Media Frame: A ‘War on Cops’ Narrative Without Evidence
ABC News claims anti-police violence is on the rise but offers no data.
The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.
An ABC News report last week on a “multi-year” trend of violence targeting the police highlights how easily the “war on cops” narrative sneaks into mainstream media with thin sourcing and little fact-checking.
The headline is measured enough: “‘Execution’ of Missouri police officer comes amid deadly week for police nationwide.” The article begins by detailing the deaths of four officers— Michael Langsdorf, Jose Espericueta, Tara O’Sullivan, and John Hetland—who died in the line of duty the previous week.
But the article by Emily Shapiro and the social posts promoting it made a much larger—and unsubstantiated—claim: that these unrelated killings are part of a national “trend” of violence directed toward the police. A tweet by ABC News sharing the article stated: “Four police officers fatally shot in the U.S. this week—part of what one expert calls a disturbing ‘multi-year’ trend of violence toward police.”
That expert, former acting undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security and ABC News contributor John Cohen, said: “While the numbers may be less when compared to the same time period last year, if you look at it on a multi-year basis we’ve seen a significant level of violence directed toward law enforcement officers.” He added, “It’s an issue that has police chiefs and rank-and-file police officers very concerned.”
This is a significant claim. If there’s evidence of a multi-year trend of violence directed at police it would be a major story. But the article does not include those numbers or data, just an “expert” opinion.
When asked by email for data to support his claim, Cohen told The Appeal his source was “analysis conducted by the FBI regarding targeted attacks broadly, and specifically analysis they have conducted on attacks directed at law enforcement.” Cohen did not provide a link or date of the “assessment,” telling The Appeal he had “received the info through briefings—and it is [an] ongoing body of analysis going back to 2016.” He says he does not know if the “reporting” is public.
“I think the major point was/is that while overall levels of violence may be relatively stable or have even decreased, there is a disturbing rise in targeted attacks directed at public locations (houses of worship, workplaces and other public locations) both broadly and this includes attacks directed at law enforcement.”
Shapiro did not respond to email requests from The Appeal for statistics or studies that could support Cohen’s claim.
The most central element of the article—that violence targeting police is trending upward—is based on data that ABC’s law enforcement expert asserts but does not source. It is, of course, reasonable to seek comment from former law enforcement in a story about law enforcement, but significant claims that provide the entire framing of the story should have publicly verifiable sourcing. Even granting Cohen’s claims, why doesn’t Shapiro seek comment from any other source? Perhaps a neutral legal observer or local activist who can balance out the uniformly pro-police narrative? The whole piece is buoyed by the assertions of one former law enforcement consultant whose argument hinges on a mysterious “ongoing body of analysis” that neither Shapiro nor Cohen provides.
But there is verifiable data that tells a different story. There is no multi-year trend showing an increase in violence toward the police, and there hasn’t been since Black Lives Matter began in 2013. The data we do have is sporadic and shows no trend in either direction. The year 2015 was one of the safest ever for police. As was 2017. There was an uptick in on-duty felonious deaths in 2018, but, as the ABC story notes, this figure is down again in 2019—a fact Cohen mentions, right before insisting there’s a multi-year trend.
Not only does Cohen claim there’s a trend of violence against police without citing any evidence, he builds on the supposed trend by claiming it’s undermining police work and, by implication, resulting in more violence, both by and against the police:
[The violence] causes officers to fear for their safety, which may impact their mental health and make them more forceful and aggressive while interacting with the public, Cohen said.
“It’s not just simply a matter of police officers feeling more threatened,” he said. “They’re much more likely to be wary when responding to a call … they may be more willing to escalate to the use of force when they perceive that they may be threatened. That may result in a violent reaction by the person they’re contacting.”
Cohen calls the “multi-year trend” of violence toward police as “a reflection of the broader levels of anger and violent behavior that’s becoming all too common across our society.”
These are serious claims with profound implications on how the public perceives criminal justice reform, but again no evidence or figures are provided.
Other outlets such as NPR and the Boston Herald have similarly provided space for experts to imply or directly claim there’s a national crisis of anti-police violence. These claims rely on short term upticks of police deaths over the timetable of a year that do not reflect any broader trend. Indeed, when on-duty deaths were at a historic low in 2017, Blue Lives Matter spokesperson and former police lieutenant Randy Sutton, used this lack of violence to support the “war on cops” narrative, telling USA Today that the reduction of violence was evidence that officers were feeling threatened and less likely to engage with criminals. “There’s a saying in law enforcement: You can’t get in trouble for the car stop you don’t make,” he said. “They don’t want to be the next Ferguson, the next officer burned on the stake.” So, an increase in violence directed toward the police is evidence of a “war on cops,” and a decrease in violence directed toward police is also evidence of a “war on cops.” Either way, the narrative is advanced.
There are real stakes to this type of reporting. These narratives, intentional or not, help reinforce a broadly held idea in pro-police and right-wing circles that there is a “war on cops” —an idea advanced, most notably, by conservative academics like Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute who published a book in 2016 by the same title. The parallel Blue Lives Matter movement—animated by a dislike of the Black Lives Matter movement and other efforts to hold police accountable—seeks to remedy this alleged “war” by pushing for state laws that provide further legal sanction on top of the already severe laws against assaulting or killing police officers. In Louisiana, for example, it is now a hate crime to target police officers, affording the police the same protected status as religious and racial minorities. Affirming the “war on cops” narrative, as ABC News permits Cohen to do uncritically, provides propaganda fodder for these anti-reform efforts.
We’re told this “trend” of police violence is very real and urgent––regardless of what the data tells us. There’s a clear political agenda at work of which reporters ought to be cautious. If reporters are going to make high-stakes, politically loaded claims about trends in violence directed toward police, they ought to ask for some kind of evidence. And if they’re not going to do that they should, at the very least, seek out non-law enforcement sources to add balance and healthy skepticism to the reporting.