In a June 18 open letter, River City Fraternal Order of Police President Dave Mutchler asked police supporters to “rise with us against” a “small, but very vocal group of people in our city” — meaning social justice stalwarts and Black Lives Matter activists. He said that any harmful “untruths” told by critics would result in those same critics being “investigated, charged and prosecuted at the local, state or federal level.”

LouMetPoliceMutchler also accused Louisville news media of being “self serving” and claimed that they “fanned the flames for financial gain.” We can only assume Mutchler meant that local media attempted to stoke anti-police sentiment for higher ratings.

Although many in Louisville praised Mutchler’s letter, he had a substantial number of critics — not just the “sensationalists” he disparaged, but WDRB’s Bill Lamb as well as Mayor Fischer and Police Chief Steve Conrad. But was Mutchler right? Have Louisville media organizations irresponsibly covered use of force by police?

We asked Mutchler for examples of self-serving, flame-fanning news reports, but he did not return our request for comment.

However, in a June 19 interview with 84 WHAS’ Tony Cruise, police spokesperson Phil Russell addressed the complaints in Mutchler’s letter. Russell said police “rank and file” officers were frustrated that people would “side with the criminal element” by second-guessing cops — as if only criminals experienced injustice at the hands of police (remember Crystal Marlowe, the LMPD officer fired for falsely accusing people of crimes they didn’t commit?), or as if people somehow lose their constitutional rights as soon as they become suspects.

In making his case, Russell cited WAVE reporter John Boel’s story on LMPD use of force. Calling him “our friend,” Russell said Boel was “shocked” at how little force police used. Clearly, Russell did not view Boel’s report as hostile to the LMPD.

Boel asked a question in the middle of his story: “Is there a racism problem in the Louisville Metro Police Department, or is there a disproportional problem in the African-American community when it comes to crime?” In an email, Boel told us he wasn’t actually trying to answer this question, but merely show “both sides of the data supporting each argument.”

John Boel | Photo via WAVE-3
John Boel | Photo via WAVE-3

To that end, Boel’s report cited police data from 2013 showing that force was disproportionately used against black people, who make up 21 percent of Louisville’s population but 46 percent of use-of-force incidents, but did not interview any citizens who had personally experienced these incidents for their side of the story.

In an email, Boel told us he would have contacted the citizens mentioned in the use-of-force reports, but their personal information had been redacted by LMPD. Alicia Smiley, a spokeswoman for the LMPD, told us they don’t redact the names of adults or street names in reports released to media. Boel also could have searched Kentucky court records to find the names of people who have sued the LMPD for excessive force.

The only non-police appearing in Boel’s story were Michael Newby’s stepfather, community activist Christopher 2X, and U of L Pan-African Studies professor Ricky Jones.

Parts of Jones’ full seven-minute interview — published elsewhere on WAVE’s website, but not linked or referenced in the original story — provided some important questions about the police data, but Boel did not choose to use those quotes. He did run a soundbite of Jones saying, “We have far too many encounters with black men especially, and police, and we need to figure out why.”

Jones is right — we do need to figure out why police have so many encounters with black men — but Boel lets only Conrad offer an explanation: The LMPD isn’t targeting black people, Conrad says, it’s “targeting people that are involved in criminal activity.”

Jones did not respond to our request for further comment, but he did say in the full, unaired interview with Boel that those who argue that black suspects deserve what they get “are doing race relations, policing, and decent citizenry a disservice.”

There are plenty of folks out there who believe black people are substantially more likely to commit crimes than whites. A 2012 Florida State University study based upon FBI data and published in the journal Criminology revealed that white Americans tend to overestimate the amount of crime committed by African-Americans. Lisa Bloom’s book “Suspicion Nation” clarifies this point:

The standard assumption that criminals are black and blacks are criminals is so prevalent that in one study, 60 percent of viewers who viewed a crime story with no picture of the perpetrator falsely recalled seeing one, and of those, 70 percent believed he was African-American.

The Sentencing Project and the ACLU also have found that police efforts to crack down on alleged “high crime” neighborhoods result in disproportionate arrest rates for black Americans. In Louisville, for example, African-Americans are six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than white people, even though they use the drug at nearly identical rates.

It’s worth considering that police — and journalists — are not immune to what researchers call implicit bias, or unconscious, pervasive attitudes and stereotypes that influence our decisions. (Jones mentioned implicit bias in his full interview, but Boel told us he chose not to include that portion due to time constraints.)

In fact, bias by journalists contributes to a vicious cycle: reporters overreport or overemphasize instances of black criminality (see this PDF report by the Justice Policy Institute, for example, or this study of New York City TV news stations), thus causing the public and police to perceive black people as more likely to be criminal; this perception results in increased patrols and targeted arrests in black neighborhoods, which drives up the arrest rate of black people, thus seemingly justifying media attention and racist attitudes.

Though Mutchler and Russell did not specifically comment on other news stories, we chose to examine early coverage of Deng Manyoun’s death (he was fatally shot by an LMPD officer in Old Louisville on June 15) by all four Louisville TV stations and The Courier-Journal. (Insider Louisville and WFPL ran summaries of other organizations’ coverage. LEO did nothing.) Each news organization interviewed eyewitnesses and Conrad, and showed surveillance video. In instances where eyewitnesses contradicted Conrad and the video, journalists pointed this out. WHAS’ Derrick Rose even said they had “the one witness that cannot be disputed: surveillance video.”

In other words, local news organizations were clearly not attempting to stoke anti-police sentiment, as Mutchler seemed to imply in his open letter.

Louisville media also continue to use police jargon when describing shootings by police officers. All four news stations — WDRB, WHAS, WLKY, and WAVE — used the term “officer-involved shooting” to describe Manyoun’s death. To their credit, The Courier-Journal hasn’t used the term since Executive Editor Neil Budde accurately characterized it as “cop-speak” when we inquired about the use of the phrase in May.

Mutchler’s apparent beef with Louisville news media is not that they are inaccurate, but that they bother to include perspectives other than that of police. Of course, journalists in a free society ought to be skeptical of authority and constantly challenge its claims. That’s their job. When police officers argue that journalists are “fanning flames” by including all sides of a story, that says far more about those individual officers and their authoritarianism than it does about journalists.

James Miller and Liz Palmer
    James H. Miller and Liz Palmer are national award-winning journalism teachers in the Journalism & Communication magnet program at duPont Manual High School. Prior to careers in education, James worked for The Courier-Journal and WHAS-11, and Liz worked at the Cobb Group and as a freelance writer. Follow them on Twitter: @jaymills and @lizpalmer1.


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