Experts Agree: Police Public Relations Consistently Mislead the Public
by Jayson Hawkins
Police officers have, for much of American history, had a remarkable hold on public trust. That hold, however, has loosened in recent years as the ubiquity of cameras has grown and more police misconduct is caught on video. Over the last decade, repeated incidents of police using deadly force against unarmed Black people has further eroded public confidence in the institutions of law enforcement. One reason more Americans are beginning to question the motives and actions of police is the frequency of incidents in which police statements justifying or minimizing the use of force are shown to be not only misleading but, in some cases, totally untrue.
Sam Levin and Alvin Chang of The Guardian conducted a review of police killings and other deaths in custody in California from 2016 to 2021. They found a dozen examples of police statements that misrepresented events, left out critical information about police behavior, or included lies about decisive factors in the incident. The misleading statements included laying the blame for a person’s death on a vague “medical incident” while omitting that the use of force had caused the incident and claiming civilians were armed or threatening even when there is no evidence that these claims are true.
Inaccuracies in police statements, such as the initial Minneapolis Police statements about the death of George Floyd, are typically exposed by camera footage, autopsy reports, or litigation records, but this process can take years and rarely garners the media attention given initial reports.
For example, the initial police statement regarding Angel Ramos, who died in 2017 after being shot by Vallejo police, said that he was attempting to stab a 16-year-old when the officer fired. Litigation revealed that there was no knife and that police had used tasers to break up a fight but shot Ramos when the stun gun proved ineffective.
Ramos’ sister Alicia Saddler, who witnessed the whole event, could not believe either the blatant dishonesty of the statement or how quickly local media parroted police claims. “I was disgusted and angry because they made my brother out to be a monster,” she said. “How can you take my brother’s life, and then turn around and make up such a big lie about him? And everybody believed it.”
Sometimes, the dishonesty of a report is less headline-grabbing. Dujuan Armstrong, 23, died inside an Alameda jail in June 2018 from what a sheriff’s department statement described as a “drug overdose.” The following year, an investigation revealed that deputies had strapped Armstrong in a body-restraining jacket and put a spit mask over his face because he was “acting bizarre.”
He died of asphyxiation due to the restraint of his abdomen and the mask covering his nose and mouth. There was no evidence of a drug overdose.
Armstrong’s mother Barbara Doss was unable to get information from jail officials in the days after her son’s death. “They knew they were wrong,” she said. “That’s why they said my son overdosed. They were trying to cover up what they did.”
Deadly incidents that are not shootings are often labeled “medical incidents,” “possible overdoses,” or “in-custody deaths,” according to Melissa Nold, a California civil rights attorney who represents victims of police brutality. “The purpose is to prevent public outcry. There are so many cases that would have caused national outrage, but it comes across as benign in the press release.”
The widespread occurrence of inaccurate or misleading claims by police appears to indicate a systemic problem, and absent lawsuits or public pressure, most untrue reports go unchallenged, with the truth forever buried.
Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California and an expert on policing, believes incidents of police report inaccuracy are not anomalies. “This is ordinary operating procedures for police departments across the nation,” he said, “but there is little chance police will change their behavior, even when under scrutiny. We cannot compel them to make unflattering descriptions of their conduct.”
Nold concurs with Armour’s position, stating, “The press release is the city’s first line of legal and civil defense.” Most critics agree that a crucial part of solving the problem is media skepticism, or, to use Armour’s phrase, “journalists can’t be stenographers for police.”
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