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As First Draft of History, Police Reports Can Paint Rosy Picture

Initial police versions of seven high-profile incidents were misleading, incomplete or wrong, showing how readily and consistently police can portray themselves in flattering ways and alleged suspects in negative ways before more facts come out, the Washington Post reports. The seven cases in which people died after use of force by police showed common themes in incidents involving Black people: The officers were often, but not always, White; the initial police accounts regularly described the victims in terms assuming they were guilty of a crime; and the initial police version frequently used clinical language that seemed to obscure their own role in the incidents. “The police own the narrative in every interaction they have with the public, because they write up the reports, and sometimes the reports are written to justify the actions the officers have taken and sometimes to cover up what actually happened,” said Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who researches criminal behavior by police.


The first police statement made about Tyre Nichols said he had complained about “shortness of breath” — failing to mention that he had first been Tasered, pepper-sprayed and beaten for roughly three minutes. The initial news release about the death of George Floyd said that “officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs” — failing to mention that one officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd begged for his life. And the incident report filed after Breonna Taylor’s death listed her injuries as “none” — failing to mention that she had been shot several times and was pronounced dead on the scene. Police frequently used passive language in their first statements or reports, with phrases such as “the incident occurred,” “a struggle ensued” or “a confrontation occurred.” Experts on police violence and misbehavior say that initial police statements should be viewed “cautiously” — and that restoring trust with the public will require greater accountability by police departments. “It’s very damaging to the police department because it does damage to their reputation when they put out these press releases and it turns out they’re false,” Stinson said.

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