WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10, 2021
Then, we clicked a link: Last Friday, the Washington Post published an essay about police shooting deaths.
The topic is very important. Accompanied by a large photo, the essay appeared at the top of page A21—the page called FRIDAY OPINION.
Technically, the essay was an "opinion column—and its author, DeVitta Briscoe, did state some opinions concerning police behavior. But Briscoe also made an array of factual claims about some important events.
Early on, she described the shooting death around which her essay would focus. She described the shooting death of her brother, Che Taylor, who was shot and killed by two Seattle police officers in February 2016.
Below, you see how Briscoe described that event. Her essay began as shown, hard-copy headline included:
BRISCOE (3/5/21): When your loved one is killed by the police
I’ve gotten the worst call of a lifetime three times in my life. The first one came in 2001, when I was told that Himey—my best friend and the man I wish I’d married—had been shot and killed. The second came in 2010, when my son Donald—a great student who dreamed of being a film producer—had been fatally shot in the head. The most recent was in 2016, when Che—my big brother and protector—was shot seven times by police, handcuffed, and left to bleed out for six and a half minutes before aid was administered or paramedics arrived. When aid finally came, it was too late. Another person I loved, killed by a gun.
The aftermath of each of those shootings was remarkably similar: the pain, the loss, the stigma. And yet, there was one important difference: how justice was, or was not, done.
Himey and Donald’s killers were convicted and are in jail, paying their debt to society. Che’s killers can still be paid to protect and serve us, despite the fact that they shot him within nine seconds of approaching him, while he complied with orders, and then blamed it on him reaching for a gun in his waistband. There was no gun in his waistband.
In her third paragraph, Briscoe described the incident in which her brother was shot and killed.
The police officers who shot and killed her brother "blamed it on him reaching for a gun in his waistband," Briscoe said. "There was no gun in his waistband."
Briscoe's implication was obvious. Rather plainly, she seemed to be saying that the officer's claim about the gun was false. Indeed, another implication seemed clear:
Briscoe seemed to be saying that her brother hadn't been armed at all.
"There was no gun in his waistband?" This was a dramatic, highly familiar claim. It seemed to say that, in this incident, Seattle police had shot and killed yet another unarmed man.
As we do in a wide array of journalistic matters, we decided to check Briscoe's (several) links. We decided to see what kind of sourcing—what kind of evidence—she had presented in support of her implications and claims.
In the passage describing her brother's death, Briscoe included three separate links. Somewhat oddly, all three links led to a single news report—a report about the way an eight-member Seattle inquest jury had evaluated the officers' conduct in the matter of Taylor's death.
For ourselves, we can't tell you what actually happened when Taylor was shot and killed. Seattle police did release videotape of the incident, but Taylor is largely hidden from the camera's view, behind an open car door, during the brief, deadly incident.
We can tell you what we found when we clicked the link Briscoe (and the Post) had offered in support of her factual claims and her obvious insinuation. Also, we can tell you this:
It's astounding to think that the Washington Post published Briscoe's essay in the form it took. As a matter of basic journalism, it's amazing to think that the Post did that—amazing, and yet not surprising.
Remember—we didn't go hunting for some account which might contradict or challenge Briscoe's account. Initially, we simply clicked the link she herself had supplied—she herself, and the Washington Post.
When we clicked that link, we were surprised by what we found. We're not sure we've ever seen a stranger bit of journalistic sourcing.
Briscoe's link took us to this report about the inquest jury's decision in August 2016. The report had been published by the news division of KING5, a Seattle TV station.
That news report by KING5 was offered as the evidentiary source for Briscoe's claims and implications. Before we show you what that news report said, we'd best back up for a moment.
As noted, Briscoe's essay gets its power from this claim: "There was no gun in his waistband."
That statement is technically accurate! On the other hand, no one ever said or claimed that Taylor had a gun "in his waistband" of the day of this violent, fatal event.
Briscoe's statement is technically accurate, but that isn't what the police had said. In an early report from the Seattle Times, we get some basic background to this event.
Along the way, we also see what was actually said, rightly or wrongly, by the Seattle police. We also see what was said by the two officers in question:
SEATTLE TIMES (2/22/16): Taylor died Sunday evening after police shot him hours earlier on the edge of the Wedgwood neighborhood in Northeast Seattle.
Police were conducting surveillance about 3:30 p.m. in the 2200 block of Northeast 85th Street as part of an ongoing investigation, according to a written statement posted on the SPD’s news website Monday,
Officers saw a man with a holstered handgun and identified him as Taylor, a “convicted violent felon” prohibited by law from possessing a handgun, the statement said. They called for additional units around 4:15 p.m. to assist in taking Taylor into custody.
While Taylor stood at the passenger door of a white Ford Taurus, a marked patrol vehicle with its emergency lights activated pulled up facing the Taurus as an arrest team approached the car, according to police.
“Officers ordered Taylor to show his hands and get on the ground,” the statement said. “He did not follow officers’ commands, and instead leaned into the Taurus.”
Officers and a civilian witness interviewed by investigators reported Taylor reached for a handgun, the statement said.
Two officers, who have yet to be identified, then fired. Investigators did not release information about their race.
The patrol-car video doesn’t capture all of Taylor’s actions, some of which are obscured by the Taurus.
Police detained two other people in the car, called for medics and performed CPR on Taylor until medics arrived, according to the statement. He was taken to Harborview Medical Center, where he died.
Detectives served search warrants as part of the investigation, and recovered Taylor’s handgun, the statement said.
That report by the Seattle Times provides the basic background. It also reports what the Seattle Police Department actually said about this incident. (We'll fill in a bit with information from other reports, including from the Washington Post's Fatal Force web site.)
According to Seattle police, officers had seen Taylor out and about, in midafternoon, "with a holstered handgun." According to Seattle police, they recognized him as a convicted felon who didn't have the right to possess a gun.
According to Seattle police, Taylor had reached for a gun when officers tried to arrest him. Perhaps most significantly:
According to Seattle police, the officers "recovered Taylor's handgun" during this fatal event.
This early report by the Seattle Times provides a basic account of what the police department said about this fatal event. That doesn't mean that their account is accurate. But that's what was actually said.
No one ever said jacksquat about anybody's "waistband." Correctly or otherwise, Seattle police said that Taylor had a holstered handgun on his hip. Correctly or otherwise, they said this handgun was recovered after the brief, fatal incident.
Were these claims accurate? Like everyone else who reads the Post, we have no ultimate way of knowing. Having said that, we can also say this:
Plainly, Briscoe's essay seemed to say that her brother had no gun at all that day. In support of this obvious implication, she—and the Washington Post!—linked to that KING5 report.
When we read Briscoe's essay, we clicked her link and read that report. Tomorrow, we'll show you what we saw when we clicked. At some point, we'll even show you what the Post's own Fatal Forve site says about that event.
Tomorrow, we'll show you what we saw when we clicked Briscoe's link. But for today, we can tell you this:
We think it's astounding that the Washington Post published Briscoe's essay in the form it took. In our view, it's amazing that the Post did that—amazing, and yet not surprising.
Tomorrow: Can this possibly be what the Washington Post regards as support for a claim?