About . . . . Classes . . . . Books . . . . Vita . . . . Blog. . . . Podcast

by Peter Moskos

August 10, 2010

Why cops hate the New York Times

Most cops hate the newspaper. I don't. But that's probably because growing up, there was more newspaper blood in my family than police blood. And a healthy freedom of the press is one of the founding principles of this nation.

And just think for just a few bits every day, comics, sports, news, opinion, it's all dropped off on my stoop every morning (well, not the comics. I have to get my comics online)!

But police often have good reason to hate the press. Reporters, and it must be taught in journalism school or something, feel obliged to get all sides of the story. Sounds good... unless, of course, you understand that all opinions are not equally true. Sometimes, especially with crime stories, there really aren't two sides to the story. Sometimes, as a reporter, you should be biased (if bias is a taboo word, how about "be willing to reach a conclusion"?).

Say a criminal gets shot by police. He had a gun. Some police spokesperson says as much. Duly noted. But then you talk to the dead guy's mother who says, "Pookie was an angel. He would never hurt nobody! And he was home with me at the time he got shot." Why, the mother may actually believe this. Or maybe not. But the gentle reader trying to figure out the truth sees this and says, "Hmmm, there are two sides of the story. I bet the truth lies somewhere in between." Actually... sometimes... no. And it's the reporter's job to get the truth and not just lay out all the junk and let the reader decide what's true.

Now here's a rule of thumb: don't value mothers as objective determiners of their babies' character. Nor should you value a criminal's friends as objective determiners of the criminals non-criminal activity.

Now the Times present a story that can at best be described as a police clusterf*ck and hints at a very bad police-involved shooting, with obligatory references to Sean Bell and hints at the idea that all the bullets were fired by police. The first headline said, "After 50 Shots in Harlem, One Dead and 6 Hurt." Wow. Well, that certainly got my attention. And here's this from the August 9th story by William Rashbaum, Karen Zraick, and Ray Rivera:
The witness accounts retold by the police were at odds with what some other witnesses said had happened. Robert Cartagena, 19, Mr. Alvarez’s cousin, and another witness, Shariff Spencer, Mr. Alvarez’s friend, said they never saw Mr. Alvarez fire a gun. [well what do you expect them to say?]

Mr. Alvarez’s lawyer [whose job it is to defend his client regardless of guilt] ... said his client ... motioned “no” when asked if he had had a gun or fired one.
Now let's go back to the August 8th story by Trymaine Lee and Colin Moynihan:
Yet questions were being raised among some witnesses as to whether the police had acted appropriately.
When that first shot went off, “Angel was still punching,” Mr. Spencer [a friend of Alvarez] said.

“Never once did you hear, ‘Freeze,’ ” he said. “Never once did you hear, ‘Stop.’ Never once did you hear, ‘N.Y.P.D.’ ”
Several residents expressed outrage at the shooting, saying the police were overly aggressive.

“People feel like they have no concern for life,” Sean Washington, a television producer who lives down the street from where the shooting occurred, said of the police. Before the gunfire started, he added, the D.J. at the block party said over the loudspeaker “how good a feeling it was because there was no violence. It was all love.”
See... it was All Love. And then police showed up. Two guys just in a little scuffle and police blow them away.

Having been a police officer, I assume -- no, I know -- that nine times out of ten the police version of the story is closer to the truth than any "witness" account.

Now I wasn't there. So I don't know what happened. But I bet it's pretty close to the Post's account:
Moments before a police-issued semiautomatic slug fatally ripped through Soto's chest, he allegedly pulled his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver on Alvarez, a small-time hood who was getting the better of him in a fistfight, sources said.

Alvarez lunged for the weapon, and it went off twice during the struggle, attracting the attention of officers nearby, witnesses told police.

Alvarez, 23, then allegedly fired at Patrolman Douglas Brightman -- prompting the uniformed cop and three officers on the other side of the block to return a volley of 46 rounds, police said.
Also, the A.P.'s Colleen Long has a good story.

The Daily News says: "NYPD officials initially said Alvarez killed Soto with the revolver, before shooting at four cops who returned fire. Yesterday, cops said the revolver was in Soto's waistband but Alvarez took it from him and shot at a uniformed officer with it." For the record, Soto was killed and Alvarez shot many many times but is alive.

So what's my point? I'm not certain yet. But why does the Times see fit to quote Ms. Craft, Alvarez’s bother, saying her brother has a job (auto mechanic) and a 2-year-old son? Well maybe because the story is trying to make Alvarez look like a victim, which makes police out to be the criminals.

But if we want a character study on Soto and Alvarez, why not tell the whole story? The Post is willing to call Alvarez a small-time thug. And apparently there's nothing small time about Soto. According to the Daily News:
Both had records. Alvarez had two prior arrests, including one for gun possession and trying to run down a cop with a car, for which he served two years. Soto had been arrested eight times, including for burglary.
But I can hear people saying, "So maybe they had trouble in the past. But how long can you hold that against them? Poor kids." Whatever. And I have a bridge to sell you.

Michael Feeney of the Daily News digs up a Twitter account (I found this under the name BooBillzMB) and writes: "Luis Soto, slain in Harlem shootout, painted himself as tough gangbanger on Twitter.
"I go 2 da grave b4 I be a b---h n----! Fa'realll," he wrote July 23.

He posted photos of himself flashing gang signs, or holding a new iPhone, an iPad and cocktails.

In one photo, he looked out at the camera over a thick fan of crisp new $50 bills - many thousands of dollars worth.

Though he had no job, he planned to trade in his BMW 760, a $130,000 car, for an equally pricey Mercedes-Benz CL550, he tweeted.

A turf rivalry between Harlem, where Angel Alvarez lives, and the Bronx, where Soto was from, surfaced in his tweets. "Not for nothin da BRONX Got More Real N----s Den HARLEM," he wrote July 28.

Friends said Alvarez and Soto had an argument two weeks ago that led to their clash Sunday in Harlem.
With a past record of illegal gun possession and assaults on police, and with a running feud with Soto, perhaps Alvarez's biggest mistake was bringing a knife (or his fists) to a gun fight. Was Soto a b*tch n***a? Not for me to say, but he got his wish about going to the grave first. Was Alvarez just in the wrong place at the wrong time? I doubt it. Is any of this relevant? Actually, yes.

Because imagine going to work and getting into a gunfight. Just another day at the office? Imagine the fear as you see a muzzle flash and think you're going to die. Imagine the guilt of learning that you almost killing another officer. Imagine how lucky you feel to be alive. Imagine the relief of going back to your wife and kids. And for this the department and city you serve make you get a piss test and strips you of your gun "pending investigation." And then in the papers your friends and family read about how you might have killed an innocent hard-working might for no reason.

Did police behave correctly in using lethal force and shooting 46 times at these two fighting men with a gun? Absolutely. I don't want to go too far, but it seems like the least we could do is appreciate what these officers went through and thank them for risking their life while just doing their job.


Johnny Law said...

Bravo! While I admit that there are bad police shootings, I am disturbed that the media likes to paint every single one of them as some police screw-up. Sometimes the police do the best that they can in a horrible situation.

Spark Check said...

Blood and drama sells. And at the end of the day, a newspaper is in the business of selling papers, so why not stir up the same old formula of police brutality and racism?

Cleanville Tziabatz said...

Police lie all the time. They have heavy economic incentives to lie and are caught lying all the time. I think you have lost your objectivity when it come to police honesty issues. Not good.

Police may have been correct in this case, but the larger generalizations in your post are self-serving and wrong.

IrishPirate said...

Johnny Law is correctamundo in that insight. Sometimes there are no good endings and no good choices.

The cops encountered two idiots who were fighting and a gun was involved.

Unless we provide police with a weapon that can freeze motion in a particular small area this situation was likely not gonna turn out well.

As for newspapers I mourn for the days of better journalism.

One thing I often find amusing is that in Chicago when there is a police involved killing of a citizen, a family member, usually the mom, will be interviewed by the TV media. The interviewee almost always states a variation of "he was good deep down and his past problems were past but he was on the right path".

It doesn't matter if the dearly deceased had been in an out of the system since age 14 and suspected in multiple murders. Mom almost always says he was good deep down and that the police didn't have to kill him.

Jay Livingston said...

'Sometimes, as a reporter, you should be biased (if bias is a taboo word, how about "be willing to reach a conclusion"'

So the news story should go, "The police say X. Several witnesses say Y. It's the police that are correct -- because they are the police. The people who disagree with them are lying." Doesn't sound like good journalism to me. Would you like to read reporting like that on other news beats?

Civilians, as you say, might lie in order to further their interests and point of view. Fair enough. But not the police? What if the truth went against the interests of the police. Would they lie? Is Cleanville (above) dead wrong? If they'd lie about something like probable cause in order not to lose even a low-level case, might they also lie when they stand to lose their badge?

Anyway, it might not really be about lying -- deliberate falsehood. People just might have different perceptions, perceptions that are influenced by all sorts of factors. Self-interest is one of those factors, but not the only one.

Cleanville Tziabatz said...

Corrected comment:

The real answer is that journalists need to start asking police p.r. the hard questions, SKEPTICALLY< EARLY AND REPEATEDLY. And then reporting on great detail about the questions police refused to answer. Examples:

Police declined to say whether the officer was in uniform. We will let you know every week for the rest of time whether police are ready to answer this.

Police declined to say whether there was video of the incident. We will let you know every week for the rest of time whether police are ready to answer this.

Police declined to say whether the policeman involved was willing to give a statement to investigators. We will let you know every week for the rest of time whether police are ready to answer this.

Police declined to identify any witnesses who allegedly gave the accounts that were favorable to police. We will let you know every week for the rest of time whether police are ready to answer this.

Police declined to say when the investigation would be complete and would not speculate as to whether it could be completed in a month. We will let you know every week for the rest of time whether police are ready to answer this.

Police declined to say whether they administered an alcohol test to the officer. We will let you know every week for the rest of time whether police are ready to answer this.

Police declined to say whether they shot the dead man in the front or in the back. We will let you know every week for the rest of time whether police are ready to answer this.

and so on. So, basically, yeah, the NYT does suck. Just like every other newspaper.

Little story: last year I sent a couple emails to a journalist at a newspaper because there was a guy who got shot by police when they came to investigate a rape. I wanted to know whether the dead guy really did the rape, or whether there was still a rapist on the loose. The reporter was unwilling to ask the police this, at first because it was too soon, and later because he did not want to. Sucky journalist, but totally typical.

PCM said...

Jay, I think the goal of good journalism, in a news story, should be more than finding somebody to quote on every side of the issue. A reporter's job is not to parrot "he said she said" but instead strive toward something a little more like the descriptive truth (as nebulous or Rashomon-like as that might be).

Leaving aside for now the issue of friends and family as unreliable, there were a lot of people there. And not one witness who wasn't related could be found supporting the victim's side? That should set off some red flags.

(And no, I wouldn't want a reporter to unquestionably believe the police or any person of authority either.)

A good reporter should demand some independent corroboration. And the lawyer doesn't count! The lawyers is ethically obliged to shill for their clients! Lawyers should never be quoted in any story that isn't about a trial. It's lazy reporting.

And why quote family members who weren't there? Only to gain sympathy for the victim. I mean, if it matters that one guy is a father, fine. But then it also should matter that he has a serious record with convictions for gun possession and assault on police! You think that might be relevant in this case? Certainly more relevant than the fact that he may have a job!

If you want to do a character study of the shot guy, fine, but report the whole deal, like the Daily News did. Soto's Twitter feed tells you more about the man than the Times ever will. At least the Daily News and Post quote people as they actually talk.

The Times consistently presents every victim of shootings as a middle-class man of middle values, speech, and ethics. This does not do justice to the diversity of the city. It highlights the paternalistic white liberal upper-middle-class ethos of the Times. (And I say this a paternalistic white liberal upper-middle-class man myself!)

And as much as I love the Times (and I do... and think it's an essential and perhaps irreplaceable part of American freedom), their police reporting of late has been pretty shameful (Mineo, the initial reporting in this incident, and Sean Bell come to mind).

It hasn't always been this way. I still teach from one of Michael Winerip's great police articles ("Why Harlem Drug Cops Don't Discuss Race"). Now he's a good reporter. But in the era of cutbacks and smaller newsrooms, it's not surprising that quality suffers.

PCM said...

Mr. Tziabatz, nothing personal, but I'm putting you on comment probation. These are the rules I want you to follow.

1) A 200-word maximum per comment.

2) You can't be more than 25% of all comments on any given post.

Quite frankly, too many of the comment threads revolve around you and your comments. I don't like that.

But truth be told, those are good rules for everybody to follow.

Jay Livingston said...

Peter, I don't follow police reporting closely (to say the least) in any of the dailies, so I'll take your word for it. But my guess is that the reporter who has to file the story when it first happens, is working from very limited materials -- what the different people, including the police, say. When he or another reporter writes a story sometime later (a day, a week, a month), he'll have had more time and more information to use in evaluating the conflicting claims.

You said somewhere (I think it was you) that cops assume that everyone is lying. Reporters may make that same assumption, but they also have to get a story into the paper. So until they have solid knowledge of what happened, they report conflicting accounts in a "X said, Y said" style. What else can they do?

Anonymous said...

But truth be told, those are good rules for everybody to follow.

But then nobody could ever make the first, second or third posts?!

PCM said...

Sure they can. Just as long as other people post, too. I don't want anybody to be 50% of the posts. That's not a discussion. That's a monologue. That's time to get your own blog.

PCM said...


I see your point and of course a story will and should be better on Day 4 than Day 1. There's a big Fog of War our there when it comes to police stories and gunfire.

I guess all I demand on Day One is that people don't ask mom (or brother) for a quote as a character reference. And if everybody says one thing and only the guy's friends and family say something else (and what they say is not consistent), then the reporter needs to use common sense and professionalism and assume that the guy's peoples are lying.

I suspect a young reporter is sometimes so relieved to find anybody willing to give a whole name and be quoted that they make it into the paper just for that reason.

But yes, reporters must make judgment calls (this is not a trial or even academic writing). And good reporters are right more often than not.

Look how Baker phrases it in his story, "Friends of Mr. Alvarez and Mr. Soto who were at the scene of the shooting gave competing accounts of who had fired the gun." That's a good way to handle such a matter. It's not dismissing the accounts 100%, but it is putting it in perspective.

And maybe the initial Times reporters really thought that the police effed up and fired on two hardworking unarmed innocent people having a rare scuffle. Maybe the Times reporters believed Alvarez's cousin more than the police. But if that's the case, well, that's Why Cops Hate The New York Times.

suz said...

Of course there is more information on day 4 than on day 1. Too many reporters spend days 2 and 3 quoting rumors and irrelevant commentary, because they don't want to be scooped by the competition. They must think it's OK because everyone else is doing it, but it is NOT good journalism. A responsible reporter would tell his editor and readers to wait until FACTS become available. Then that reporter would probably be fired.

PCM said...

My uncle, a life-long newsman, wrote me this in response to the question of rumors and quotes and reliable sources:

Be accurate. Play it down the middle. As Sgt. Friday would say, "Just the facts."

But you also tell them to check the files. Often these people have previous records that will tend to show how phony the family's comments will be, "Yes, my son had some minor problems in the past but he was going to start work on his doctorate in chemistry at UCLA next week."

In any story, you usually have more information than you use, so judgment plays a role in what to report.

And just because someone says something doesn't mean you are automatically going to use it: Is it factually correct?