About News

Policing the Truth: Yes, the Cops May Be Lying

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Whenever a large-scale crime of violence grabs national media attention, it’s gut wrenching to watch those interviews with grieving families and witnesses. It’s only natural to think, “Leave those poor people alone.”

But reporters have reasons for doing it. Here’s one: To try to figure out if the police are lying to everyone.

We are seeing this now with the mass murders at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Interviews and social media videos have shown that early law enforcement accounts of quick confrontation and bravery by officers were bogus.

News media have a history of trusting the public statements of officialdom, especially law enforcement (I say this as a former police beat reporter for all of 10 months). Deference to authority is unwise for journalists but often an enticing trap when those agencies provide a fount of metrics-pumping news stories. There are practical considerations, too. As a reporter, you need information fast, you have immediate access to police sources, and police have the power of investigation that adds to the presumed credibility of their statements.

I believe law enforcement accounts of most events are truthful based on their knowledge at the time. But if an event involves law enforcement itself – a shooting by police, a police chase, a confrontational arrest, a crisis response – reliability diminishes. A lot. The frequency may be undeterminable, but authorities will lie to protect themselves. Could be a few officers writing false reports. Could be a chief or a sheriff knowingly making false public statements.

From one infamous police news release: “(A suspect) 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. … He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.” Recognize it? Probably not. It’s the original police description of the George Floyd case.

Some other false accounts of citizen deaths at the hands of police also got exposed: Adam Toledo. Daniel Prude. Breonna Taylor. Walter Scott. Eric Garner.

At least in high-profile cases, truth usually emerges eventually, sometimes because of media persistence, sometimes because of police or bystander video, and sometimes because internal affairs investigators did their jobs. In many other cases, though, journalists may not have the time or inclination to keep digging, leaving the public with only an official narrative that may or may not reflect what really happened.

Of course, accountability for law enforcement agencies means more than just ensuring the truth of public statements in major cases. True accountability means journalists make it a priority to constantly monitor practices and performance.

Kelly McBride, a former police reporter who is now a commentator on media ethics for The Poynter Institute, believes police reporting in general needs an overhaul. Most reporters are “stenographers” for police departments, she told a Poynter seminar on Zoom last year. She urges journalists to focus on police performance, including regularly seeking department records on citizen complaints, internal disciplinary actions, crime trends and case clearance rates.

In the same vein, journalists should test police versions of major events by seeking out witnesses and other evidence. Laws that shield police records including 911 calls, dashboard and body camera video, and radio transmission transcripts pose unjustifiable obstacles. (Alabama’s Supreme Court issued a terrible ruling last year.)

On a daily basis, law enforcement officers risk their lives to protect the community, and they fulfill that public service in ways large and small without headlines. But they’re powerful and capable of occasional harm, too. There are fair questions about systemic problems in policing. And sometimes, as in Uvalde, there are failures with catastrophic consequences. These realities demand skepticism and accountability, not stenography.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.