After giving repeated front-page coverage to the Devin Brown shooting and its aftermath, the L.A. Times has buried news that paints the officer’s actions in a sympathetic light. Yesterday, Officer Steven Garcia, who had been charged in a Board of Rights proceeding with misconduct relating to the shooting, released a transcript setting forth the Board of Rights’s compelling rationale for finding him not guilty of misconduct. I reported this last night, and summarized the extensive findings.
So how does the L.A. Times report this news? As you will see, they got verrrry creative.
Although the shooting has occasioned front-page coverage numerous times in the past — including a recent front-page story decrying the fact that the findings were made in secret — the release of the actual findings doesn’t make it onto the front page, which says not one word about the release of the transcript. Instead, Page A1 alludes to a different story about the officer, about a past suspension the officer had received in the past — at which time he was warned that any further transgressions would likely result in his dismissal. This, and not the Board of Rights’s findings, are what the editors consider to be today’s real news. Here’s the bottom of today’s front page:
(The editors didn’t circle that part, of course — I did.)
And when you turn to Section B, that’s the story that gets front-page play on Page B1: the story about the officer’s previous discipline. (For what it’s worth, I think that there is a valid concern raised by the story, as I’ll explain in the extended entry.) That article mentions the release of the findings, and says that the officer was “compelled” to release them by the “tumult” of recent days:
The tumult Friday even compelled Garcia to waive his privacy rights and agree to release a transcript explaining the board’s reasoning.
Nonsense. I’ll bet reporter Scott Glover a steak dinner that, if you asked Garcia why he released the findings, he would tell you it’s because he wanted the public to know them, because they show he did nothing wrong. That’s quite different from being “compelled” to release them.
You have to turn aaaaaaallllllllll the way back to Page B10 to read the story about the transcript of the findings. Keep in mind: on Wednesday, the paper had a Page A1 story about the Board’s decision, which loudly decried the fact that the Board’s findings had been kept secret. Now that the transcript of the findings has been released, it’s page B10 news. What kind of logic allows the paper to complain about the secrecy of the findings on Page A1, but to put the story about the actual findings themselves on Page B10?
I called my conservative friend alert reader Hank K. this morning to ask him about the placement of the story. Hank may be the last conservative in the County who still subscribes. He had seen the story about the paper’s prior discpline, but not the one about the release of the findings. He even knows that the paper buries news it doesn’t like on the back pages, but, like most readers, he doesn’t read every article in every section. So he never made it past the jump, and didn’t see the story about the release of the findings.
This is what most readers do. And don’t kid yourself: the editors know this.
The few readers who make it to Page B10 are confronted by a story that puts an anti-police spin on the findings from the get-go:
The Los Angeles police officer who fatally shot 13-year-old Devin Brown publicly released transcripts Friday from a meeting in which a disciplinary panel cleared him of wrongdoing.
The panel’s decision, reached earlier this week, outraged some city leaders because it was made in secret and rejected the civilian Police Commission’s finding that the shooting by Officer Steven Garcia was unjustified.
When you’re deciding what to put high in the story, it’s naturally more important to emphasize the outrage of city leaders than it is to focus on the findings themselves. Right? That’s just good journalism!
The story fails to note the most compelling evidence in Garcia’s favor. As I said in my post:
The Captain who read the Board’s unanimous findings stated that, after a visit to the scene, “We were all amazed that Officer Garcia was able to avoid being struck and killed or being seriously injured by the Camry.” He said that the Board members “could easily relate to the fear and anguish Garcia must have felt.” Not only did numerous officers testify that they believed that Officer Garcia had been in mortal danger, but a civilian witness testified: “If that police hadn’t jumped out of the way, he would have been hit.”
These compelling, seemingly newsworthy quotes don’t make it into the article. Nor does the story report the fact that the Board found that all 10 shots had been fired in less than two seconds.
But you gotta report some of the truth, and the article does. The story does set forth the fact the Department had admitted in its opening that the first several shots were in policy. The article gives fair emphasis to the fact that the entire incident happened in four seconds. And it describes the testimony of the expert on human reactions in stressful situations.
In a typical display of the paper’s lack of attention to the possibilities opened up by its web site, the web version of the story does not link the transcript itself.
The bottom line is this: the paper has been dragging this officer through the mud for almost two years in numerous stories on the front page. But when he’s vindicated, the paper spins the vindication as secret — and when it’s no longer secret, then they simply bury it.
“Amazing!” I said to alert reader Hank K. when we spoke on the telephone.
He replied: “You know, you keep being amazed by the same stuff.”
In the extended entry, I discuss the relevance of Officer Garcia’s past misconduct, and my feelings regarding the secrecy of these proceedings.
Today’s article on Officer Garcia’s past misconduct raises a valid issue, but it’s not the issue the paper chooses to emphasize. Here’s how the story opens:
A Los Angeles Police Department captain who voted not to discipline Officer Steven Garcia this week in the shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown had warned him in a previous disciplinary case that one more offense would probably get him fired.
Yet that history was ignored in the Board of Rights hearing on Brown’s death because LAPD rules typically do not allow an officer’s past misconduct to be considered.
The article presents that as a conundrum: Officer Garcia was warned before that one more offense would result in his dismissal — yet he wasn’t dismissed, and the previous offense wasn’t even considered!
But if you think about it for two seconds, it’s not a conundrum at all — because Officer Garcia was exonerated by the Board of Rights. In other words, he didn’t commit that “one more offense” that should have resulted in his dismissal, because the Board found that he had acted properly.
To take an analogy: if a criminal defendant is a third-striker, he has been told that one more felony offense may result in his being incarcerated for life. But if he didn’t commit that new felony offense, then his criminal history doesn’t really matter. You can’t send him away for his history alone. He has to commit a new crime to merit new punishment. And, as a general rule, juries don’t even get to hear about the past history when considering his guilt as to the current offense.
But I agree with the evident position of the L.A. Times that it’s wrong for the Board of Rights to categorically reject evidence of past misconduct in these hearings. I also agree with the statements of Inspector General Andre Birotte (full disclosure: I have met Andre and respect him):
Andre Birotte Jr., the LAPD’s civilian watchdog, said the department’s rules about what constitutes admissible prior conduct are too restrictive.
Regardless of whether there’s a pattern, Birotte said, offenses such as lying or very specific acts alleged more than once should be made known to those sitting in judgment.
“It’s a tricky issue,” Birotte said, however. “It should be determined on a case-by-case basis.”
Indeed. And it’s arguable that, in Officer Garcia’s case, his previous discipline should have been considered to some degree. According to the article, he had been found guilty at a Board of Rights of trying to dissuade his ex-girlfriend from testifying at that Board of Rights (a different one — not the one relating to the Devin Brown shooting), and of disobeying a direct order not to talk with her about that other case. He had also been accused and found not guilty of lying to investigators about this. I’m not expressing an opinion as to whether that evidence should have been considered, as I don’t know all the facts, but given that Officer Garcia testified at this latest Board of Rights hearing, I see a good argument that this evidence should have been considered as it related to his credibility.
Also, I agree generally with the L.A. Times that Board of Rights proceedings should be public — especially one regarding a complaint of excessive force, and especially one where 13-year-old child died. But if they’re going to be public, they deserve better coverage than they would get from the L.A. Times.