Experts Say

It’s a small thing, but for me it sums up why I find the mainstream press wearisome, why I find the circle jerk between the conventional wisdom of reporters and the infrastructure of expertise to be another wretched exhibit in the case against the powers that be. The New York Times has a little companion piece today on police shootings. The headline: Why First Aid Is Often Lacking in Critical Moments After a Police Shooting.

The headline promises an explanation, a look into causality, an analysis. The first two paragraphs describe why people might be asking this question: because videos have shown police seemingly indifferent to the ultimately fatal injuries they have inflicted on black men. So we’re already two paragraphs in, hunting a lede that will respond to the headline.

Third paragraph: “Experts in policing have agreed that the way officers respond–or fail to–is often a problem, but they say such failures are not necessarily the fault of the officers, and that law enforcement agencies are starting to address them.”

Fourth paragraph: Quotation from a former police chief who is also the head of a foundation that advises police. Upshot of the quotation: police don’t have a policy on rendering first aid to people they’ve shot. But they’re getting around to it!

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This is not an explanation. This does not fulfill the headline. This is not an analysis. At best one could say that a legitimate headline might be, “Why Police Claim First Aid Is Often Lacking After a Shooting”. You have to get very nearly to the bottom of the inverse pyramid of the story, where reporters are told to bury the least important information, to find another expert questioning whether policy is why people are left to die without even an effort at rendering aid, and suggesting instead that it’s due to the distance between officers and the communities they serve–a polite way to suggest it’s racism. This assertion receives an immediate two-paragraph refutation from the reporter himself, attributed vaguely to more “experts”. It’s human nature! Adrenaline keeps you from helping a person you just shot! The shooter feels traumatized! Oh, and it’s training–you’re looking at the scene as evidence. So, more policy. If only we could get the right policy.

This is a story intended to frame a consensus, to provide nice white people a nice white person thing to say, to curry favor with police, to be part of the establishment. This is putting clothes on the Emperor. This is not analysis. It is not a fulfillment of the headline that sells the story. It’s not even “Some people say and other people say”. It’s “The experts say and say and say and one person says something else and the experts say and say and say that one person is wrong. And so too, you the video-watching public, you are wrong. The experts (who happen to be the people in the videos) say you are wrong.”

But what the experts say is immediately something that can be challenged with common sense. Are police officers robots, who do nothing but what policy commands? Doesn’t that mean, among other things, that policy commands the shooting of black men who have committed no crime, based on nothing more than a feeling of ‘threat’? So here we have policy that says: do what you feel. Because the feeling you have outweighs the need to have evidence that the feeling is justified. But on first aid and its rendering? Don’t do anything unless you’re told to do it. You are a policy robot. And we’re only just now getting around to having a policy, fifty years or more into the era of legal rulings and formal police policies governing the use of deadly force. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know: policies take time.

It would be laughable if it weren’t unspeakable. The reporter for the NYT should say, “No, really, Mr. Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, what do you really think is the explanation? Because we both know ‘there is no policy’ is a weak and contemptible answer.” Police, like every other group of working professionals, do many things in their working lives which are not precisely and specifically informed by the writ of policy. They have important formal constraints and important precise procedures, more than most. But at least some of what they have to do is about general training, general outlook, intuition and improvisation. To say that nothing happens in policing but that which policy instructs or forbids is at best the cluelessness of a practiced bureaucrat deep in the bowels of some dank cubicle farm. At worst–and most likely–it is a conscious public relations strategy intended to defer, to divert, to doublespeak and occlude past the plain evidence.

If journalists are going to explain, let them explain, with all their powers of observation and clarity at their command. If they are going to quote and mouthpiece, let them mouthpiece more than just the most favorable view of an unfavorable thing. Say the truths, all of them, hard or unsettling. If you can’t do that, don’t just dump the least establishment-friendly voice down there at the bottom, a buried lede left to bleed out alongside dying men on roadways.

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One Response to Experts Say

  1. My reading of the article is different from yours. The author does lob a few “experts say,” and that’s not a good thing.

    There does seem to be actual policy-related reasons why officers might not respond:

    Even when agencies do instruct officers to give first aid, as many police departments in large cities do, officers often lack the training or equipment to handle gunshot wounds.

    “It’s typically geared toward, you come across an auto accident, or someone is having a heart attack or choking,” said William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, a coalition of police officer unions. “If there’s a gunshot wound, the typical training is for the officer to call for medical help.”

    Some agencies have increased medical training in recent years, and others, like the police departments in Cleveland and Los Angeles, have equipped officers with trauma kits that contain items such as tourniquets, bandages and sterile gloves.

    “In my 20 years in the Newark Police Department, not once did we ever have the equipment to deal with something as serious as a gunshot,” said Jon Shane, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

    Perhaps the reporter should question why other departments don’t follow the examples of Cleveland and Los Angeles. But these seem like pretty substantive policy-level critiques that go a certain way to explain why first aid isn’t rendered.

    The statement about distance between officers and the communities they serve comes from one of the critics you cite and not the apologists. Maybe the speaker could have just said it was racism, but it doesn’t sound like she is trying to be “polite.”

    And if you go further in the article, there’s mention of other reasons why officers might not render first aid in those situations:

    Yet others say that what looks like disregard for life may just reflect human nature. A person who has just shot someone is flooded with adrenaline, sometimes traumatized, and often not thinking clearly.

    What seems like callousness could also be a product of training. Officers are taught, above all, to secure the scene when force is used — to make sure the person, a suspect, is unarmed and that there is no one else around who can pose a threat. In some places, department policy calls for handcuffing the shooting victim.

    “There’s a difference between officers just standing around while somebody is bleeding to death, and being sure you can safely approach the individual who’s been shot,” Mr. Bueermann, the Police Foundation president, said.

    Now, there we do see another vague authority attribution (“yet others say….”) and we get another appeal to “policy,” but this time a policy that exists and tells people what to do, not a policy that doesn’t exist yet. At the same time, those reasons seem at least arguable.

    Some of your other criticisms are spot on. A lot of that information is buried toward the end. And as I’ve admitted, the “experts say” and “others say” trope seems to be used irresponsibly. This article could have probably been stronger. And it does seem to exhibit an overreliance on the police-side of the story. But it’s not quite as weak as it might seem on first glance.

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