A second disproportion also exists: We've been discussing a major disproportion in the upper-end press corps' coverage of a certain type of event.
We refer to the amount of attention paid to incidents in which people are shot and killed by police officers.
The current disproportion tracks to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in January 2012. Trayvon Martin, then 17, wasn't shot by a police officer, but that's where the current journalistic trend got its start.
More on the coverage of that event next week. For now, back to that disproportion:
At present, some of these shooting deaths receive massive press coverage, as is completely appropriate. Others of these shooting deaths barely get mentioned at all.
Today, we'll cite a pair of cases in which unarmed people were apparently asphyxiated by police officers. In each case, the conduct by the officer or officers seems extremely hard to defend.
We'll start with a headline from the Associated Press. This headline may seem quite familiar:
Video: Man who died during arrest cries, begs police to stopIt would be natural to assume that the report which carried that headline was a report about the recent killing of the late George Floyd. It would be natural to assume that the headline sat atop an AP report about the release of the videotape which showed the horrors of Floyd's recent death.
In fact, that headline sat atop a report about the killing of Tony Timpa, age 32, in Dallas. The AP report appeared in July 2019, when videotape of this killing first appeared.
In fact, Timpa died at the hands of four police officers in August 2016. Yesterday, we heard his name for the first time, as we read a recent piece by Matt Taibbi about a different topic.
Timpa's death at the hands of police receive virtually no coverage in real time. Last year, when that horrendous videotape appeared as part of a legal case, the contents of the videotape occasioned a very small amount of press coverage.
The videotape of George Floyd's death is clearly horrendous. What was horrendous about the videotape in the case of this earlier death?
To understand that, you must watch the tape, or read a summary you feel you can trust. Below, you see the start of a recent discussion of this case which appeared in The New Republic.
This essay in The New Republic was written by Audrey Farley. Farley believes that "increasingly desperate critics of the Black Lives Matter" position are trying to "exploit" the facts of Timpa's death.
Farley is heavily favorable to the Black Lives Matter movement, as is completely appropriate. For that reason, we'll suggest that the summary with which she starts her report can almost surely be trusted:
FARLEY (7/9/20): On August 10, 2016, Tony Timpa, a 32-year-old white businessman, called the police, claiming he needed help. As Timpa told the dispatcher, he had recently stopped taking his medication for schizophrenia and depression, had consumed drugs, and was afraid for his safety. Officers arrived on the scene outside a Dallas porn shop, where a private security guard had already handcuffed Timpa. While Timpa never threatened officers on the scene or resisted arrest, he acted erratically. It wasn’t long before an officer pinned him under his knee.This conduct was remarkably similar to the conduct visited, four years later, upon the late George Floyd. In a recent essay for Reason, Jacob Sullum quotes the pleas from the dying Timpa which can be heard on the tape:
Body-cam footage released in 2019, following a court order, shows Timpa pleading, “You’re gonna kill me! You’re gonna kill me!” and begging to be freed for nearly 14 minutes before falling unconscious. At that point, officers presumed he was sleeping and didn’t bother to check his pulse. Instead, they joked about his supposed imbecility. “It’s time for school. Wake up!” one officer said. Another replied, “I don’t want to go to school! Five more minutes, Mom!” Officers laughed about buying him new shoes for the first day and making him waffles for breakfast. Finally, after four minutes of Timpa being unresponsive, a medical responder began CPR. It was futile. An autopsy later confirmed sudden cardiac arrest due to “excessive physical restraint,” also citing cocaine and the narcotic Tramadol in Timpa’s system.
SULLUM (7/9/20): Recall that the cops ostensibly were there to help Timpa, who was obviously freaking out and according to his family was "suffering drug-induced psychosis." The officers clearly recognized that Timpa was intoxicated, since they repeatedly asked him what drug he was on, and he told them he had taken cocaine. Yet they proceeded to restrain him for 15 minutes in a position that made it difficult for him to breathe. Given the circumstances, Timpa's "resistance," which the officers repeatedly described as "squirming," was perfectly understandable. [U.S. District Judge David] Godbey's framing suggests that someone who panics because he is being smothered to death thereby justifies the use of force that caused him to fear for his life.In a recent ruling, Judge Godbey granted "qualified immunity" to the officers involved, frustrating the ability of Timpa's family to seek legal redress. We aren't qualified to say if Godbey's decision was right.
"Will you let me go, please?" Timpa begged. "Please let me go….Help me! Help!…Help me. Help me. Help me….Oh God, please. Oh God, please….Stop, Officer….It hurts! Please take it off." He repeatedly lifted and turned his head, as if struggling to breathe.
In that passage, Sullum is reporting Timpa's dying words, as they exist on that videotape. Along the way, Sullum mentioned the extent to which this horrendous incident resembles the horrendous incident in which George Floyd lost his life.
In Farley's view, conservatives are trying to "exploit" this similarity. That said:
Presumably, almost anyone can see how similar these horrendous incidents were. People will disagree as to whether attention should be paid to that fact, but the basic similarity of these killings is hard to disappear.
That said, these incidents are vastly different in one major way:
The killing of Floyd has received worldwide attention, as is completely appropriate. By way of contrast, very few people have ever heard of Timpa, four years after his death.
Here again, we see a major disproportion in the amount of attention paid to similar events. The killing of Floyd has received massive press coverage, as is completely appropriate.Until the last few weeks, the killing of Timpa had received almost none.
Does this disproportionate coverage possibly constitute a problem? More specifically, is it possible that misperceptions arise from such disproportionate coverage—misperceptions concerning some of the most important topics with which e must come to terms?
We would assume that this disproportion creates large misperceptions about extremely important topics. We think the press corps' conduct in this regard has been (typically) incompetent, tilting over toward heinous.
That said, when it comes to death at the hands of police officers, a second type of disproportion is often mentioned. When this second type of disproportion is ignored, it too could create a misperception.
It seems to us that this second misperception would be less extreme than the one which is currently being created. At any rate, the second type of disproportion is mentioned today in the New York Times, in its report about Attorney General Barr's appearance before the House:
FANDOS AND SAVAGE (7/29/20): Asked about the pleas for racial justice informing many of the protests, Mr. Barr said, “I don’t agree that there is systemic racism in police departments generally in this country,” and he quoted statistics that more white Americans had been killed by the police than Black Americans.In absolute numbers, more white people are killed in encounters with police officers. We remain curious as to how many people are aware of that basic fact.
Critics have called those figures misleading because they do not account for relative population differences; a Black person is more likely to be killed than a white person.
As a percentage of population, more black people get killed in encounters with police. That disproportion would also be a part of any full discussion of this important topic.
A few weeks ago, many observers cited that second disproportion. They did so in response to an accurate statement by President Donald J. Trump, one of history's rarest events.
That second type of disproportion is part of any full discussion too. We plan to discuss that disproportion in the next two days.
Tomorrow: Disproportions 1 and 2
McWhorter speaks: John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, where he mainly teaches linguistics. We regard him as visibly sane, if not always right in all things.
McWhorter recently discussed Tony Timpa's death. We expect to return to his analysis, but if you want to peruse it today, you can find it here.
McWhorter's piece appears at Quillette, not at The Atlantic, where we normally find his work. We hunted around and found it because it was mentioned by Farley.