On September 15, the city of Rochester, New York, released more than three hundred pages of documents related to the Daniel Prude case to the public. Prude was killed by police in March, when a spit hood was placed around his head and his breathing was forcibly constrained until he was brain-dead.
Buried in the stack of files was the original police report. Under “victim type,” where the attending officer had marked “individual,” another officer had added a short note next to Prude’s name: “Make him a suspect.”
An hour away in Buffalo, New York, during the George Floyd protests, police reported that a protester was critically injured after he “tripped and fell.” Less than thirty minutes after the statement was made, bystander video surfaced showing seventy-five-year-old Martin Gugino being shoved to the ground by police, and then blood pooling around his head.
The fact that police lie should come as a surprise to no one — least of all the journalists whose job it is to cover them. The remarkable part is the extent and ease with which police lie. An investigative report by USA Today earlier this year into police misconduct turned up “at least 2,227 instances of perjury, tampering with evidence or witnesses or falsifying reports.”
And this only tells a small part of the story. Body-camera footage and bystander videos are revealing the wide gulf between what police say happened and what actually happened during a violent encounter.
So much of police ethics are rooted in the belief that the end justifies the means. Lying is warranted so long as it brings about the desired result. But real safety is more means than end. It’s a process born out of mutual trust. Recent research shows that people who trust their neighbors are more likely to feel safe in their neighborhoods. When police commit an act of misconduct, and then lie about that act, it doesn’t lend itself to public safety; it compromises it.
Consider the culture of police lying in the context of twenty-first-century media. In a climate where local papers are closing or being swallowed up by mass media conglomerates and stripped down to their bare bones, it makes sense that a journalist, overworked and crunched for time, would resort to pulling information directly from a police press release. But while it may be expedient, it’s a practice that flies in the face of quality reporting — not to mention carries water for cops who repeatedly lie about their violent behavior on the job.
Cops Lie to Journalists
The phrase “officer-involved shooting,” which is used by police and frequently reprinted by the press, was derided by journalist Wesley Lowery in a viral tweet for obscuring the role of police in violent situations. “Imagine describing 9/11 as a ‘terrorist-involved incident.’ What does that mean?” Lowery asked during an episode of The Briefing.
Whether deliberately imprecise or willfully misleading, police statements are the last materials reporters should be drawing from. And amid our reckoning with racism and violent policing in America, those entrusted with reporting news can no longer afford to act as stenographers for the police.
The impact of taking police at their word can be seen in the fight to end mass incarceration in the state of New York. In 2019, New York passed landmark civil rights legislation ending the indignity of cash bail for the vast majority of offenses. Bail has strayed from its original charge as a flight risk protection and is now used freely by judges to hold people without just cause. According to studies, young black men are around 50 percent more likely to be detained pretrial than white defendants. Black and brown people also receive bail amounts that are twice as high as bail amounts set for white defendants.
New York State’s Sheriff’s Association and District Attorneys Association, seeking to quash the measure, struck back. They immediately attributed any uptick in violent crimes like shootings to the statute. Several months into its implementation, the law was quickly rolled back.
Data later showed that, contrary to police claims, the bail law “played almost no role in the spike in shootings,” and only one of the over 2,500 people released from Rikers Island under the law change was rearrested on a shooting-related charge.
As a result of New York’s knee-jerk repeal, thousands of mostly black and brown people have been left to brutally and unnecessarily languish in jails. Through amplifying the police’s blatantly dishonest narrative, and without verifying cops’ claims, journalists treated police statements as veritable facts and allowed the public narrative to shift in favor of rolling back bail reform — doing serious and unnecessary harm to incarcerated people’s lives in the process.
Journalists should be angry at how often false police statements undermine their own reporting. If a private citizen lied with the ease and frequency of police, they would no longer be trusted as a source.
The Chicago Tribune story breaking the news of the Laquan McDonald shooting starts, “Chicago police shot and killed a 17-year-old boy on the Southwest Side after the teen refused to put down a knife, authorities said.” Pat Camden, spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police, is quoted in the article saying, “He’s got a 100-yard stare. He’s staring blankly.” Of course, video evidence later showed McDonald walking away before being shot sixteen times by Jason Van Dyke.
Local media must end its abusive relationship with the police when it’s clear that the game is self-protection, not a faithful accounting of facts. City officials can take action to temper police lying by shifting communications responsibilities to non-police city staff and prohibiting law enforcement from using municipal funds to contract with public relations consultants or firms. District attorneys can hold police accountable by dismissing cases that rely on the testimony of officers with a record of perjury, corruption, and misconduct.
Above all, journalists need to put statements from law enforcement under a magnifying glass and treat them as the unreliable sources they are — not the neutral authorities we may wish them to be.