A few days ago, my husband Dr. Ron Martinelli, who is a nationally renowned forensic criminologist, and I were driving to an appointment. His phone rang, and on the other line was a court and crime reporter for a major national newspaper. He was looking for a statement for an article he was writing. This is not an unusual type of call for Ron to take since he does a lot of media consulting. Ron asked the reporter about some of the facts of the case in question as he was not familiar with it. The incident involved the discharge of an officer’s weapon, accidentally, while the officer was using his gun to attempt to break the window in a vehicle. The officer had already been found not guilty of any charges and the discharged deemed accidental.
Ron asked the reporter over and over why the officer was trying to break the window and the reporter said he did not know. Ron told him that of course he would know, as a “crime” reporter, he should have the facts of the incident before writing any story about it. I was very frustrated listening to the conversation, and the way the reporter had decided that the officer was wrong, despite not being found to be wrong, yet could offer no facts.
After much back and forth, the reporter said the officer had responded to a call where a man in a Cadillac was ramming another car repeatedly. When the officer approached and told the driver to stop and exit the vehicle, he did not. Oh, well, Mr Reporter, what should the officer have done? He said he did not know, but hitting the window with his gun was a wrong thing to do, and the reporter wanted Ron to comment on that. Ron said he would not comment, as he did not have the facts and trying to pull them out of this reporter, who was writing about it to express his opinion that the officer was wrong, was exasperating. The reporter had decided that the officer’s actions were wrong, but could not answer what the officer should have done, except to say, go back to his car and get something else to break the window with. So while the officer would go to his vehicle to find a tool, what would an already non-compliant suspect do? Perhaps ram the vehicle again and injure or kill the occupant? Perhaps put the car in reverse and flee and be a danger to other pedestrians and vehicles? Perhaps, run the officer down or ram his vehicle? These are decisions officers have to make in seconds, on the fly, every single day, and this officer determined that this suspect was a risk to others and needed to stop him, in his 3500 pound lethal weapon vehicle.
The reporter could only say that Ron was not being fair to him. Ron told reporter that he did not understand the laws of police use of force, he was speculating and that this was not about his personal bias, viewed in hindsight but what the officer needed to do in that moment to protect lives. I asked how that reporter would feel if his daughter were the one in that vehicle being rammed, and he said he did not know. Wow.
The reporter insisted he does understand police work and what officers can and cannot do, but when asked what the number one court ruling is, that deals with use of force and shootings, he did not know. (Graham V Connor, 1989 Supreme Court case) This is your crime reporter.
Here is my larger point. Officers make contacts with the public every day. The vast majority of those contacts involve no use of force, and indeed, they more often involve helping people in many different ways and scenarios. A reporter for a large publication has an audience of tens of thousands to millions every day.
For people in the media to write or report in ways that show implicit bias, or report inaccurate or incomplete information to impact the way the public perceives law enforcement is patently wrong.
To parse out the bits of information to fit the personal biases of the writer, rather than all of the facts, is a disservice to the reader and to the officers.
To speak to experts to get spontaneous statements, and deliberately withhold the entire facts of the incidents, is wrong and misleads the experts and the public. This enhances the chasm between law enforcement and the public by deliberately designing an emotional response from readers or viewers that is meant only to increase readership and pump up the analytics, but has nothing to do with the reality of what happened.
This reporter knew the facts. He did not share the facts. He was deliberately looking for a sound bite from a well-known expert that would validate the case he wanted to make, not the case with the facts as they are. I have to give my husband huge kudos for not taking the bait, and not giving that reporter a statement, but told him that it is his responsibility to know the facts, and report the facts, and not try to mold the case around his personal bias, as his columns affect the thinking of many, and this is what causes and perpetuates the publics negativity toward law enforcement.
This article should anger you, scare you and make you second guess (in case you are not already doing so), what you read in the newspapers, magazines, online, and see on TV. We need to hold the media responsible for ethical reporting, based on all the information, without bias, and let the reader make up their minds, and not have the information be skewed and designed to bring you to only the conclusion the author wants you to think, believe and react to.