Police Brutality: Violence up, media coverage finally on par
Earlier this week a videotape surfaced online showing three LAPD police officers shooting a homeless man on downtown LA’s skidrow; adding fuel to the already raging firestorm that has come in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and Eric Garner choking death among other publicized instances of officer involved deaths. In the roughly six months since the Brown shooting in Ferguson it seems as if you cannot turn on the television, radio, or log into your preferred social media account without a new story of police violence.
This has led to two dueling ideas. Some say that violence by police against its citizens is getting worse while others say that the media is taking advantage of isolated incidents to gain viewers. Both sides are right but the recent up tick in reporting by the media isn't so much about ratings and profit. It has everything to do with evidence and the ability to quickly and freely share it.
Take the case of Brown as an example. Though unarmed at the time, his killing was ruled to be justifiable by the Ferguson Police Department. One of about 400 such instances reported to the FBI each year. But, this number does not represent an upward trend but instead a pattern that has held steady for at least the past couple of decades. In short, police shootings should have made frequent headlines years ago. Additionally, reports of excessive force are up compared to just a decade ago, more fuel for the bad cop press machine that some think exist. Meanwhile excessive use of force has grown worse since the Rodney King beating which took place on March 3, 1991.
According to national data compiled by the U.S. Department Of Justice and the FBI, police misconduct complaints, the majority of which involve excessive force has risen from about 2,000 cases in 2003 to nearly 7,000 cases in 2010. This represents a more than 200 percent increase in reported cases, far out pacing population growth, an upward trend in a nation where crime is trending down.
What's worse is that the data only represents a small percentage of cases actually reported: those cases that the departments investigating its own officers found to be "sustained", a term used in a Department Of Justice report to indicate which misconduct claims were deemed “credible” by the investigating police department. In fact, the total number of all cases reported in the U.S was about 12 times that number in 2003 with no accurate data available today.
Data is another problem because there are no policies in place to insure the complete and accurate collection of information on police brutality and therefore no reliable way to truly measure the true breath and scope of Americas police brutality problem. In the case of police shootings for instance, only “Justified” kills are tracked. There is no reporting of the number of shootings that lead to charges against the officer.
Instead, in most cases, instances of alleged misconduct made against law enforcement is reported to and investigated by the accused cops fellow officers. Nationwide, we are essentially trusting that reports will be handled objectively by the departments whose very reputations would be damaged by the accusations being made against their officers.
Is any of this sounding absurd yet?
So, in many cities across the nation including here in Los Angeles where just a couple of weeks ago 15 year old Jamar Nicholson was shot as he stood next to another child holding a toy gun there are people who do not trust law enforcement. Many people, mostly living in impoverished minority communities, have been speaking out about profiling, excessive or unnecessary uses of force and brutality for decades. The numbers, while sketchy at best are provided by local law enforcement agencies themselves and appear to support the complaints made by its citizens that there is a problem worth examining. Yet, until recently the media however has been, outside of the most egregious instances, mum on the topic.
So, why the sudden jump in reporting? Money? Sure, but if it were all about profits then major news outlets would have picked up these very sensational stories for the sake of selling ads years ago. I’m sure that there are those in the media who would have loved to report on this issue in times past but it’s not that simple.
Until recently the only witnesses to most instances of alleged police misconduct were the victims themselves and, in some cases, the word of a witnesses.
Unfortunately, a case of he said she said when the he or she on the other side is a police officer is no where near good enough to create headlines in a nation whose trust of the police is second only to that of our troops. A trust that is reflected in a June 2014 Gallup poll: the same poll in which the respondents rank their trust of the media as being lower than that of everyone except for congress. No, words aren't good enough, the nation needs to see graphic examples and that's what's changing, rapidly.
It's our technology, the proliferation of highly advanced eye witnesses being placed into the hands of millions of average citizens via cellphones, tablets and other readily available electronic devices that allows the average person to document and instantaneously share high quality video worldwide via social media. It is this that is feeding the 24-hour news cycle with fresh press about the actions and missteps of Law enforcement.
In my opinion this has created a winning formula for all sides, yes all sides.
For the victims of alleged brutality, past and present, there is the validation that comes with the increasing frequency of clear and compelling visual evidence that supports the claims that they have been making all along. Attention is forcing Americans to have the very uncomfortable but very necessary discussion about police conduct and race relations in this country. Lastly, there is the pressure that this constant flow of negative press puts on local governments and law enforcement agencies to re-examine its polices and practices, a trend that is already beginning to appear in the form of body cam implementation for instance. Even the federal government is feeling the pressure and getting involved in places such as Ferguson.
For the media, there will be Ferguson 24/7 to feed the American public’s thirst for headlines related to everything police and race in America; two very popular and therefore lucrative subjects. Think race, police violence or a combination of the two doesn’t sell? You’d be wrong. Take CNN, in each of the last three years the Trayvon Martin case, The George Zimmerman trial and verdict and Ferguson charted near the top of the news services 10 ten list of most popular stories in 2012, 2013 and 2014 respectively. The same was true across most major American news outlets. For those not keeping score viewers, likes, shares etc. all equal the same thing, money. This may leave a bad taste in the mouths of some but I say that it’s a good day when the for profit media’s financial interest finally line up with that of a worthy social cause.
Last but not least there is an upside for law enforcement. I believe that the majority of officers are good men and women who do honorable work. For them the day may come soon where those within the department who do not represent the whole of the force are highlighted and weeded out so that the whole of the force isn’t made the enemy of the communities that they are trying to serve due to the destructive acts of the few.
So, it is our wireless devices and social media addiction, the same things that often utilized in frivolous ways that we owe our gratitude. A debt of thanks for facilitating a much-needed national conversation, and hopefully, change.