Making a Problem of Brutality
Crime is a problem that preoccupies the news and the public. As the nation has engaged in “wars” on crime and drugs over the past several decades, crime has become an ever-more prevalent staple of news reporting. A variety of studies of media content have estimated that as much as 25 percent of the daily news is devoted to crime and that crime is the largest major category of stories in the print and electronic media.
As with other kinds of news, the most privileged perspectives in most crime stories are those offered by officials, particularly the police. In fact, media interest in “crime waves” can be the product, at least in part, of official efforts to create, sustain, or exploit public concern about crime. Privileged access to the media offers police and other official’s abundant opportunities to shape public images of themselves, their work, and the nature of the crime problem.
Police use of physical force is a particularly controversial issue in American crime fighting. Given the considerable ambiguity that surrounds the issue, whether police use of force is presented as police brutality and whether brutality is understood as a problem depend greatly upon which voices and views the media emphasize. Moreover, the kinds of problem definitions that arise in the news after a highly publicized incident of alleged brutality both draw upon and shape the various groups, demands, and social values engaged in the policy process.
The Ambiguity of Police Use of Force
Police use of force is often highly controversial because it raises questions about a government’s use of coercion against its citizens. In a democratic society that prides itself on ideals of civility and equality before the law, police use of force is often an inherently troubling phenomenon. As one scholar has observed, “Justifying police and what they do has always been problematic in democracies, and this has been particularly true in the United States, where ambivalence about government authority is a persistent force”. Yet whether police brutality constitutes a public problem is a question whose answer depends largely upon who is asked.
Of course, the nature of policing requires police at times to use physical coercion against civilians; indeed, “police are sometimes morally obliged to employ force” to accomplish legitimate ends of controlling crime and maintaining order. Yet police use of force is often highly controversial precisely because it is nearly always ambiguous. As legal scholar Paul Chevigny observes, while “the power to use force is a defining characteristic of the police officer’s job, the line between excessive and justifiable force is difficult to draw.” Indeed, he suggests, “Much of the problem in understanding the work of the police lies in the fact that what they do, and what they should do, when they are ‘doing their job,’ is always contested”.
Police and criminologists draw conceptual distinctions among the terms “use of force,” “unnecessary force,” and “brutality.” The use of force, according to experts, is a necessary and legitimate tool of the police officer’s job. In contrast, “brutality” is “a conscious and venal act by officers who usually take great pains to conceal their misconduct,” while unnecessary use of force “is usually a training problem, the result of ineptitude or insensitivity, as, for instance, when well-meaning officers unwisely charge into situations from which they can then extricate themselves only by using force”. “Excessive force” can thus be brutal, involving malicious intent, or merely unnecessary, involving poor judgment.
While these lines may be relatively easy to draw in the pages of academic articles and police manuals, whether the behavior of individual police officers in any particular altercation constitutes excessive force or brutality is often a difficult question to settle definitively. In fact, spokesmen for some police departments are not able to give a clear definition of what is considered ‘unnecessary force’ in their cities. This is not because police have no clear policies on excessive force, but because defining excessive force is highly context-dependent. By the same token, allegations of brutality often involve the alleged victim and the officer (s) in a “swearing match,” especially since many use-of-force incidents have no outside witnesses.
Police Use of Force in The News
The media largely determine what the general public learns about street cops’ daily experience with criminals and the underclass, as well as what the middle-class public learns about other groups’ experiences with police. While the news media are generally preoccupied with crime, they are not generally preoccupied with police behavior in fighting crime. Police brutality therefore usually becomes an “issue”—in the news as well as in other public arenas—only occasionally, in the aftermath of certain dramatic and controversial use-of-force incidents.
Police use a wide variety of coercive practices in their daily work, only some of which involve physical force—everything from using an authoritative tone of voice to applying handcuffs to striking or occasionally shooting people. This study is concerned only with news coverage of what I call “use-of-force incidents”: altercations in which police use significant physical coercion, such as striking, kicking, beating, or shooting people. By this definition, “use-of-force incidents” involve a level of coercion greater than simply handcuffing people and taking them into custody.
While some use-of-force incidents become highly publicized centerpieces of public debate, the vast majority never become news at all. For example, New York City police shot (either fatally or nonfatally) 101 people in 1990, 111 people in 1991, 90 people in 1992, and 86 people in 1993, according to the best available records. Only a fraction of those shootings became news: the New York Times published news stories about six police shootings in 1990, one in 1991, eight in 1992, and five in 1993. Similarly, Los Angeles police agencies (the LAPD and the county sheriffs’ department) together shot 124 people in 1991 and 126 people in 1992. The Los Angeles Times published news stories about 32 local police shootings in 1991 and 12 in 1992.
In other words, roughly 17 percent of police shootings in the Los Angeles area and only 5 percent of those in New York City were the subject of news stories in these cities’ major newspapers. Moreover, New York City’s Civilian Complaint Investigation Bureau reports that over 27,000 complaints of excessive force were lodged against New York City police between 1986 and 1995. Of the unknown number of these altercations that actually occurred, only a tiny fraction became news: the New York Times reported on a total of 198 instances of police use of force between 1985 and 1994. Similarly, 3,107 excessive-force complaints were filed with the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board in 1994; in that year, the Times reported on 29 use-of-force incidents overall.
The key phenomenon of interest in this study is how news organizations construct the public definitions of those use-of-force incidents they do report. 16 As subsequent chapters will show, most use-of-force incidents that do gain news coverage do so only fleetingly, and their public definitions are successfully contained by officials. Yet a handful of these incidents become major news stories, centerpieces in struggles among nonofficial sources seeking to designate brutality problems and official sources seeking to ward them off. It is in these few cases that news organizations at least tentatively construct new (or reconstruct old) brutality problems.
The Normative Dilemma
The deep divides in public perceptions of police promise to fuel further mistrust, hostility, and violence, especially if the general public’s fear of crime continues to grow, economic and social conditions continue to deteriorate in urban centers, and police continue to search for effective ways to convince the public they can control crime. In this context, the media offer one of the few public arenas in which divergent perspectives on policing can hope to confront and learn from one another. Yet the news about brutality hangs on a dilemma created by the ambiguity of police use of force: The media’s response to incidents of alleged brutality can look either too aggressive or too passive, depending upon one’s presuppositions about the police and the troubled communities that often criticize them.
Those who believe that police brutality is a pervasive and endemic problem feel persistently marginalized by the mainstream news, which, in their view, rarely if ever grapples seriously with fundamental questions about excessive force. People whose lives have been scarred by violent encounters with the police often charge that the media help to shield police from public scrutiny. They often feel unable to effectively challenge the official claims that define use-of-force incidents for the general public. As the mother of Johnny Gammage, who died in police custody in Pittsburgh in 1995, lamented, “They are trying to make it sound like he caused his own death”.
Moreover, they believe that the news media simply help existing policing practices to remain unchallenged. Ronald Hampton, an anti brutality activist and past president of the National Black Police Association, argues that the mainstream media play a greater role in the continuation of police brutality than in alerting the general public to the problem. Because of their tendency to ignore voices within the communities most subject to brutality, and their tendency to “side with the police” by relying almost exclusively on official sources, Hampton claims, the media actually contribute to an ongoing brutality problem.
In contrast, some people who see police as the vulnerable thin blue line between order and chaos resent what they see as the media’s willingness to make an issue out of police brutality on the basis of isolated incidents and possibly fraudulent claims of excessive force. Police, who are paid to put their lives on the line in frightening and sometimes life threatening situations, and whose split-second decisions can trigger ugly controversies that linger for years, often view the media with suspicion and even hostility.
As the lawyer for a Miami policeman acquitted in the shooting death of a black motorcyclist—an acquittal that touched off days of rioting—indignantly told reporters, “If the headlines had read, ‘Twice-convicted drug dealer shot while trying to run over officer,’ there wouldn’t have been any riots”. As another critic put it, “Hundreds, thousands of arrests are done competently. When you have an incident like L. A., and it gets in the media, it’s like a magnet sucking up little filings. And in the aftermath of the highly publicized shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York in 1999, the city’s deputy police commissioner publicly blamed negative news coverage of police for a rise in the city’s homicide rate. Critics on this side of the divide believe that, rather than unduly upholding police legitimacy, the media unduly erode it.
The findings of this study offer a response to both sides of the divide. The news media helps to create and sustain the legitimacy of the police, but they also sometimes subject police to critical scrutiny that erodes police legitimacy. At the same time, critical citizen voices are not completely absent from the news about policing, but they are generally not granted the same place in the news as those of police and other officials, and often are subtly undermined by the ways that reporters frame news stories. Thus, critical perspectives on policing rarely earn a lasting place in the news—except in the circumstances that surround extraordinarily high-profile use-of-force incidents such as the Rodney King beating.
These findings will not satisfy either camp of critics, no doubt. Nor will they resolve a deeper normative question about the news: whether news coverage that problematizes police behavior is “good” or “bad. ” Whole segments of the American public believe—and have believed for decades—that police are racist, that they systematically target, harass, frame, brutalize, and even kill certain classes of people, and that their behavior stems from deep roots in the criminal justice system and American culture. The key question considered in this study is not whether this perspective is right. Rather, the key question is: Who gets to participate in the mass-mediated conversation about public issues such as police brutality?
Neither can other daunting normative questions be settled here once and for all: Should the media be more responsive to police voices than to their critics? Could society function and order be maintained if police were not usually given the benefit of the doubt? On the other hand, can order be maintained, over the long run, if the news (and thus the general public) ignores the beliefs and perspectives of those most often on the receiving end of the night stick? Is any objective definition of “police accountability” possible, given that some societal groups will probably always view police with suspicion and that police will probably always believe that they should be given greater latitude and benefit of the doubt? Indeed, the ultimate question may be, What would constitute an open and fair public deliberation on the issue of police brutality?
In its July 1994 issue, New York magazine featured a piece by media critic Jon Katz entitled “Is Police Brutality a Myth?” The article examined what Katz called “an increasingly familiar urban ritual”: A young black or Hispanic is killed by police or dies in police custody. People who say they are eyewitnesses appear live on local TV newscasts, giving accounts that diverge wildly from the police’s and one another.
Extra cops gather in riot gear. People identified—by themselves and the media—as community activists appear at the family’s side along with lawyers, calling for investigations, all too predictably claiming that the police committed brutal and unprovoked murder. They demand justice, lead marches, file lawsuits. The accusation hangs in the air: racist killer cop.
The media, Katz claimed, are all too eager to publicize these activities and claims and to overreact to such events. Have the media, he asked, “become easy prey for lawyers and spokespeople now fully adept at the art of racial media manipulation?”
Katz’s questions are valid, and to residents of New York and similar urban centers his portrayal of the news about police brutality may seem accurate. Certainly, that portrayal is consistent with the perspective of police departments across the country. A recent survey of police officials found that most believe that news coverage of police brutality is sensationalized, unfair, and inaccurate and that the news media have “a habit of jumping on isolated instances of police misconduct and blowing them up into national stories”. Similarly, an internal survey of Los Angeles police officers conducted in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident found that 92 percent of officers identified “the media and outspoken community leaders” as causing “negative interaction between the police and the community”.
Critical media scholars, however, would bring another set of questions to this “familiar urban ritual”: How does the news usually represent police use of force? How many instances of police use of force become major news stories of the sort Katz describes? And if the media are “becoming easy prey” for a new set of voices, then whose voices have more typically influenced the news about policing?
Several decades of scholarly research suggest that the news typically represents most faithfully the perspectives of officials and other elites. Institutionally positioned officials provide reporters with the bulk of the “routine” events that become news. Political and social elites are generally the most audible voices in the news and, therefore, heavily influence the public definitions of news events. Moreover, the news is generally episodic and fragmented, skipping from event to event, providing little thematic context. This episodic focus and heavy reliance on officials, scholars have argued, create news that is biased in favor of official control over the definitions of public problems.
This chapter demonstrates that the same is true of much news coverage of policing. The data presented here illustrate that the typical news story about use of force is brief, episodic, and structured around claims provided by police spokesmen and politicians. Crucially, these same sources usually “individualize” police use of force, focusing public attention on deviant, violent criminal suspects who threaten officers and the public and, occasionally, on “rogue cops” who lose control and cross the line between acceptable and unacceptable force. This kind of coverage normalizes what some might call brutality and marginalizes competing perspectives on the existence of brutality problems and the causal roots of police violence.
Making a Problem of Brutality