Media exaggerates police brutality

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Photo illustration by Cassidy Selep.

By James Estrella III, opinion editor

In South Carolina on Oct. 6, a teenage girl was thrown across a classroom by an officer after refusing to leave with him. On Oct. 20, 2014, Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by police officers in Chicago. Finally, on Nov. 22, 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot while carrying an airsoft gun that was thought to be real.

Police should not be mistrusted or hated for simply doing their jobs. Sometimes police have to use force. However, between social media, journalistic coverage and the internet, teens are constantly exposed to a distorted view of police misconduct.

There are some cases where police are in the wrong. In the case of McDonald, a few officers on scene released 300 pages worth of reports with clear discrepancies. Only one mentioned he was growling. The event ended with a settlement of $5 million to the McDonald family.

However, when police shot and killed Tamir Rice in a Pennsylvania park last year, the situation was less cut-and-dry. When Rice’s presence was called in, the caller made it clear that they were calling about a child with a fake pistol. However, the officers were only told that a man was in the park with a gun.  

Experts were called in to investigate the case. Kinetics experts say Rice’s hands were in a defensive position when he was shot. Yet FBI investigators determined that the officers responded reasonably given their intel and the movement of Rice’s hands prior to being shot. It seemed to them that he was reaching for a real gun. The outcome was a tragedy, but it was not clear-cut police brutality.

Yet another scenario came into play in South Carolina at the end of October, when an officer threw a student across a classroom. In the wake of this event, parent groups, race groups and the media accused the officer of racism and brutality. However, they failed to mention the student’s actions leading to the officer’s involvement and the few times he asked the student to leave. When the officer tried to move her with force, she punched him in the face.

The flipping and throwing was indeed outrageous, but it isn’t as ridiculous when put back in context.

While police misconduct does in fact occur, isolated events are blown up by the media to make it seem like every cop is involved. This could not be further from the truth. Looking to the police officers in Mount Prospect, such cases are almost unheard of. Police are not brutes who just want to hurt people; they want to help the community.

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“Simpsons” character Chief Clancy Wiggum demonstrates many long-standing stereotypes of police found in the media. Graphic by James Estrella III.

Because the media wants stories that stand out and intrigue viewers, they often report on instances of wrongdoing. Only violence and racism makes it to the five o’clock news, but that activity isn’t representative of the police force as a whole.

Because of cameras on cell phones and the ease of uploading to YouTube, police encounters are now more widely distributed. According to criminal justice professor Maria Haberfeld, officers haven’t actually escalated their use of deadly force.

“A lot of the time the videos that come out are snippets,” said Student Resource Officer Scott Filipek. “Sometimes, people see the negative — us giving a ticket or placing someone under arrest — [which] is never an easy thing to do. When someone takes a video and it’s 15 seconds of a 10- to 20-minute encounter, they can spin it however [they want].”

With the media showing these small portions of events, each and every event becomes skewed. Moreover, the media tries to release stories as quickly as possible, often without the officer’s account.

“Media puts [cops] in a bad light,” said junior Ethan Erban, whose father was a police officer. “[Police work is] misunderstood a lot of the time. [Taking the right course of action is] part of their training. If someone rushes you, you have to take action.”

The media emphasizes police brutality to the point where it seems that every cop is doing it, and that’s wrong, just like brutality itself. If a cop does wrong, it should make the news. But the news doesn’t need to make it a daily topic for close to month every time.

As a result of all this bad press, only 52 percent of citizens trust police officers, which is the lowest it has been in 22 years. Teens growing up surrounded by current news coverage seem to trust the police even less than that statistic shows, but their worry is without cause.

According to policemisconduct.net, over 6,000 officers received complaints in the past year. The Bureau of Justice found that 92 percent of such complaints were not justified when reviewed. However, the vast amount of complaints makes Americans trust police officers less regardless of validity.

“It’s the easy thing to do – to jump on the bandwagon,” Filipek said. “People don’t usually call the police on a good day.”  

In addition to the media’s hyperfocus on police wrongdoing, many people aren’t aware of what actually is within an officer’s rights. With probable cause, officers can get warrants to search or seize material. Moreover, police do have the right to deadly force when necessary for self defense or to keep a suspect from hurting others, as established in Tennessee vs. Garner in 1985.

Mount Prospect police sent a survey in 2013 asking residents about how local officers conducted themselves. With the info in the survey, they can see just what people think and how they can improve. The majority of people rated officers in the category of “excellent” in the following: ability to solve a problem, attitude, fairness, courtesy, concern/interest in problem and service.

Yet even with the rating of “excellent,” since the media won’t show that, people tend to believe that most cops are shown as the ones on television instead of the ones we know, like Officer Filipek and Erban’s father.