Our friend Matt Lewis, now apparently writing at The Daily Beast, has a thought provoking essay up this weekend on the aftermath of the new revelations about the Michael Brown shooting. Titled Untruth and Consequences, Matt begins by saying that it may finally be time for those who jumped to immediate conclusions about what happened on that fateful day – based largely on the original testimony of Brown’s partner in the strong arm robber of the convenience store – to reevaluate their initial positions. He makes a good point, but what’s more interesting is Matt’s take on why this incident shows that the playing field has changed in police / community relations.
But perhaps we can find a way to avoid this from happening again. I think the first obvious thing we can do is videotape every police interaction—body cams, in-car cameras—you name it. And declassify them. Video solves a lot of mysteries. We don’t know what happened to Bristol Palin, but we do know what happened to Ray Rice’s wife.
And rather than viewing it as a violation of privacy, police officers should welcome this development. Because, here’s the thing: There are a lot of good ethical and practical reasons why the police can’t really defend themselves in the court of public opinion—at least, not adequately. First, since they should always ostensibly be on the side of finding the truth, police PR campaigns create an obvious conflict of interest, making it look like they are engaged in the Blue Code of Silence. Additionally, any information they release could potentially poison a jury pool. I could go on…
Truth may be the first casualty in conventional war between nations, but it’s frequently a corpse before it even gets to take the field in the media wars over racial tension. The handling of the investigation and the work of the grand jury has come under tremendous scrutiny and criticism in Missouri, and this may be the saddest sign yet of the new reality we will have to come to grips with.
In a now bygone era, the legal process tended to move rather slowly for better or worse. Evidence would be gathered, statements taken, investigations pursued, and then those elements would be examined and a determination made as to how to proceed. In blatantly obvious cases this could still be accomplished with some rapidity, but for more difficult incidents a Grand Jury might have to be empaneled to laboriously sift through a mountain of evidence before any conclusions were reached. This quaint practice was sometimes referred to as justice. And keeping a lot of that information under wraps was often a critical part of keeping the system fair, avoiding poisoning the potential jury pool and securing the rights of not just the victims, but of a fair trial for the accused.
No so today. Social media can provide an instant interpretation of either what happened, or what people would like to think has happened. Willing partners in the 24 hour news business can fan the flames because nothing sells like a good dose of social injustice with some marches and riots thrown in as sauce for the goose. Before the last bullets can be dug out of the walls, talking heads on the TV screen or faceless voices on laptops and cell phones can helpfully act as judge, jury and executioner in a matter of hours. It was largely in this fashion that officer Darren Wilson was essentially convicted by the evening of the day of the shooting.
The police, District Attorneys offices and government officials may have to sacrifice the plodding, boring routines of yesteryear and catch up to the modern game. Information may need to be released a lot faster. Crowds of reporters expect the dog and pony show of police chiefs and mayors holding hourly press conferences and coughing up details ranging from names and places to whether or not the car involved in the crash had passed inspection two years previously. But if you don’t feed that gaping maw of media need, they will make up a story on their own, replete with panels of expert opinionators who know what sells in the ratings game.
This may, in the end, result in a less effective and more easily derailed system of justice. But failing to respond as all is surrendering to mayhem.