Police Have a History of Making Up Threats to Justify Crackdowns–Why Does the Media Keep Repeating Them?

Monday, the Chicago Police Department leaked an anonymous “alert” about gangs meeting to kill police officers in the wake of the high-profile CPD killing of Paul O’Neal. The local and national press repeated these claims and subsequently, everyone from the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, to police reform activists chimed in to “condemn” the theoretical threat.


The reality of a gang conspiracy to kill police officers had, through repetition, set in--with only one problem: Nowhere throughout this game of panicked telephone had anyone seen an ounce of evidence to substantiate the original threat. It was simply asserted by the police, repeated again and again until it became fact.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"615255","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"281","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"544"}}]]

The Chicago Police have selectively revealed certain details of the alleged plot, namely that the Vice Lords, Black Disciples and Four Corner Hustlers gangs met and planned to kill police officers and that one of the gangs “provided guns” and had “a sniper in place”. As for actual evidence, none could be provided, with the CPD saying, “to safeguard the integrity of operations, the department does not comment on any security measures.”

All we have is a report of a memo without any attempt by the media to independently verify the substance of the initial claim, that gangs were planning on killing cops. During the post-Freddie Gray unrest in Baltimore last year, Buzzfeed carried water for a similar PR effort, reporting on a “leaked” memo warning the department about people randomly picking fights with the police. No such fights were reported to have taken place but, by the time we knew this, the purpose of the propaganda had already been served.

There is, of course, significant upside and very little downside to police claiming vague threats after they’ve been caught killing black people (in this case, high-fiving after doing so): It gets the public’s sympathy on their side, justifies crackdowns on protestors, and shifts the spotlight away from the actual violence they've leveled against civilians to the entirely theoretical violence they claim threatens the department. 

Motive aside, there’s a great deal of historical examples of police hyping or making up threats for the purposes of providing PR cover. Most recently, the Baltimore Police Department was caught red-handed doing just this during the unrest in April of 2015. At the time, the BPD, like the Chicago Police, “leaked” warnings of “gang threat” to “take out” police that the media dutifully echoed without an ounce of skepticism. But an FBI probe at the time, revealed by VICE three months later, showed this “threat” was, in their words, “non-credible”. The department had apparently just made it up.

It’s a tactic as old as protesting itself. During the build up to the march on Selma in 1965 notorious Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark claimed black radicals had called and made numerous threats against him and his department.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"615234","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"487","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"692"}}]]

A claim–also asserted without evidence–that was used to justify his clubbing and beating of peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma the previous day.

Immediately after the infamous Kent State shooting of protestors in 1970, that left four protesters dead, the National Guard insisted they fired because a sniper on a nearby roof was shooting into the crowd:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"615199","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"578","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]]

A subsequent FBI investigation ordered by the Nixon White House found no evidence of a sniper firing at either the crowd or the National Guard.

Given the history of evidence-free claims of threats against police and the obvious conflict of interest the departments have in disseminating them, why does the media continue to echo these claims without proof? AlterNet reached out to Sam Charles, the reporter who initially “broke” the story about the alert warning of a gang conspiracy, asking if he had seen any evidence of the actual plot itself. Mr. Charles did not return our request for comment.

“What about the recent killings of police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas?”, one may ask. These tragic events do far more to discredit the Chicago Police Department’s warnings than bolster them. Firstly, these weren’t “gang plots” nor were they foreshadowed by authorities. Just as with terror warnings, no police warnings of pending attacks has ever preceded an actual attack and the only “gang” the two men in question ever belong to was the United States military. Conspiracies on this scale, it’s also worth noting, are extremely rare. If the Chicago gang plot were to actually be carried out it would be the first lethal mass shooting or terror attack in the US to involve more than two people since 9/11.

It’s certainly possible there is an actual gang conspiracy to kill Chicago police officers, but why are police departments afforded an entirely different standard of skepticism than everyone else? Imagine, if you will, Black Lives Matter protesters “leaking” an internal alert about police threatening to kill activists (which they openly have), wouldn’t the media require some proof–any at all–before mindlessly repeating the contents of this alert? Of course they would. Yet the same standard does not apply to the police who consistently feed self-serving memos and alerts to local media without question.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card

Close

Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.