2019
March
14
Thursday
Noelle Swan
Deputy Daily Editor

It will be quite some time before we have a clear picture of what happened on board Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. But already the crash is raising questions about the role of automation in aviation systems.

Part of what makes Sunday’s crash so shocking is that such incidents have become remarkably rare. Automation has played a key role in improvements in the industry’s safety record. But many in the aviation community have long cautioned that too much reliance on automation could backfire, with pilots no longer having the experience to comfortably take over the plane in the event that the systems fail.

What’s more, the feedbacks to which pilots are trained to respond when flying manually are affected by automated systems, making it increasingly difficult to go back and forth between the two.

Such is the catch-22 of any automated safety system. By reducing the window of human error, automation offers a heightened sense of safety. The risk, however, is complacency could replace constant vigilance.

This challenge extends far beyond the world of aviation. When it comes to driving, a proliferation of automated systems, from adaptive cruise control to lane departure prevention, promises improvements in safety. But there is a danger that as these systems become more commonplace drivers will become even more distracted and lose the experience of manual driving.

As automation becomes more integrated into our lives, society will need to grapple with these tensions. Every technological breakthrough comes with trade-offs. It is up to us to decide whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

As a bonus read, our Congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer reports from Capitol Hill, where the Senate voted 59-41 to deny the president emergency powers to fund his wall.

Now on to our five stories for today, including an investigation into how police departments are incorporating restraint into use-of-force training and a deep dive into the current shift away from arms control.

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1. Once a darling, Big Tech becomes a target

The push for regulation of the technology industry is about more than Facebook. It’s about a world coming to terms with how information shapes people’s lives.

Noelle

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Privacy concerns are seriously tarnishing the image of Big Tech, once the darling of Washington for its innovation and jobs-creating prowess. High-profile data breaches, criminal probes of Facebook’s tracking of its users, and the steady stream of Russian use of social media to influence elections have caused a backlash, both among the public and in Congress.

One poll last summer showed two-thirds of Americans want Washington to act to protect privacy. This week, Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., rolled out a proposed update for the children’s privacy law. And broader data privacy laws are in the works, with the tech industry backing the idea of a national law rather than a potential patchwork of state measures.

Still, the pendulum isn’t swinging fully toward Europe’s ambitious new privacy protections. Big Tech is urging lawmakers to strike a balance. “We definitely want a federal privacy law that is uniformly and strongly enforced,” says Linda Moore, CEO of industry trade group TechNet. But “we don’t want it to have a chilling effect on innovation.”

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Once a darling, Big Tech becomes a target

When Facebook announced on March 6 a new emphasis on user privacy, much of the public reaction was along the lines of “we’ll believe it when we see it.” And two days later, when Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren pledged that her priorities would include breaking up giant tech companies like Google and Facebook, responses were similarly skeptical.

The grains of salt are warranted. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to respond to public concerns about privacy before. Major antitrust actions to bust apart giant companies are rare.

Yet those recent announcements also symbolize a change that has occurred over the past year or so. Public concerns about online privacy are on the rise. Prominent researchers are wondering aloud if the rise of “Big Tech” is bad for both the economy and society. Politicians of both parties are increasingly talking about the need for a national law to provide data-commerce rules of the road – and the industry itself increasingly agrees.

“There has been an enormous shift,” says Andrea Limbago, chief social scientist at Virtru, a technology firm focused on data protection. And it’s needed, she argues. “In the United States, we really need to have a counterweight to that movement that’s going on [globally toward] digital authoritarianism.”

Although the shift is significant, it doesn’t mean the pendulum is swinging completely toward an embrace of strict internet regulation and a “delete Facebook” rejection of Silicon Valley’s giants.

Legions of consumers are still hooked on Google searches, buying things on Amazon, and checking social media daily or hourly. (When Facebook and its sibling services Instagram and WhatsApp ran into simultaneous derailments Wednesday, users vented and adapted in the only way they knew how – by posting on Twitter.)

Beware the states?

In fact, the momentum for a federal data-privacy law is partly rooted in the technology industry’s desire to hold regulatory impulses in check, rather than await the prospect of disparate and sometimes stringent state-level legislation.

Perhaps the central question surrounding proposed federal legislation is whether it will block states from enacting their own laws (as the industry and many innovation advocates urge).

Many Democrats in Congress are wary of preempting state laws unless they feel assured a new federal law will have sufficiently broad protections and enforcement for consumers.

Their desire for a strong law is bolstered by a range of indicators and incidents: 

  • A succession of high-profile data breaches have hit the news, including one revealed by Facebook last fall that affected as many as 30 million of its users.  
  • On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that federal prosecutors had launched a criminal investigation into Facebook’s deals to share user data with other firms. Separately, the Times has reported on mobile-app companies that track users’ locations without informing them that the data could be used in targeting ads.
  • Polls over the past year have found a majority of Americans concerned about data privacy and want government to act (with two-thirds saying that in one SAS survey last summer).
  • Official government reports have amplified concerns about efforts by Russia-based groups to influence U.S. elections, including the 2016 presidential race.

Last August, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats described the latter trend as part of a “pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.”

To Ms. Limbago, it’s part of a global battle over how information will shape people’s lives. The Russian efforts, she says, are just one example of how, if unchecked, authoritarian practices can ripple from one nation to another. Conversely, she adds, steps to strengthen online data protection in the U.S. could help promote greater data integrity worldwide.

Others agree.

“It’s not just about protected privacy and competition. It’s really about what is the nature of our liberty in the 21st century both in America and around the world and other democratic societies,” says Jeff Chester, who heads the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer advocacy group in Washington. “That’s really what’s being decided.”

Backlash started in 2018

Although the public backlash started earlier, the changed atmosphere in U.S. policymaking circles began emerging last year as executives including Mr. Zuckerberg were called before Congress to testify and as Republicans joined Democrats in the grilling.

Although the fate of bills is far from certain, bipartisan efforts at legislation on a range of tech-industry issues are underway in both the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate.

This week, it was Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who took a turn, rolling out a proposed update for the law on children’s privacy. Then lawmakers questioned tech executives about location tracking and other data-collection practices. And Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted his support of Massachusetts Senator Warren, after reports that Facebook briefly took down some of her ads calling for the company’s breakup.

“She’s right,” Senator Cruz tweeted. “Big Tech has way too much power to silence Free Speech…. A serious threat to our democracy.”

Although President Donald Trump has also criticized Big Tech giants like Amazon, the pendulum hasn’t swung all the way to Europe’s ambitious new protections of privacy.

A key question is how to balance privacy protections with continued U.S. leadership in new data-based products and services.

“We definitely want a federal privacy law that is uniformly and strongly enforced,” including a role for state attorneys general and a better-funded Federal Trade Commission, says Linda Moore, CEO of TechNet, a trade group for the industry. But “we don’t want it to have a chilling effect on innovation.”

Lessons from Europe

She and others note the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that went into effect last year has created new compliance costs that are harder to bear for small companies than large ones. The result is that, in effect, Big Tech has been getting bigger as a share of Europe’s information services market.

Ms. Moore says the U.S. has a chance to learn from Europe’s experience in creating legislation that guards against too-high compliance burdens while also helping consumers have transparency and control over how their data is used.

The question of whether a few firms have grown too powerful is another piece of the puzzle.

Senator Warren argues for possibly breaking off portions of Google, Amazon, and Facebook, based partly on the idea that a single company shouldn’t be both a key platform for online commerce and a provider of services on that platform.

Her proposal may be a long shot, but it has won some fans. And even defenders of existing antitrust law say it may need to be applied with more rigor toward those tech giants.

At the same time, others point to the penchant of younger Americans to shy away from Facebook – and of some longtime users to abandon the platform – as signs that the industry isn’t as monopoly-prone as critics say. Conservative analyst James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute critiqued Senator Warren’s proposal by pointing to a Fortune magazine cover from 1998 that has proved less than prescient in hindsight: “How Yahoo! won the search wars.”

Focus on the big or the small?

Economists, meanwhile have been debating whether the rise of powerhouses like Amazon and Facebook have helped or hurt the overall economy.

However that debate over antitrust concerns shakes out, some say it’s important not to focus regulatory attention mostly on the highest-profile firms.

“The bigger driver of violating that privacy are these hidden data aggregators and data brokers that gather up information,” companies that consumers have no conscious relationship with, says Kirsten Martin, a technology expert at George Washington University. “They have an even more nuanced view of us than Facebook, because they’re buying all the little bits of data from all over, [from offline shopping to] our browsing history.”

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2. In California, two proposed laws with one aim: saving civilian lives

California last updated its use-of-force law in 1872. “So much about this discussion is getting people ... to recognize that things need to change,” says one law enforcement expert.

Noelle
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Police stand in front of City Council chambers in Sacramento, California, as a disruption breaks out March 5. Community members expressed anger over the decision by the Sacramento County district attorney to not file criminal charges against the two police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark last year.

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Beyond the protests, fallout from Stephon Clark’s death could reverberate beyond Sacramento. In the coming months, state lawmakers will weigh a pair of bills to reform police conduct that would precipitate a significant shift in officer training statewide.

One proposal would require the more than 500 law enforcement agencies in California to strengthen internal policies for de-escalation training and limiting the use of lethal force. Another measure would tighten the state’s use-of-force guidelines and enhance the ability of prosecutors to charge officers for killing civilians.

“Police training basically hasn’t changed in 25 years,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “There’s a growing recognition that some of the strategies we had don’t work and that police culture needs to change and catch up to where American culture is.”

Police agencies in California endorse plans for more training but warn that efforts to expose officers to greater criminal liability could cause them to hesitate when confronted by suspects.

“Every officer wants to avoid using deadly force whenever possible,” says David Mastagni, a lobbyist for police labor unions. “But you also have to give weight to not increasing the exposure of officers and private citizens to unnecessary harm.”

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In California, two proposed laws with one aim: saving civilian lives

The two police officers who shot and killed Stephon Clark behind his grandmother’s home in Sacramento last March recounted their actions in interviews with police investigators later that night. Officers Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet described the frenzied seconds when they pursued Mr. Clark after responding to a report of a suspect breaking car windows on the city’s south side.

As a police helicopter swirled overhead, the officers spotted him at the side of the house and ordered him to stop and show his hands. He instead slipped around the back, and as they ran after him, Mr. Mercadal reached the rear corner of the house first.

According to interview transcripts released last week, the officer said he saw Mr. Clark in a shooting stance and “a metallic reflection or muzzle flash – something coming at me. So I – I was scared. I thought he was shooting at me.”

He lurched back behind the corner. Moments later, as captured in police videos, he and Mr. Robinet peered around it again and opened fire. They hit Mr. Clark at least seven times. He was unarmed; they found his cellphone on the ground next to his body.

Twenty-one seconds elapsed between when the officers first yelled at Mr. Clark and when they fired the last of 20 bullets. In that span, the father of two joined the list of unarmed black men fatally shot by police in recent years, a series of high-profile deaths that includes Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Corey Jones in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida; and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

Earlier this month, following separate investigations, the Sacramento district attorney and the California attorney general announced that no criminal charges would be filed against Mr. Mercadal and Mr. Robinet. The decisions reignited protests that flared a year ago in the capital city in the days after Mr. Clark’s death, with police arresting more than 80 people during one march last week.

The fallout from Mr. Clark’s death could reverberate beyond Sacramento. In the coming months, state lawmakers will weigh a pair of bills to reform police conduct that would precipitate a significant shift in officer training statewide.

One proposal would require the more than 500 law enforcement agencies in California to strengthen internal policies for de-escalation training and limiting the use of lethal force. Another measure would tighten the state’s use-of-force guidelines and enhance the ability of prosecutors to charge officers for killing civilians.

Some law enforcement experts regard both bills as essential to deter fatal shootings by officers.

“Police training basically hasn’t changed in 25 years,” says Chuck Wexler, who leads the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement research and policy organization in Washington that has taught de-escalation tactics to law enforcement agencies across the country. “There’s a growing recognition that some of the strategies we had don’t work and that police culture needs to change and catch up to where American culture is.”

Many of the fatal confrontations between police and unarmed black men that have gained national attention ended within seconds. The pattern has incited public outrage amid the mounting toll of officer-involved shootings – 3,943 people died in such incidents from 2015 through the end of last year, The Washington Post found.

The magnified scrutiny has prompted a reckoning for law enforcement. Police agencies in California endorse plans for more training yet warn that efforts to expose officers to greater criminal liability could cause them to hesitate when confronted by suspects for fear of later facing prosecution.

“Every officer wants to avoid using deadly force whenever possible,” says David Mastagni, a Sacramento attorney and lobbyist for police labor unions. “But you also have to give weight to not increasing the exposure of officers and private citizens to unnecessary harm.”

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Flojuane Cofer joins other in expressing her anger during a disruption of the Sacramento City Council during meeting Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Sacramento, Calif. Community members expressed anger over the decision by the Sacramento County district attorney to not file criminal charges against the two police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark, 22, an unarmed vandalism suspect, last year.

A dawning awareness

Mr. Wexler’s group has devised a set of guiding principles for officers to defuse confrontations through nonlethal methods. The approach emphasizes verbal tactics, slowing down an encounter by backing off, and calling in mental health specialists, more officers, and other personnel.

National law enforcement groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, have adopted the strategies. An embrace of de-escalation techniques by police departments has corresponded with a decline in officer-involved shootings in several cities, ranging from Dallas and Philadelphia to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

The reforms in Los Angeles and Seattle, among other cities, occurred under federal oversight after investigators uncovered patterns of discriminatory policing and excessive use of force. Federal authorities announced last week they would evaluate whether Sacramento police violated Mr. Clark’s civil rights; his family has filed a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the officers involved.

Mr. Clark’s death led Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn to request a state review of his department’s use-of-force policies. In January, the California attorney general’s office recommended dozens of changes, urging the agency to expand its use of de-escalation tactics and require officers to “exhaust all reasonably available alternatives before using deadly force.”

A report from Sacramento County’s inspector general last fall prescribed similar remedies after the shooting death of an unarmed, mentally troubled black man by three officers in 2017.

Americans own an estimated 393 million firearms, and the number of guns in the hands of criminals presents what Mr. Wexler, who began his career with the Boston Police Department, dubs “an occupational concern” for officers. At the same time, he points out, the rising support for de-escalation methods parallels a dawning awareness among police for the need to reconsider an enduring tenet of law enforcement.

“We used to hear police say, ‘The most important thing is for officers to go home safely tonight,’ ” he recalls. “Now we’re hearing more police say, ‘The most important thing is for everyone to go home safely tonight.’ ”

Police in California fatally shot an average of 151 people a year between 2015 and last year, the most of any state. New York officers killed a combined 68 people over the same period. Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and an expert on use of force, ascribes the toll in California, in part, to a failure of training.

“The average cop isn’t an elite, special-forces operator. You’re recruiting civilians to be cops and then you’re asking them to make life-and-death decisions,” he says. “But they don’t have enough training to know how to resolve these situations. And so it’s not really a surprise that there are bad outcomes.”

State Sen. Anna Caballero has proposed the legislation that would establish a statewide training standard for use of force. The measure, backed by California’s major law enforcement labor groups, would also mandate that police agencies create policies for using de-escalation tactics and other alternatives to lethal force.

Senator Caballero suggests that conditioning officers to pull back and consider their options when circumstances allow will lower the odds of encounters turning deadly. “We want to give police the training so they can make better choices to keep themselves safe as well as the public,” she says.

In his 2017 book “When Police Kill,” Franklin Zimring explored why the annual number of people shot dead by police in recent years has remained almost constant at about 1,000, even as the overall violent crime rate has dropped. He concluded that the internal policies of most of the country’s 18,000 police agencies give officers too much latitude to start shooting – and keep shooting.

“The rules that are in place now tend to be, ‘If the first shot was justified, so was the 19th.’ That’s nuts,” says Mr. Zimring, director of the criminal justice research program at the University of California, Berkeley. Nearly half of the victims of police shootings were either unarmed or carrying a weapon other than a gun. He estimates that requiring agencies to amend use-of-force guidelines and integrate de-escalation strategies would save hundreds of lives a year.

“I don’t want every police officer to be running his own police department and making up his own rules,” he says. “There have to be simple administrative rules in place that make clear when and how much force is acceptable.”

‘A sense of justice’

California police officers have shot and killed 27 people so far this year, 14 percent of the national total of 197. One incident unfolded last month in Vallejo, some 30 miles from San Francisco, where six officers killed a young rap artist who fell asleep in his car in a Taco Bell drive-through lane.

Police officials released a statement after the shooting that claimed Willie McCoy was “unresponsive” and had a handgun in his lap when the first officers arrived on the scene. Finding his car doors locked, they stepped back without attempting to wake him. A short time later, he “began to suddenly move,” and they ordered him to raise his hands.

The officials say that Mr. McCoy ignored the commands and reached for his gun. The officers fired an estimated 25 rounds at him; the barrage of gunfire lasted four seconds.

The Solano County district attorney is reviewing the shooting. One of the officers involved in the confrontation fatally shot an unarmed man during a physical struggle last year. Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against him in that case.

Federal and state court rulings on justifiable homicide grant police wide authority to use deadly force, and officers seldom face prosecution for killing civilians in California or elsewhere.

One widely cited study found that, while nearly 1,000 fatal shootings by police occur each year, a total of 80 officers were arrested on murder or manslaughter charges from 2005 to 2017. Mr. Zimring argues that the disparity reinforces a perception of police impunity.

“The limits of criminal law on officer-involved shootings are terrible,” he says. “Training and rules can change behavior, but for those officers who don’t change, there needs to be more effective criminal prosecution.”

California last updated its use-of-force law in 1872. The statute permits officers to apply deadly force if they have an “objectively reasonable belief” that a suspect could cause death or serious injury. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber has co-written a bill that would raise the threshold by allowing use of lethal force only when “necessary” to prevent a suspect from inflicting harm.

The legislation would also bar police departments from invoking that justification if an officer’s “criminally negligent actions” create the need to use deadly force. In effect, the proviso would prod agencies to adopt de-escalation policies and hand prosecutors more leverage to bring charges in fatal shootings.

“This is about trying to change the culture on the ground,” Ms. Weber says of the bill, which has drawn support from the American Civil Liberties Union. “Each police department creates its own policy, and those policies are not vetted by the public or legislature. This would be a statewide policy.”

Law enforcement groups worked to spike a similar measure that she proposed last year after Mr. Clark’s death. Then as now, opponents assert the legislation would lead to officers second-guessing their decisions in the heat of a confrontation, compounding the danger to them and private citizens alike.

Police shootings in California killed 115 people last year compared with 162 in 2017. Mr. Mastagni, the police union lobbyist, views Senator Caballero’s bill as the best approach for further lowering the figure.

“If police departments have clear use-of-force policies and you give officers the training they need, you’re going to have better outcomes,” he says. “If you change the standard for use of force, you’re only going to put them at higher risk of injury and death.”

Yet studies show that law enforcement agencies with strict use-of-force guidelines report lower rates of violence against police – in addition to fewer officer-involved shootings – than those with more lenient policies. Ms. Weber says her bill would rebalance the legal scales in questionable police shootings and restore a measure of public faith in the criminal justice system.

“The standard for use of force that we have now ties the hands of the attorney general and district attorneys, and it frustrates the community,” she says. “The change from ‘reasonable’ to ‘necessary’ will give the community a sense of justice.”

Washington voters approved a ballot initiative last fall that provides prosecutors with greater leeway to charge officers involved in negligent shootings and mandates de-escalation training for police.

Ms. Weber and Ms. Caballero are Democrats, who hold a supermajority in California’s statehouse. Lawmakers could enact reforms comparable to Washington’s by passing both bills or forging compromise legislation. Mr. Wexler suggests that, whatever the result, the debate can help policing evolve.

“So much about this discussion is getting people – law enforcement – to recognize that things need to change,” he says. “As that happens, what it will accomplish is the most important thing: saving more lives.”

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A deeper look

3. A budding nuclear threat, from more than just the usual suspects

With major powers shifting away from nuclear treaties, tensions around the world are rising. Is there room for guardrails on nuclear weapons in this increasingly multipolar world?

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Karen Norris/Staff

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As the U.S. and Russia back away from the Cold War arms control regime, a new arms race looms. And this time, it wouldn’t just be the two largest nuclear powers. The recent India-Pakistan flare-up is a reminder that even regional conflicts can pose a global threat when the antagonists possess nuclear weapons. Moreover, cybersecurity risks and the specter of hacking nuclear arsenals add an element of uncertainty and instability to a post-arms control world.

Still it’s largely the U.S. and Russia that are setting the tone. In February the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. More worrying still for many in the arms control community: The White House is debating whether to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which expires in 2021. If New START lapses, it will be the first time since 1972 that the world’s two nuclear-weapons behemoths have no arms control constraints holding them back.

What would it take to extend it? The provision for a five-year extension of the treaty’s terms is already in the document, so “it would just take Putin and Trump sitting down and signing an agreement,” says Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association. “But it does require the will to sign something that is not just in your interest but is in the other side’s as well.”

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3. A budding nuclear threat, from more than just the usual suspects

Over the summer of 2017, as President Trump was promising “fire and fury” in response to North Korea’s provocations and a nuclear confrontation seemed closer than it had in decades, a funny thing was happening in American backyards. Personal bomb shelters, all the rage at the height of U.S.-Soviet nuclear tensions in the 1960s and ’70s, were suddenly once again a hot item – perhaps as some Americans recalled the frequent photos of mushroom clouds and nuclear-blast drills in the classrooms of their youth. 

Since then Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has mellowed as Kim Jong Un has gone from being public enemy No. 1 to occasional summit buddy. After two meetings between the two leaders, a nuclear conflagration initiated by Pyongyang seems less of an imminent threat – even though the most recent parley, in Vietnam in late February, ended in an impasse over Mr. Kim’s nuclear arsenal.

As a consequence, the spike in interest in backyard bunkers to protect from nuclear fallout has abated.

Yet despite the pacifying of still-complicated relations between the United States and North Korea, some Americans might find their interest in fallout shelters rekindled. As the U.S. and Russia back away from the Cold War arms control regime that banned some weapons systems and reduced their nuclear stockpiles, a new arms race threatens on the horizon. And this time, it wouldn’t just be the two largest nuclear powers, but would likely extend to China and other lesser nuclear powers – and perhaps to some new members drawn into the nuclear club.

Nicole Neri/Reuters
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pose at their recent summit in Vietnam that ended in an impasse over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

The recent flare-up of tensions between India and Pakistan has served as a reminder that even conflicts between regional rivals can pose a global threat when the antagonists possess nuclear weapons. A growing alarm has spread across Asia as an increasingly assertive China expands its nuclear arsenal and deploys missiles around its periphery at a pace that has given it the world’s largest ground-launched missile arsenal.

Moreover, the advent of cybersecurity risks and the specter of nuclear powers hacking into and controlling adversaries’ arsenals adds a new element of uncertainty and instability to the already worrisome prospects of a post-arms control world.

Still it’s largely the U.S. and Russia, which together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, that are setting the tone. And the two nuclear giants appear to be dismantling, step by step, the arms control regime that has limited their deployment of new weapons systems and indeed had them reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles over recent decades. The risk is not just that the two major nuclear powers get back into an arms race, but that other states respond to rising tensions by joining the buildup. A Japan rattled by a nuclear buildup already has the technology and material to “go nuclear” with a weapon in a matter of months, experts say, while the decades-old specter of a Middle East nuclear arms race has been revived by Trump administration efforts to sell nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia that could be used to build a bomb.

“We’re pulling down the last pillars of the arms control building that has provided us with some degree of security and stability for five decades,” says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund in Washington and a longtime nuclear policy expert. “If the small and medium states decide to take their cue from the big boys,” he adds, “it’s ‘Gentlemen, start your engines!’ ”

After dropping hints for months, the U.S. announced in February its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which since 1987 has banned the deployment in Europe of all intermediate-range nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles. These are considered among the most destabilizing weapons systems because of the short time it takes (average six minutes) from launch to hitting their target. 

The U.S. said it was pulling out of the Cold War-era accord over Russian violations. While arms control experts agree that Russia has been violating the treaty for a half-decade, most also say the U.S. withdrawal hands President Vladimir Putin the double-headed political victory he wants – an excuse to free Moscow from the INF Treaty’s limitations while blaming its demise on Washington.

Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a state of the nation address in Moscow, sternly warning the United States not to deploy new missiles in Europe.

Indeed, Mr. Putin wasted no time in ratcheting up the Cold War “we will bury you” rhetoric. In his Feb. 20 state of the nation address, he told members of the Russian Duma that if the U.S. deploys intermediate-range missiles in Europe, Russia will not only do the same – but will deploy its new Zircon hypersonic missile to target “those regions ... where decisions are taken on using those missile systems threatening us” – meaning, of course, the U.S.

More worrying still for many in the arms control community, both in and out of government and among America’s allies, is what follows INF’s demise. A White House that came into office withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal is now debating whether to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia beyond its expiration in 2021.

If New START – which puts a cap of 1,550 on the long-range nuclear weapons each power can deploy – is also allowed to lapse, it will be the first time since 1972 that the world’s two nuclear-weapons behemoths have no arms control constraints holding them back from a new arms race.

“We have destroyed the old framework of arms control without having anything to replace it with,” says Andrey Kortunov, director of the foreign ministry-linked Russian International Affairs Council. “It’s my hope that big powers will realize that they need arms control, perhaps in a multilateral rather than the old bilateral form, but something that will roll back the most destabilizing weapons and build trust.”

Russia, which in many respects is a receding power, is likely to seek to hold on to its nuclear parity with the U.S. at all costs. That’s because its nuclear arsenal represents one of the last vestiges of a bygone superpower status. It’s a prime reason Moscow responds so vehemently to any violations (perceived or otherwise) by the U.S.

Moscow is also likely to respond to the end of INF’s ban with diplomatic overtures aimed at dividing Western Europe from the U.S., some experts say. While the move is unlikely to bring about a separate nuclear deal between Europe and Russia, Moscow could nonetheless sow the seeds of division in the transatlantic partnership just by trying.

For most experts, the overarching risk is that an increasingly multipolar world with no guardrails on nuclear weapons will lead to a dangerous new arms race before nations can ever get serious again about limiting them. “Until then, we just have to go through this dead zone,” Mr. Kortunov says. “We are headed for completely uncharted waters.”

It was never going to be easy to renew the INF Treaty to begin with. For some, the return of big-power competition in the world – which now includes an ascendant China – ended any hope for arms reduction and nonproliferation efforts. Yet while the security blanket of Cold War arms control agreements may be unraveling, some believe the era of shrinking nuclear arsenals isn’t over.

Bob Daugherty/AP/File
President Ronald Reagan (r.) and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev exchange pens during the signing of the INF Treaty in 1987.

“There’s a reason why [President] Ronald Reagan came to the conclusion in 1984-85 that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought, and there are many people – on both sides of the aisle in Congress, at the Pentagon, among our allies and partners around the world – who still hold that conviction and believe that arms reduction through dialogue and controlling proliferation is the best path to security,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. 

The next big test of arms control diplomacy’s flagging fortunes will be New START and whether the U.S. and Russia decide to extend the decade-old treaty or let it die. The provision for a five-year extension of the treaty’s terms is already in the document, so “it would just take Putin and Trump sitting down and signing an agreement,” Mr. Kimball says. “It could be done with a big Sharpie pen. But it does require the will to sign something that is not just in your interest but is in the other side’s as well.”

Beyond agreements between the U.S. and Russia, experts say ways must be found to convince China and other regional powers that nuclear reductions are in their interest as well. Moreover, perhaps the biggest challenge on the horizon will be bringing emerging technologies such as cyber- and space weaponry under the umbrella of international limits and prohibition.

In the short term, much will depend on the Trump administration. And that has many arms control advocates worried, largely because they see the White House national security adviser as a ferocious opponent of any international constraints on American power.

“John Bolton thinks the constraints of arms control agreements weaken the U.S., and do not strengthen its security, and he has been busy killing off our agreements one by one” at least since the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty the U.S. withdrew from in December 2002, Mr. Cirincione says. 

Leah Millis/Reuters
A decommissioned Titan missile, once part of the US nuclear arsenal, is displayed at a museum in Sahuarita, Ariz.

Yet others believe no one should assume the treaty is dead. “All indications are that there is a strong debate in the White House on extending New START, but if you listen to what senior officials are saying, it shows that the administration as a whole is committed to arms control,” says Thomas Callender, a senior fellow for defense programs at The Heritage Foundation in Washington. “But as [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo has said, there has to be compliance by both parties, and it has to be verifiable.”

The U.S. might seek to modify New START as a condition for extending it, Mr. Callender says – for example by including limits on hypersonic weaponry. The U.S. does not yet have such weaponry, while Russia claims its hypersonic missiles are operational. But both powers could see an interest in at least limiting such weapons, he says, “because they are very expensive systems to develop and deploy.”      

As for the demise of INF, Mr. Callender says that more than anything else it reflects how much the world has changed in the 30 years since the treaty went into effect. “INF was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia,” he says, “but since then 30 countries have [deployed] either ballistic or cruise missiles in the range” banned by the 1987 accord.

Mr. Callender notes that Congress has already approved funding for the U.S. to “catch up” with Russia and other powers by developing new ground-based defensive and offensive cruise missile capabilities. More problematic – and potentially divisive – would be getting European allies to agree to stationing the new weaponry on their soil.  

Europe has been the biggest beneficiary of the INF Treaty. It eliminated thousands of nuclear missiles from the continent and helped end the Cold War. Even so, European governments have made remarkably little fuss about the treaty’s imminent demise. 

This is partly because its eradication would have little immediate impact on European security. The U.S. and its NATO allies have put in place a variety of air- and sea-launched nuclear weapons that don’t fall under the INF umbrella, which means Europe wouldn’t be left vulnerable.

“This won’t change anything profound in the operational environment,” says Ian Lesser, head of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank.

As a result, NATO sees no need to counter what it calls Russia’s illegal deployment of intermediate range missiles with its own ground-launched nuclear weapons. By not putting in such batteries, Europe avoids something else: the prospect of another divisive debate like it had 40 years ago over the deployment of missiles that turned the continent into a potential nuclear battlefield.

KCNA/Reuters/File
North Korea conducts a missile test in an undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency in August 2017.

Europe’s relative quietude can also be explained by one other dynamic: Its leaders simply don’t think they can do much to forestall the INF’s demise. European nations are not parties to the treaty, Moscow deals only with Washington on nuclear issues, and Mr. Trump has not demonstrated much enthusiasm for the sort of diplomatic engagement that Europe would advocate.

Still, if the end of the INF would have only limited implications for Europe’s security, its symbolic impact could be huge. Many Europeans associate the INF with the end of the Cold War, and “this is seen as a step back in time towards a Cold War,” says Oliver Meier, a security expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

The timing of a unilateral U.S. withdrawal could also be problematic. This may not be the best moment for Western allies to be rehashing such a fraught issue. “Debating something as dramatic as nuclear deployments in today’s more nationalistic atmosphere ... with growing European concern about Washington’s reliability as a strategic partner ... could have a corrosive effect on the alliance,” Mr. Lesser worries. 

And then there’s the country that isn’t a party to the INF Treaty but is influencing a lot of the U.S. and Russia’s posturing over it – China. One of the Trump administration’s arguments for pulling out of the treaty is that it is largely meaningless without Beijing’s involvement. Mr. Trump has said that China would have to be part of any “big, beautiful” new treaty to replace the accord.

China opposes U.S. withdrawal from INF, saying the agreement bolsters global security and stability. Beijing also rejects Washington’s argument of a growing Chinese nuclear arsenal as a rationale for quitting the pact.

For Beijing, moves to end the INF Treaty – and the possible expiration of the New START – signal a post-nuclear arms control world that is ominous for many countries, especially China. “We are looking at a global arms race now,” says Guo Xuetang, director of the Institute of International Strategy and Policy Analysis at the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics. From Europe to South and East Asia “this makes more countries worry about their safety and security,” and in particular the threat of short- and intermediate-range missiles, Mr. Guo says.

Since the mid-1990s, China has built the largest arsenal of ground-launched missiles in the world, including more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles, according to US intelligence reports. China asserts its arsenal is defensive.

Andy Wong/Reuters/File
Chinese vehicles carrying anti-ship ballistic missiles roll by during a military parade in Beijing.

Yet in that context, what appears to worry Beijing more than anything is how “the demise of the existing bilateral arms control regime could impose extra security threats on China, if the U.S. and Russia started to deploy intermediate-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific theater,” says Tong Zhao, an expert in nuclear arms control and a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. Moreover, “if the New START treaty ends in 2021 and the US and Russia increase the number of deployed nuclear warheads, that will worsen the environment for China,” Mr. Zhao says.

This might prompt Beijing to step up its own missile development – or even reconsider its long-standing policy of maintaining only a limited nuclear deterrent. 

China remains suspicious of U.S. and Russian motives for shifting away from arms control. Beijing believes the U.S. withdrawal from INF signals a new hostility in Washington’s efforts to contain China. The takeaway for Beijing, experts say, is that the Trump administration’s “America first” approach seeks to expand the U.S. military advantage free from arms control restraints while leaving the world uncertain what to expect next.

Russia’s intentions are clearer to China. Beijing views Moscow’s motive as seeking to counterbalance U.S. aggressiveness in Europe and Central Asia, says Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University. “Russia is a declining power, but it is not staying away from its great power ambition,” says Dr. Zhu.

China and Russia may draw closer militarily, particularly “if the U.S. places more pressure on ... the east and west of the Eurasian continent,” says Mr. Guo, although he does not anticipate a military alliance between the two powers. 

SOURCE: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Federation of American Scientists
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Given the somewhat cynical view of both U.S. and Russian motives, China is currently not open to engaging in a new multilateral agreement aimed at limiting ground-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles. An estimated 95 percent of China’s missile arsenal would violate the current INF Treaty if China were a signatory, according to U.S. intelligence. “We are opposed to the multilateralization of INF,” Yang Jiechi, a senior Chinese foreign-policy official, told the Munich Security Conference in February.

Yet in the long term, China could be open to joining new arms control accords if they included areas of U.S. and Russian superiority. “If they were willing to include sea- and air-based missiles into the discussion, there is a chance that China will be willing to look at it,” Mr. Zhao says. 

For some, there’s a good reason for greeting the INF’s demise, and perhaps even New START’s, with a bit of a shrug: Those Cold War-era treaties, while they may be important, do nothing to address the emerging warfare challenges of the 21st century.

Technology “obsolesces most arms agreements, so what mattered in the ’80s is not what we should be focusing on today,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Va.

Mr. Sokolski is concerned that by withdrawing from conventional agreements like the INF the U.S. could prompt rattled allies – particularly Japan and South Korea – to consider going nuclear themselves. 

But he says focusing on limiting 20th-century technologies risks leaving unaddressed emerging threats – chief among them the militarization of space and cyberspace. “Even if you had the biggest arms and the strongest legs, what kind of athlete could you be if your opponent knew how to put your brain at risk?” Mr. Sokolski says.

Ploughshares’s Mr. Cirincione agrees that the cyber realm poses a threat to global security by how it can be used to expose weapons systems to hostile disruption and takeover. “The nuclear-cyber connection that’s already a reality is the worst of all,” he says. “Remember Stuxnet. What did it take control of? Centrifuges,” he says, referencing the malware that is believed to have disabled thousands of centrifuges in Iran’s Natanz nuclear complex in 2010. “If you think we can’t do that with nuclear weapons, you haven’t been paying attention.” 

Still, Mr. Cirincione says that is not an argument for abandoning conventional arms control efforts as obsolete, but rather for redoubling those efforts given the vulnerabilities cyberthreats pose to the world’s most destructive weapons systems. He believes the U.S. and Russia should not just extend New START, but should begin negotiating further reductions in their strategic nuclear arsenals down to levels that could entice China and other nuclear powers to join a broader disarmament effort.

“Reducing these arsenals while enhancing not just one country’s security but everybody’s is possible,” he says. “But it means we don’t just stop tearing the house down, but we find new ways to build it back up.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
SOURCE: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Federation of American Scientists
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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4. Charging school leaders? Florida weighs idea as school-safety play.

A state grand jury examination of school officials’ adherence to safety laws is uncharted waters. How should society balance respect for educators’ tough work with the need to hold people accountable?

Noelle

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Consultant Dale Yeager is blunt in his assessment of school safety in the United States: Too many administrators are not doing their jobs. He applauds Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for calling for a grand jury investigation of educators, which the state’s Supreme Court approved Feb. 25.

“I’ve seen the death and destruction caused by a preventable crime,” Mr. Yeager says, drawing on more than two decades of analysis of school shootings and safety practices.

The first of its kind in the U.S., the investigation could result in criminal indictments, policy recommendations, or both. From one perspective, a process that threatens criminal penalties for school officials – including those in Parkland, where a mass shooting killed 17 people a year ago – could serve as a needed wake-up call nationwide. From another, it could be an unnecessary hammer coming down on an already high-pressure profession, in which some educators have literally put themselves in the line of fire to protect their students. 

Isolating administrators makes educators uncomfortable. But Mr. Yeager says there is no other way: “Until they are held accountable, it’s not going to stop.”

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Charging school leaders? Florida weighs idea as school-safety play.

More than a year after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, public officials are wrestling with who to blame.

Some fault has fallen to law enforcement agencies, and controversies still swirl around many decisions made by school employees and administrators – both before and after the tragedy.

Now add to that mix a grand jury to examine school officials’ compliance with safety laws statewide. It’s the first of its kind in the United States – an investigation that could result in criminal indictments, policy recommendations, or both.

The grand jury is tasked with examining whether school leaders failed to report serious crimes to the state’s department of education, for example, and if they committed fraud or mismanaged funds set aside for safety improvements.

While much of the national dialogue has focused on renewed gun-policy debates – inspired by Parkland student activists – this new move in Florida puts the spotlight on individual accountability. It raises questions about what school and district leaders are expected to do to keep students safe, and what should happen if they don’t.

From one perspective, a process that threatens criminal penalties for school officials could serve as a needed wake-up call nationwide. From another, it could be an unnecessary hammer coming down on an already high-pressure profession, in which some educators have literally put themselves in the line of fire to protect their students. 

School safety consultant Dale Yeager applauds Florida’s newly elected Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis for calling for the grand jury, which the Florida Supreme Court approved Feb. 25.

“I’ve seen the death and destruction caused by a preventable crime,” Mr. Yeager says. After analyzing school shootings and safety practices for more than two decades, he’s blunt about his assessment: Too many school administrators are not doing their jobs the way they should.

“Nobody has the political will to investigate and charge them with criminal neglect or other crimes,” says Mr. Yeager, who has reported to government entities on school safety and is CEO of Seraph Inc., which trains and consults with school clients. “Until they are held accountable, it’s not going to stop.”

School administrators around the country will be watching the grand jury’s actions closely.

“It’s uncharted waters for school leaders,” says Joseph Erardi, manager of the School Safety and Crisis Planning Toolkit for AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and superintendent in Newtown, Connecticut, from 2014 to 2017. A devastating elementary school shooting took place there in December 2012.

School leaders don’t “wake up wanting anything other than what’s good for children,” Dr. Erardi says. “Whenever there is a tragedy,” he says, there should be “a partnership investigation with school leaders, with school board members.” So to isolate them in a criminal investigation “makes me uncomfortable,” he says.

But Dr. Erardi agrees there’s an urgent need to ensure schools follow best practices. Since Newtown, “some of the low-hanging fruit is still not done,” he says.

Hundreds of thousands of doors in classrooms are still not lockable from the inside, for instance. 

“Safety is an issue [superintendents] need to be in front of,” Dr. Erardi says. When he asks them at conferences how many have athletic directors, they nearly all raise their hands. But when he asks how many have school safety directors, only about a third of the hands go up.

Another essential is partnership with local law enforcement. “If the superintendent and police chief don’t get along, one needs to be fired or leave,” Dr. Erardi says.

Brynn Anderson/AP
Jennifer Montalto listens to testimony during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission in November 2018, in Sunrise, Florida. Ms. Montalto's daughter, Gina, was killed in the February 2018 mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas. At least 43 states and the district of Columbia require schools to have safety plans, but only 14 require safety audits of school facilities, the Education Commission of the States reported in February.

Many plans, few audits 

At least 43 states and the District of Columbia require schools to have safety plans, but only 14 require safety audits of school facilities, the Education Commission of the States reported in February. (See related sidebar.)

Broward County Public Schools, the district that includes Parkland, created the position of safety chief and filled it in February. Florida created an Office of Safe Schools last year, and now requires schools to use a safety assessment tool that had long been available.

But the December 2018 report by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission noted, “Even after the MSDHS shooting and the implementation of new Florida law requiring certain safety measures, there remains non-compliance and a lack of urgency to enact basic safety principles in Florida’s K-12 schools.”

The report called on all stakeholders – not just school leaders, but also governments, law enforcement, and mental health providers – to do their part. 

One recommendation: Make sure schools accurately report safety incidents. A South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation found that several incidents had not been reported by Stoneman Douglas, and that other schools throughout the state failed to report serious crimes, including rape and murder, to the state education department.

Political backdrop

Governor DeSantis’ efforts to pinpoint individuals for lapses related to the Parkland shooting is part of a broader picture with a political backdrop.

When he took office in January, the governor suspended Broward County’s Sheriff Scott Israel, a Democrat. Sheriff Israel, an elected official, is appealing through the state Senate. He also sued the governor March 7, claiming he was removed for political reasons. A large majority of Broward voters are Democrats.

Governor DeSantis and some Parkland parents have also called for the resignation or firing of Superintendent Robert Runcie in Broward, the nation’s sixth-largest school system.

“He’s seeking to be a reform governor, and right now his actions are proving very popular across the state,” says Charles Zelden, a political science professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But it’s also part of an “ongoing tug of war for power between centralized state government in Tallahassee and the county governments,” which have a lot of autonomy.

Since Mr. Runcie is appointed by the elected school board, the governor can’t remove him.

The current school board includes one parent of a student killed at Stoneman Douglas, and others elected since the shooting. On March 5, it voted 6 to 3 to keep Mr. Runcie in place.

“Now, it is time to come together as a community to ensure all of our schools across the District are safe and secure,” Mr. Runcie said in a written press statement after the vote.

Other views of accountability

The issue of individual accountability doesn’t have to be seen through the lens of partisan politics.

“If the grand jury finds people who are legitimately not doing their jobs, ... this will have support across the political spectrum,” Dr. Zelden says. 

Mr. Runcie himself didn’t oppose the grand jury when the Monitor inquired. In a statement emailed by district spokeswoman Kathy Koch on March 7, he said: “I agree with Governor DeSantis’ decision to examine safety measures in school districts throughout the state and support any review or investigation that could result in improved safety and security in our own district and school districts statewide.” 

The Florida Association of School Administrators did not agree to interview requests. 

Whether or not people end up losing their jobs or going to jail, says Mr. Yeager, the safety consultant, “this grand jury is going to have a beautiful, wonderful, long-lasting effect on school safety.”

He says he has seen a disturbing “lack of professionalism,” such as school administrators sitting in meetings and rubber-stamping safety plans they are supposed to be updating. Principals, special education directors, and district leaders will think, “I’m now under a microscope,” he suggests. And school board members will realize, “I have to get intimately involved with school safety, not sit on the sidelines and hope for the best.”

School leaders are asking great questions about how best to keep students safe, notes Dr. Erardi, who fields calls on the AASA’s safety hotline.

“They’re all working hard and we’re moving in a direction that’s a better place,” he says. "If there needs to be an incentive to protect children, you better get out of the business.”

Sidebar: How one state works to ensure school safety

As in many states, schools in Kentucky are required to review emergency plans each year. But the way the Bluegrass State supports school safety more broadly is often cited as a model.

More than 1,000 schools there have benefited from a comprehensive assessment offered by the Kentucky Center for School Safety. Trained consultants with school leadership experience visit, conduct surveys and dozens of interviews, and make recommendations for how safety can be improved.

If students say that during drills their teacher locks the door and just keeps teaching, instead of following protocol for students to huddle in a more secure area, for instance, the consultant will alert school and district leaders. Later they’ll check in to see how many recommended changes the schools have made. 

In 1998, one year after a high school student in West Paducah, Kentucky, fatally shot three schoolmates, the state set up the center, along with a grant program to help districts reduce violence and prepare safety plans in conjunction with law enforcement.

School staff have to be briefed on updated emergency plans before the start of each school year. In the first 30 days, and again in January, five drills are required – including one lockdown drill.

To keep politics out of the equation as much as possible, the center is independent from the education department, says executive director Jon Akers. And to gain the trust of superintendents and principals, it has long served in an advisory capacity, rather than doling out consequences for noncompliance.

A newly passed law adds another layer of accountability. Along with addressing mental health needs and suicide prevention in schools, it creates a state school security marshal position within the Department of Criminal Justice Training.

If schools fail to comply with safety requirements, the law allows for withholding of school construction funds until they do. Most school districts have building or renovation projects underway, Mr. Akers says, so “that will capture their attention.”

The new law came after a school shooting near Benton, Kentucky. A student from Marshall County High School is awaiting trial on charges that he opened fire and killed two schoolmates there in January 2018, just a few weeks before the Parkland, Florida, shooting.

The school didn’t have noncompliance issues, Mr. Akers says. Its campus had many unattended exterior doors, though. The new law requires schools to do more to restrict access to school buildings by 2022. Marshall County High now uses metal detectors at a limited number of entrances, and has buzzers alert officials if other doors are opened.  

But the more important factor, Mr. Akers says, is that “kids are greeted by staff members every morning…. That’s more effective, establishing a relationship with the kids.” For every one school shooting, he says, many more have been averted because “someone broke that code of silence” and trusted an adult enough to share warning signs. 

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. Her gift to neighbors: green space that’s both refuge and food source

In a Philadelphia neighborhood, Noelle Warford is protecting green space. That's allowing the community to get fresh food, become friendlier, and find leafy, peaceful places to relax.

Noelle
David Karas
Headed by Noelle Warford since 2016, the Urban Tree Connection has overseen the renewal of 29 vacant lots in Philadelphia.

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Noelle Warford had already spent a decade in Philadelphia’s nonprofit sector, working on everything from transitional housing to job development to after-school programs, when she swung her focus to a component of community wellness that she hadn’t fully recognized before: the outsize importance of open space.

In 2016 she became executive director of Urban Tree Connection, an organization that had been founded with a focus on improving physical spaces. The effect of a newer emphasis on urban farming and community development has already become clear. UTC has constructively confronted crime, dumping, and the food insecurity associated with living in a food desert. The area in which she works has reaped benefits, including access to fresh produce as well as neighborhood revitalization.

It supported the rise, for example, of Neighborhood Foods Farm, which repurposed a poorly utilized block. Its produce is distributed to members of the community by members of the community. UTC has transformed a number of other sites into community gardens and “pocket parks.” Memorial Garden sits where several young men were once lost to street crime. “[It] is kind of beautiful,” she says, “to see life growing there.”

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Her gift to neighbors: green space that’s both refuge and food source

Some five years ago, Nefertari Muhammad was looking to make a change to her diet and the sources of her food.

“I have learned more about the food that we are eating, which is not healthy for us,” says Ms. Muhammad, who is concerned about genetically modified food products. “It is important for us to grow our own fruit and vegetables.”

She wound up volunteering for a community garden, and today she manages Queens Garden in Philadelphia. She’s seen that garden grow from just a set of beds to a space complete with irrigation, fencing, and a shed for the necessary tools. It’s all made possible through the Philadelphia organization that operates the garden: the Urban Tree Connection.

Founded in 1989 and established as a nonprofit in 1997, UTC focuses its efforts in West Philadelphia’s Haddington neighborhood, where it works with members of the community to develop greening and gardening projects on vacant or abandoned parcels. It uses these projects to form bonds among members of the community, cultivate community leadership, and establish a local food system. And Muhammad is one of many who have reaped benefits, including access to fresh produce as well as neighborhood revitalization.

Noelle Warford has been UTC’s executive director since 2016. She had already spent a decade in Philadelphia’s nonprofit sector, working on everything from transitional housing to workforce development to after-school programs. But UTC has opened her eyes to another component of community wellness that she hadn’t recognized before.

“I have found just this thing that was missing,” she says. “Green space is so important.”

Ms. Warford and her team have seen the challenges in Haddington: violence, dumping, other crimes, and the food insecurity associated with living in a food desert. She notes that they work in a predominantly African-American community that faces a range of health issues.

With those challenges in mind, the nonprofit has transformed a number of sites into community gardens, pocket parks, and similar spaces. One in particular, referred to as Memorial Garden, is where several young men were killed. “Even in a space where something as tragic as that has happened, it is kind of beautiful to see life growing there,” Warford says.

Indeed, UTC began with a focus on improving physical spaces, with the emphasis on urban farming and community development coming later.

“A lot of the work that had been done in the first couple of decades was really around developing these abandoned and vacant lots into spaces that could really be used by the community,” says Warford, who joined UTC in the spring of 2015 as programs director. 

She notes that founder Skip Wiener, who served as executive director until she took the reins three years ago, was a landscape architect with a gift for envisioning better uses for neglected spaces. So projects like one early endeavor – tearing down a drug house and turning it into a pocket park – were common for the organization. 

One block’s transformation

In 2009, UTC and others launched Neighborhood Foods Farm, converting the interior of a poorly utilized block into a thriving food source. Produce that is harvested from the farm and other gardens is distributed to members of the community. The distribution takes place at neighborhood farm stands, which are manned by members of the community.

“It’s a pretty different approach – not only having farm stands where there is very limited food access, but having them operated and run by people who live in the neighborhood,” Warford says. 

In all, UTC has overseen the redevelopment of 29 vacant lots for communal growing and gathering. And last year through the farm stands, some 6,500 pounds of chemical-free produce were distributed primarily within Haddington, reaching more than 2,000 people ranging from youth to seniors.

For Warford, the work of UTC is personal. She grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, in a neighborhood she describes as similar to Haddington. Also, she was the first in her family to attend a four-year university.

“In a more traditional sense I have been able to be successful. I’ve been able to go to college,” she says. “But I feel a personal duty to make sure that whatever I’ve been able to learn or gain, it is to advance the plight of people who just don’t have the same opportunities afforded to them.”

Her work with land, especially when it comes to gardening, brings back family memories. “It makes me think of being in my grandmother’s garden [and] cooking with her,” she says. 

Protecting green space

Warford and her team are particularly mindful of private development in the neighborhood, and the importance of both securing and preserving land for community gardens and the like. 

“We don’t want to see these spaces that community members have invested in ... turn into a condo for people who don’t even live here,” she says. At the same time, she notes, they are careful not to interfere with efforts to develop affordable housing.

The presence of blighted lots in a neighborhood can diminish the morale of residents, Warford says, and the work to help members of the community reclaim those spaces is nothing short of transformative.

“It allows people to associate with their neighborhood in a different way – to operate with a sense of ease, to know there is this space that exists,” she says. “It is maintained, it is cared for, [and] it has also brought a lot of people together.” 

She adds, “A lot of our core community leaders have emerged out of identifying these spaces together.” 

One of those leaders is Muhammad, who is appreciative of what she has gained through her involvement with the nonprofit. 

“It is an awesome experience for the simple fact that the energy is positive,” she says, “and anything and everything that I needed in order to make it happen – they did it.”

Owen Taylor is the founder of Truelove Seeds, an organization that has provided mentoring to UTC staff for seed keeping. 

“UTC’s farms, gardens, and fresh food markets bring more than health and jobs to Haddington – they also bring a way for community members, young and old, to shape and literally grow their neighborhood in positive and nourishing ways,” says Mr. Taylor in an email interview. He also notes his positive impression of Warford: “Noelle is great to work with and has a strong vision for community-led change.” 

Another UTC partner is Chris Bolden-Newsome, co-director at the Sankofa Community Farm at Bartram’s Garden. Like Taylor, he sees Warford as a leader.

“She respects the community that she is in; that is huge,” he says, adding that he trusts her leadership and decisions.

UTC’s annual budget averages $350,000, with revenue derived mostly from foundation support, donations from individuals, and some government funding from time to time. And while much of UTC’s produce is sold for nominal prices in Haddington, the organization operates a stand at Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square on Saturdays during the growing season and sells produce at cost to help cover expenses. 

In her work, Warford is motivated by the needs that exist in Haddington and many other places, as well as what she describes as “an attack on social programs.”

“We are seeing that ... our communities are really experiencing suffering in the form of food insecurity,” she says. “We really need to think about our work in terms of how communities can come together to really take care of their own needs.”

• For more, visit urbantreeconnection.org.

Other groups with a link to agriculture

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. 

Helen Keller International aids vulnerable individuals by combating blindness, poor health, and malnutrition. Take action: Donate money to empower women through gardening. 

The HALO Trust is the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian land mine clearance organization. Take action: Financially support the removal of mines in Kosovo, making families and farms safer. 

Loaves & Fishes Family Kitchen is committed to providing hot nutritious meals in the San Francisco Bay Area. Take action: Be a volunteer at this group’s community garden. 

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The Monitor's View

A sudden wind for clean governance in Central Europe

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In Slovakia this Saturday, an environmental lawyer and grassroots activist who only recently joined a political party is expected to win the first round of an election for president. If Zuzana Čaputová captures the post in a final round later this month, she will have broken a stereotype about the former communist countries of Central Europe – that people still tolerate high levels of corruption.

For the past year, people in Slovakia have risen up in favor of transparent and accountable government. In early 2018, after the killing of a journalist investigating corruption, mass protests erupted. The prime minister and other top officials were forced to resign. Journalists stepped up their probes of corruption.

Then in January, the current president, Andrej Kiska, said that Slovaks had been forced to “look in the mirror and look at our society.” The new mood helped lift Ms. Čaputová in polls. She is seen as a fresh face who could clean up the judiciary, help end petty bribery, and demand better curbs on top-level corruption. If she is elected, her moral authority will add to the power of her post. The people will have given it to her.

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A sudden wind for clean governance in Central Europe

Until a few months ago, few people in Slovakia had ever heard of a woman named Zuzana Čaputová. Yet this Saturday, the grassroots activist who only recently joined a political party is expected to win the first round of an election for president. If she captures the post in a final round later this month, she will have broken a stereotype about the former communist countries of Central Europe – that people still tolerate high levels of corruption.

Her rocket-like rise in popularity was not totally unexpected. For the past year, people in Slovakia (which was once half of Czechoslovakia) have risen up in favor of transparent and accountable government. In early 2018, after the killing of a journalist investigating corruption, mass protests erupted nationwide. The prime minister and other top officials were forced to resign. And many journalists stepped up their probes of corruption.

Then in January, the current president, Andrej Kiska, announced that Slovaks had proved they could defend the values of democracy. He said his country of 5.4 million people had been forced to “look in the mirror and look at our society.” Slovaks had “lost the right to look away” from corruption in their midst.

The new mood helped catapult Ms. Čaputová in opinion polls. As an environmental lawyer known for her honesty, she had stood up to powerful interests by stopping the expansion of a toxic landfill site in her hometown. In 2016, that success won her the Goldman Environmental Prize, which is known as the “green” Nobel Prize.

As an outsider to the political elite, she is seen as a fresh face who could clean up the judiciary, help end petty bribery, and demand better curbs on top-level corruption. Her campaign slogan reflects a common desire to root out endemic corruption: “Let us stand up to evil.”

Ms. Čaputová gives credit to the rapid shift in public thinking after the killing of the journalist Ján Kuciak. If she becomes president, she will be able to appoint top judges and veto laws passed by parliament, as well as serve as commander in chief. The post is not as powerful as prime minister. Yet if she is elected, her moral authority will carry added weight. The people will have given it to her.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

The integrity in us all

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When today’s contributor was treated dishonestly by a lawyer, a spiritual perspective on the quality of integrity replaced her anger with compassion, which opened the door to an outcome that helped both of them.

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The integrity in us all

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I once hired a lawyer to help me navigate a complex situation. I liked the lawyer very much. He was personable and experienced. But as I began to follow his instructions, it seemed that he had intentionally misguided me and charged very high fees for it. I called him immediately for an appointment to discuss the problem.

Beyond the feeling that I wanted my money back, what troubled me most about the situation was the seeming lack of integrity. I had learned in my study of Christian Science that an ability to express integrity isn’t the exception but the rule because, spiritually defined, integrity is the state of divine wholeness that God creates and maintains in us all. Divine Truth, another name for God, is the source of completeness, perfection, and goodness in all His spiritual offspring. So any behavior that contradicts this goodness is inconsistent with what Truth, God, has created us to be and do – a lie about God and His creation.

This reminded me of how Jesus described the devil as an impersonal claim of evil – as a liar, sourced in a lie. He said, “He is a liar, and the father of it” (John 8:44). Jesus didn’t ignore evil. He was often quick to point out what was blinding someone to their inherent wholeness and goodness. But he also dealt compassionately with those caught up in such behavior, often reminding them not to sin anymore. We are all capable of correcting lies that are exposed about our real nature.

Inspired by these ideas, I prayed for insight into the integrity – the wholeness, soundness, and incorruptibility – of God’s creation. I sought the absolute truth of what it means to be a child of God, divine Truth. I wasn’t ignoring the dishonest behavior, but I felt certain that an understanding of how God creates us would free me from its effects. And in my heart of hearts I wanted not only to find this freedom for myself, but also to help the lawyer find freedom from dishonesty.

By the time of the appointment I felt thoroughly persuaded that dishonesty is unnatural to us as children of God. I understood that evil can’t forever deny the present and powerful good that God, divine Truth, creates in us. The anger I had felt was replaced with compassion.

I told the man I had to see him because despite his actions, I knew that at heart he was a man of integrity. And I meant it. As I spoke, all defiance washed from his face. He immediately admitted what he had done, which had apparently been out of fear that his business was going under. He wrote me a check to cover all but a small amount (representing the work that he had rightly performed) of what I had paid. I was deeply moved by the repentance he expressed. And he accepted my offer to pray for him and his business.

Our paths crossed again later. I learned that he had changed the focus of his work to helping an underserved class of individuals. He was doing well, and his practice was flourishing.

A letter Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy once wrote included these lines inspired by some familiar ideas: “The upright man is guided by a fixed Principle, which destines him to do nothing but what is honorable.... We shall never find one part of his character at variance with another” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” pp. 147-148). The admission that our integrity is spiritual and intact, when accompanied by the understanding that God is our true source, acts as a force for change. It brings spiritual awakening and healing. It unleashes the power of Christ, the divine Truth that impels the highest thoughts and best actions, reaching to the very core of our being. And the power of this healing Christ leaves no one out.

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Off to work

Dmitri Lovetsky/AP
U.S. astronaut Christina Hammock Koch, a member of the main crew of the expedition to the International Space Station, watched the inspection of her space suit before the launch of Soyuz MS-12 at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan March 14.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( March 15th, 2019 )

Noelle Swan
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow when Taylor Luck brings us up to speed on how a new generation of Algerians are standing their ground in the streets to demand change from the government.

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March 14, 2019
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