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Mark Clark

Mark Clark is the public information officer for a law enforcement agency in the southwest. He is also a photographer and contributor to POLICE Magazine.
Patrol

The Fourth Estate and Law Enforcement's Eighth Deadly Sin

Want to know what pisses me off? It's how the media portrays us and the stupid things some of us do that make it easy for them to make us look bad.

October 10, 2013  |  by - Also by this author

Photo by Kelly Bracken.
Photo by Kelly Bracken.
When the aluminum foil hat fails, the pills don't do their job, and life's stressors get to be too damned much, something's got to give. And when the thing breaking is the human spirit, the mind is sure to follow. Hot on the heels of these breakdowns can be cops who, if they're lucky, can intervene on behalf of the afflicted person. If they're not so fortunate, they may have to intervene on behalf of the community at large.

That was the position that some of D.C.'s finest found themselves in when they recently shot a woman who was clearly out of her mind. In doing so, they availed the news media just the latest excuse to put its spin on matters law enforcement related.

The slant of the coverage has been predictable, with the Los Angeles Times headline focusing on the cops with a story that was headlined "When to shoot? Capitol Shooting Raises Questions About Force," while FOX put the focus on the decedent with a story headlined "'She was Depressed' Woman killed in D.C. Chase was Delusional, Official Says." 

Of the many news media outlets I sampled, most went the LA Times’ route, monday morning quarterbacking a profession they know very little about. Given the spin they collectively put on the incident early in the game, their piety becomes even more curious. Challenged on the erroneous and alarmist inferences they'd made, I suppose these same reporters might defensively argue they had an obligation to report on what was obviously an important and evolving incident and the limited knowledge of the particulars involved relegated them to a series of rhetorical speculations, both implied ("not known if this was a terrorist attack") and otherwise. And you know, I could see that rationale even if I wouldn't cosign it. What I can't buy is their unwillingness to be similarly open-minded about what happened in the streets that day, particularly as it relates to the cops who were apparently expected to play dodge car all afternoon.

This would be provocative in and of itself. But it’s knowing that if the woman had taken to the sidewalk and run over a bunch of pedestrians—a familiar enough sight here in So Cal given our own mentally ill demographic—that this same news media would have been just as self-righteous in castigating the cops for not taking her out in the first place that really brings things to a brim. Talk about "damned if you do..." conundrums.

The situation is undeniably a tragic one, and my sincere compassion for the mentally ill has been acknowledged herein previously. But let's get something straight: The cops—like the news media—were ignorant of the woman's backstory. I'm betting that many on scene weren't even aware that she had a baby girl in the car. And even if they had known of the woman's illness, I fail to see how it would have made a damned bit of difference in the situation's resolution given the immediacy of the moment.

The simple fact is that D.C.'s finest—like all officers—don't have the luxury of shooting only those who are wholly lucid of the crimes they're commiting. If they did, I can think of more deserving targets in their jurisdiction. 

Ironically, had the news media carried live footage of the incident in its entirety, there might well have been less judgment being passed on the matter. Indeed, if it didn't put me in the role of hypocrite, I would have wished that such coverage had been in play.

Which brings me to something else that continues to piss me off: The continuing practice of news media to stream live shots of officers descending upon houses conducting searches and search warrant services.

One would have thought that the news media—for all its protestations of harms incurred at the hands of police—might have adopted some form of its own Hippocratic oath by now. That it would swear to avoid putting cops and citizens in danger.

But the same thing that helped get a Portland, Ore., officer killed and two others wounded in 1998—a suspect inside a house who followed police movements by watching live coverage from news helicopters that hovered overhead—continues to be observed 15 years later. And this includes announcements of officers getting ready to set up spike strips during pursuits. I wish that someone would pass some legislation or see to it that these people who'll break a sweat if someone says "shit" live on the air are held criminally or civilly responsible if someone is killed live on the air because of their damn cameras.

And while I am still not sure of what to make of the whole Hannah Anderson kidnapping ordeal, I am inclined to give the girl the benefit of the doubt; certainly I was while her plight was still in question. And yet the news media was putting out updates based upon comments given by her girlfriends who claimed that she had been "creeped out" by her kidnapper well before she was taken. Had the kidnapper heard such coverage, might the girl's life been put at additional peril? Hmmmm…  

But I nonetheless find my outrage dialed back a bit  when I think about our in-house absurdities.

Recently, I heard of a commissioner who bought new TASERs for his field units amid much media coverage that played up what a great tool it was and how it would enhance officer safety. But then some risk management type bent his ear and suddenly there was only one TASER available to be deployed in the field at any given time, and it had to be under a field sergeant's control until needed (I'm guessing they're getting everyone on board with that Vulcan nerve pinch thing to compensate). The commissioner’s justification was that the "NYPD only allows the sergeants to have it, if it is good enough for them it is good enough for us.” Really? If so, shame on this department. And shame on any other that would keep such a tool out of the hands of those most in need of it.

Of course, sometimes I wonder if administrators don't have some justifiable concerns. For instances, did that cop really marinate a pizza with pepper spray?  Are there really ex-cops who feel the need to act as loan sharks?  And what the hell was that NYPD detective doing with that group of bikers that attacked that family in New York? These officers and former officers sure as hell weren't stepping up to the plate to do the right thing. Shame on their sorry asses.

Such acts of idiocy make it really hard for us to take the high road and take others to task for their own screw-ups, particularly those that inhibit us from doing our jobs at all, let alone safely.

Should you see a peer going down a path he shouldn't, I really hope to God that you will slap him upside the head before someone else does so with a .45 caliber bullet. You'll be doing the two of you a favor.

Not to mention a profession that could really use one.

Related:

Drawing First Blood

Tags: Police-Media Relations, Metro (D.C.) PD, Vehicle Pursuits, Police Misconduct


Comments (6)

Displaying 1 - 6 of 6

jim @ 10/10/2013 3:20 PM

Thanks. Your commentary is certainly appreciated. So what's the issue with the media? When is "creating" excitement and intensity in the stories they report more important than accuracy and perhaps stating the issues from the viewpoint from inside the squad car? Reporters should be required to spend 30 days on patrol - inside the squad car, on the street - before they can write about what it's like working out there, serving and protecting Lord knows who.

tedb @ 10/10/2013 3:54 PM

Dean, quit beating around the bush and tell us how you REALLY feel about it. Good job, as usual and I agree whole-heartedly.

Allie @ 10/10/2013 9:16 PM

Well said!! So many things that have gone through my head over the years, but PC has filtered before it hit my tongue. Thank you!!!

Arby @ 10/11/2013 5:01 AM

Great article, Dean! I remember working an incident one night while at another department. I'm reading the paper the next day and thinking, "Wow- we had TWO of these in the same night?" Then I get to the part where they report the location and I see that was the incident I was at, but their "facts" were hardly close to what had happened. It was then I knew how our local paper there earned the reputation that their slogan was "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story." Then again, I sadly have to agree with your points about administrator's justifiable concerns too. Ratz!

mtarte @ 10/12/2013 8:03 AM

Dean, as a retired cop and a former newspaper columnist, I know first hand some of the machinations that the print media (and I am sure the TV "news" media) does to ensure a story goes out first. That said, when I started my cop career in the Triassic era, the reporters I ran into had had real jobs before becoming reporters. They knew how government worked, they had built houses, handled big rigs or had served in the Army. These days, reporters seem to go from high school newspapers, to J-schools to print (or worse, TV) reporters without ever stopping at real life along the way. That cripples their ability to truly report facts as they should be reported and we are left with people who report on stories with their "experience" confined to moldy journalism professors recounting their glory days and really nothing else. When cops screw up we get rid of most of them that deserve to be gone. Reporters who screw up usually get a Pulitzer and become an editor.

Doug Cummings @ 10/12/2013 2:45 PM

I spent eight years as a LEO before thirty as a broadcaster. I've covered LE agencies of every size during every type of story. I've taught media relations to cops and cop relations to reporters. Interestingly, the cops mostly listened. The reporters seldom did. I agree with much of what you've written. Here are some unfortunate but true facts from the other side. Reporters want "a" story. Period. If the official version isn't available by the reporter's deadline, they'll report what they observe or what "witnesses" tell them. A story at 10pm won't wait for the PIO at 8am. Media bosses feel cop stories are so easy, anyone can cover them. Shrinking staffs mean reporters aren't allowed to spend hours at the cop shop. As result, their knowledge of police work and tactics comes from (a) TV and (b) the bias of colleagues. Editors and producers often direct story coverage. They seldom leave the office. Finally, smart cops don't blast reporters. They take time and train them. It pays off.

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