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Why Are We Still Trusting the Police?

After years of ample evidence that the first statement from police officers is often riddled with errors, why do the public and media trust them?

 

This July will mark ten years of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Alicia Garza first used the term in a Facebook post writing about the Trayvon Martin shooting, and in the decade since, the hashtag has evolved to highlight racism and brutality that Black Americans face at the hands of police. In 2013, police officers killed 1,088 people in the US, and after a decade of protesting police violence and cities implementing police reform, in 2022 police killed 1,232 people. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has undoubtedly been successful in bringing attention to police brutality, but due to the inability to hold police accountable at a systematic level, police violence remains a serious threat towards Black Americans.


Decreasing police brutality and violence is incredibly difficult with qualified immunity and police unions making it near impossible to hold police accountable for their actions. This sense of immunity has not only emboldened police, but it also creates a society where they feel invincible and untouchable. This feeling leads to police lying to the public about anything and everything. There are hundreds of stories of police lying with impunity across the country.


In 2022 alone there are reports of police lying about things ranging from falsifying sick days to increase their pay to lying about brutalizing a teenager at a high school. A culture of impunity has created a society where cops feel like they will not face consequences for their actions. During the George Floyd protests, police made brazen lies about easily disputable situations where they victimized themselves.


At this point, it is easy to assume that police lying is commonplace and predictable. However, this sentiment is apparently not shared by the news, specifically local media. Using police reports uncritically is a common practice in journalism, but given the frequency by which police lie, it helps officers shape false narratives of civilian encounters with police. One notable example was the May 2022 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX. Police said that the shooter was wearing body armor (he was not), lied about when the shooter entered the building, how he entered the building, how long police waited to engage with the shooter, and more.


There has been little recent basis for reporters or the public to trust the narratives that police communicate, especially when official evidence often contradicts officer testimony. Most recently, on January 18, 2023, the shooting of a protester in an Atlanta-area forest by Georgia State Troopers was followed by a police statement obscuring what actually happened. The shooting occurred while officers were clearing protestors that were camping in the Altanta-area forest to try and stop the construction of a police training facility. Police said that there was no bodycam footage of the shooting, yet bodycam footage of the incident was later released on February 9th.


Police say that protester Manuel ‘Tortuguita’ Teran shot a state trooper in the groin when police advanced to clear the camp, so police shot Teran in self defense. An independent autopsy found that Teran was shot 13 times by police, far more than would be expected in a self defense scenario. The footage includes an Atlanta Police officer says, “You fucked your own officer up?... They shoot their own man?” This calls into question the veracity of the accusation that Teran shot a Trooper. The officer that can be heard in the footage was not near the shooting, but coupled with the fact that the Department initially lied about the existence of footage, skepticism of the official report is necessary.


Given the history of police departments obfuscating the truth, reporters must treat police reports with suspicion and reservation. When journalists use police statements and reports blindly and uncritically, they are doing a disservice to the public. Holding police accountable is notoriously difficult, but it becomes impossible if the public is misinformed by the media about misconduct that occurred. The sense of invincibility that police officers across the country feel emboldens the worst offenders. It has been and will continue to be an uphill battle to hold police accountable for their misconduct, but the easiest and first step that must be taken is to no longer trust them.


Anna Hickey is a fourth-year C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. They are a Managing Editor for the American Agora.


Image courtesy: Ted Eytan I CC BY-SA 4.0

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