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Sara Ganim: So when he called you, what did he say?
Olivia Selto: He said that he was running from the police, and he was saying he thought he was going to go to jail. At the beginning it was just him. It was pretty blurry and pixally because the service wasn’t that great. But it was just his face, and he’s walking fast, so it’s moving. And then it paused, I’m guessing his phone was down near his waist, because it started sounding like he was running and I could hear him saying, “They’re shooting at me.”
And then it unpaused, and it was facing the ground and it lifted up, and there was an officer. I can literally picture what it looked like. There was an officer standing there with his gun pointed, and then some plants and stuff like that.
I heard the gunshots, at that point I didn’t hear any before, but right when he pointed the phone is when I heard the gunshots. It was before it paused I did see him fall backwards with the phone. And then it was paused until the cops came over and unpaused it.
Sara Ganim: And you saw this police officer with a gun pointed-
Olivia Selto: Mm-hmm.
Sara Ganim: … on FaceTime?
Olivia Selto: Yeah. I was literally just screaming at the top of my lungs, because I had heard them say he’s not breathing, so I was mostly just screaming.
Sara Ganim: So I’m going to just read to you a little bit of what the sheriff said happened. And then I would love to get your reaction based on what you witnessed on the FaceTime. Here’s what the sheriff said, the Clark County Sheriff.
Archival: Clark County Sheriff: A foot pursuit ensued where deputies from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office were chasing a man with a firearm. The information I have is that upon entering the parking lot of the bank, the man reportedly fired his weapon at the deputies. The deputies returned fire, the subject was tragically killed. It is my understanding that the man’s firearm was observed at the scene.
Sara Ganim: What do you think of that statement? That first thing they tell the public?
Olivia Selto: Yeah, I knew that he didn’t fire at them. And even still to this day, people still are like, “Oh, well he shot at police.” And that never happened. So I feel like it made people not really care about the story, because they’re like, “Oh, well he shot at police, so there’s nothing else to the story,” when it really didn’t even happen.
Mark Lindquist: Once the public believes a suspect shot at the police, then the attitude is, “Well then of course police shot back.”
Sara Ganim: Somebody I heard somebody once say this, “You already killed him, and then you’re trying to basically kill their credibility and kill their character.” Do you feel like this was assassination followed by a character assassination?
Olivia Selto: Yeah, they definitely tried to make him out to be the worst possible person they could.
Sara Ganim: This is Why Don’t We Know, the podcast about data deserts and missing information, and the real life consequences of government secrecy. I’m Sara Ganim, and in this episode we are exploring the problem with, “Police say…”
In my seven years covering the police beat, there’s a phrase that I wrote, hundreds if not thousands of times.
Archival: Police say that the suspect was fighting-
Police say they responded to-
Police say he was involved-
Police say a fight-
Police say she-
Where police say-
… contact with 21 year old Kevin Peterson Jr. Went through a confidential informant, they set up a drug deal.
Sara Ganim: The problem is, when the police are saying something about excessive or deadly force, what they say is not always accurate.
Archival: Now, early on in this investigation, deputies did say that they believed that Peterson had fired his weapon.
Sara Ganim: In the case of 22-year-old, Kevin Peterson Jr. For example.
Archival: The investigation revealed that there was no evidence that Peterson fired his weapon here at US Bank.
Sara Ganim: The sheriff’s initial statement-
Archival: Clark County Sheriff: The man reportedly fired his weapon at the deputies.
Sara Ganim: Nearby surveillance footage proved that was not true.
Mark Lindquist: There are two videos and they confirm that Kevin never pointed a gun at the deputies.
Sara Ganim: That’s the Peterson family attorney, a former prosecutor named Mark Lindquist.
Mark Lindquist: Let me be clear about this. There are two videos and they confirm that Kevin never pointed anything at the deputies before the first volley of shots. He did, it appears, raise his cell phone toward the deputies before the second volley of shots.
Sara Ganim: Peterson’s girlfriend, Olivia Selto, the mother of his baby, was on that phone, on a FaceTime call, when he was shot.
Olivia Selto: I worry about my daughter when she is old enough to look into it herself. Since she won’t know him, I am not looking forward to her looking into it all herself and being like, “Oh, well they said this, they said this.” Because she’ll never know him herself, so she’ll just know what people tell her and what we tell her. So that’s hard, and I’m not exactly looking forward to those days of her doing her own investigating. I know she will, but that part’s scary.
Mark Lindquist: When Sheriff Atkins made his statement, I think there were officers who knew Kevin had not shot at the deputies. I don’t think Sheriff Atkins however yet knew.
Sara Ganim: But he didn’t correct it immediately.
Mark Lindquist: He did not, and he should have. Three of the four rounds were back to front, meaning three of the four shots hit Kevin as he was running away. A fourth shot hit him in the chest after he sat up with his camera in hand, or rather with his phone in hand, using it as a camera.
Sara Ganim: When excessive or deadly force is used by the police, there’s often an imbalance, because police are both part of the story and also the gatekeepers of the information about that story. The police are suspects, sitting at a computer, typing out their own narratives into the police report.
When we started the reporting for the season, there was a lot of talk about excessive or deadly force used by police. A lot of really good reporting out there, but we still mostly rely on police to self-report when they shoot or kill someone. And if they don’t accurately report it, then we might not know.
So for the first episode of this season, we tried to do an analysis. Is what happened in Kevin Peterson’s case unusual? If there had not been surveillance video, would we ever know what really happened? Is it common to find misleading narratives or errors of omission from police statements about excessive or deadly force? We started by going back and looking at some of the high profile cases that you’ve probably already heard about.
Archival: Local police have released a nearly blank incident report stemming from the night Brianna Taylor was fatally shot in her own apartment by police.
Sara Ganim: The incident report filed on March 13th, 2020 by the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department after Breonna Taylor’s death, states that there was no forced entry and no injuries. Both things, we now know, are not true. Officers used a battering ram to break down the door and Breonna Taylor was shot eight times and killed.
In initial statements to the press, the department told media there was no video of the incident, because those officers were not wearing body cameras. But that’s not true either, and the footage has since been made public. In the Walter Scott Case in South Carolina-
Archival: Officer Slager, seen here being debriefed Moments after the incident, told police dispatchers Scott grab for his taser.
He grabbed my taser.
Sara Ganim: The official statement from North Charleston Police was that Walter Scott was struggling with a police officer when he grabbed the officer’s taser, and was trying to use it against the officer when he opened fire and killed him.
Archival: But Feidin Santana, the man who filmed the shooting with his cell phone, tells NBC news Scott did not.
No. He never grabbed the taser of the police. He never grabbed the taser.
Sara Ganim: Video later showed that Scott was running away. In Chicago, when LaQuan McDonald was shot and killed, initial statements by the police union were that the teenager was approaching officers with a knife in his hand, ignoring calls to drop it.
Archival: A police spokesman claimed that McDonald had been crazed and lunged at police before the officer opened fire in self-defense.
Sara Ganim: But the video shows-
Archival: None of that happened.
Sara Ganim: … that he was walking away. In another Chicago case, 13 year old Adam Toledo was shot and killed while his hands were up, and he was standing between a small opening and a fence. But the initial press release said he was armed, and it didn’t mention his age.
We can also pinpoint these errors in cases you may not have heard about. When Donovan Lynch was killed by police in Virginia Beach, the initial press release combined three separate killings, to make it appear that there was a mass shooting. But actually it was three separate events, and Lynch was not a suspect in any of those shootings. In fact, despite the officer’s reports that Lynch had a gun, there’s no evidence that he did.
17-year-old John Albers, he was fatally shot by an Overland Park police officer while he was backing a car out of his family’s garage. Initially the narrative was that the officer fired the 13 rounds because he was behind the vehicle and feared being run over. But we now know, the back window of the vehicle was intact. It was the passenger window that was shot out. Video shows the officer failed to identify himself, or instruct the teen to stop. And he pulled out his weapon before the garage door was even fully open.
Then there’s this case, in December of 2015. Footage of an officer involved shooting with sparking protests in Los Angeles after Nicholas Robertson was shot while crawling away from police. And then a video emerged, quelling those protests. It showed Robertson with a gun in his hand, firing it into the air.
But the video which was released in violation of the LAPD’s protocol, was not the whole story. Two years later, a new video came to light showing that Robertson was not firing the gun when he was shot. A jury later awarded his family $3.6 million.
In April of 2018, a bipolar man was scaring people on the streets of Crown Heights, going up to people and pointing an object at them. The NYPD responded with 10 rounds shooting Saheed Vassel dead. The initial press release said that several people had called 9-1-1 to say that Vassel was pointing a silver firearm at people. However, when the tapes emerged, it was clear that wasn’t true. One person even stated, clearly, on a 9-1-1 call, “It’s not a gun.”
There’s also Mario Gonzalez. Alameda Police gave a very brief statement, after Gonzalez was killed in April of 2021, saying that officers attempted to detain him and a physical altercation ensued. At the time, they said Gonzalez had a medical emergency, and officers immediately began lifesaving measures, that he was transported to the hospital where he later died. What really happened?
Archival: Oh my gosh.
We’re going to take care of you. Okay?
Sara Ganim: What really happened is that officers pinned him down for four minutes, while he struggled to breathe. The interim police chief later called the video troubling.
Using medical emergency to distract from what really happened is something that we’ve seen before. Police officers used it to describe George Floyd’s death, something a jury later called murder. But initially police said it was a medical incident, during a police interaction, saying Floyd suffered a medical distress during his arrest.
Archival: Mom, I love you. [inaudible 00:12:31] My face is down. I can’t breathe man. Please, please let me stand.
Sara Ganim: They also failed to mention in that initial release that officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes and only got up after paramedics asked him to.
Just days after Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis police continued to make arrests using violence and then fudge it on public documents. For example, police claimed that there was no one injured when they arrested a protestor named Jaleel Stallings. They accused Stallings of shooting at officers, but a judge later acquitted Stallings of any wrongdoing. And medical records show that his eye socket was fractured by police who beat him during his arrest. Protestors marching on Floyd’s behalf in other cities, faced similar treatment.
In Buffalo, New York. Video shows police lied when they said a 75-year-old protestor tripped and fell, leading to a pretty bad head wound. In fact, police pushed him.
Our research of all of these initial press statements led us to more than a dozen examples of misdirection, misinformation, spin, or flat out inaccuracies. More than half of the victims were black, and all but three were minorities.
In one case in King County, Washington, home to Seattle, the sheriff’s office put out a press release about a stolen truck with a four-year-old black poodle inside of it. The release even tells the public, the poodle’s name, Monkey. It did not mention the name Anthony Chilcott, the driver of the truck who was shot and killed by police During this incident. Chilcott had multiple gunshot wounds to his head, but those aren’t mentioned either. It does say, however, that Monkey was uninjured. Chilcott’s death was not mentioned until the end of the press release.
Deborah Jacobs: The press release gave more attention to the poodle, and named the poodle, than it did to the fact that a man had been killed by police after an unnecessary chase.
Sara Ganim: That’s Deborah Jacobs. She was formerly in charge of the King County office of Law Enforcement oversight. And she’s since taken on the issue of accountability in police press releases.
Deborah Jacobs: Those are the kind of things that got me interested, because I know a lot of impacted families, and I know how much it matters to them, no matter what culture they’re a part of, how their loved one is portrayed. And in their rush to defend themselves, the police have tried to paint a picture of people that will justify their actions.
Sara Ganim: Does it impact the outcomes of some of these cases, do you think? The fact that, in more of these high profile cases than not, there are no criminal convictions?
Deborah Jacobs: I do think it impacts public opinion, and its sort of ties into confirmation bias. So this would be particular to African American people and other people of color.
Sara Ganim: For Deborah, it all started with a case of a young man named Tommy Le.
Archival: Tommy Le was shot three times and died after officers say he failed to comply with their orders.
Sara Ganim: The initial story deputies told about Tommy Le was that he was chasing a neighbor with a knife, and that when police arrived at the scene, Le was stabbing at the neighbor’s front door shouting that he was the creator. Deputies fired tasers, but switched to guns when the taser was ineffective. But Lei did not have a knife. He had a plastic Paper Mate pen.
Deborah Jacobs: It very quickly painted a picture of Tommy Le that was, number one, inaccurate, and number two, not positive. Tommy Le’s family are immigrants from Vietnam, and the painting of their son as a knife wielding muttering person was terribly devastating to them. To say it added insult to injury doesn’t even begin to describe it, because it wasn’t just injury, it was death. And it wasn’t just insult, it was soul destroying for them, from a cultural standpoint.
Jeff Campiche: I get a call, would I meet with the family?
Sara Ganim: Le family attorney, Jeff Campiche, told me that the initial narrative by deputies took such a stronghold that even he, a lawyer who was going to represent the family, went in thinking-
Jeff Campiche: That he was the drug crazed gang banger attacking the police.
Sara Ganim: But Campiche says he quickly learned the law enforcement narrative was flawed.
Jeff Campiche: I was told that Tommy was such a sweet young man, that they couldn’t imagine that he would attack the police with a knife, just not possible.
And I listened and I said, “Well, what did he do in his spare time?” And they told me that he liked to read books and play chess. I said, “Okay, show me his bedroom.” So I go in the bedroom, cynical at this history they gave me or description, and next to his bed is a little red backpack. And I zip it open and inside is a small box chess set, with the surface almost worn out. And in it are the chess pieces.
And I think, “Hmm.” And then I look at the little table by the bed. There’s two books on it. The first one is checked out to Tommy. It’s the Count of Monte Cristo, by Dumas. If you read it’s brilliant, but it’s hard to read. It’s not lightly read. And next to it, is a copy of Goethe’s Faust, with Tommy’s notes in it. This young man is reading Dumas and Goethe. And so I’m thinking, “Maybe not a gang banger.”
Sara Ganim: Campiche, who is a former district attorney himself, goes to the medical examiner’s office. And shortly after he walks in, a clerk comes up to him.
Jeff Campiche: Hands me the autopsy report and he says, “It’s all bullshit.”
And I said, “Pardon me? What’s bullshit?”
“What the sheriffs say, it’s bullshit. They shot him in the back.”
And so I opened the autopsy report. Right there, cause of death, handgun wound to the back. And I thought, “I must have not read that police report right. How could I have missed that? If it’s a self-defense shooting, they couldn’t have shot him in the back.”
And I’m scratching. I’m thinking, “Maybe it’s the wrong case.” And I’m just dumbfounded.
Sara Ganim: Of course, it’s not the wrong case. Tommy Le was shot once in the hand, and twice in the back. He was not charging deputies. But that, too, was omitted from the police report.
Jeff Campiche: No mention that he’s shot in the back.
Sara Ganim: What was in the report is a note.
Jeff Campiche: … report is a little note, written by a sergeant who says, “Arrived at the scene to find the deputies standing around the suspect. And I asked them…” Because he’d heard on the radio that there was a knife. “Did you get the knife?”
The deputies told him there was no knife, just an ink pen. And-
Sara Ganim: Jeff Campiche and I are sitting in his office in Seattle when he tells me this story.
Jeff Campiche: I was shocked by this.
Sara Ganim: He turns to his desk drawer, and opens it, and pulls out a black Paper Mate pen.
Just like this?
Jeff Campiche: That’s the brand.
Sara Ganim: That’s exactly the brand.
Jeff Campiche: That’s exactly the pen. But they still made the narrative to the press, that he was armed with a knife. And then they sort of changed it to a knife or a sharp object. In the use of force review a year later, they concluded it was okay to shoot and kill this boy because he was holding this ink pen. Deadly ink pen. If you ask the King County Sheriff’s office the number of deputies injured with a plastic ink pen, the only danger they have from an ink pen is people like you and me writing things.
One year after the shooting, after we’ve had our press conference, that shows that he was shot in the back-
Sara Ganim: Can we talk about the shot in the back for a second?
Jeff Campiche: Yep.
Sara Ganim: You explained it to me. You explained how the bullet, the first bullet left his body, but not how the second one didn’t.
Jeff Campiche: Yes, and I have left that out, so far, because that wasn’t published. We held onto that. But it goes like this, he was shot in the back twice with a handgun. The first bullet penetrated the front of his body, anterior, and came out. The second bullet hit nothing hard, just organs, but stopped. And you could see it like a button in his chest, a silver button, flat.
That is called a shored bullet, because it would’ve kept going, but for the fact that it hit something hard and stopped. A shored bullet means the person was shot leaning against the wall. But in this case, on his face, down, on the street, the officer shot him in the back while he was laying down. And it stopped.
King County issued something called, “a use of force review”, which is a departmentally wide review of the shooting, that concluded that the officers acted well within the scope of the standing orders in King County.
Sara Ganim: Did it acknowledge he was shot in the back?
Jeff Campiche: No, they forgot to put that in there.
Sara Ganim: In the use of force report?
Jeff Campiche: Right. Signed by the sheriff, and everybody else of authority in the department.
Sara Ganim: Go ahead, introduce yourself.
Sheriff John Urquhart: I’m Sheriff John Urquhart, retired.
Sara Ganim: We’ll be right back.
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Urquhart, that’s how you say it?
Sheriff John Urquhart: Yep.
Sara Ganim: Awesome. Thanks so much for talking to me on such short notice.
John Urquhart was the King County Sheriff when Tommy Le was shot and killed.
What do you think happened? I’ve been a reporter long enough to know that you don’t always know everything the moment that press release is written, but what happened?
Sheriff John Urquhart: Yeah, it used to be when I would talk to a news reporter in particular, I says, “What’s your deadline?”
“Got to have it by five o’clock.”
Sara Ganim: He goes on to explain that the changes to the media industry over the last 15 years, the emphasis on 24/7 news, has put a tremendous pressure on public information officers.
Sheriff John Urquhart: There’s no deadlines. Everybody, it’s cutthroat. They want that information. They just beat a PIO up to get that information and to get it now. Well that puts a lot of pressure on us to get that information out sooner, before we really had a chance to dig in and figure out what’s going on. That’s part of the problem.
Going back to Tommy Le, the PIO at the time-
Sara Ganim: PIO is an acronym for public information officer.
Sheriff John Urquhart:
… number one was a fill-in, not his main job, because we only have one PIO in the sheriff’s office, because they won’t fund the office like they should. So there was only one. She was on vacation. He was a fill-in, very inexperienced. As part of it, was given false information … not false, incorrect information from the detectives on the scene. Incorrect. So in an effort to get information out, he put that out there. It wasn’t correct. And he didn’t find out … we didn’t find out, especially since he was a fill-in, until a couple of three days later, that there was no knife involved when he was shot.
Sara Ganim: Although Urquhart was quick to blame the 24/7 news cycle for this mistake, a pressure that I’m not dismissing as a real factor here. There is definitely more at play.
Do you really think that it’s never the case that the police get defensive about their actions?
Sheriff John Urquhart: We’re speaking globally about police departments and information that comes out. Clearly, that’s absolutely the case, absolutely the case.
That was the case, frankly, until I became the PIO. I was able to change that culture in the sheriff’s office, their defensive because they think they’re going to get beat up on. Yeah, they’re going to get beat up on. Sometimes. Most of the time it’s deserved, not always, but most of the time. But if you could put the facts out there, if you can be open and honest, then you know you’re going to be much better off in the short run and in the long run.
Sara Ganim: Let’s back up, because Urquhart, himself, spent time as a PIO before he was elected sheriff. And his own story of how he came into that position is relevant to our research.
Sheriff John Urquhart: I spent many years as an undercover vice and narcotics detective, but almost all street work. I never really had an administrative job. But working those types of jobs that I did have, it’s almost always swing shift or graveyard. I got older and older, and my wife got more and more upset with me for not being home at night. By then, we had two daughters. And she said, “Hey, get the hell off that shift and get a day shift job.”
Sara Ganim: So when he was recruited to apply for the PIO job, it seemed like a nice fit.
Sheriff John Urquhart: I figured, “What the hell, I’ll give it a try.” So then I’m home every day, in theory, at five o’clock. And that goes on for about 30 days and my wife says, “Get the hell out of here. I don’t like having you home every night.”
Sara Ganim: All kidding aside, he kept the job for 12 years.
Did you feel like, when you went into that job, that you were adequately trained to talk to the public?
Sheriff John Urquhart: No, there was no training whatsoever. My predecessor, the person I replaced, hated the job, hated talking to the press, hated the hours, all of that. And she gave me day and a half, two, three days training and that was it.
Sara Ganim: Do you feel like that’s right?
Sheriff John Urquhart: Well, with me, I didn’t really need any more training, because I came in with the right attitude. I respected reporters. I respected the job they did, for the most part. They have a four-year degree. They’re intelligent, they’re trying to do the right thing, again, for the most part.
Most cops don’t feel that way. Most police officers hate the press. Rightly or wrongly, they hate the press. And I think it’s because of the criticism they take the criticism that the press gives of the police, very, very personal. I would go to a scene, maybe a homicide or a car accident. And another officer would say, “Oh, watch out the press is here. Keep them as far away as we can.” And I never had that attitude going in at all.
The primary job is not to make the department look good. That’s one of the jobs, probably. The primary job is to facilitate information from the government, in this case, the police department, facilitate information to the press and that’s relatively easy to do. Doesn’t take a whole lot of training, frankly. Now the training that would come in are rules and regulations about releasing information, public disclosure, how to talk to the press, how not to piss them off, those types of things. From a straight training aspect, there’s not a whole lot that goes into it.
Sara Ganim: Maybe it’s not training in the traditional sense, but maybe training almost in the way that you look at the job and the way that the job is viewed. Do you know what I mean? Not everybody goes into a job the way that you just described it.
Sheriff John Urquhart: No, they don’t. What you’re talking about, Sara, is attitude.
Sara Ganim: Yeah.
Sheriff John Urquhart: Training the attitude in them, if they don’t have it already. When I would pick my replacement, I’d always make sure they had the right attitude about it. And if they did, I would drill it into them and if that didn’t work, bam, I wouldn’t have them as a public information officer. Period.
Sara Ganim: At the end of the day, it actually, it’s more harmful to not understand how to do this job correctly.
Sheriff John Urquhart: Oh, absolutely. Because you’re the face of the department, you’re the face of the department. What you say ends up either on television or in print, and when that happens, it’s there forever. It’s exceedingly important to say the right thing. As we all know, coverup is always worse than whatever you’re trying to cover up. The truth, the facts at least will always come out.
Sara Ganim: I don’t know how closely you followed some of these other high profile cases, where initial information was put out that doesn’t match what we know now. I mean, obviously you don’t have intimate knowledge of those like you do about what happened behind the scenes with Tommy Le. It seems like that idea of misinformation is contributing to a lot of the distrust. The more that happens, I think, the worse this is going to get, not better. Do you think that’s accurate?
Sheriff John Urquhart: Absolutely. There’s no question about it.
Sara Ganim: A lot of times it’s like a character assassination that we see in these higher profile cases that come out-
Sheriff John Urquhart: Absolutely.
Sara Ganim: … that make you kind of wonder.
Sheriff John Urquhart: Yep, that’s exactly right. And one of them is that they used to do on other, I’ve seen other PIOs do it. You shoot some guy. And even if it’s a justified shooting, first thing they want to do is put off this guy’s criminal history. What the hell does that have to do with the shooting? The shooting has to stand on its own, has to stand independently. You vilify the victim, in a misguided instinct to protect your own. If it’s a legal shooting, you shouldn’t have to protect your own. The shooting itself, the facts of the shooting will do that.
Sara Ganim: For what it’s worth, Jeff Campiche told me this about John Urquhart’s handling of Tommy Le’s case.
Jeff Campiche: I think John’s telling what happened. I think that’s true, that the main PR person was missing, but they didn’t disclose the mistake. It was done by the press. And second, that’s not the only part of the false narrative. He went and took responsibility for that. I admire him for that. Urquhart is not the villain here.
Sara Ganim: Campiche also told me that Urquhart went to the family and apologized.
When I first reached out to Urquhart, he sent me an email response that was pretty, let’s say, unconventional for a government official. So I asked him about it.
You said in your email, I just think this is interesting, that you often tell members of the public, “You can’t trust the government to always tell you the truth.” Why do you say that?
Sheriff John Urquhart: Because it’s true. Government in general will always cover their ass, always. You see it and it’s not just the police department. They will always do that. That’s the natural human thing to do, is to try to make excuses for bad behavior, or make excuses for your mistakes.
Sara Ganim: He went on to say that he thinks this is human tendency in many professions when a mistake is made, not just in his.
Sheriff John Urquhart: The problem is with the government, you’re paying their salary. With police, they have the ability, the authority over life and death. So it’s really super important. And the thing I’d also add is, you can’t trust the institution, but you’ve got to figure out which individuals you can trust. And I tell them, “You can trust me to always tell you the truth, not to lie, not to spin, not to cover up. You can trust me. In general, don’t trust government.”
Sara Ganim: The public’s trust in government, especially in policing, has certainly diminished in the last decade. The high profile cases of police misconduct have been polarizing, and have rightfully led to calls for widespread reform, which in turn has caused many law enforcement officials to take a defensive stance. As Deborah Jacobs told me, many officers view the criticism as a misunderstanding of what they do.
Deborah Jacobs: For the most part, I think police are pretty bad at PR, and they sort of culturally dig into this idea that nobody can understand them.
Sara Ganim: And so, some have turned to organizations that profit from controlling the messaging, big PR machines, the kind that you would expect from corporate America. Our open records research found that several police departments say they have outside contracts related to PR, ranging from $3,000 to $200,000. Last year, the San Jose Mercury News reported that one firm has contracted with about 100 West Coast police agencies to create slick and well-produced videos after officer-involved shootings. They all follow the same formula and often are highly edited and produced with select portions of body camera footage and facts disseminated to the public within hours, setting the narrative early.
A sheriff in Florida did something similar, spending money to produce an hour-long video that criticized reporters and activists who were questioning the death of an inmate in one of his jails. Also in Florida, the Sarasota Herald Tribune reported that the PIO for the police department there. Was adding voice over narration to body camera footage that they were releasing. The paper called it, “an odd play-by-play style of commentary, so intrusive that it’s difficult at times to hear the actual interaction between police and the suspects in the video.” Similarly, in Utah, police released body camera footage with superimposed text on screen, and it turned out the text wasn’t accurate.
Sheriff John Urquhart: Oh, I think it’s ridiculous. I hate it. I’ve always said, I will not spin the sheriff’s office. I will not spin the information I put out there.
Sara Ganim: I talked to Deborah and John about this.
Sheriff John Urquhart: Now, if the department can find somebody who has the experience and the attitude to come in and train from the outside to train their PIOs on how to do the job right, there’s no problem with that. But that’s not image. That’s not image makeover. That’s not image control. That’s just how to do the job correctly.
Deborah Jacobs: What I would be supportive of is public money being invested to teach police how to be as transparent as possible, and as receptive, and to understand their role as servants to the public. That would solve their PR problems. As far as just looking good for the sake of looking good, that’s money wasted as far as I’m concerned, because it’s your actions that will determine how the public feels about you.
Sara Ganim: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting middle where you have to spend money on training. But how much is too much money that you’re spending that it becomes more like a PR? Yeah.
Sheriff John Urquhart: When it morphs into image management or image control, that’s just wrong. That’s not the way that government should be spending taxpayer dollars, as far as I’m concerned. Just tell the truth. That’s all you have to do. Tell the truth, be open, be honest. Get the trust that way, as best you possibly can. Be responsive.
Sara Ganim: Yeah, it sounds so simple, right?
Sheriff John Urquhart: I thought it was simple. I thought it really was simple.
Sara Ganim: There’s an interesting middle ground to be found. On one hand, you don’t really want no training for police PIOs like Urquhart, who basically is self-taught, but you also probably don’t feel comfortable seeing agencies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on image consultants.
Using public information requests. We asked around the country to some of the largest police departments, asking to see how much they spend on their public information office. It was hard to draw conclusions, because police departments structure these departments differently. But there were some interesting nuggets of information that we found. For example, the average public relations budget was about 1.5 million. Some departments like Columbus, Ohio are spending as little as $100,000. Others like the LAPD, they spend almost 10 million.
Chicago has 78 people working on communications. In Minneapolis, there’s just one. Minneapolis is actually an interesting place to stop and focus for a minute. It is of course where George Floyd was killed, and where we know of at least two press releases that were manipulated to try to cover up what happened. City council there temporarily moved the PIO from the police department to the city government and reporters revolted, saying it became like a bad game of telephone, where it was impossible to get timely and reliable information.
Carolyn Carson: I actually have a little sympathy for public information officers. They have a hard job.
Sara Ganim: That’s Carolyn Carson. Carson is a former reporter, turned PIO, turned Kennesaw State University professor. And in 2016, she published research about government public relations officers.
Carolyn Carson: And many of them very hard to do the right thing. And in many cases, they’re prevented from doing the right thing, because they work for politicians. And politicians direct their movements and their policies.
Sara Ganim: By the way, I have some sympathy too. I do actually consider a number of police and government public information officers to be friends. I can also say that at least 50% of those that I’ve worked with over the years, have been good people trying to do the right thing. Of course, there’s always that tension, that underlying tension that I described when I talked to Urquhart.
… that continuous tension, a little bit of love, a little bit of hate. We’re like always trying to [inaudible 00:39:36] out a little bit.
Sheriff John Urquhart: It’s usually a hate/hate relationship though in most cases.
Sara Ganim: Really?
Sheriff John Urquhart: There isn’t much love there.
Sara Ganim: I feel like it depends. It’s like dependent on the person.
Sheriff John Urquhart: True. Exactly.
Sara Ganim: And the reporter too, make no mistakes. Some of them can be assholes.
Anyway, back to Carson and her research.
Carolyn Carson: Sometimes they do things that are not quite right, because they’ve been told to do it by their bosses. Other times they do things that are not the best, because they don’t know any better. And sometimes they do things because they’re political hacks, and are not trained public relations professionals. More so than any other segment of the public information officer cohorts, a lot of police PIOs are former foot soldiers, so to speak. So their loyalty is not to public information. Their loyalty is to whatever they’re told to do, and sometimes they’re not necessarily told to do the right thing.
Sara Ganim: Like Urquhart, Carson found that part of the problem does lie with some media, especially when it comes to local news stories. It’s not just the 24/7 demand for content. She also pointed out that shrinking newsrooms leave reporters desperate for easy information.
Carolyn Carson: There are fewer reporters than ever, and the reporters who are left have more and more responsibility than ever before. So they have come to have to rely on PR people, and particularly government public information officers, to help them get the information they need. And the PIOs know this, and know that they’re filling a very vital role in helping reporters do their jobs. So there is a very symbiotic relationship between reporters and public information officers. Now the good ones don’t take advantage of that.
Sara Ganim: But the crux of her research focuses on the tightening of access. Her research actually started from surveys asking reporters a simple question, “What’s the biggest barrier to getting information?” And from there she talked to PIOs, first in government agencies across the board, and then specific to law enforcement agencies. Probably not surprisingly, she found that even in well-staffed news markets, reporters who cover crime struggle to find information beyond the tightly controlled message that’s put out by police PIOs.
Carolyn Carson: 10, 15 years ago, a reporter would show up at a crime scene, and the first officer on the scene would come out and tell them what he saw and what he’s going to put in the crime incident report. A little later, the detective who was in charge would also come out and talk to you and tell you what they knew so far. Then it started to develop, and especially once everybody’s starting to hiring PIOs, that nobody would come to the tape. You had to wait till the PIO showed up, and the PIO would go behind the tape and interview these people and then come out and tell you what was going on.
I think our knowledge of crimes has changed dramatically, because of police public information officers.
Sara Ganim: It dilutes the quality of the reporting, but I think that’s somewhat intentional on the part of the police department. Right?
Carolyn Carson: And the worst part about it, to me, is that we don’t get to hear the voice of the officers involved. And if you ask to talk to the detective who’s in charge of the investigation, nine out of 10 times, you’re denied. They won’t let you talk to the investigator. The only person that you can talk to is the PIO, and if you get to talk to anybody else in the department, it’s the chief who usually has no clue as to what happened. You rarely get to hear the voice of the people who are actually doing the work, and that to me is a shame.
And it’s also bad for the public, because they don’t see the humanity of the officers. And a lot of the hostility that the public has toward police officers stems from that, this lack of human face on the officers out there, because we never see them on TV talking about their work and what they do.
Sara Ganim: Carson found that reporters in southern states were particularly affected by a culture of secrecy, but across the board, she found that 75% of law enforcement PIOs felt it necessary to supervise, or monitor, the interviews that police officers give to reporters.
Carolyn Carson: One of the things we discovered in our research was some instructional manuals that basically tells government public information officers that they needed to control their employees and gag them, and make sure that nobody talks to the media without their permission, and that they be present for any interviews that they conduct, and interrupt them if they start straying from the official message of the department.
Sara Ganim: The Brechner Center, which produces this podcast, also published research on this topic in 2021, finding that not only are many police departments gagging the rank and file police officers, but they’re doing it unconstitutionally.
Government employees have a right to free speech under the First Amendment, but of the nearly 70 department policies that the research team obtained, most were constitutionally suspect. The research found that New York City, with the nation’s largest police force also has one of the most controlling media policies. So does Phoenix, St. Louis, Greenville, South Carolina, Memphis, Seattle, and Broward County, Florida.
There were some policies that looked okay on paper, but officers still feared retaliation. There are numerous examples around the country of police officers who spoke out about injustices who were then ostracized and bullied for it. We’ll hear from one of those whistleblowers next episode, and she says there’s a cultural problem that clearly exists even when there isn’t an obvious policy problem on paper.
Before George Floyd’s murder, police sources were given an extra level of credence in newsrooms. It was generally accepted that if police said it, then it was true. But Floyd’s death made reporters and editors revisit that kind of thinking. And when scrutinized the same way that other sources are scrutinized, reporters found that police were not always telling the truth about what happened.
It remains true that fact checking the police is a difficult task to do, especially on deadline. Law enforcement enjoys a protection, a veil of secrecy that is recognized as an important tool in their work. If every part of the investigative process was open from the start, it would be harder to catch the bad guys. Also, there’s this police are allowed to lie, in certain circumstances, and as Deborah Jacob suggested-
Deborah Jacobs: The normalization of being allowed to lie in certain circumstances, I think probably contributes, but mostly… Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s defensiveness, that’s it. They want to look good. And they want to make sure their people don’t get in trouble.
Sara Ganim: It’s a cultural shift that should be addressed, because in the nearly 15 cases that we talked about in this episode, there were no real consequences for police putting out blatantly false narratives, and those are just the cases that we know about.
Deborah Jacobs: There’s no consequences. There’s very little police accountability.
Sara Ganim: This is, Why Don’t We Know.
The following police departments declined to comment for this episode, most of them citing pending criminal or civil cases related to our reporting. The Clark County Sheriff’s Office in Washington State, the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department, the North Charleston Police Department, Chicago Police, Virginia Beach Police, Overland Park Police, the LA County Sheriff’s Office, the NYPD, the Alamada Police Department, Minneapolis Police, and the King County Sheriff’s Office.
This episode was written and produced by me, Sara Ganim. The associate producer is Thomas Holton. Our research consultant is Britney Suszan. Additional research and reporting was done by Kaylee Whidden, Vivian Ionesco, Ariana Aspuru, Jessica Turkovich, Trey Ecker, and Brett Posner-Ferdman.
Open records requests were filed by Nomfumo Manaba, Alexandra Harris, and Britney Suszan. Archival sound was collected by Thomas Holton and Trey Ecker. This episode was edited by Thomas Holton, Amy Fu and James Sullivan at WUFT in Gainesville, Florida.
The theme music for Why Don’t We Know, was composed by Pete Readman. Audio mixing was done by James Sullivan. Why Don’t We Know is a production of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. For more information, please visit our website at www.WhyDontWeKnow.org
Transcript created by Rev.com