I am concerned. Police departments around the country are circling their wagons because of recent public criticisms about their officers’ wrongdoings, most notably the George Floyd case. That circle includes PR people wo help departments tell their side of the story. It’s happening nationally, but also locally, including in Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
A 2019 state police transparency law requires departments to release information to the public about any officer-involved shootings. Great.
But police are pretty adroit and instead of just releasing the shooting information in a straightforward manner and post online the officer’s body cam, they took a different route: More than 100 California departments have entered contracts with a PR firm that creates “slick videos to justify police shootings – but critics say they twist the facts and undermine the transparency laws,” according to a headline and long article in Sunday’s Mercury News
The department videos all have the same format – a police chief or sheriff opens to inform the public about a critical case involving a shooting or unusual force by a police officer and explaining why it was justified. This is followed by 911 dispatches, a map, and finally with the chief saying how sorry he was for the family of the individual the police killed. And the result is always the same -- a justification of the officer’s actions.
And the slick videos, which are really police marketing devices, are really a big worry for me – if 100 California police departments in California and many others around the country are going to rely on PR-produced videos in order to protect and defend their departments and officers, America has a problem. We look to police to be fair, honest and open. But these videos often omit case information, distort what happened, only tell half the story, and contribute to having the public initially think that the police followed their rules and what they did (like shoot someone) was necessary and legal. Oftentimes, the policeman’s body camera footage is not released – or just briefly shown.
Just think of all the incidents involving police shooting a black person where the chief or DA said the police acted appropriately and would not be charged. It just happened in North Carolina where the three officers shot Andrew Brown, Jr. claiming he was trying to escape and his auto became his “weapon,” thus endangering the police. Brown was unarmed but killed. The DA declared the police actions were “justified,” and no charges were made against the officers.
What this means for Americans as that we can no longer fully trust our police, which is a scary thing. And the more they circle their wagons, the less we know about what’s happening in out towns and cities.
The big problem here is the chiefs are slanting the public’s view. In one video the chief said two police were firing tasers at a suspect, who continued to advance, so the police had to shoot him to protect themselves. But a few days later, according to the Mercury, a third officer not seen on the screen, was charged with manslaughter.
Menlo Park has a contract with the PR firm, Critical Incident Videos, LLC of Vacaville, who makes these videos which the police pay for.
Two years ago, after a Palo Alto police beating of a man outside Happy Donuts on El Camino, Lieut. James Reifschneider stood in front of a video camera to explain a violent arrest of Julio Arevaalo in 2019. The clean-cut, good-looking officer reminded me of a typical choir boy. Central casting could not have picked a better-g police representative. I don’t know if the above PRA firm was involved in the video, but the format was typical and the message was the police had done nothing wrong. The facial bones of the man being arrested were broken during the forceful encounter.
As I’ve previously said in a blog, Palo Alto Police Chief Robert Jonsen continues to encrypt all police radio transmissions, so the press and the public can no longer listen in on dispatch-to-officer conversations. A reporter must email a form to the department to ask a question, and reporters cannot directly talk to officers – a major change from just a few years ago. Sure, there are some news releases, but the police decide what police activities they want released to the public and which ones they don’t. From what I’ve seen, the recent news releases are on incidents where police did a good job. The police information officer job has been eliminated. So much for transparency, which upsets me.
Note: A story the Sunday, 5-16 edition of the NYT, also r reported that nationally, pathologists, coroners and police are working together to cover up police use of force on blacks. They found 47 cases in the past 25 years where the pathologist declared a black person died of sickle cell anemia, not a police beating, although many of the black bodies were bruised and had broken bones. In one incident, the police pursued a black man into the forest, and minutes later dragged him out. Neighbors saw that the officers’ trousers were splattered with blood. Cause of death: sickle cell anemia.