5 important stories buried by last week’s news
These days, it's hard to stop news from Washington, D.C., from flooding your news feed. We take a moment every week to bring you important stories beyond the White House and the Capitol. Here's what we're reading now.
1. An ongoing Baltimore trial will detail how a gun task force may have abused its powers
Baltimore's Gun Trace Task Force was created as a way for the city's police department to keep guns off the streets. But a trial that began last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore claims that police officers instead used the force as a way to confiscate cash and drugs, search homes without warrants, and in some cases, plant evidence at crime scenes.
Two police officers — detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor — pleaded not guilty, and have spent the past two weeks testifying about their work on the force. Six others have pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering and robbery. Some of them are testifying against Hersl and Taylor in court. [The Baltimore Sun]
Why it matters: This is the latest chapter in Baltimore's fraught relationship with its police department, which has entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice to improve what some officials have called racial profiling and excessive use of force. City residents have been critical and mistrustful of the police department for years, especially after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015, sparking widespread protest of how the department handles suspects.
At the same time, the city's murder rate has risen, Vox points out, reaching a record high of 56 murders per 100,000 people in 2017. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh fired police commissioner Kevin Davis last month, in large part because she was "impatient" with a lack of progress on the issue.
"As people are less able to turn to the Police Department for help, they're more likely to lose trust in the law and take matters into their own hands, even if it means resorting to violence to settle disputes," Vox's German Lopez wrote.
The independent monitor tasked with tracking the city's progress in following the consent decree told the Baltimore Sun it was "closely following" the trial. There are a number of questions the trial could answer, the Baltimore Sun said, including: "How did the officers' conduct go unchecked for so long? Who else knew of their activities? And who tipped the unit off to an investigation into their crimes?"
2. What's happening with FEMA aid to Puerto Rico?
Last week, an official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency told NPR that it planned to "officially shut off" aid to Puerto Rico, which months after Hurricane Maria is still trying rebuild roads, schools and entire villages, and restore access to basic services like power. The comments sparked outrage among Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, many of whom are frustrated about disaster aid money that has been delayed by Congress' fights over funding the government.
But the next day, FEMA clarified those remarks, saying it has not yet set a date to stop aid deliveries and "would not stop its distribution of supplies to volunteer agencies and local officials who still have a need." [PBS NewsHour]
Why it matters: For now, FEMA will continue to deliver food, water and other supplies to the island, but the gaffe raised broader concerns about Puerto Rico's ability to recover from the hurricane's damage — and what kind of help the federal government is providing.
As the PBS NewsHour's Patty Gomez Morales reported, President Donald Trump told Puerto Ricans and other U.S. citizens affected by 2017's historic year of natural disasters during his State of the Union address that "we are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together." FEMA told the NewsHour "it has provided the island with more than $1.6 billion worth of food and $361 million worth of water, and that roughly 5,000 personnel are currently on the island." But officials from areas destroyed by the hurricanes said they still haven't received all of the funding they need to get back on their feet.
Those leaders could see progress this week, as lawmakers eye another deadline Feb. 8 to fund the government, or risk another shutdown. A two-year deal announced by the Senate on Wednesday would include nearly $90 billion in disaster aid for Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas. But it's not clear whether the deal overall will be supported by the House.
3. The government is losing money on its student loan program
For many years, the government projected it would pull in billions in revenue through the U.S. student loan program. But more students are now seeking debt forgiveness, which means the program could be barreling towards a financial shortfall, according to a government report released Friday. The report said Americans, facing increasing financial pressure, are more often enrolling in government debt-forgiveness plans, known as income-driven repayment (IDR), which sets borrowers' monthly payments based on their income and often forgives remaining balances at the end of the 10 to 25 year repayment period, depending on the borrower's career field and debt.
The report said that the total amount being repaid through the IDR plans spiked 625 percent from 2011 to 2015 and that the federal government will lose $11.5 billion on the 2015 cohort of borrowers. If students continue to use IDR plans, the report said, it "could result in the Federal government and taxpayers lending more money overall than is being repaid." [Wall Street Journal]
Why it matters: About 43 million Americans owe $1.48 trillion in federal student debt, according to the Federal Reserve, making student loans the highest form of debt in the country besides mortgages. And the broad range of repayment terms made possible by IDRs could "pose significant challenges in managing its [Federal Student Aid office's] student loan portfolio," the report read. Last fall, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supported President Donald Trump's proposed 13.5 percent budget cuts to the Education Department, including eliminating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which forgives any remaining balance on direct loans after 10 years of on-time payments if the borrower is working for the government or a nonprofit. Congress did not use Mr. Trump's recommendations, but is still trying to agree on a budget deal.
4.Government shuts down television stations as tensions linger over Kenya's presidential election
Kenya's main opposition leader Raila Odinga lost the country's recent elections. But, calling himself the "people's president," Odinga staged a mock inauguration last week, prompting the government to shut down four television stations who planned to cover his swearing-in.
Odinga's announcement was "purely ceremonial but underscored the tensions still lingering after the country's contested election," PBS NewsHour's Michael Boulter wrote. The government saw the move as an attempt to overthrow the government, and went on to arrest several supporters of Odinga on charges of treason. [PBS NewsHour]
Why it matters: "Since gaining independence from Britain in 1964, Kenya's presidents have been from two ethnic groups, despite the country being home to more than than 40 ethnic groups," Boulter notes. Odinga is from one of those groups, the Luo. President Uhuru Kenyatta, who won the recent elections, is from the other, the Kikuyu. Tensions between the groups sparked ethnic violence after major elections in 2007, when the fighting killed 1,000 people, the Washington Post pointed out.
Most concerning to Kenya watchers is that the government ignored court orders that would have allowed media outlets to reopen. And when two of them did, four days after the court order, they reportedly had to agree to certain conditions, the Post said. "Kenya's African neighbors and Western donors ought to be demanding that the president reverse course before it is too late," the Post's editorial board wrote this week, adding the U.S. should echo that message, too.
5. Could teeth someday regrow on their own? These researchers say yes
Last year, a study from Scientific Reports, using mice as subjects, suggested that doctors could trick teeth into regrowing themselves using the body's own regenerative stem cells. It relied on a technique that uses the Wnt signaling pathway, a group of molecules that is involved with cell-to-cell communication and is crucial for tissue repair and stem cell development across the body. Since then, the authors tested their tooth regeneration technique on rats, whose teeth are larger than mice's and also more closely mirror human teeth. They saw similar success. But the procedure will still have to be tested on humans in clinical trials, a step that is still several years away. [Scientific American]
Why it's important: Nearly all Americans have or will have cavities. Among adults aged 20 to 64, 91 percent had cavities (treated or not) between 2011 and 2012, and 27 percent had untreated tooth decay, according to a study published in 2015 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. It's too early to tell whether this procedure will replace fillings, but it could be a big step forward in the burgeoning field of regenerative dentistry, which seeks to use the body's natural biological functions to repair teeth. In the future, this could create new options for dentists and make millions of Americans see gold teeth and other cavity fillings as jeweled relics of the past.