Last May, after two high profile crimes in my Washington DC neighborhood, residents gathered for a large community meeting with police command. Speculation of police lapses drove an unusually large turnout of over 200 people, and a small number of us who are veterans of these so-called "community policing" meetings braced for the inevitable "deflection and blame" game: "no, we cannot give any more details," paired with, "please don't walk around oblivious to your surroundings."
And sure enough, that is exactly what happened.
But what was striking about this particular meeting, in addition to attendance, was the number of people who stood up to offer a personal complaint or a negative critique of police services; sometimes both. Residents questioned Metropolitan Police Department 1st District Commander about pervasive racial profiling; a number complained that police had either failed or were extremely reluctant to take a police report following a crime. One woman stood up to recount her inability to get the MPD to respond after she was the victim of a hit and run incident; her phone calls and emails went unanswered as she negotiated medical appointments for the injuries she sustained. (She was visibly injured at the meeting.)
Although several people prefaced their remarks by expressing their gratitude to the police, the majority of the meeting--by a large margin--was spent discussing problems people had with the police.
And yet, despite the outpouring of discontent from the community, media coverage of the event invariably told a distorted story, one that claimed my neighbors stood up to express their fear of crime, and that police did all they could to allay our concerns.
This reporting amounted to a lie, and it is a lie that is told so often that it is accepted as the truth.
Media depend upon access to the establishment for stories--including the local media, and local stories. In the case of law enforcement, officers provide details or just television screen time that adds value to the coverage of the crimes that factor so heavily into local news, and ratings. Unwilling to jeopardize a prized source, media routinely position themselves as police PR rather than as public agents.
The marginalization of complaints about police services leaves even relatively affluent residents like my neighbors without an important avenue of redress. Fortunately for them, they had the ability to make demands of local political leaders--and did so, although promises of investigations or internal audits of 911 calls were fleeting. When a local blog revisited the subject of police accountability only weeks ago, complaints came pouring forth once again.
Even in privileged areas, the dissonance between what is known and what is narrated about police abets the status quo and perpetuates police dysfunction. In my neighborhood, police sometimes do not work hard, they work sloppily, or occasionally they don't work at all; I can attest to a refusal of service firsthand, during a crime in progress, and one that allowed a gunman who had attempted murder to get away. When the police failed to catch the perpetrator, and after the police cavalierly misrepresented the officer's behavior at a subsequent community meeting by re-anointing the denial of service into a brave but ultimately futile pursuit of the gunman, I filed a complaint with the police. I never heard the results. I took the opportunity to ask the police public relations representative who attended the May 2014 community meeting about it once the meeting was over. She told me she would get back to me the next day. I've never heard from her since.
When local media (or politicians) lack incentive, police remain unaccountable. In neighborhoods like West Baltimore, this separation between the police and local residents stretches beyond dissonance into outright division. Many of the complaints from residents who live there are the same as in my neighborhood--demands for more responsive, respectful policing--but the consequences of persistent lapses bear no comparison, and neither do the surrounding context, which in West Baltimore includes structural inequality and longstanding neglect.
As this neighborhood prepares to recover from Monday night's unrest, the media is there to tell that story. Every shattered window will have its day in the court of public opinion. Even genuine reporting, like The Baltimore Sun's investigation into the Baltimore Police Department's recent years of systematic abuse and misconduct, stands as an awkward addendum to the coverage; a parenthetical citation for liberals who nevertheless endorse the mainstream condemnation of property damage and unruly behavior.
One picture published in local media shows a young man on the streets of Baltimore holding up a copy of Michelle Alexander's landmark book, The New Jim Crow. To me this image reads as an indictment of that very coverage: there is a story in that book that is connected to the rubble, but although central to events, it is peripheral to the narrative.
Across a diverse set and on a growing number of streets across America, police have lost credibility. In some neighborhoods like mine, this amounts to mere dissatisfaction; in others, policing as an institution lacks legitimacy. Much work must be undertaken to restore trust, but none of it will happen if the media insist upon undermining their credibility as well. Instead of filing the story the editors expect, local media should consider reporting what actually happened.
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