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When the Police Lie

2020-06-08 10:37:21
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An encounter in Buffalo last Thursday — in which two police officers shoved a 75-year-old man to the ground and left lying him there while blood poured out of his ear — was troubling partly because of the original police account.

The account claimed that the man “was injured when he tripped and fell.” If a video hadn’t existed, the truth might never have come out.

That’s a widespread problem:

Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University, who has analyzed thousands of police reports, told CNN that lies like these were fairly common.

Activists in the current protest movement have begun to focus on how they can turn the rallies of the past 10 days into lasting change, to reduce both racism and police brutality. And reducing the frequency of false reports by the police is likely to be a key issue.

Already, reform-minded prosecutors and police chiefs have taken some steps in the last few years. The top prosecutor in St. Louis, Kim Gardner, has stopped accepting new cases or search warrant requests from officers with a history of misconduct or lies. In Philadelphia and Seattle, prosecutors are creating similar “do not call” lists, The Marshall Project has reported.

Chris Magnus, the police chief in Tucson, Ariz., told the Marshall Project: “If I had my way, officers who lie wouldn’t just be put on a list, they’d be fired, and also not allowed to work in any other jurisdiction as a police officer ever again.” Often, though, police-union contracts prevent firing even officers with a record of brutality and dishonesty — which then casts a shadow over the many police officers who tell the truth.

(The Times published an investigation this weekend, explaining how police unions have amassed political power and blocked change.)

False police reports are not a new problem. What’s new are the videos that have caused people to realize how common they are. “When I was a reporter, it was the police officer’s word against the victim’s or suspect’s,” Jamie Stockwell, a deputy national editor at The Times, told me. “Cellphone video has changed the debate over policing.”

The Minneapolis City Council pledged yesterday to dismantle the Police Department. Council members said that they did not yet have specific plans for a new public safety system and would study models being tested in other cities.

It is the biggest response to the protests so far. In New York and Los Angeles, city officials have vowed to shrink police budgets in coming months.

In other protest developments:


“The richest and poorest parents are spending about the same amount of hours on remote school,” Dana Goldstein, a Times reporter who has written a book on teaching, told us. But “wealthier parents are inevitably able to provide more books and supplies at home, more quiet space, educational toys and often more knowledge of the curriculum.” More high-income school districts are also providing strong remote instruction, rather than basic worksheet-like activities.


Four years ago, Kurt Streeter — then an ESPN writer — published a profile of Nate Boyer, an unusual football player. Boyer was homeless as a young man and later served in the Army as a Green Beret, in both Afghanistan and Iraq. For the Seattle Seahawks, he was the long-snapper, who played only on some kicks.

Boyer’s place in football history, however, won’t be about what he did on the field. It will be about the fact that he gave Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid the idea to protest police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. Boyer, who’s white, said he would never kneel during the anthem. But he thought it was a symbol of reverence and had seen a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. protesting in Alabama by kneeling.

“If you’re not going to stand,” Boyer remembers telling Kaepernick and Reid, as the three of them sat in a hotel lobby, hours before a game in 2016, “I’d say your only other option is to take a knee.”

Kurt has since left ESPN for The Times, and he has written an article about how kneeling spread from the N.F.L. to the recent protests. Boyer’s comments are a fascinating part of the story — and a reminder of why journalists often make an effort to keep in touch with people they’ve interviewed.

The Times is providing free access to much of our coronavirus coverage. Please consider supporting our journalism with a subscription.

Ian Prasad Philbrick and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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