In the middle of a global health pandemic, George Floyd‘s killing forced a conversation around policing and law enforcement credibility. In the middle of uprisings and protests across the country, the media peeled back the layers of the lack of honesty in initial reports and statements.
After Derek Chauvin’s conviction, some social media called out the initial incident report, which differed wildly from the bystander video. The Associated Press rightfully noted that Chauvin likely would have never been charged without the video, let alone convicted. A review of various police killings showed the difference between what police said happened and the video evidence.
The initial incident report didn’t simply leave out material facts; it completely mischaracterized the cause of Floyd’s death, and also contradicted evidence and eyewitness testimony. It intentionally downplayed the role of officers in George’s death.
Even where officers do not have all the facts, they will either rely on the word of other officers on the scene or a statement that may later prove false. Earlier this month, the story around the killing of a 17-year-old Black student in Tennessee changed drastically with almost every update. At first, Anthony J. Thompson Jr.’s death was framed as the result of an attempted school shooting.
Confusion about what happened in the school bathroom led the police and the community to call for body camera footage to be released. It was first reported an officer shot on the scene had been shot by Anthony. Information later released showed the officer was shot by friendly fire. The local prosecutor only released the footage because she decided not to pursue charges.
Officials, including an attorney in State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office, wrongfully asserted that 13-year-old Adam Toledo failed to comply before a Chicago police officer killed him. The attorney for the state admittedly failed to inform themselves of the facts in the case before claiming in court that Adam had a gun in his hand when he was shot.
Revising one’s story after the fact may work for a child faced with the facts of their misdeeds. But far too often, those “sworn to serve and protect” are more focused on protecting their own necks. Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Laquan McDonald are just a few of the people killed in recent years whose deaths were initially mischaracterized by law enforcement.
Rarely guaranteed even when video exists, questions remain about officer accountability in a system that is not meant to protect Black and other communities of color. Last summer, Slate published an article calling out the pattern and practice of police lying. It’s more commonplace and has wider repercussions than just cases that result in someone’s death.
While media reporting of these matters has improved somewhat over the past few years, the hesitance to call out bad behavior is telling. Movement-based organizers and journalists have been challenging the media default of simply repeating what the police, and other government officials, say with no critical analysis.
Just as advocates have called for reimagining public safety, including abolishing the current system, journalists have called for a new approach to crime beats. Free Press staffers Tauhid Chappel and Mike Rispoli called the crime beat “racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism [that] creates lasting harm for the communities that newsrooms are supposed to serve.”