The Lies Cops Tell and the Lies We Tell About CopsRoundup
tags: civil liberties, Police, criminal justice
Stuart Schrader is a lecturer in sociology at Johns Hopkins University and the author of Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing.
“Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction” was the title of the initial statement the Minneapolis Police Department released after Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd a year ago. It explained: “He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.”
The narrative was untrue in both broad outlines and specific details, muddying cause and effect, subject and object. We know because of cell phone video recorded by Darnella Frazier, then 17 years old, that revealed what really happened.
“At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident,” the statement read. Frazier’s video showed how Chauvin killed Floyd. He weaponized his body by kneeling on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, ignoring Floyd’s pleas for air, causing the “medical distress,” committing murder.
In statements like this one, police stretch, manipulate, and abuse plain language. Across the United States, in the most heavily policed neighborhoods, and as recorded on protest placards or in innumerable rap, reggae, and punk lyrics, it’s widely understood, if not accepted, that cops lie.
Reading police literature gives you a diametrically opposed account. You learn that police are locally accountable, domestically oriented, civilian peacekeepers. They are politically nonpartisan and neutral enforcers of the law, guided by policy, science, and rank discipline. John Elder, the director of public information for the Minneapolis Police Department and author of the Floyd statement, called its falsehoods a consequence of a “fluid” situation. A cop would never lie. “We try very hard to get information out as quickly as possible that is wholly honest and correct,” he told the Star Tribune. “There is no way I’m going to lie about a situation that is on body camera and is going to prove this department to be disingenuous.” The message is that police prevent violence, investigate and solve crime mysteries, and answer to a mass public demanding that they accomplish these tasks with alacrity.
You could call these the sustaining myths of policing, but I think of them as political arguments police make. They are instrumental, a means toward an end. Police attempt to achieve legitimacy through the stories they tell about themselves. Police legitimacy means public compliance. It means power.
It’s thus not simply that cops mislead in their statements to the press after an “officer-involved shooting.” The lie that police tell is not only rendered in deceptive language. It’s not about the words they choose. The lie is baked into the institution. The core of policing is not safety. It is social control. All the other lies obfuscate this function.
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