I recently posted about how the initial police reports of incidents that are routinely used by the media in their reports often contain distortions or outright lies, all. designed to exonerate the police from any blame when things go wrong. I used the George Floyd case as one of three examples. A new report in just the state of California shows how widespread the practice is.
A review of police killings in California showed that law enforcement spokespeople frequently publish highly misleading or sometimes false information about the people they have killed. Over the last five years, the Guardian found at least a dozen examples in the state of initial police statements misrepresenting events, with major omissions about the officers’ actions, inaccurate narratives about the victims’ behaviors, or blatant falsehoods about decisive factors.
In some cases, police cited vague “medical emergencies” without disclosing that officers had caused the emergencies through their use of force. In others, departments falsely claimed that the civilians had been armed or had overdosed. In most instances, media outlets repeated the police version of events with little skepticism.
The inaccuracies were exposed by body-camera footage, autopsy reports or litigation records, sometimes only years later. The widespread occurrence of police claims being disproven after the fact suggests that the problem is systemic, and that without public scrutiny or lawsuits, falsehoods are likely to go undetected.
“The press release about George Floyd was not an anomaly,” said Jody David Armour, a University of Southern California law professor and expert on policing. “This is ordinary operating procedures for police departments across the nation.”
The many examples given in the article are appalling. The article lists three main ways that the police lie and distort.
* Blaming a ‘medical incident’
* Leaving out key details
Vilify the people they kill, making them out to be a monsters
And the lies can get blatant, as in this case.
Police told the family of Ronald Greene that the 49-year-old Black man died after his car crashed into a tree during a police pursuit in May 2019, and in the two years that followed refused to publicly release body-camera footage of the incident.
Until this week, when the Associated Press published video that showed Louisiana state troopers had instead stunned, punched and dragged Greene as he apologized for leading them on a high-speed chase.
In the footage, white officers can be seen using a stun gun on Greene, who said: “I’m your brother! I’m scared! I’m scared!”
The deception that followed Greene’s death has underlined the power police have to shape the narrative around their encounters with the public and to mask brutality in their ranks.
Greene had ignored requests to pull over for an unspecified traffic violation just after midnight on 20 May 2019, prompting a car chase on the dark, rural roads near the border with Arkansas.
Greene’s family said police first told them that Greene had died in the car chase, running into a tree and fatally injuring his head after hitting the windshield. Later, police adjusted the story and said Greene had struggled with troopers and died on the way to the hospital.
The Associated Press did not say how it obtained a 46-minute video clip from an officer’s body camera, but made three clips from the video public on Wednesday that proved the narrative from Louisiana state police was largely fabricated.
It is too much to expect that police will refrain from doing this in the future. The responsibility for combating this practice lies with journalists.
Armour, the USC professor, said he did not expect police departments would change their public relations, even in the face of scrutiny.
“We cannot compel them to make unflattering descriptions of their conduct or interactions that turn lethal,” he said, noting that police continued to use the vague and widely criticized phrase “officer-involved shooting” when they killed civilians. “It’s human nature for them to describe events in the way that shines the most favorable light on the officers.”
The lesson for journalists was that they should no longer be “stenographers” for police, Armour said.
[Bay Area civil rights lawyer Melissa] Nold said reporters should not only approach police statements with general skepticism but start from the assumption that police willfully mislead the public: “The press release is the city’s first line of civil and criminal defense.”
This is good advice for pretty much any journalist dealing with any government or corporate spokesperson, especially those that supposedly deal with national security like the CIA, NSA, FBI, DHS, and so on. Assume that they are lying to you until they provide evidence that they are telling the truth.