Thursday, September 06, 2007

MSM unwittingly colludes in covering up police misconduct

The mainstream media (MSM) frequently play an unwitting role in covering up police misconduct, mainly as a result of the sources and methods commonly used to cover the topic. Here's an almost classic example:

In Pasadena, TX, two police officers apparently lied about circumstances surrounding the July death of a jail inmate in their custody. Police initially told the family he died of a heart attack, then told the press he tripped and fell. Now it appears he was beaten to death, reported the Houston Chronicle yesterday ("Inmate death at Pasadena jail ruled a homicide," Sept. 5):

The recent death of Pasadena Jail inmate Pedro Gonzales was a homicide caused primarily by trauma to the lungs with rib fractures, the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office has determined.

While "homicide" does not necessarily mean foul play was involved, it does appear to contradict statements by officers Jason W. Buckaloo and Christopher S. Jones that Gonzales was injured after he tripped and fell as they escorted him to a patrol car on July 21.

The Harris County District Attorney's Office may refer the investigation to a grand jury later this month, said prosecutor Joe Owmby, head of the police integrity unit.

Pasadena police stuck to the story that Gonzales "tripped" for several days after the incident, which to me implies a department-wide coverup. The family said police told them yet another story about how their relative died:

Gonzales' sister, Elvia Garza, has said police told her the morning of his death that he may have died from a heart attack or stroke.

Pre-incision autopsy photos show multiple bruises, cuts and abrasions to various parts of Gonzales' body as well as what appear to be blood splatters on his jeans.

Other photos show that Gonzales' two top front teeth were missing.

Family said those teeth were not missing before he was booked into the jail on July 18 for public intoxication.

So did he "trip," did he have a "heart attack," or is the coroner right that this was a "homicide" and the inmate was beaten to death? What do you think the odds are that either of the stories told by officers or the department were accurate? Oh, and if you still think the officers might have really told the truth, perhaps it's because I forgot to add this part from yesterday's story:

A witness to the force used by officers on Gonzales said the 51-year-old man was not struggling or resisting arrest as police hit him and repeatedly knocked his body to the ground.

"Just the way they were beating him and him not moving, I think that's (the homicide ruling) pretty right," the witness, Evelyn Moreno, 20, said Tuesday.

Whoops! So much for the tripping theory! The Harris County DA initially took officers' word for it how Gonzales died and declined to investigate, while the officers' union rep from the Texas Municipal Police Association insisted publicly, “It was thoroughly investigated and both officers did everything asked of them ... I’m not aware of them engaging in any misconduct.” (FWIW, I've never in my life heard a police union rep say anything else in response to allegations of misconduct.)

I know nothing more about this case than I've read in the media, but the MSM accounts follow a pattern that I've observed in dozens of controversial death in custody cases over the years:

In cases where the department might be held liable, initial reports are often flat out lies. Literally falsehoods. Fabrications. When there is no evidence public yet, police spinmeisters can and do say whatever they think makes the department look best. Often these lies aren't even necessary - they sometimes appear to be just habitual. The media then dutifully report these misstatements to the public.

Within a week or so, a tiny bit of truth trickles out and police must backtrack. The media print a less prominent story with the added information.

Finally, weeks later, if evidence arises of police culpability that contradicts earlier statements, the story gets covered again, but by this time the record is strewn with false and misleading statements and often the public's attention has shifted to another topic.

At this point, one of two things happen: Either the story goes away, or in order to gin up public interest again, the media must publish a "gotcha" story that accuses the department of lying (since they did) and that causes the department to circle the wagons further to protect the officers in all but the most clear-cut cases. This pattern of media coverage doesn't just happen in Houston, btw. It's how police PIOs handle "critical incidents" just about everywhere.

When I was director of ACLU of Texas' police accountability project I'd get a lot of calls asking for quotes in the wake of a police shooting or death in custody and I declined every one. There's never enough information immediately following an incident to adequately judge how to respond, and in case after case if you wait just a bit, it turns out the initial story wasn't even close to true. I've told many reporters I think it's irresponsible to publish police statements immediately after such incidents when we all know from experience the story will change in just a few days.

Reporters need to do their best to independently verify police statements before printing them, just as they would the statements of a suspect in any violent crime. In their initial comments to the press, Pasadena police basically issued a cover story that exonerated officers who are now suspects in a homicide! How many other homicide suspects get their own institutional PR department whose statements are republished reflexively in the media as truth?

We've got a long way to go before we know whether these Pasadena officers will be held accountable for what they did to Pedro Gonzalez, but I know one thing: Wait a little longer and I'll betcha even more truth from the story will come out, and I'll bet it won't support the claim that Gonzalez "tripped."


Anonymous said...

Ahem, the term is 'crime', not 'misconduct'.

Misconduct would be, for example, talking in court.

Crime would be, for example, torture-murder.

If there is any justice, those cops will hang.

But we know that'll never happen, so I conclude ....

Anonymous said...

Those Gestapos should hang, but the code of silence will keep it from happening. They are above the law. The only one that suffer are common citizens.
Gestapo-established on April 26, 1933 in Prussia-federal police agency. What does that sound like?

Anonymous said...

The ZOMO gained national and international infamy during the period of martial law in Poland (1981-1983). During this time period their brutal actions against peaceful protesters often affiliated with the Solidarity movement, and the subsequent lack of prosecution of those responsible for civilian deaths, were major factors in bringing down the communist regime.

To parody the communist newspeak during that time they were often sarcasticly called "The beating heart of the Party" (pl. BijÄ…ce serce Partii).

Anonymous said...

In Texas and elsewhere people are put to death based upon testimony from one witness.

Let us hope the DA will be as vigerous in prosecuting this case.

The MSM is the only real way we have to keep the authorities (Police, FBI, Sheriff, DEA, etc.) in check. We are counting on the media to protect our rights since the courts don't do it.

The reporters need to be far more careful in what they report. Newspapers need to invest in the ability to double check any information about crime before publication.

Anonymous said...

Most reporters today, and media types of any kind, aspire to be buddies with all and any authority.

That's their "inside" connection.

They never aspired to be "Watchdogs".

You're making so many reporters, young and old, cringe, Scott.

For goodness sakes! They'll lose their jobs!

And that may be true.

So who is holding the leash to the choke chain on the "Watchdog"?

(We know you're a "Watch Dog" running loose and on the prowl constantly, Scott, and a good one...and I, for one, am thankful for you and what you do.)

The terrible thing that happened to Pedro Gonzales might not have happened if any one, in the near vicinity, had been watching the police.

Just trust them?


Because someone told you to?

More likely reporters are afraid to be "Watchdogs". They are afraid of the "intruder" just like Pedro Gonzales probably was.

If the powerless need so much watching and controlling, surely those given greater power over so many, need even more watching and controlling, which brings it all back around again to us, the average citizen.

It's the Watchdog's job to tell us, the average citizen, when there's something that needs our attention.

As for the rest of the officers in that community. It's hard to think that their loyalty to those dangerous people, brutal animals, that would purposely harm others, even trip, beat, and kill another human being, within their ranks, is greater than their loyalty to to the hope for "equality and justice for all".

Anonymous said...

Actually, a previous post here on Grits for Breakfast would go a very long way as to explaining why our Watchdog is cringing under the house.

"Gladewater cop gets slap on wrist for threatening Dallas News reporter with shotgun"

Deb said...

What Hope said...

Re: 1:40's "The MSM is the only real way we have to keep the check."

Good lord, I certainly hope not.

We have US..."the people" - who don't have news to sell.

As such, I'm all over this recent APD in-custody death of a man charged with a minor amount of marijuana (this past Monday, AFTER HB 2391 went into effect) - awaiting news on the other charges --cuz MSM didn't cite anything else. Pot sells. Warrants for bounced checks don't.

If he had merely gotten a ticket for it, perhaps he would have made his way to the hospital where he perhaps might have had his life saved (if it was really "natural causes").

After I sent a round of emails asking questions, the Statesman pulled the story from the web. You couldn't link to it from the homepage. Haven't seen them do that before-a story in the top headlines and/or local and state pulled mid-day. Can only it access it through the archives.

Even asked the police monitor to launch an investigation since the guy is DEAD and can't complain himself.

No word yet from anyone on any aspect of this.

Anonymous said...

I must respectfully disagree with your premise as it relates to this case. I think that the Houston Chronicle has been digging on this story for quite some time and has featured articles based on interviews of civilian witnesses who were challenging the police version of the case.

The ruling of "homicide" simply means an unnatural death and does not automatically mean that a crime was committed. It may have been and a grand jury will need to make that determination.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Which part do you disagree with, Ken? Isn't it true that the department claimed to the media the fellow "tripped," and wasn't that the original Chronicle report?

You're right the Chron has continued to cover it, but I don't think that disputes my argument about how the police PIO office manipulates media coverage of these incidents in their aftermath, or how the MSM typically colludes in distributing misinformation, as happened in this case.

The truth in such cases often comes out slowly over time, and ONLY if a media outlet chooses to cover it. In this case they did. In most cases they don't. best,

Anonymous said...

What else would you expect from the DA in Houston and the police cover up?

Wonder how many deaths, beatings truly happen in the Harris County Jail? I hope they have save their pennies, one day this too will end. Praise the Lord!

Dina said...

Thanks so much for the post, pretty helpful information.