Storyline all the way down: As a matter of policy, could Officers Brosnan and Rolfe have exercised discretion that night?
Instead of attempting to arrest the late Rayshard Brooks, could they have issued a summons and driven him home, while impounding his car? Under the "protocols" of the Atlanta Police Department, would they have been allowed to do that?
We've been asking that question because it quickly became part of the discussion of this latest police shooting. More specifically, many people—in comment threads and on TV—began asserting that the offices could, and should, have done so.
Also, that the officers would have exercised such discretion had Brooks belonged to a different "race."
For the record, that's the way we'd like to see many more matters handled. We'd prefer to see fewer arrests, or at least fewer instant arrests—although we do understand that Mothers Against Drink Driving spent decades persuading pundits to stop treating DUIs as a "minor offense."
In theory, a DUI is a serious offense. That widely accepted judgment has quickly given way in the face of this latest incident, which has carried its own mandated claims.
That said, rational discourse tends to fly in the face of such terrible incidents. (To the extent that such discourse ever existed at all.) Just consider what happened last night on the PBS NewsHour, the brightest show in all the land.
Judy Woodruff discussed this matter with a pair of guests. Her first question went to Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown Law School and an MSNBC legal analyst.
Woodruff seemed to want to know if an arrest had been required. The first exchange went like this:
WOODRUFF (6/16/20): Hello to both of you. Thank you so much for being here...For the record, the picture Butler painted may have been somewhat unclear. It would have been good policing, he said, had Brooks been allowed to "just walk to [his sister's] house and leave the car there."
And my question to you is, could this have been headed off from the very beginning? Did the police, coming across a man sitting in his car who had fallen asleep, did they end up—did they have to arrest him?
Paul Butler, I'm going to come to you first.
BUTLER: So, Judy, we see the first 25 minutes of the encounter is civil. At first, the officer who responds says, why don't you just take your car from the driveway to the parking lot and sleep it off? That's effective policing.
But later, when the officer who ends up killing Mr. Brooks shows up, Mr. Brooks says, if you're concerned about my driving, my sister lives two blocks away. I can just walk to her house and leave the car there.
That also is effective policing. The cops don't have to arrest everyone. Public safety is about keeping people safe. But too often, especially with African-American suspects, the resort is always to arrest. And, sometimes, it leads to these tragic consequences.
Presumably, that meant that Brooks should have been allowed to walk to the sister's house, with the car being left on the Wendy's parking lot. Extemporaneous speech is often jumbled, but this point was somewhat unclear.
It's clear, however, that Butler thought that's what the two officers should, and could, have done. He also quickly suggested that they would have done that had Brooks been "white"—that their decision to make an arrest was based on Brooks' perceived "race."
Meanwhile, a basic factual question:
Did Brooks really have a sister who lived two blocks away? Although the statement is often repeated, we've seen no one ask or answer that question. Almost surely, we never will.
The most obvious questions don't always occur to our upper-end journalists. But when Woodruff turned to her other guest, a very strange thing occurred.
Woodruff's second guest was David Thomas, a retired police officer and a professor of criminal science at Florida Gulf Coast University. Amazingly, Thomas was disinclined to agree with Butler!
Woodruf's second guest thought her first guest was wrong! This created a dynamic you will virtually never see on pro-liberal corporate cable:
WOODRUFF (continuing directly): David Thomas, let me ask you about that moment when police made the decision not to just let it go, that, instead, they decide—they did give him a test of whether he had been driving under the influence, and then made the decision to arrest him.Thomas disagreed with Butler! Under current arrangements, you will never see such a thing on pseudo-progressive "cable news," where bookings are almost always done to ensure total agreement with prevailing scripts.
Did they have a choice to say, "You can go?"
THOMAS: The problem with making that choice or having that choice, or using discretion, what actually happens in that process is, if I let him go, there's nothing to keep him from returning to that vehicle and driving it.
And he's impaired. So, because of that, the police do nothing, and if he kills somebody, then the police are going to be held liable for that. So, it's a double-edged sword.
In most instances, I have seen this happen, where people—officers have done this, and the person comes back, takes the car, and they drive off that. And so then that leads into a chase. And it's a mess.
So, the reality is, I think that, as much as I would like to say, "Don't make the arrest," I don't think you have much of a choice, because the officers are responsible.
Woodruff had a difference of opinion on her hands! When she gave Butler a chance to respond, she received a peculiar response:
WOODRUFF (continuing directly): Paul Butler, what about that, that the officers were faced with a decision about what to do about what they found there?Butler's non-response response strikes us as little short of astonishing, except as a classic example of the way modern discourse works.
BUTLER: The reality is, police officers always exercise discretion.
Most cops will tell you they certainly don't arrest everybody who they have probable cause to arrest. So, it's about commonsense judgment. The officer could have said, "If I see you in this car, I'm going to lock you up."
But, again, Mr. Brooks said, all I have to do is walk two blocks away. We know from the evidence that police officers exercise their discretion not to arrest all the time, and white people are—disproportionately get the benefit of those decisions not to arrest. African-American people and Hispanic people disproportionately get locked up.
Thomas had raised a blindingly obvious point. If the officers had decided to let Brooks walk away, he could have returned to the Wendy's lot, driven away while still impaired and proceeded to kill someone.
According to Butler, the officers should have warned Brooks that he'd get arrested if they saw him back in his car. Butler then returned to an approved messaging point, in which he implied that the officers' decision to make an arrest had been based on Brooks' race.
Except for those who love storyline, Butler's response strikes us as astounding. They should have given Brooks a warning. They should have assumed that this would keep him from driving his car away!
That prescription makes zero sense. That said, Butler's comments often strike us that way on corporate cable, where no one is expected to make any sense, just so long as what they say adheres to approved storylines.
Here at this site, we know nothing about criminal law or about policing. But starting Monday, even we understood an obvious point—presumably, Brooks' car would have to be impounded if no arrest was made.
This thought didn't seem to occur to the Georgetown law professor! Meanwhile, though Woodruff never seemed to notice—upper end moderators rarely do—neither Butler nor Thomas seemed to have answered her question.
Woodruff had asked if the officers could have made the choice to release Brooks without arrest. Both guests seemed to assume that they could have made that decision under department protocols, but no one was ever directly asked.
Under department protocols, could the officer have released Brooks? Or did department protocols require a DUI arrest?
On Monday night, William Bratton seemed to say that Atlanta protocols required an arrest. We have no idea if that is true—and most likely, we never will.
As we've been noting for twenty-two years at this site, this is the way the discourse works at the upper ends of our establishment press corps. To our mind, Butler's presentation made astoundingly little sense—except in the all-important way he kept Returning to Narrative.
In the NewsHour's next segment, John Yang interviewed Andrea Ritchie, "a researcher at Barnard College and an attorney representing people involved in police violence." No other guest was interviewed. Viewers would hear what Ritchie said, and they'd hear nothing else.
Barring possible pushback from Yang, no one would offer additional aspects of what might be called "the whole truth." Viewers would hear Ritchie's perspective and they'd hear nothing else.
In this segment, the topic was the shooting death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville back in March. Taylor, a wholly innocent person, lost her life during a multiply-bungled, middle of the night "no-knock" police raid.
For reasons we'll detail by the end of the week, this was one of the worst interviews ever performed on TV. With respect to storyline, suffice to say that the first exchange went like this:
YANG (6/16/20): Earlier in the show, just before this segment, we heard a discussion about Rayshard Brooks' case in Atlanta. This happened on Friday. Already, that officer has been fired. There's talk of criminal charges against him.Why hadn't the officers in Louisville been charged? Imaginably, Yang's question was geared to trigger a certain prevailing narrative. As it turned out, Ritchie was ready to serve.
Breonna Taylor was killed three months ago. The officers are still on the force. They're on this administrative reassignment. And as far as we know publicly, the investigation has had very little movement, very little public movement. What do you make of that difference?
RITCHIE: I definitely think that it has to do with how we see and understand state violence and who it impacts and how it's impacted.
I think it also has to do with the jurisdiction. It's long past time for those officers to be fired. And it's long past time for her family to receive the reparations and healing that they're owed and deserved.
I think part of it is about how we understand state violence. I think our understanding of state violence is shaped by the experiences of black men like Rayshard, who are perceived to be the sort of quintessential targets from the time of lynching to the time of the present, and that the experiences of women, of gender-based violence, are kind of shaped by our understanding of white women experiencing domestic violence in the home.
And, as a result, black women who experience both state and violence in the home are left out of both narratives, and we literally don't see them, even when the violence is happening to them in front of us...
Before the interview was done, Ritchie had possibly given viewers a certain impression. She had possibly given the impression that no one is killed in no-knock raids except an array of black women. Below, you see Yang's second question and Ritchie's response:
YANG: Louisville has banned—in reaction to this, banned no-knock warrants. They called it Breonna's Law. How effective do you think that will be?We also think it'a a good idea that no-knock raids are being questioned. That said, we were struck by Ritchie's list of previous victims, and of the pleasing misimpression this interview might have conveyed.
RITCHIE: I think it's good that we're stepping back to look at how those police officers came to be at her door and looking to interrupt one of the mechanisms that has resulted in her death and also in the death of—I can name five other black women killed by no-knock warrants, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnston, Alberta Spruill, Aiyana Stanley-Jones.
So, there's many—this is not the first time. And so I think that stopping no-knock warrants is important, and that we need to recognize that increasing the time that folks have to respond to 15 or 30 seconds or a minute, imagine someone backing on your door in the middle of the night. That's not enough time to understand what's going on either.
So, we need to maybe step further back and ask ourselves, why are people showing up at—police officers, armed police officers, showing up on people's doors to serve no-knock or short-knock warrants?
And I think then we need to look at the war on drugs, which is where those warrants came from and what brought those officers to Breonna's door that night. And we need to rethink our approach to that in a way that we are taking an approach to saving lives not, taking them, in this way, as Breonna Taylor's was taken.
Why haven't the Louisville officers been fired? Because they were sent to perform a no-knock raid based on a legal warrant, and because Taylor's boyfriend (understandably) fired at them when they entered the apartment, it isn't entirely clear that these officers did something wrong.
These small aspects of the whole truth were never voiced last night, though Ritchie mentioned historical lynchings a few strides out of the gate.
When she was rather fuzzily asked whether she thinks "Breonna's Law" will be effective, she didn't attempt to answer the question. Quickly, though, she listed other victims of no-knock raids, all of whom were black women.
This is messaging all the way down. This is messaging in the absence of the simple, elementary facts which help constitute "the whole truth." It's also abysmal work by the lofty NewsHour, a TV show which has long been branded as the brightest such show in the land.
We'll have more on no-knock raids in Friday's report. By then, we'll have returned to what Jelani Cobb somewhat surprisingly said:
"One other point that I have been making a lot, I have been making all the time, is that... people have the perception that this is a black and brown problem."That's what Cobb said last Wednesday night. Could last night's NewsHour help us see where people might get that perception?
For better or worse, this is the way our discourse has worked at its highest level for a very long time. This brings us to something we decided to check while reading a somewhat novelized essay in The Atlantic.
The essay was written by Wesley Lowery, though he himself called it a "story." Recently, Lowery said the "core value" of our news orgs needs to be "the truth."
Tomorrow: Lowery in Minnesota