TIME States

Californians Turn to Private Security to Police Pot Country

Lear Marijuana Pot Weed Private Security California
Lear personnel during a raid on an illegal trespassing marijuana operation. Lear

The workings of law enforcement are hard to track in the wildlands of California's pot country

On a recent Sunday, a local gardening club gathered with their local sheriff in Laytonville, Calif., a hamlet of 1,227 people in Mendocino County, America’s cannabis cultivation capital. By some estimates, up to 90% of the town’s residents are tied to the pot industry, and the event was a chance to ask about the county’s enforcement policies. Instead, some members of the community wanted to talk about a rumor that had been making the rounds.

Over the summer, residents claimed men in military gear had been dropping onto private property from unmarked helicopters and cutting down the medicinal pot gardens of local residents. Local law enforcement have conducted helicopter raids in the area, but some worried the culprit this time was different: a private-security firm called Lear Asset Management.

The confusion was easy to understand. In the wildlands of California’s pot country, the workings of law enforcement are hard to track, and the rules for growing pot are often contradictory. To add to the mess, the various local, county, state and federal enforcement efforts don’t always communicate with each other about their efforts. The added possibility of private mercenaries, with faceless employers, fast-roping from helicopters raised alarm bells for many farmers.

Founded in 2012, Lear (the name stands for Logistical Environmental Asset Remediation) is a creature of the area’s unique cannabis culture. The company employs about 15 people, who are mostly former military: ex-U.S. Special Forces, Army Rangers and other combat veterans. They fly out on rented helicopters, wearing camouflage fatigues, body armor and keffiyehs around their necks. They are hired by large land owners to do the work of clearing trespass gardens from private property, and perform forest reclamation, sometimes funded by government grant. Deep in the woods, they cut down illegal pot plants and scrub the environmental footprint produced by the backwoods drug trade. They carry AR-15 rifles, lest they meet armed watchmen bent on defending their plots.

Paul Trouette, Lear’s CEO, says his firm was not responsible for the helicopter raids that the town’s residents complained about. “We do not do any kind of vigilante, black ops, Blackwater stuff,” he says, noting the company is licensed and regulated by the state of California, and only works on private land when summoned by the owner. Trouette is neither cop nor soldier; he is a longtime Fish and Game commissioner in Mendocino County, and the head of an organization devoted to preserving local herds of blacktail deer. Security contracting, he says, grew out of volunteer environmental reclamation. “It was a natural for our company to move into security contracting,” he says. “It’s just too much to handle for private ownership.”

 Marijuana Pot Weed Private Security California
Highly trained personnel drop into a marijuana raid. Lear

The firm’s business model is rooted in the region’s complicated relationship with weed. Rich Russell, the commander of Mendocino’s major crimes task force, has estimated that about half of the county’s residents work in the marijuana economy. Many longtime growers are remnants of the back-to-the-land movement of the Sixties, who operate within the county’s legal cultivation limits. But the county’s dense forests and ideal cultivation conditions have also been a magnet for more dangerous elements.

In recent years, small bands of criminals colonized the county’s forests, concealing grow sites on vast parcels hidden deep in the woods. In 2011, Operation Full Court Press—a three-week raid jointly carried out by local, state and federal anti-drug agencies—netted some 632,000 marijuana plants in and around the Mendocino National Forest, with a street value in the neighborhood of $1 billion. Illegal growers have a record of shooting at hikers and law enforcement; in 2011, a former local mayor was killed while looking for a marijuana plot.

The perps also produce environmental disaster. They strew trash through the woods, poison wildlife and pollute streams. The environmental devastation is an even greater problem this year. As California copes with a crippling drought, thirsty pot plants from illegal gardens are sucking up the water supply, creating a “holocaust” for fish, Trouette says.

More recently, the trespass grow sites have migrated from public land onto the vast plots owned by private citizens and timber companies. Some of them have hired Lear to deal with the problem. The company has run about nine missions across California’s pot country this year, with more planned this fall, Trouette says. And while the company’s special-ops aspect gets much of the attention, most of the work focuses on environmental reclamation.

While some of Mendocino’s challenges are unique to the region, others highlight the legal tangle that threatens the industry’s growth at a moment when boosters are trying to take marijuana mainstream. Residents are permitted to cultivate up to 25 marijuana plants for medicinal use, about four times the standard for much of the rest of the state. Federal law still prohibits pot, classifying it as a Schedule I drug on part with heroin and ecstasy. The clashing statutes produce a patchwork system of justice, with enforcement sometimes varying from county to county even within states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal. Federal money-laundering law prevent most legitimate pot businesses from banking their proceeds, forcing them to endure the safety hazards and logistical hassles of handling huge sums of cash.

In Mendocino, officials have tried to sort out the murkiness. In 2012, an experimental program that attempted to license legitimate cannabis cultivation under the supervision of the county sheriff was shut down under pressure from the local U.S. Attorney. Meanwhile, the county district attorney has pioneered a controversial program that offers reduced sentences for certain growers who are willing to pay hefty restitution charges: $500 per pound of seized pot and $50 per plant. While the approach has helped clear a case backlog and restocked the department’s coffers, critics say it allows wealthier clients to purchase leniency.

Reports of vigilante marijuana raids on private property may simply stem from a lack of legal clarity. Under the so-called “open fields doctrine” set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Fourth Amendment does not protect undeveloped property from warrantless searches. As a result, police may be permitted to cut down private gardens without a warrant.

In the meantime, Lear has flourished, despite the concern among some local growers. But like most people in the Emerald Triangle, Trouette thinks the best thing for the locals would be for the feds to sort out all the confusion. “I think the federal government would do everybody a big favor,” he says, “by regulating this industry.”

TIME technology

Why Terrorists Love Twitter

Mosul Iraq ISIS
Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014 AP

ISIS and the challenge for social media sites

In 2011, the Somali Islamist group known as Al-Shabab took to Twitter. Its official handle taunted the group’s enemies, boasted of battlefield triumphs and shared images from the front lines of conflict zones. It sparred with political antagonists, rattling off missives in grandiose English. The terrorists—like the site’s less murderous users—used Twitter to share news and promote their brand. In 2013, a Shabab account live-tweeted commentary as allied fighters carried out a terrorist attack at a Nairobi shopping mall.

Terrorists love Twitter. That includes the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Sunni Muslim extremists whom the U.S. is targeting in an expanded military campaign. ISIS has emerged as the most sophisticated group yet at using the service to spread its bloodthirsty message. And when ISIS jihadists and tens of thousands of acolytes swarmed Twitter in recent months, it raised the question of how social media sites should respond when unsavory groups colonize their platform.

There are no easy answers. Social-media networks exist so users can share information; sites like Twitter are neither equipped nor inclined to police large numbers of rogue feeds themselves. And within the intelligence community, there is no consensus on whether the use of sites like Twitter as a propaganda tool hurts or helps U.S. interests.

To some observers, Twitter was derelict in allowing extremist accounts to flourish. “For several years, ISIS followers have been hijacking Twitter to freely promote their jihad with very little to no interference at all,” says Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which studies jihadi extremists’ behavior online. “Twitter’s lack of action has resulted in a strong, and massive pro-ISIS presence on their social media platform, consisting of campaigns to mobilize, recruit and terrorize.”

Others say it’s not so simple. “There is a case to be made for removing the content or removing the most prolific [jihadist] accounts online. Each time that happens, they had to rebuild their audience. It has a disruptive effect,” says counterterrorism expert Clint Watts, who has studied ISIS’s behavior online. But ISIS accounts may also, in some cases, be a boon to intelligence-gathering efforts. “Their braggadocio tells us what we don’t know about what’s happening in eastern Syria,” Watts says. “In Iraq they show us every one of their successes. There is value in that.”

For that reason, some government officials may prefer the accounts remain open. “There is some value to being able to track them on Twitter,” says William McCants, a former State Department senior adviser who directs the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. McCants recalls that a U.S. intelligence official described the site as a “gold mine” of information about foreign-fighter networks, better than any clandestine sources. The State Department is using Twitter itself, with a counter-propaganda campaign run through an account, Think AgainTurn Away. It tries to nettle ISIS and neutralize their recruiting.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment for this article. The site’s rules prohibit threats of violence, harassment and other abuses, and government agencies or law enforcement officials are able to request the removal of prohibited content. In 2013, it received just 437 such requests from governments worldwide; it received 432 in the first half of this year.

In recent months, Twitter has cracked down on some accounts, including those sharing macabre images or videos of the beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. But it is not trawling for the content that some government officials believe has the greatest potential to convert potential conscripts. “This is not necessarily a bloody picture. It’s somebody telling you to go kill,” says Alberto Fernandez, coordinator of the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, whose digital outreach team is responsible for the Twitter counter-messaging campaign. “That discussion is not being taken down by Twitter.”

It’s easy to see why terrorists flocked to the platform. Beginning in the mid-2000s, al-Qaeda has been organizing online through bulletin-board forums, which were largely password protected and sometimes required special contacts to gain access. Moderators would scrub signs of dissension. In contrast, Twitter is something of a digital town square—a free megaphone to reach a mass audience, easily accessible on smartphones and largely unmonitored.

As ISIS fighters began capturing vast swaths of Syria and Iraq this summer, its network of online organizers—there are around 30 key players, according to analysts who study global extremism online—tweeted about territorial gains, posting photographic proof of their conquests. They softened their hard-edged image by sprinkling in common humanizing touches, like pictures of meals and cute cat photos. And they set about trying to recruit more conscripts—including Westerners—to the cause.

It may seem incongruous; religious extremism is in large part a renunciation of modern society, while the social-media platform is both emblem and enabler of the networked world. But since it is impossible to scrub all pro-ISIS sentiment from Twitter, U.S. analysts are trying to use the service to piece together a better understanding of the terrorist group’s dynamics. Twitter’s decision to silence some accounts but not all is fine, McCants says, and watching the group latch onto a new account when a big one is blocked can be instructive. “When you knock one of them down, it’s interesting to see how quickly they reconstitute and who their earliest followers are,” he says. “Those are the guys that are plugged in.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Barack Obama’s Social Media Flame War Against ISIS

U.S. Department of State

As Islamic militants flood social media, the State Department has ramped up efforts to neutralize jihadist propaganda online

The video is grisly. It shows corpses crucified on makeshift crosses, and dead bodies being chucked into a ravine. Mosques explode. Masked assailants lash writhing victims and execute kneeling prisoners. A quartet of severed heads line a ledge, surrounding a decapitated body.

Titled “Welcome to the ‘Islamic State’ Land,” the film features grainy footage that looks plucked from the dark recesses of the Internet. Its tone is flecked with snark. “Travel is inexpensive,” a caption declares, “because you won’t need a return ticket!” But the low-budget aspect is by design. The video, first published on YouTube in late July, is a production of the U.S. State Department, which is ramping up its efforts to neutralize the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)’s success at recruiting over social media. The campaign includes a State Department-branded YouTube channel, which hosts videos that accuse the terrorist group of hypocrisy and war crimes against fellow Muslims. It includes a Twitter account, Think Again Turn Away, that links to stories about women and children harmed by the group. And it has a Facebook page dotted with gruesome images of bloodied civilians.

This digital battlefield has become a vital theater in the war on terrorism, and for the U.S. government, the front lines are the digital outreach team in a small State Department office, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which began operation in 2011 on orders from President Obama. With a budget of only $6 million, and about two-dozen staffers, the group is spearheading the campaign to combat the sophisticated propaganda ISIS is spreading on social media and Internet bulletin boards. Working in Arabic, Urdu, Somali and now English, its analysts comb the Internet for radical material, wading into everything from Twitter to Yemeni tribal forums to counter and rebut jihadist claims.

What these State Department staffers are looking for is an opportunity to “engage in our very particular brand of adversarial engagement,” says Alberto Fernandez, a former ambassador to Equatorial Guinea who serves as coordinator of the CSCC. (The center reports to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Richard Stengel, who is a former managing editor of TIME.) Staff try to cast extremist activity in a negative light, tamping down the lure of jihad for ordinary people whose political grievances might draw them toward to groups like ISIS. Sometimes this entails direct confrontation, but such confrontations are not the group’s goal.

“Our target audience is not the extremists,” Fernandez says. “It’s the people the extremists are talking to, trying to influence. It’s people who have not yet become terrorists.”

The program reflects a recognition within the U.S. government that online propaganda is not only a potent way to promote terrorism, but also a necessary tool in preventing it. “There is a connection between what happens in the virtual space and what happens on the ground,” says Fernandez. “You can’t divorce one from the other.”

Which is why the U.S. is fighting to regain territory it has long ceded to extremists. Jihadists were early to grasp the power of technology to promote their cause, dating back to the grainy eight-track tapes that inspired foreign fighters to help roust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden used direct-to-camera proclamations, distributed by Al-Jazeera, to incite followers. “More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media,” his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote in 2005 to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

AQI was “the first group to do Internet outreach very effectively,” says Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and counterterrorism expert. Instead of austere sermonizing, Watts says, it used battlefield footage—IED explosions, gun battles with U.S. soldiers—to glamorize jihad. ISIS sprang from that group’s ashes, aping its strategy in the process. It even adopted AQI’s most macabre tactic. A decade before the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were murdered by a masked ISIS fighter, AQI militants, thought to be led by Zarqawi, beheaded the American contractor Nicholas Berg in a tape that presaged last month’s gruesome videos.

ISIS has refined social-media propaganda to a new level, emerging with “the most sophisticated propaganda machine of any extremist group,” said Matthew Olson, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who spoke about the threat at the Brookings Institution earlier this month. Its rise corresponds with the migration of digital jihadi activity from password-protected forums to open social platforms, which have low barriers to entry.

ISIS has a smartphone app, called the Dawn of Glad Tidings, and a propaganda arm, the Al-Hayat Media Center, that distributes videos glorifying jihad. The group’s media campaign is a mix of battlefield footage and lifestyle snapshots: jihadis cavorting in luxury buildings, lounging in restaurants or patrolling city streets. Amid the carnage, its fighters also tweet cat pictures and announce their penchant for Western products like Snickers and Nutella.”They’re as sophisticated as anybody out there in how they frame and how they use modern technology,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told CNN.

Much of the terrorist group’s work has taken place on Twitter. “2013 was the year of Twitter for Al-Qaeda and ISIS,” Fernandez says. Since May, more than 60,000 Twitter accounts have been set up to herald the group, including 27,000 since the murder of Foley last month, according to an analysis conducted by Recorded Future, a web analytics firm, for the British media outlet Sky News. ISIS has used the platform both to spread grotesque photos of decapitated heads and bloodied bodies—”jihad porn,” as government officials call it—and to recruit potential conscripts. As Twitter cracked down on some of the gory imagery, an ISIS adherent even called for the murder of the site’s employees.

In the meantime, many of the group’s members have fled the site, terrorism analysts say, for more obscure social-media platforms like Friendica, Diaspora and VK (a Russian social-networking site used by the Boston bombers). The U.S. still finds itself outmatched as it tries to suss out and rebut all this activity. “There is a Mount Everest of radicalizing material” on the Internet, says Fernandez. “There’s a small hill, a hillock, of counter-radicalizing material.”

It is CSCC’s job to push this counter-narrative to people before they are converted into extremists. The expansion of this effort to include English-language sites last year is a reflection of a growing threat. ISIS is filling out the ranks of its army by recruiting disaffected Muslims from around the world, including the West. It has lured more than 100 Americans to fight in its ranks, according to Texas Republican Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. One of them, a 33-year-old native Minnesotan named Douglas MacAuthur McCain, was killed in a battle in Syria last month, the first known American to die while fighting for ISIS. The FBI has arrested more than a half-dozen Americans en route to Syria to enlist in jihad.

But much of the digital outreach takes place in languages other than English. CSCC has 15 fluent Arabic speakers, four working in Urdu, two in Somali and just two exclusively in English. In Arabic, “the CSCC brand is pretty well established,” Fernandez says. In 2012, the Global Islamic Media Front, an Al-Qaeda propaganda outlet, warned participants in jihadist forums to be wary of CSCC’s outreach. The following year, a prominent jihadi created a knockoff State Department account and coordinated an effort to drown the U.S. effort with spam. Such interactions are “proof that we are annoying them, getting into their heads all the time,” Fernandez says.

These are small markers of success for a modest campaign whose overall influence is hard to gauge. It’s virtually impossible to prove that a potential jihadist was deterred from joining because of the U.S. messaging campaign. And as messenger, the U.S. government has obvious weaknesses. ISIS adherents have ignored the coterie of high-ranking clerics inveighing against the group’s treatment of fellow Muslims; it’s hard to imagine them listening to a U.S. government mouthpiece. “It is good that the State Department recognizes the importance of social media in jihadi recruitment,” says Rita Katz, the director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks global terrorism. “However, as the State Department’s ‘Think Again Turn Away’ Twitter account often engages in useless arguments with jihadists fighters and supporters, their efforts are not only ineffective, but also provide jihadist with a megaphone to voice their arguments.”

Fernandez acknowledges that it is difficult to calculate the impact of his cyber-warriors. “You can’t prove a negative,” he notes. But he says the frustration of its enemies is one way to measure the effort. Last week, when a prominent Yemeni journalist fired off a series of tweets critical of Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responded with a hashtag campaign that branded him a follower of CSCC. “They want to discredit him by linking him to us,” says Fernandez. “That’s a pretty strong recommendation.”

TIME 2014 Election

Surprise Twist in Kansas Scrambles Senate Fight

Greg Orman Kansas Senate
Independent U.S. Senate candidate Greg Orman poses with his wife Sybil at the Clint Bowyers Community Center in the west end of Emporia, Kans., Mark Reinstein—Corbis

A Democrat drops out of the Senate race, paving the way for an independent to take on vulnerable Republican incumbent Pat Roberts

Updated 4:20 p.m. E.T. on Sept. 4

The battle for the Senate could come down to Kansas, where a surprise contest in one of the country’s most conservative states has the potential to stymie the Republican bid to retake control of the chamber.

That unlikely outcome became a distinct possibility on Wednesday night, when Democratic candidate Chad Taylor withdrew from the race, paving the way for an independent challenger to take on GOP Sen. Pat Roberts. In a recent poll conducted before Taylor’s exit, Greg Orman, the independent, ran 10 points ahead of the embattled incumbent in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup. The race also features a long-shot libertarian candidate, who could muddle the math even further.

Just a month ago, Kansas wasn’t on the radar for observers surveying the Senate map. Its voters haven’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since the Great Depression. Suddenly, a deep-red state in the Koch brothers’ backyard is shaping up as a potential political firewall for Democrats as they fight to stave off a GOP takeover.

So what’s the matter with Kansas?

Part of the problem is Roberts, 78, a three-term senator whose appeal to Kansans has worn thin. Normally a mainstream Republican, he has tacked to the right to head off a primary challenge, even voting against the farm bill in an agricultural stronghold. During a bruising campaign against Tea Partyer Milton Wolf, the New York Times reported that Roberts doesn’t maintain a home of his own in the state. He emerged from the primary battered, with a 27% approval rating that is six points lower than even Barack Obama’s in the state.

These weaknesses created an opportunity for Orman, a wealthy businessman running as a moderate reformer. Orman, who has never held elected office, has donated to both Democrats and Republicans. He advocates tax reform and reducing the regulatory burden on business owners. He talks about beefing up border security, but also supports immigration reform and a path to citizenship. He is a gun owner who wants to expand background checks to cover private sales. He supports abortion rights, but has spent much of his campaign extolling a brand of fiscal conservatism that plays well on the right.

His unexpectedly strong campaign has also benefited from broad disillusionment with the state’s political status quo. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback took office in 2011 and launched what he once dubbed a “real, live experiment” in Tea Party governance. He cut taxes, pruned the welfare rolls, slashed spending and forced the legislature into lockstep with his vision. But the state’s finances are a mess, the economy has sputtered and the moves have sparked a surprising backlash. (A RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows Brownback trailing his Democratic counterpart, state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, by a few points.)

The lurch to the right has frustrated some conservatives, but Roberts was still running ahead of Taylor and Orman in a multi-way contest. Taylor’s surprise exit—which some Republicans believe was orchestrated by Democrats—frees up space for Orman to campaign as a fiscally conservative centrist. The independent possesses some crossover appeal, with the potential to stitch together both left-leaning voters and center-right Republicans who are fed up with the Tea Party. Orman has collected endorsements from more than 70 former Republican lawmakers in the state.

As for Roberts, he has been slow to recover his position after emerging from the primary. “Roberts has not been actively campaigning for about a month now,” wrote the Rothenberg Political Report‘s Nathan Gonzales. “The lack of a strong campaign infrastructure is one of the fundamental reasons why Roberts is in severe danger. He can’t count on the the traditionally red hue of Kansas in federal races to bail him out.”

Roberts got an unexpected boost Thursday when Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach announced that Taylor’s name would stay on the ballot because his withdrawal letter lacked a mandatory declaration that he was incapable of serving if elected. “The law is the law,” said Kobach, a Republican. In a tight race, the decision could siphon decisive votes from Orman.

Plus, the state’s hue certainly helps the Republican. Kansas remains as crimson as they come: Obama lost there by 22 points. Roberts has a massive fundraising advantage—his $1.4 million on hand dwarfs Orman’s $362,000—and his party is swinging into action to save his seat, dispatching top national strategists from Washington to oversee the stretch drive. But the race has emerged as a major September surprise.

If the GOP’s bid to retake the Senate withers and dies on the prairie, it would be one of the cruelest ironies imaginable.

TIME Immigration

Obama Weighs Risks and Rewards on Immigration Action

President Obama Delivers Remarks At The Department of Housing and Urban Development
U.S President Barack Obama Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The President is weighing whether to wait until after the midterms to move on immigration, after promising action at the end of the summer

President Barack Obama is weighing whether to postpone a self-imposed deadline to make unilateral changes to U.S. immigration laws as the midterm elections draw near.

The President is still expected to take executive action this year to provide temporary deportation protection and work authorization to potentially several million undocumented immigrants.

But with control of the Senate hanging in the balance, the uncertain ramifications of revamping U.S. immigration law have spurred the White House to reconsider the timing of its announcement. Here’s what we know—and what we don’t—about a decision that could reshape the political landscape in 2014 and beyond.

When might Obama’s decision come?

It was originally supposed to be by the end of summer. On June 30, almost exactly a year after the Senate passed a bipartisan overhaul of the U.S. immigration system, Obama announced he had instructed cabinet officials to prepare reports advising him what executive orders he could legally issue to mend a broken system on his own. “If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours,” Obama said. “I expect their recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay.”

But Obama has backtracked from his original timeline in recent days. It’s now an open question whether the move will come before the calendar officially turns to fall on Sept. 22. “There is the chance that it could be before the end of the summer. There is the chance that it could be after the summer,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday. Obama’s advisers have yet to present any policy recommendations, which will precede a presidential decision.

Immigration activists and Democratic aides who have pressed Obama to use his executive authority say they now fear the White House may wait until after the midterms to act. “It seems like we’re losing the argument,” says one immigration activist who met with Obama this summer. A Democratic Congressional aide told TIME the White House seemed to be “getting cold feet” about its original timeline.

Why the delay?

Blame election season. Democratic campaign strategists believe that a sweeping move to grant deportation relief before November would imperil the reelection bids of several vulnerable Senate incumbents, and have pressed the White House to hold off until at least mid-November. The White House doesn’t want an executive order on immigration to tip tight races to its opponents. And the unresolved child-migration crisis at the southwestern border has further muddied a decision already fraught with political risks. But no matter the timing, Obama still intends to unilaterally reshape U.S. immigration law in the absence of Congressional action. “The president is determined to act,” Earnest said Tuesday. “That has not changed and it will not change.”

What policy options is Obama considering?

Obama’s exact plans are unknown. But he is weighing using his executive authority to grant work permits and deportation relief for several million undocumented immigrants, perhaps through expanding a 2012 program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Obama may also decide to reform immigration enforcement priorities, as well as to offer special protections for specific groups of workers, as business groups have sought.

What might be the political benefits of waiting until after the midterms?

Democratic campaign strategists and some White House officials believe that taking executive action on immigration would jeopardize Democratic Senators who are fighting to stave off challengers in conservative states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and North Carolina. Control of the Senate may hinge on the outcome of those races. “It would have the unhelpful consequence of putting the issue in the news in a way that doesn’t help Democrats, while also not accomplishing anything,” says a national Democratic strategist.

Of the most competitive Senate races this year, Colorado—which is home to a burgeoning Hispanic population—is perhaps the only one in which aggressive executive orders would be highly likely to benefit the Democratic candidate, Sen. Mark Udall. Democratic campaign strategists argue the move would not only endanger the party’s grip on the upper chamber, but also eliminate the diminishing chance that Congress passes a comprehensive overhaul in the near future. If a move “swings the election,” says the Democratic strategist, “that will set back comprehensive immigration reform for years.”

What might be the political benefits of acting now?

Immigration-reform advocates say that a bold move to protect millions from deportation would cement Democrats’ bond with increasingly frustrated Hispanics, giving the party an edge with the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group for a generation or more. And while it would almost surely help Democrats in 2016—as the creation of DACA did in 2012—it’s not necessarily clear that it would hurt in November.

In addition to thrilling Latinos, expansive executive action would incense conservative Republicans, and potentially incite the GOP’s anti-immigration wing to make damaging remarks that Democrats could wield as campaign cudgels. “It’s a winner coming and going,” says Frank Sharry, head of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice. “No matter what he does, the right wing is going to go bonkers,” Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, told reporters last week. “If he goes mild, he’ll energize the right, but he won’t energize the center and the left.”

What about splitting the difference?

A third option under consideration, according to White House aides, is that Obama announces some modest executive orders before the election, but holds off until mid-November to announce more sweeping components. This seems unlikely, however, because it minimizes the political rewards but not the risks. Republicans would still assail the President. The issue would still take center stage in the midterms. But Hispanics might view the move as a half-measure from a President who came into office vowing to make immigration reform a priority, but has mostly disappointed them since.

“You cannot, on the one hand, receive a community warmly and embrace them, and say that you are for them and that you’re ready to protect them,” says Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, “and on the other one turn your back on them when you think it’s not in your political self-interest.” Gutierrez has long urged his Democratic counterparts to be patient and let the process of coaxing Republicans to the table play out. In an interview Tuesday, he said it was time for Democrats to stop bowing to political considerations, and for the White House to live up to its commitment to Hispanics.

“I have absolutely no doubt that [Obama] wants to make a broad, bold and generous action,” Gutierrez says. “I hope that Democrats get the hell out of the way and let the President be the President we elected.”

—Additional reporting by Alex Rogers and Zeke J. Miller

TIME Crime

Ferguson Wrestles With What to Do Next

Michael Brown Sr, yells out as his son's  casket is lowered into the ground at St. Peter's Cemetery in St. Louis
Michael Brown Sr., center, yells out as his son's casket is lowered into the ground at St. Peter's Cemetery in St. Louis on Aug. 25, 2014 Richard Perry—Pool/Reuters

The town is trying to figure out how to turn a tragic moment into a lasting movement

The funeral was choreographed to the smallest detail, from the celebrities sprinkled through the church to the Cardinals cap laid atop the black-and-gold casket. A massive crowd filed past the television cameras and into the jam-packed sanctuary or the overflow rooms live-streaming the service. The ceremony was billed as a celebration of Brown’s life, which ended Aug. 9 in a hail of bullets fired by a white policeman, and the crowd heard upbeat gospel music, stirring sermons and a eulogy from the Rev. Al Sharpton. But it was also an opportunity to send a message to his mourners. “We are required,” Sharpton told them in his peroration, “to leave here today and change things.”

For the residents of Ferguson, Mo., Brown’s funeral on Monday closed one chapter and opened a new period of uncertainty. The worst of the violence appears over, and the protests are beginning to subside. Soon the television cameras will get packed up, leaving a town that has become the latest shorthand for America’s racial divide to figure out how to translate the energy, intensity and anger of the past two weeks into concrete change.

The problem is that nobody is quite sure how to do it — or what that change would even look like. The shooting of an unarmed, 18-year-old black man at the hands of a white Ferguson policeman opened all sorts of wounds that have festered for generations. Of the thousands who have tromped up and down West Florissant Avenue since Brown’s death, there are nearly as many diagnoses about what Ferguson needs now.

To some, the answer is erasing the pattern of improper police behavior that has plagued this St. Louis suburb. To others, it is addressing income inequality or struggling schools. Still more cite the need to regain lost jobs, or repair the ruptured trust between the community and the people sworn to protect it. Then there is the glaring lack of African-American political representation: Ferguson is a city that is two-thirds black, run by a white mayor and nearly all-white city council.

“This is Jim Crow country,” says Garrett Duncan, a professor of education and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “You still have a predominantly white and affluent population voting for who runs North County,” the collection of townships like Ferguson north of St. Louis.

Ferguson’s protesters are united on one point: they want justice, in the form of an indictment for Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown at least six times just after noon on Aug. 9. (A new audio recording, provided to CNN by an unidentified resident, who alleges he inadvertently captured the incident on tape, purports to show that Brown was killed in two distinct bursts of gunfire separated by a pause. CNN says it cannot authenticate the tape.) But an indictment will be slow, if it comes at all. Robert McCulloch, the lead prosecuting attorney in the case, has estimated he won’t finish presenting evidence to a grand jury until about mid-October. Issues can flare and fade in a blink. If the courtroom lag diverts attention from the systemic problems that led to Brown’s shooting, the community could lose the momentum it has gathered.

To Larry Jones, bishop of the Greater Grace Church in Ferguson, the solution is to reach out to a generation of young, black men who don’t believe the system is geared to represent them. Part of that, he says, is to form mentorship programs that help blacks prepare to enter the workforce and to cope with episodes of police targeting. But another part is improving civic participation. “We have forgotten the power we’ve been given to go to the polls and cast our vote,” says Jones. “It’s those local elections that really affect our lives. We do have a voice, and we need to use it.”

In 2013 municipal elections, just 6% of African Americans turned out to vote. The figures are so low, in part, because the elections were held in the spring of an off-year. But that doesn’t explain the racial gap: whites, who comprise just one-third of the city’s population, were three times more likely to vote. A number of groups are trying to improve African-American participation. The organization HealSTL, launched in the wake of the shooting, leased office space in town as part of its bid to “turn a moment into a movement.” Other organizations have also erected voter-registration booths alongside the protests.

Another challenge will be fixing the issues with local police, which range from widespread reports of bias to the heavy-handed crackdown on the protests. Chris Koster, Missouri’s attorney general, has announced workshops this autumn designed to diversify the state’s urban police forces. (Ferguson, whose force is 94% white, is hardly the only township with an unrepresentative police department.) Democratic Congressmen Emanuel Cleaver and William Lacy Clay, both of Missouri, met last week with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to air their concerns about the “militarization” of area police, who responded to the protests with tear gas, rubber bullets and armored tanks. “If there is any good that can come out of the tragedy in Ferguson,” they wrote in a statement on the meeting, “our hope is that this effort will spur a national discussion about how to achieve a fundamental shift in local law enforcement, away from military-style responses, and towards a more community-based policy.”

Other residents hope that the exhale following the funeral will allow them to rebuild the city’s reputation. Ferguson has become a byword for racial strife and civic unrest, but it is more complex than a single stretch of heavily photographed road. Other sections of town bear the ubiquitous signs of urban reinvention: a downtown strip dotted with a wine bar and refurbished loft apartments, a farmers’ market, community gardens. In 2010, a 30-person delegation even traveled to Kansas City, Mo., to compete for an All-America City Award, for which the city was a finalist.

“For the most part, we get along,” says Brian Fletcher, a former Ferguson mayor who is one of the founders of a group called I Love Ferguson. The committee has passed out more than 8,000 signs bearing that credo, which dot leafy yards in the more affluent neighborhoods and line some of the city’s streets. It hopes to raise money to repay the businesses that suffered in the looting, and maybe even enough to incentivize others to move in. “The image that we’ve received is a city in chaos. We don’t ignore the fact that there’s racial tension and segregation,” says Fletcher, who is white. “We have chosen to stay here. We’re not leaving. It is an amazing community.”

The community has done some amazing things since Brown’s death, from the volunteer peacekeepers who soothed tensions between protesters and police to the residents who showed up each day with crates of bottled water and trays of food, paid for out of their own pockets. Now the challenge, as Sharpton told the mourners at the funeral, is to “turn the chants into change.” But marching orders are much more easily given from the pulpit than carried out on the street. It is up to Ferguson to figure out whether it will be known for a shooting or the healing that followed. “How we responded to the tragedy,” says Fletcher, “will become the real legacy.”

TIME #Asktime

#AskTIME Q & A: Alex Altman

Welcome to TIME’s weekly Q&A series #AskTIME. This week, we’re chatting with Alex Altman, who co-authored this week’s cover story on Ferguson and spent the week there reporting on the ground.

We will start posting questions and responses at 1 p.m. EST and stay online for about 30 minutes. We have been gathering reader questions all week on Whisper, Twitter and Facebook but will also take questions in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #askTIME.

If you’d like to follow along with #AskTIME going forward, sign up here.

Outsider asks: What do you think the chances are of the officer involved being charged in this case, and the police chief coming under investigation for lack of management (or a stated policy) regarding minorities in his city – given the other death that occurred by Police 4 miles away from where Brown was shot? Have you heard of any legal action coming down?

I don’t want to speculate about whether the officer will be charged. The county prosecutor has begun presenting evidence to a grand jury, but that process will take months. Gov. Jay Nixon has promised a “vigorous prosecution,” which is an unusual statement that gives you a sense of the political pressure at play. DOJ has opened a parallel investigation into federal (criminal) civil rights violations. They are probing allegations that the Ferguson police force has a pattern of racial profiling, borne out in both residents’ anecdotes and statistics collected by the state.

Whisper: ‘What are the protesters hoping to accomplish by destroying the things around them. It takes all respect away from their cause.’

It’s important to distinguish between the small faction of people who are there to fight cops or break stuff, and the vast majority, which is there to peacefully call attention to a deeply felt grievance. The protesters are not “destroying things.” That’s being done by other folks, who are there for reasons that have little to do with the death of Michael Brown. A week ago, when there was significant looting, a lot of protesters put themselves at personal risk by standing guard at storefronts to stop it. There are more volunteers spending hours a day actively policing the crowd than there are folks intent on doing damage. People are doing some pretty heroic stuff in an attempt to keep the peace.

Whisper: how do we shift the focus from a race issue to an issue where we see our police are out of control?

I think this question underscores why the story has gotten such traction. So much is screwed-up about what’s happened in Ferguson that it touches different nerves for different people. I agree that the “militarization” of police is a big issue. But so are the racial divisions that led to this point, and which have been deepened by the shooting. Focus on whatever aspect of the story you want, but there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed.

deconstructiva asks: Alex, we know that journalists normally try to cover the story instead of being the story, but the Ferguson police’s arrest of journalists have changed that, especially the initial two arrests in the McDonald’s. Has that made your coverage there any harder, or not really? Why did the police raid that McDonald’s in the first place? No doubt many view their food as a health hazard, but that’s no excuse to storm the place to clear it out and arrest journalists. Did anyone arrest or otherwise discipline those officers who made the arrests? I wonder how events and coverage would’ve played out if the police had left the media alone, but then again, given their brutality against local residents, their behavior would’ve been exposed anyway. And if the large media presence wasn’t there, how much worse would events be? Sunil Dutta’s recent op-ed defending fellow police shows a potentially dangerous mindset that obviously is not strictly his alone.

I have thought about this a lot. The arrest of journalists is obviously unfortunate, and for a bunch of reasons. One is it created a storyline which diverts attention from the bigger issues at the core of the case: the death of a 18-year-old kid; the systemic issues that led to it; the question of what transpired in the Brown-Wilson encounter; the protests that have ensued; the challenge of preventing a repeat occurrence. As you say, when at all possible, reporters should try to cover the story without inserting themselves into it. It’s not always possible.

There’s no question that the media have affected the trajectory of events. I suspect the press horde has probably made police more cautious about how they deploy force, since they know their actions are liable to be splashed across the national news. Nearly everyone I met was happy to talk to me—which is a rarity—because they hope the reporting calls attention to problems in the community. I also think the media presence eggs on some agitators who want to mug for the cameras.

Some of this stuff is unavoidable. And the majority of media in Ferguson are doing a very good job covering an important story under difficult circumstances. But the swarm has grown to unwieldy proportions and there are some folks who seem to be courting controversy rather than trying to avoid it. The last day or so that I was in Ferguson (I was there for a week before leaving yesterday morning), the press pack began outnumbering protesters at time. Reporting started to feel like rubbernecking. We have to be conscious of when our presence becomes a hindrance. (And yes, I recognize the hypocrisy in saying the press shouldn’t be the story, then giving a windy first-person response.)

yogi1 asks: Alex what are the chances a lame duck Congress passes anything substantial on immigration reform after the midterms?

Pretty much zero. House Republicans have blocked efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill for more than a year, despite strong public support and pressure from business lobbies and evangelicals. The right’s resistance will only intensify if President Obama issues executive orders on immigration policy this fall, as he has suggested. I have written about what moves he may be considering, such as expanding DACA to grant relief from deportation for potentially millions.

Whisper: ‘has the officer responsible been arrested, detained, placed on probation or faced any repercussions? if not, why?

The officer who shot Brown is on paid administrative leave. He’s left the area, and is in an undisclosed location because of threats to his safety. The Ferguson police hasn’t addressed your question specifically, and the St. Louis County police tells me they will not release the investigative component of the incident report, which deals with what happened. It’s possible that Wilson will face criminal charges. But we won’t know for months; the prosecuting attorney is hoping to finish presenting evidence by mid-October.

DonQuixotic asks: Alex, given your past coverage on the House vote to try and help Marijuana businesses gain access to financial systems, what do you think the likelihood of legalization is? Is it only a matter of time? How much support is the move seeing on the Hill?

There has been very little progress on legalization at a federal level. There’s not even much progress on giving legitimate, tax-paying businesses in states that have legalized pot access to banks, which is an urgent and obvious problem. Lawmakers want to see how the experiments unfolding in Colorado and Washington play out. But I think there’s no question the legalization movement is gaining momentum at the state level. Oregon and Alaska may follow this year. California is the big one, and industry folks believe it will pass a legalization measure in 2016.

deconstructiva asks: Alex, in a change of pace from Ferguson coverage, as you travel all over the country to cover politics, what do you think is the biggest difference in political coverage all over the US – elected officials at highest levels (President, Congress, governors, state legislators) vs. everyday people in your interviews, or different areas of the country, like East Coast vs. Midwest vs. South, or even DC / Beltway vs. outside DC (everywhere else)? Do DC politicians and the media really have its own collective mindset about politics apart from the rest of country, thus the “Beltway media” term mentioned a lot, or is this more of an urban myth and Beltway coverage really isn’t that much different as say, reporting from Ohio or California?

(My best guess – if “Beltway media” reporting is unique among national reporting, I suspect it comes from DC’s sole existence as our nation’s capital and thus politics is a daily livelihood for nearly everyone there …so politics might be seen as a game to be played (and manipulated) instead of a daily job of tackling everyday issues and keeping things running, though of course, Congress is failing to do even this bare minimum, but I digress.)

If I understand your question, the biggest difference is the stakes, both political and monetary. Read coverage in, say, mid-sized metro newspapers around the U.S., and you will see the same focus on incremental inside-baseball news, fleeting “scoops,” partisan bickering. “Beltway” reporting heightens these tendencies, because the characters are bigger, there’s more competition, and there’s an entire industry that wants this kind of coverage and is willing to underwrite it. Believe me when I tell you that a lot of reporters are even more frustrated with some of the industry trends than you seem to be.

@AprilHollowayJD asks: Did you hear any police officers disagree with the actions of the other police or is it mob/protect your own mentality?

There’s definitely a protect-your-own mentality. However, it’s just as dangerous to generalize about the behavior of police in Ferguson as it is to generalize about the protesters. Is some of the criticism of police behavior valid? Absolutely. But I also saw and spoke to a lot of police officers who were respectful of the protesters’ right to assemble, who were doing their best to lower the temperature, and who are caught in a very difficult situation not of their own making.

TIME Crime

There’s Very Little in the Michael Brown Shooting Incident Report

Ferguson reacts to shooting of Michael Brown
Theo Murphy (left) of Florissant and his brother Jordan Marshall light candles, at a memorial on Canfield Drive where unarmed teen Michael Brown was fatally shot, Aug. 21, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. Christian Gooden—St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris

Police waited 10 days to approve It

Updated 1:45 p.m. ET

Nearly two weeks after Michael Brown’s death, a police report on the shooting has finally been made public. But the glaring lack of detail is likely to increase widespread criticism that the law-enforcement community is closing ranks around Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot Brown on Aug. 9.

The incident report, filed by the St. Louis County police department, contains no new information on the encounter between Brown and Wilson. There are no written details about the event. As a result, the officer’s account of what transpired when the two men met just after noon on Aug. 9 remains a mystery.

And it will be for some time, according to Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the St. Louis County police department. Schellman told TIME that the department does not intend to release the “investigative” component of the incident report, the part that details Wilson’s version of events.

Schellman said that under the Missouri State “Sunshine” Law, the department was not required to release the information during a pending investigation. As a result, Wilson’s account of what happens will remain confidential unless it is presented by a prosecutor, Schellman said.

“We will not release it,” said Schellman, who noted that this is the county’s normal procedure. “This isn’t any different than a typical larceny from a local convenience store.”

Wilson never filed a report on the incident, according to the office of the St. Louis County prosecutor. The case was quickly turned over to the county at the request of local police. According to the document, the St. Louis County police entered the incident report on Aug. 19, 10 days after the shooting. It was approved for release the following morning.

(Read More: TIME’s cover story Inside the Tragedy of Ferguson)

The bare facts of the incident report were made public after the ACLU of Missouri filed a lawsuit demanding the public documents, as pursuant to Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Why it took so long for the department to comply, considering the lack of information contained in the documented, is unclear. The ACLU could not immediately be reached for comment.

The report classifies the potential offense as a “homicide.” Schellman said that is the standard classification for an investigation into an incident that leaves someone dead.

Read the full report below.

This story has been updated to reflect new information.

CARE Incident Report

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