What If No One Was Watching?

A few days after the guilty verdicts against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin were announced, CNN ran a story that re-published the initial police statement issued by the city’s police department on the night George Floyd died.

In light of all we know about what actually happened, how Floyd died under the knee of Officer Chauvin and with the complicity of several other officers; the news release is chilling and a clear attempt to cover-up the details of the murder and protect the careers of the officers involved. There is no sense, from reading the news release, that the person who wrote it nor anyone who approved it, was committed to transparency or public service. It is a string of lies and the police department may have gotten away with it if not for the citizens who saw what really happened and recorded it on video.

The outrage begins with the headline:

“Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.”

You have seen the video of the death of George Floyd and the hand in pocket role Officer Chauvin played. Does the headline of the police department news release reflect the reality of the situation? Is kneeling on someone’s neck for almost ten minutes a medical condition? Did Floyd die “after” a medical incident or as the result of police abuse? A jury has spoken on each of these questions.

The news release gets worse. After getting out of his car, the official account says, “he [Floyd] 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 the hospital and “died a short time later. At no time were weapons of any type used…”

But for the video, the Minneapolis Police Department may have succeeded in convincing the world, the case of George Floyd was nothing more than a middle-age man who happened to die of an unknown affliction, while being arrested by hard-working police officers, who saw he needed help and called an ambulance on his behalf. We would be assured that the police acted properly, because they never used their weapons. We might never have learned George Floyd’s name, because that detail is not mentioned in the official account.

The following day, the police department re-posted its dishonest news release with a new lead sentence in acknowledgment of the existence of the video that was taking over the internet.

“As additional information has been made available, it has been determined that the Federal Bureau of Investigations will be a part of this investigation.”

There was still no effort, at this point, to walk away fully from the first misleading statement.

The killing of Floyd sparked a protest movement across the country last summer. Minneapolis was at the center of those demonstrations. In Minneapolis, there have been a number of incidents involving police confrontations with the news media. Reporters and photographers have been harassed and in some instances detained. Last month, the governor of Minnesota got involved and issued a public statement demanding that police officers in his state end their targeting of news reporters and respect the role of the press in our society.

Since the governor’s statement, there have been a number of clashes between police officers and journalists covering protests in Minneapolis. Just as since the murder of Floyd, and even during the middle of Chauvin’s trial, there were cases of police violence against people of color that resulted in death. It is as if the machinery of policing in our country is stuck in one gear, marked by; confrontation, escalation, and force.

Law enforcement is one of the many areas of American government which require constant scrutiny by the news media and the public at large. Law enforcement has the power to publicly accuse and try citizens of crimes, and has the authority, in certain circumstances, to take human life. Because the stakes are so high, police and prosecutors should be subject to the highest levels of scrutiny.

Any agency of government maintains its legitimacy only through the consent of the governed. Since most of us do not have the time, or the resources to keep a watchful eye on the government, that is the role we have traditionally given to the press. This is a foundational principle of how our government is supposed to work, but it is one that has been eroded in recent years, especially when the truth as revealed by the news media — or a citizen with a cell phone camera — runs against how government officials want to be perceived by the public they are sworn to serve.

There was a time when being a crime reporter meant that you spent your days and nights trying to be the first one at the scene of a robbery, arson, or murder. The angle of crime stories in the press was from the perspective of the victim and the effort by police to catch the bad guy. In recent years, it has become as important for journalists to cover the police themselves as potential perpetrators of unprofessional or unjust behavior. In some cases, that is where the story is. Are police abusing their power?

There should be no liberal or conservative divide over the need to de-escalate the use of violence by police against the communities they serve, but there often is. Sometimes the divide is over the use of language; like Black Lives Matter, or “defund the police.” These phrases can be and have been taken out of context for political purposes. They fall into the trap set by conservative politicians who look to use support for law enforcement as a wedge issue. You are either with the cops or the criminals.

As a matter of context, Black Lives Matter is not meant to convey a sense that Black lives are more important than other lives, or that Black lives are more important than police lives. It is simply meant to point out that Black lives matter just as much as any other. Anyone who has ever covered crime in an American city knows that from the perspective of communities of color this is a real issue and a point worth making. Almost any crime related death of a white person tends to get more news media attention than any Black death and in turn the deaths of white people tend to get more attention from law enforcement. Whether this is a result of the news media attention, or some other social issue, I don’t know, but I experienced it first hand in the early years of my working career in a medium sized American city.

The term, “defund the police,” is a phrase only a few mean literally. More often, it is meant to argue for a reallocation of resources away from building local police departments into well-equipped combat brigades and toward a stronger system of social service and mental health programs that would decrease the need for police use of force.

Liberals and conservatives should be able to come together on all these issues at the place where money and accountability meet. Money spent to equip and train police officers should be seen as an investment in the safety of our communities. It should not be used to build a well-equipped force that threatens the community.

When taxpayer money meant for public safety is mis-used by police departments it is a misappropriation. When the Minneapolis Police Department issued a news release last May, in an attempt to spin the death of George Floyd as an unfortunate accident, or unavoidable medical outcome, it was done with taxpayer funds. The taxes paid by the citizens of Minneapolis to be used to protect the city and keep it safe, were being used to pay for a police department cover-up. That should rile conservatives as much as liberals.

The press has never been a popular institution with the public. Reporters are seen as too focused on what is wrong instead of on what is right. They are seen as ambulance chasers, preying on the misfortunes of others for profit. It is an understandable perspective given that the job of the press is to examine what is wrong with our society in the hope that those in power will fix it, or that the people will demand change.

In recent years, but not for the first time in American history, the press has made matters worse for itself by taking sides. It has added to public confusion over the issues rather than serving as a clarifying force in public affairs. Profits have been put ahead of public service; in some cases through massive budget cuts that make it almost impossible for reporters to do their jobs, and sometimes by feeding slanted information to sub-audiences with fixed opinions.

It is difficult to get the average American to stop and consider the consequences of a diminished news media, or a news media driven only by the profit motive. Most Americans have bigger concerns closer to home. But in the American form of government, which is dependent on checks and balances, the press is the most independent force available to stand between the forces of good government and bad.

Government’s first impulse is always to protect itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in close review of how the Minneapolis Police Department wanted the world to see and understand the death of George Floyd. It is easy to despise the press, or the caricature of the typical news reporter, but imagine what people in power might do, how they might behave, how they might use their power to enrich or protect themselves, if they knew the press was not watching.

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.