“Shocking video shows black man being 'beaten, punched and kicked by six North Carolina police officers'” shouts the headline on the UK’s Daily Mail website and echoed by many media outlets. It makes me wonder if they were reporting on an appendectomy whether the headline would read “Woman drugged and stabbed by masked gang”.
While the media are fighting for credibility like never before, the explosive bias of headlines like these can’t be balanced by the occasional reporting of actual facts buried in their narrative. Like moths to a flame, the assumption that police action is not only wrong but outrageously and gratuitously violent, seems to be irresistible. So, just in case any reporters read something other than their own bylines, let me break this down for them.
Shocking implies something wild, unexpected, and deeply wrong. Stories have a beginning, and this is where the story turned shocking – when the man was contacted by police and began actively assaulting them. It was very likely a surprise to the officers, but not shocking. After all, most cops have repeatedly experienced attempts by other to hurt or kill them. That part wasn’t shocking at all.
One perspective, almost always edited for effect by newscasts, showing a small percentage of the action being reported. Unlike television fictional fight scenes, street encounters are not choreographed, are not staged to show the tension-building falls and punches, and are not played to take greatest advantage of camera angles. The scenes, to my career-long disappointment, are also absent the background theme music and sound effects. Video can be evidence of something, but it is rarely automatically proof of anything.
“shows black man”
Why this racist approach to reporting continues in the face of culturally sensitive political censors is a mystery. The suspect’s behavior is hardly an asterisk in these reports and should be the focus of the finding of fact. If race, ethnicity, or gender were equally significant in all citizen-police encounters then headlines reporting the murders of police officers would routinely label the officers or their attackers as white, black, Asian, latino, female, male, gay or transgender. Victim officers are just cops. The demographics of offenders resisting arrest are rarely noted unless reporters smell the opportunity to cry racism.
“beaten, punched, and kicked”
No reader could doubt the connotation of this inflammatory language. There is little room for the reality of the careful calculation and restraint in use of force exhibited by these officers. Baton strikes are designed to be less than lethal efforts to stop an attack by interfering with nerve and muscle function. Baton strikes are aimed at specific parts of the body, but can be ineffective or land on an unintended target area during an actively attacking person. A single strike may not be effective in the most ideal circumstances when the baton is needed, so multiple strikes or strikes at more than one area simultaneously by more than one officer in no way constitutes a “beating” in the common understanding of the word.
Similarly, the use of an officer’s hands and feet to disable an attacker and bring an end to the resistance is perfectly aligned with lawful use of force to effect an arrest. Any observer familiar with the range of compliance options available to police officers to avoid lethal force can see that from verbal commands to empty hand control to Taser to baton, the officers heroically avoided killing a man who seemed intent on violently ending their attempts to take him into custody.
“Six North Carolina officers”
The number of officers is a fact to be reported, but to imply that there was an unfair number of officers against a lone offender is to rewrite the manual on use of force. Whether these officers intentionally engaged in a swarm maneuver, the concept of having multiple officers to enable a more peaceful restraint of a violent offender was developed for the very purpose of reducing injuries to suspects.
While it may be natural to emotionally identify with the officers with the belief that they are angry and offended, the reality is that the officers were using skills for which they were trained, equipped, and authorized to use. The story begins with the suspect’s resistance and violent attacks on the officers. The officers are aware that if the offender escapes, it isn’t just a blow to their ego, it pushes this violent man into the public’s risk. They are also aware that with each officer carrying multiple items which, if seized by the suspect in his frantic grasps, could be used to kill or disable an officer or other innocent citizen, the sooner this episode is ended, the safer it is for everyone, including the suspect.
A fact based headline
So, fellow journalists, can we stick to objective reporting in headlines? How about “Officers work together to arrest violent offender”, then a subheading of “man attempts to punch and bite responding officers, resists Taser”.
Now, roll that video.
All of it.