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In my last few posts, I’ve written about the formulaic ways news media cover police killed by people and people killed by police. These formulas allow police to predict and manipulate how the media covers deadly police violence.

I hate the phrasing “police killed by people and people killed by police.” Police are people, but I’m not going to call non-police “civilians,” because police are also civilians. Every ontological, grammatical or rhetorical distinction I can come up with creates a false dichotomy, a linguistic us vs. them. I can’t call people “citizens,” either, because many people killed by police are not citizens. Non-police isn’t accurate because often it’s police who are killed by police.

Sorry about the tangent, but the quandary imbues the problem of why we can’t sensibly talk about police violence in this country. The news media and the government frequently frame police violence as a people-against-police proposition, but sometimes, the true story is police vs. people—individuals supporting their own agenda, for example, racists wearing badges—or police protecting the community, which is us-supporting-us.

And, unfortunately, the ignorant and conflicted “police always protecting the community” contingent paints over the racist or fascist individuals in order to sanctify the obvious horror of people being killed by police in a free nation. We can’t be a free nation that accepts people killed by government representatives without judicial and public oversight. I don’t mean this metaphorically. I mean, countries that don’t control and minimize police killing people within their borders are not free nations. They’re the very definition of “police states.” And in the United States, I’d often add the adjective “apartheid-driven.”

I keep going down rabbit holes. Again, my apologies. Here are 10 techniques and areas where police undermine oversight, frame the discussion, and cynically manipulate the media. As usual, although I sometimes forget to say so, these strategies work because a cowardly and lazy news media colludes with police to keep citizens in the dark.

  1. Police withhold information they have no legal right or obligation to withhold. There are few laws in the United States that say police have a right to withhold information about those they’ve killed until they notify family members. (And I will say, in my opinion, these are jurisdictions where police are most likely to come under ambush attacks. Transparency appears to be the best defense against violence on police, and communities that enact special privileges for police, like Police Bills of Rights, anecdotally appear to be putting their officers at greater risk.) There are few laws in the United States that say police have the right to withhold the names of teenagers and children police have killed. Dead people have no rights to privacy, and yet I frequently see agencies act as arbiters of what the public has a right to know, allegedly in the interest of protecting reputations of the dead or the deads’ families.
  2. Police delay release of identifying information. Compared to the early 2000s, more police agencies have adopted strategies of withholding information on names and demographic data about people they kill. Sometimes, they manage to withhold even the gender of the person killed. I don’t think it’s always because they think an officer might have done something questionable. I think it’s because they know there is less community scrutiny and less chance of anger if they can withhold the identities of the person they killed and the person who did the killing for as long as possible. I’ve seen police withhold the names of decedents who were killed in domestic violence situations until they inform the very family members who were present and witnessed the killing. There’s a tangent to this, many news organizations withhold crucial information for ethical reasons until police “release” it—even when the information has been widely disseminated on social media—surrendering their own First Amendment rights and responsibilities to the state.
  3. Police publish decedent’s previous interactions with the legal system. Sure, it’s a public record, but previous interactions with the judicial system generally have little to do with an officer-involved killing, and if it’s looked at it through a “broken windows policing” lens, nearly everyone in poverty-infused areas have prior interactions with police. The strategy is to suggest a pattern of criminality in order to rationalize an increased but reasonable  level of officer fear. The policy is designed to establish or to fortify a public perception that the officer acted like anyone else would in a similar situation. But when civic groups raise questions, the narrative switches to, “Monday morning quarterbacking is unfair, and a regular person can’t understand the stresses an officer is under because the officer has to make a split-second decision whereas others have the luxury of time.”
  4. Police release decedent’s previous mug shots, and the media use them without editing. It’s stunning how inaccurate the photos frequently are. It’s generally impossible to tell whether the inaccuracy comes from the news media that publish them or from the police, but photo software has advanced two decades beyond the days when the gradations of human skin tone couldn’t be accurately represented. This is analogous to the media publishing stenographic versions of police statements or simply republishing police press releases.
  5. Suicides. This is yet another area where journalism and police collude to prevent people from getting an accurate view of an aspect of police violence. Some news media refuse to publish information about suicides because of family embarrassment, misplaced moral judgements about mental illness, or a fear of causing a “cluster” of suicides among young people. This is one of those areas where some agencies withhold information out of the sanctimonious belief that they have a right to control public news standards or to protect family sensibilities when society has the larger claim on the information. There’s a darker side to this, though. If an officer-involved death is disposed as a suicide, any real investigation and public airing halts. This includes spontaneous suicides during minor traffic stops, like running a stop sign. Some jurisdictions have more of a pattern of spontaneous suicides than others.
  6. Suicide by cop. This happens. It’s a thing. Sometimes the dead will have left a note stating their intent or have spoken to family members. Sometimes, though, suicide by cop is used to manufacture the appearance of justification by police, district attorneys or medical examiners. Calling a “failure to follow orders” a suicide often pre-empts any investigation by outside agencies.
  7. Guns. Communities should see a public disclosure of the provenance of every single gun involved in any officer-involved death—that includes the officers’ guns and any guns alleged to be possessed by the person killed. When families of the person killed are quoted by the media, they often convey disbelieve that their dead family member owned a gun.  It happens often enough that I believe there’s a basis to some of the stories. One theory is that officers carry extra guns—so-called “burners”—to place at the scene when there’s a question of legal justification for a killing. Some agencies apparently allow undocumented guns to be carried by officers as back-ups, which enhances the potential for duplicity. By not establishing, for example, a gun’s sales history when available, agencies emphasize a presumption of guilt on the part of the person killed.
  8. Guns II. Americans’ Second Amendment rights to “keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” How is killing people for having guns nearby—even on their person, but not in hand or pointing at an officer or third party—not an infringement on their Second Amendment rights? After researching or fact-checking more than 22,000 records of people who’ve died during police interactions, I can say that this is one of the biggest contradictions in how we discuss police violence, and how police manufacture justification. Police frequently kill people for exercising their constitutional right and have the death legally justified. The inverse of the proposition is so ludicrous it’s hard to bring myself to type the words, but in instances where police has raided the wrong home, and the homeowner defends his life and property but gets killed, police are sometimes still found to be justified, or it’s chalked up as an accident.
  9. Airsoft guns. Next to suicide, the characteristic of a police-involved death most likely to get an investigation curtailed is to report an on-scene, gun-like item in the dead person’s hand. In the real world, who pulls a pellet gun on an officer with a real gun? Nobody. Nobody in their right mind, at any rate. The only exception I regularly see to this is when a person has used a fake gun in a robbery and is running with the gun in hand. I’m suspicious every time I read about a person who pulled a airsoft gun on an officer when there’s no indication of mental illness, and there are no non-police witnesses. Every toy gun should have a serial number, and serial numbers should be tracked at points of purchase and during ammunition sale to establish ownership and allow for tracking.
  10. Police, particularly district attorneys and prosecutors, withhold announcements or analysis of legal justification for a killing. In some cases, this is specifically to hide information that might benefit the non-police side of a civil litigation.  This strategy feeds the overall strategy of withholding or delaying information in order to avoid public scrutiny. The methods of arriving at a decision regarding legal justification vary from state to state, county to county, sometimes different agencies within the same counties have different procedures. Particularly in agencies where police investigate their own coworkers, there is never a public announcement or explanation of what made the killing of a person by a government agent “justifiable.”

These are just 10 of the strategies and areas in which police, with the willing collaboration of the news media, work to make officer-involved deaths public relations events rather than serious examinations of the role of government-sanctioned violence plays in our society. I guess I’ll have to take up the actual grammar police use to direct attention away from agency responsibility in a later blog post.

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D. Brian Burghart
Executive Director, FatalEncounters.org