The news coverage of Michael Brown's death is a painful illustration of the media's inability (or unwillingness) to appropriately cover police related issues. Any bystander who claims to have seen what happened can get their 15 minutes of fame. The more graphic, controversial, or unbelievable the testimony, the better.
A story is currently unfolding in San Francisco in which a homeless man was shot by the police. As usual, witness accounts have varied widely. The police department says it has several witnesses who say the homeless man was a threat to the officers involved. The media has several witnesses who say he wasn't a threat at all. What people don't realize is that the police have documented all of the above witnesses. The difference is the police are much better equipped to tell which ones are credible and which ones are not.
The Media Isn't Looking for Credibility
At this point, it's too early to know what happened. News sources like The Guardian, who's article I just read, rush to get the story out. It's their job, I get it; but the stories are written in a way that suggests their witnesses, who say the man was basically shot dead without cause, are credible. We don't know if they are or not but, if Ferguson tells us anything, building a narrative on information provided by "witnesses" without knowing if their testimonies can be trusted is dangerous. There are several business owners in Ferguson who strongly agree.
A women The Guardian describes as a "key witness" was quoted as follows:
"I don't see how a man, even with a knife in his hands - which I didn't see - how he could pose a threat to three officers with fully loaded weapons. That is really what shocked me." Article Link
This woman's uneducated (understandably so) opinion about what constitutes a deadly force threat doesn't have anything to do with whether the threat was real that day. By her own admission, she doesn't think someone with a knife is a threat to "three" police officers, as if more cops makes the knife less likely to kill one of them.
Aside from her self-professed bias, it is clear her story has some big holes in it. Human beings tend to fill in gaps in their memory, many times without even realizing it. This woman was walking on the other side of the street when the shooting occurred. She didn't know what was about to happen and likely wasn't totally focused on what was going on. The article says she didn't even realize she had seen the beginning of the incident until she watched surveillance footage of it. On top of that, when the officers begin "shooting", which is more likely when they began firing less-than-lethal" rounds, she ran away and hid behind a car. In other words, she didn't even see what happened to cause the police to switch from non-lethal force to lethal force.
So let's get this straight: the "key witness" in this story didn't even know she saw the initial encounter, didn't see what happened leading up to lethal force being used, and thinks the lethality of a knife can be determined by the number of officers present. In other words, this witness has some serious credibility issues.
This isn't The Guardian's problem, it is society's problem. Every time we go to these media outlets for their sensationalized stories about police incidents, we support their behavior. Unfortunately, most people who read a story like this don't know how absurd it is. They don't know how flakey witnesses are, how often people lie, fill in the gaps or treat opinions like facts. "They shot him for no reason" is an opinion, not a factual account of what someone witnessed, but we often confuse the two.
How can we fix it?
I don't have the entire answer to this problem. The media will probably never stop spinning stories just to boost ratings nor will people stop reading their dramatized accounts. I do know that Police Academy is part of the solution. It provides a place where people can come for real answers based on real knowledge and real experience in law enforcement. There are no special interests here; just an ex-cop trying to open people's eyes to the truth. The more people who know about this platform, the better off we will be. Our world desperately needs the truth: It's right here.
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