overseas in support of the Bureau’s counterterrorism mission.

Moreover, because of my background, when I started working with Lawfare, Ben asked me to track criminal cases for the site, so I have kept up with the flow of public counterterrorism cases around the country over the last year about as closely as anyone has. I actually know this data—what they say, and what they don’t say.

There may be people around who know the data even better than I do, but one of them is clearly not Kellyanne Conway, who either misspoke on national television in a particularly embarassing fashion or simply made up a terrorist plot. The only true fact she relayed to Chris Matthews about the “Bowling Green massacre,” was this one: “Most people don’t know [about] that because it didn’t get covered.” Indeed, the Bowling Green massacre didn’t get covered—because it never happened. Nonetheless, in response to the media criticism of Conway, the White House released a list of 78 terrorist attacks it says were underreported; the New York Times has annotated the list with the paper’s coverage of every attack.

It is true, however, that the volume of cases is much larger than the media’s appetite for in-depth coverage of them—a fact that is actually true of most crime categories. The FBI arrests dozens of counterterrorism suspects each year and, generally, those cases receive little more coverage than a spot on the CNN ticker at the bottom of your screen. For every successful attack, and every subsequent article asking where and how the FBI went wrong, there are a lot of cases that get interrupted early or mid-stream. Unless you make a conscious effort, you probably won’t hear much about most of them.

So the Bowling Green Massacre aside, it’s possible that Conway is right in some larger sense: that a close look at these cases would show heaps of refugees or immigrants from the seven named countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—plotting to blow things up and shoot up nightclubs and concert halls.

So let’s take a hard look at some empirical data I put together on who the terrorists are and how they relate to the assumptions in the executive order.

For those who don’t want to do this deep dive, here’s a quick two-sentence summary: Conway’s position is empirically indefensible. Absolutely nothing in the large body of data we have about real terrorist plots in the United States remotely supports either a focus on barring refugees or a focus on these particular seven countries.



The Data

All of othe data I’m going to cite come from official Justice Department documents that have been made publically available by the department. I began assembling them with a review of the National Security Division’s press releases, available here, and I tracked all counterterrorism subjects arrested or charged since January 1, 2015. When determining a subject’s immigration or citizenship status, I used the criminal complaint or indictment. At times, I had to review additional court documents to determine the details of a plot or a subject’s background. But all data here come from the official court docket; to the extent I rely on any outside sources, I explicitly refer to those outside sources explicitly below. . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

8 February 2017 at 3:21 pm

“Nevertheless, She Persisted” and the Age of the Weaponized Meme

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Megan Garber has a relevant article in the Atlantic:

There are many ways that American culture tells women to be quiet—many ways they are reminded that they would really be so much more pleasing if they would just smile a little more, or talk a little less, or work a little harder to be pliant and agreeable. Women are, in general, extremely attuned to these messages; we have, after all, heard them all our lives.

And so: When presiding Senate chair Steve Daines, of Montana, interrupted his colleague, Elizabeth Warren, as she was reading the words of Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor on Tuesday evening—and, then, when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell intervened to prevent her from finishing the speech—many women, regardless of their politics or place, felt that silencing, viscerally. And when McConnell, later, remarked of Warren, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” many women, regardless of their politics or place, felt it again. Because, regardless of their politics or place, those women have heard the same thing, or a version of it, many times before.

All of that helps to explain why, today, “Silencing Liz Warren” and #LetLizSpeak are currently trending on social media platforms—and why, along with them, “She Persisted” has become a meme that is already “an instant classic.” It also helps to explain why you can now buy a “Nevertheless, She Persisted” T-shirt, or hoodie, or smartphone case, or mug, each item featuring McConnell’s full explanation—warned, explanation, persisted—scrawled, in dainty cursive, on its surface. As the feminist writer Rebecca Traister noted of the majority leader’s words: “‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ is likely showing up on a lot of protest signs this weekend.” And it’s likely to keep showing up—a testament to another thing American culture has told its women: that “silence” doesn’t have to equal silence.

It started like this: On Tuesday evening, during a late-night Senate session debating President Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to become attorney general, Warren used her time at the podium to read a letter that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., had written about Sessions in 1986. King, a civil rights leader in her own right, was opposing Sessions’s potential (and, later, realized) elevation from U.S. attorney to federal judge. Warren began reading the words King had written (to then-Senator Strom Thurmond): “It has been a long uphill struggle to keep alive the vital legislation that protects the most fundamental right to vote. A person who has exhibited so much hostility to the enforcement of those laws”—

At this point, Daines, the senator presiding over the session, interrupted Warren, citing Senate Rule XIX and its stipulation that “no Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” The matter was put to a vote; it went down party lines; Warren was not permitted to continue. After this, McConnell was asked to explain himself and his party’s silencing of his Senate colleague.

And then: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” And with it, as the Chicago Tribune put it: “Mitch McConnell, bless his heart, has coined a new feminist rally cry.” Indeed: On the internet, “Nevertheless, she persisted” was applied to images not just of Warren and King, but also of Harriet Tubman, and Malala Yousafzai, and Beyoncé, and Emmeline Pankhurst, and Gabby Giffords, and Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton, and Princess Leia. It accompanied tags that celebrated #TheResistance.

The meme is, as of Wednesday morning, still going strong. It hit a nerve—the same nerve, roughly, that had been hit by “binders full of women” and “such a nasty woman” before it.

But it hit something else, too: all the notes that allow shared words to swell into shared emotion. You couldn’t have designed better fodder for a meme had you tried. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 February 2017 at 2:30 pm

Serial Killers Should Fear This Algorithm

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Robert Koker writes in Bloomberg Businessweek:

On Aug. 18, 2010, a police lieutenant in Gary, Ind., received an e-mail, the subject line of which would be right at home in the first few scenes of a David Fincher movie:

“Could there be a serial killer active in the Gary area?”

It isn’t clear what the lieutenant did with that e-mail; it would be understandable if he waved it off as a prank. But the author could not have been more serious. He’d attached source material—spreadsheets created from FBI files showing that over several years the city of Gary had recorded 14 unsolved murders of women between the ages of 20 and 50. The cause of each death was the same: strangulation. Compared with statistics from around the country, he wrote, the number of similar killings in Gary was far greater than the norm. So many people dying the same way in the same city—wouldn’t that suggest that at least a few of them, maybe more, might be connected? And that the killer might still be at large?

The police lieutenant never replied. Twelve days later, the police chief, Gary Carter, received a similar e-mail from the same person. This message added a few details. Several of the women were strangled in their homes. In at least two cases, a fire was set after the murder. In more recent cases, several women were found strangled in or around abandoned buildings. Wasn’t all of this, the writer asked, at least worth a look?

The Gary police never responded to that e-mail, either, or to two follow-up letters sent via registered mail. No one from the department has commented publicly about what was sent to them—nor would anyone comment for this story. “It was the most frustrating experience of my professional life,” says the author of those messages, a 61-year-old retired news reporter from Virginia named Thomas Hargrove.

Hargrove spent his career as a data guy. He analyzed his first set of polling data as a journalism major at the University of Missouri, where he became a student director of the university’s polling organization. He joined an E.W. Scripps newspaper right out of college and expanded his repertoire from political polling data to practically any subject that required statistical analysis. “In the newsroom,” he remembers, “they would say, ‘Give that to Hargrove. That’s a numbers problem.’ ”

In 2004, Hargrove’s editors asked him to look into statistics surrounding prostitution. The only way to study that was to get a copy of the nation’s most comprehensive repository of criminal statistics: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, or UCR. When Hargrove called up a copy of the report from the database library at the University of Missouri, attached to it was something he didn’t expect: the Supplementary Homicide Report. “I opened it up, and it was a record I’d never seen before,” he says. “Line by line, every murder that was reported to the FBI.”

This report, covering the year 2002, contained about 16,000 murders, broken down by the victims’ age, race, and sex, as well as the method of killing, the police department that made the report, the circumstances known about the case, and information about the offender, if the offender was known. “I don’t know where these thoughts come from,” Hargrove says, “but the second I saw that thing, I asked myself, ‘Do you suppose it’s possible to teach a computer how to spot serial killers?’ ”

Like a lot of people, Hargrove was aware of criticisms of police being afflicted by tunnel vision when investigating difficult cases. He’d heard the term “linkage blindness,” used to describe the tendency of law-enforcement jurisdictions to fail to connect the dots between similar cases occurring right across the county or state line from one another. Somewhere in this report, Hargrove thought, could be the antidote to linkage blindness. The right person, looking at the information in the right way, might be able to identify any number of at-large serial killers.

Every year he downloaded and crunched the most recent data set. What really shocked him was the number of murder cases that had never been cleared. (In law enforcement, a case is cleared when a suspect is arrested, whatever the eventual outcome.) Hargrove counted 211,487, more than a third of the homicides recorded from 1980 to 2010. Why, he wondered, wasn’t the public up in arms about such a large number of unsolved murders?

To make matters worse, Hargrove saw that despite a generation’s worth of innovation in the science of crime fighting, including DNA analysis, the rate of cleared cases wasn’t increasing but decreasing—plummeting, even. The average homicide clearance rate in the 1960s was close to 90 percent; by 2010 it was solidly in the mid-’60s. It has fallen further since.

These troubling trends were what moved Hargrove to write to the Gary police. He failed to get any traction there. Sure enough, four years later, in October 2014, in Hammond, Ind.—the town next door to Gary—police found the body of 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy in a room at a Motel 6. Using her phone records, they tracked down a suspect, 43-year-old Darren Deon Vann. Once arrested, Vann took police to the abandoned buildings where he’d stowed six more bodies, all of them in and around Gary. Anith Jones had last been seen alive on Oct. 8; Tracy Martin went missing in June; Kristine Williams and Sonya Billingsley disappeared in February; and Teaira Batey and Tanya Gatlin had vanished in January.

Before invoking his right to remain silent, Vann offhandedly mentioned that he’d been killing people for years—since the 1990s. Hargrove went to Gary, reporting for Scripps, to investigate whether any of the cases he’d identified back in 2010 might possibly be attributed to Vann. He remembers getting just one helpful response, from an assistant coroner in Lake County who promised to follow up, but that too went nowhere. Now, as the Vann prosecution slogs its way through the courts, everyone involved in the case is under a gag order, prevented from speculating publicly about whether any of the victims Hargrove noted in 2010 might also have been killed by Vann. “There are at least seven women who died after I tried to convince the Gary police that they had a serial killer,” Hargrove says. “He was a pretty bad one.”

Hargrove has his eye on other possible killers, too. “I think there are a great many uncaught serial killers out there,” he declares. “I think most cities have at least a few.”

We’re in a moment when, after decades of decreases nationally in the overall crime rate, the murder rate has begun creeping upward in many major U.S. cities. For two years running, homicides in major cities jumped on average more than 10 percent. (Those increases aren’t uniform, of course: Chicago leapt from 485 reported killings in 2015 to 762 in 2016, while the number of murders dipped in New York and Baltimore.) President Trump, in the campaign and since, has vowed to usher in a new era of law and order, hammering away on Twitter at Chicago’s “carnage” in particular.

Threats of federal intervention aside, it will be difficult to fix the problem of high murder rates without first addressing clearance rates. So it’s fortuitous, perhaps, that we are living in an age in which the analysis of data is supposed to help us decipher, detect, and predict everything from the results of presidential elections to the performance of baseball players. The data-focused approach to problem-solving was brought to life for a lot of people by Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, which introduced the non-baseball-nerd public to the statistical evaluation of Major Leaguers and made a hero of Billy Beane, an executive with the Oakland A’s. Law enforcement would seem to be a fertile area for data to be helpful: In the 1990s the New York Police Department famously used data to more shrewdly deploy its officers to where the crimes were, and its CompStat system became the standard for other departments around the country.

What Hargrove has managed to do goes a few orders of magnitude beyond that. His innovation was . . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

. . . Police in large cities with stubbornly high murder rates point the finger at gang- and drug-related killings, and the reluctance of witnesses to come forward to identify the murderers. “The biggest problem is that everyone knows everyone,” Chester, Pa., Police Commissioner Darren Alston told the Philadelphia Daily News in September. (Chester’s homicide rate outstrips all other U.S. cities’—and is more than double that of nearby Philadelphia.) City residents, in turn, point to a lack of trust in the police. But one other obvious problem is resources. “We fund homicide investigations like we fund education—it comes down to a local tax,” Hargrove says. “When an economy fails enough and we just have to start firing cops, we see everything going to hell.”

MAP [Murder Accountability Project] tracks staffing trends on its website, too. Hargrove notes that Flint, Mich., and Dayton, Ohio, have seen their clearance rates fall more than 30 percentage points since the 1990s, coinciding with huge reductions in police manpower (330 to 185 officers in Flint; 500 to 394 in Dayton). When Hargrove’s group filed a FOIA request to get homicide data about a suspected serial killer in Detroit, the response was that the police lacked the budget to fulfill the request. “What do you do when a city says, ‘We’re too broke to even try to pull the records?’ ” Hargrove says. “I joke that what we’ve done is to create what amounts to a failed government detector.”

There is a case to be made, though, that clearance rates aren’t just a function of a police department’s staffing. Priorities and management also figure heavily. In 2000, Charles Wellford, a criminologist at the University of Maryland, published a seminal paper in which he identified the commonalities for departments that do effective murder clearance. No. 1 on that list was ensuring that cops are able to chase leads in the critical early hours after a murder, even if that means earning overtime pay. Wellford’s current research looks closely at the amount of money spent per officer, the amount spent per case, and the percentage of detectives on the force. Clearance rates, Wellford says, “are very much determined by priorities and resources. I’m beyond thinking that’s an open question. The question now for me is: How can we use the resources departments have to improve what they’re doing in clearing serious crimes?”

The most discouraging thing Hargrove has learned since starting his organization is how many police departments around the country not only ignore the FBI’s data but also don’t bother sharing their data with the FBI at all. Among the offenders: the state of Illinois, which MAP has sued for the information. Hargrove recently reported that homicides were more likely to go unsolved in Illinois in 2015 than in any other state: Only 37.3 percent of the 756 homicides were cleared. That dreadful clearance rate would seem to go a long way toward explaining Chicago’s notoriously climbing homicide rate, just as the president and others start searching for solutions. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

8 February 2017 at 2:00 pm

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