KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED, an NPR podcast where we take a story from the news and go deep. And today, we are on Skid Row in Los Angeles. If you don't know about it, Skid Row's a pretty notorious place. It's about 50 square blocks. Thousands of people live there. Many of them are homeless and live on the streets. Others live in shelters or short-term hotels. Back in the spring of 2015, police responded to a call on Skid Row about a robbery. Officers approach a man named Charly Leundeu Keunang, who went by the nickname Africa, out on the sidewalk. And another guy starts filming. All the tape you're about to hear is from that guy's video. Just a warning here, There's some explicit language up ahead.
Keunang is wheeling around as the police try to grab him. It looks like they're trying to cuff Keunang. The police get on their knees. They're holding him on the ground. You can hear what sounds like a taser going off. And then this happens.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Yelling) Oh.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Yelling) Oh.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Yelling) Wow. Oh, my god.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: God [expletive]. Oh, God.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: [Expletive].
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, [expletive].
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, my god.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: [Expletive]. They just killed that man. They just shot that mother [expletive] man like that.
MCEVERS: Three officers shot Charly Keunang five times. And then he died. An autopsy later found Keunang had meth in his system. A report by the police inspector general said Keunang's behavior was consistent with someone who has mental illness. Police say that he was grabbing for an officer's holstered gun.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They just shot that man right here, man.
MCEVERS: Since then, we have seen a lot of officer-involved shootings. More and more are being captured on video either by civilians or on police body cams or dash cams. People protesting these shootings in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, Chicago say the police are the problem, that their tactics are too harsh and they're especially hard on black people.
The police say civilians like us don't understand what they're up against. On Skid Row, where thousands of LA's most vulnerable people, many of them black, are concentrated in one really small area, questions of how police should use force and interact with people come up all the time. So that's what we're talking about on our show today. We're going down to Skid Row, one of the most challenging places in the country for police to work, for a day and a night to watch the police do their jobs.
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MCEVERS: OK. So first, really quick, let me just say this is not going to be a story about what happened to Charly Keunang. The police recently ruled the shooting was justified. The three officers who fired that day are back in the field. Reports by the police chief and the inspector general found that Keunang was reaching for an officer's gun.
But Jeff Sharlet, a reporter who was able to look at police videos of the shooting, wrote he did not see Keunang reaching for a gun in the videos. What this story is is a story about police tactics and approaches. So to start, we're going to Skid Row during the day. And when I say we, I mean, me and producer Tom Dreisbach.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: It's the middle of the day. And if you've never been to Skid Row before, we should just describe it a little. It's really packed with people, a lot of people waiting outside shelters or places where they can get a meal.
MCEVERS: Other people are sitting on milk crates or boxes or curbs, hanging out. Some are drinking, smoking weed, doing other drugs.
DREISBACH: And there are hundreds of tents everywhere, up and down almost every street. We began by asking the Los Angeles Police Department to let us go out on patrol with some officers.
MCEVERS: The police knew that they had an image problem after the shooting of Charly Leundeu Keunang, the homeless man who went by the name Africa.
DREISBACH: So they basically put us in touch with two of the nicest cops they have.
MCEVERS: Andre Linnear.
Say your name again.
ANDRE LINNEAR: Linnear.
MCEVERS: And Delano Hutchins.
DELANO HUTCHINS: And actually, I think my mom got it after Roosevelt - Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
DREISBACH: They're both African-American, like many of the people who live down on Skid Row.
MCEVERS: And they're so nice, we have to wonder if the bosses did this on purpose so the police will look good in the press.
DREISBACH: So we start walking with Hutchins and Linnear. And they tell us how they do things on Skid Row.
LINNEAR: Kind of like high visibility - Kind of walk down the block, address whatever needs to be addressed. And at times we will pick up radio calls if it's in our area.
HUTCHINS: A lot of people out here, you're going to find out that they know us (laughter) because we get out, and we talk to people, you know?
OK, so let's just take a minute right here to talk about policing on Skid Row.
DREISBACH: Back in 2006, the LAPD added 50 extra police officers to Skid Row. That was an extra officer for every square block.
MCEVERS: And the idea was to apply the so-called broken windows theory of policing, a theory that was first widely applied in Rudy Giuliani's New York City. And the idea is to cite and arrest people for the small stuff, like vandalism, jaywalking and public drinking, to prevent them from committing the big crimes.
HUTCHINS: Where my partner at? He over there (laughter).
MCEVERS: He's right there.
DREISBACH: So the two officers we're with, Andre Linnear and Delano Hutchins, they've basically chosen to not use the tougher, Safer Cities broken windows approach.
MCEVERS: Instead, they do something they call outreach policing.
DREISBACH: Here's a little bit of what that sounds like.
LINNEAR: Hey, how you doing today?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Hey. All right. How you been?
LINNEAR: Oh, all right. Good to see you.
Hey, how have you been? What's going on?
HUTCHINS: Hey, how's it going?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It's officer friendly an officer friendlier.
HUTCHINS: What's up, baby girl? How you doing?
LINNEAR: You know I'm going to have to pour that out, man, all right?
HUTCHINS: Give me that man. Caught you sleeping, huh?
LINNEAR: All right, how you doing today? Diane (ph)? Diane? You all right, sweetie? OK.
HUTCHINS: Hey, how you doing? She is looking for you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: I've come for my lap dance.
HUTCHINS: You know I don't give out free...
MCEVERS: And you can hear it. It's not just that people on Skid Row know these guys. People like these guys.
DREISBACH: So then, after a couple of hours, Hutchins and Linnear get a call.
UNDIENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Through police radio) Any units in the area, 1412 (unintelligible) street.
DREISBACH: We walk a couple blocks and find another police officer in the process of citing a guy for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, loosies.
MCEVERS: And the guy who is being cited for selling the loosies, his name is Ladell Stuckey (ph). He's not happy.
What's going on?
LADELL STUCKEY: I'm being harassed right now because he seen me pick up my cigarettes off the ground. So if you ain't proved that you - I'm illegal vending out here, Just 'cause you see me picking up my cigarettes don't necessarily mean that I'm selling cigarettes.
DREISBACH: We should say that Ladell Stuckey is very well-known by the police.
MCEVERS: This guy sticks out. And he wears a big gold chain and T-shirt with a big pot leaf pattern on it. And he says he is always being harassed by the cops.
DREISBACH: They say he's a problem.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Next time I'm going to have to...
STUCKEY: I'm going to be here every single day.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: I know you will.
STUCKEY: So get used to it. And guess what? Soon as he let me go, I'm going to have - Go to the store and buy me more cigarettes. I'm homeless. Where do you expect for me to go?
MCEVERS: And it might sound like Ladell Stuckey is just talking trash here. But two hours later, two hours after he got the citation had this fight with the cops, we walk right past the same spot. And who do we see? Ladell Stuckey.
Same dude, same spot, two hours later, six more packs of cigarettes.
STUCKEY: I know. I know. I know. I'm sorry, you all. I apologize about misbehaving.
DREISBACH: And the thing is officers Hutchins and Linnear don't arrest or cite Ladell Stuckey, even though it looks like he's selling cigarettes again.
HUTCHINS: So you're giving them away for free right?
STUCKEY: Yeah. No, if you want one, you can have one.
HUTCHINS: It's donations, right?
STUCKEY: Yeah, I sell for donations.
HUTCHINS: Uh huh.
DREISBACH: So we walk down the block, and we ask Hutchins and Linnear why they didn't give the guy another citation or even arrest him?
LINNEAR: What do you think our biggest, biggest, biggest job is?
MCEVERS: Is for him to not do that anymore?
LINNEAR: No. No. No. Really, is our big job to worry about him selling loose cigarettes on the sidewalk? Our biggest job is safety.
HUTCHINS: Hutchins says if they tried to arrest Ladell Stuckey right now, it could escalate into a fight.
MCEVERS: And arresting him probably won't stop him from committing crimes again. Linnear and Hutchins say it's better to get people's trust than to constantly hit them with citations and arrests.
DREISBACH: When people trust you, Linnear says, they help you solve crimes.
LINNEAR: If we just go out and we just pounding everybody every second of the day, then we're not really doing our job because now, no one trusts us. You know, we can't solve those unsolved crimes because no one would talk to us about it.
MCEVERS: So officers Hutchins and Linnear aren't going to help us learn about Safer Cities broken windows policing on Skid Row because they don't do hard-core broken windows policing. When we asked them about it later. Why do they do their jobs this way? Officer Delano Hutchins grew up in Detroit. He says the people on Skid Row are a lot like the people he grew up with.
HUTCHINS: You know, the kids are the kids that I played with. The teenagers that are down there are the kids that I went to school with. And the adults down there - You know, drinking, smoking dope, whatever - They're the people that some of my uncles and my parents hung around or that I even witnessed, you know? So...
MCEVERS: In Detroit?
MCEVERS: Andre Linnear grew up in Louisiana and then LA. And we spent a lot of time with him while he was working. But it was later, when we meet up with him again, that he tells us his family actually spent some time living on Skid Row.
LINNEAR: Back in the day - And I'll never forget - My mom actually came way up Skid Row to a shelter before she could actually get into low-income housing.
MCEVERS: It wasn't just his mom who was living in a homeless shelter on Skid Row. It was him and his two brothers, too.
LINNEAR: Yeah, we actually came down to a shelter. We actually came here. It was only maybe for about - almost two weeks.
MCEVERS: How old were you?
LINNEAR: About 12 - Yeah.
MCEVERS: And how old were your brothers?
LINNEAR: Eleven and 10.
MCEVERS: What was it like?
LINNEAR: Different - A Lot Of people, a lot of chaos.
MCEVERS: The kids would go to school during the day and come home to the shelter at night. Their mom wouldn't let them go out on Skid Row. After two weeks, they got approved for subsidized housing, left Skid Row and moved into a house in South Central LA.
But you must, now, when you see people - I mean, do you think about it?
LINNEAR: Yeah, all the time. And I think that's part of the reason why I do what I do. You know, it's always, you know, in the back of my mind. And I just think that that's part of why I'm here. You know, it's kind of like my calling.
MCEVERS: Do the people you work with know about that?
LINNEAR: No. (Laughter) No.
MCEVERS: What would they say if they knew?
LINNEAR: They probably - I don't know. They probably would just be - Probably shocked - More shocked than - Yeah. Yeah, probably be more shocked.
DREISBACH: So we still wanted to know about the Safer Cities Initiative - What the more strict, broken-window style of policing looks like and whether it works.
MCEVERS: So we set up another time with police officers - This time, with cops who work the night shift. And what we saw was a lot different.
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MCEVERS: That's coming up after this break.
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DREISBACH: The plan is that I'll be with the police on the overnight shift. Check, check, check, - All Right.
MCEVERS: And on the same night, I'll be out on the streets with the people who live on Skid Row.
TC: Your coffee's in there.
MCEVERS: Yeah, I'll leave it.
TC: Oh, really?
MCEVERS: My guide is a guy who goes by the name TC. He doesn't want us to say his full name.
TC: I tell you, sister...
TC: ...I love Skid Row. Am I on?
TC: There's no people in this world more realer than people on Skid Row.
MCEVERS: TC is homeless. He has lived on Skid Row off and on since the '80s.
TC: It's a love and hate thing.
MCEVERS: Yeah, I know. You were just saying you love it.
TC: What's up, Red (ph)?
MCEVERS: And TC is a glad-hander too. He says hey to just about everybody we see on Skid Row. He's also a volunteer for the LA Community Action Network. This is a group that organizes protests against police. TC says the Safer Cities approach has done him no good.
How many times have you been arrested down here?
TC: I got arrested 13 times in 2012. Sitting on the sidewalk, sitting on a crate - I got arrested in 2011 for sitting on a crate.
MCEVERS: They say that the more you arrest people, you know, the more likely they are to change or maybe leave.
TC: Leave and go where?
MCEVERS: Leave and go back home.
TC: Go back to the same misery that they left? I find that ridiculous. To rearrest them 50 times for the same crime - They're not going to learn a lesson. They're going to learn how to be more stubborn. That's the only thing you're teaching them. When I went to jail 13 times, it didn't do nothing but make me used to going to jail.
MCEVERS: TC and I go to talk to other people who've been arrested a bunch of times under the Safer Cities Initiative. We get on this dark street lined with tents. We meet a guy who would only give his name as KB, which he says stands for cowboy.
How did you come to Skid Row?
KB: I looked at Skid Row as an outlet to be me. You know, I can be me. I can be, you know, drunk. I can be whatever I want to be down here. You know, and I can fit in because everybody else is doing the same thing.
MCEVERS: KB has lived on Skid Row since 2009. He says at one point he spent 18 months in prison for selling drugs. And he says now the police stop him and handcuff him a lot, too.
KB: Usually it's for a jaywalking or drinking-in-public ticket because that's all I do is drink in public. And sometimes I might jaywalk just to get away from bizarre people that might be getting on my nerves.
MCEVERS: So how many times, like, this year have you been stopped?
KB: Probably about 10 times.
MCEVERS: But KB has a different idea about this than TC. He says getting stopped and arrested all these times has actually changed the way he does things.
KB: Yeah, it does, in a certain way - It lets me know that I am being watched and I need to straighten up my act.
MCEVERS: So it does change. So it makes you behave differently.
KB: It gives me ideas to behave differently.
MCEVERS: But still, KB says, he doesn't trust the police - Especially after police shot and killed that homeless man, Charlie Keunang. Then he says he has to go.
TC: Thank you, KB.
MCEVERS: While TC and I walk around and talk to people about had they been arrested, Tom starts his night with the police walking around.
DREISBACH: I'm with Officer Michael Orozco, who at time had worked on Skid Row for about two years. He's Latino and, as he says it, born and raised in LA. And I can tell from the start that Orozco's approach is different from those two officers we were with during the day, Hutchins and Linnear.
Do you feel like you have a good number of contacts out here or no?
MICHAEL OROZCO: Like people who give me information? No, absolutely not - Absolutely not.
DREISBACH: Orozco says that there's a lot of good people on Skid Row - People that he wants to help. He says his style is more tough love. As we're walking, he talks to a guy on a bike.
OROZCO: You've got 30 minutes, man, to get a light on that.
DREISBACH: He's talking to a guy biking without a light on. Later, a little after the sun goes down, we walk past a group of men sitting on the sidewalk. One of the men has a water bottle at his feet. Officer Orozco stops and asks for the guy's name.
OROZCO: What's your name? Do I know you?
TERRY JACKSON: No, you don't know me.
OROZCO: I think I do. Do me a favor, man, stand up. Is that your bag? I'm going to grab this seat and come over here and sit down. I want to talk with you.
JACKSON: Why? I haven't did nothing. What's the reason I do?
DREISBACH: Now, when we were with Officers Hutchins and Linnear in similar situations, we saw them just walk by or give a friendly warning. Orozco, on the other hand, grabs the guy's chair and the water bottle, walks a few feet down the block and tells the guy who had that bottle to sit in the chair. The man sits down. He gives his name as Terry Jackson. And he asks why he's being detained.
OROZCO: It's because I believe this to be...
JACKSON: Hey, man, it's not in a - It's not an open container.
OROZCO: ...An alcoholic beverage.
JACKSON: It's closed.
OROZCO: It's an alcoholic beverage.
JACKSON: You cannot tell me that I was doing nothing wrong.
DREISBACH: Orozco opens the lid, and he and I could smell the beer.
OROZCO: Do me a favor, man - Just stand up. I'm tired of you. I'm tired of your mouth.
DREISBACH: Jackson stands up and faces the wall. And Orozco puts him in handcuffs.
OROZCO: Check it out. You're going to get a ticket for that concealed alcoholic beverage.
JACKSON: Why? It isn't even no can. It's not even mine.
DREISBACH: At this point, more people start coming by. One woman yells, this is unfair. And Terry Jackson, the guy in handcuffs, starts yelling - Yelling about how police shot and killed that homeless man, Charlie Keunang, two weeks before.
JACKSON: You put these handcuffs on me all you want. What do you want to do, beat me, too? You want to shoot? You want to shoot? You want to shoot me?
DREISBACH: By now, about five or six people have gathered around. They're taking videos on their cell phones. The officers call for help.
JACKSON: Yeah, call more backup so you all can kill somebody else.
DREISBACH: A third officer pulls up in a patrol car and things eventually calm down. Orozco uncuffs Jackson. He's not under arrest, but he does give him a citation for an open container. After we walk away, I ask Orozco why he decided to give that guy a ticket in that moment.
OROZCO: I think if I can do it one ticket at a time, enforce the drinking in that area, it will deter if not anybody, else at least him - If not now, well then maybe later - If not him, maybe somebody else. That is a problem location. And I gave a ticket to a problem individual. And it's as simple as that.
DREISBACH: Orozco is basically just explaining the idea behind Safer Cities. He says public drinking leads to public drunkenness, which leads to fighting or worse. So far, the only citations we've seen cops give are for selling loose cigarettes or drinking in public. But worse crimes happen every day on Skid Row, and police have to deal with them all the time, too. That's why they say they need so many officers and they need to do everything they can to be tough on serious criminals in a really chaotic place.
Here's some of the other stuff I saw. At one point, police respond to a woman throwing her husband's stuff out of their fifth-floor apartment. There's a broken DVD player and some boxer shorts out on the sidewalk. Police rush up the stairs to her apartment, but by the time we get to her door...
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: Open the door, LAPD.
DREISBACH: ...She's already gone. Then there's a man who says he has depression and schizophrenia. He breaks a window at the building where he's staying.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: Are you hearing voices today?
DREISBACH: Police and paramedics see him, patch up his bloody hands and release him with a warning.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: You're going to be all right, man.
DREISBACH: This goes on for hours - Radio call comes in, we go check it out and there is no gladhanding. Most of our time is actually just spent in the police car. And that's how it goes on the night shift. Then, around 2:30 in the morning, it's close to the end of the shift, and I'm still in the police car.
MCEVERS: I am out on the streets, still, with TC. We're about a block away from the police station, and something happens.
OK, that was a gunshot.
DREISBACH: I'm not far away, sitting in a police car. Kelly sends me a one-word text - Gunshot.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: (Through police radio) ...Armed with a gun and a knife...
DREISBACH: Then we hear about it on the radio. Police dispatch four cars to the area.
MCEVERS: I see those cars drive by. A couple of the black and whites are kind of milling around. I also see people running away.
DREISBACH: The police say someone called and said a security guard had been shot and stabbed at a shelter. When they finally reach them, the shelter says, no, everyone's actually fine.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Through police radio) All security guards are accounted for at this time.
DREISBACH: The police say they found no victims, no witnesses, and so they just go back on regular patrol.
MCEVERS: As far as we know, no one got hurt from that gunshot. But not long after that night, someone was stabbed to death on Skid Row. Then months later, someone was shot and killed, and then another fatal stabbing. So there clearly needs to be a strong police presence down on Skid Row. But the question of whether the Safer Cities policing approach is actually working seems to point to no. People told us it's resulted in a lot of tickets but no real reduction in crime. Violent crime is now up in downtown LA, which includes Skid Row.
We found two studies on Safer Cities. One says it didn't reduce crime. Another says it did. Police will argue that they can't enforce as much as they want to because of lawsuits against them. Either way, you still have people like TC and Ladell Stuckey getting these tickets but not really doing anything differently. And the other thing - It's not like all the cops are applying a single, uniform approach down on Skid Row. On the one end of the spectrum, you have officers like Delano Hutchins and Andre Linnear, and on the other, you have officers like Michael Orozco. This is true in a lot of police departments. Police do have discretion. But when they have too much discretion, some say that's when things go wrong.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #3: Time to wake up, break down the tents. Wake up. Break down your tent.
DREISBACH: It's a few hours after that gunshot. The sun is starting to come up, and the next shift of police are out patrolling.
MCEVERS: After 6 in the morning, it is technically illegal to have your tent set up on the sidewalk.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #3: It's time to wake up, break down your tents.
DREISBACH: That's another one of those small crimes that can get you a ticket.
MCEVERS: Whether you actually do get a ticket depends on the officer.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #3: Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. You need to break down your tent.
MCEVERS: Since we did this reporting, the LAPD has acknowledged that in some way, the Safer Cities approach needs to change. It's renamed and reformulated SCI. It's now called RESET - That stands for Resources Enhancement Services Enforcement Team.
The head of that team is Lt. Andy Mathes, and he's worked on Skid Row for more than 10 years. He says RESET means there's more outreach and less broken windows. Police officers now walk around with homeless outreach workers and other service providers to focus on more than just crime.
ANDY MATHES: We spend a lot more time in foot beats. There's probation, there's parole that bring unique rehabilitation programs, substance abuse programs, to the table. We have homeless service specialists that can go out there. So it's not the same. The days of walking out and taking everybody to jail simply don't - Can't happen any longer.
MCEVERS: Mathes says the new name and the new approach should go a long way in, quote, "mitigating the image that the police are heartless."
Since we did this reporting, Officer Delano Hutchins has left Skid Row; so has Michael Orozco. They work in other divisions. Andre Linnear still works on Skid Row. He is now assigned to do outreach full-time. That means it's his job to go out and talk to people and try to connect them with the services they need all day long. He tells us he is one of four officers assigned to outreach out of a total of 54 RESET officers.
And you're a part of the RESET team, right?
MCEVERS: And so - That used to be called Safer Cities Initiative.
MCEVERS: So it's the same?
LINNEAR: It's the same thing. The name just changed. What we do is exactly the same thing.
MCEVERS: When we ask another officer, she says, yeah, we're policing more aggressively - You know, zero-tolerance type stuff. But we're also trying to be more fair. Another former SCI officer said, same thing, different smell.
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MCEVERS: I just want to thank some people who helped make this show possible from the beginning - Joanna Pawlowska, Quinn O'Toole, Steve Lickteig, Lisa Pollak, Eric Nuzum and Matt Martinez. This episode was produced by Tom Dreisbach and Chris Benderev and edited by Sean Cole and Steve Drummond with help from Shereen Marisol Meraji, Sonari Glinton, Brett Bachman, Muthoni Muturi, Julia Buckley, Frank Stoltze, Pete White, Don Graham (ph) and James Spring; digital production by Alexander McCall; research help from Jane Gilvin; original music by Colin Wambsgans. The show is executive produced by me, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. Our project manager is Kasia Podbielski.
You can hear more NPR on your local public radio station on another show I host called All Things Considered. We will be back next week when we get inside an immigration court that has one of the highest deportation rates in the country.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: A lot of the people who come in and see me will say, I've completed my probation. And I'll explain it to them. I'll say, listen, you were fined for criminal purposes but immigration is different.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Have you ever dealt drugs in the United States?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: I'm going to object to the question.
MCEVERS: Did you guys talk about the plan if he doesn't get to come home today?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: I have no plan if they deny it. I just look forward to walking out of here with my husband and taking him back home.
MCEVERS: If you haven't done it yet, subscribe to this podcast and go ahead, leave that review in iTunes. Like I say, it matters. Oh, and download the NPR One app, where right now you can hear episodes of Pop Culture Happy Hour a day earlier than usual. Seriously, download NPR One - It will change your life. I'm Kelly McEvers. Thanks for listening.
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