As a young reporter working the night beat, one of my duties was to call the police department every hour. “Anything new to report?” I’d ask the sergeant. There would be a shuffling of papers, and the officer might inform me about an assault, a break-in, an arrest, or a charge.
It was a quick and easy way to provide fodder for the newspaper, and in those days, it didn’t even occur to reporters to question the validity of any of the information offered. Nor did our editors ever suggest we try to get the perspective of the person charged before running their name in the paper.
Police were considered an authoritative source, worthy of trust and able to supply unchallenged facts about everything from minor incidents to shootings and murders. To a large extent, this remains true today. Crime news has been a staple of the media for centuries. It’s seen as urgent and entertaining, something everyone will want to read. Even the smallest newsrooms are guaranteed a reliable stream of stories from their police calls, and many local news outlets traditionally assign a reporter exclusively to the police beat. A US study once found that nearly 14 percent of all full-time reporters said they covered crime or police.
Imagine, then, what a police reporter would have concluded after reading the following press release from the Minneapolis Police Department.
MAN DIES AFTER MEDICAL INCIDENT DURING POLICE INTERACTION
May 25, 2020 (MINNEAPOLIS) On Monday evening, shortly after 8:00 pm, officers from the Minneapolis Police Department responded to the 3700 block of Chicago Avenue South on a report of a forgery in progress. Officers were advised that the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence. Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.
Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.
At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has been called in to investigate this incident at the request of the Minneapolis Police Department.
No officers were injured in the incident.
The headline of this police communication might just as well have read: “Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.” Police officers were merely detaining someone in a forgery case. They noticed he was in medical distress and helpfully called an ambulance. Unfortunately, he died, though thankfully no officers were injured in the process. No weapons “of any type” were used in this incident.
Based on this press release, it’s unlikely this would have even made the local news. Instead, the murder of George Floyd triggered worldwide protests and a racial reckoning in society that continues to reverberate far beyond Minneapolis.
Fortunately for the truth, seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier captured the scene on her phone and posted it online for the world to see. It shows all the things the Minneapolis Police Department’s press release carefully omits: that a police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds; that Floyd repeatedly protested he couldn’t breathe; that other officers stood by and didn’t do anything. The press statement didn’t just lie by omitting crucial evidence. It also misrepresented the sequence of events, pretending that Floyd was in medical distress as he was being handcuffed when the police themselves were the cause of his distress. It was an attempt to dupe the media, and it might have worked if not for the video evidence of what actually happened.
Such blatant misrepresentation of facts is common in police reports, especially where police misconduct is a factor. When Los Angeles police infamously brutalized Rodney King in 1991, they wrote reports claiming he had suffered only minor cuts and scrapes. In 2020, when police shot and killed an innocent Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, officers were charged with fabricating evidence to justify a “no knock” warrant and conspiring to cover up the truth.
In Canada, police departments have been known to jump to the defence of officers who shoot suspects—before independent investigations have even begun. Perhaps the most famous example was the shooting of Indigenous leader J. J. Harper in Winnipeg in 1988. Harper was misidentified as a suspect in a crime, confronted by police officer Robert Cross, and then shot to death. Within two days, Winnipeg’s police chief exonerated Cross, blamed Harper for the events, and declared racism was not a factor in what happened. But Winnipeg’s Indigenous community was outraged, and the case was soon investigated intensively by Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.
It concluded that Harper’s detention was inappropriate, that Cross had altered his story, and that an “official version” was concocted by police to mask what had really happened. The inquiry concluded it was Cross, through his unnecessary approach and inappropriate attempt to detain Harper, who set in motion the events that resulted in Harper’s death. It also said racism played a part in what happened. More broadly, the inquiry concluded that the Harper killing was just one example of a wider problem. “The justice system has failed Manitoba’s Aboriginal people on a massive scale.”
Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant who became an academic, says he used to coach officers on how to frame their reports to paint victims as aggressors and themselves as valiant defenders of the law. Police routinely use contrived forms of expression when communicating with the media. They might describe “a male suspect exiting his vehicle” or a car that is “blue in colour.” But when describing serious matters, they have invented legalistic-sounding euphemisms like “officer-involved shooting” and “police interaction,” designed to obscure the truth. According to police press releases, officers never shoot people. At the most, they might “discharge their weapons,” which then strike individuals. Nolan says this is a deliberate strategy:
This stilted, imprecise “legalese” is the commonly used verbiage found in the police lexicon and forms the base of the narrative that police use throughout the United States. The purpose of the narrative is ultimately to exculpate the police from any blame or allegation that the use of force being described was unnecessary, inappropriate, excessive, or unlawful.
I cringe whenever I hear or read these manufactured phrases pop up in media reports, as they frequently do. It’s a signal the reporter is being manipulated. If police have shot and killed someone, it’s pure doublespeak to refer to the incident as an “interaction.”
Deception and lying aren’t just restricted to communication with the media. They often continue into the courts. In 2012, an investigation by the Toronto Star found more than 100 cases across Canada where police used illegal techniques, excessive force, and racial profiling and then covered it up with false testimony in court. The newspaper found that a common technique would be for police to assault a suspect and then begin their cover-up by charging their victim with assault and obstructing justice. In reviewing court transcripts of cases where police lied, the Star made note of words judges used to describe their evidence: “lie,” “fabricate,” “evasive,” “absurd,” “ridiculous,” “subversive,” “disturbing,” and “pure fiction.”
The Star also noted that many officers who were accused of lying by judges never faced any consequences. Some were identified as repeat offenders. In many cases, the lying wasn’t reported to the internal discipline divisions of police departments, while other police forces seemed unconcerned by the findings. A spokesperson for the Toronto police told the newspaper its investigation couldn’t be taken seriously since many of the judicial statements were “throwaway comments” of little value. “A judge can comment on anything he or she wishes. Such comment, however, does not amount to a finding of guilt,” the spokesperson said. “The criminal justice system works on evidence, on examination, cross-examination, and decision. It does not work on throwaway comments unsupported by evidence.”
Systematic lying in court is so common in the United States that officers have coined a term for it: testilying. A New York mayoral commission investigating police in the mid-1990s found that officers often perjured themselves on the witness stand. “Perjury is perhaps the most widespread form of police wrongdoing facing today’s criminal justice system,” the report said.
A quarter of a century later, the New York Times revisited the issue to see if anything had changed. It found lying in court was a recurring problem. Similarly, a USA Today investigation in 2019 collated police misconduct records over ten years. It found 2,227 instances of perjury, tampering with evidence or witnesses, or falsifying reports.
For people who work in the criminal justice system, the findings of these media investigations do not come as a great surprise. Toronto criminal lawyer Reid Rusonik took to the pages of the Toronto Star in 2012 to give his perspective: “As a young criminal defence lawyer, I was taught that I must approach every case with the assumption that all police officers lie all of the time. I was taught that to analyze their anticipated evidence from any other starting point would be gross negligence.”
Some of those fabrications, he wrote, weren’t just “borne out of the existence of contradictory evidence from another human being whose credibility was also in issue. I am referring to lies in the face of completely independent evidence: audio and videotapes, computer records, the laws of physics, and notes made by the officers themselves.”
Academics have found that lying is woven into the fabric of police culture. Arresting officers realize they can lie to secure confessions. Senior officers know they can exaggerate to lobby for bigger budgets. For some, a form of “noble cause corruption” is at play—a sense that any means will justify the ends of securing social order and making sure the bad guys go to jail.
In their efforts to manipulate reality, police rely primarily on the media to convey their messages to the public. Sociologist Richard Ericson identified two types of reporters who typically cover the police beat: the inner circle and the outer circle.
Inner-circle reporters usually come from outlets that rely heavily on crime news to fill their pages and news lineups. These would include radio reporters who have little time for anything other than the briefest reports and rarely venture beyond spot news. But it would also include beat reporters for major newsrooms who depend on good relations with police to be kept in the know. Many police departments in big cities provide office space for journalists right inside the station. The inner-circle reporters often spend the bulk of their working day there and tell their assignment editors what the breaking news stories are. In effect, the police are able to define the news agenda for these reporters. “The repertoire of inner-circle reporters rarely included explanations or secondary understanding,” Ericson writes.
When not covering breaking crime news, inner-circle reporters produce features that typically show police in a positive light. They focus on the life of officers and how they do their jobs, along with the tools and techniques they use. Such reporters are frequently rewarded with scoops. They are the first to be notified about a drug bust or a significant investigation. They might be invited on a ride along when police intend to make an arrest. Police departments in many places arrange “perp walks,” which involve tipping off friendly reporters or photographers to a location where officers will parade a suspect in handcuffs down the street. This serves two purposes: to reward reporters with an exclusive, behind-the-scenes view of an arrest in action and to embarrass a suspect they don’t like for one reason or another.
Outer-circle reporters, on the other hand, detach themselves from police sources and have more of a mission to “police the police” rather than to co-operate with them, according to Ericson. This often leads to conflict between police and reporters. I spent much of my career operating in this outer circle, as a reporter and manager. While other reporters might get exclusives about police busts, I put greater value on having my newsroom look critically at the policies and actions of officers. It often led to tense moments, with police departments refusing to provide information on critical issues.
Police also attempt to entirely eliminate media reporting of certain crimes. Decades ago, in Winnipeg, if the police didn’t want media scrutiny of a particular case, they would ensure the accused appeared before a judge in a suburban courtroom where reporters rarely ventured.
An interesting example of a clumsy cover-up by both police and a Crown prosecutor occurred early in my career. One day, I was walking through the ornate halls of Winnipeg’s law courts building when a waving hand appeared from behind a door. A provincial court judge beckoned me into a room. “You will want to be in Courtroom 103 this afternoon at 2:00 p.m.,” he said. I didn’t need any further encouragement. I came to the courtroom and patiently waited as a series of accused appeared before a judge for sentencing.
Finally, a forty-eight-year-old man pleaded guilty to a hit-and-run incident. He was driving carelessly and hit another vehicle, injuring two people. Then he left the scene of the accident. The Crown attorney recited the facts of the case briefly, and both he and the man’s defence counsel jointly recommended a light sentence.
Provincial court judge John Enns paused for a moment and then admonished both lawyers for “studiously avoiding” mentioning that the accused was a Winnipeg police officer. “You should know better,” he scolded them. It was a telling example of how police use their influence to mislead and cover things up, with complicity from the Crown. In this case, though, a judge refused to play ball.
The following year, an internal city report not meant for public distribution showed how police routinely hid the occupation of police officers who had been charged with criminal offences.
Apalpable shift in the public’s attitude toward police took place after George Floyd’s murder. The incident sparked massive demonstrations in the United States and many other parts of the world. In Canada, a series of deaths following police “wellness checks” on people in racialized communities contributed to the mounting anger against law enforcement. “Defund the Police” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement and other activists, and the media began intensively scrutinizing police budgets and practices. A Globe and Mail analysis found that police budgets had escalated rapidly in recent years. Between 2009 and 2018, for instance, budgets grew by 66 percent in Alberta. In Ontario, the growth was 34 percent, compared to a 24 percent increase in social and family services and an 8 percent decline in spending on social housing. Some cities spent a significant portion of their total municipal budgets on policing. In Longueuil, Quebec, spending on police amounted to 29.8 percent of the entire city budget, while in Winnipeg, it was 26.8 percent.
The movement to defund police in the United States scored some initial successes. In budget votes throughout 2020, advocacy groups lobbied for and won cuts of $840 million in more than twenty police departments, with some of that money redirected to community services. Some cities, like Denver and Oakland, decided to eliminate police officers from schools.
Police departments everywhere faced an existential crisis. They were encountering criticism and increased pressure at every turn. One of their key strategies in response to this problem was to figure out how to get the media and the public back onside. Some insight into this strategy emerged in an online webinar organized at the end of 2020 by ShotSpotter, a US company that sells technology to police departments. The target audience for the webinar was police chiefs and public information officers (PIOs) for departments. The title of the webinar was: “Best Practices for Media Relations in a Time of Defund the Police,” and among the topics covered were “strategies to avoid landmines and change the narrative, and how to leverage social media and data to get the public on your side.”
Ron Teachman of ShotSpotter set the table for the conversation: “It’s likely that no police agency will be spared from having insufficient resources, unrealistic demands and expectations of service placed on them, and subsequent scrutiny of their performance, particularly from the media.” All this, he said, when “there is civil unrest in our streets and rapidly escalating violent crime.”
The two speakers, representing police departments in New Jersey and Virginia, echoed his concern. But they also offered potential solutions. Reach out to victims of crime, one suggested, and get them to speak publicly about the excellent job police are doing. “Share positive stories from your community validators, let them sell it. In today’s landscape every positive story needs to be amplified.” One speaker talked about a police force in New Jersey that was hit with massive layoffs in 2011 and had to rebuild itself. “The main driver for re-establishing credibility was the media,” he said.
In the end, it was good old-fashioned public relations and brand management that were presented as the key to surviving the crisis. For Toronto police, one recent solution was spending more than $300,000 to produce its own podcast to give people a “behind the scenes” look at policing. As one of the webinar experts noted, “If you’re not using your PIO as your brand ambassador, your corporate reputation risk manager, then you’re running in some pretty dangerous territory. The way you look, your interactions with the community, everything has to be thought about in a marketing and a trust-building fashion.”
Excerpted from Manipulating the Message: How Powerful Forces Shape the News by Cecil Rosner. Copyright © 2023 Cecil Rosner. Published by Dundurn Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.