Journalists should be more skeptical of police reports
It’s an old joke. But I didn’t get it. Or, perhaps, more accurately, I didn’t “see it” when I should have.
I was a young city editor working at a daily newspaper in Manassas, Virginia. We sent a reporter and a photographer out to a police scene. For the life of me, I can’t remember what was going on.
But what I do remember, as clearly as if it happened yesterday, was how a joke by a police officer caused us all a lot of trouble.
Under a photograph of a police officer that appeared on the front page was a caption that included the officer’s supposed name. He was identified as Officer Ben Dover.
Get it? Ben Dover. Bend Over.
Yeah, I didn’t get it. The photographer didn’t get it. The copy editors didn’t get it.
But it seems like about a thousand people, including my boss, got it the next day when the paper hit doorsteps.
The cop was having a little fun at a young photographer’s expense. He’d given the photographer his name: “Officer Dover. First name Ben.”
The newspaper had to run a correction. The chief of police called to apologize, and the officer faced some sort of minor discipline.
It was a joke gone bad. All in all, it seems remarkably harmless considering all the real problems we now face.
But I thought of Officer Dover in the context of our national conversation about systemic racism and the way that the police interact with their communities — particularly Black members of the community.
The Washington Post this week has a story about three protesters from around the country who lost their sight after being hit with less-than-lethal munitions from law enforcement during Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers.
The Post reconstructed several of the incidents, using police records, cellphone video, surveillance video and eye-witness testimony. And what the paper found is that police accounts of the incidents do not appear to match independent evidence.
The report follows a similar video analysis of the confrontation in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., after the Trump administration ordered police to violently clear peaceful protestors so the president could stage a photo op.
During my time as a reporter and an editor, I must have worked on hundreds of stories where we quoted official police sources, prosecutors, incident reports and affidavits.
As all reporters and editors are trained to do, we made sure to attribute any accusation. “Police said,” “according to prosecutors,” “in a search warrant.” As a newspaper reader, you’ve seen it and probably treated it as a fact. Is it?
As a former journalist, I don’t think the industry has been appropriately skeptical of the information. Our reporting has contained an implicit bias toward law enforcement sources. They are, after all, official, and libel law offers some protection for allegations made by official sources or in court documents.
As policing techniques come under new scrutiny, so too must the media evaluate the way it covers what law enforcement says.
Whether it’s the reconstruction of the events leading to George Floyd’s death, the story of how Sandra Bland died in police custody after an arrest built on a fiction, false police reports filed in Los Angeles or the Post’s investigation of recent protests, there’s ample reason to believe that the “official” account of events doesn’t always line up with the truth.
In Portland, there’s a dispute now about how police handled last month’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Members of the City Council and the community are seeking an independent review of events.
So what do we do? For starters, reporters, editors and readers — all of us — should treat police allegations more skeptically. Prosecutors, too.
We should empower more independent reviews of police conduct, and de-emphasize crime coverage overall, which often paints an incomplete picture of a community.
And, when the cops tell us something, we should do our best to confirm it with another source.
I’m sure Officer Over would agree.
David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children.