These days newspapers (or their digital equivalents) are judged by “clicks;” web traffic, the number of hits a particular story receives over its brief lifespan. Driving clicks is accomplished by a number of tactics, chief of which are; search engine optimization (a process of imbedding relevant keyword and phrases on the website, editing meta tags, and image tags to improve a site’s ranking in search engine responses), and an increasingly employed tactic, even among respected outlets, of misleading headlines or “click bait” headlines.
Every so often, we hear of law enforcement agencies in medium-to-large sized cities accused of yielding to the unending pressure to lower crime by manipulating crime stats in our own version of “click” accounting; the public’s concern with this phenomenon, if it has occurred, is understandable. We need reliable accounts of offenses and attempted offenses to respond appropriately to crime and to keep our citizens apprised of our effectiveness. I think it is fair to say the public has a reasonable expectation, a right, that whatever crime numbers their police departments are publishing annually should be accurate.
Can we, should we expect the same of our news outlets? Accuracy. Can we expect that, under similar intense pressure to “drive the numbers,” reporters adhere to strict rules of accuracy and fairness; that their product is generally reflective of the truth? Reporters perform an important function in a democracy. The Fourth Estate keeps government in check, informs the public, and can by proxy hold corrupt practitioners accountable.
Besides reporting and collecting crime numbers, every police officer within an organization is expected to accurately depict what he or she has observed on a particular crime scene in an incident report. Often in detailed, multi-page homicide supplemental reports, I may be compelled to issue an opinion as to the perceived truthfulness of a witness or suspect interviewed; in such cases I am required to back this opinion with specific and accredited training I have received in identifying dishonest behavior.
While no codified rules exist, news agencies are subject to intense accuracy scrutiny, self-enforced by the threat of the dreaded correction or even banishment from the industry altogether; which, I should note, is overwhelmingly effective. It is no secret that law enforcement officers suffer greatly as a whole when corruption of a handful, or even one colleague is uncovered – do other professions suffer the same fate; this collateral profession-wide fallout from the actions of a few? When Rolling Stone Magazine ran with the sensational story of an horrendous sexual assault on the University of Virginia’s campus which was reliant on a single source and the outlet failed at every turn to fact check, a story that was subsequently debunked; the Rolling Stone’s reputation collapsed instantly. Did Rolling Stone’s collapse take journalism with it? Did widespread national skepticism of all reporting ensue?
There is an outlet in both print and television not subject to such fact scrutiny, where opinions roam free; the editorial. Editorials can be dangerous. Widely distributed, emblazoned with the outlet’s marquis (effectively a stamp of approval), and often given misleading headlines backed with dubious observations; editorials are mixed among, and increasingly within the days’ news. Editorials can propagate ideas that are not synonymous with news or truth.
I would not purport to take issue with the existence of editorials; I read them often, and I am currently writing this editorial – but with such privilege comes great responsibility – a sentiment often heard in reference to the privilege of carrying a badge. On Saturday November 14, Jarvis DeBerry published the headline Is ‘shoot first’ police culture to blame for Marksville boy’s death? on the Times Picayune/NOLA.com website. The headline itself is in line with hundreds of similar editorials in recent years around the country; but is the statement accurate, or indeed responsible? After the Rolling Stone debacle I don’t recall being inundated with “Journalism’s ‘write first, fact check later’ culture” headlines.
Whatever happened in Marksville is a tragedy beyond belief which is being thoroughly investigated by the Louisiana State Police, a competent and highly respected agency. Thanks to to the Fourth Estate and dedicated reporting, we know that whatever occurred in Marksville was captured on a body-worn camera.
In the editorial DeBerry describes a Supreme Court ruling, specifically the dissenting opinion of Justice Sonia Sotomayor about the shooting death of a fleeing suspect in Texas who reached speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour and told a dispatcher that he would “shoot the police if they didn’t back off.” DeBerry’s story relates this dissenting opinion about the “‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing” (Sotomayor’s words, borrowed by DeBerry) to the Marksville shooting here in Louisiana in a broad brush stroke about the seeming propensity of law enforcement everywhere to spray gunfire across great swaths of public space in an abundance of caution when interacting with suspects who are overwhelmingly harmless.
In my editorial I wanted to talk about risk and accuracy; both real and imagined, in the era of the “shoot first, think later” approach to policing. No domestic group is more acclimated to risk perception than law enforcement. Every encounter, every vehicle stop, every building search; law enforcement officers are constantly assessing risk and behavior. Officers are consumed in real-risk scenarios by blind corners, fatal funnels, back lighting, mapping, and cross-fire. Perhaps no one is more misled by risk and probability than consumers of media. For every well publicized police shooting, every negative encounter that grabs headlines – there are thousands of highly volatile dangerous encounters, often involving firearms, that our police officers successfully deescalate each and every hour of the day that the public will know nothing about. The public will never know how many times I have almost lost my life in alleyways and streets all across the Big Easy, nor the similar stories of all 1,100 of my coworkers; the thousands of violent crimes, near-suicides, or accidents we have intervened in or prevented…all lost to anonymity and time.
A number of America’s most well known economists and behavioral economists write extensively on just how bad human beings are at estimating risk and probabilities. “We worry about some things more than the evidence warrants (vaccines, nuclear radiation, genetically modified food), and less about some threats than the evidence warns (climate change, obesity, using our mobiles when we drive).” Something author David Ropeik termed the perception gap; the gap between our fears and the facts, which is a huge risk in and of itself. “The Perception Gap produces dangerous personal choices that hurt us and those around us, and it produces social policies that protect us more from what we’re afraid of than from what in fact threatens us the most.” (Ropeik, David; Ropeik and Associates)
In fact, Ropeik wrote a salient piece on how this phenomenon affects reporters and how incessant coverage can inflate perceived danger in Journalists can be seduced by aspects of risk, where Ropeik says “The same risk perception factors that trigger fear in those who consume the news trigger interest in the people who report it. For reporters, these ‘fear factors’ are characteristic of a story that has a better chance of making the front page or the top of a news broadcast. For editors and producers hungry to increase the number of readers or viewers, these factors identify stories that might grab more attention.” (Ropeik, David. Nieman Reports 56.4 [Winter 2002]: 51)
How does this play out in real life? Perhaps innocuously much of the time, but sometimes the results can be troubling. Flawed human assessment of risk resulted in an additional 1.4 million people traveling by automobile following the September 11 terrorist attacks due to concern over air safety. The increase in surface transportation led to one thousand additional roadway fatalities (Szalavitz, Maia; January 2008. 10 Ways We Get the Odds Wrong, Psychology Today).
To quote perhaps America’s best known economists, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, “When it comes to evaluating risks, people stink for all sorts of reasons – from cognitive biases to the media’s emphasis on rare events” (Levitt, Steven and Dubner, Stephen; 2015 When to Rob a Bank p. 101). People become fixated on dramatic, albeit rare events that receive inordinate media coverage – which translates to fear. Throw into this equation that analysts have pointed to a troubling and growing trend in the 24 hour news cycle; it is becoming much more difficult to distinguish between news and entertainment, fact and opinion….reports and editorials.
So the question remains; is there a “shoot first” police culture in America? Fugitive Travis Boys was taken into police custody after being on the run in New Orleans after what was described as overwhelming evidence that he murdered beloved 5th District police officer Daryle Holloway. Recently, New Orleans police officers apprehended a suspect wearing a bullet proof vest who robbed three local convenience stores with an AK-47 assault rifle, firing the weapon at one store owner – not only was the suspect not killed by police, he was not injured. This is hardly in keeping with the “culture.” It is clear that tragedies happen at the hands of law enforcement; mistakes, even criminal or criminally negligent actions occur in U.S. policing. In a world of split second decision making, a gun for every man, woman, and child in the country, and nearly one million law enforcement officers constantly interacting with citizens; training on making appropriate decisions about use of force and reducing use of force is ever increasing.
What do the national numbers suggest about this culture? As readers are likely aware, complete numbers about use of force as a whole, and to some degree deadly force can be hard to peg, although this will clearly improve amid a national push to keep close watch on the statistics. The Washington Post reports for 2015 to-date 853 people have been shot dead by police, among which “633 of the fatal shootings followed a wide range of violent crimes, including shootouts, stabbings, hostage situations, carjackings and assaults.” The Post report numbers suggest that if you are engaged in a shootout, stabbing, hostage situation, or carjacking you stand a pretty good chance of being killed by police – this is clear. But we aren’t interested in “why” police shot and killed 853 people so far in 2015 – we are trying to determine if there is a culture of “shoot first” in the U.S. and whether this is an appropriate or rational fear, as opposed to say….how many Americans die each year from food borne illness (3,000 people die in the U.S. each year from food borne illness, as it happens; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases). We need to go back to a full year with relatively well documented outcomes.
An exhaustive study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that “In 2008, an estimated 16.9% of U.S. residents age 16 or older had face-to-face contact with police. This was a decline from the 19.1% of U.S. residents who reported having contact with police in 2005 and a decrease from the 21% who experienced contact with police in 1999 and 2002.” “Between 2002 and 2008, about 5.3 million fewer residents had face-to-face contact with police, down to an estimated 40.0 million from 45.3 million. Among persons who had a face-to-face contact with police in 2008, about 1 out of 4 had more than one contact during the year. The public most commonly came into contact with police when driving a vehicle that was pulled over in a traffic stop. Other frequent reasons for contact with police included reporting a crime to police or being involved in a traffic accident.” (Eith, Christine and Durose, Matthew; October 2011, BJS Statisticians Contacts between Police and the Public, 2008)
The BJS study also reports “An estimated 776,000 persons experienced force or the threat of force by police at least once in 2008 (table 17). This total represented an estimated 1.9% of the approximately 40.0 million people experiencing face-to-face police contact during 2008.” The BJS reported that 404 persons were killed by law enforcement in 2008. (Burch, Andrea; November 2011, BJS Arrest-Related Deaths 2003-2009 Statistical Tables) That is 404 deaths out of 40 million police-citizen contacts – or 0.00101% of citizen contacts resulted in homicide by law enforcement. Expanding; in 2008, 0.000135% of the U.S. total population was killed by law enforcement. By contrast, 2008 saw 16,442 total murders and 36,035 suicides (Centers for Disease Control).
Some context about risk, perception, and headlines from the Centers for Disease Control; In 2008, there were more than 41,000 poisoning deaths, 89% of which were caused by drugs. The U.S. saw 38,000 motor vehicle traffic deaths the same year. Currently, there is a suicide in the United States every 13 minutes.
I can’t imagine 39,224,000 police-citizen encounters without use of force constitutes a “shoot first” police culture. Incidentally, there were 58,792 assaults against peace officers reported in 2008. Perhaps Justice Sotomayor has been watching too much news.
The Fourth Estate performs a vital function in society, and no one, least of which myself, would suggest censoring news output or even editorials. Writing about police behavior, especially police related shootings is of great public concern, but the extent to which we publicize isolated and exceedingly rare events and succumb to pressure for “clicks” can, and likely is adversely affecting public safety and reasonable debate. It is also straining relationships in our communities when we need collaboration. Police action will always be contentious and captivating, it is among the top drivers of news site-traffic, and while bad behavior on the part of law enforcement, captured on cell-phone cameras, can serve to effectively discourage misconduct – the dictates of fairness require some coverage of the overwhelming good that close to one million officers perform on a daily basis; quietly, dutifully, in towns and cities across the U.S. The press must continually evaluate its role and accuracy; assessing whether it is advancing the news or spreading unwarranted fear. Just as police agencies have, and will continue to constantly train and improve their function in the United States. Beyond contentious use of force encounters, media reflects ever changing societal norms and the expectations of the public and law enforcement. Thanks to tireless reporting, we have a collective knowledge that people across the country want a more peaceful, less adversarial relationship with law enforcement (cops are included in this sentiment). Policy makers yield to public demand in light of reporting, once again; with such privilege comes great responsibility.
I don’t think Jarvis should stop writing about police action in America, I just think he should warn his audience against reading editorials while driving (in 2013, 3,154 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers).