The 24-hour news cycle and social media are abuzz with controversy over football players kneeling during the national anthem. We wonder if most Americans remember what the initial protest was about. Police officers haven’t forgotten.
When Colin Kaepernick took a knee, he was protesting what he incorrectly viewed as an increase in police brutality. We haven’t forgotten that fact because, while we support the First Amendment Rights of every American, including the right to protest, we believe the whole conversation about race and policing has been distorted by the media and anti-cop activists looking to score cheap political points.
An accusation of bias against police officers is a deeply personal subject to the men and women in blue. We are not dismissive of the idea that there are officers who allow racial bias to affect their duties. But popular media have distorted what is happening at police departments across America, and this matters greatly, because officers’ lives are put at risk by a false media narrative on policing.
Celebrity cases, where protests catch the eye of national networks in response to police shootings, have been grossly mishandled by the media. In fact, the entire “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” protest was based on a lie. Michael Brown did not have his hands up when he was shot; he was reaching for the officer’s gun — a fact that was confirmed by African-American witnesses at the scene. The Obama-era Department of Justice looked at the evidence and came to the same conclusion.
In Milwaukee, Sylville Smith refused to put his gun down. He was shot by a black officer. But when riots broke out in his neighborhood, the mainstream media selectively reported the facts, downplaying the race of the officer or threat posed by Smith because it didn’t fit into the narrative of a white officer shooting an unarmed black man.
Data collected on police violence shows black men are not disproportionately targeted when the crime rates of men across all races are examined. Again, every crime steeped in bias is a tragedy. But the situation is made much worse when the exception is perceived as the rule in the public eye. That’s when cops start to become targets.
How soon we forget that the same Cowboys organization that kneeled before the anthem in Arizona was denied the right by the NFL to wear a helmet sticker to commemorate the officers shot in the streets of Dallas in July 2016. Lest we forget, that was the night an armed black assailant started firing indiscriminately into a crowd, shooting every officer he could get in his sights. We saw more police officers murdered weeks later in Baton Rouge.
We cannot ignore the role of media distortions of celebrity cases in these shootings. Complex situations in which an officer shoots a black man are often boiled down to simplistic slogans that purposely distort the facts. The false narrative gets played for days and weeks on end. The public reacts with outrage, fueled by false reports. And then a deranged individual takes matters into his own hands, shooting cops. A sniper took aim in Dallas, a sick individual killed officers at point-blank range in New York. Communities affected by crime, and the officers who police them, are left on edge. The bigger issue here is media bias, not police bias.
Popular media myth is making the difficult job of policing harder, and it would not be hyperbole to say some in the national media have the blood of officers on their hands. Furthermore, celebrity football players who kneel in protest of police brutality are not advancing a thoughtful conversation about community policing tactics but merely a simplistic and largely false narrative.
If we are going to have a conversation about race and policing in America, let’s include the difficult challenges posed to officers who must make life and death decisions in an instant. And let’s not ignore data to advance a political agenda. Doing so only endangers officers, who took a vow to “serve and protect.”
Kevin Lawrence is executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association.