Dear media in Baltimore: Take police leaks with grain of salt

In a stunning turn of events, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has announced that the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old African-American man who died in police custody on April 19, has been ruled a homicide, and that six police offers face a range of charges, from false imprisonment to assault to manslaughter to second-degree murder.

In other words, Freddie Gray did not kill himself.

In case there was any doubt about that, it was because of a leaked document from a police investigator suggesting that Gray had caused his own injuries — that he had severed his own spine and crushed his own larynx. The document claimed that a fellow prisoner had said Gray — whom the prisoner could not see — injured himself by banging himself against the walls of a police van. With more reporting, that prisoner has since recanted that statement.

Upon reflection, the whole self-injury scenario sounds ridiculous. But that didn’t stop the Washington Post, which received the original leak, and other media from jumping on and widely reporting the “self-inflicted injuries” story.

Within a day, reporters who actually did some reporting instead of police stenography interviewed doctors about the plausibility of such self-inflicted injuries. Here are some of those reports:

From an account in the New York Daily News: “You don’t become paralyzed, you don’t go into a coma from slamming yourself into a van door,” said Dr. David Matusz, a spine surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital. “Throwing your shoulder or head against the wall is not going to produce a fatal injury.” Most pre-existing spinal conditions could not turn fatal with low-force trauma, he added. Typically, deadly spine injures are sustained in high-speed car accidents and falls from significant heights.

From a story in The Baltimore Sun: “You have to apply a significant amount of force in order to break somebody’s neck,” said Dr. Ali Bydon, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In announcing the charges against the police officers, State’s Attorney Mosby also condemned the leaking of the police document pushing the self-injury meme. “I strongly condemn anyone in law enforcement with access to trial evidence who has leaked information prior to the resolution of this case,” she said. “You are only damaging our ability to conduct a fair and impartial process for all parties involved. I hope that as we move forward with this case everyone will respect due process and refrain from doing anything that will jeopardize our ability to seek justice.”

The Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing the accused officers, called for a special prosecutor, citing what they consider to be conflicts of interest. Mosby is married to Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby, who has spoken out about the riots that Gray’s death has prompted.

It’s worthwhile pointing out that Mosby is the daughter of two police officers. In addition, her grandfather, two aunts, and three uncles also were or still are police officers. Just in case there’s any idea of her not being fair to the police.

Possibly the saddest part of the whole Freddie Gray tragedy is that he shouldn’t even have been in police custody. Gray was arrested for possession of a switchblade knife — except the knife wasn’t a switchblade. “No crime was committed by Freddie Gray,” Mosby said.

The “blame the victim” scenario, unfortunately, is nothing new. When Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., police started feeding stories about drug use and cigar stealing — all of which had nothing to do with Brown’s altercation with Officer Darren Wilson. Wilson didn’t even know about Brown’s alleged theft of cigars when he ordered Brown off the street, leading to the shooting. But that didn’t stop the Ferguson Police Department’s smear campaign of the victim.

A piece on the website Think Progress states: “After high-profile, officer-involved killings, police departments selectively release information about victims that isn’t pertinent to the incident, thereby distracting the public from the case itself. And too often, mainstream media hone in on those details, contributing to a smear campaign that the deceased cannot defend themselves from. For instance, The New York Times wrote a profile of Michael Brown that emphasized his consumption of drugs and alcohol and detailed his ‘rebellious streak.’ Sanford [Fla.] police informed the Orlando Sentinel that Trayvon Martin was suspended for possession of an empty marijuana bag.”

The same scenario was playing out in Baltimore. Gray was carrying a switchblade knife. He caused his own spinal injury. Etc., etc. Why would he be carrying a knife if he wasn’t going to commit a crime with it?

Here’s a better question: Why do so many Americans have guns in their homes, if they aren’t going to commit crimes with those weapons? Self-defense, you say? In a high-crime neighborhood, Gray probably was carrying a knife for self-defense, too.

We’re talking about dead human beings. Even if they had committed a crime in the past, even if they weren’t on the top rung of society, even if you might not invite them for dinner, they still have rights in this country. At least, last time we checked.

So what’s the next step, besides the trial of the charged officers? Well, here’s one positive piece of news: Attorney General Loretta Lynch capped her first week at the Justice Department by announcing a $20 million police body camera pilot project. “This body-worn camera pilot program is a vital part of the Justice Department’s comprehensive efforts to equip law enforcement agencies throughout the country with the tools, support, and training they need to tackle the 21st-century challenges we face,” she said in a statement. “Body-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”

The funds come from the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets of Act of 1968, which authorizes the attorney general to provide a maximum of $20 million to local governments to modernize technology.

All I can say is: What took them so long? If we can avoid another Freddie Gray, another Michael Brown, another Tamir Rice, another Eric Garner, another unjustified death of anyone in police custody, that’s $20 million well spent.

One Comment on “Dear media in Baltimore: Take police leaks with grain of salt

  1. Great post, Sher. You honed right in on the media weakness of accepting information from authoritarian sources and publishing it as truth without validation. This weak-kneed stenography has a very negative effect on our country.

    John

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