Thin Blue Lies: Police and the Art of Propaganda

Image is everything, or so the commercial says. In an age of public relations, how one is portrayed can be every bit as important as the substance of one's actions. Thus, it should come as no surprise that along with politicians, entertainers and corporate executives, even police departments have joined the p.r. game.

With one after another discovery of police misconduct around the country -- from high-visibility cases of brutality, to racial profiling, to corruption involving bribes and the planting of evidence -- the recent headlines have been anything but flattering. Since the beating of Rodney King, the American masses have been made more aware than ever that Officer Friendly is not often there to get your cat out of the tree. Sometimes his intentions are far more pernicious than that.

And so it is no shock to see police across the nation cranking up their own propaganda mills so as to counter the trend of bad press. In the wake of scandal, how better to get the public on your side than to portray yourself as under siege? How better to gain sympathy than to remind the citizens how crucial you ostensibly are to their own safety? A little crime scare can go a long way.

Case in point: recent headlines from Cincinnati and Nashville. In the former, the police have been trying for months to excuse their well-documented overreactions to perceived danger. Since the mid-1990's officers there have killed 16 black men, many under highly suspicious circumstances, including Timothy Thomas, shot in the back this past April while running away from arrest on minor traffic violations.

Ever since the rebellion that was triggered by the Thomas shooting, police have been working overtime to portray the "rioters" as terrorists with no legitimate grievances against the cops.

Keith Fangman, head of the local Fraternal Order of Police, called a press conference immediately after the April shooting to display pictures of all the police in Cincinnati who have been killed in the line of duty. Stretching back many years, their photos hung behind Fangman's podium like a Wall of Fame, and Fangman made sure to point out that many of these officers were killed by black men, just like Tim Thomas. The none-too-subliminal message was plain: you can't be too careful, especially with "those people" running loose.

Now, three months after the city's upheaval, Fangman is back, proclaiming that the recent rise in violent crime in Cincinnati has been due to the reluctance of officers to aggressively police high-crime areas for fear of being labeled racist. In other words, the calls for equitable treatment by the city's black residents have made cops afraid to do their jobs, with the attendant result that citizens are now less safe.

Fangman would like the public to think this is what happens when you don't support local law enforcement and give them carte blanche to crack heads, apply chokeholds and shoot those who make the mistake of reaching to adjust their seatbelt during traffic stops. The implicit message essentially boils down to this: black people are too irrational to differentiate real racism from valid policing, so cops can't take the chance, and shouldn't be expected to do their jobs. That this work slowdown by white officers is a kind of insubordination that would get black people fired from any position in the nation seems to escape mention. That Cincinnati's blacks are quite capable of differentiating legitimate law enforcement from racist brutalization -- as evidenced by the community's acceptance of the latest shooting, which was made necessary by the suspect's firing on the officer first -- also seems not to phase Fangman and his bunch.

Yet the Mayor's response to the refusal of Cincinnati's finest to do their jobs has been laughable. "Acts of kindness to police officers," Charlie Lukens says, "would be appropriate at this time." In other words, there will be no insistence that the police do what they are paid to do, and do it equitably. Instead there is only a plea for Cincinnatians to hug cops and thank them for their selfless actions. Apparently the FOP spin-mill is working.

So too in Nashville, Tennessee -- my hometown, and the site of at least a half dozen scandals and questionable incidents involving police in recent years. First there were allegations that white officers physically assaulted Latinos: allegations still being investigated by the Justice Department. Then another officer was found to be moonlighting as owner of an adult club for swingers. This was followed by an officer who sexually assaulted a woman who had called him for help. Then there was the cop with a record of domestic violence. Then there were multiple shootings of blacks, including at least one in the back of the head. And to cap it all off: the decision by police not to shoot a white officer, even though that officer had shot at them, and held a neighborhood hostage as he tried to get to his ex-girlfriend.

One can imagine that with all these things to live down, the Nashville Police Department would be desperate to stir up sympathy for their beleaguered ranks. And what better way to do it than with the following headline:

"Police on alert after death threats."

Thus screamed a prominently placed article in the daily paper a few weeks ago, mimicked closely by similar stories in the "alternative" daily, and a follow-up in the chain rag.

According to these pseudo-journalistic entries, internal "intelligence reports" and "various sources," (none of which are named) have led police to fear that a Chicago-based street gang, the Gangster Disciples, are planning to take over the drug trade in one of the city's public housing projects. Furthermore, according to these sources (whose claims are admittedly uncorroborated), the gang members are threatening to "shoot officers in the head to avoid body armor." The internal police memo, which both daily papers secretly "obtained" (most likely via police fax machine), went on to say that although the threats were specific to one particular housing development, police should be on alert in "all areas in and around" the development as well. In other words, most of North Nashville: the historically black section of town.

Although police admit that gang activity in general is not increasing in Nashville, and although the local FBI special agent for violent crimes says he knows of no threats to kill police, the local paper insisted on plugging the gang menace for two days straight. The Metro Development and Housing Agency also says they have no evidence that the Gangster Disciples are making a move on the projects. The police, for their part, had literally nothing to offer as evidence, though they did caution Nashvillians to be on the lookout for black people in blue, black or white clothing, or carrying a "rabbit head with a bent ear."

Now imagine if I were to send out a press alert claiming that unnamed sources had told me Nashville police were planning to lynch a half dozen blacks in that same housing project. I could come up with some quotes, and claim the sources were reliable, all the while refusing to provide evidence. Given such a scenario, it is incomprehensible to think that such a story would have seen the light of day. But casting aspersions upon blacks in the projects and claiming they are out to kill cops appears to be perfectly acceptable.

The heart of the story -- that police are operating under threat of death -- seemed blatantly calculated to swing public support back towards the police, by typifying officers as brave warriors going to battle against a dark (pun intended) enemy force. The fact that less than 20 officers in the entire nation are killed by black people annually, (let alone black gang members), and that this is less than the combined total of cops who die from accidental falls, drowning and while directing traffic, hardly seems to matter.

Fact is, the fear of gang members preying on innocent bystanders and cops, which has frequently been trumpeted to justify beefed-up law enforcement budgets and crime crackdowns, is more illusion than reality. Three of four persons killed by gang members are gang members themselves, and even these inter-gang killings are becoming increasingly rare. In fact, gang-related murder is down by over half since the early 1990's. Gang killings -- let alone the drive-by shootings that suburban whites often think are a daily occurrence in inner cities--represent about 4% of all homicides in the country, and come to just over 600 murders annually. This is 600 too many to be sure, but indicates that only a miniscule percentage of the 800,000 or so gang members in the nation will kill anyone this year.

What's more, the notion that Chicago gangs are invading Nashville is extremely unlikely. As the National Drug Intelligence Center and the Department of Justice note, few gangs have true interstate connections even if they share names. Furthermore, gangs rarely migrate more than 100 miles away from their home base, and gang "migration" has an insignificant effect on levels of gang violence.

Of course, that police would hype a fictional gang threat makes sense. Such threats, whether based in truth or fiction, are functional to a growing police-and-prison-industrial complex, as is the hyping of black gangs in particular. Such colorizing of the mayhem works wonders to stoke public sympathy for more cops on the street, higher pay for the ones there, and more jails to hold all the folks they arrest.

Police are even famous for overestimating the involvement of people of color and underestimating the involvement of whites in gang activity, despite self-report surveys that show a much more balanced racial picture. Whereas police estimate gang membership at roughly half Hispanic and a third black, and only 13 percent white, studies that rely on what gang members actually say about their affiliations find that the white share of members is nearly 30 percent of the total -- very close to the black percentage. And note, that doesn't include whites who belong to racist organizations or skinhead groups, none of which are considered "gangs" for the purpose of these studies.

The result of all this is that the public's perception of danger -- especially that of whites -- is skewed in a way that not only leads to more police state tactics, but does so in an explicitly racist fashion. Three quarters of the public say they form their opinions about crime from what they see or read in the news. So if the media portrays crime rising, even when it's falling, and portrays the perps as black gangsters, even when whites are five times more likely to be victimized by another white person, the results will be predictable: more fear, more punitive policies, and more sympathy for police, no matter how they actually do their jobs.

Maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe the Nashville police do have evidence of an impending gang takeover of drugs in public housing, and the planned capping of officers. But I doubt it. This is the same police department, after all, that last January called a colleague of mine to inform him that according to their internal "intelligence," I had been "distributing Black Panther literature" around Vanderbilt University.

Now while I relish the image of myself (all 5'9" of me) stylin' in a full-length black leather jacket and black beret handing out "Free Huey Newton" posters at the campus Starbucks, I have to disappoint and note that the boys in blue had it wrong. I had indeed been at Vanderbilt to give a talk about racism in the justice system. And in that speech I mentioned the historical use of police to disrupt black activist organizations, and the assassination of around 30 Panthers in the '60's and '70's by local law enforcement. How that got transmogrified into distributing copies of the Party's 10-Point Plan is beyond me. But then again, police intelligence is increasingly a contradiction in terms.

Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism activist. He can be reached at tjwise@mindspring.com.

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