from the view-from-the-cop-shop-journalism dept
The ATF (the accepted not-actually-an-acronym for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) is back on its periodic charm offensive. This time the charm seems a bit more forced, as citizens and governments all over the nation are aggressively questioning force use by law enforcement officers.
The murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin prompted nationwide protests targeting police violence. In apparent response to this public reckoning, the ATF has been inviting members of the press to try out its VR shoot-a-thon in hopes of convincing them (and the public reading these reports) that most killings are justified.
This tradition appears to date back to late spring of this year. It’s a calculated play for deference from journalists. By showing them how difficult it can be to make split-second decisions in potentially deadly situations, the ATF is hoping to head off questioning of officers’ actions during shootings by police officers. This, of course, glosses over the part where officers are supposed to be better at this sort of thing than non-cops — you know, the “training and expertise” they cite so often when seeking warrants or defending against allegations of rights violations.
Here’s one use-of-force seminar the ATF threw for Arizona journalists in May of this year. At least at this one, reporters tried to get something other than standard copaganda out of the trainers.
[A]t Wednesday’s training agents didn’t want to go into why, on a national level, African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be shot to death by police.
“I think there’s a lot that goes into that,” [ATF Special Operations Division Deputy Chief Paul] Massock said. “I would tell you that the number one issue that goes into decision-making on the part of an officer is the behavior of the individual that they’re dealing with. Period.”
Well, that’s simply not true. If it were, people wouldn’t be asking these questions. The difference in police response to minorities is not only noticeable, it’s undeniable.
Here’s another one, held in Pittsburgh in June. The tail end of the article catches the ATF somewhat tipping its hand.
Increasing the understanding of those situations and the laws surrounding them was the intention of going to the media with this presentation, Mr. Massock said.
“We would like to have — if not an agreement — at least an understanding of each other,” he said.
And by “understanding,” the ATF means “less questioning.”
The same presentation was held in Boston in August, presented under the-view-from-the-blue-line headline “How Law Enforcement Agents Decide to Use Deadly Force.” And another questionable assertion was made by Deputy Chief Massock.
Ideally, an interaction never has to get violent, for everyone’s sake.
“We’re husbands, wives, fathers, mothers in those communities, so we’re already a part of the community and we want to make sure we have that understanding and good relationship while we’re there,” Massock said.
That’s undeniably false. The ATF isn’t a member of any community, strictly speaking. And its efforts tend to focus on minorities, using borderline entrapment to talk poor people into robbing fake stash houses that contain no drugs or money… and then using the quantity of imaginary drugs to trigger mandatory minimum sentences that begin at 20 years of imprisonment. No drugs are taken off the street. No guns are recovered. And no actual drug dealers are brought to justice.
And, extending this line of reasoning to cops, one of the greatest obstacles to community-oriented policing is the fact that most cops live miles away from the neighborhoods they police. This results in them treating the areas they serve as just places they work (at best) or enemy territory they patrol (at worst).
The ATF’s latest presentation — this one given in El Paso, Texas — has received the most press. El Paso journalists were invited to participate but the Border Report’s coverage of the event is the one that has been spread across the nation in its original, uncritical form. That’s possibly because local coverage from El Paso news outlets was so bland as to be entirely forgettable.
The Border Report’s headline also traveled around the nation unaltered: “Trainers show media the ‘other side’ of deadly shootings and use of force by police.”
And, again, trainers made statements that are facially ridiculous but go unchallenged.
The ATF training includes dash-cam videos of officers who got shot because they did not perceive a person as threatening or relied on voice commands to get someone to drop a gun. “People talk about de-escalation, but de-escalation takes two persons to work. How many times does the officer have to shout, ‘drop the gun!’” Massock said.
Ah, yes. It’s the person without the training and expertise who’s supposed to know exactly how to react when cops are shouting at them. And I’m not sure if just yelling the same thing over and over again is really “de-escalation.” It sounds more like cops trying the only thing they really know how to do, since de-escalation has never been a priority for law enforcement agencies.
Also, when it’s a judgment call following police violence, it should be assumed it’s the officers that are in the right.
When officers appear to be predisposed to use force against someone it’s often because the 9-1-1 operator or police dispatch gave him information that puts him on his toes. “The officer has all the facts. Citizens often only see the end result. The officer has knowledge and experience that the general public does not,” Massock said.
Trainers and experts talking about training and expertise, and yet completely unwilling to apply either to difficult questions. After ducking a question about the recent beating of an unarmed homeless man by El Paso PD officers (“we’re not familiar with the case”), the trainer went on to enlighten reporters with some curricular logic.
Massock said an officer or a criminal may fire five to six shots per second in the heat of battle, which answers the question, “why did the cop have to shoot him so many times?”
Why did the cop have to shoot so many times? Because the cop shot so many times. Investigation closed. It’s Confirmation Bias On Tour! Journalists are invited to attend, immerse themselves in a single narrative, and expect to be ignored if they ask any tough questions. This isn’t education. It’s PR work being performed for the benefit of violent cops everywhere, all funded by citizens’ tax dollars.