Give Killer Cops a Break, Says NYT

Police administer a lethal chokehold to Eric Garner.

You may see the NYPD killing of Eric Garner as “brutal and unjustified.” That’s why the New York Times doesn’t view you as an “expert.” (image: Ramsey Orta)

The message of a New York Times piece by Michael Wines and Frances Robles (8/22/14) was clear: Police officers who shoot unarmed civilians need to be be given the benefit of the doubt.

As Wines and Robles see it, everyone is in agreement on this point:

The police, the courts and experts say some leeway is necessary in situations where officers under crushing stress must make split-second decisions with life-or-death consequences.

Or as Timothy Maher, one of four police officers turned academics cited in the article, puts it: “It’s a difficult job for coppers out there.”

The only ones who don’t seem to get it, in the article’s perspective, are occasional members of the public:

Some citizens who read witnesses’ accounts of police shootings or view cellphone videos of them see the shootings as brutal and unjustified, which underscores a frequent gap between public perceptions and official views.

National Guard troops, Ferguson

New York Times illustration for a story about the need to give “leeway” to cops who kill. (photo: Larry W. Smith/European Pressphoto)

The piece goes on to explain why these perceptions that police killings are “brutal and unjustified” are mistaken:

If an officer believes he or someone else is in imminent danger of grievous injury or death, he is allowed to shoot first, and ask questions later.

Of course, not all “experts” agree that seeing some police killings as “brutal and unjustified” is a misperception, or that cops need to be given “leeway” to kill whenever they feel like they’re under “crushing stress.” In a Wisconsin Law Review article from 2000, Seton Hill law professor John Jacobi pointed out the clear downside to general reluctance of prosecutors to hold police accountable for killing unarmed civilians:

Although the majority of officers perform their difficult duties without brutalizing the people they serve, police too frequently attack, beat and kill civilians. The phenomenon of police misconduct and civilian distrust can be traced in large part to a cycle of impunity, by which the reluctance of local government to prosecute bad cops empowers future misconduct and drives communities to regard the police as adversaries rather than as protectors.

What Jacobi sees as a “cycle of impunity,” the New York Times presents as the break you need to give people with a tough job.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.