Be a Wise Consumer of Media Reports on Police

Be a Wise Consumer of Media Reports on Police

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

Although everyone knows better, stuff that gets out on social media still can perpetuate false narratives and put junk information into discussions of important issues. As an example, August is the anniversary month of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. A recent Twitter message from attorney Ben Crump stated “8 years ago, Michael Brown was killed with his hands up in surrender. Michael’s future was stolen from him. Rest in power, Mike.”

One might think that truth, facts, and due process would be central values to an attorney, but all are tossed out the window to glorify Michael Brown. Brown’s future was not stolen, he gave it up. The tweet also celebrates Brown’s graduation from high school but makes no mention of the strong arm robbery he committed before being confronted by Ferguson Police Officer Wilson. Crump gives no attention to the well-established fact that the “hands up” myth was just a myth. The evidence (i.e. facts – remember those?) showed that Brown attempted to wrestle Wilson’s weapon from the officer and resisted Wilson’s attempt to arrest him for that felony charge. Multiple agencies investigated, multiple autopsies were done, and multiple witnesses were interviewed. Even the Obama administration, with invitations to the Brown family to the White House, could not find evidence to charge Wilson with any misconduct.

Every young life squandered in crime is a tragedy. But if Brown does, indeed, “rest in power” it is the power of false telling of a story that only has value to vilify law enforcement if twisted and tortured away from the facts.

But, surely, the real media has more respect for facts and accuracy. Maybe “more” is the operative word. But consider this headline: “Colorado cop jailed for failing to stop beating of dementia patient” from the August 8th edition of the New York Post. The story is about the Loveland, Colorado arrest of a 73-year-old woman with dementia that was recorded on the officer’s body-worn camera. As with most use of force events, the video can be difficult to watch. This writer did not review all of the video or evidence presented when the arresting officer was sentenced to five years in prison for the arrest. What is not observed in any of the evidence is that a “beating” took place.

While the elderly can be frail and have diminished mental capacity, they are not exempt from arrest. Persons over age 50 constitute more than 6% of all murderers. Regardless of the defensibility of the arrest, which was not accepted by the court, it was a rough arrest for a non-compliant person. There was no beating, by any definition.

An Illinois case of the arrest of a fleeing 17-year-old with a handgun, who refused repeated commands was videoed by a bystander complete with the “beating” narrative. There are palm and hand strikes that are within training guidelines that strike muscle and nerve centers and are used to gain control over a resisting subject. These look menacing from an outsider’s view but are specific techniques that are used to avoid further escalation.

A case in Tennessee has family members of the arrestee asking how a traffic violation can result in the use of force to make an arrest. The answer is simple – pull over when you see the lights and hear the siren as the law requires. When you do stop, don’t run into your house when ordered by the police to stop after a pursuit. When officers catch up to you, do not resist with violence. We don’t know how the investigation will turn out or whether there was wrongdoing by the officers, but to say the officers were at fault and immediately attach the “beating” label is irresponsible.

There are common threads to watch for when consuming media reports. The first is whether the video is from a bystander complete with an uninformed narrative. Secondly is a lack of context. We almost never see what happened before officers began to use physical restraint. You will also never see a retraction, apology, or correction when the event was reported badly. The third is the race card. The media pounces on arrestees from so-called marginalized populations in order to further the narrative of systemic hatefulness in law enforcement. Lastly, remember that since a crime is alleged to have occurred, justice officials are not at liberty to discuss the case openly, so what you’ll hear are the laments of family members who will assure reporters that the arrestee was a great person with a bright future ahead, and the attorney who may have to wear sunglasses to keep the cameras from seeing the dollar signs in their eyes.