Since last week demonstrators have been marching in Sacramento to protest the police shooting of an unarmed black man, further propagating the false narrative that there is an epidemic of racist police killings in the United States. The media coverage of the March 18 death of Stephon Clark, 22, has been manipulated to support this anti-police myth, despite statistics demonstrating there is no widespread problem of racist police shootings and no evidence that race played a role in this particular shooting.
On Sunday March 18, police received a 911 call that a suspect was breaking into cars and when police responded, Stephon Clark was confronted, he ran from police, refused to comply with lawful commands and was shot to death by two officer, one of whom is black.
Police have released a video in which Clark can be seen running and climbing over a fence while a Sacramento County Sheriff's helicopter crew tracked him with an infrared camera. Two Sacramento police officers approached Clark with guns drawn and ordered him to stop, but. Clark fled into a backyard. An officer ordered Clark to show them his hands, then yelled “Gun! Gun! Gun!” before both officers opened fire.
The way a news story is framed, omitting or downplaying certain facts and highlighting certain elements over others, can bias the way a reader interprets it. Notice how the following headlines suggest a specific narrative: “Police Shot and Killed an Unarmed Black Man in his own Backyard. All he was Holding was a cellphone” (Vox), “Sacramento Man Fatally Shot by the Police in His Backyard” (New York Times), “California Cops Fatally Shoot Unarmed Black Man Stephon Clark in his Own Backyard” (Huffington Post), “Unarmed Black Man Carrying only a Cellphone when he was Shot by Cops” (Salon).
These headlines highlight that Clark was in his own backyard and that he was black, but those facts are irrelevant to the cause of the shooting. These headlines don’t mention that Clark was reportedly breaking car windows, evading the police, and failing to obey lawful orders, all of which are more relevant than his race or who owned the property where the shooting took place.
A Washington Post article published on March 23, “Our City is Hurting’: Protesters Swarm Downtown Sacramento Following Deadly Police Shooting,” is illustrated by a photograph of Clark’s grandmother looking out her back window with a look of horror on her face. The caption reads, “Sequita Thompson recounts the horror of seeing her grandson dead in their backyard.” This photograph is a recreation, not news, and is designed to elicit an emotional response from readers. The article quotes Thompson saying, “I told the officers, ‘You guys are murderers. Murderers’” and repeats her allegation that her grandson wasn’t the suspect breaking windows, despite a Sacramento Sheriff’s deputy observing him do it from a helicopter. The article also quotes the Rev. Al Sharpton who called the shooting an “atrocity” and suggested the police were trying to cover up the shooting. The inclusion of these unsubstantiated claims, the article’s slant, and the staged photograph, all make this news story more propaganda than journalism.
Many media accounts highlighted the number of rounds the officers fired, insinuating there was something wrong with firing 20 shots. But they didn't mention that police officers are trained to fire until the threat is gone, not until they pull the trigger a certain number of times. Almost none of the articles mentioned that all of the rounds were fired in approximately four seconds. Most media also failed to mention that police officers usually miss their targets in shootings. According to a 2008 Rand Corporation study, New York City Police Department officers hit their suspects only 18% of the time. Darkness, high grass, and the physiological delay in recognizing a threat has stopped may have also played a role. As of this writing, we don't know how many rounds actually hit Clark.
Last Thursday’s protest, which caused the cancellation of a Sacramento Kings basketball game, focused on race and police use of force. Protests over police shootings have become commonplace since the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, yet the narrative of an epidemic of racist police shootings is an easily debunked myth. According to the Washington post database, there were 68 unarmed people killed by police in 2017, 20 of whom were black. Just because the suspect was unarmed does not necessarily mean a shooting is unjustified; a few of these shootings were declared illegitimate. Also, a handful of bad shootings does not constitute an epidemic, especially in the context of approximately 750, 340 law enforcement officers making more than 10 million arrests annually.
Blacks were 29% of the unarmed people shot by police in 2017, which is disproportionate to the 13.3% black population of the US and this discrepancy is used to allege racism. Yet the difference can be explained by other confounding variables. Factors such as age and poverty are correlated with crime rates and can affect interactions with police. For a detailed analysis read, End the Myth.
Even if an investigation determines the Clark shooting was criminal, a motive of racism can’t be inferred without evidence. So far, there is no indication that the involved officers had a history of racist behavior. Also, from the actions of the police officers on the video, they clearly believed the suspect was armed. They pursued Clark into a backyard then can be seen ducking behind a wall for cover. After the shooting, one officer can be heard asking his partner, “You all right? You hit?” indicating he thought Clark had a gun and was shooting back.
A full investigation has to be completed, but from the video and facts the released so far, it appears police officers believed the cell phone in Clark’s hand was a gun. This is an easy mistake to make in a low-light environment while chasing a criminal suspect who is refusing to obey commands. Based on all available evidence, Clark's death seem to mostly a result of his own actions.
Jeffrey James Higgins is a retired DEA supervisory special agent with 25 years of total law enforcement experience. He has received numerous awards, including the U.S. Attorney General’s Award for Exceptional Heroism and the DEA’s Award of Valor.