Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

It’s Giving Tuesday! And a generous donor has pledged to match the first $5,000 we receive today.

If you love this newsletter and The Appeal’s reporting, now is the best time to give.

With your help we can make major headway toward funding more vital journalism in 2022.


Police standing at a protest
Photo by Joseph Ngabo at Unsplash

Police Disinformation Is Still Disinformation

by Jerry Iannelli, The Appeal

On Nov. 8, KRON4, a local TV news station in San Francisco, ran a startling story. A 23-month-old child named Jasper Wu had been killed amid a shootout that occurred on I-880 in Oakland, California. The station quoted the local cop union, the Oakland Police Officers’ Association (OPOA), as stating that the child’s death was the direct result of the city “defunding the police.”

“This reality was created by the ‘Defund The Police’ majority on the City Council, who have abandoned public safety in Oakland,” OPOA President Barry Donelan said.

The story was, of course, tragic. But there was one major flaw in Donelan’s argument: Oakland did not defund the police last year. In fact, while some positions were frozen in 2021 and beyond, other positions were added. Altogether, the City Council actually increased the police budget compared to the previous year.

While other local news outlets mildly pushed back on Donelan’s outright falsehoods, the reaction overall was predictably timid. Not one outlet plainly stated what Donelan was doing: spreading misinformation.

In recent years, media outlets have increasingly taken steps to call out politicians — like former President Donald Trump — when they lie, yet reporters have largely neglected to do the same to police chiefs, spokespeople, and union officials. There is certainly some debate over the best way to handle politicians who regularly lie for self-gain. But there are seemingly no penalties for a police chief or union boss who, in the course of trying to get more funding, claims crime is up when it’s down or says their cash-rich department has been “defunded.” (It also goes without saying that police departments wantonly lie in order to protect themselves from allegations of wrongdoing.)

To be blunt: Cops are using the press and social media to knowingly lie and spread misinformation all the time. Police officials wield lies just like Trump and others have. But unlike Trump, who was banned from Twitter and most other social media sites after the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, police are still mostly getting away with it. 

For as long as police have existed in this country, they have used their power to lie and hurt people all while evading any accountability for it. Last year, the murder of George Floyd (which Minneapolis police initially lied about) triggered national uprisings over the role of police in American society. It is beyond time for the press to acknowledge that U.S. cops are just as much a source of misinformation as the Facebook groups, 4Chan threads, and TheDonald message board posts that are now doggedly tracked by reporters across the country. It is certainly frightening to acknowledge that armed agents of the state are also trafficking in conspiracy theories and lying for personal gain. But, much like the worrying numbers of cops who are members of white supremacist organizations or who attended the Capitol riot, these are dark facts about the heart of this country that can only be dealt with head-on. 

Of course, police issues are just one item in a seemingly endless list of things that are still OK to lie about in the American media. (A few of those things: The necessity of U.S. wars overseas, the wisdom of trickle-down economics, America’s supposedly superior system of for-profit health-care, U.S. support for despots overseas, the grand benevolence of America’s slave-owning Founding Fathers, the necessity of billionaires, and so on.)

But even compared to those other issues mentioned above, lies by cops are particularly easy to spot and refute. Numerous police officials have spent the last year claiming that shoplifting is rising in San Francisco, for example, when reported shoplifting rates are actually at record lows. Likewise, police officials in numerous states have blamed bail-reform laws for a spike in murders last year, despite the fact that murders rose last year in areas that lessened bail restrictions and areas that didn’t.

Once published, police misinformation is shoveled into the same amplification machines that push out vaccine myths, QAnon nonsense, racist conspiracies, and voter fraud pablum. On Nov. 12, Jason Rantz, a conservative talk-radio host in Seattle, reported that an unnamed 13-year-old boy watched his also unnamed 45-year-old father die after police “failed” to respond to the teen’s 911 call in time. Rantz reported that the delay was due to the city’s Democratic mayor, Jenny Durkan, who allegedly decimated the department’s staffing levels by enacting a vaccine mandate and forcing “more than 100” officers (in a force of more than 1,000) to quit their jobs rather than inoculate themselves. (Importantly, SPD said in October that only six department employees had actually been terminated for refusing to get vaccinated, while another 103 had only been placed on temporary leave.) But Rantz allowed anonymous police sources to instead pin the man’s death on the mayor’s vaccine mandate.

Rantz’s story was slanted in ways that absolved local police and fire officials of wrongdoing in a father’s death. Rantz admitted later in his own story that police and fire officials failed to respond to the 911 call because the apartment’s previous tenant had been labeled a “danger” to first responders, but the label was never removed when the teen and his father moved in. In reality, a paperwork error by a first responder caused the delay in care. (And since Rantz didn’t name the man, it’s impossible to double-check what happened here or know if paramedics could have even saved him.)

That didn’t stop Fox News from blasting the story all over America. Rantz appeared on Tucker Carlson’s eponymous TV show — one of the most-watched shows in the history of U.S. cable news — to blame Durkan for the man’s death. 

“Due to the vaccine mandate crippling police and fire departments, there was a significant delay in response,” Rantz stated in a pained tone as Carlson appeared to struggle to make his face display an iota of empathy.

It isn’t an accident that similarly disprovable claims from police departments regularly wind up on Fox or other conservative news sites. It’s part of a coordinated campaign to absolve police of guilt, spread misinformation, gin up new reasons to avoid cutting police funding, and feed the ever-present culture-war on the Right. Cops know how this game works, but it’s time the rest of the press stopped playing along.


IN THE NEWS

Contact us at newsletter@theappeal.org so we can feature your work here!

The New York Times falsely reported that murders “doubled” in New York City this year, before retracting that point in the face of harsh criticism over the piece’s reliance on police sources. (Murders increased in 2020, but are actually down 1 percent in 2021.) Critics have have also noted the piece contains other dubious or false statements, such as the claim that the NYPD solved “nearly 90 percent” of murders in 2019. The Times itself had previously reported the NYPD only solved 67 percent of murders that year, according to data published by the NYPD. [Alec Karakatsanis / Twitter]

A new study found that approximately 11 percent of all Black men in Pennsylvania, born 1986 to 1989, experienced solitary confinement by age 32. [Hannah Pullen-Blasnik, Jessica T. Simes, and Bruce Western / Science Advances] 

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department fired Deputy Angel Reinosa after saying he lied about being shot by a sniper. But according to Reinosa, he’s being targeted for attempting to blow the whistle on a fellow deputy. [Cerise Castle / Knock LA]  

Anthony J. Broadwater has been exonerated in New York after being falsely convicted of a 1981 rape, for which he spent 16 years in prison. The victim, Alice Sebold, later wrote about the assault in her book, “Lucky.” Although Broadwater was released from prison in 1998, he says he faced years of stigma and isolation due to his record and subsequent placement on the sex offender registry. He says the weight of the false conviction led him and his wife to decide not to have children. [Karen Zraick and Alexandra Alter / New York Times]

A murder case set to go to trial in Georgia next year raises questions of the effectiveness of self-defense claims when the defendant isn’t white. Marc Wilson, who is Black, is charged with felony murder and aggravated assault for the death of Haley Hutcheson, who was white. Wilson says a group of teenagers in a pick-up yelled racial epithets at Wilson and tried to run his car off the road. Wilson says he fired a shot in self-defense. [Albert Samaha, Jamilah King, and Caroline O’Donovan / BuzzFeed]

Kevin Strickland was released days before Thanksgiving after serving 43 years in a Missouri prison for crimes he did not commit. Because he was exonerated without DNA evidence, he’s ineligible for compensation under state law, which only provides compensation for people cleared by DNA testing. His attorneys with the Midwest Innocence Project have organized an online fundraiser for him; it’s already raised more than $1.5 million. [Alisha Ebrahimji / CNN]


That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our official relaunch, please donate here. Until next time, the work continues.

The Appeal in Your Inbox

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.