Some stunning statistics ignored: Over the weekend, we saw a bunch of shaky journalism in the Washington Post.
Much of it dealt with race and sex, topics which tend to produce more heat than light. For today, let’s consider a lengthy, badly jumbled report about the conduct of the Ferguson police.
In Sunday’s Washington Post, Kindy and Leonnig wrote an 1800-word report about lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force by Ferguson police officers. We thought the piece was very jumbled, to the point of being misleading.
This is the way it began:
KINDY AND LEONNIG (8/31/14): Federal investigators are focused on one Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, but at least five other police officers and one former officer in the town's 53-member department have been named in civil rights lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force.It sounded bad. It continued to sound that way as the scribes continued—and perhaps it actually is.
In four federal lawsuits, including one that is on appeal, and more than a half-dozen investigations over the past decade, colleagues of Darren Wilson's have separately contested a variety of allegations, including killing a mentally ill man with a Taser, pistol-whipping a child, choking and hog-tying a child and beating a man who was later charged with destroying city property because his blood spilled on officers' clothes.
One officer has faced three internal affairs probes and two lawsuits over claims he violated civil rights and used excessive force while working at a previous police department in the mid-2000s. That department demoted him after finding credible evidence to support one of the complaints, and he subsequently was hired by the Ferguson force.
Police officials from outside Ferguson and plaintiffs' lawyers say the nature of such cases suggests there is a systemic problem within the Ferguson police force. Department of Justice officials said they are considering a broader probe into whether there is a pattern of using excessive force that routinely violates people's civil rights.
That said, we thought their work was extremely murky, to the point of being misleading. Struggling hard, we fought our way through the jumble of cases Kindy and Leonnig described.
Lawsuits and allegations don’t always have merit, of course. But as best we can tell from our struggle with the Post's prose, the scribes were only describing two incidents which took place in Ferguson itself, each of which had been widely reported before:
Incidents involving officers while they served on the Ferguson force:Two incidents is two too many, depending on what actually happened. But it was strange to fight our way through the Post’s prose, only to learn that these were the only two incidents involving officers as they served on the Ferguson force.
An arrest in 2009 in which a 54-year-old welder, Henry Davis, says he was badly mistreated.
An attempted arrest in 2011 in which a 31-year-old man, Henry Moore, died after being Tasered.
How did Kindy and Leonnig achieve the data, and the list of horribles, in their opening passage? The two incidents we have listed involved four Ferguson officers. Beyond that, the numbers were inflated by incidents involving two current officers while they were serving in other police departments.
As the writers note in their opening passage, the bulk of these incidents involve one current Ferguson officer from his previous work at a different force. Ironically, that one officer, Eddie Boyd III, is one of the few Ferguson officers who is black.
Eventually, the scribes listed the alleged carnage, none of which occurred while Boyd was on the Ferguson force:
KINDY AND LEONNIG: Eddie Boyd III arrived in Ferguson four years ago after three internal affairs investigations into complaints—in 2004, 2005 and 2006—that he assaulted and injured children without cause.Apparently, Boyd has not been charged with any misconduct during his four years on the Ferguson force. That said, why did Ferguson hire him at all, if he had such a shaky previous record?
Boyd and the children are African American. In at least two cases, the children said Boyd pistol-whipped them. In the 2006 case, the department "sustained" the allegations, concluding that Boyd had used unnecessary force when he struck 12-year-old Jerica Thornton with his pistol, records show.
Boyd was suspended and demoted to the rank of a probationary police officer. But the next year, Christopher Dixon, a high school freshman, said Boyd tackled him as he fled an after-school fight and hit him in the face with the butt of his pistol. Boyd said he accidentally hit Dixon's face with his handcuffs when Dixon resisted arrest, records show.
Boyd resigned from the St. Louis force shortly after this incident, saying in a deposition he wanted to avoid the "red tape" of what would have been his fourth internal affairs probe. Boyd was not held liable in the Dixon suit. His police department settled out of court, paying the teenager $35,000, according to Dixon's attorney, Matthew Devoti.
Another lawsuit filed against Boyd alleging he assaulted a suspect is pending.
The question leaps off the page. We could offer several guesses, but there is no sign that the Post writers ever asked.
Should this report have been written? More significantly, does the record of the Ferguson police really stand out in the realm of excessive force?
Two incidents is two too many, depending on what actually happened. That said, two incidents doesn’t seem like a giant number to us. And it’s very hard to tell, from the Post's extremely jumbled reporting, that only two of these incidents involve officers when they were working for the Ferguson force.
We think that was extremely muddled reporting. On the other hand, we’re amazed by the lack of reporting about a completely different topic, a topic which involves some truly stunning statistics about the conduct of the Ferguson force.
On August 25, the New York Times ran side-by-side, front-page profiles of Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson. Due to one undesirable turn of phrase, the sympathetic profile of Brown set off an Internet blasphemy rampage.
The profile of Wilson provoked no discussion. We’ve seen no one discuss a truly stunning graphic contained within this profile.
This graphic shows the number of arrest warrants issued per 1000 people for each community in Missouri with more than 10,000 people. Ferguson issued the largest number of warrants in 2013, by a staggering margin.
To see the graphic, click here, scroll halfway down.
Ferguson seems to have issued roughly 1600 warrants per 1000 people. By way of contrast, Kansas City seems to have issued about 300, St. Louis about 400.
No other community in the state issued even half as many warrants as Ferguson did. Most communities seem to have issued something like 100.
You rarely see such remarkable data in any line of activity. But no mentioned this startling graphic as the blasphemy rampage took off. We’ve seen no one mention it since.
It’s fairly obvious what the graphic suggests. It suggests that the city of Ferguson funds itself with endless traffic citations, followed by endless warrants.
This problem was alleged by Ferguson residents in the first few days after Brown’s killing, cited as a reason for community anger at the police. Since then, we’ve seen virtually no journalistic follow-up.
That amazing Times graphic was widely ignored. A blasphemy rampage was on!
Two incidents is two too many, depending on what actually happened. That said, two alleged incidents of excessive force doesn’t sound like a huge amount to us.
That graphic, by contrast, is statistically stunning. Our view? The Post was fluffing one topic this weekend, completely ignoring another.