Ethicists Shocked, Shocked to Learn Not All Police Press Releases Are True
December 7, 2016 (Fault Lines) — “Press experts” and “ethicists” are pissed. The Santa Maria, California police department apparently issued a false press release, saying that two men had been arrested in connection with a fraud scheme. But in reality, neither of the men had committed any crime. Rather, the department took them into protective custody to prevent them from being murdered by a gang under wiretap surveillance, then fabricated a cover story to protect them from harm.
The harms are many, according to these experts:
“This immediately and almost permanently undermines the credibility of an entire police department,” he said. “Not only in the eyes of the public, but even the gang members won’t believe them in the future.”
They distinguish this strategy from the many, many ways that police deceive criminal suspects:
“That’s trying to get the criminals to believe something. This is different: it misleads the press and the public. It erodes trust in everything, right?”
Finally, and adorably, there was this gem:
Kelly McBride, a vice-president for the Poynter Institute, said the fake press release undermines trust in the police department and “sends a message to the officers in this department that falsifying information is OK if you have a good reason. That’s antithetical to the principles of law enforcement.”
It must be hard to have the “crime stories” beat. I mean, you have to hear what the police officer says, then you have to write it down, then you have to go alllllll the way over to your keyboard and write it down again, this time without typos. Then, for some reason, you have to stand outside the courthouse or the police station while you recount exactly what was said.
Notably absent in that sequence of events is the part where the chief says something, the reporter investigates whether it’s true, and then the audience learns the reporter’s conclusions. With some exceptions, the police department’s account is taken at face value all the way up until trial, while the defense finds itself subject to a gag order as soon as all the damage has been done.
But what happens if it comes to light that press releases from police departments aren’t always accurate? Suddenly, the public might demand that reporters start to dig into these public statements and ask hard questions. And that puts reporters in the difficult situation of having to decide whether they want “access” to local police or the ability to ask difficult questions at opportune moments.
The result of reporters acting as mouthpieces for local police departments is that the public has a distorted view of crime. If you were to ask an American whether he worries “a great deal” about crime, there’s a roughly 53% chance that he’d say yes. And if you spent the past twenty-five years asking him whether crime was worse this year than last? For most years, the average person polled would say that crime had gotten worse in his area, and as many as 89% of people would say that crime had gotten worse in the country overall. All this in the midst of a decades-long, year after year reduction in crime rates that began to tick back up only in 2014.
And, of course, it’s not the boring crimes that get covered. Outside the occasional Jeffrey Skilling, you’re generally going to hear about grisly murders, gang rapes, and daring robberies because those are the sorts of cases that get eyeballs on the screen. That sort of recency bias can make events seem more common than they really are, like when you’ve spent the past six months hearing only from people who vigorously agree with you and are shocked to learn there’s another half of the country.
All these “experts” clutching their pearls and accidentally dropping their monocles into their champagne flutes are missing the point. We were never supposed to think that press releases are true. And the press was never supposed to be cozy enough with the police that a fib would rock the foundations of their belief systems. Frankly, it’s hard to believe they’re all that shocked, considering how frequently reporters collude with officers to, for instance, be there for the perp walking of an unpopular person to create an impression of guilt.
If there’s anybody at fault here, it’s not the Santa Maria Police Department. By their own account (if you believe them), they saved two lives by creating the false impression that these men had been arrested. And officers are used to lying in all sorts of contexts, whether it be as undercover informants, to get consent to a search, or to secure a confession by making up inculpatory evidence. Really, the only place where police aren’t supposed to lie is when making sworn statements. And even that is negotiable.
The blame here should fall on the media who uncritically reported a story without checking to make sure it was true.
Maybe the problem really is with failing local newsrooms. Shrinking local papers. Ever more difficulty securing funding to do reasonable investigative journalism. But if you don’t have the resources to check something, you probably shouldn’t just assume that it’s true. That’s what we should be clutching our pearls over. Not some officers who are simply living up to the mantra that, “there are circumstances when the use of deceit is the only practicable law enforcement technique available.” Sorry reporters, you won’t get a heads up when those circumstances involve deceiving you.