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AP: Body-camera maker has financial ties to police chiefs

The Associated Press reported Taser International, the stun-gun maker emerging as a leading supplier of body cameras for police, has cultivated financial ties to police chiefs whose departments have bought the recording devices, raising a host of conflict-of-interest questions. A review of records and interviews by The Associated Press show Taser is covering airfare and hotel stays for police chiefs who speak at promotional conferences. It is also hiring recently retired chiefs as consultants, sometimes just months after their cities signed contracts with Taser. Over the past 18 months, Taser has reached consulting agreements with two such chiefs weeks after they retired, and it is in talks with a third who also backed the purchase of its products, the AP has learned. Taser is planning to send two of them to speak at luxury hotels in Australia and the United Arab Emirates in March at events where they will address other law enforcement officers considering body cameras.

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Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Watchdog report: Jail suicides

The Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle reports Ramon Vazquez, who used a sheet to hang himself from the bars of his cell at the Monroe County Jail on April 3, 2012, was the first inmate to die by suicide at the jail since 2005. He was not the last — four more prisoners killed themselves at the South Plymouth Avenue facility between 2012 and last year. What led to the spike after a seven-year stretch without a single suicide? The Monroe County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, said each death was unfortunate, but isolated, and not a sign of any underlying problem with the care or supervision of inmates. Jail officials instead pointed to their efforts to manage widespread mental illness in a large population of prisoners, many of whom are held at the facility for just a matter of days. But a pair of lawsuits argue that the jail, its overseers and its former health care contractor did too little to protect at least two prisoners who showed clear signs that they were mentally ill and at risk of harming themselves.

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Arizona Republic: As the river runs dry: The Southwest’s water crisis

The Arizona Republic reports the vast and highly urbanized Southwest, built on the promise of a bountiful Colorado River propped up by monumental dams, is up against its limits. Already tapped beyond its supply, the river is now threatened by a warming climate that shrinks its alpine source. To support fast-growing urban populations in a time of dwindling supply, the Southwest is due for rapid and revolutionary changes. A region that uses two-thirds of its water outdoors, and mostly for agriculture, will have to find ways of sharing and boosting efficiency — a shift that many experts believe will mean city dwellers paying to upgrade rural irrigation systems. Cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, which have reduced their per-person water usage through better landscaping and appliances, will have to do better. They lag behind Los Angeles, whose growing population, by necessity, uses no more water than it did 40 years ago.

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Austin American Statesman: Student loan debt weighs on economy

The Austin American Statesman reports that amid rising college education costs, the country is seeing a surge in student loan debt and in those borrowers’ delinquency rates. The combination, lawmakers and policy experts say, has led to a new kind of debt crisis, and one that could become a long-term threat to the U.S. economy. The U.S. student loan debt market, which grew 7.1 percent to a record $1.2 trillion last year, is now the second-largest form of consumer debt behind housing, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It’s nearing the size of the $1.3 trillion subprime home mortgage market that helped spark the last recession. The impacts have been wide-ranging: Record numbers of students are returning home as they delay a laundry list of economic and personal decisions from buying homes to getting married. Many say they are also reconsidering their career prospects.

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Tennessean: Arsenic in water from coal ash center of TVA dispute

John Kammeyer, the engineer in charge of coal combustion products for the Tennessee Valley Authority, compares the environmental pollutants in a coal ash pond to the minerals in a bottle of vitamins. Photocopied and enlarged, the list of supplements is the first evidence he presents to show that concerns are overblown about the Gallatin Fossil Plant contaminating the source of drinking water for almost 1 million people. Arsenic is not a vitamin supplement, but it is produced by coal-fired power plants and found in the resulting waste. Coal ash is that byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity. It contains mercury, arsenic and other pollutants harmful to people and the environment when found in high concentrations. Kammeyer says the amount of arsenic discharged at Gallatin is too small to matter, that the ponds storing coal ash waste aren't leaking and that they withstood the 2010 flood without any problems. But TVA memos, other government records and independent tests contradict his statements.

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Dayton Daily News: How clean is your favorite restaurant?

The Dayton (Ohio) Daily News reports restaurants in Montgomery County had a 5.3 percent increase in critical health violations in 2014, and inspections of food establishments found close to 6,400 total violations of Ohio food code. Those are the finding of a Dayton Daily News investigation of 5,980 inspections of 2,670 food establishments logged by Public Health Dayton and Montgomery County. Critical violations are designated by the Ohio Department of Health as code infractions that have the most potential to spread food-borne illness and are the most potentially dangerous to customers’ health.

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Charlotte Observer: UNC grad school pushed to take players

The Charlotte Observer reports that Michael Waddell had a low grade point average, no entrance exam score and was months past the deadline when an athletic official sought to have the football player admitted to University of North Carolina’s graduate school in fall 2003. John Blanchard, then a senior associate athletic director, made the request, which was granted, after classes began, on Sept. 5, just as Waddell was about to be declared ineligible to play against Syracuse the following day, according to records obtained by The News & Observer. Waddell is one of several athletes UNC athletics officials sought to keep eligible to play by getting them into graduate school, according to Cheryl Thomas, the graduate school’s admissions director from 2002 to 2010.

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Portland Press Herald: Small town danger in Maine: Not enough firefighters

The Portland (Maine) Press Herald reports only four firefighters on the China Village Fire Department are trained to enter a burning building. The department needs at least six to launch an interior attack to put out a fire. When Fire Chief Tim Theriault looks at his roster of 22 volunteers, he sees only four under the age of 50; he had 15 or more volunteers under age 50 a decade ago. Some on the roster now are in poor health. Others, between jobs and family, have no time for the additional training they need. And many of the volunteers, while willing, aren’t able. It’s a challenge facing small fire departments across Maine: They can’t slow the steady decline in residents who volunteer to fight fires, and they can’t afford full-time staff. At the same time, a decline in state revenue sharing and fewer 9/11-inspired grants have tightened municipal budgets, while the demand for fire and rescue services is increasing.

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Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Georgia governor’s key staff gets big raises

Gov. Nathan Deal’s victory in November has resulted in a windfall for top aides and senior officials, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned. Most of the governor’s aides saw their six-figure salaries raised 10 percent, and the governor’s longtime chief of staff is making nearly as much as the governor himself. Others tapped by Deal to move into new jobs received salaries that are tens of thousands of dollars more than their old ones, the AJC found. And dozens of Georgia’s top appointed officials also received hefty pay raises this fiscal year.    The pay hikes come as Deal is offering state agencies just 1 percent to provide raises to lower-level staffers. School districts are also being given extra money that systems can use, if they like, to boost teacher pay.    But few if any are expected to get anywhere near a 10 percent hike.   

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Washington Post: More and more private police carry guns and make arrests

The Washington Post reports citizens in Virginia can gain police powers using a little-known provision of state law that allows private citizens to petition the courts for the authority to carry a gun, display a badge and make arrests. The number of “special conservators of the peace” — or SCOPs, as they are known — has doubled in Virginia over the past decade to roughly 750, according to state records. The growth is mirrored nationally in the ranks of private police, who increasingly patrol corporate campuses, neighborhoods and museums as the demand for private security has increased and police services have been cut in some places. The trend has raised concerns in Virginia and elsewhere, because these armed officers often receive a small fraction of the training and oversight of their municipal counterparts. Arrests of private police officers and incidents involving SCOPs overstepping their authority have also raised concerns.

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AP: States seek alternatives for highway, bridge funding

The Associated Press reports a 200-mile span of Interstate 70 between suburban St. Louis and Kansas City, touted as one of the first interstate highways, stands as a prime example of the challenges facing the nation's roads. Built in the 1950s and '60s with a 20-year-life expectancy, the four-lane highway is crumbling beneath its surface and clogged with traffic as it carries more than 30,000 vehicles a day on many of its rural stretches, requiring more frequent repaving. The cost to rebuild and widen it is estimated at $2 billion to $4 billion — as much as five times the projected yearly construction and maintenance budget of Missouri's transportation department. And there is no easy way to pay for it.

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Columbus Dispatch: Ohio’s oil-and-gas industry, court ruling linked?

The Columbus Dispatch reports an Ohio Supreme Court justice lamented last week that “the oil and gas industry has gotten its way” in a decision that says local governments can’t regulate drilling. “What the drilling industry has bought and paid for in campaign contributions they shall receive.” The dissenting opinion of Justice William M. O’Neill in a fracking case was not without factual basis: Ohio’s oil-and-gas industry poured about $1.4 million into the campaign coffers of legislators and other state officials in 2013-14 — including about $8,000 for the justice who wrote the pro-industry ruling and $7,200 for another who concurred — a Dispatch computer analysis shows. Catherine Turcer, policy analyst for Common Cause-Ohio and a longtime advocate for greater campaign-finance transparency, said she was taken aback by the direct linkage of public policy and campaign cash. “Ohio’s oil-and-gas industry is no different from any other industry or business in supporting legislators who understand the issues and who want to pursue sound public policy,” said Shawn Bennett, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association.

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Spokesman-Review: Most city workers earning above median income

The Spokesman-Review in Washington reports a communications supervisor in the Spokane Police Department last year took home almost $50,000 in overtime pay, the most the city paid in 2014. The overtime pay didn’t quite double her base salary, but it did raise her total wage to about $130,000, putting her among the top earners at City Hall. Her pay, however, was dwarfed by two fire battalion chiefs who retired last year – as well as about 90 other city workers. Both men were paid more than $100,000 in “other” pay, such as vacation and sick time payouts. That drove their total pay to about $275,000 for the year and made them the highest-paid employees at City Hall last year – by a long shot. Compared to the average Spokane worker, nearly everyone at City Hall makes good money. Nearly 90 percent of people paid by the city last year made more than $42,092, the median household income in Spokane, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

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Belleville News-Democrat: Some 70 percent of sex crimes not prosecuted

The Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat reports thousands of women, teenage girls and children in a 32-county area of Southern Illinois have told police they were sexually violated by someone they trusted: a friend, an ex-boyfriend or a family member. However, authorities did not prosecute seven out of 10 of these sex crime suspects from 2005-13, even though victims were able to identify their attackers 95 percent of the time, according to a Belleville News-Democrat investigation. While national attention has focused on rape on college campuses and in the military, a review of more than 1,000 police reports and 15,000 pages of court records showed that failure to bring sex crime suspects to court was widespread throughout Southern Illinois during the nine-year period ending in 2013, the latest figures available.

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Los Angeles Times: County fire officials shared test questions used in hiring

The Los Angeles Times reports an audit probing allegations of cheating in the Los Angeles County Fire Department's hiring process found that high-ranking officials improperly shared job interview questions and answers that were supposed to be confidential. The audit was launched in response to a Times investigation last year which found that an unusually high number of family members of firefighters were hired by the department and that insiders had access to the interview questions and answers. The county review determined that 17 sworn department officials, including one battalion chief and 10 captains, had obtained the testing materials and sent them to others, including to non-county email accounts.

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Sacramento Bee: Vanishing water, fewer jobs, but still hope in Central Valley

The Sacramento (California) Bee reports America’s largest agriculture economy is changing because of a lack of water. Amid a prolonged drought and an anticipated third straight year of cutbacks in federal water supplies, the one assured constant is stress. Farmers who can afford them are sinking wells, extracting groundwater that works for groves of almonds and pistachios. But the groundwater is generally too salty for crops of vegetables and grains that have made the Central Valley the nation’s food basket. And questions persist over how long the groundwater supplies will last – and whether growers will get enough of the reservoir water they crave. In California’s $40 billion agricultural sector, farmers face hard choices on what to plant and how much. They weigh crop losses and the costs of acquiring new ground or surface water supplies against cutting labor or selling off their farms.

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Denver Post: Banned from 16th Street: Court orders dozens to stay away

The Denver Post reports Lucas Alejos, a homeless 21-year-old, has spent the past two years getting high, selling weed to buy crystal meth, shoplifting, stealing and illegally weaving down the 16th Street Mall on his skateboard. At night, he sleeps "anywhere," sometimes curling up in the vestibule outside a Taco Bell or a bank downtown. This is why he was banned from the mall. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people have been banned from the mall, the most densely populated street in all of Colorado and Denver's No. 1 tourist attraction. The policy — little-known outside law enforcement and the courthouse — raises questions about the balance between public safety and civil rights, and the effectiveness of banning drug addicts, shoplifters and general troublemakers from one area of the city. Authorities do not track area restrictions or study their effectiveness, so it's unclear whether they curb crime or move it elsewhere.

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New Haven Register: State budget far short of need for severely disabled

The New Haven Register reports hundreds of families in Connecticut are caught between caring for loved ones with severe disabilities and a state Department of Developmental Services budget that doesn’t approach the need. According to Walt Glomb of Vernon, the father of a child with disabilities and a business consultant, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget staff estimated day services would cost $233.7 million in fiscal 2016 but the proposed budget is $11.2 million short at $222.5 million. Similarly, residential services are estimated to cost $485.2 million, compared with the proposed $480.9 million recommended for this year. “Some of us are scratching our heads when they talk about increases,” Glomb said. The other big problem, however, is a waiting list for residential services that officially numbers 667, including only emergency and so-called Priority 1 clients, and is actually closer to 2,000 when less disabled people are included, according to advocates.

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Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel: Condo board stuck in turmoil

The Ft. Lauderdale (Florida) Sun Sentinel reports state regulators ordered a Hallandale Beach condo president to resign immediately after learning he was a convicted felon. Robert Picerno refused. When a state investigator told Picerno to reinstate two owners improperly kicked off the De Soto Park Condominium board, he said no. When regulators demanded association records, he declined. And when they served him with a subpoena, he ignored it. Picerno's defiance eventually cost residents of the seven-building, 549-unit complex in the Three Islands neighborhood a total of more than $16,000 in fines. Now state regulators are looking into owners' allegations that Picerno misspent $177,000 in condo money while Hallandale Beach Police investigate possible embezzlement, grand theft and fraud, a detective told the newspaper.

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Indianapolis Star: Sometimes, police seize cars, homes -- with no charges filed

The Indianapolis Star reports asset forfeiture laws crafted to fight organized crime, such as drug cartels and money laundering groups, sometimes snare people facing minor drug possession charges, or no charges at all, an Indianapolis Star review has found. To get back their homes, cars and savings, people are forced to engage in lengthy legal battles. One Fort Wayne man whose truck was improperly forfeited after a drug investigation in 2008 fought all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court — and won — a victory that took nearly three years to achieve. Law enforcement officials say misuses of the law are rare, and the seizures are an important tool. But Attorney General Eric Holder, defense attorneys and legal experts are beginning to question the fairness of a program that allows officers to seize property first, and file charges later. In January, Holder said local agencies would no longer be able to use federal law to seize the assets of people not yet convicted of crimes.

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Louisville Courier-Journal: Girl Scout cookie makers fear firings over OT

The Louisville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal reports employees at a Louisville factory that churns out millions of Girl Scout cookies each year say they're forced to work six and seven days a week and face firing if they refuse mandatory weekend shifts and overtime. Some of them, who've worked for decades at what was once known as Mother's Cookies in Shively, say they've reached the breaking point but fear losing hard-won wages and pension benefits if they quit or press for better treatment. The complaints have surfaced not merely because the workers had to step up production of Thin Mints, Samoas and Trefoils now en route to customers in Louisville and across the country. But the plant has boosted its output of other cookies in the past year. The bakery was acquired from Keebler in March 2001 by Michigan-based cereal giant Kellogg Co., which says through a spokeswoman that employees must work overtime to avoid "a production shutdown."

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Kansas City Star: Questions surround economists who assess Missouri legislation

The Kansas City Star reports that when Missouri lawmakers evaluate legislation, they rely on a nonpartisan staff to tell them how much money any particular bill could cost state government. In many cases, those legislative researchers rely on the expertise of economics professors at the University of Missouri’s Economic & Policy Analysis Research Center, or EPARC. On bills altering the state’s income tax code — including the high-profile tax cut battles that have raged over the last few years in Missouri — EPARC helps determine the legislation’s price tag. But the center’s role in that process is beginning to raise eyebrows.

Many of the economists working for EPARC, including its director, have financial ties to organizations with strong ideological leanings — most notably a group founded by conservative megadonor Rex Sinquefield.That has led some who have historically opposed Sinquefield’s tax-slashing political agenda to wonder whether the information that ends up in the hands of legislators is as objective as it’s advertised.

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New York Times: Many watch but brutality at Rikers Island persists

The New York Times reports that on Sept. 2, four correction officers pulled Jose Guadalupe, an inmate classified in medical records as seriously mentally ill, into his solitary-confinement cell at Rikers Island and beat him unconscious. A little over two months later, three guards wrestled another inmate, Tracy Johnson, to the floor, pepper-sprayed him in the face and broke a bone in his eye socket. Then, on Dec. 9, yet another group of officers beat Ambiorix Celedonio, an inmate with an I.Q. of 65, so badly that, as surveillance footage later showed, he had bruises and scratches on his face and blood coming from his mouth. The brutal confrontations were among 62 cases identified by The New York Times in which inmates were seriously injured by correction officers between last August and January, a period when city and federal officials had become increasingly focused on reining in violence at Rikers.

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Charlotte Observer: North Carolina hospitals curb suits against patients

The Charlotte Observer reports North Carolina hospitals have sharply curtailed their use of a controversial practice – filing lawsuits against patients who don’t pay their bills. An analysis by The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh found that lawsuits by the state’s hospitals dropped by more than 45 percent from 2010 through 2014 – from about 6,000 to 3,200. At Carolinas HealthCare System, the state’s largest hospital system, the drop has been even sharper. The Charlotte-based hospital system filed about 1,400 lawsuits against patients last year – roughly half the number it filed in 2010. One hospital, Iredell Memorial in Statesville, has stopped filing lawsuits against patients. In 2013, it was one of the state’s most litigious hospitals, filing about 270 bill-collection lawsuits. Last year, it filed none.

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