Buffalo police pushed an old man — but said he tripped. Because police lie.

The police as an institution is not fair, balanced or objective. And yet departments are still relied upon to be the arbiters of what did and did not happen.
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By Matthew Guariglia

Last week, Melvin Carter, the mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota, stood in front of the public and the nation’s press and declared with certainty, “Every single person we arrested last night, I’m told, was from out of state.” After reports showed that a vast majority of those arrested were actually from in-state, the mayor walked back his position, claiming he had been given faulty information during a police briefing. But it was too late. By the time Carter rescinded the statement, news outlets around the globe had already printed that out-of-state infiltrators were responsible for the fires in Minnesota.

A similar situation happened in New York a few days later, when police sources told the New York Post that $2.4 million worth of watches were stolen out of the SoHo Rolex store Sunday evening. The store’s spokesman later told the reporter that “no watches of any kind were stolen.”

The common thread? Faulty information spread by law enforcement sources and repeated uncritically by politicians and the press.

In reality, the police as an institution and policing as a practice are not fair, balanced or objective. Isn’t it time we receive the information they disseminate with the same amount of skepticism and critical thinking we apply to more violent functions of the police?

Isn’t it time we receive the information they disseminate with the same amount of skepticism and critical thinking we apply to more violent functions of the police?

There are many reasons why police would misinterpret, exaggerate, play ignorant or outright lie.

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On a micro level, police may be wanting to protect themselves or other police from being disciplined because of their actions. Just look at this latest high-profile example, in which video showed police officers shoving an elderly man to the ground, where a pool of blood formed under his head. The initial police statement was that the man “tripped.” Shortly after a video of the incident made its way around the internet and disproved the statement, two officers were suspended.

They may be attempting to justify an arrest or solidify the conviction of a person for whom no substantial evidence existed.

On a more macro level, especially during protests that criticize the police, officers may be looking to justify their department’s existence or reaffirm a narrative of victimhood — that they are subject to undue harassment and bullying. Such was the case in December 2019 when a Kansas officer lied about receiving a coffee cup from a McDonald’s employee with an insult on it.

The early sociologist Max Weber once wrote that the state has the monopoly on legitimate violence, meaning that in a modern nation it is only the government that is politically justified in using force. But it has also been true — to the detriment of the people — that the government, and especially police, have had the monopoly on legitimate storytelling. It’s why police press releases are treated with deference, but eye-witness testimony is scrutinized.

Our information and criminal justice ecosystems are not built to allow for an easy audit of police departments. For one thing, so much of our data on crime comes from records created and maintained by police departments themselves. Much of that information is held behind the black box of secrecy and is inaccessible, even after dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits.

In many instances there exists, by design, little evidence to contradict what the police are saying. As was the case in the police killing of Laquan McDonald, in which department administrators had seen that footage contradicted official reports but did not discipline the officer until a lawsuit made the video public.

And because of the nature of their work, what testimony does exist can be devalued by the press and an unsympathetic white audience — especially when said testimony is coming from people of color or people with even minor criminal records. There is no such thing, however, as a “perfect” witness against police. By claiming they felt threatened, police still have an easy time legally justifying their actions even if there is video. So long as the officer’s side of the story is taken as the definitive version of events, it does not matter who that person is or what they saw.

For over a century, Black activists and other victims of police violence have tried to address not just the physical violence, but the narrative erasure of their trauma. As historian Kidada Williams has written, “when African Americans decided to testify about experiencing or witnessing racial violence, they were not merely giving statements; they were resisting violence discursively.”

One specific example is etched into the history of New York City. For three days in August of 1900, police and a white mob terrorized Manhattan’s largest Black neighborhood. When the dust had settled and it was clear that a vast majority of the people that had been arrested were Black, even as their white assailants went free, activists went to work. Their goals were not only accountability and justice, but also to fight against what they called the “whitewashing” of events. The whole city knew exactly what had happened, but police reports, court records and sometimes newspapers often reflected a very different reality — a reality crafted by the police.

In the aftermath, the community collected stories from people who had been brutalized by the mob, police or both. They published them, disseminated them and held rallies to read and share them.

That is what African Americans still have to do: build a counterarchive of stories to combat police spin.

That is what African Americans still have to do: build a counterarchive of stories to combat police spin.

Cell phone footage has become a new form of testimony. The ability to film police and the right to do so has allowed white America to see what Black America has known for a very long time. Far too often, police body cameras, which were supposed to contribute to the counterarchive, only end up aiding the whitewashing, either in what they are allowed to capture or what they do not. Such was the case this week when Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville announced there was no body camera footage of the incident in which police killed David McAtee.

Despite the growing chorus of retractions — and despite a century in which there has existed a chasm between what police have said and what communities have known — police departments are still relied upon to be the arbiters of what did and did not happen.

Today, people are in the street standing against racial state violence and affirming the value of Black lives. George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths, and the police crackdown on peaceful protesters, has led to a mass questioning of the necessity and role of police in society. Now, surely, is the right time to put a stop to our unquestioned faith in police departments. This means remembering that what the police tell us — about their actions or the actions of Americans — should be considered neither inherently accurate nor unbiased.

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