Policing the police

The world of law enforcement has gotten a lot of scrutiny following the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, MO. Injustice was perceived, riots ensued, and the news media chose to present it all like footage from a Middle East war zone, not Middle America. It’s not even fair to say that the jury is still out on that matter because the jury hasn’t even been convened yet. But it’s fair to say that the actions of police, particularly when racial relations are overlaid, are already being questioned by the usual lot – activists, media and politicians – and this time, most of America is taking notice.

Clearly, the actions of the Ferguson police department following the teen’s shooting death didn’t help matters. Delaying the release of the officer’s name was seen as stonewalling the public’s right to know, which was later compounded by the department’s decision to release information on the teen’s alleged theft of cigars the same day they eventually decided to release the officer’s name. That department’s actions will probably have long-ranging implications for how police departments are expected to publicly address similar situations in the future.

Take the example of the Greenville, SC, police department after two officers last week subdued and arrested a man who allegedly tried to steal cash from a register. Initial media reports focused solely on the actions of the officers, one of whom punched the man in the face repeatedly after he had been wrestled to the ground, giving the appearance of unnecessary force. Customers commented on the brutality to media and pointed fingers at the officers.

But subsequent stories elaborated on the incident when a police department spokesman revealed additional footage of the man acting erratically, resisting earlier attempts to take him into custody including Taser shots, and noting the man appeared to be heavily intoxicated. This further elaboration led to more balanced media coverage, but still left the police department in a position where it was forced to defend its actions more vigorously and quickly than perhaps would have been required prior to what happened in Ferguson.

What will be the long-term impact to law enforcement techniques or how police have to investigate potential wrongdoing during arrests? Who knows? The police undoubtedly have a tough job, made even tougher by easy access to weapons by criminals and with violent acts in society being displayed via social media every day. In any case, that same omnipresent social media that highlights violence is also the one raising much of the visibility to police actions, some now being interpreted as unnecessarily violent or skewed by racism.

This issue, now squarely in the media spotlight, isn’t going away anytime soon. Any law enforcement department nationwide should be thinking about handling media coverage, political action and public outcry for every difficult arrest they make when it can be captured on social media and broadcast around the world in an instant. 

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