"Unarmed" Suspects and Un-brained Media

Few if any pseudo-journalists or pseudo-pundits on the nightly news have bothered to mention Graham v. Connor, which for a full quarter century has been the law of the land regarding how to evaluate a police use of force.

M Greg Meyer Thumbnail Uniform

How can it be, in 2014, with all the media attention to controversial police use-of-force cases in recent years, that the public is still treated to bogus "reporting" of such incidents? The coverage of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., is the worst in memory.

Year after year, such cases get massive, national media coverage. Yet the media folks have learned nothing about how police use of force is reviewed in our American system? 

After an incident occurs, the usual gang of opportunists crawls out of the woodwork to get in front of as many television cameras and microphones as possible to sell their race-based political agenda. For the most part the pseudo-journalists and their bosses give the opportunists free reign to promote a single point of view (and pollute the jury pool) without asking them any hard questions. 

What the media usually fails to discuss is that the law recognizes the speed and complexity of the demands made on officers in these encounters. That is why investigations take time and cool heads. The media has neither, and they are governed by other laws, ones that have more to do with profit and political agendas than with the facts.

How hard would it be for a journalist to ask meaningful questions when they interview someone?

"Thank you for your point of view, Rev. Sharpton and Mr. Family Lawyer. Of course this is a tragedy for the family, the community, but also for the officers. Do you have a comment about that videotape of the 6-foot 4-inch, 292-pound young man committing a violent felony (strong-arm robbery, in the Ferguson case) a few minutes before the shooting? How do you think that officer got his face injured? What are your thoughts about the soundtrack of the video made right after the shooting where a witness said that the guy kept charging at the officer? Do you think the fact that (as of late August) 29 American police officers had been murdered by gunfire so far this year—one per week, a 47% increase over 2013/2014—might have played on the officer’s fear during the struggle? Do you plan to attend any police funerals or organize any demonstrations on their behalf?"

The media’s obsession with "unarmed youth" who unfortunately on occasion do get shot by the police can be charitably described as “ignorant.” No 6-foot 4-inch, 292-pound “youth” is "unarmed." There’s a reason that about 10 percent of police officers who are murdered by gunfire are shot with their own guns. It’s because they get overpowered by someone who decides to kill them. There’s a reason why an "unarmed" suspect who attacks with his or her hands and feet and seriously injures someone is booked and prosecuted for “assault with a deadly weapon.” Because it’s assault with a deadly weapon.

Few if any pseudo-journalists or pseudo-pundits on the nightly news have bothered to mention Graham v. Connor, which for a full quarter century has been the law of the land regarding how to evaluate a police use of force. They are too busy convicting the Ferguson officer without seeing the results of the investigations. Media description and commentary on the law of the land would be useful.

Graham v. Connor states that the legal question is, was the use of force “objectively reasonable” under the facts and circumstances of the incident? To answer that question, one must stand in the shoes of a hypothetical reasonable officer at the scene, with the same training and experience as the involved officer. “The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation . . . The test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application . . .” 

Let’s be clear. The shooting death of anyone is a tragedy. Police officers are the only people in society who are legally empowered and trained to use force on someone who hasn't been convicted of a crime in the name of the state. Our life-and-death decision-making is not perfect. Usually we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. As this is written, in the Ferguson case we just don’t know yet. Neither do Rev. Sharpton and Mr. Family Lawyer. Neither do the journalists and pundits.

"Unarmed" suspects and un-brained media really ought to learn how to behave.

Greg Meyer is a retired Los Angeles Police Department captain, a member of the POLICE advisory board, and a frequent use-of-force expert in civil and criminal litigation cases.

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