Wednesday August 11, 2010

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I’ve mentioned before that a big part of my reading, as I try to understand (and subsequently relay) a piece of the bigger picture behind the people involved in the criminal justice system, involves Cop Blogs. Some are funny and smart and insightful, some are racist and loathsome and offensive – well, sure. Cops are people, and some people you’d love to have over for a dinner party, and some you’d cross the street to avoid. The job doesn’t change that.

Cop In The Hood is a book written by a guy who spent a year as a Baltimore police officer as part of his PhD dissertation. (That’s what Amazon says, anyway.) He’s a pretty good writer, though he’s prone to make subjective statements sourced only by his experience – which is usual enough for a cop. Read enough offense reports or PC affidavits, and you’ll find that “using my experience and training” is enough to justify anything from stopping kids in certain parking lots (“using my experience and training, I recognized this as an area where teenagers commit crimes”) to deciding that a given plastic bag once contained marijuana (“using my experience and training, I recognized this bag as the kind that is used to transport marijuana”). He’s got a post up today about why police officers hate newspapers, and points to an article in the New York Times that, he insists, fails to do the basic job of the journalist: taking all police statements at face value.

Say a criminal gets shot by police. He had a gun. Some police spokesperson says as much. Duly noted. But then you talk to the dead guy’s mother who says, “Pookie was an angel. He would never hurt nobody! And he was home with me at the time he got shot.” Why, the mother may actually believe this. Or maybe not. But the gentle reader trying to figure out the truth sees this and says, “Hmmm, there are two sides of the story. I bet the truth lies somewhere in between.” Actually… sometimes… no. And it’s the reporter’s job to get the truth and not just lay out all the junk and let the reader decide what’s true.

I agree with his basic premise: Journalists are not supposed to just re-write two opposing press releases, we’re supposed to find out which one is lying. But how do you do that in a case like this? The reporter wasn’t there, so the reporter can’t say, “Clearly, this guy didn’t have a gun!” or “Clearly, he was threatening the police!” The police say that he had a gun, the mother says he didn’t. What’s a guy to do?

Well, he could talk to someone who saw what happened. Collect statements from people who saw the incident, determine how credible they appear to be, and report what they’ve said. But Cop In The Hood thinks that’s just more media bias.

Having been a police officer, I assume — no, I know — that nine times out of ten the police version of the story is closer to the truth than any “witness” account.

Check out the scare-quotes around “witness”, because who’s to say the person actually saw anything, and wasn’t just looking for a chance to get one over on the man? Nine times out of ten, the police version is closer to the truth. All those times when video proves that the police officer is lying? Those must just be the 10% of the time that Cop In The Hood is referring to.

But here’s the thing – the police work for us. The police are empowered by us to protect people. If you take Cop In The Hood’s number at face-value, and assume that they’re only lying 10% of the time, that’s still a troubling enough number – coming from someone we’re paying and giving weapons to in order to keep us safe – that skepticism is healthy. If maybe he’s goosing that number – perhaps it’s closer to 7-of-10? – then that skepticism is required. The guy who gets shot, A, is dead, and B, has no voice. He has no department PR, and whatever violence he may or may not have committed didn’t happen in our name, paid for by us.

Whenever a police officer abuses his authority, we’re all a party to it. Our tax dollars fund their salaries, pay for their defense, pay the department that covers it up, pays the judges who’ll sentence him to no further punishment even if found guilty, etc, etc. These aren’t just things that happened, these are things that happened on our behalf. So when there’s a reason to suspect that it may not have been on the up-and-up – if, say, there are numerous witnesses who disagree with the police account of what happened – a journalist doing his or her job has a responsibility to not assume that, well, Cop In The Hood says that 90% of the time, the cops are right, so we can just take their word for it.

In a case like this, where a bunch of witnesses say one thing, and the police say another – yeah, somebody’s lying. But we’ve seen enough proof that police officers do lie (and even Cop In The Hood will give us that at least 10% of the time, the police aren’t telling the truth) that we know, as they’re the people empowered to act on our behalf, their lies are far more corrosive. The reporters in question weren’t there, and don’t know, what happened. But when all Cop In The Hood can point to to impeach the credibility of the guy who got shot is that he had some boasts on his Twitter feed in which “He posted photos of himself flashing gang signs, or holding a new iPhone, an iPad and cocktails”, there’s no reason to assume that every witness (or “witness”) in the case is lying, and the police account is the one that’s automatically true.

We don’t know, and can’t know, what really happened. But any journalist worthy of the title is doing the right thing by not assuming that one side, because they have badges and the assurance of a former cop that they don’t lie very often, is the only source of objective truth, because the guy on the other side looked like an idiot on Twitter. “It’s the reporter’s job to get the truth and not just lay out all the junk and let the reader decide what’s true,” Cop In The Hood said. And in a case like this, where that’s not actually possible, he’d prefer it if you just took the cop’s word for it. After all, he says they’re only lying 10% of the time.

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